Friday, April 29, 2005

So Bad, It Might Be Good

Prime-time White House press conference? That's never a sign that things are going smoothly on Pennsylvania Ave. Karl Rove must have been desperate to get those pictures of Dubya and Prince Abdullah holding hands off the airwaves. I watched a little of last night's tableau. I'm sure Bush hates doing a press conference, but I can't objectively assess whether he's had a good performance and achieved his aims with the thing, or not. Most people obviously don't see what I see: a guy getting inappropriately pissed off, at a bunch of people just doing their jobs, whom he (Bush) invited there to ask him questions in the first place. Maybe the conference did him some good, I sure can't tell.

GW Bush, Donald Rumsfeld ("Are we getting our ass kicked in Iraq? You bet."), Tom Delay, Bill Frist, Das Ahnuld, John Bolton, and more of my least favorite people, have all had a bad week, and that's good. Too good to believe, and so I won't believe it yet, not until Social Security is safe and the danger of a troglodyte getting lifetime tenure on the Supreme Court is past.

Being more of a rhetoric kind of a guy than a policy kind of a guy, in the flurry of bad news for the Pubbies I've been particularly transfixed by the Beltway sleight of hand by which the GOP has tried to redefine the term "nuclear option" as a threat from the Democrats. This is even more brazen than the White House's efforts to strongarm the media into calling them Social Security "personal accounts," rather than "privatization," the commonly accepted term of long standing.

Reality is, Trent Lott coined the term "nuclear option" for the threat of the GOP's eliminating the Senate filibuster on judicial nominations, and it's been perfectly well understood as the biggest mashie in the Republicans' golf bag. But Frank Luntz must be giving them an earful how the n-phrase is killing them in the polls.

As an aside, you think the Goopers do a collective headslap thinking of the Trent Lott debacle of two years ago? That Strom Thurmond birthday toast was a killer, less for the stain of racism it put on the GOP (eh, what's one more) than for the elevation of featherweight Bill Frist to the post of Senate Majority Leader. Say what you will about Lott, he would not paint himself into a corner the way Dr. Frist consistently does.

I don't see how a meat-eating Republican can go along with this namby-pamby stuff, these word games. How can they strut around Capitol Hill like committee room tough guys, then turn into wussies when they encounter the soccer moms? Embrace your inner bully, wingers. Besides, I thought the GOP was the party of national strength. They're real comfortable talking about the actual nuclear option, yet they get all squeamish about the parliamentary one? What, have they turned into Jackson Browne all of a sudden?

Most of all, I guess I hate being instructed in proper vocabulary by Dubya and his ilk. Listen, Mr. Preznit, don't tell me how to operate the English language, and I won't tell you how to fuck up the country.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Geeks A-Poppin'

Latest book is The Numbers Game by Alan Schwarz, about baseball statistics. It's for people who found Moneyball to be not geeky enough. Schwarz does a decent job, but this is pretty arcane stuff: the evolution of the newspaper box score, etc. I never knew of this book's existence until last week--if it had been out in 2003 when I wrote about fantasy baseball for The High Hat, I'd feel embarrassed for not addressing it, but it didn't come out until 2004.

Sabermetrics has been largely driven by devoted volunteers for a long time, and as with so many geek subcultures, when the first move was made to turn a buck on it (the formation of STATS Inc. in the mid-80s) there were bitter feelings of betrayal, some of them somewhat justified. Baseball stats actually offer an interesting lesson in proprietary versus open-source business models. The Elias Sports Bureau dominated the field of compiling sports statistics for many years (for pro football and basketball as well as baseball), but Elias hoarded its data. It assumed it only had a few dozen possible clients, and had to charge each one $1000's. STATS proved there was a market of average fans who wanted baseball data broken down a zillion different ways--1000s of customers at $20 each. Both companies were successful on their own terms, but STATS puts out a much better product because it invites mass scrutiny and mass input.

