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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Economy just fine

Shoppers in Valley Stream, Long Island, trampled a Wal-Mart worker to death shortly after the store opened on Black Friday. The unruly crowd had grown impatient when the store did not open exactly at 5AM as advertised, and burst through the doors, literally crumpling them on their metal hinges. Employees who tried to reach the stricken employee were also also trampled, though none of the other cases were fatal. When the police arrived, they, too, were unable to reach the employee at first because of the unruly crowd.

Some employees had to jump up on soda vending machines to avoid the onrush. When they tried to close the store because of the death, several shoppers grew irate and refused to leave until they had finished their shopping.

Gotta get those Blu-Rays.

Who says personal consumption has fallen off a cliff?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Bradley Effect, personalized

During the run-up to the Presidential election, much was made of the Bradley Effect, named after Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles, who ran for governor of California in 1982 but was soundly defeated by Pete Wilson despite having been ahead in the polls by up to five points. The theory is that white people told pollsters they intended to vote for Bradley, a black man, in order not to appear racist, but that when they got into the privacy of the voting booth, they pulled the lever for Wilson, a white man.

The Bradley Effect did not materialize during the recent election, as Obama won by approximately the same amount that he had been ahead in the polls.

But let's think about the Bradley Effect for a moment. Why should white people feel compelled to tell an anonymous pollster that they intended to vote for the black man when they didn't? Is it "racist" to vote for a white man? And why would white people care what an anonymous pollster (most polls are conducted over the phone) thinks of them?

There is no reverse Bradley Effect, to my knowledge: blacks in general certainly don't feel obliged to tell pollsters that they intend to vote for a white man. What does this say about race relations, and intimidation, and what is considered acceptable?

This got me to thinking, if the Bradley Effect influenced whites who talked to anonymous pollsters, how many whites in this past election felt obliged to lie to their black friends or acquaintances and tell them that they intended to vote for Obama when they didn't?

I would feel complete and utter disgust for this phenomenon except for one thing.....I actually feel this tug myself.

I started off this cycle intending to vote for Obama, since he started off as the peace candidate, but the more I found out about his history, and the more he flip flopped, the more undecided I became. In the end I voted for neither candidate. I never lied to anybody about my thinking as it evolved, but I did notice a subtle shift in my own reactions to telling people, especially blacks, where I stood. At the beginning, if the subject came up, and I told a black acquaintance that I was voting for Obama, I would actually find myself feeling ever so slightly virtuous about it. (How pathetic is that?) Towards the end, whenever I discussed my intentions, and the fact that I wouldn't necessarily vote for Obama, I always felt obliged to defend my thinking. (Why?)

You read and hear a lot about guilty white liberals, and I always think, how incredibly stupid they are. But, as I said, I actually feel that tug myself. But why should I feel guilty? I wasn't even around during the Jim Crow Era (I was born fourteen days before Brown vs. Board of Education was decided -- should I feel guilty about those fourteen days?), I never "oppressed" a black, and I always try to judge people as individuals. Yet....I still feel that need to prove I'm not racist. (I fight it, but I do feel it.)

But why? Have I been brainwashed like everyone else? Why should I feel that slight compulsion when talking to a black to show that I'm not racist? When I see white people who try so desperately hard to be politically correct, I'm disgusted by them. But when I gauge my own reactions honestly, I find that I'm one of them. Sorta.

All I can do is promise to continue to fight those feelings. And I don't think I'm alone in having them.

One phenomenon I've noticed which does work the other way is that I will meet, not infrequently, blacks (usually older ones) who are extra polite and extra friendly, in places like hospitals or YMCAs. I often think, ah, those poor things, they feel they have to go the extra mile to make up for all the rude young blacks whom they know white people encounter on the subway and so on. And I feel for them, I honestly do. It's certainly not their fault that some people misbehave. (It's possible I'm misreading this situation, but that's my take.)

Another thing I've noticed is that my intelligent black friends often feel obliged to make more of an effort to show whites that they're smart. They're almost always smarter than the whites they're dealing with, but they still have to act like performing fleas. I always think, how wearying that must be. (I'm pretty sure I'm not misreading this situation.)

