Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Doing the Right Thing - W Edition

It's not every day - or week for that matter - that our President does the right thing. By commuting Scooter Libby's prison yesterday, however, Bush absolutely did. The administration's political opponents simply wanted revenge for what was seen as political retaliation in the case of the supposed "outing" of Joe Wilson's CIA-operative wife Valerie Plame. By denying them this catharsis, he might have stirred up more enmity, but he spared an innocent man prison - and that was the right thing to do.

While the Plame secret was among the worst kept secrets in Washington, Bush's angriest opponents smelled blood in the water and decided to attack. Their hope was that either Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, or the President ordered the disclosure of Plame's identity to the press. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Armitage - no partisan unfortunately - admitted to having dropped the name in an innocuous context and immediately made his superiors aware. Once the Armitage "confession" was revealed - with no connection to Bush or Cheney - the special prosecutor's inquest should have ended immediately. Of course it didn't and the special prosecutor explored a much-inflated obstruction charge against Libby, obtaining a conviction largely on the back of the Plame disclosure.

Libby was basically convicted of a crime he did not commit - the disclosure of Plame's CIA identity. (There has been virtually no call for Armitage's head - he has few political enemies.) Using the power afforded his office, President Bush allowed Scooter Libby to go home. We should all be satisfied that at least one man will not be denied his freedom to sate the hatred of others.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Wordplay in the News

Admitting to the possibility that I am just weird, did anyone find it odd that a week after Don Imus got in trouble for indiscriminate use of the word "ho", that Don Ho died? I mean, if you did a Google search for Don Ho these days, would you possibly get a relevant result?

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

No to a ban, yes to higher cigarette taxes

Lost in the cloud of smoke issuing from the ears of smoking-ban advocates is any discernible target of their ire. What I mean is that the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants seems to be for them and end in itself; the ban is not a way to improve public health or even curb smoking at large, but simply the removal of a minor nuisance in places where they rarely frequent anyway. It's as if they don't want anyone to enjoy themselves in a manner of which they do not approve. They are the new teetotalers whose only way to improve their relative quality of live is to lower that of those around them.

Unfortunately, they dress up their arguments with clothing that looks good, but is ultimately ill-fitting and flimsy. The principal argument is that second-hand smoke is a health hazard on the same order as smoking itself. In a Washington Post article, Gio Batta Gori of the Health Policy Center exposes the science of second-hand smoke as nothing more than a glorified sociological survey whose methodology required senior citizens to recall all their exposure to second-hand smoke over their lifetimes. In a 10-minute phone survey! Those who had lung cancer were more likely to recall second-hand exposure; however, the same group was much more likely to underreport a previous smoking habit. It's bad, bad science, yet it is underpins the best argument for the ban.

Second, we hear today that Tennessee gets a D- from the American Lung Association for its relatively lax policies on smoking. Of course we did - in order to get an A, you have to have bans and high taxes. That's the scorecard. Are the large number of state parks and recreational areas, lack of major pollutants, and a low population density a credit to Tennessee in terms of lung health? Of course it is - but not on the ALA scorecard. The ALA consists of plenty of lawyers whose job is to lobby for ALA policies.

Here's the truth: regular and prolonged cigarette smoking is very bad for your health. But what the tobacco companies and every smoker knows - smoking is frequently enjoyable. So little is still know about our respiratory system that no one - no doctor, lawyer, pundit, critic, or blogger - can quantify what level of first- or second hand exposure causes the long-term damage that we fear. So, we're left with "regular and prolonged" as the behavior we need to change.

And that's why a cigarette tax is the best way to curb all kinds of smoking - it changes the economic equation. Whenever a good is taxed, its price goes up. Basic economics states that the quantity of a good demanded is lessened at higher prices. Higher cigarette prices reduce smoking at all levels - from teenagers to social smokers to those most at risk, addict smokers. Higher prices increase the incentive to quit, which is ultimately the goal to reduce lung cancer incidence.

Good for the governor for proposing a cigarette tax increase. I don't know what I think about earmarking that money for school operations, perhaps an endowment would be better. A reduction in the food tax probably would have been better in my mind, since the government monopoly on education is the source of the school problem rather than lack of money. Still, the tax is a good first step to solve one problem and stir debate on the other.

Friday, January 12, 2007

2006 - A Year in Books - Part 2

The Tipping Point – Malcolm Gladwell

I re-read The Tipping Point because the very best books deserve multiple examinations. New Yorker columnist Malcolm Gladwell is probably my favorite contemporary author, because he is clearly very smart and a splendid writer. The Tipping Point talks about the nature of trends, how they get started, and the people who are central to spreading them. It has deserved its standing at the top of the NYT Best-Seller list for many years now. Definitely read it if you haven’t yet.