The level of fixation on numbers by some baseball fans can only be called a fetish. For example, Hack Wilson (Cubs, 1930) holds the single-season record for runs batted in. Generations of fans knew the magic number to be 190, and there was amazing resistance to the finding that Mr. Wilson had been shortchanged: he actually batted in 191 runs that year. First of all, you'd think people would favor accuracy, and second, for those who favor heroic achievement, the revision was in Wilson's favor. But people howled.

I'm on a bit of a sports-book jag lately. I did get hold of Michael MacCambridge's new one about the NFL. I'll probably get to it before I get to Karen Armstrong.

Fish Wars

I heard a talk Friday by Kenneth R. Miller, a noted biologist at Brown University. He is co-author of a widely-used high school science textbook. In fact, his is the book that the Cobb County, GA school board slapped with a warning label: Caution: Contains Darwinism. Avoid Contact with Brain. Flush with Scripture Immediately if Exposure Occurs.

Miller is a point man for the pro-Darwin forces, testifying in court and participating in public debate in Kansas and Cobb County and other flashpoints in the struggle. He has written a book titled Finding Darwin's God, and he outlines the conflict between science and fundamentalism, and the way he resolves it, with authority and impressive clarity. There is nothing weak or shaky about evolutionary theory that makes it more vulnerable to attack than physiology or organic chemistry or any other aspect of natural science. It is purely a matter of the cultural implications Darwin has for some conservatives. How to respond? Develop a proper understanding of science. Answer the scientific objections calmly and respectfully. And fight the presumption that evolution is anti-religious.

Miller is an engaging speaker and peppered his lecture with a number of funny asides. For instance, in 1999, the Kansas State School Board didn't stop at removing evolution from schoolbooks, it removed or rewrote much scientific consensus, including the fossil record and much geologic theory. The latter deletion was protested by the Kansas petroleum lobby: "for God's sake, that's how we find oil." If I were Miller and a coast-to-coast network of nitwits and charlatans was harassing me and slandering my life's work, I wouldn't have nearly the amount of good humor and equanimity that he has. In his good-humored way, though, he demolished the arguments of the intelligent design crowd (he called intelligent design a brilliant PR maneuver, but not much more than that).

But he also cited some overreaching statements by scientists. The assertion that science alone can lead us to truth is a philosophical one, not scientific in nature. Unlike some of his religious opponents, Miller has read the Book of Genesis closely, and he finds room there for a Darwinian view ("Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures... Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds..."). Remarkably, I learned today, St. Augustine in AD 411 wrote "On The Literal Meaning of Genesis," in which he implored fellow Christians not to talk nonsense about science; it embarrasses the church. Augustine encourages the study of nature, and part of his intellectual legacy is that the father of genetics, Gregor Mendel, was an Augustinian monk.

Good stuff all around.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The So-What Question

Nothing like a game of moral values ping-pong between the centerish and leftish factions of the Democratic Party. It doesn't make us look silly at all.

I've read Amy Sullivan quite a bit, and I have some affinity for her basic position: bringing a religious sensibility to progressive politics. But her recent project has been to carve out a niche in the DC pundit empire by parodying herself, and honing a schtick: making the Democrats palatable to her Baptist granny back home in the Midwest. It's tiresome. Others have jumped on Sullivan plenty for fudging on the principle of reproductive choice, so I won't pile on. But I'm confused by her anti-Hollywood tirade. Is the objective here to take a principled stand against obscene or otherwise harmful content, or is it to score points a la Sister Souljah at the expense of Susan Sarandon? Because Susan Sarandon is hot, and America needs her to be a little more obscene, not less. Fewer mother roles, more groupie roles. What was my point again?

I wrote up some stuff about my wife's and my efforts to regulate our kids' TV and movie consumption, but I felt like an ass after reading it. I'm definitely open to charges of being lazy or hypocritical. I'm bothered by some of what my kids watch on TV, but not always bothered enough to be the bad guy and turn the thing off. And it IS a parent's responsibility, if it's anybody's, to be the gatekeeper for his or her kids. So I have no room to bitch. And a lot of people are in my boat. As I was reminded recently, when the Southern Baptists tried to rally their members to boycott Walt Disney, because Disney offered employee benefits for gay partners--that was biting off more than the SB's could chew. Sorry, preacher, but I can't deny my kids their theme park vacation and their Mulan 2 video.