Our diversity is our awkwardness.

The Bradley Effect reminds me a little of a group of young guys, who, when they see an attractive young woman, all feel obliged to make lustful comments in order to prove their heterosexuality.

I was always more impressed by the guy who could find it in himself to say, "Ah....she doesn't do that much for me."

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bad Marketing

In India, the most successful beggars are those with the most pitiful deformities: lepers, cripples, the blind, and those missing limbs. When parents have a child who evokes sympathy this way, they often put him to work in the streets.

In this country as well, the most successful panhandlers are amputees or people with some other condition which sparks pity.

It turns out that the CEOs of the Big Three automakers, all of whom came to Washington D.C. with their hands out, each arrived via private jet.

This produces a reaction similar to the one you might have if a freshly manicured fellow in an expensive suit asked you for some spare change -- while leaning against his Mercedes. Rather than sympathy, he would provoke outrage, doubt about his judgment, and wonder at his nerve.

Which is pretty much the response the CEOs got from Congress.

Never mind the oversized cars with poor gas mileage, the bloated management ranks, or the overly powerful unions. It was the private jets that got everybody's attention.

Yes, it is common practice for CEOs of large companies to fly in private aircraft and enjoy all manner of other perks. But couldn't they have made the sacrifice of flying commercial for just this one trip? The taxpayers whose money they want certainly fly that way.

The moral of the story: if you're going to be a beggar, try to at least look as if you deserve some sympathy.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Secret ballots

Barack Obama is in favor of abolishing secret balloting when it comes to unionization. This is akin to making it necessary for voters to publicly declare their votes for President of the United States. This is what you'd expect from a banana repubic whose dictator instructs his goons to show up at the balloting places and intimidate any opposition supporters.

The bullying wouldn't necessarily come just from the unions. Imagine that after a heated battle between a company and a union shop, the union is barely defeated. Does anyone believe there won't be any repercussions for the workers who voted for unionization? That the bosses wouldn't take those votes into account when it comes to promotions, or who gets assigned which shift? If not, it would defy every known law of human nature.

Of course, the side which wants to abolish the right to secret balloting is the unions, not the corporations. This gives us a tiny little clue as to which side intends to use bullying and strongarm tactics.

Either way, the workers lose.

Why would Obama support this? Maybe, just maybe, he wanted the support of the unions. Let's hope he flip flops on this the way he has on so many other issues.

Freedom of speech is not freedom of advertising

No sooner do I praise Barack Obama for saying there was no place for lobbyists in his administration than I hear that he has "softened" his ban on lobbyists. ("Softened" is a soft way of saying "rescinded.")

But Obama's honeymoon with the media is still on (it's lasted four years thus far), so no major news outlet has labelled him a flip flopper. He wasn't even called that when he opted out of the public financing system (which he was once strongly in favor of) when it turned out that he could raise much more money (a record $750 million) by ignoring those limits. Where did he get all that money? It's not clear. But some of it obviously came from special interests.

Any lobby -- rich or poor -- has the right to be heard. But no lobby should be allowed to compromise the integrity of a politician by paying him. As it stands right now Congress (and to a lesser extent, the Presidency) are for sale.

The solution is staring us in the face. Just ban all campaign contributions and substitute public financing.

Is this unrealistic to hope for? Yes. What Congressman would willingly vote for a bill to cut off his own supply of campaign funds, and all the other perks that go along with being courted by special interests? Congress is about as likely to vote for imposing a draconian system of eugenics.

But that doesn't mean it's not the best solution. Fundraising takes up an inordinate portion of every politician's time, time which would be better spent working in the public interest. The need for cash also tends to make Congress, especially the Senate, a rich man's club. Instead, simply use public financing to pay local newspapers to print a concise list of each candidate's stances on the issues (concise enough so that the electorate might actually read it.) This would eliminate most of the legalized corruption from politics. (The illegal variety would doubtless continue to flourish, but that could be prosecuted, as with Ted Stevens.)

