Monday, 30 June 2014

World Cup: Green Is the Colour that Matters Most

They Spent HOW MUCH Building the Stadiums in Brazil?

The 2014 World Cup has reached the so-called "knockout round," where teams who have survived round-robin group play now face off in single-elimination brackets.  The first games of the huitième saw the Netherlands, Colombia, Brazil, and Costa Rica - the latter two on penalty kicks - move on.  As time goes by and I get older, my interest in professional sport has declined significantly, and I have never been any sort of fan of soccer.  Still, living in Paris, it's difficult not to take some interest in the games, as the French team, who barely qualified to begin with, are actually now in decent shape to make at least the quarterfinals.  Les Bleus face off tonight against Nigeria, a team that they are heavily favoured to defeat.

Nate Silver, who gained fame applying mathematical models to election cycles, has a web-site dedicated to various and sundry topics, including politics, sports, entertainment, economics.  He and his team of writers apply their models in non-traditional ways, and one I have been following is his model that estimates the likelihood for each team still in the Cup to advance to various stages, all the way to the end.  The current favourite are the hosts, Brazil, whom Silver pegs at about an even-money bet to win it all (as of this moment, a 41% estimate to win it all).  Additionally, the estimated chances for the next three teams - Argentina (16%), the Netherlands (14%), and Germany (10%) - sum to about the same cumulative chance.  

France is estimated at about 1 out of 11 (9%).  

But what caught my eye today was this piece written by Victor Matheson, an economics professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.  

According to Matheson's data, Brazil spent an enormous amount of money constructing the venues for the cup.  $3.6 BILLION to construct or renovate the 12 sites that will be used.  When Brazil bid on the Cup, the price tag was of course enormous - but at the time, more than three of every four dollars was supposed to be spent on infrastructure improvements - roads, public transit, communications.  Because of delays and cost over-runs, the stadiums were about a billion dollars more - which means that the long-term infrastructure projects will have a billion dollars less spent on them.

To put these figures in to some perspective, the construction of a single stadium - Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha in Brasilia - cost $622 million.  The entire cost to France of the 1998 World Cup was $603 million.  When the US hosted in 1994 (one of the games was played in Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, California, where I was living at the time), a paltry $5 million was spent, mainly refurbishing existing facilities, as no new venues were built.

Russia will host the next World Cup in 2018, and are expected to almost double the spending of Brazil.

This provoked Matheson to do some analyses on the return on investment that stadiums present.  It's a timely debate, as across the US, there is a semi-regular push by professional sports teams to extort request public funding for stadiums and parking. These requests are often sweetened to a degree by the economic and social benefits that professional sports bring.  Right now, the city I lived in during my high school years - Cleveland, Ohio - is involved in a debate about extending a 'sin tax' to help finance the baseball stadium and basketball arena that the local teams use.

I'm not so sure.

For example, the massive, $622 million palace in Brasilia will host several World Cup matches, but there is no professional team in the Brazilian capital.  Just who will play there when all is said and done is uncertain.  

In Matheson's analysis, a couple of meta-statistics are presented.  The first is the stadium use index (SUI), which estimates, based on seats sold for events, divided into the total capacity of the stadium, four years on from construction.  It essentially presents the number of days per year that the stadium is fully occupied.  The second is the fan cost index (FCI), which is a ratio of the amount spent to how many dollars were spent to construct the facility, divided into the number of fans who attend.  It's essentially how much it costs, per fan, to fill the stadium.

So, for example, the most expensive project for France in 1998 - the Stade de France, cost $394 million to construct for the 2002 Cup.  Four years later, the stadium - which hosts several French and Premier League matches, as well as concerts, had 612,000 spectators at 10 events during the year.  That works out to an SUI of 7.7 (according to Matheson), or that it is filled to capacity 7.7 times per year.  The FCI is then $644.  It 'costs' about $644 per fan to construct.

That seems like a fairly large investment of public money, doesn't it?

Data for Brazil remain unknown, since the stadiums are new, and four years have not passed.  It seems unlikely that a massive stadium in a city with no professional team will have a tough time to recoup the cost.  Matheson does some projection - the stadium was ready in 2012, and it hosted 7 events that year.  The total attendance for those events was 14,000.  The corresponding SUI is 0.2 - the stadium was 'filled' on less than two tenths of a day.  

This works out to a FCI of $44,565.

If these data from 2012 are projected to 2018 when the World Cup is a memory, the Brazilian government will have spent more than forty-four thousand dollars per fan to build this massive, white elephant.

Economic analyses on the impact of stadiums beyond the immediate revenues from ticket and food sales - which largely go to the teams anyway - are somewhat mixed. What these numbers show is, basically, that cities like Cleveland who spend large sums of public money on stadiums mainly do so because having a professional baseball or football team is little more than a talisman to show that the city remains a "big league city."  Sure, the schools may be awful, the roads approaching third-world status, and industry is evaporating, but hell.  We've still got a big league team.

Recently, the city of Atlanta, Georgia announced that a new stadium will be constructed for its professional team, the Atlanta Braves.  The cost - estimated to be around $600 million, will be a "private-public partnership."  The county will be kicking in nearly $400 million of the costs.

This comes, ironically, less than 20 years after the city built Turner Field, ostensibly for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.  This was at a cost of $209 million, mostly footed by NBC who broadcast the games, and "other Olympic sponsors."  According to Braves' management, the 16 year old stadium offers an insufficient "fan experience," so the team is setting sail 10 miles outside of downtown. Key to the deal is that the Braves will control a vast commercial area around their new (public funded) stadium, whereas Turner Field, in downtown Atlanta, is surrounded by existing business that do not generate revenue for the team.