The Democrats do need to find a narrative that lifts up family life and critiques pop culture. Why do we coddle our kids? Why do we feed junk to both their brains and their bodies? Why do we settle for a vapid popular culture? How can we get more time and security and public space to enrich our family life? Perhaps these questions could acknowledge parents' concerns and rally them to act. But flattering hypocrites and congratulating them for their hypocrisy--that's pandering.

Pop culture is the slippery slope to hell? As the title of this Digby post says: Prove it. What's the cause and effect here that we should be worried about? "Friends" contains dirty jokes. Teenage girls wear hip-hugger pants. Young black men play their car stereos loud. So what? Where do any of these observations get us, beyond the fact that something makes you uncomfortable? We need to go a step further.

Monday, April 11, 2005


Slate's Sports Nut pieces are either quite wrongheaded or quite good. I liked this one, about the physical limits on how fast a pitcher's fastball can be. (Summary: Pitchers are pretty close to the limit, probably have been since at least the days of Bob Feller in the late 1930s.)

The interesting thing about being a basketball fan in my lifetime (and a little before) is that we could see the sport evolve before our eyes. Bill Russell, Julius Erving, Michael Jordan--each of them represented a quantum leap forward in the basic physical toolkit of top players. Basketball's heyday in terms of its maturation and rapid change was about 1955 to 1995. The comparable period for baseball ended about 1920 with the Babe Ruth revolution. Not that there's been no change since then, but the envelope hasn't been enlarged very much.

As of today I am hatefully jealous of Noam Scheiber, who gets to write political analysis for The New Republic, and moonlight as a baseball writer.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Roundball Roundup; or, Basketball Blather

I posted last summer about Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, basketball coach and leadership studies guru. Time for an update: Separate from the fate of his team, Coach K has been getting some attention recently (not all of it positive) for showing up in a bunch of television commercials. One spot is for the American Express card, and Coach portrays himself as "a leader who happens to coach basketball"--much more than a guy with a whistle and a chalkboard, but rather someone imparting life skills to his young charges.

Today I stumbled across this Wall Street Journal profile of Krzyzewski. It's a puff piece for his leadership institute, and more generally for the relevance of team sports (basketball perhaps most of all) to leading in a business or other grown-up context.

The article alludes to the fact that college ball is more and more being raided of its best players by the pros, and college coaches have to do a lot of ego-stroking. The WSJ attributes the trend to the celebrity status of the players. But they don't mention the way the NCAA takes advantage of these kids. One thing I notice in the American Express ads is how Krzyzewski's face and even that of his assistant coaches can be shown, but no player can be identified (we glimpse a headless torso in a white-and-blue jersey). Coach K can pocket a fee, Duke U. can enjoy some incidental advertising, but the players remain faceless and uncompensated--the NCAA makes sure of it.

Celebrity status of the players? Somebody inform CBS. Personally I don't tune in a game in order to watch Bobby Knight or Krzyzewski in action, but to hear the college hoops media oftentimes, you'd think it's all about the coaches. But I have to admit, in the college basketball industry, the CEO is all-important, much more so than in most industries. The University of North Carolina won the Big Dance the other night, you may have heard, and the major story line was coach Roy Williams's success in keeping his core of talent (a) enrolled at Carolina and (b) pulling together. Roy didn't dazzle with X's and O's, and he didn't seem to inspire his boys to tap some previously unknown hidden strength. But he got them to raise their defensive effort just enough, and take turns in the offensive spotlight. (Sean May was a rock-solid contributor every game, and then one other guy, a different guy each time, would shine: McCants one day, maybe Felton or one of the Williamses the next.) He got them to keep their mouths shut in public and compromise their egos for the sake of the team enterprise. Each player did what we knew he was capable of, and didn't get in the way of the next guy. That's a mighty bland way of speaking about a championship team (Illinois, the runners-up, had a lot more style and synergy to their game). But what Roy Williams did this year was a pretty fair example of postmodern leadership in action.

