Tuesday, December 09, 2008

We're Buildling Something Here

One of the classes I taught this semester ended the term by reading Nick Hornby's How to be Good. I had read it a few years back and put it on the syllabus in the hopes that it would present students a compelling picture of the challenges of searching for happiness in our crazy 21st century world--challenges that face even those of us in the suburban middle class. From the feedback I've received, it achieved those aims fairly well. It's not a perfect book, by any means. But Hornby's always a blast to read and I think that despite its faults, it qualifies as a very good book. I'd recommend it for your holiday reading pleasure if you're in the market for a ride that is both entertaining and thought provoking.

Marriage and domestic life lie at the heart of How to be Good and my own connection with the novel is at that level. (Since none of my students were married, I worried that this theme might be an impediment for them. But there is enough other stuff going on that it didn't seem to be a problem.) The main character is struggling with her commitment to her husband, her children, her career. Infidelity is part of the package but a mere desire to sleep with someone else isn't really the issue. It's rather that she's at something of a loss for why she should continue to put in the time and effort it takes to maintain domestic tranquility (to say nothing of domestic bliss).

Maybe I'm wrong but my guess is that these kinds of questions surface in some form for most anyone who has been at marriage and family for any length of time. It's hard. We feel trapped, sometimes--impeded by our obligations from doing what we'd really like to be doing. We don't always like our loved ones--be they old or young--and wonder if maybe life would be better if we were on our own. When we're in the grip of these concerns, the familiar themes of affection and love don't really bring us back into the fold since they are precisely what we aren't feeling. They ebb and flow and can't be relied upon when we need them. And if we are simply reminded of our commitment, we may only wonder whether it's one we should have made. We may not agonize or dwell on these thoughts. But my guess is that many of us have had them.

So why stay in the game? Why put up with it all? Here's the conclusion I've come to ten years and two kids down the road of family life. Because building anything of value--anything important or significant--is difficult and challenging and at the end of the day, domestic life is about building something: a family. A family is a creation--possibly the most beautiful human creation there can be and without a doubt exponentially more beautiful than the Sistine Chapel. And (to mix metaphors) even though we smudge the canvass occasionally and can't always balance the colors quite right, if we continue to work at it, we can put down our brushes after 50 years and rest content in the masterpiece we created.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

I'll Take the Giants Plus the Points

I've long suspected that "investing" in the stock market was far more like gambling than most of us like to believe. And now this piece by Michael Lewis seems to confirm at least some of my suspicions. (For the record, I've read Lewis's Liar's Poker (referenced in the article) and I can testify that my reaction to it was precisely the one Lewis intended me to have.)

What has always bothered me about the market is that there is no necessary connection between the value of a stock and the quality of a company. Sure, there are broad correlations. But these correlations are anchored in the correlations that investors draw in their minds between the price of a stock and the quality of a company--correlations which may or may not track the truth of the matter. And if, for whatever reason, millions of investors decide that willbegforfood.com is a great company, you can be sure the value of the stock will rise no matter what the facts are on the ground. So when you buy a stock, you are betting that over time, people will think that the company is a good one.

Moreover, in the world of derivatives investing--the kind of thing that has driven the large investment banks over the last 20-plus years--there is even less of a relationship between an actual institution and the security being purchased. Invest in, say, mortgages and you are thereby assuming the combined debt of thousands of home"owners" and betting on the chances that they will pay off their loans. The greater the risk, the greater the possible reward. Sure sounds like gambling to me.

The truly amazing thing about Lewis's piece (and Liar's Poker) is that it reveals the sheer lack of understanding that those involved with such investing have of what they are doing. I have a Ph.D., albeit not in economics, and I have a very difficult time understanding what the hell is going on with these kinds of securities. As far as I can tell, it's all a bunch of smoke and mirrors designed to get people to get people to hand you their money.

Conversely, I'd argue strenuously that Vegas linemakers--those who set the point spreads for betting on sports--know exponentially more about what they are doing than the typical lackey working at an investment bank. That may sound outrageous. But its outrageousness, such as it is, is only a function of the outrageousness of much investment banking--not the lack of information available to sports bettors.* The linemakers may make it very difficult for you to beat them. But at least you are working with cogent information when you are trying to do so. Frighteningly, the same cannot be said of the house of cards that is our financial system.

*Also "for the record" the extent of my sports betting consists of a few horse races growing up (via my parents until I was of age) and various party pools. I have never bet on a football game against the spread in Vegas, online, or through Vinny the bookie. Not that there's anything wrong with that . . .

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Why We Blog, I Suppose

"Each one of us is alone in the world. He is shut in a tower of brass, and can communicate with his fellows only by signs, and the signs have no common value, so that their sense is vague and uncertain. We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side by side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them. We are like people living in a country whose languages they know so little that, with all manner of beautiful and profound things to say, they are condemned to the banalities of the conversation manual. Their brain is seething with ideas, and they can only tell you that the umbrella of the gardender's aunt is in the house."
~W. Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Local Politics Goes National

Virginia going for Obama wasn't the most exciting political news around the Charlottesville area this last week. That honor belongs to the 5th congressional district race between Republican incumbent Virgil Goode and Democratic challenger Tom Perriello. The story has even made the front page of Slate. While a recount may be forthcoming, right now it looks like Perriello is headed to Washington--a very encouraging (if surprising) result.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Brooks Has a Dream

As a follow-up to yesterday's post, I refer you to David Brooks's column today in the NYT.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Like Clockwork

David Brooks was on NPR yesterday--indeed, he seems to be ubiquitous these days--talking about a variety of things. What interested me most were his comments on what would happen to the Republicans in the near future. His assessment was that they are in bad shape and will be reeling for the next 10-15 years.

The main reason for the struggles, according to Brooks, is going to be the hard-right base of the GOP claiming that they lost this election because Bush and McCain weren't conservative enough: Bush spent too much and McCain was too liberal on social issues. As a result, there will be a move even further right by Republicans in an effort to rejuvenate their conservative agenda.

And sure enough, talk radio has been buzzing with exactly that sentiment over the last few days. Sean Hannity opened his show on Wednesday with a rant/speech that, if it weren't so profoundly misguided and self-serving, could have been rather inspiring. To paraphrase: "Conservatism is alive and well! The Republicans have abandoned their principles! Go back to Regan and take over the world!" (Or something along those lines.) And this morning, Glenn Beck could be heard singing the praises of Sarah Palin and blasting the faux-conservatism and basic incompetence of John McCain.

For his part, Brooks thinks that this is exactly the wrong move for Republicans (and one that doesn't square with his own brand of (frankly) thoughtful conservatism). He has pulled no punches in criticizing the anti-intellectual strain of current Repubilcanism, going as far as to call Sarah Palin "a fatal cancer to the Republican party." It was therefore a fitting and humorous close to the segment when E.J. Dionne, giving his own take on the state of the GOP, said that the best thing the Republicans could do was lock themselves in a room and read two years' worth of David Brooks's columns.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Morning After

I went to bed last night before Obama's victory speech so I didn't get to watch it until this morning. It was a profoundly moving speech that, I thought, struck exactly the right chords: recognition of the historical significance of this election, respect for McCain, appeal for support from his adversaries, and acknowledgment of the struggles ahead, all highlighted beautifully by notes of hope and optimism. I don't think he could have done better.

But now we move forward. The easy part is over. Compared to actually being president, getting elected president is a cakewalk. I cast my vote because of my belief that Obama is made of just the right stuff to pull it off. Only time will tell if I was right.

Unfortunately, there will probably be a small segment of the population that will want to see him fail. More concerned with being right than with goodness or truth, they will criticize every misstep and fail to acknowledge any success. We will always have such people with us and I think the best that we can do is ignore them. Like 3 year-olds throwing tantrums, they should be left to scream their heads off in isolation.