The Cleveland Browns, a professional football team, abandoned the city when they could not get a 'free' new stadium, moving to Baltimore, Maryland, who did provide one.  The loss of the Browns was a trauma for many residents in Cleveland - far more, it seems, than the loss of quality public education. A few years later, the Browns were re-incarnated, with a brand-new $290 million facility, 75% of which was paid for by the public.

Cleveland gets to continue being "big league."

Detroit, Michigan made the news last week when it cut off the water to thousands of its residents who either did not or could not pay, provoking the United Nations to declare that perhaps the Motor City was contravening a fundamental human right to clean water.  Detroit has a host of problems, but it has  professional baseball and  professional football teams.  The Tigers and Lions both play in new facilities, built to "revitalise" downtown Detroit, and financed with significant public funds.

Interestingly, the city of Los Angeles has had no professional football team since the Raiders and Rams left.  One of the problems is that the two played in the LA Coliseum, an aging relic of the 1932 Summer Olympics.  The city has refused to build a giant new stadium, and the NFL has not come back.  

But Los Angeles does not need a professional sports team to argue that it is a big-league city.  

According to Silver's blog, a big factor in Brazil's favour is that they are hosting the World Cup.  No Brazilian team has lost a major international match on its home turf since 1975.  Not one of the Brazilian players was even born at that time.

The country has spent an enormous sum of money to get the games, and one might argue that part of that investment is the increased chances that Brazil will hoist the cup this summer.

Seems to me a poor ROI, however.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Cogito, Ergo Sum (or, Dum Vivimus, Vivamus)

Human Beings Can Take Give Life and Take it.
How Do We Define it?

With all the excitement here in France of the World Cup (Les Bleus have already secured a spot beyond the opening Group Table round) and the advent of summer, there is a story drawing a lot of attention and coverage.  A sad story.

And a terrible one.

And it's one that - I think - gets to one of the most fundamental questions concerning mankind, and one that has I think been front and centre since the first humans evolved the power of self-awareness and reason.

What is it to be alive; to be human?

The saga is probably one that would be immediately familiar to most Americans, if at the same time one they could not identify by name.  In 2008, a young man named Vincent Lambert at that time living in Reims in the north of France, was involved in a catastrophic motorcycle accident.  The injuries he sustained left him in a deep coma, a state that has largely been constant since.  Lambert was in his early 30s then, with a wife.  He also had two parents, and eight siblings.

Lambert has been kept alive for six years via medical intervention - a machine helps him to breath, and a feeding tube provides nourishment.

For nearly six of those years, half of his family - his wife and six of his brothers and sisters - have been fighting to have support withrdrawn.  The other half - his parents, one brother, and one sister - have fought to ensure that medical support is not withdrawn.

It's eerily similar to the infamous case of Terri Schaivo from 10 years ago.

France re-wrote its laws on euthanasia in 2005, allowing for 'passive euthanasia."  The question in this case is to determine the real wishes of the patients (Lambert did not leave explicit instructions for such a case).  The situation took a truly bizarre turn over the past 24 hours, as the High Court of France ruled that, indeed, Lambert was in a state where he could not recover, and that the hospital could withdraw life support.  The parents appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, which mere hours later moved to intervene and require the hospital to continue treatment and restore feeding tubes.  It went a step further to order that Lambert was not to be moved - ostensibly to Belgium, where the wife now lives, and also a nation with much more activist laws on euthanasia (including, most recently, supporting the rights of children to assisted suicide if they wish).

It's truly an awful situation. Lambert's elderly mother was on the television last night, following the French court decision saying, "My son is still with us.  I cannot conceive how the judges could possibly follow [this] recommendation."

Items like "quality of life," "death with dignity," and other visceral topics abound here, and it raised, for me at least, a more profound question.

What is humanity?

I work in medical research, and a significant part of my job is to measure and model patient outcomes to convince payers - insurance companies, public health agencies, hospital sick funds - of the value of new medicines and new treatments.  "Quality of life" and "quality-adjusted life years" are as familiar to me as P/E rations and Earnings Per Share are to those in finance.

But they only carry so far, and are necessary evils in a world where precision and quantity matter.  They exist to answer specific questions that arise in a world of economics where resources are limited but demand is not.  Sure, this medication will extend life by two years, but what is the value of that time?  To the patient who will live it?  To society, who will be asked to pay.

For the past four years, I worked primarily on treatments for Alzheimer's disease, a terrible affliction that gradually robs people of their memories, of their ability to act and interact with others, their functional abilities, and ultimately, their lives.  We were developing a treatment that did not offer a cure for the disease, but one that could bend the curve of the disease.  This offered patients the gift of time.

Ultimately the clinical trials did not succeed (as of this writing, there have been no successful treatments launched for Alzheimer's disease that offer more than temporary alleviation of some of the symptoms), but one of the things we struggled with was how to measure the quality of life afforded the patients and their families.  One paradox of Alzheimer's disease is that, as the pathology progresses and patients remember less, recognise less, and are less able to function and care for themselves, they actually report higher quality of life.  This is largely due to the erosion of the awareness of what is happening as mental and physical capacities gradually disappear into the spreading darkness.

Our development team had as a motivating factor - it ultimately became something of a mantra for us - that what we were offering patients was a preservation of self.

What did that mean? What is 'self?'

It's another reformation of what it is to be human, I think.

Are we human because of our physical presence?  Do our physical bodies and ability to function define us? People look at us and recognise us by our faces before anything else, after all.

Obviously not - a look at, e.g., Stephen Hawking I think is dispositive that we are far more than the physical shells that we inhabit.  Here, no one would argue that Vincent Lambert is not physically in a hospital room.

Are we then defined by our memories?  Our memories are shaped, of course, by our experiences, and in a sense are a sort of record book of the lives we have led.  But if we somehow could transfer those memories to, say, a computer medium, would that computer then be "us?"  I am sure that someone at Google is working on just such a project, and these sorts of stories are the bread and butter of whole genres of science fiction.