Some say that this abrogates freedom of speech. But freedom of speech simply means that you can state your beliefs and not be persecuted for it. It does not mean unlimited television and radio buys. (As Joe Biden might say, The Founding Fathers specifically said that freedom of speech did not entail the right to run a cheesy half hour television special on yourself on all the networks three nights before the election.)

If every candidate gets to list his stance on every issue, they still get their say. And all the candidates get an equal say. They could still run advertisements with public financing, just no more than the other fellow, and politics would become a contest of ideas rather than one of money.

On a related note, I keep hearing rumors that the Democrats, led by Obama and Pelosi, are going to mount an attempt to stifle conservative talk radio under the Fairness Doctrine, which states that any radio station which has a conservative talk show host will have to give equal time to a liberal talk show host. (The reason there are so few liberal talk show hosts now is because they attract such small audiences, and radio stations are, after all, in the business of attracting advertisers.) The Fairness Doctrine might seem in spirit to be similar to the public financing of campaigns, meaning equal time for both sides, but asking a business to make less money is not the same as asking a politician not to sell his office.

If the Fairness Doctrine is to be invoked, let it be applied to television stations as well. Right now Fox, despite its "fair and balanced" claim, in facts leans rightward (though they invite plenty of liberals on their shows to debate). But the other three networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, as well as cable outlet CNN, all lean left. Shall we balance them?

For that matter, extend the doctrine to newspapers: for every leftward editorial in the New York Times, there should be a right-leaning one as well. And by all means balance the newroom. The vast majority (roughly 90%) of reporters are Democrats. Fire 40% of the reporters who happen to be Democrats, and hire Republicans in their place. Would this be near impossible to implement? Of course. But if Obama and Pelosi intend to implement the Fairness Doctrine, be completely fair about it. Anything less would be hypocritical.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

If they want the misery of marriage....

The Republicans seem to be taking some small consolation from the fact that every Defense of Marriage referendum passed four days ago.

A few years back I was dead set against homosexuals' partners getting spousal privileges (such as company-sponsored medical care) since this would have given them all of the benefits of marriage without any of the concomitant obligations (divorce, splitting up of community property, alimony, child support, and so on). It seemed at the time that they could just declare any current lover such a "partner" without having to worry about getting it officially sanctioned, and change their "partner" at a whim, on a weekly basis if they so chose. But if they're willing to take the responsibilities as well as the rights, why not? It actually makes for a more stable society: community property for gays means fewer gays on the dole.

"Defense of marriage", like so many other political labels these days, seems a misnomer. Whose marriage is this act defending? If two fellas decide to make it official in Provincetown, how does that affect my marriage? I can't see how it possibly can. The only one I have to defend my marriage against is my wife (and no, she doesn't read this blog.)

The argument that marriage was originally intended to be between a man and a woman seems a bit dated. By this logic, blacks should still be slaves, since the Constitution wasn't originally intended for them, either. Equal rights means equal for everybody.

Frankly, it's a little surprising that gay men want this "privilege." (Gay women, traditionally much more monogamous, would seem more instinctively inclined towards this sort of arrangement.) It's always seemed to me that one of the benefits to being a gay man is that you can pretty much have as many lovers as you desire. It's men's nature to be promiscuous, and any survey of the average number of sex partners for gay men vs. gay women will confirm this. Maybe AIDS has changed the landscape, maybe it hasn't. But the concept of lifelong monogamy doesn't exactly square with the traditional gay men's lifestyle.

I've always had what I consider -- in my self-serving way -- to be the well-adjusted straight guy's attitude towards gays: I have no problem with them, I just don't want to be mistaken for one. (Okay, maybe not that well-adjusted.) I've known plenty of guys who express a basic hatred of them, and more often than not the guys who seem to hate them have issues themselves. I must admit, I was instinctively repulsed when first approached by a homosexual as a teenager. Of course, that was back when I was young and pretty; now that I'm old and not-so-pretty, I rejoice at any attention.