We can, however, hope that the overwhelming dissatisfaction people have with the way things are going will open a window of opportunity--a measure of open-mindedness and patience of the part of greater numbers of people--that some presidents do not have. The unfortunate circumstances of history may paradoxically be Obama's biggest asset in the short term. If Americans are patient and hopeful and willing to try some new ideas, perhaps an Obama administration can lead this generation in building legacy for our country that we can be proud of.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Despairing of Democracy

Those who know me know that I am rather non-partisan in my politics. I like to remain independent in my ability to evaluate candidates and issues and I think partisan loyalties often obscure rather than enhance that process. If your primary concern is for your team to win, then you can be blind to that team's weaknesses and sometimes stay committed even when the team doesn't deserve your support.

An upshot of this approach is that I think I am usually able to see the merit in a given political stance, even when I do not agree with it. Politics is a messy business and the issues are rarely clear cut. Appreciating the complexity of those issues and trying to give everyone the benefit of the doubt leads to political charity and nuanced thinking. In general, these results are much preferable to the kind of bunker mentality that seems to pervade so much of our political rhetoric.

But this election is somewhat different. I simply do not see what can be said in favor of McCain. Or, more precisely, I think there are some things to be said in favor of McCain but they are so massively outweighed by the reasons to vote for Obama that there might as well be nothing to say. Political choices may not usually be clear cut. But this one is.

This leaves me in an uncomfortable position with respect to my fellow citizens. It means that I either think they agree with me, and therefore appreciate the clear merits of supporting Obama, or I conclude that they are somehow deficient: irrational? (though rationality is a slippery notion), unintelligent? deceived? myopic? pigheaded? racist? evil? ill-intentioned? None of these are ways in which I like to think of my countrymen (save for a few talk-radio hosts), to say nothing of friends and people I know. And yet I'm not sure what else to conclude in this case.

Unfortunately, this problem is ineradicable in a democracy. As long as people are allowed to make voting decisions for themselves, based on whatever criteria they choose, we always run the risk that factors other than sober-headed thinking about the common good will influence the direction a polity takes. This danger was enough for Plato to reject democracy out of hand and was a big reason for the republican controls that the Founding Fathers placed on democratic whims. (Take a quick look, for example, at Federalist No. 10.)

However, unless we want to opt for rule by philosopher kings--never, to my mind, a wholly unpleasant thought--we will be unable to avoid times where we have no choice but to rely on the collective wisdom and good will of The People. This election is one of those times and I can only hope that The People show themselves equal to the task.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The 'S' Word

The McCain campaign is out of substantive critiques of Barack Obama--or is at least recognizing that those critiques aren't working--so now they are resorting to name calling.

Whether or not Obama's policies warrant the label of course depends on how you define 'socialism'. But regardless of how you define it, one of two things follows: (1) it is false that Obama is a socialist or (2) both Obama and McCain are socialists. Both favor tax policies that levy a higher percentage rate on those who make more money (and, indeed, progressive taxation in the U.S. is far from new; it goes back to the Civil War). Both favor various tax credits and exemptions for small businesses and health insurance. And both have favored the rather heavy-handed government intervention in the recent financial mess, with McCain's suggestion that the government buy mortgages being more interventionist than anything Obama has put forward.

McCain and his ilk clearly know all this, even if they fail to mention it on the campaign trail. They are a lot of things but they are not stupid or incapable of basic conceptual thinking.

All this means that there is absolutely no substance to the charge that Obama's view are socialistic, at least as that charge is being leveled by his opponents. You can criticize Obama's views--argue that they are somehow unjust or that they will not have the effects he thinks they will have. But none of those arguments require invoking the label 'socialist' and so the only reason to sling the word around is its shock value. Socialism is evil--whatever, exactly it is--and so if you paint your opponent as a socialist, you've thereby painted him as evil. (Or if not thoroughly evil, sympathetic with evil forms of thought.) Devoid of substance, then, but perhaps useful for getting votes.

What is interesting, though, is that while the McCain campaign is certainly smart and nuanced enough to recognize what they are doing, they have to be counting on there being plenty of people who aren't, otherwise they wouldn't do it. So the next time you hear McCain or his surrogates throwing around the 'S' word, just know they are counting on you to be stupid and unrefined in your thinking.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Sports Blogging

Most of my blogging interests lately have been sports related so I've decided to start a spin-off of EMM where I will be posting my sports commentary from now on. I know. I know. I don't blog here all that often and now I'm going to have two blogs?

Uhhh. Yes?

I'll still register my thoughts here from time to time so check back when you can. The new blog is here. It is not anonymous since I'm not intending to put anything there about the family or any political/philosophical views that might scare off potential employers who happen to google my name. All that stuff will stay here.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Objectivity in the Media

I'm mildly obsessed with the notion of objectivity and this obsession has a lot of different angles, most of which I won't go into here. But listening to the radio on the way home today highlighted one that continues to vex me.

We hear a lot--way too much, in fact--about various "media biases." Most of this banter comes from the right as they complain about the "biased mainstream liberal media." But to be fair (dare I say objective?), there are also complaints on the left about certain conservatively biased media outlets.

Some of this is surely posturing. If you can claim to be oppressed, then perhaps you can garner some sympathy and get more votes. And if present yourself as "objective" or "fair and balanced" in contrast to all the other partisan hacks (who happen also to be your competitors), that is a nice means of self-promotion.

However, you don't get to be fair and balanced just by saying you are fair and balanced. So, assuming that we want our media to be fair and balanced, how do we know if they are meeting that standard?

This is a slightly different question than, "What are the standards of objectivity for the media?" We can, presumably, spell out what kind of objectivity we want from reporters and commentators. We might disagree about some of the finer points but my guess is that there would be broad agreement on the basics: e.g, not misrepresenting the facts, giving voice to different points of view, not working actively for the advancement of certain causes, etc. Fair enough.

The problem is that the only means we have of evaluating how well the media is doing come from the media themselves. We need information in order to make such evaluations and in the overwhelming majority of cases, that information comes from the very media that we are trying to evaluate. This is why there is almost no way to convince someone of the objectivity or bias of a given media source if they are not already so convinced. Any evidence or argument that you might offer is bound to be viewed as fruit of the poisoned tree.

I confess that I'm not really sure how to get out of this conundrum but I'm certainly open to suggestions.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Punched in the Gut

When I left the house to go on a family walk this evening, the Brewers were up by 3 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Clearly they were on their way to a very important win and maybe back into this playoff race. When I got in the car after our walk at the park, I heard the final score on the radio: Cubs win 7-6 in 12 innings. The blood instantly ran out of my head and I've felt sick to my stomach ever since. It's hard not to see this as a sign that things just aren't meant to be for the Crew this year.

Sports are crazy, though. And if the Cubs can score 4 runs in the ninth with two outs, the Brewers can reel off 9 wins in a row. I'll cling to that as long as I can.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Monday, September 15, 2008

Happiness is the Absence of Misery

The UW football team won an important game on the road at Fresno St. on Saturday and the Packers won on the road at Detroit yesterday. These wins should make me happy. As a (perhaps overly) passionate fan of both teams, I should take great pleasure in their success.

But all I can think about today (apart, of course, from Aristotle's Ethics, on which I just lectured) is the ongoing collapse of my beloved Brewers who got swept in a crucial four game series in Philadelphia over the weekend. The pleasure I took in the football victories is completely outweighed by the agony of the losses. Failure dominates my horizon far more than success, even when neither the failure nor the success are mine.

Maybe this isn't so strange. After all, when someone is beating you over the head with a hammer, it's tough to enjoy the sunset or the beautiful music playing in the background. Nevertheless, I shudder to think what this kind of outlook says about me and what fun a psychiatrist would have deconstructing my experience. All I know is that the Brewers play the Cubs tomorrow and I'm longing for some relief from my current misery.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Importance of Explanations

S had an appointment with an endocrinologist the other day. At her last well-check, she was not on the growth chart and since her growth progression has leveled off, our pediatrician thought it wouldn't hurt to have her see a specialist. As some of you know, she has also been experiencing some delays in her gross motor development for which she has been receiving physical therapy twice a week.

