Saturday, October 24, 2009

Peace of Westphalia Day

I'm excited about writing this blog entry because I get to spread the word that today is Peace of Westphalia Day. 361 years ago today, representatives gathered in the town of Münster signed two documents, the Treaty of Onsabrück and the Treaty of Münster, that ended the Thirty Years' War. Not many people celebrate this holiday in the way it deserves, with a full day off from work, lots of decadent food, and reading my books on the subject, but I think that will change once I get the word out and people start to realize what they are missing.

Okay, I might be a little biased on the subject. Hardly anyone knows what the Peace of Westphalia is or even what century it occurred in, which means I probably could have picked a better subject to pour my heart and soul into writing a book about. Heck, hardly anyone knows that October 24th is United Nations Day -- the U.N. charter was signed on this day in 1945 -- so I can hardly expect its predecessor by 300 years to catch on.

Someone recently asked me a good question: what is my favourite personality from the Peace of Westphalia? I had never considered that before. No one knows the negotiators, so my first thought was Blaise Pascal, who was active at the same time. Pascal really is a fascinating figure, but I later realized that I should have said Cardinal Mazarin. Mazarin was the effective head of French government during the Congress of Westphalia while King Louis XIV was still a boy. Not many people know him, although I suspect a lot of people have heard of his predecessor, Cardinal Richelieu, who directed French government during the reign of Louis XIII. There wouldn't be much point in discussing Mazarin's politics, but he is an interesting figure in so many other ways.

For one thing, Mazarin was an Italian (originally Mazarini). Like Catherine de Medici, another Italian at the French court, he helped bring Italian culture to France; for instance, he put on the first opera in France in 1647. He collected art and books lavishly; his enormous book collection, which he bequeathed to the crown, became the foundation for the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Until recently, his Parisian palace also housed most of the collection and the reading room for the library. A number of cultural artefacts carry his name, some of which I can trace to him for sure, others with less certainty. The first brilliant diamond cut is called the Mazarin cut. He is the namesake of the Mazarin desk (or bureau Mazarin). He owned a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed in Europe, which is also known as the Mazarin Bible. A famous piece of Japanese laquerware, the Mazarin Chest, probably derived from his collection. There is a shade of blue called mazarine. I once found a floor pattern named after him, but I can't find a reference to it now. My favourite Mazarin object is the Mazarin cake (or tort). It comes from Sweden, but it is not out of the question that it was named for the cardinal. France did have close relations with Sweden during his rule: Sweden was France's ally and co-signatory of the Peace of Westphalia. It was ruled, by the way, by Queen Christina, who is fascinating in her own right. I have no evidence connecting Mazarin with the cake of the same name, but really, how many people could it have been named after?

If you want to get a fictional view of Mazarin, you can read "Twenty Years' After," which is a sequel to "The Three Musketeers" that takes place during 1648 -- the same year as the Peace of Westphalia. Umberto Eco's book "The Island of the Day Before" also includes Mazarin as a character, although a minor one.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The War on Fox

If you use Firefox, you should definitely get this Halloween theme. It is beautifully well-done, and gets me in the spirit for a holiday that I don't even particularly care much about. I look forward to this time of the year just so I can use this theme for a few weeks. There is also an excellent Christmas theme available.

I should probably be more upset by the White House's attempt to discredit Fox as a news agency, but in fact I find myself just shaking my head. No presidency has attempted to take on an entire news station, and I doubt if any attempted to take on a particular newspaper, either. And for good reason. First, in a country devoted to free speech, it is dangerous for a government institution to try to decide who is and who isn't authorized to deliver the news. Second, it seems unlikely to work, and may very well backfire. Third, it is pointless. News agencies are not sworn to neutrality. We went through a period of history when journalists claimed to deliver just the facts, and in fact they may have tried to do so for some of that time. In times past, however, newspapers were blatantly partisan and were often simply party organs, and the democracy survived. The increasingly wide divide between journalistic opinion and that of the majority of Americans has made the pretense of neutrality into a sham and then a farce. I'm not going to turn this into a debate on whether the "MSM" (mainstream media) are biased, but I will say this: whenever I have seen liberals confronted with objective evidence of media bias, their response is invariably, "Well, of course, that's because the American electorate is skewed so far to the right." You may or may not like the way Americans vote, but when one speaks of journalistic neutrality, one would expect the journalists to be neutral relative to the country that they are covering. American media may be middle-of-the-road by the standards of French or German politics, but that doesn't carry much significance when discussing their role in America.