Are we made up of our personalities?  Our mental faculties?

During our research - one of the great things being involved in a world-class organisation is the chance to interact with key thinkers - I had some time with Professor Harald Hampel, a German medical doctor who is one of the leading experts in the world on Alzheimer's disease.  During the scientific session at which he was one of the chairs, we were discussing how to diagnose AD early, potential measures of treatment outcomes, and what these might mean to patients.  I had long thought about what "self" means, and I asked Dr Hampal casually what he thought about the topic.

I think he was somewhat surprised by the question, and paused for what seemed a very long time as he considered it.  No, he finally replied.  Our 'selves' are not 'memories,' and they are not 'personalities.'  He could not define 'self,' or qualify it, but (oddly for a scientist, I think) took a more meta-physical approach.  Our memories are plainly reflections, he said, of our lives, and are uniquely ours.  But, like the shadows on the wall of Plato's cave, they are personal images of what has happened empirically.  Memories help to make us, but they are not us.

When I was young, I used to joke with my older brother Charles, trading insults that often began with "you need a face transplant," but ended with "you need a brain transplant."

The silliness of such an insult was lost on a six and seven year old (my brother is about 11 months older than I am).  Even so, humanity strikes me now as more than a collection of memories (events), and of intellect.  We are not a collection of arbitrary parts.

Surely, as Mrs. Lambert says, her son is, in a way "still here."  But in a large way, he isn't.  I don't know what Vincent Lambert's quality of life is, or what ultimately his wishes would be.  But plainly, the ethics of life have been outpaced - by a wide margin - by the science of medicine.

This gap is one that the law must fill, and it is doing so in an imperfect way.

I don't know how I would vote if I were a judge, and with any luck at all, I will never, ever be in such a position.  Like Terri Schaivo, this situation belies easy answers, and those who rush in with self-righteous "I would do" comments, I think, have given insufficient thought to the meta question of what is life.

I suppose that, in the same position, I would want my family to make peace and to do what they felt was best for them.  I have no idea what life in a deep coma is like, or what - or even how to measure - the quality of such life.  If my wife, son, or mother took comfort that I was "here with them" in a way that was comforting, then I am not at all upset with the prospect of medical life support.  On the other hand, I do not fear death, and if letting me go in such a situation is what would bring comfort, then I am not at all upset that they would seek to remove medical interventions.

In the end - and as the saying goes, the only ship in life guaranteed to come in is a black one, and it comes for us all - death with dignity is not all that different from life with dignity, and part of that is being "there" for those you care about and care for.  It's not always easy.

Which, I guess, is ultimately a pretty solid definiton of being human.  Ironically, formed not entirely on self, but on how we care for others.

And it's one that works for me.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Rule, Britannia?

It was once said that the sun never set on the British empire.  The point was the vastness of the territories controlled by the United Kingdom, which were so far-flung (colonies on every inhabited continent), that no matter the time of day, somewhere on earth, the sun was shining on British subjects.

Well, according to a recent article article in the local Direct Matin, a recent study conducted among Her Majesty's armed forces entitled "Too Fat to Fight," perhaps it might be enough to say that the sun never sets on the girth of a British soldier.

In the article, the appalling statistics of the level of fitness of recent recruits are laid out.  Over the past three years, approximately one of every nine (32,000) soldiers -note, not recruits- failed to pass physical conditioning tests.  This included being able to do 50 situps in two minutes and running 2.4 km - about a mile and a half - in less than 10 minutes for a male soldier; 50 situps and running the 2.4 km in 13 minutes for females.

An anonynous officer interviewed in the story blamed the diet of the soldiers during their missions, where the soldiers, he (she?) sniffed  cheerfully consumed fries, pizzas, and bacon.

Does this mean that the Burger King might not be so secure as he thinks in his kingdom?

Monday, 23 June 2014

Let the Sun Shine in

This past Saturday depending upon where you live, the June Solstice - the time where the sun "passes over" the Tropic of Cancer marking the beginning of summer for the Earth's northern hemisphere, was observed.  Here in Paris, it was at 12.51 PM local time, just after noon.  

For those of us living north of the Equator, the day is marked by the greatest number of hours of sunlight one will receive during the year.  Again, here in France, the sun rose at about 5.45 AM, and set at 9.57 PM.  That is about 16 hours of sunlight, although there continued to be a fair amount of light (twilight?) until after 10.30.  (Paris is a lot farther north than most Americans think, so we have sunlight until quite late during the summer).

The day here was marked by a fun musical festival; several spots all over the city had guinguettes - pop-up locations for musicians, often with food and drink nearby - offered a host of different types of music, all for free.  We took in several of these along the banks of the Seine and into the Sixth Arrondissement on the Left Bank.  

Summers in Paris are quite delightful.  Late sunshine, typically pleasant weather, small outdoor cafés.

Of course, there is a price to pay.  We now begin the descent from the solstice, with hours of sun growing slightly shorter with each passing day.  When December rolls around, we won't have many hours of sun at all.

I had heard some years ago that each spot on Earth has more or less the same number of daylight hours cumulatively during the year.  The distribution of course, is radically different.  The famous 'land of the midnight sun" above the Arctic Circle will have days when the sun seems never to 'set' due to the tilt of the Earth along its axis.  Extreme northern cities will often be thought to have perpetual sunlight, but in fact, the sun does go down in such places, with the glow of twilight or daybreak providing illumination.  Stockholm, Sweden for example had a sunrise at 2.50 AM and sunset at 11.57.  

My manager is a Swede, and he returned home Friday to Sweden to celebrate - it turns out, the country has a national holiday to mark the solstice.  Not sure what they do exactly - maybe they play Abba records all night? Perhaps they use the extra light to assemble pressboard furniture with hex wrenches?