I any case, the endocrinologist was running through a preliminary list of issues that might be causing her slow growth, one of which was low hormone levels. This, he said, might account for her small size and some lack of muscle tone--perhaps a factor in her gross motor skills. Obviously, this is all preliminary and we'll have to await test results over a much longer period of time. You can't make a diagnosis on the basis of one set of lab work in a one year-old and even a diagnosis wouldn't necessarily involve treatment for a while. Doctors don't just start giving babies hormones.

All that said, when I heard that might be a possibility, I had the following reaction: I kind of hope she has low hormone levels.

This is an odd thing to wish for your child. We want our loved ones to be healthy, not to have medical issues that require long-term treatment. (My though actually brought to mind the episode of The Cosby Show where Theo is having trouble in school. They eventually find out that he is dyslexic and the Huxtable's reaction is happiness, laughter, and hugs: "You're dyslexic!" "Yes! I'm dyslexic.) But then I thought about it a little more and perhaps my reaction isn't so odd.

Explanations are important to us because they help us understand why things are the way they are. And as long as we can get a grip on that, I think human beings are capable of dealing with pretty much anything. Life's problems are easier to handle if we can get a grip on their underlying rationale. And if understanding that rationale gives us some way to remedy the problem, all the better. If we understand why S still can't crawl, then maybe we can fix it.

The problem is that so much of our experience resists this kind of explanation. More often we have a partial explanation that provides absolutely no comfort because it leaves what we really want to understand just as murky as it was before. A teenager dies in a car crash because he made an alcohol-influenced decision to run a red light. On one level, that can be an obvious enough explanation. But why did he choose to drink and get behind the wheel in the first place? And why did he have to suffer so drastically for his mistake when thousands of people never reap the fruits of their bad decisions? Those questions don't seem to have any satisfying answer and those answers are the only ones that might possibly offer comfort.

So what can we do in those situations? I suppose we can either continue to seek answers, realizing that they might never come or we can become more comfortable with the ambiguity of uncertainty and learn to live with it--kind of like learning to live with a chronic disease. I'm not sure that either response is always better than the other. But I think they both show the significance we place on understanding as a human ideal.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

(Very) Early Season Analysis

It is still very early in the season but the Brewers have completed 6 series and I think they have generated enough data to start taking stock of how things have gone thus far. A couple of trends concern me; one doesn't; and one is actually quite encouraging.

First the concerns. Eric Gagne has blown 3 of 9 save opportunities. The Brewers managed to win two of those games but the trend is not a good one. Francisco Cordero blew only 7 saves all of last season. My guess is that Gagne has a couple more weeks to prove that he can handle the closer's role. If he can't, then look for a change, Gagne's $10 million salary notwithstanding. (If I had to predict, I would say that he will not be the Brewers' closer by season's end and there is a 50-50 chance he will not even be on the team.)

The other concern is Ben Sheets's health. He has been absolutely lights out so far (with an ERA under 1) but left yesterday's game with a tightness in his right triceps. He needs to be healthy for Milwaukee to have a chance (though they can probably withstand a brief trip to the DL).

One trend that doesn't really concern me is the Brewers' lack of offense so far. Hitting, more than pitching, tends to be streaky and I think they will be able to get things in shape. Plus, even though their stars--Fielder, Braun, Weeks, and Hardy-- are all hitting below .250, the Brewers are 10th in MLB in runs scored. The bats will start rolling eventually.

The early season trend that I find encouraging is that the Brewers have been able to win on the road. Last season, Milwaukee's ineptitude away from home was the bane of their existence. So far this year, they are 7-5. If they can stay above .500 on the road over the course of the season, they should be right there in September.

There were a number of voices in the national baseball press saying that the NL Central would be decided by which team ended up with the best starting pitching. I echoed that sentiment in my Opening Day post here. To that end, I'll be following the season-long correlation between quality starts (number of starts going at least 6 innings and giving up 3 or less runs) and rank in the standings. Milwaukee has 7 such starts so far this season and is tied in that statistic with the Cubs; St. Louis has 9; Cincinnati has 6. Order in the standings: St. Louis, Cubs, Brewers, Reds. To this point, quality starts are a pretty good predictor of relative team success.

UPDATE: My current sourness on Gagne should probably be tempered a bit by the fact that Brewers' manager Ned Yost chose to use him for the fourth straight day in yesterday's game. Gagne said he felt good and was ready to go but it's the manager's job to exercise prudence in those situations. The Crew had plenty of rested and capable arms in the bullpen and Yost probably should have used one of them.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse is Upon Us

I meant to link to this a couple of weeks ago. If you need any sign that our country is going to hell in a handbasket, just check out this piece in the NYT.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Book Notes: "Romulus, My Father"

Earlier this week, I finally sat down to read Raimond Gaita's Romulus, My Father in earnest. I had to get it through inter-library loan since it is currently only in print in Australia. I suspect there is a chance they might put out an American edition given that they have made a movie of the book (starring Eric Bana) that is about to be released on DVD here in the states. But I didn't want to wait.

Gaita stands as one of my favorite contemporary philosophers and my dissertation was inspired, in part, by reading his Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception. His work is infused with a profound sensitivity and a baseline commitment to the idea that the questions with which he is grappling really matter. It's a combination that is surprisingly rare in academia and even in those places where I disagree with him, or can't quite understand what he is trying to say, I find that his work stays with me, consistently informing my reflections.

Romulus, My Father, as the title suggests, is Gaita's memoir of his father and Raimond's time growing up in Australia. It is sparely narrated in the sense that Gaita does not provide ornate descriptions of events, opting instead for a matter-of-fact style of reporting which is then punctuated with reflection on the meaning of those events: their importance for Gaita's development as as human being as well as what they illustrate about the broader human condition. Once I got going, I motored right through it.

My interest was doubtless encouraged by a desire to learn something about the historical person who wrote the philosophy I so admire. For while the book is ostensibly about Romulus, it is equally about Raimond: it is told entirely from his perspective and by way of his recollections (supplemented, I'm sure, with a bit of research to corroborate and correct his memories and fill in various holes).

For me, the book ended up posing a kind of philosophical question. Gaita's childhood was marked by significant adversity. He faced the inevitable challenges of growing up as the son of an immigrant at a time when that carried much more of a stigma than it probably does today. His mother was more or less absent from his life, suffering from mental illness and eventually committing suicide. His father likewise suffered from serious bouts of insanity and spent stretches of time being hospitalized. And most of this took place while Gaita lived a highly isolated life in a tiny farmhouse in rural Australia.

The question that arises is how this set of experiences has shaped Gaita's philosophizing: the questions he takes to be important and the way he thinks it best to go about pursuing them. In other words, is the reason that his academic work is infused with such humanity (for lack of a better term) that he had such an incredible range of experiences as a child? And if so, is the living of a certain kind of life then a necessary condition for obtaining philosophical insights of a certain kind?

I'm inclined to think that the answer to both of these questions is "yes" but it's hard to know exactly how to characterize the nature of the influence or how they positively shape the insights. After all, one might argue that living a certain kind of life can warp one's perceptions and thereby cloud one's philosophical judgment. Figuring out how to counter that claim opens one up to a host of complex questions, not the least of which is how we are to judge the quality of philosophical insight.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Rolling Over

Given the work we've been putting in with S lately, this is kind of exciting:

Cuteness Incarnate
















I mean, come on . . . .

Monday, April 14, 2008

No Charge

I feel a little guilty writing about Tiger Woods today, given that it was Trevor Immelman, and not Woods, who won The Masters. Immelman was clearly the best player this week: he shot three great opening rounds to put him in position and when the conditions and pressure got crazy yesterday afternoon, he held it together enough to win. Moreover, he's a very likable and unassuming bloke with a golf swing that is pretty to watch. I hope this isn't the last we hear from him.