Rashad McCants, after sitting on the bench the last few minutes of the title game because he couldn't guard anybody--McCants didn't even seem particularly happy after the buzzer sounded and the Tar Heels had won. He didn't quite seem part of the celebration. He seemed relieved. These Chapel Hill lunatics had gotten what they wanted, he hadn't screwed it up, and now he was free to move on and get the star treatment somewhere else that Carolina had withheld from him. He informed a reporter of his intent to turn pro and skip his final year at UNC before he had left the arena Monday night. Not that anyone is surprised, not that anyone necessarily blames him (his mother is ill, so the family probably needs the NBA money), but it would have shown class if he could have sat on his announcement for a week or two and not distracted from the team's celebration. McCants is a hell of a scorer, and Carolina couldn't have won without him, but he's an incomplete player and was sort of a live grenade all year--he couldn't wait to release the stress of having to behave. It'll be interesting to see if he can get his act together in the future.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Bioethics for Dummies

My March 30 post notwithstanding, I've become interested enough in the Schiavo controversy that I dragged myself over to a brown bag lunch hour discussion of the case on Monday. It was sponsored by Duke University's Institute on Care at the End of Life.

The discussion didn't touch much on the political and media aspects of the Schiavo phenomenon. The speakers were pretty circumspect, and to me were partly taking an opportunity to give their standard rap on palliative care at a time when public interest in their field is high. They discussed the importance of a living will or advance directive, AND of discussing your wishes with loved ones (there is potential for court challenges even with the existence of a document), AND of being careful when you assign power of attorney (a spouse or other loved one may be too overwrought to carry out your wishes effectively).

The lead speaker at the meeting, Dr. Payne (don't bother, he's heard them all), happens to be a neurologist as well as a theologian, and so could comment substantively on Ms. Schiavo's condition. He had grabbed Ms. Schiavo's CAT scan off the Internet (it's widely circulated due to all the legal and media wrangling) and used it in his PowerPoint file. Dr. Payne did hedge, saying he couldn't diagnose someone he hadn't examined. But the scan seemed to illustrate his definition of a persistent vegetative state, where the brain stem is intact but the cortex has died. The strongest statement of opinion Dr. Payne made was one of condemnation of Senator-Doctor Bill Frist, who contradicted Ms. Schiavo's doctors based on his viewing of a brief video clip of her.

One aspect of Ms. Schiavo's case that I didn't know was that she was bulimic, and purging may have led to the cardiac arrest that caused her brain injury. The folks at the meeting ruminated on the idea that feeding Terri was a desperate mission for her parents. Significantly, though, in light of the emotional pleas of the Save Terri crowd not to "starve her to death," Dr. Payne commented that his experience even with dying patients who are conscious, is that they don't ask for food or water, beyond what they need not to have a dry mouth.

In my job I get some wonderful opportunities to attend lectures and discussions. This one was not among the best ones. Most of these are not directly applicable to my job duties--I owe big thanks to my supervisors who give me a lot of latitude to "raise my awareness" of issues I may never have to do or say anything about. The least I ought to do with these experiences is blog about them, I figure. I plan to do some make-up posts about other talks I've heard in the past few months.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

All Hat, All The Time

Check out the long-awaited new issue of The High Hat webzine here.

My list of links needs sprucing up. I promise to get around to that within a few days. In the meantime, a recommendation: For a steady diet of bite-size morsels from the High Hat elves, check out If you stumbled into this place, you ought to stumble over there.

Spring has finally sprung in the last few days here in piedmont North Carolina. It had been cool and dreary for weeks (it was actually a little rough coming back from Florida to this weather), but then Sunday was a nice warm day for working in the yard. Then back to work on Monday and suddenly Pow! Dogwoods!

I really would like a haircut like the one Ron Eldard is sporting on this new show Blind Justice. What are the odds, though, of a blind guy having a haircut that good?