If one lives just on the equator (say, for example, in Ecuador, or Indonesia), then there are approximately 12 hours of daylight every day of the year.  There aren't 'seasons' in the sense Americans think of them, and June and July have the same sunrise and sunset, save for the adjustments due to Daylight Saving Time in some places.  My wife hails from a place alomst exactly on the equator, and was not accustomed to the long nights of winter or long days of summer.  

Geography has profound impacts on culture and religion. In antiquity, humans of course knew nothing of the Earth's tilt, its movement around the sun, or why we experience time changes.  In some cases, the events were ascribed to a god or gods who controlled such things.  The Greeks believed that Apollo carried the sun across the sky in a chariot drawn by four horses.  The Celts and druids of England made temples to worship the sun, welcoming its 'return' in spring.  The solstices were holy days to the pagans, and indeed, many aspects of Christian celebration in December is in some ways grafted on to the practices of our forebears.  

In modern-day Islam, the diaspora of its adherents can have some unexpected consequences in this department.  Ramadan - the famous period marked by fasting from sunrise to sundown - is not fixed to the Gregorian calendar, instead following the periods of the moon.  Observant Moslems are not supposed to eat or drink, including water, whilst the sun is up.  

In a faith that arose in modern-day Saudi Arabia, the differeing seasons are somewhat inconsequential.  In Riyadh, there are aprroximately 13 hours of daylight on the June Solstice, and approximately 11 hours on the December Solstice.  It's a bit more difficult to fast in June than December in Saudi Arabia, but there are many adherents to Islam in Denmark and Sweden these days.  I presume that there are some Moslems who live north of the Arctic Circle, meaning that they potentially could live in a place where the sun does not "set" for two months.  How does one avoid drinking water for 60 days and live?

This apparently is an issue that is debated within the academic circles of Islam, and a uniform solution has not been arrived at.  Some Moslems default to the nearest Islamic country - in northern Europe, that often is Turkey.  Others will observe the rise and set in Mecca.  

We personally do not have this issue, so we enjoyed the sun and the sangrias (too watered-down, as it turned out).  France enjoys the common fable of the ant and grasshopper - known in France as La Cigale et La Fourmi.  

We ignored the warning of the song, and enjoyed the warm sun. After all, alors que le soleil brille, pourquoi ne pas faire du foin?

Thursday, 19 June 2014

¡Ole! ¡Ole! ¡Viva el Rey!

The Spanish Crown, Awaiting the New King

For most of my life, I've found myself to the right of my environment - politically anyways.  As an anecdote, I've personally been called a "crypto-fascist."  Now, I don't necessarily deny that I am a fascist (a term that, according to non other than George Orwell, has become so abused that it's functionally meaningless beyond "it signifies something not desirable" - am I really "something not desirable?"  Maybe) - but I would say that I take umbrage nonetheless.  There is nothing at all hidden or concealed about my fascism.

So it should surprise no one that I am sympathetic to the dwindling number of monarchies in the world.  Actual monarchies, of course.  Not the sort that are proclaimed - Michael Jackson is the "King of Pop."  Elvis Presley is the "King of Rock and Roll."  Abe Froman is the "Sausage King of Chicago."

No; I of course am talking about real monarchies - with ermine robes, orbs of state, and crowns with jewels on them.

For us monarchists, today marks an important day, where we can feel our crypto-royalist hearts swelling with crypto-pride within our crypto-monarchist breasts .

Spain has today crowned Felipe VI of Bourbon as its new king.  The cries of "The King is dead; long live the King" are shortened, as the previous sovereign of Spain, Juan Carlos, abdicated earlier this month, after 38 years on the throne, to make way for his son.

I've been following the events on my RSS feed from the local Parisian newspaper Le Figaro, which is giving up-to-the-minute coverage complete with reports and photos.  And has been all morning here in France.

Felipe, dauphin d'Espagne attend
sa couronne avec sa famille

In the image above, the old King Juan Carlos is shown with the new King Felipe VI, and their families, in preparation for the trip to the Congres de Espana for the swearing and then by the Plaza de Cibeles, Gran Via, and finally Plaza Real in central Madrid.

We've visited Spain on several occasions during our life in France - it's a short flight from Paris to either Madrid and Barcelona, and we have a close feeling for the country and the Spanish people.  Spain has a tremendously rich history, beautiful and varied architecture resulting from a confluence of Phoenician, Roman, Gothic, Arab, and Moorish styles, and some truly outstanding food and wine.  And of course, the Spanish people have been extremely warm and welcoming.  It's not a huge destination for Americans, but one I would fully and heartily put at the top of the list for anyone who travels at all to Europe.  

The outgoing king has had problems recently - scandals involving his daughter's finances, an ill-advised safari, troubles with some sectarian arguments amongs some of Spain's regions (notably, Catalonia and Basque countries).  Juan Carlos has not been in terrific health and is now quite old.  At a parade honouring Spain's military late in 2013, the king had a difficult time giving his speech, which he delivered from a chair rather than upstanding - a fact that was met with derision in the republican (small-R) Spanish press.  For all the failings, I found it odd to attack an aging man who was, despite the manifold problems of his country (which reflect the almost endogenous problems of Europe rather than any personal failings) completing his duties as king with grace and dignity.  

I remember the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, where Juan Carlos spoke in Catalan (Barcelona is in Catalonia) in an obvious and graceful gesture to the linguistic minority.  I thought - here is a dignified symbol of a dignified nation.  A king today exemplifies the national character far more than he gives "off with their heads" edicts.

In that, I think Juan Carlos has been a good king.

Polls show a certain scepticism in Spain for the monarchy, but as of today, about three in four Spanish polled express a belief that the new Felipe VI will be a similarly good king.

He's accomplished, composed, and attentive to the duties required.  He has a beautiful family, including two young children.