The thing is, there is nothing wrong with having a point of view. My objection to network news is not that it is biased, but that it pretends to be neutral; my objection to Keith Olbermann and his ilk is that name-calling degrades political discourse. Polite but overtly partisan journals, such as The Nation and National Review, are considered seriously by people in the public sphere, and I presume they get treated with the same respect as Newsweek or other supposedly neutral magazines. They don't get the same privileges, because their audience is much smaller, but they still get treated like journalists.

Obama's attack on Fox (and Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck, and others) is surprising because it seems like such a fruitless venture. If George Bush had attacked MSNBC for its partisan politics, he would have had much more right to do so, but he would have been roundly criticized for it -- and rightly so. Even to try such a thing suggests to me the inexperience of Obama and his staff. Obama was treated with kid gloves during his election campaign, and now he apparently can't tolerate the thought that some people disagree with him. It is a sign of intellectual bankruptcy for a politician to declare war on the news. It might be more sensible to pick on a single agency as Obama is doing, rather than criticizing the media in general à la Richard Nixon, but it is also more ominous. If he succeeds in driving Fox out of news, it will be a sad day for our democracy; if he doesn't, it will be a severe blow to his presidency.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


Yellow has never seemed like much of a colour to me. It's more like off-white than a separate colour. I want to describe it as a dark white, but at the same time as a bright white. Are dark and bright opposites? I don't think so, because light blue is not bright; but I'm not really sure what bright means, unless it's perhaps "reflective."

This brings me to the question of what distinguishes yellow from gold (and grey from silver). I remembering wondering about this when I was a kid, because Crayola's 64-pack had separate colours for yellow and gold, but I couldn't figure out what mixture of paints would reproduce gold. The trick, I realized, was that gold-coloured crayons had a sparkly element in them that clearly distinguished them from yellow; ditto for silver vs. grey. In practice, gold seems to be a little darker than pure yellow, but that doesn't stop people from describing blond hair as "golden."

Yellow is one of the three primary "subtractive" colours. I first heard of the idea of subtractive colours while sitting next to someone from the printing industry on a flight to Europe. We had a lot of time to talk, and he wouldn't let me sleep, so I got to hear a lot about how printing is done. I was baffled by his description of how printing nowadays is subtractive: a page goes through the printer three times, each one "subtracting" a certain colour. I was envisioning a black page being lightened to white, and his description did nothing to clarify the process to me.

I understand now that "subtractive" is just a term for how we perceive colour in objects. The colour we see corresponds to the colour (wavelength) of light that is reflected back to us; the object absorbs all other colours. If we add all colours to an object, it absorbs all wavelengths of visible light, and therefore we perceive it as black. By "adding" colour, we have subtracted from the amount of reflected light.

This makes more sense if you think about a computer monitor (or a television), where we perceive the light directly. Each picture element actually contains three light sources, one in each of the primary colours. If no colour is on, the element is dark, i.e., black. If all colours are on full-strength, the element shows white light. In this case, when you add a colour, you bring it closer to white; on paper, if you add a colour, you bring it closer to black by subtracting from the reflected light.

Yellow is one of the three primary subtractive colours, but here's the strange thing: in additive colour (i.e., light), the primary colours are red, blue, and green. This is one of those asymmetries in the world that keeps me awake at night. It's like the problem of why objects in a mirror are reversed left to right, but not top to bottom; only I think I've solved that one, whereas I have no idea why the primary colours should be different in additive vs. subtractive colour. It would make far more sense to me if the primary additive colours were purple, orange, and green. I would still have no idea why they would be different, but I would have some hope of understanding it someday. To add to the confusion, the colour spectrum of light places yellow just where you would expect it, between orange and green, and green is between yellow and blue. It would seem perfectly logical that green is formed by combining yellow and blue, not that yellow is formed by combining green and blue. The whole thing is so crazy that I wouldn't believe it if someone told me; but you can actually try combining different colours of light and demonstrate that it is true.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

School fundraisers

You have probably seen the following on a bumper sticker: "It Will Be a Great Day When Our Schools Get all the Money They Need and the Air Force Has to Hold a Bake Sale to Buy a Bomber." (For information on the origins of this sentence, see here.) I don't see it as much as I once did; I'd like to think it's less common because it is such a fatuous sentiment that people see through it, but it is probably just the fact that it is too long to be really catchy, like "Make love, not war" or "Yes, We Can" (which are equally fatuous, but far more popular).