But as has been pointed out elsewhere, yesterday was another example of Tiger not charging from behind to win a major. For all his amazing accomplishments--and they are unparalleled--all of his 13 major championships have come when he was leading or tied for the lead after three rounds. Not one has been the result of a Sunday afternoon flurry that propels him to victory.

Now don't underestimate how difficult it is to win when you are ahead. Peter Kostis (I think insightfully) pointed out on yesterday's telecast that having a big lead makes the physical aspects of golf easier. You don't have to be as precise with your shots since you can make some mistakes and still be in the lead. However, it makes the mental dynamics of the game more complicated since it opens up a wider range of decisions. Should I play safe or aggressively? Should I go for it or lay up? Flag or middle of the green? When you are behind, these decisions are largely made for you. You have to go for it or you won't win. But when you are ahead, your mind can start to get more active and in golf, that's definitely not always a good thing.

Nevertheless, it is odd, at this point in his career, that Tiger has not made a Sunday charge to win a major. He's won other tournaments that way but none of the biggies. And while his legacy would be completely untarnished if he never did, it remains somewhat perplexing. Jack Nicklaus won 8 of his 18 majors coming from behind on Sunday. But Woods hasn't done it once?

I can't really think of any plausible explanation for it but it seems to be a pattern that cries out for one. The only thing I can come up with is that he just presses a bit too much when he is behind--i.e., he tries so hard to shoot a low number (and maybe even a specific number) that he gets in the way of whatever natural momentum he might be able to gather over the course of a round. When he's ahead, he knows that if he just executes, he'll come out on top. But when he's behind, he feels like he has to manufacture something and that's very hard to do.

In any case, the golf season has officially begun and I'll be interested to see how the rest of the summer plays out.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Bush's War

I was riveted last week by the Frontline documentary Bush's War. (You can watch the whole thing online here.) I think it represents something like an authoritative narrative of the events leading up to the Iraq War and how that war has progressed since it started. It was particularly helpful for me, since I find it easy to forget who did what when, who was in charge of what, and how the administration's rhetoric and reasoning have evolved over time.

(It also makes me profoundly thankful for a free press. Even if you disagree with Frontline's take on the whole thing, it brings home the importance of having someone there to ask these questions and to tell the story. The thought of a government being able to conduct its affairs without the accountability provided by the press is rather horrifying and this story in particular brings that home.)

I've long thought that the legacy of the Bush administration would be one of arrogant incompetence. I am not one of those who attributes radically insidious motives to Bush or thinks that he is, in any straightforward sense, an evil man. Rather, I think that he is an overly simplistic thinker, with a commitment to a small number of bumper-sticker convictions about politics and the role of government, who simply was not up to the task of governing the nation in this historical moment. Moreover, he does not have the sense to think that he and his inner circle might need some input and correction outside their own number.

The incompetence thus lies in his basic inability to deal with the issues that face him (or, for that matter, any president). They are, I contend, simply too big and too complex for him and as a result, he's in way over his head. The arrogance lies in not recognizing this fact and proceeding as though his sloganish thinking is adequate to the tasks at hand. You might be able to get away with this combination as owner of the Texas Rangers or even as governor of Texas. Indeed, had history unfolded differently, Bush might have largely been able to get away with it as president. But the second those planes hit the Towers, that chance evaporated.

I think the narrative arc of Bush's War more or less confirms this analysis. The bumbling insularity of the administration's war preparations and execution come through loud and clear.
But it complicates my take somewhat because it shows what happens when arrogant incompetence does something like go to war. When you are talking about killing other human beings, deposing their government, and attempting to set up something in its place, arrogant incompetence starts to have undeniably evil effects. And the connection between the arrogance, incompetence, and those effects makes it very difficult not to render an incredibly harsh moral verdict on the one who is responsible for bringing about those effects.

There would be nothing particularly immoral if I thought that I was a masterful engineer and that because I possessed the relevant skills, I really didn't need to go to engineering school. I might be deluded or self-deceived, or maybe just silly, but I probably wouldn't be a bad person just in virtue of holding those beliefs. But if I then proceeded to design and build a bridge that subsequently collapsed and killed hundreds of people, the verdict would probably be quite different.

Of course, someone would have to allow a self-deluded engineer to build a bridge and they would accrue some responsibility if they did. Perhaps a similar responsibility therefore falls on those who allowed the Bush to do what he did: the electorate, congress, members of the Cabinet, military personnel, etc.

The documentary closes by noting that at the beginning of next year, Bush's war will belong to someone else. I find that profoundly disheartening because there does not seem to be any good way forward. I am not at all optimistic about the prospects for success there, at least not without committing far more troops than the American people are willing, and perhaps able, to commit. But I also think that simply withdrawing and coming home will leave a dangerous and unstable situation on the ground--one that we created and that will only be resolved, if at all, through an extremely violent and prolonged conflict.

The next administration can certainly blame Bush for putting us in this situation. But I don't think they'll be able to determine how best to get out of it by simply trying to pretend that it is not the situation we are in.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Opening Day 2008

Technically, the baseball season opened in Japan last week (with a series between the Red Sox and As) and while there was also a game last night, today is really the opening day of the baseball season. The weather in Chicago isn't looking good for the Brewers and Cubs but should things clear up, they'll get rolling at 2:20 EDT.

Last season, if you recall, the Crew started out having one of the best records in baseball into May before proceeding to rip my heart out over the course of the summer. Despite the collapse, it was an important year for them: they had their first winning record since 1992 and went into September with a chance to make the post-season. With one of the younger, more exciting rosters in baseball, they enter this season as bona fide playoff contenders.

As I see it, their prospects depend almost entirely on their starting pitching. Sure, Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, and J.J. Hardy need to maintain their offensive production levels from last year, their defense could stand to get a little better, and there is a question how the back end of the bullpen will fair with the loss of Francisco Cordero and the perpetual adventures of Derrick Turnbow. But I think their problems last year were largely a result of the inability of their starters to go deep into games. If your starters only go six innings, that puts a lot of pressure on your bullpen, pressure that wears them down over the course of the year. And pressure on your bullpen means additional pressure on your offense which, even if they are outstanding, can't be expected to score 10 runs a game. By the same token, if the starters pitch well, and for seven-plus innings, the bullpen and offense are freed up a bit: they can win by playing well rather than having to be outstanding in order to stay in games.

So how is the Brewers' pitching? Hard to tell but apparently good enough to release Claudio Vargas with both Chris Capuano and Yovani Gallardo starting the season injured.

The anchors of the staff will be Ben Sheets and Jeff Suppan. The key with Sheets is always his health. If he can pitch a complete season, he should win 20-plus games. If history is any indicator, Suppan will eat up innings and elevate his game in the last couple months of the season.

After that, it's all about the youth: Carlos Villanueva, Manny Parra, and Dave Bush will fill out the rotation until Gallardo gets healthy (probably a couple of weeks). My sense is that Bush will be the odd man out at that point but that probably depends on performance. Gallardo showed flashes of brilliance last year. If his young arm lasts a whole season, he's a star in the making. Parra is something of an unknown--he was spotty in his few major league appearances last season. Villanueva is a particular favorite of mine. He's got pretty good stuff and no fear about throwing any of his pitches anywhere in the count. I really like watching him pitch.

If some combination of these guys can step up, I think the Brewers will be playoff bound for the first time since 1982. As I write, the Cubs and Crew are underway. It's a long season, kids. Let's hope it's a good one.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

There's a Hole In My Life Where Bucky Used to Be

My weekend schedule got thrown into disarray when the Badgers lost to Davidson last night. I had been looking forward to watching them play Kansas on Sunday for a chance to go to the Final Four. Alas, Davidson didn't care what I wanted to do with my weekend. Ah well.