Here in France, the monarchs are long gone. In name, at least.  The current President, François Hollande who is very much a democrat and republican (at least he claims to be, loudly, and frequently), however resides in a building called "Palais de l’Élysée" (a palace in name, but also a former actual palace), who travels around with all the pomp and circumstance of a real king.  At least when not sneaking off to a tryst with a b-list actress, when an anonymous scooter will do.  The US has Barack Obama, who has similar, Hollande-esque contrivances.  Most notably, jetting off to play golf whilst the middle east deteriorates and scandals about the poor treatment of soldiers in the VA churn.

The Spanish monarchs are direct descendants of the Bourbon dynasty in France.  In an odd bit of trivia, among the banners for the Spanish royals is "Roi de Corse" (king of Corsica - itself a French territory).  As a direct heir to Louis XIV, Felipe will have many honorary titles:

Felipe va enfin avoir une couronne sur la tête. Le nouveau roi d’Espagne prendra sa place sur le trône jeudi à la suite de son père Juan Carlos. Il deviendra donc officiellement Philippe VI de Bourbon, roi d’Espagne … mais aussi de Corse.
Of course, he will have no more actual power over Corsica than Napoleon , who famously came from Ajaccio in Corsica, enjoys.  And he's been dead for more than a century and a half.  

I wish the new king all the best.

Viva el rey, y viva Espana....

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

What's it all about, Alfie?

You work and work for years and years, you're always on the go
You never take a minute off, too busy makin' dough
Someday you say, you'll have your fun, when you're a millionaire
Imagine all the fun you'll have in your old rockin' chair

Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think
Enjoy yourself, while you're still in the pink
The years go by, as quickly as a wink
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it's later than you think

This past weekend was Fathers' Day here in Paris (and the US, as well - odd that the French celebrate Mothers' day a couple of weeks after the Americans do).  It's my ninth father's day since our little boy came to the world in August 2005.  I had a slight cold over the weekend, but still got to enjoy the day with my family watching our son perform in a violin recital.  Later, the quiet Sunday was ended with a nice card and a gift of violin cuff-links.

I don't know if Fathers' Day is one of the ginned-up holidays, created by card companies (and I also suspect based on the empirical evidence, companies selling golf equipment and apparel), but it's always been a nice day in our house.  We've in the past gone on a picnic lunch in New York's Central Park, played golf, or gone out for dinner at a nice restaurant.

In addition to my own celebration, this year was marked because it was the first for my baby brother James, who, late the previous Tuesday, welcomed his own first born - a little boy subsequently named as James, Junior - into the world.  The birth occurred late in the US, so it was the middle of the night here in France.  We were anticipating the arrival as we went to sleep here, as James's wife had been admitted to hospital earlier.  Thanks to social media, we are now of course able to get accounts right up to the minute, but the baby had not yet been born at 1 AM, so I had to confirm his arrival when I awoke the next morning.

I was thinking about a few things, both the day of James, Jr's birth, as well as Fathers' Day.  The above quote - from a song entitled "Enjoy Yourself; It's Later than You Think" - reminds us that we are each given a certain allotment of time to spend how we choose, but advises us to do so carefully.  The birth of a baby is another such reminder that time is relentless, and while it may be without end to the universe, is most assuredly not so to us.

Like James's son, our own was born just before midnight, and I can remember very clearly my thoughts when I first saw him, and what it is why like to touch him.  That evening - to be honest, early the next morning - as he was given his first bath, wrapped, and finally brought to my wife's room in his tiny rolling bassinet, I thought about how, more or less, we all come in to the world in the same way.  There are, of course, differences - some children are born via Caesarean Sections, some at home with mid-wives, etc.  But for the most part, we as human beings share pretty similar experiences.  I thought at that moment about what my son's life would be.  I thought about my own infancy, and how my parents must have had similar experiences and reflections.  I thought of my own father and his parents, and what they were wondering in the first hours of his life.

No one can know what his life's story ultimately will be - what sort of person will he be?  Will he be happy or frustrated or angry?  Will he enjoy professional success, however that is defined? Personal fulfilment?  Will it be a long or short life?  To paraphrase Dickens's opening sentence of David Copperfield, whether I am to be the hero of my own life's story, these pages must tell.

In the first, timid moments of life, our options are as wide as they ever will be.  Whatever we can possibly achieve - whatever we can ever be, can never be as complete a set down the road as it is at that moment.  Life is made of events.  Of choices.  With each choice, we move down one path, and often, away from one that we can't really ever regain.  Where I am now is the result of a sequence of large and small steps leading here.

You cannot go back.

Another thought I had over the week-end was that, as the song goes, it really is later than you think.  When we are young, time is one of the few luxuries at our disposal.  As we age, we gain many things, but at the price of realising that our time is finite, and it is brief.

My brother - and his twin sister - were born in July of 1973.  I was about three and a half years old when my parents brought them home to our house in suburban Los Angeles.  It's in fact one of the earliest memories I have.

There is a recent book about the science of memory, in which the author's research indicates that most of our memories survive from about the age of four, and that very few retain any memories earlier than about 30 months of age.

I can still quite clearly remember sitting in a small, wooden chair in my room at three, holding my tiny, baby siblings.  They seemed to me small and remarkable then.  The book uses a phrase "flash-bulb" memory to describe a phenomenon of gradual refinement and embellishment of memories to the point that the basics are more or less true, but the remainder are "filled in" by stories, by imagination, and most importantly, by our own brain's desires to create the reality we want.  I don't know how much of my memory of the summer of 1973 is real, and how much is constructed fantasy.

It doesn't really matter, I guess.  To me, my brother and sister are forever trapped in the amber of memory, despite the fact that I now must face the truth that neither is a week-old infant.  My baby brother, who once was small enough for a three year old to hold wrapped in a blanket, who ran along with me in hand-me-down Toughskins jeans and square, too-big glasses is now a parent to his own little boy.