But I don't want to focus on the military side of the slogan; instead, I want to ask about the school side. Because the fact is that I am inundated with school fundraisers, and I'm really tired of them. My question is, just how much money does my children's school need, and why can't they get adequate funding through taxes? I realize that there is always a tension between government budgets and school needs; every part of the government, like every part of a corporation, wants more money than it gets. And I can understand that schools want to make up some of that difference by holding fundraisers. But schools today seem to be running permanent fundraisers, like politicians who never cease raising money for their next run for office, and I have to wonder just how serious their need for money is.

Our elementary school has participated in a major fundraiser for the last two years called the Boosterthon. It involves kids getting running laps, and getting pledges for each lap that they run. It promotes health, character, and all sorts of other good things, and it raised $18,000 this year for the school. I don't have too much to complain about it, except for the cult-like way it tries to get kids excited about raising money. As with other fundraising activities nowadays, there are prizes for kids who reach certain plateaux, so my kids came home excited about the wonderful prizes they could earn, and I don't really appreciate the way it has been sold to them.

One would think you could buy a lot of school supplies for $18,000, but the fundraising doesn't stop there. Almost every week, the school has an arrangement with some local restaurant in which a certain amount of proceeds from families that dine there goes to the school. They not only remind kids of this in school, but send them home with a sticker on their shirts so they won't forget. Naturally, kids get excited about the prospect of eating out, and parents are put in the position of taking them to the restaurant or disappointing expectations that have been built up in school.

That's not all. The school also sends home some postcards for magazine subscriptions that kids are supposed to send to relatives; there is a whole catalogue of school spirit-wear; t-shirts for field day; school pictures twice a year; at least two festivals per year where kids can pay to play games; the school sells lollipops (nutritious ones, of course) before school, and has a sale around Christmas time with small gifts kids can buy for family members. And on and on and on. The demands for money are virtually endless.

When I was growing up, I don't remember having any school fundraisers. I do remember selling lottery tickets for my baseball team, which brings up another point. My mom sold some tickets at work, but I also went door-to-door selling them in my neighbourhood. Nowadays, schools specifically tell students not to go door-to-door; it is completely up to the parents to sell them. While I'm just as happy not to have my kid selling things door-to-door, it isn't much of an improvement to have the responsibility pushed onto me.

What is all this money used for? The only references I can find in the school council minutes say they are for "school supplies." I remember one fundraiser in particular that mentioned the money was being used for a lunch for award-winning teachers. Otherwise, I can only guess. How much worse would our kids' education be if the school did not have this extra money? I don't know, but I would certainly like a chance to judge for myself whether the investment is worth it. Fundraising is like the school's underground economy: there is no accountability for the funds, and the pressure to donate comes through kids rather than direct appeals to parents. As a result, schools can soak up large amounts of extra money without anyone having any idea how benefician it is.

If the school really needs that extra money, I'm all for raising taxes to pay for it. If the biggest fundraiser of the year brings in $18,000, the amount of extra taxes would be minimal. Or, if the government can't or won't come up with the funds, the schools could send out a letter to all parents (or even all school-district residents) to explain their needs and to request additional funds. If they can't get the money through such a direct appeal, they should not be allowed to solicit funds by playing on parents' (and their relatives') guilt feelings.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Are red, yellow, and orange really "warm" colours? I remember learning about warm vs. cold colours in 1st grade, and I had absolutely no idea what the concept meant. The first thing that came to my mind was that blue must be a warm colour, since blue was my favourite colour. You can argue that yellow is warm because it is the colour of the sun and red because things turn "red-hot," but there are serious limitations to this claim. Fire is yellow, but it is also blue; items that get hotter than red-hot turn white-hot. Water and ice are commonly associated with blue and green, but they are really clear, and only appear in colour in certain circumstances. Maybe red, yellow, and orange share some common characteristic that we have arbitrarily designated "warmth," but I don't think it has anything to do with temperature.

Green is generally seen as a cool colour, even though it is a mixture of a warm and cool pigments. What is purple? I'm not sure I've ever heard it listed as warm or cool. I'm inclined to say it is cool, but since I obviously have no feel for this subject, you'd probably be better off assuming the opposite if you aren't sure.