In any case, I've never understood the antipathy for gays as a group. They're generally productive. They (usually) don't reproduce and crowd the planet. They're good workers (no families to distract them). There's a certain not uncommon type of gay man who is very pleasant and helpful and a pleasure to be around. I've never been bullied by a gay (so far as I know). Many of them have a certain brand of humor (punny, campy, kitschy, bitchy) which can be quite amusing. And yes, I believe in stereotypes.

My attitude towards lesbians is also live and let love, though I seem to have met a fair number who have a chip on their shoulder. Quite a few of the ones I've known seem to be lesbians-by-default, meaning, they turned after finding that men ignored them, or after having bad experiences with men. (I have no idea how many I've "converted.") I've never understood why some guys fantasize about lesbians (do they have any idea how real lesbians feel about them?). In any case, lesbians certainly deserve the right to be married as well.

I'm guessing that after some harsh reality sets in -- with a few well-publicized ugly divorce cases -- that the gay desire for marriage will abate, at least among the men. But as long as these defense of marriage referendums pass, marriage will continue to hold that forbidden fruit appeal. No pun int.....never mind.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


Couldn't bring myself to vote for either of them. So I just wrote in the name of my brother-in-law, who would actually make a better President than those two.

Everyone tells me that such a silly gesture is a complete waste, that if you want your vote to count you should at least pick the lesser of two evils. (They told me this after I voted for Nader in '04 as well.)

But I'm too selfish. I didn't want to take a chance of voting for the victorious candidate, in which case I would have to look at him for (at least) four years while thinking to myself, hmm, I helped elect that guy.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A few observations about bumper stickers

You rarely see bumper stickers on expensive cars, or new cars of any sort. A bumper sticker on a Bentley is as out of place as a rattlesnake tattoo on a baby. And you rarely see bumper stickers on a car driven by a black, a Hispanic, or an Asian. It's very much a Caucasian thing.

Bumper stickers come in all varieties. Some advertise schools, or honor roll students. Some are humorous reactions to such stickers, such as "My child knocked up your honor roll student." You also see a fair number of stickers with the names of sports teams, or sometimes just sports. And sometimes a person wants to advertise his religion; the fish motif denoting Christianity is not uncommon.

But the most common bumper stickers are political ones. And those almost always express liberal/left viewpoints, often with lame puns. Examples:

"Dykes love Bush....Uh, not you George"
"No blood for oil"
"BUSH LIED. Thousands died."
"Bush and Dick. Four more years of getting screwed"
"Lick Bush. Kerry Edwards 2004."
"Doofuss" (with a picture of Bush)
"Gays against Bush"
"Why is there money for war but not for education?"
"You can't hug your child with nuclear arms"
"The religious right is fundamentally wrong"
"Straight but not narrow"
"Gay pride"
"Jail corporate crooks"

It's possible that part of the reason conservatives don't advertise their beliefs -- try counting the number of McCain/Palin vs. Obama/Biden stickers you see -- is that they are worried people who disagree might vandalize their car. (Liberals needn't worry because conservatives rarely consider vandalism a valid form of political expression.)

So why do people feel obliged to advertise their beliefs this way? It can't possibly be that they think that they're going to influence others by advertising their own beliefs. ("Well, I was going to vote for McCain, but ever since I saw that Obama/Biden bumper sticker on that car early this morning, I've decided to go the other way.")

For liberal Caucasians, it's all about showing the world what a good person you are.

When you think about it, every bumper sticker is a boast of some sort. "I brake for animals" is not an effective way to prevent tailgating; it's merely a way of advertising your moral goodness. Putting a religious-themed sticker on connotes a moral goodness of a different sort. Sticking the name of a prestigious university on your rear window is a way of advertising your intellectual superiority. "Proud parent of an honor roll student" even admits to the deadly sin. A wiseass answer to any of these bumper stickers is a way of showing off one's "wit," or at least of passing off someone else's wit as one's own.

So why more liberal stickers than conservative ones? Could it be that liberals tend to be the types who like to boast of their moral superiority? While neither party has a hammerlock on smug self-righteousness, one of the teams seems to have a fairly firm hold on the lead.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Stunted growth

Most parents want the best for their children, both academically and athletically. And many parents push their children, both in school and on the playing field. It is widely acknowledged that too much pushiness can backfire psychologically; what is less well known is that it can also backfire physically.