My young nephew is now a week old, and he still for the most part has all the potential he had the moment he entered the world.  He, too, must ultimately be the hero of his own life's story.

Welcome to the world, James, Jr.  It's my hope for you that you'll find it a welcoming place.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Vive la Grève, ou la France, mais pas les deux au même

An Actual "Train Wreck," ca 1895

Generally speaking, one of the pleasures of urban life in Paris is the ease with which one can live without an automobile.  I do not own a car, and have driven once in 2014 - a hired car during a weekend trip to Normandy.  As I observed some months ago here, the Parisienne Metro - the RATP - is a marvellous system of trains that make life in a huge, pre-automobile city possible.

The down side to this is that many of course come to depend upon the trains, and when there are perturbations, the impact is large.

So it is now that a couple of the train workers' unions have called for a strike, ostensibly to protest presumed austerity measures that the socialist government are considering in reforms to the rails system.  These strikes are, in fact, pre-emptive, as the Bill is in debate in the Assemblée Nationale.  Put succinctly, it's not passed, but merely debated.

The SNCF (a government group who run the Grandes Lignes trains between the cities) are currently running enormous debts - in the billions of euros in fact.  Without some sort of reform, it's obvious that, metaphorically, the track is out just ahead, and the trains will surely go off the rails, soon, if something isn't done.

The Socialists under François Hollande do not have many options.  They can raise taxes (which are amongst the highest in the world).  They can raise fares significantly (which is more or less the same thing as a tax rise).  They can cut services (always a popular move).  They can cut spending.  

It's worth pointing out that François Hollande, the Président de la République, is the banner-carrier for the Progressive Socialist (PS) party in France, and won his office with massive public-union support.  Margaret Thatcher once said that socialism works very well, until you run out of other people's money.

Socialists being what they are, there is of course the Magic Unicorn approach - that the money will just appear from the pockets of "The Rich."  

As a result, the syndicats des ferroviaires have called for a strike, with calamitous results.  This weekend, approximately four of ten trains were not circulating.  This was compounded mid-week when taxi drivers, angry about the encroachment of services like Uber, called in their own strike, which was made even worse when the drivers not only refused to pick up fares, but then engaged in an operation escargots, wherein their cabs plugged up the routes out of the two major Paris airports (Roissy and Orly), as well as the notorious Boulevard Périphérique - the freeway circling the city.  This action co-incided with the first day of the EULAR (European Union League Against Rheumatism), the major conference on rheumatology for my personal field.  

In short, it was a mess.

But the cherry on top in this case is that this week, French students will be taking their BAC - final exams for France's lycéens - an exit exam similar to the UK A-levels. 

France's top students may not enter university without the exams, and the rail strike is set to have an enormous impact.  There is a lot of anger here surrounding the issue.  Anger and fear.  The local Figaro has announced today the extra-ordinary measure being taken to accommodate the students - those arriving up to an hour late, with documentation to prove that the strike affected their transit, will be granted an additional hour to complete their exams.  

The heat is on the unions who find themselves in the odd position of being the bad guys in virtually all press here - left and right.  The situation was made worse when one of the unions "Tweeted" on Sunday
Jeune, organise toi dès maintenant pour aller à l'examen détendu et décroche ton bac :-)
Youth, prepare yourself now to go and get your exams end relax for your BAC (degree) 
The unions, surprised perhaps by the anger, are now in full damage control, today offering to deploy, in red (of course) vests "helpful" people to guide students to the one in two trains that are running and ensure they have priority over everyone else.  No word on how that is going to help if the train running at 10 is cancelled and the students have to wait until 11.

I am not a huge fan of unions in general, though I understand that they serve a necessary purpose.  Semi- and unskilled workers face a commodity market, and need a way to collectivise when monied powers try to force down wages.  

This makes sense when the unions represent their workers against a powerful, wealthy, private corporation.  In this case, the antagonist is the corporation.  And in a sense, both the union and the corporate bosses, in the end, have it in their base interests that the corporation survive.  The fight in that case is over the profits when the company succeeds.

In the case of public unions, this pressure is removed.  When the CGT go to negotiate, they aren't arguing against John D Rockefeller or Henry Ford.  The 'enemy' of the unions is the taxpayer.  We, the taxpayers, are the bad guys. 

Put simply - it's 'them' against 'us.'

The CGT have tried to hide this, softening their position a bit in a press release.  
Notre cible est bien ce 'débat' parlementaire et non pas tes examens. Nous ne sommes pas responsables de ce calendrier imposé par le gouvernement
Our target is the parliamentary discussion, not your exams.  We are not responsible for the calendar imposed by the government
You see, the bad guy here is "the government."  

I might remind the portes paroles of the CGT - and other public unions for that matter - that in a democracy, "the government" is the citizenry.  

In France, they ought to know, as the unions were the main reason François Hollande was elected to begin with.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Verbum Caro Factum: An Even Dozen

This week-end marked my twelfth wedding anniversary.  My wife and I walked down the aisle (and, I must admit somewhat sheepishly, up the aisle a bit prematurely when the time came for the 'Sign of Peace') in Los Altos, California on 8th June 2002.  

We celebrated this year in a very nice restaurant in Munich, Germany, itself a beautiful, historic city.  As is our custom, we talked about the past year - the ups and downs, the year to come, and the things we like and appreciate about each other.  I believe we have enjoyed a very strong, happy, and healthy marriage.  We've travelled the world and been blessed with a lovely son.  This is not to say we have not had our moments of conflict, which I think must be part of any close relationship.  A sign that your marriage is in trouble, in my view, is when you cease to care when you get let down by your wife/husband. 

As my father used to say, the opposite of love is not hate; it's indifference.

Anyways, as we reflected on our dozen years of marriage, we found ourselves talking about the elements of a lasting relationship.  Obviously, there are many.  Enough shared interests, of course.  Sufficient physical attraction is also necessary.  Compatible personality.