I was disappointed at the outcome, like any fan would be. But I was also disappointed that UW lost the way they did. They had no answer for Davidson's perimeter offense (in particular for the truly phenomenal Stephen Curry) and Davidson's defense seemed to have the Badgers rattled the entire second half. They weren't able to get the ball inside or slow down the flow of the game so as to emphasize their strengths. In some ways, the game was just way too pretty for them to win. They needed an ugly slog and it just wasn't there for them.

The UW players classily gave Davidson all the credit after the game. While they could definitely have played better, it wasn't just lip service either. Last night, Davidson was the better team.

I had grown to love this version of the Badgers, probably more than any other Badger team I've ever followed. They were selfless, hard working, smart, and clearly enjoyed being around each other. They represented their university as well as a sports team can and I'll miss watching them.

Now I need something to do on Sunday. Good thing baseball season is right around the corner . . .

Monday, March 17, 2008

What?! What?!

I don't know if sportswriters can get away with staying stupid things more than other writers because, at the end of the day, it's just sports. But Dennis Dodd is sure making making that case today when he claims that Tim Floyd is the best coach in the Midwest region of this year's NCAA basketball tournament. What?

Nothing against Floyd. He is a fine coach and his Trojans may very well make a good run this year. For all I know, they'll run through my Badgers in the second round and go on to win the whole thing. Kudos to them and kudos to Floyd. But claims like Dodd's can't be based on predictions. So, in good philosophical style, let's compare Floyd to the other coaches in the region as a way to examine Dodd's claim.

Bill Self (Kansas): Self just won his fourth straight Big 12 conference title. Before that, his Illinois teams won two conference titles and at Tulsa, he won two WAC titles. Some might say that Self has had his troubles in the NCAA tournament, but in his defense, he has been to the Elite Eight four times with three different schools.

John Thompson III (Georgetown): Georgetown won its second straight Big East title this year and made the Final Four last year. While at Princeton, Thompson won three Ivy League titles.

Bo Ryan (Wisconsin): Ryan has won three Big Ten titles at UW, been to the NCAA tourney each of those years, and made the Elite Eight in 2005. While at UW-Platteville (Div. III), Ryan won eight conference titles and four national championships.

Now Floyd did win four conference championships while at the University of New Orleans back in the '90s. But other than that, he's won exactly nothing. No conference championships at Iowa State and never past the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tourney. Then he went to the NBA and was God awful--his career NBA record is 93-235. Since coming back to college, his USC teams have been competitive but haven't finished higher than third in the Pac-10.

Floyd has gotten some press because of his high-profile recruits over the last couple of years and the media seem to like him. But if I were hiring a coach for my school, I'd take Self, Thompson, or Ryan before I'd take Floyd--and it's not even close. I mean not even close.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Who Says Teachers Are Underpaid?

Noticed this story in the NYT last week about a new charter school where teachers are going to be paid $125,000/yr. If that weren't jaw-dropping enough, the principal (and founder) is only going to be paid $90,000. His theory is that teacher quality is the single most important factor in creating good schools and that teacher pay is the single best way to attract good teachers. The article kind of hails the school as an experiment that will test the theory.

I will be interested to see how things work out. Since they have to cut some things in order to maintain that level of pay, I think it could be a pretty good case study of whether teacher quality outweighs other factors in constructing a good school. In other words, given limited resources, are we better off with excellent teachers, bigger classes, and fewer administrators or is some other combination better (e.g., more teachers and service personnel and smaller classes).?I'm inclined to think that teacher quality is more important in high school whereas class size is more important in early grades so that some kind of sliding scale is really what we need. But I think it's an empirical question such that some fiddling around with various combinations is a good idea.

Obviously, the sample will be far too small to determine whether anything like this is workable on a more national level (i.e., whether massively boosting teacher pay is the best way to improve educational quality). At capacity, the school will only have 28 teachers. So let's say they get the 28 best teachers in New York City (which obviously they won't). All we'll know is that for those already in the teaching profession, pay is a factor in determining where they want to work. But we already knew that. It will merely be a transference and concentration of already existing talent, surely not a recipe for educational reform on a broad scale.

The more important question, from a public policy perspective, is whether massively boosting teacher pay will improve the overall quality of teachers--something I've posted about before. And it isn't clear that one charter school, no matter how successful, will be able to tell us much about that.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

I Don't Have a Real Job (but that doesn't mean I don't work)

I am now firmly planted in the world of academia. Of course, I have been for some time since I was basically a student from 1995-2007. But now that I make my living as a member of the academy and am a card-carrying Ph.D., my status as an academic seems rather more secure. I don't "have to go study"; I "have to go to work" and by "work" I mean my office at UVA (or perhaps a local coffee shop) where I do academic-type stuff for hours on end.

My sense is that the broader public has a difficult time understanding the academic life, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. Teaching they can perhaps get a grip on, provided that teaching is understood as the time one actually spends in class teaching. But the rest of it is somewhat baffling. The notion that teaching involves much much more than the hours spent in the classroom often escapes people. And forget about research, especially when you are a philosopher. The idea that doing original philosophical work is part of what I do (and am supposed to be doing) totally escapes them.

Michale Berube over at Crooked Timber has a couple of posts that address some of these issues and I commend to you. The first is Berube's reaction to a column criticizing the workload of university professors. I think academics are on shaky ground when they try to talk about how hard they work. Such claims just ring hollow to those whose jobs require much more physical exertion, personal risk, or 80 hour weeks. Nevertheless, I think there is important value in what we do--a value that means that we do not have to apologize for what we do or feel badly that we enjoy our work--and I think Berube's take is spot-on.

The second post (which is actually from back in May '07) is a more personal narrative of his experience trying to get some work done on a trip to visit his in-laws. Suffice it to say that I can relate. Enjoy.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Against Partisanship

Barack Obama has recently been criticized in some quarters for his anti-partisan rhetoric. The thought seems to be that if a future Obama administration is not willing to wage heavy political warfare against the Republicans, and thereby align its agenda closely with the Democratic party machine in both style and substance, it will be extremely difficult to get anything valuable done. Better to be a partisan warrior and implement progressive policies by all the means at one’s disposal than to miss out on a unique opportunity to accomplish some of the goals the left holds dear.

There is, of course, truth and a sobering realism in such a view. Any president who thinks he can rally everyone to his cause by giving inspired speeches and simply asking for what he wants will eventually crash into the solid rock of opposition. And the more controversial the goal—universal healthcare, for example, or any policy at all regarding taxes—the more solid that opposition will be. Making progress on these matters will thus require knowing who one’s friends are and fortifying some well-chosen political ground.

But the call to partisanship, and its corresponding suspicion of supposedly trans-partisan efforts, often goes farther than a mere call to realism. In some of its guises, it can sound like a militaristic rallying cry—a challenge to defeat the enemy at all costs. (To illustrate, a Paul Krugman column in Slate last year bore the title “Progressives, To Arms!” Krugman has been among the most vocal proponents of an entrenched partisanship on the left and, therefore, one of the most consistent Democratic critics of Obama. See, for example, his most recent NYT column here.)

What these cries miss, however, is while politics clearly has its competitive side, it is importantly different from other forms of competition. In sports, for example, the aim is simply to defeat one’s opponent. Score more points than the other team, win the game, and go home. Similarly, the goal on the battlefield is to overwhelm, if not eliminate, the enemy. Even if humanitarian impulses have brought one to the point of armed conflict, the rule of combat is always the same: Kill or be killed.

In politics, on the other hand, one presumably does not want to vanquish the enemy. Democrats and Republicans may be in a contest for votes during election cycles and they may at times compete for victory in battles over legislation on Capital Hill. But in political victories, we do not eliminate our opposition and we cannot just go home, never having to think about them until the next game rolls around. Rather, political adversaries must live with their opponents. Indeed, if they are motivated by anything other than naked ambition, they will want the best for their opponents and will think that to defeat them is, in a roundabout way, to serve them well.