The Long Tail – Chris Anderson

This book, by the editor of Wired magazine, also tackles pop culture and trends, but shows that the biggest trend in the Internet age is the explosion of niches, and the money to be made in targeting them. An important business book that had me wanting to start a “long-tail” business by the end of Chapter 2.

Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand

Ah, the biggie. Without a doubt the most complex and thought-provoking novel I’ve read in a long time. Ayn Rand was an unabashed capitalist, and Atlas Shrugged is clearly a charged and layered look at the perils of central planning (or socialism) as a means of governing society. The characterizations are complex even if the mystery aspect of the novel is a little predictable. A cautionary tale indeed, but readers should be cautioned not to read this book while operating machinery. A couple of the speeches run on for dozens of pages and reiterate many of the same ideas presented earlier in the novel. Despite the heavy hand, the themes in the novel ring true today.

The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova

This book is a modern day Dracula tale who's primary strength is its rich descriptions of European locales including Istanbul, Budapest, and the Pyrenees of southern France. Not a vampire tale in the Anne Rice vein by any stretch, The Historian has many merits though I wouldn't recommend it for a wide audience.

The Temeraire Series - Naomi Novik

Three books have been released in this genre-fusing series. The main conceit, introduced in the first book His Majesty's Dragon, is that dragons are real creatures who have lived and served alongside mankind for centuries. In Napoleonic Europe, they comprise the "Air Force" of the English and French armies. It combines dragon fantasy - of which I'm not normally a fan, I swear - and seafaring adventure - ditto. The combo works. I was introduced to the series through the news; Peter Jackson, of The Lord of the Rings fame, has optioned the first novel to be made into a movie. Throne of Jade and Black Powder War continue the nascent trilogy.

Artemis Fowl and the Lost Colony - Eoin Colfer

The Artemis Fowl series has the reputation, in my head, of being something akin to Harry Potter-lite. The stories skew younger than HP, but are no less imaginative or colorful. They feel more like vignettes, and an above-average reader should have any book of the five within three or four hours. Highly recommended.

The Blind Side - Michael Lewis

Lewis is another of my favorite author's, and I'm pretty certain I've read all his stuff. His last book, Moneyball, looked at the intricacies of building a baseball team. In The Blind Side, he explains the evolution of the left tackle position in football through the story of a preternaturally talented young man from Memphis who overcomes unspeakable hardship to become a top college recruit and future NFL star. Lewis has a style that will make you laugh as you learn - I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

State of Fear - Michael Crichton

What Atlas Shrugged is to socialism, State of Fear is to global warming. Only a novel in the traditional sense, every page has footnotes to direct readers to global climate studies that both confirm and contradict the global warming position. Crichton's arguments are compelling, and the reader comes away a healthy skeptic, because there's a lot of data out there.

The Ghost Map - Steven Johnson

Last we heard from Johnson, Everything Bad [was] Good for You. The subtitle of The Ghost Map might as well be Cholera is Bad for You. This book is about the work of two men in Victorian London who combined on a landmark study that proved how cholera was transmitted. The story is told well, and while Johnson may not have Gladwell or Lewis's touch for spinning a tale, the pages went by quickly.

Well, that was it for 2006. Unfortunately, I'm starting off 2007 with a dud, a book called Here, There Be Dragons by James A. Owen. The premise is fabulous - young JRR Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams are charged with the safekeeping of a book mapping all imaginary lands. Problem is, Owen is a really bad writer. The plot skips along but there's no characterization whatsoever - each chapter contains one or two blatant winks to ideas that pop up in LOTR or The Chronicles of Narnia, but there are no substance to them. It's annoying.

Regardless, my Amazon wish list is growing so I'm looking at good stuff to read going forward. I hope you enjoyed the rundown. Let me hear your opinion in the Comments.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

2006 - A Year in Books - Part 1

2006 – A Year in Books

I read a lot this past year, having replaced a lot of late nights out with many early nights in. My recollected count is 26 books, but I easily could have forgotten one or two titles. Most everything that I read I would recommend to an appropriately interested reader. I’ve listed them in the approximate order I read them.

The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis has been, for the last decade or so, my favorite author by a large margin. The funny thing is that I came to love his writing on theology but I had never read his most famous series. With The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe movie out last winter, I finally buckled down and read The Chronicles heptalogy. I am certainly glad I did. Wardrobe is without doubt the allegorical classic, but The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the most enchantingly beautiful and ultimately poignant in the series.