But what does this latter really mean?  

I have from time to time been intrigued by the idea of fitted personalities.  One often hears that "opposites attract."  I do not believe that this is necessarily true.  Perhaps there is an attraction, but as the two grow closer, the obvious and stark differences, I feel, will repel just as surely as the initial thrill of the truly different wanes.

What I have come to believe over time is that a lasting relationship must involve somewhat orthogonal personalities.  What I mean by this is that two people who are polar opposites will simply not get along over the long haul.  In the US, there was once a television show called "Dharma and Greg."  The show featured a hippie wife (I think her job was as a yoga teacher) and straight-laced husband (whom I think was a lawyer).  These sort of themes occur frequently in entertainment, but I have yet to meet a couple together for any length of time who fit the narrative.

On the other hand, I think an even worse situation is when the two people involved are too similar.  I've known people in this case who seem so "perfect" together - they like the same movies and music, have the same political views, have the same world outlook and style, and have the same personal hot-button items.

On the surface, this would seem an ideal situation, but in reality, it never is.  Can you think of a couple who were like mirror reflections of one another, and yet their 'perfect' relationship always crashes?

My theory is this: people who are too similar will eventually come to loathe the other.  To my mind's eye, the explanation is shockingly simple.  

Barring some sort of personality disorder, most of us know what our long suits are; similarly, we are all aware, painfully aware in some cases, of our own deficiencies.  With one exception - I once worked with a man who was so completely lacking in self-awareness, he interpreted sarcastic comments that the company ought to put a bust of him in the reception areas as sincere compliments - virtually every person I know, if pressed, really does know what his weakness is.  

That being the case, seeing ourselves reflected each day would become torture.  Everyone is aware of the archetypical story where a once-beautiful person, subsequently scarred, orders all mirrors in the house removed or covered.  Few of us are perfect people just as surely as few of us have perfect faces.  We all have scars somewhere, an embarrassing blemish.  The equivalent of a nose that is too wide or mis-aligned eyes.

Marrying someone too similar to ourselves would thus be the equivalent of having a person with scars being before a mirror every day of his life.  Only the mirror would in this case be the living embodiment of our most closely guarded self-consciousnesses.  Some of us are too forceful; some too timid.  Some are too outgoing and some too closely guarded.  Some of us are too critical or too insincere.  

We all know what is "wrong" with us, and to be reminded of this constantly would make it impossible for us to put cosmetics on the psychological scars we try to hide away from the world.

Seeing ourselves in the flesh would destroy the ability to pretend, and we would hate that.  Over time, rather than seeing the positive aspects of ourselves that would be portrayed, we would see only the imperfections.

As a consequence, we would hate the other person.  

So what we need are personalities similar enough not to repel, but not too similar as to foment a projection of self-hatred.  Enough over-lapping interests but, but not "yourself" standing by your side.

I'm a middle-aged man, and at this point happy with my life that way that it is, and am comfortable with myself that way that I am.  But I know I am not a perfect person, and I know what I wish were different just the same.  In this case, the person I am sharing my life is strong in many places where I am weak. For example, she is capable of action when at times I am stricken with "analysis paralysis."  

She truly is, as the saying goes, "my better half," because she provides my life with the complementary elements that, deep inside, I know I need. Even if externally I don't admit the need.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Why Can't the English Teach their Children How to Speak?

Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?
This verbal class distinction, by now, should be antique.
If you spoke as she does, sir, instead of the way you do,
why you might be selling flowers, too.

The above stanza from the overture to "My Fair Lady" - a musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's classic "Pygmalion" remains in my mind a catchy (and not to say, classic) critique of the degradation of language. The dead-pan of Professor Higgins's reaction to the mewling "G'on!" of Eliza Doolittle - "I ask you sir, what sort of word is that" - is my personal favourite.

Living in a foreign country provides me the opportunity to observe not only the use (and mis-use) of my own language, but also the chance to do likewise for another.  In this case, the language is French (Professor Higgins's take on the French - "they don't care what they say, so long as they pronounce it properly), as I live in Paris.

Had an interesting discussion yesterday with a colleague, who had sent out an all-office e-mail announcing the secondment of three new people to his leadership.  In the mail, he announced that "Jane Doe will report to Mike Rowe" (both names fictitious), and signed the letter "Mike Rowe."

I kidded "Mike" that he had taken the sort of royal "we" approach, naming himself in a letter he later signed, rather than saying that "Jane" would "report to me."  "Mike" is an Australian, and thus pretty easy-going, and we had a laugh about the whole thing.  (As an aside, it turns out the reason for the somewhat awkward wording was the need for the whole thing to go through internal legal review so as not to offend, and this language was deemed sufficiently bland).  

In the discussion, I remembered the struggle many Americans have with the rules on when to deploy the subjective case of the first-person-singular (i.e., "I"), vs. when the objective case (i.e., "me") should be used.  One hears frequently casual use of "Jim and me went to the game," or, "send the tickets to my wife and I," in a stilted over-compensation.

The whole thing is "solved" (in the sense that the Gordian Knot was solved by cutting it), by the increasing use of "myself" in place of "me."  But one also hears - especially from professional athletes - the use of their own names as a means of solution.  I am old enough to remember Bo Jackson, who often talked of himself in th third person.  ("Bo was pretty tired, but still showed up and competed.")  The whole thing led to the "Bo knows" ad campaign of the mid to late 80s.  If you're over 30 and American, chances are pretty good, you saw the ads.  They were for the shoe company Nike, I believe.

"Mike," though over 40, is Australian, and he never heard of Bo Jackson.

Interestingly, our colleague - not Jane, in this case - is French, and was intrigued by the whole discussion.  She seemed a bit surprised about the whole thing, and I tried to explain that it's the sort of mistake that no native French speaker would ever make.  