If this is view of politics does not always hold among the politicians themselves, then it would seem to obtain more widely among the public. We may disagree violently with our friends and relatives. But what we want is for them to agree with us—to come over to our side. We do not, one desperately hopes, want for them to be eliminated. And if we do genuinely hate our opposition (or at least think that we do), it is probably because all of our friends think like us. Ideological uniformity makes it easier to demonize those with whom we disagree.

When fierce partisanship begins to sound too militaristic, it therefore becomes difficult to reconcile with our day-to-day lives and Obama has tapped into this reality better than any politician in recent memory. While sticking firmly to the conviction that his vision for the country is superior to that of his political rivals, he has recognized that defeating the Republicans in November, or Hillary Clinton in the primary, is not the same as conquering a dangerous foe. We must lead our lives alongside those with whom we disagree and figuring out how best to do that, while simultaneously working toward the ends we believe to be important, should always be on the minds of those in power.

To be sure, the simple fact that a candidate recognizes the importance of this task is not a sufficient reason to vote for that candidate. But it is a reason not to belittle the effort.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Endnotes are Immoral

I see no justifiable reason for using endnotes (as opposed to footnotes), especially in books that are rather lengthy. Why force someone to flip several hundred pages to find a reference or comment when you can put that reference or comment at the bottom of the page and make it available in the quickest of glances? The only possible reasons I can think of are: (1) footnotes somehow disrupt the flow of reading and (2) straightforward sadism. I find (1) wildly implausible. If you don't care about the reference or comment, then don't read it. Problem solved. That leaves (2). And since sadism is immoral, then so are endnotes. QED

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"We Elect People, Not Position Papers"

Back in my post endorsing Obama and McCain, I make the sloganish remark that "we elect people to be president, not position papers." A reason why I think this approach to voting is important was highlighted after last night's Democratic debate. Chris Matthews asked Andrea Mitchell for her analysis of the proceedings and in so doing, made the comment that in all likelihood, the most significant issue facing our next president had not been discussed during the debate. Why? Because none of us know exactly what that issue will be.

The world is too crazy a place to be able to predict what will happen in the next four to eight years and the odds are that some completely unforeseen events will serve to define the next presidency. Roosevelt didn't know that Pearl Harbor would be bombed; Kennedy couldn't have predicted the Cuban Missile Crisis; and W sure couldn't have expected 9/11. But all of those presidencies were profoundly shaped by those events.

Examining the positions of candidates can only get us so far in predicting how they will handle various situations mostly because you only really know how you are going to handle a situation once you are in it. It is far better--if somewhat more difficult--for us to get a feel for how they approach and think through issues than it is to get their canned responses to an array of hypothetical scenarios or a laundry list detailing their policy agendas.

Of course, as Maureen Dowd pointed out a couple of weeks ago, even these judgments may not always bear fruit in terms of wise governing. People sometimes act contrary to our best assessments of who they are and all of us are, in various ways, in conflict with ourselves. The truly and completely integrated and consistent person is a figment of our imagination. But even if it can't secure us certainty about how the future will go, I think this kind of reflection is the most promising and prudent way forward.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Working Environments

I enjoyed my walk into work even more than usual this morning. The weather wasn't particularly nice but something about the stately UVA grounds made me feel particularly academic--like I was in a place where important and interesting stuff is happening. This feeling isn't all that unusual for me. Walking The Lawn is an impressive experience and I feel lucky to be able to do it most every day. (Incidentally, I had a similar privilege at UW-Madison when I lived in the dorms and could walk along Lake Mendota or over Bascom Hill to class.)

I think there is something important about the environments in which we work. Architecture and ambiance go a long way toward putting us in the right frame of mind to do what we have to do. Cookie-cutter buildings filled with cubicles are just bad places to read Plato or to think about the problem of personal identity. Much better to be in a place where extensive attention has been paid to creating an explicitly academic community. On the other hand, if you are aiming for a different kind of work, then perhaps a more industrial feeling place will be exactly what you want. Maybe it's better for number crunchers to labor under the hum of harsh fluorescent lighting.

Something similar probably applies to the ways we dress. On my long days in the office, I try to dress a bit nicer than usual. It's a way of putting myself in a frame of mind to take what I am doing seriously. It's also why there is something to be said for a certain kind of "academic uniform" for teachers and professors. Dressing for the occasion helps us embody the role we are playing more fully since, rightly or wrongly, students are going to take what we say more seriously if we are wearing a sport coat than if we are wearing a hooded sweatshirt. My guess is that we will probably be taking ourselves more seriously as well.

This isn't to suggest that there are any absolute standards about these things. What constitutes "nicely dressed" changes over time and just because someone is wearing a suit doesn't mean that he's nicely dressed. (Trust me. There are plenty of professors around here to prove that point.) But maybe it does mean that it's okay to think intentionally about these matters and that the process of crafting a public persona isn't necessarily extraneous to our vocational goals.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Music Therapy

I apologize in advance for the self-indulgent tone of this post but I'm feeling a bit surly today. Maybe it's the fact that I spent much of the day today working on another round of job applications while two other colleagues (for whom I am genuinely happy) recently accepted desirable positions. Or maybe it's the fact that my perfect sweet little daughter has to deal with physical therapy because (for whatever reason) her gross motor skills just aren't progressing the way they should. Or maybe it's just because there are so many bloviating idiots in the world who say such ridiculously stupid, self-serving, and ill-considered things--all under the guise of caring about justice and the common good.

On days like this, I sometimes wonder where I'd be without music. I suspect that people who are prone to internalization and excessive reflection have difficulty knowing what to do with their surliness. We don't like talking about our feelings, perhaps because we don't really know how to identify them or even how to talk about them. And I suspect that this is even more the case with men who, as I have been convinced by this book (which should be required reading for all parents of boys), aren't equipped with the necessary emotional vocabulary to be able to do the requisite purging. So we either internalize further and further--which makes us miserable and more surly--or we act out in unhealthy ways, hurting others we don't intend to hurt.

But what I've found is that one days like today, music often provides the vocabulary that I can't articulate for myself. I feel markedly better after listening to just the right song--and not happy songs that are designed to inspire and uplift. I'm talking about angry surly songs that express that anger and surliness through the music in a way that mere words cannot (or at least which I am incapable of expressing through mere words). Today, listening through a live version of Dave Matthews Band's "Don't Drink the Water," Linkin Park's "Hands Held High," and some old-school Pearl Jam seems to be just the therapy I need. Surly songs to express my surliness and I feel much better.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Campaign Annoyances

A couple strands of campaign rhetoric have been bugging me as of late. (Of course, more than a couple have been bugging me but a couple have been bugging me in particular.)

The first is all of the credit/blame that the various campaigns seem to get for the performance of their respective candidates. If a candidate performs well (or poorly), much of the talk turns to campaign strategy and what could have been done differently to secure a better result.

The problem with all of this is that it leaves out the fact that the voters decide who wins and who loses these things. It isn't like sports where if you play better than your opponent, you win the contest. You might do everything right in a political campaign and still lose because, to put it bluntly, the voters just don't like you (or, gasp, might not think you'd be a very good president). So Rudy gets creamed in Florida (which, let's face it, was a stupid strategy) and much of the discussion is about what he could have done differently to secure the nomination. The right answer to that, it seems to me, is "be a different person." At the end of the day, people just didn't buy him as president, or at least thought there were vastly preferable options out there. I wish the pundits (and candidates) would give us some credit and recognize that substance, rather than strategy, is a pretty important political commodity.

My second complaint is related. I expect some pity for Hillary in the coming days that will run along the following lines: She deserves to be president. She's put in her time. She's smart as hell. She endured humiliation from Bill with admirable dignity. Now she's missed her shot--what she's worked for her entire life.

The problem here is that no one deserves to be president and if being president is what you've worked your whole life to become, you better be prepared to be disappointed. All of the comments may be true. But if you have the misfortune to make your presidential run at the same time as Barack Obama, then it doesn't matter how qualified you are. It's just not your time. (And by the way, after listening to him speak last night in Texas, I really don't see any way he doesn't win in November. Unless some big scandal breaks--and I mean that it comes to light that he tortures poodles for fun and sells human livers on the black market and gets $1 million a year from big tobacco--it may even be a landslide.)

