Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Defining success down

You can basically count on the Star Tribune to contain something that's unintentionally hilarious every day. Today's gem was contained in an article about an experimental new nicotine vaccine, which focused on long-time smoker who is trying the vaccine after being unable to kick the habit. According to the article, "[i]n the past, he'd had pretty good luck quitting. But his relapse rate was 100 percent."

I had thought, perhaps foolishly, that quitting meant to cease engaging in the specified activity, and implied at least some degree of permanence. Mark Twain once claimed to have quit smoking cigars thousands of times. Apparently he had pretty good luck as well, even if quitting in his case simply meant putting out the stub of the cigar and waiting to light up the next one.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Maybe he should move there

Aaron McGruder, the Boondocks cartoonist, was recently interviewed by the Onion. Among the other relevations from this interview was that he recently visited the workers' paradise of Cuba, about which he had this to say:

"I went to Havana, and I was like, 'Wow, there's culture everywhere!' I don't think the American government has a lot of respect for culture. That was one thing that I did notice when I went to Cuba was that artists are paid to be artists, and poets are paid to be poets, and musicians are paid to be musicians by the government. The government—and I'm not saying that the Cuban government's perfect—but the government does place a value on culture. Much more so than here, where culture is just a matter of commerce."

Now, it should be clear to anybody who reads Boondocks that part of McGruder's worldview is that American society is pretty much hopeless, so I guess it's understandable that he'd be looking for anything he can positively contrast with the hell that is modern America. And he went out and saw what he wanted to see - "look, some culture!! And there's some more culture!! Man, that stuff is just everywhere!" - and artists no longer having to convince people to spend money to be entertained by their art, since the government strong-arms the money from the people to do this on their behalf.

But is it even possible that he doesn't see the obvious problem with this, which is that it is quite unlikely that a government which funds artists and creative types will ignore the content of what's produced? This would be true in any society, let alone one run by a tyrant like Castro. We're talking about a place that noted right-wing organizations like Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders routinely criticize for its oppressive policies; according to the latter group, only people with government permission can access the Internet, and owning computer equipment is prohibited. One has a hard time believing that any artist in Cuba - whether government-funded or not - is free to excoriate the Castro regime with the same fervor that McGruder applies to his anti-American diatribes.

But Cuba's not America, and America's official policy is that Cuba's bad, so automatically McGruder goes looking for what's good about Cuba. It's awfully simplistic, but on some level meaningful, to ask whether McGruder wouldn't like living in Cuba more. Of course, he has that option; Americans can leave their country, but Cubans can't. This is also probably America's fault, in his eyes.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

I'll preface this by saying that teachers have a difficult job that I could never do unless I got to pick the students, and that they really don't make very much money. But today's Star Tribune article about the St. Paul school district's plan to bill teachers if they use appliances at work that use what are deemed excessive amounts of energy contained two rather interesting quotes from teachers:

"I'm not going to pay the fee," said Kimberly Colbert, an English teacher at Central High School who has a small refrigerator in her room. In addition, the English teachers share a microwave. They are necessary accessories, she said, for teachers who have just 30 minutes for lunch. And, considering that she spends $300 a year of her own money for school supplies and works countless hours from home, having a fridge or microwave should be allowable perks, Colbert said.
"It's kind of a slap in the face, to be honest," she said. "I'm going to keep my appliance, and I guess I will wait to see if someone unplugs it."

Norma Jorgensen, a kindergarten teacher at Homecroft Elementary, said she was upset when she first heard about the fee. She uses her classroom refrigerator to chill not only her food, but also the lunches of many of her students. And she uses her microwave not only for meals, but also for classroom art projects and making popcorn for her kids in the afternoons.
So, Jorgensen said, she'll pay the fee rather than get rid of the appliances.
"I wonder if corporate America would do this to their employees," she said. "But instead of whining and complaining about it, I asked my husband and he said, 'Just pay it.' "

Again, I have quite a bit of sympathy for teachers - especially ones in a inner city school district who deal with limited resources, as well as often ill-prepared students. But isn't the reflexively hostile position of these teachers a bit troubling? They can't be unaware of the fact that energy prices are expected to skyrocket this winter, to the point where the cost of running an extra refrigerator is not negligible. And it is, after all, our money that's at stake here. And yet these teachers appear to instantly have perceived this as a move motivated by malice and spite. And if Ms. Jorgensen really wonders if monolithic "corporate America" would simply ignore spending an extra $100 or so per worker, she really ought to become more familiar with it.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Makes No Sense At All

Jim Souhan is a sports columnist for the Star Tribune. He seemed like a really nice guy when I briefly met him when I worked there, what seems like 300 years ago. He's also really bad at his job. When he's not attempting to be really funny and not succeeding - the Original Whizzinator jokes quit being funny or original a long, long time ago - he's capable of making simply astounding statements like these in his Saturday column:

"There was a time, children, when the Big Ten not only included just 10 teams, it included only two annual contenders - Michigan and Ohio State."