Traditionally, of course, purple is the colour of nobility. The only purple dye in antiquity was obtained by extracting mucus from the murex sea snail, which was hard to find and expensive to process. I don't know why they couldn't mix red and blue, but I suppose there must have been reasons.

Purple is associated with girls these days. Some purples are, admittedly, extremely close to pink, but since purple is a mixture of red (i.e., dark pink) and blue, it doesn't seem like it should be particular to either sex. Wikipedia has a discussion of how purple is different than violet, but I have to admit that it totally escapes me. If we distinguish three primary colours, and if we distinguish green and orange as secondary colours created by mixing two primaries, why should distinguish more than one colour as the mixture of red and blue? I won't argue that there aren't good technical reasons, but, whatever they are, they are beyond my comprehension.

Some people are really into purple. I saw a magazine spread once on a woman whose whole house was purple -- purple paint, purple furniture, purple rugs, and she even served purple food (blueberries, chiefly). The names of purple shades -- fuchsia, mauve, lavender, lilac, amethyst, and periwinkle -- sound exotic, but most of them are just flowers. I always hated fuchsia until I learned how to spell it, but why is it pronounced so strangely? I don't know. The colour is named after the flower, which was named after the German botanist Fuchs (sort of rhymes with "books"); perhaps the person who named it also gave it the bizarre pronunciation. There is also a "fashion fuchsia" that is more like hot pink. The most interesting shade of purple, historically, is mauve (rhymes with grove). It was named in 1856 when William Henry Perkin discovered a residue from his attempts to create artificial quinine, and became commercially important as the first aniline dye -- the beginning of the chemical dye industry. The 1890's in America have been described as "The Mauve Decade," not only because the colour mauve was popular, but also as a derisive commentary on the pretensions of the era. The derogatory sense of mauve comes from James Whistler's dictum that "mauve is just pink trying to be purple."



Friday, October 16, 2009


Today is National Bosses' Day. That sounds like a great idea. Bosses make more than anyone else in the office, and spend all day telling people what to do. They need a special day for themselves. I'm not that crazy about Secretaries' Day, but at least it makes sense: secretaries do the menial work in an office every other day of the year, so having one day in which they get special treatment seems appropriate. I'm fortunate that my boss is very nice. I've heard that your relationship with your boss is the most important factor in job satisfaction, and I've been lucky that all but two of my bosses have been very easy to get along with. The other two weren't bad; they just weren't as good.

About hating: Liberals love the subject of hating. They accuse their opponents of it all the time. One of their biggest insults is to call someone a "hater." Of course, they are immune from hating -- or rather, anytime they hate it is justifiable, because they only hate bad people. Thus, Keith Olbermann can rail about Michelle Malkin's "fascistic hatred," and yet in the same breath call her "a big mashed-up bag of meat with lipstick." Very classy.

At Obama's town hall in New Orleans yesterday, a fourth-grader asked the final question: "Why do people hate you? They're supposed to love you. And God is love." Excellent point, young man. I'm sure you and the adult who put you up to that question love Obama, just as you loved George Bush when he was president. But what about other people?

I don't hate Obama. I don't like to hate anyone, because my religion tells me it is wrong. If I hate someone, it is a sign that my frustrations have gotten the best of me, and I prefer to be in control of my emotions.

Obama strikes me as someone who would be hard to hate in person. I heard a radio clip of him calling Kanye West a jackass for interrupting Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the Grammys, and I couldn't help liking him. It wasn't just what he said, but that deep voice of his, and the total sincerity with which he said it.

I don't really think politics is the place for putting personal emotions -- good or bad -- ahead of ideas. I wrote in a previous post about how David Brooks seems to have let Obama's personal features outweigh rational considerations. I'd like to be led by a charismatic person with whom I agree, but I'd rather be led by a jackass with whom I agree than a charismatic person with whom I disagree. Charisma is useful in a leader, even if I don't personally like him (because it makes him more effective), but it's more important to be led in the right direction.

I get frustrated with people like Olbermann (and there are many others like him) who talk out of both sides of their mouths, accusing their opponents of hating while at the same time spreading hatred. I'm frustrated, but I don't want to respond by hating them back. I try to look on them with pity instead. This is often justified in one sense, because people with that much anger in them are usually not very happy anyway. Whether justified or not, I think it's the best approach. Anger leads to more anger and ever-escalating distrust and contempt for one's political opponents. I don't know if the present state of discourse in America is any worse than it has been in the past (I doubt it), but it seems like it would be better if we could have our debates without the anger. It also seems like a good political strategy, because responding civilly to the other side's uncivil attacks might swing moderate voters.