Another sports analogy seems appropriate here. If Phil Mickelson had been born at a different time, he may have been the best golfer of his generation. He just had the misfortune to come along in the Tiger Woods era. On a certain level, that may stink for Phil. But that's the game these guys get into. There are no guarantees in sports or politics and if you can't handle that, you should probably do something else.

Let's all promise not to feel too bad for Hillary.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Book Notes: "The Summing Up" (no. 1)

One of the things I'd like to do in the resurrected version of this blog is use this space to register some thoughts about the various books that I'm reading. The hope is that formalizing my reactions will help me to retain more of what I read. Plus, having a searchable repository of such writing might allow me to draw on it for more formal projects down the road. What I have in mind are not full-length reviews of the books but rather a space to air reactions and thoughts that are inspired by what I'm reading. In any case . . .

I'm working my way through W. Somerset Maugham's The Summing Up, a quasi-memoir that deals less with the the ins and outs of his life and concentrates much more on the craft of writing and his growth and development as a writer. I find, thus far, that much of what he says resonates with my own take on what constitutes good writing (as well as how to achieve it). But thus far, he has said one thing that doesn't sit quite as well. When discussing what he takes to be the chief causes of unclarity in writing, he says:

Another cause of obscurity is that the writer himself is not quite sure of his meaning. He has a vague impression of what he wants to say, but has not, either from lack of mental power or from laziness, exactly formulated it in his mind, and it is natural enough that he should not find a precise expression for a confused idea. This is due largely to the fact that many writers think, not before, but as they write. The pen originates the thought. The disadvantage of this, and indeed it is a danger against which the author must always be on his guard, is that there is a sort of magic in the written word. The idea acquires substance by taking on a visible nature, and then stands in the way of its own clarification. But this sort of obscurity merges very easily into the willful (p. 24).

Now I know precisely the kind of thing Maugham has in mind since it is prevalent in undergraduate philosophy papers (as well as much "postmodern theology", literary theory, and, to be fair, a good deal of academic writing in general). The idea seems to be that just because words are formulated into things that look like sentences, and can therefore be recited aloud in something resembling a language, a cogent thought must be present--indeed, a thought worth pondering and mulling over. And if one has trouble determining exactly what a giving string of words means, then the problem is assumed to lie with the reader--perhaps the thought is just too deep for simple minds to comprehend.

I take it that this is what Maugham means when he talks about the "magic" that some take to reside in the written word. Even the most muddled of thoughts seem to take on a life of their own when they are put down on paper. One can take on scores of acolytes simply in virtue of having written something. Fair enough. Point taken and heartily agreed with.

But there is another sense in which I think the written word does have a kind of magical quality--a quality that makes it almost impossible to think clearly without the possibility of writing. There is something about straining to put one's thoughts in written form and then seeing them mirrored back to oneself that begins a progression towards deeper and clearer thought. I do not know how many times I have had experiences of the following sort:

1. I thought I knew what I wanted to say but in the process of writing, realized I didn't.
2. I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to say but in the process of writing, discovered the thoughts for which I had been searching.
3. I wasn't sure what I wanted to say and the process of writing helped me realize that there was still something rolling around in my head but I hadn't quite gotten it yet.

I think that the mistake is in thinking that writing is always a final product. If one treats it that way, and therefore thinks that just because one puts words on paper, one is done with the process, then one is likely to end up with incomprehensible muddle. But when certain acts of writing are viewed as integral to the process of thinking, then the written word does take on a kind of magic.

If this is right, then it means that we have to think differently about different kinds of writing. I would not always want to commit myself fully to things I say in this blog, for example. Posts here are, quite often, writings at the earlier stages of thought. On the other hand, when I send off a paper to be published in a journal, then ideally, the process should be further along.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Google's Hegemony

I realized today that my life is becoming increasingly bound up with all things Google. I use Gmail (and have for some time); this blog is hosted by Google; my personal web page is hosted by Google; and today I activated a Google Calendar account as an experiment in organization. I'm not sure how much I will use it. But it seems like it could be a useful program for me.

Now I like all of these products. Gmail is fantastic: it does a great job filtering spam; I love the interface; the use of labels rather than folders is ingenious; and I love being able run a quick search to locate old e-mails. The personal web page site allowed me to make a professional looking website easily and quickly (while knowing next to nothing about the technology/programming aspect of things). And Blogger is, on the whole, a clean and easy program to use as well. Once they get comment spam under control--and perhaps offer a wider range of templates and design options--it will be even better.

The question I have is whether I should be at all wary of putting all these eggs in the Google basket, particularly given the fact that it is all information that is stored somewhere besides my home computer. Basic privacy concerns are, of course, one issue and there is the question of what might happen in the event of a catastrophic infrastructure meltdown. But are there other problems posed by organizing so much of my life around one entity? Maybe not, given the apparent strength of the company. But something about it makes me a feel a bit uneasy--like I need to diversify as a way of covering my tail.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Righteous Indignation is Tired

This kind of incident is getting old. Someone makes an off-the-cuff comment in slightly poor taste and the offended party (a) takes the most uncharitable interpretation of the comment possible, (b) acts like the sole intent of the remark was to assassinate their character, (c) flails about as though their holiness has been forever tarnished and (d) makes sure that they attract as much sympathy and attention to themselves as they possibly can.

Could David Shuster have chosen his words more carefully? Probably. "Pimped out" is a bit too slangy and he should have known that using such a phrase would likely ruffle some feathers. But come on. He was, as I see it, asking a perfectly legitimate question about how the Clinton campaign was using Chelsea.

Here's a straightforward translation of what he was trying to ask: "Does it seem a bit strange to you that the Clinton campaign is using someone of Chelsea's caliber to make these groveling kind of phone calls to super-delegates?" In this context, "pimped out" just refers to the relatively base act that she was being put forward to do--to my mind, a perfectly good figurative description. He most certainly was not calling Chelsea a prostitute and any insinuation that he was is offensive. Maybe not as offensive as Romney's blatant pandering at CPAC yesterday; but pretty offensive.

The Clinton reaction is like those Euro soccer players to get touched and flop around on the ground like they are having seizures just to see if they can get a penalty called. And if the Clinton campaign is offended that I'm calling them Eurotrash soccer players, they are going to have to deal with it.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Does Osama bin-Laden Need a Publicist?

I couldn't resist linking to this amazing headline from the USA Today. Apparently the move is to a kindler, gentler al-Quaeda?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Amnesties Aren't All Created Equal

"Amnesty" seems to be the big buzz word surrounding the immigration debate. No one wants to be accused of endorsing amnesty for illegal immigrants and politicians go through ridiculous verbal contortions in an effort to show that their proposals do not amount such an endorsement.

I take the motivation behind these efforts to be a desire to avoid the appearance of condoning illegal behavior. If we allow those who are in the country illegally to stay, and perhaps even become citizens, then we are in effect saying that what they did wasn't really wrong. Without sanctions, we're letting criminals get off easy and no one wants to admit to letting criminals get off easy.

(There are, of course, other issues involved in this debate. National security and more than a little xenophobia would seem to top the list. But if those were the only concerns driving the discussion, it isn't clear why there would be such an emphasis on amnesty. That specific focus thus seems to have a unique source and I'm positing that it is the worry that we are condoning things we shouldn't be condoning. I'm open to other suggestions.)

But at the risk of being trite, there's amnesty and then there's amnesty. We all acknowledge a distinction between actions that would be morally wrong even if they were not illegal and actions that are morally wrong (if they are) only because they are illegal. Murder is the clearest example of the former while underage drinking would probably be a good example of the latter. Our moral understanding of murder is not at all affected by our legal statutes. Rather, the statutes are a reflection of our understanding of the evil of murder. On the other hand, when a 19 year-old German drinks a beer in his home country, most of us probably aren't morally outraged.