"This year, the parity infecting the sports world finally reached Big Ten country . . . ."

"And in the once-predictable realm of Big Ten football, surprising Northwestern, resurgent Penn State and overachieving Wisconsin are tied with Ohio State with only one loss in conference play."

This would have been an original thought in, say, 1982. From 1968 through 1980, Michigan and Ohio State were the only teams from the Big Ten to play in the Rose Bowl. Beginning with Iowa's trip to the Rose Bowl following the 1981 season, however, there has been plenty of turnover at the top of the Big Ten conference. For example:

- Big Ten Rose Bowl representatives from 1984 to 1988: Illinois, Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State (five different teams in 5 years).

- Big Ten Rose Bowl representatives from 1994 to 1997: Wisconsin, Penn State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan (again, five different teams in five years).

- Big Ten Rose Bowl visits by selected school since 1985: Wisconsin 3, Northwestern 1, Purdue 1, Ohio State 1. Note Ohio State's dearth of visits, although there would have been another had the Bowl Championship Series not had them playing in the Fiesta Bowl for the national championship. OSU has played in a grand total of 2 Rose Bowls since Ronald Reagan was elected president.

- 1987's top three Big Ten finishers: Michigan State, Iowa, Indiana.

And if the guy can remember the last few years, he might notice something about the rate of turnover at the top of the Big Ten:

2004: Michigan, Iowa (tie for 1st)
2003: Michigan 1st
2002: Iowa, Ohio State (tie for 1st)
2001: Illinois 1st
2000: Purdue, Michigan, Northwestern (tie for 1st).
1999: Wisconsin 1st

So in the past 5 years, over half of the Big Ten has finished the season in first place. And yet, Jim Souhan thinks THIS is the year parity arrived and the Big Two of Ohio State and Michigan were dethroned.

And I have absolutely no idea why Jim thinks a logjam at the top of the Big Ten is a novel thing. For example:

1990 Big Ten standings
Iowa 6-2
Michigan 6-2
Michigan St. 6-2
Illinois 6-2

In short, the main point of his entire column really couldn't have had much less of a basis in reality. Now, I'm not sure why this bothers me to the extent that it does; after all, this is the sports section, or the "toy department" of the paper. In part I guess it's because of the laziness it shows: this guy, who has admitted he's never covered college football or covered it that closely, came up with what he thought was a neat theory for a column, and did not one bit of research into whether the facts supported his theory. Or maybe because of what it shows about how newspapers are produced; apparently there are no editing safeguards in place to keep columnists from publishing things that embarrass them and the paper (although the continued existence of Sid Hartman and Nick Coleman ought to have made this clear long ago). I guess the biggest issue is what this says about the newspaper and credibility. Not every story in the paper is one where I know the factual background this well. When you've seen just how profoundly wrong a newspaper can get stuff, how can you believe what they write about stuff you're not familiar with?

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Chicks on the bench

Bart Simpson once said, when he was hauled before a juvenile court over which a female was presiding, that he was glad to see more "chicks on the bench." As long as they're smart and apply the law, I'm also glad to see women serving as judges (as well as freemasons, wiccans, vegans, and even fans of Michael Bolton). Something that occurred to me last week, when Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz of the Minnesota Supreme Court resigned, is that in contrast with the U.S. Supreme Court, nobody much cares whether appointees to the Minnesota Supreme Court are male or female.

Now, the situations aren't exactly identical - the U.S. Supreme Court has much more power, especially since we seem to have decided that the federal judiciary is empowered to decide hot-button issues that are arguably better left to the political process. And nobody really cares much about the Minnesota Supreme Court, the most famous member of which is not a woman, and is someone who failed the bar exam on his first try. But I think a couple important factors are relevant here. First, the Minnesota Supreme Court broke the gender bar quite a while ago, and at one point had a four-woman majority among its seven members. Gender simply isn't too much of an issue any more - competence is the main factor, and unless appointments were to suddenly revert back to an only-male pattern, things should stay this way. I think this is something everyone can feel good about.