I know that this line of argument can't be carried too far, however. Arguably there are some people whom one should work up a righteous anger about, people who threaten the existence of our democratic system. I would not include any politicians in that category; I'm thinking more of the terrorists who want to destroy us. And while being civil might garner swing voters, it might just sacrifice the enthusiasm of anger for no apparent gain, allowing one's opponents to win.

I'd like to think that's not the case, at least not if it's done right. And I'm just tired of all the extremist rhetoric that I hear, mostly from the left, although also, of course, from the right. So I will stake my position on civility; and, although I'm sure I will fail at my goal many times, I hope I will stick close to it, and do my tiny part to help bring political discourse out of the gutter.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Hurricane Katrina lives on

I heard on the radio today that President Obama was in New Orleans, which has still not recovered from Hurricane Katrina. (CNN article here.) I wouldn't expect it to be 100% recovered, but apparently a lot of it is still a disaster area. One of the questions that Obama fielded was, naturally, "Why hasn't the government done more?" Obama's responded by saying that he was working on improving things: "My expectation is that by the time that my term is over, you guys are going to look back and you're going to say, 'This was a responsive administration on health care, on housing, on education, that actually made sure the money flowed and that things got done the way they were supposed to get done."

I doubt whether any president can introduce drastic changes into any organization as large as FEMA. Because of the civil service system, 99% of its employees cannot be changed by the new administration. (I don't like to toss around percentages lightly. I found this article which shows FEMA having a projected employee count of almost 165,000 in 2003, and it is almost certainly higher now. I don't know exactly how many political appointees there are among those, but I doubt very seriously if it comes anywhere near 1650. Probably more like 16.) The result is an incredible institutional inertia that grips any large bureaucracy. I'm not saying that bureaucracies are bad, or that they can't be changed, but I am sceptical of how much they can be changed in four years by a few appointees at the top.

The whole Katrina story made me ill because of the way Bush was blamed for it. First, the hurricane was a natural disaster; and, no, global warming had nothing to do with it. For several years afterward, the national weather service predicted that hurricane season would be more severe than normal because of global warming, and they have been wrong every time -- in fact, hurricane seasons have been milder. It was just a coincidence that Katrina struck on Bush's watch rather than Obama's. In fact, it appears to have been a coincidence that it didn't strike at any time in the previous 30 years, since engineers had been anticipating a disaster for New Orleans for that length of time.

Second, I reiterate that I am dubious how much of FEMA's problems can realistically be assigned to the president. Yes, the president is head of the administration, but it is an enormous administration -- and FEMA is probably pretty far down on the list of priorities. Imagine how much worse it would be for a president if there were such incompetence in the military, the CIA, the FBI, the IRS...okay, maybe there is, but they're all higher priority than FEMA (at any time save a major natural disaster). What would you rather have, (a) a president who supported your political views but was a lousy administrator, or (b) one who opposed your views but who was an excellent administrator? Obviously the answer is (b) for over 50% of the country, because they voted for Obama in spite of the fact that he has virtually no record as an administrator. He might be excellent, but there is scarcely any evidence for that -- they wanted him because of his views. It may be possible to show that a president screwed up the administration of a particular organization, but you'll have to show me the evidence first; the mere fact that he is president is insufficient.

Third, governmental incompetence in response was even more pronounced at the (Democratically-controlled) state and local levels than at the federal level. We all know the stories about buses sitting unusued while people needed to be evacuated. It was appropriate for the federal government to intervene and assist the state, but the blame for problems has to be apportioned appropriately.

Fourth, the time for federal emergency relief is over. I don't know the details of how FEMA aid is administered, but the emergency in New Orleans is long past. It is not the government's business -- certainly not the federal government's business -- to rebuild private houses or even municipal buildings. If people want things rebuilt, they should do it themselves. Moreover, I think the government should make it clear that it will not assist in any future natural disasters in New Orleans, for the same reason that it is probably impossible to get private home insurance there: the risk is just too great. As much as I would hate to lose New Orleans as a national icon, I don't want to pay to keep it from becoming the next Atlantis.