In the discussion, I asked her if she ever - in all of her born days - had heard a fellow French person say "déjeuner avec Olivier et je" (have lunch with Olivier and I).

She laughed instantly and said, no. Of course not.

French, unlike English, actually has an academy whose role it is to police the language.  The French people, of course, make mistakes.  But this sort of casual laziness is generally not tolerated.  In point of fact, it remains a minor scandal here in Paris, nearly a decade later, that President Nicholas Sarkozy used the futur antérieur when he should have used the plus-que-parfait.  I can only imagine what would happen if he committed the sin of using "data" in the singular, as President Obama does with frequency.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

Venn Diagrarm: Which Circle(s) Capture Your Life?

A couple of Facebook friends recently brought to my attention some somewhat 'controversial' remarks made by the actress Gwyneth Paltrow, in which she complained about the viciousness and lack of empathy that are easily afforded by the anonymity of the internet.

Her comments became 'controversial' - and I use quotes here because this particular controversey exists completely within pockets of the US; I had not heard anything about it, at all, here in Paris until my friends commented - because at one point, she compared her personal situation to the stress of the battlefield.

You come across [online comments] about yourself and about your friends, and it's a very dehumanizing thing. It's almost like how, in war, you go through this bloody, dehumanizing thing, and then something is defined out of it
For context, the remarks were made at the recent "re/code" conference at a resort in Palos Verdes, California, an annual event where the movers and shakers in technology and media convene to discuss the impact of digital technology.  Participants typically include Sergey Brin (Google) or Reed Hastings (Netflix), or Steve Jobs (when he was alive).  It's a bit odd that Paltrow was invited, but it's their conference.

One of my friends linked to the response from the spectrum that it's incredibly narcissistic and solipsistic - and not to say stupid - to compare the tribulations of internet mean-ness to the real violence a soldier faces.  This is the camp of, inter alias, Senator John McCain, who of course, famously was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict for many years.

Another friend posted comments from the website The Daily Beast, which rose to the defence of Paltrow for making her claim, which, if analysed carefully, actually contains a kernel of truth.

Two things should be completely obvious to everyone. First, communication in our culture has taken on not just the rhetoric of war but the psychology of battle in a particularly degrading and modern sense—totalistic, hate-soaked, viciously othering, and massively xenophobic. Second, it is not bad to say this is so. Instead of a virtual punch in the ovaries, Paltrow should get a round of applause. 
I don't necessarily agree with his conclusion that language has become meaner or more vile. And I truly do not agree with the us of a "word" like 'othering' (as Professor Higgins would say, I ask you sir, what sort of word is that?) If you look at the print media of 100 years ago (take a look, for example, at HL Menken), it was, to put it mildly, unkind. A quick look through the archives of political cartoons in the days of Thomas Nast make Doonesbury look like a pillow fight by comparison.

The author does, however, have a point, and I think it is this.

What has changed is less the tone and more the immediacy. The omnipresence.

And the anonymity.

100 years ago, if the popular press printed nasty things about Charlie Chaplin, it was only once a day, and you had to pay your five cents to get the tabloid. And the person making the attack signed his name.  Thus, in attacking Chaplin, Chaplin could fight back if he liked.

Now, it's 25 hours a day and free. Any idiot with a cell phone can "tweet" about whomever they want. And there are no consequences for the attack.  THAT is the difference. And it is not an insignificant one.

With respect to this particular incident, let me just say that I like Gwyneth Paltrow. I've always thought her movies were pretty good (well, not all of them, but many). I think she is a fine actress and an attractive woman. I also pay little to no attention to what she says when not on screen, just like any other celebrity, musician, or athlete. I honestly do not care - at all - what their opinions on anything unrelated to their movies, their music, or their performance on the field last night was. She is a very good actress; I think as an intellect, less so.

In this particular case, her comments comparing her own life with a soldier's are, in my opinion, laughably out of touch with reality. I do not know many rich and famous people, but I do know a few. They are, as you and I are, human beings, and as such from time to time like to imagine that they face difficulties and challenges in life. Which, I suppose, they do. No one rides for free, as the old song goes. Even a fabulously wealthy, attractive person who has just about every comfort that can physically be had.

But the trials and tribulations they face, and their tether to "reality" - so far as I experience it - is to say the least, loose.

It's all relative, of course. Paltrow is upset that people tweet vicious things about her. I worry that my company may decide to let me go. I have a friend (the one posting the second point about this, in fact) who worries about complicated medical problems. My sister is concerned about the resources that the State of California provides that will allow her to provide a quality education to her students. People I know are out of work and wonder how long it will be until they can find a new job, and worry about how they will live if it is too much longer.

Are these fears all equal? I don't think that they are.

I've never been famous, so it's a bit of a projection, but I would say that if I were, I could deal with the comments. I've never cared very much what other people think about me, and particularly, total strangers. I would, I suppose, be concerned that my son would be hurt to see terrible things said about his family by people he's never met, and would be somewhat bewildered by it. THAT is the price of celebrity, however.

As I said, no one rides for free. Famous people like being able to get a table at any restaurant in the world whenever they want. The BEST table, in fact. We tried for more than a year to get in to one of the top restaurants in New York before doing so. I never hear celebs complaining about that. They can get boutiques in Paris to close their doors to everyone else for private shopping sprees - and in fact, are offended when not offered such special care (cf Oprah Winfrey a couple of years ago when she tried to get such a situation at a LV store here).

ALL of that has a price, and that price is anonymity. It's part of the bargain. I don't excuse the attacks which are, if you think about it, really bizarre psychological acts - lashing out in a visceral way against a celebrity one never has met, but thinks that one 'knows' because one sees so much about thin slices of their lives.

It's cruel and twisted. But I would suggest to Gwyneth Paltrow and others that that's the deal. You want the fame and the adoration; you get the calumny and the vitriol that come with it