The Undercover Economist – Tim Harford

I like economics because it helps explain the way the world is. Most of the time, the conclusions reached by economics run counter to common sense – and more often than not, the economic explanation is right. This book is a veritable companion to Freakonomics, which remains the gold standard of economic analysis applied to the real world.

Success Through Failure – Henry Petroski

This guy has written some interesting stuff, including a cool little book called Small Things Considered. This is science and engineering reading, and he uses the word “obviate” a lot, which means to make something unnecessary. He talks about how most of our best inventions are improvements on old ideas, where the shortcomings or failures of a previous generation of technology spur invention in the new.

The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown

This was a re-read, having listened to the unabridged version on a cross-country drive in 2004. It’s a pop novel, ultimately full of spurious facts, crazy conclusions, and two-dimensional characters. Of course it’s terrific. Having also read the prequel Angels and Demons, I am definitely glad Brown scaled back the unreal technology and unbelievable situation content in Code. I’ll look forward to the next Robert Langdon novel.

Missing Links – Rick Reilly
Shanks for Nothing – Rick Reilly
Who’s your Caddy? – Rick Reilly

This summer, following a chance listen to sports talk radio featuring SI columnist Rick Reilly, I really got into golf novels of all things, starting with RR’s new one, Shanks for Nothing. I thought it was great, endearingly funny, and the literary heir to sports farce in the grand style of Caddyshack. Then I realized he’d written a first book about the quirky denizens of the Ponkaquogue Golf Course called Missing Links. Fortunately, my boss had access to a treasure trove of golf novels. Many Saturdays and Sundays this summer were spent by the pool, drinking beer, and reading about golf. Who’s Your Caddy? is a non-fiction account of Reilly’s experience caddying for famous golfers and celebs – it’s only good, but worth a borrow.

The Green – Troon McAllister
The Foursome – Troon McAllister

Two more great golf novels by the author Troon McAllister. They center on a memorable character named Eddie Camanetti who is the world’s best golf hustler. My duel love of golf and gambling probably biased me, but more often then not I’d be up late to finish one more chapter. I need to read the next two books in the series this year for sure.

Everything Bad is Good for You – Steven Johnson

Another non-fiction entry, this author’s book got some airtime from his interesting contention that popular culture (TV, movies, video games, etc.) is actually making us collectively smarter. This is because the forms of entertainment we consume have gotten much more complex. Compare a TV show like Perry Mason to CSI, or a Starsky and Hutch to Lost; we’ve gone from linear narratives and a handful of main characters to shows with multiples perspectives and whose casts are legion. Same for video games. As leisure time has grown complex, our minds have had to adapt to them, and it makes us smarter. Of course, it’s good to have a balanced approach – so I still read a lot of books.

Part 2, coming soon...

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Great Quote from Jay Cutler

First part of the quote - I'm not making this up:
I roomed with Tony during the preseason...

Ahh, that's nice. Good friends, Jay and Tony. Second part:
...and he has great hands.

??? I'm not entirely sure that those two things go together.
A tight end like that can stretch the field.

Football terminology is great, n'est'ce pas?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

What should we expect of people?

I like this blog, so I'm going to answer its author's question with a post of my own. I thought about things like this when I was her age (all of five years ago), and I suppose I came to a happy conclusion. The young lady's question:

Would it be better to expect a lot from people and occasionally be disappointed? Or to not expect much and occasionally be pleasantly surprised?

I think we have to expect the most from ourselves, a lot from whom we've chosen to be close, and a very little from everyone else. Our own families we can either choose to be close to them or not, and it very much determines how much we expect from them. For those we chose as friends, we expect a certain level of goodness - including good judgment, camaraderie, and an attentive ear. We demand it, in a sense, because that's why we became friends.

Why do we take it so personally when a friend does something stupid, like date a girl that's clearly wrong for him? It's because it runs contrary to our expectations of who that friend is, and we're disappointed and sad by it. Does that mean that we can't be surprised by our friends? Of course not - we take as a good sign of things to come and hope for a stronger friendship.

To those we don't know or choose not to, we can really make few demands and must act with some distrust. I have no problem distrusting the panhandler - I certainly think that his having so few social bonds on earth as to be a panhandler means that he's betrayed the trust of others more than once. The e-mail spammer is the same way. That sounds very mean, I know, but distance requires distrust in order to survive.

Most importantly, however, we must demand the highest standards in ourselves. To expect anything from another human being is to require, at minimum, our gratitude in return. And as we grow closer to others, the more that will be expected of us by them. It is both the price and the return of social bonds, in which we all must invest to enjoy our lives.