Speaking of time passed, I am amazed and disappointed that New York still hasn't built anything on the site of the twin towers. (This comes to mind because the New Orleans mayor once responded to criticism about the slow rebuilding of his city by pointing to the hole still present in New York City.) This was not a natural disaster, but a foreign attack. And while I wouldn't usually support the government's involvement in rebuilding private structures, in this case I would have made it a point to erect two buildings, as big as if not bigger than the destroyed towers, as soon as possible after they were destroyed. It is a point of pride for the country, and a means of discouraging the attackers. The new buildings would not have to be private; the government could erect two office buildings, and I'm sure it could find some bureaucracy to house there.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


I maintain a list of vocabulary words that I would like to learn. Among the hardest are words for colours, which are almost impossible to define in words. Sure, you can write "a dark grayish-brown," but will someone really be able to picture it in his mind?

Among my words are three shades of brown: fuscous, taupe (rhymes with "rope") and filemot (fill-mott). Fuscous and taupe both mean "brownish-grey," which gives them the distinction of combining the two most boring colours. If it came down to it, I think I would choose brown as even more boring than grey. It's the colour of dirt, after all, not to mention other natural substances like wood and, frequently, fur. It's also the colour you get when you mix all the other colours together. According to wikipedia, it's actually a mixture of red, orange, or yellow with black, but that's not the way I remember it when I played with fingerpaints, and it's not the colour my kids get when they mix together all colours of Playdoh (which they inevitably do, in spite of my admonitions that it will be more interesting if they keep them separate). Nothing screams "blah" like brown.

Nevertheless, we have many words for different shades of brown. There are common words, like khaki, tan, sandy (for light shades) or russet, chocolate, or auburn (for dark ones); obscure ones, like taupe, filemot, and sepia; and ones that those of us of a certain age remember from Crayola's 64-pack of crayons, like raw umber, burnt umber, and burnt sienna. Does anyone actually distinguish all these different colours? I'm not sure that khaki, tan, and sandy mean anything for me other than "light brown." For the record, here are some shades as defined by Wikipedia:

AuburnBeigeBronzeRaw umberBurnt sienna

Burnt umberChocolateCopperDesert sandKhaki

Sandy brownSepiaSiennaTanTaupe

Sepia is an interesting one. Portrait studios now offer you the opportunity to turn your beautiful, full-colour photographs into dull brown ones for an extra fee. If that doesn't sound like it makes sense, you understand my point of view. Making a photo sepia, or black and white (i.e., grey), makes it look older, but I'm not sure why that would be desirable outside of some specialist purposes (e.g., you wanted to pass the photo off as older). When you go to pick up your portraits, the studio will often have several extra sheets already made up that they will try to sell you; and, almost invariably, these sheets will be sepia or grey. Of all the nice things they can do with photographs nowadays, getting rid of the colour is not an "upgrade" that I would choose voluntarily.

I once knew a woman named Tawny, which is also shade of brown. I did a Google search for tawny to see what colour came up; unlike the other shades, this one turned up mostly pictures of women, usually showing a lot of skin. I don't know if the name Tawny is associated in the popular imagination with a certain type of woman; even if it isn't, would you want to name your daughter "brown"? It's much like the name Chloë, which means green – another strange thing to call a girl. At least Chloë is a pretty and exotic name, whereas Tawny is ordinary and sounds a little too close to "tawdry" for my tastes.

Brown as a last name is one of the most common in English. I'd bet it's more common than White, Black, or Green, and certainly than Blue. (The only person I've ever heard of named Blue was Oakland A's pitcher Vida Blue, which is certainly one of the most curious names in sports.) I can't recall anyone with the last name of Red, Orange, Purple, Scarlett, Mustard, Plum, or any other colour, although I would be glad to hear of them if they exist. I'm not aware of a college with the name of any of these colours except brown, and there are two shades represented: Brown and Auburn. Surely it's a coincidence, but it is fitting that colleges should be named the same as a stoic colour reminiscent of old portraits and brick buildings.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Incisive analysis

I listen to sports talk radio when I'm in the car, which means, here in Middle Georgia, that I often hear the Bill Shanks Show. He didn't bother me too much until recently, when he was criticizing Atlanta Braves' manager Bobby Cox for platooning players at a certain position. "Platooning" means playing one player against right-handed pitchers and the other against left-handed pitchers. Shanks hates the idea, explaining, "Hitting is hitting, and pitching is pitching."