And second, one reason gender is still such a big deal following Sandra Day O'Connor's resignation is life tenure. Because Supreme Court justices serve so long, and are replaced so infrequently, it has not been possible for the court to reflect the growing prominence of women in the legal profession. Were terms shorter, and justices replaced more frequently, very likely the same dynamic that has made gender a much less important issue on the Minnesota Supreme Court would apply.

This is just one more reason term limits ought to be considered for U.S. Supreme Court justices, apart from the obvious if impolitic one - that it is unrealistic to expect persons in their 80s or above to continue to do some of the most important thinking that is done in our society. It's not nice to say things like this, but it's also not wise to ignore reality.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Thank God he's almost done

Minnesota Senator Mark Dayton is rarely heard from, especially since he announced he is not running for reelection in 2006, but he remains in office, much to the chagrin of many Minnesotans. He sounded off the other day, announcing that he will vote against the nomination of John Roberts for Chief Justice of the Supreme Cout, and added this:

"I am deeply concerned that he and President Bush's next nominee will shift the Supreme Court close to the extreme right for many years to come."

Now, the part about the next justice, who will replace Justice O'Connor, might make some sense. But if he really believes that Roberts' votes, as compared to the votes that Chief Justice Rehnquist has cast and would have cast, will shift the court to the right, he frankly had no business serving as a Senator. There are principled objections to John Roberts (to which I don't subscribe), and one can make at least a plausible case against him. But there is no indication whatsoever that his views, to the extent they would differ from those of Rehnquist, would take the court to the right. If anything, he's considered by legal observers as being, if anything, rather close to Rehnquist, for whom he served as a clerk. But in the world of judicial nominations today, where they have become knock-down political fights in which the truth takes a backseat. Mark Dayton is either wholly ignorant of the actual records of Roberts and Rehnquist, or he's playing political games with judicial nominations, like so many of both parties do. In either case, his term as senator can't end soon enough for me.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Minnesotans are cheap

The Vikings have apparently struck a deal with Anoka County for a new stadium, assuming that they can convince the State to ante up $200 million or so. As we are now in what seems like the 60th straight year of stadium debate (actually, I think it's only 8 years - as I recall, the Twins made their first serious stadium pitch in 1997, just 15 years after the Metrodome opened), we will be hearing again all the familiar arguments for stadium funding, pro- and anti-. What we probably won't hear, but I wish we would, is a candid explanation of the best pro-public funding position the Vikings can offer, which goes something like this:

"Hey, Minnesotans - can we say something? You're a bunch of cheap bastards. While it may, and probably does, show profoundly misplaced priorities, it is eminently clear that Vikings football is an important part of the culture of this state. When the Vikings are in the playoffs, the first ten minutes of the local news are devoted to all things Purple, and football dominates public discussion. For good or bad, Vikings football plays a huge part in the lives of many Minnesotans - it is fair to say a majority.

"And yet, except for those of you who pay the (ridiculously high) prices for tickets and actually attend games, none of you pay a damn thing for the privilege of enjoying the Vikings. Ever since the magical season of 1998, when the Super Bowl looked like a foregone conclusion, all home games have been sold out, so every game's on local, free TV. It's all there for the taking - and plenty of you take it. Local Nielsen TV ratings indicate that as many as 2 million Minnesotans watch every game - and except for the indirect costs passed on to them when they purchase items from companies which advertise during games, they don't pay a thing to do it.

"Now, we know it seems ridiculous to spend this much money for a stadium that will most directly benefit people who are already really rich. In fact, it is ridiculous. But isn't it also ridiculous that so many other people who derive a benefit from having the Vikings here - young kids who love football and haven't yet had their hopes dashed by playoff losses, middle-aged guys who never got over not being good enough to keep playing after high school, women who defy gender sterotypes and really enjoy the game (such as the middle-aged women I see wearing Vikings jerseys at work on game days) - don't pay a damn thing for something they so clearly enjoy? Minnesotans want it both ways. They want to feel like they're better than the rest of the country, where communities cough up big dollars to fund sports palaces. But they also want to benefit from having a team in America's most prominent sports league, the NFL, here. Either view is certainly defensible. But to take both, as Minnesotans clearly seem to do, is rank hypocrisy."

Now, I suppose it probably wouldn't help Zygi Wilf's case to come out and say something like this. But it certainly would be refreshing.