Now amnesty for a murderer would certainly be something to be wary of since it could amount to excusing an act of profound evil. But while amnesty for an underage drinker may sometimes be unwise or imprudent, it can never amount to an excuse of the same kind of evil as amnesty for murderers. If it is immoral, it is only so because it violates laws we've chosen to enact.

The question is whether amnesty for illegal immigrants is more like amnesty for murder or amnesty for underage drinking--not necessarily in terms of their importance as matters of public policy but in terms of where we think that importance comes from: the laws we make to serve the prudential interests of the nation or the intrinsic wrongness of the action. Once this distinction is brought into view, maybe the prospect of amnesty for illegal immigrants won't be treated as such a morally troubling prospect.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Super Tuesday Endorsements: Obama and McCain

Emending My Mind endorses Barack Obama and John McCain in the presidential primaries.

Let me preface my remarks by noting my belief that any of the four remaining candidates would make good presidents, all markedly better than the current holder of that office. Hillary Clinton has an impressive mastery of policy issues and a political toughness that is a necessary condition for success in the White House. Some of her views and actions might warrant criticism. But the vitriolic hatred of her in some quarters is, I think, completely misplaced and unfounded (on which, see here). If elected, she would govern well and with the best interests of the country firmly in mind.

While Romney panders a bit too much to satisfy the Republican base--and would be the most likely of the remaining candidates to continue the policies of the current administration--he has a demonstrated competence as an executive. This gives me some measure of confidence that his decisions would be well thought out and that his governing style, if somewhat managerial, could be effective. Moreover, I think his claim that a Washington outsider might make some progress in fixing Washington has merit. The view doesn't seem to have panned out for Bush 43 but it arguably did for Clinton 42.

Despite these strengths, the alternatives in each party more fully merit our support. From my perspective, three main issues are paramount in this election: (1) restoring the image and credibility of America abroad, (2) getting our nation's finances in order, and (3) navigating a course for the nation that isn't held hostage to narrow partisan interests. On all three of these criteria, Obama and McCain score better than their rivals.

Obama has the unparalleled rhetorical ability to inspire the country toward a more non-partisan course and I think his willingness to talk to our enemies is an important step toward re-securing American credibility. Moreover, as James Fallows recently pointed out, we should not underestimate the effect on other nations of having a dark skinned president. People in Africa and Asia may very well be more receptive to a foreign leader who (perhaps somewhat surprisingly, to them) looks "like that" than they might be to a tough-talking white Texan. I suspect that of all the candidates, he would be the best spokesperson for the United States. Obama's ability to clean America's financial house remains to be seen but his discussion of removing tax cuts for the highest income brackets at least indicates an awareness that the status quo is completely unacceptable.

Few politicians have shown more clearly than John McCain that they are not afraid to break away from their party when they believe it is right to do so and few politicians have railed as consistently as McCain against the wasteful spending habits of Congress. With the power of a presidential veto, one hopes that he would be able to trim some significant fat off our nation's budget and move us toward a more secure financial footing. One admittedly wonders about how McCain would be in his capacity as an ambassador to the world. His hawkish tendencies could certainly be off-putting. Nevertheless, I think he has a concern for America's role in the world and, as may be indicated by his proposals regarding immigration, does not want that role to be adversarial unless it has to be.

Don't mistake my emphases. Policy agendas do matter and neither candidate should be allowed to slide by with a lack of specificity on how they propose to handle various issues: immigration, taxes, the war in Iraq, health care, judges, etc. However, we elect people to be president, not position papers. The kinds of people we are electing--their characteristic mode of engaging with other, of approaching issues and solving problems--is at least as important as their legislative agendas, if not more so. To be sure, a choice between Obama and McCain would be a choice between two very different men. But in facing that choice, the country would have to choose between two quality individuals who could make fine presidents. Exactly how fine is up to them.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Talk Radio and the Right

Talk radio has its panties in a bunch about the possibility of a McCain nomination. There is a lot that is interesting about this. But two things strike me as particularly significant.

First, a McCain victory could put to rest the notion, trumpeted loud and often, that conservative talk radio "best represents the views of mainstream Americans." If card carrying Republicans--to say nothing of Independents or conservative Democrats--go out and vote for McCain in spite of the hand wringing of Limbaugh, Hannity, et. al., then I suspect they won't be able to make that claim with any credibility any more. All the evidence will be that they represent a minority/fringe point of view. (Of course, taken by itself, that doesn't mean they're wrong. It just means that they can't make the case for their views in the way that they want.)

Second, this phenomenon raises interesting questions about how much influence talk radio has. Apparently, just because millions of people listen to Rush, doesn't mean they are taking their cues about what to believe from him. On the other hand, if the race swings toward Romney in the next few weeks, maybe they really are able to persuade their audiences about what to do.

Tiger Watch

Somewhat lost in the midst of Super Bowl madness is the fact that Tiger won his second tournament of the year yesterday in Dubai. All it took was five birdies over his last seven holes--including the last two. Tiger says he thinks his game is finally getting there. Hmmm. I think he's probably right.

At this rate, he's going to rack up nine or ten victories in 2008 and I wouldn't be at all surprised if he does.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Long Elections

In general, I'm of the mind that the election process in the U.S., particularly when it comes to presidential elections, is way too long. Whoever ends up winning in November will, in effect, have been running for a year and a half. That means that the news coverage, speculation, analysis, polling, etc., have all been going on for longer than that. Given the fact that all these people have other jobs, is this really the best way for them to be spending their time? Shouldn't they be worried about being senators, congresspeople, and governors (or even hedge fund managers or security firm owners)? And don't even mention the copious amounts of money all this takes.

I still think the election cycle is probably too long (and definitely way too expensive). But I'm coming around to the view that there is an important value in longer election cycles.

Presidential elections are when we have our most vigorous, lively, and substantive, public debates. Most of the time, political debate is confined to the halls of congress, talk radio (if that even constitutes debate), and the occasional water cooler and dinner party conversation (depending on where one works and who one invites over for dinner).

But when we are trying to elect a president, issues of political philosophy and public policy get pushed out into the open and dominate more of our time and attention. They drive the debates between the candidates and, in turn, drive much of the debate among the public as we try to determine how best to vote. Sure, there's often a lot of noise that has to be filtered in order to get to the substance and plenty of us have already made up our minds before the whole thing even gets going. But if the primary results thus far are any indication, there are plenty of us who haven't. And for us, a lengthier election cycle is a unique opportunity to reflect with others on core issues of justice.

Let me put it another way. If the value of elections was determined solely by the degree to which they helped us pick our leaders, then I think there would be a presumption in favor of much shorter election cycles. We really don't need a year and a half to decide how we are going to vote. But if I'm right, the value of elections isn't reducible to this. There is an important value in carrying on an extended national conversation about where we want the country to go and how we can best achieve those goals. Of course, this conversation culminates in the selection of a president. But the value of the process can't be reduced to the value of the choice that it leads to.

Incidentally, this gives credence to the view that there is a value in certain presidential bids that are sure to fail--i.e., the Dennis Kuciniches and Ron Pauls of the world. If their campaigns were valuable only insofar as they had a legitimate chance to be elected, then they are clearly wasting their time, energy, and money. But if they are able to shape and contribute to the broader discourse, then perhaps their efforts are worthy after all.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Gearing Up Again?

It's been forever since I last thought about blogging. While I was in the thickest part of dissertation writing, I had no spare words to devote to something like this. If I had something to say, it damn well better be about something relevant to my dissertation. And if it was relevant to my dissertation, then I should be writing it as part of my dissertation, not something relatively frivolous and self-indulgent, like a blog. But as of late, I've been feeling the urge to air a few thoughts--maybe it's hearing a good friend of mine airing out more than his share--and this seems exactly the forum in which to do it. So we'll see what happens (and if anyone notices).