That's the kind of serious thinking that he gets paid for. Who can argue that hitting is not hitting? That sounds like the kind of paradox Zeno of Elea would come up with. Of course hitting is hitting. But right-handed hitting is not the same as left-handed hitting, at least not against the same pitcher. Baseball players usually hit significantly better against pitchers who throw from the opposite side of the plate, i.e., right-handed hitters bat better against left-handed pitchers. Often the difference is quite significant: a player might be an All-Star if he only had to bat against pitchers, who throw with one hand but would be back in the minors if he only had to bat against pitchers who throw with the other hand. Therefore, platooning makes a great deal of sense. You can probably raise your team's batting average significantly by platooning at one position. You might well platoon at four or five positions if you had enough players on your roster.

I admit that there might be other reasons against platooning. Perhaps players hit better if they're in the lineup every day, for instance. But "hitting is hitting" is not a reason. It may be that much of the audience agrees with his line of thinking, but I'd like to believe that the radio station could find someone a little more interesting to talk about sports for several hours a day. There may be good reasons why they can't, and I'd like to deal with those in another blog entry.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Proud to be an American

I am proud that an American has been once again awarded the Nobel Peace prize. And who could be more worthy than Barack Obama, because he has...uh...he has...well, someday he might do something for peace.

Okay, the award is officially meaningless. It has been meaningless for some time now, really. If Al Gore can get the award for fussing about global warming, it pretty clearly has nothing to do with peace. That's not even to consider the granting of the award to crooks and terrorists like Yasser Arafat and Le Duc Tho.

If you think about it, though, the whole idea of a prize for peace is somewhat problematic. Statesmen only make peace when they think it is in their interests. Unilateral capitulation is not a way to advance peace in the long run, but rather a way to invite war. So it is difficult to give the award to statesmen. On the other hand, people with utopian peace ideas don't really do anything to advance peace, either.

I read an interesting book, Champions of Peace, that discusses the history of the prize and this basic problem. Nobel created the prize partly because he felt guilty about developing a military technology (even though TNT also has plenty of peaceful uses). From the beginning, the committee has waffled concerning what kind of achievements to use as the basis of the prize. Thus, Bertha von Suttner won in 1905 for her radical pacifist (and completely ineffective) ideas, while Theodore Roosevelt won the very next year for mediating an end to the Russo-Japanese war. The committee has often given the award to individuals or groups for doing humanitarian work, which has nothing to do with peace, really, but we can all feel good about it -- and those groups can certainly put the prize money to good use.

Up until this year, the prize had always at least gone to someone for alleged accomplishments; Obama is the first to be given the prize exclusively in the hope that it would help him advance his agenda. Some people have said that it will restrict his options as president, but I doubt that. The prize is $1.4 million and an endorsement from a meaningless committee of Norwegian politicians; no one is going to alter his behaviour on that basis. While I don't think it would shock world opinion were Obama to turn it down, as some have suggested, neither do I think it would really help matters. My recommendation would be to accept the prize and say that he hopes to live up to its endorsement, which I'm sure is pretty much what he will do. The money, however, could be better donated to one of the humanitarian groups that were nominated. Obama doesn't need $1.4 million, and those groups definitely do. He might give the money to charity (I have no idea what his plans are), but it would be best if it was a charity relating to the peace prize. He can respect the public honour that he has been given while still putting the money to good use.

Friday, October 2, 2009

ACORN and the government

ACORN has put itself in a position of public trust by acting as an intermediary between individuals and the government: helping people register to vote, helping them get government funding, helping the government count citizens. Whether it supported pimping or not, it is clearly suggesting ways for people to defraud the government by cheating on taxes. This is criminal, and it would seem to provide an obvious reason for the government to discontinue all public funds to ACORN immediately.

I have read in several places (e.g., here) that it may be unconstitutional for Congress to cut off funding specifically for ACORN because it could count as a "bill of attainder." `This seems more than a little stretch of the concept to me. A bill of attainder "is an act of the legislature declaring a person or group of persons guilty of some crime and punishing them without benefit of a trial." The laws in question would say nothing about whether ACORN was engaged in criminal activity, nor would it apply any form of punishment, but merely cut off government funding. This could only be considered a form of punishment in some twisted socialist worldview. If Congress can grant funding to specific groups, how could it not be allowed to rescind funding for specific groups?

In addition to ACORN's overtly fraudulent activities, its covertly partisal political purpose is also coming to light. One of the arguments in ACORN's favour that I did not mention is yesterday's post is, "Why are the Republicans picking on a group that helps poor people?" But ACORN is not just a group that helps poor people; it is a group that helps poor people organize to support liberal politics. Of course, it is entirely within its right to do so, but not with federal funding.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

ACORN cracked

ACORN's recent embarrassment seems like a redemption to me, as to other conservatives. Like them, I have been very dubious of ACORN's voter registration practices, and appalled at the thought that it was getting millions of dollars of federal funds, some of which was being used for partisan political purposes. The video sting seems like the kind of thing that is too good to be true; and, like anything that seems too good to be true, I am curious to know the downside. To that end, I read a few liberal defenses of ACORN. There is no shortage of arguments in ACORN's favour, but they seem to fall into two broad categories:
(1) The videos don't tell the truth; and
(2) The behaviour documented in the videos can be excused, or at least explained, at an organizational level.

The most fundamental argument of the first category is that all Republicans are liars, therefore the evidence cannot be believed a priori. Obviously, this is not part of a serious argument, but it is often the starting point for an individual's quest for truth -- and I don't disparage it, because I disbelieve a lot of what I hear without further confirmation. Others say that the videos have been edited to make things appear worse than they are. I don't know much about video editing, but I can't see how they can have been fundamentally altered. The clips that I have seen are direct, question-and-response, leaving no room for the kind of dishonest cutting practiced by, say, Michael Moore. Still others argue that the videos amount to entrapment: you can't lead an individual to crime and then convict him of it. This misses a major element of entrapment, however: cui bono? If someone walks up and offers to kill some person that you don't like, you stand to benefit in an obvious way. It's entrapment because the person is tempting you into a crime. The ACORN employees had no personal stake in the advice they were giving; therefore, it seems reasonable to believe that they would give that same advice under other circumstances. I have to admit that I feel a little bad for them in this regard; their willingness to help is part of what got them into trouble. Then again, someone in a position of public trust should recognize the public benefit over private gain when the two come into conflict. A subset of this argument is the idea that the videographer, O'Keefe, violated "journalistic integrity" in the way he approached the issue. The irony of liberals whining about a sting operation seems to have escaped the people who make this argument. I remember distinctly a national network trying to catch Food Lion in a similar sting regarding proper food handling perhaps 20 years ago. The planted employee, who worked in the deli, tried to get her manager to leave out old meat, but the manager insisted that it be thrown away. I don't remember the outcome of the case, but I certainly didn't hear any complaints about journalistic integrity then. Another defense is that the videos were obtained illegally. Whether this is true or not, it does nothing to defend the behaviour of the ACORN employees; it only means that they were caught unfairly, not that they were innocent victims.

The other type of argument is that the videos are accurate, but they record explainable behaviour that does not indicate systemic problems. ACORN itself tried to excuse the videos initially by saying that the employees were not properly trained; I have also seen conflicting claims concerning how many ACORN offices may have turned him away to balance against those who got caught. This argument doesn't carry much weight with me; if someone caught a handful of Walmart stores ripping off customers, I don't think liberals would emphasize how many stores were caught being honest.

Some have claimed that the employees were scared and/or that they turned in O'Keefe after he left. This actually could be a valid excuse. I don't really see how anyone could be scared of O'Keefe -- I have to agree that he looked like a clown in his pimp outfit. But it is reasonable to think that employees might have waited until later to report the activities to the police. No one is claiming that all ACORN offices did this, of course; I would like to know more specifically how many, if any, actually did so.

My favourite argument came from a post on since ACORN deals with, and recruits from, the poorest segments of society, it's inevitable that you will get a few scumbags. A pathetic excuse and liberalism's barely-concealed elitism, all at once!

Whether ACORN offices were encouraging prostitution and sex slavery is, to me, a secondary issue. It's a serious charge, but it is not necessary to demonstrate its validity to undermine ACORN's credibility. The fact that no one is denying is that ACORN offices suggested ways for O'Keefe to cheat the government: claming "employees" (sex slaves) as dependents, hiding money in a tin can. I don't see any reason for them to make these suggestions to clients, legitimate or not, and it seems reasonable to suspect that they give the same advice to just about anyone who passes through their doors. Although they might not be trained on how to deal with potentially criminal clients, they certainly are given training on how to help clients deal with the government -- and apparently that training includes lying and cheating.