Ten years ago a boy on the local swimming team told me that his doctor told him that he was in the middle of his growth spurt, but that he wasn't growing it because he was expending so much energy in the pool. He ended up 5' 7". A child between the ages of 12 and 16, the prime growing years, who is constantly working out to the point of exhaustion, needs all his physical resources to merely recover from his workouts. So growth takes a back seat.

Part of the problem is that everyone knows that in most situations, hard work pays off. And most coaches believe in such athletic cliches as "no pain no gain" and "no guts no glory." To a certain extent, all of these are true. But if a little of something is good, a ton of it is not necessarily better.

This local swimming team is a case in point. I've noticed over the past twelve years that the boys who push themselves the hardest, the ones who rarely miss a practice between the ages of twelve and fifteen, often end up around 5' 6" or even less. There seems to be an effect with girls as well, though with them the effect seems less pronounced for some reason. This observation was recently confirmed by the New York Times, which stated that stress such as malnourishment stunts boys' growth more than girls'. (A child who is overtraining is effectively malnourished since so much of his protein and calories must go towards just recovering from workout.) This condition is exacerbated by the fact that the swimmers who train the hardest are the ones who get promoted to the next training squad, where their reward is to do even more yardage. The local team has a reputation for being a big yardage team. Over this past Christmas vacation, for instance, on one day the coach assigned his senior swimmers a set of thirty 400 yard individual medley's, a twelve thousand yard set, over the course of three hours. That's over six and a half miles in one three hour session. The next day, they swam for a total of four hours. The third day, assigned them sixty 200's, a set of the same distance. The day after that, they swam for four hours again.

What's worse is that the kids often miss valuable sleep time, getting up as early as 4:30AM to reach the 5:30 AM practices on time. If you're up late doing homework, say till 11PM, that means that a theoretically growing child will end up with only five and a half hours of sleep, and sleep is the only time that the body grows. The result? Of the boys on the highest level squad who had been on the team between the ages of twelve and fifteen, only one was as tall as his father.

About six years ago one of the boys' mothers told me that they used to joke that there was something in the water which prevented their boys from growing. In a way, they were right, but it had nothing to do with the pool's chemical content. It had to do with the amount of time the boys spent working out in it. I've met many of them, and they all seem like nice kids. This is part of the problem. When the coach pressures them to show up to more workouts, and swim harder during the workouts, they do what well brought up youngsters do: they defer to the elder in the position of authority, assuming he knows best.

Another effect of too much exercise is that it's hard to grow muscle. Of the boys on the squad who did reach normal height, most were abnormally skinny. When you're constantly tearing your muscle down and don't give your body a chance to recover, you'll end up looking malnourished no matter how much you eat.

The team does occasionally come up with very good swimmers. But when you look closely, these tend to be the kids who joined the team at age 15, already full grown, or kids who go to private boarding school and only swim with the team part time. There was one excellent swimmer who was purely a homegrown product, but the head coach used to complain about him that he skipped 45% of the practices. I'm not sure whether it was laziness or an instinct for self-preservation that caused him to do this, but if he had shown up to all the practices, he probably wouldn't have been nearly as fast.

Every coach wants to have a champion upon whom he can build his reputation. And everybody in swimming has heard stories of the incredibly long, tough sets that great distance swimmers have done. So coaches are wont to assume that if they have their swimmers do similar sets, that they will produce champions. The problem is that different people have different metabolisms. The ones who end up as champions are the one with the most naturally strong constitutions. Their stomachs, kidneys, liver, heart, and lungs just naturally produce more energy than most peoples'. And, just as importantly, they usually have more natural testosterone in their systems than others, so their bodies just tend to put on more muscle. (Some cheat by using steroids, but that's another matter.) Most children are just not naturally cut out to be champions. And when they try too hard, they pay a price, either by having their growth stunted or by ending up abnormally skinny. The situation bears a resemblance to Charles Dickens' England, where young children were made to get up early to work in the factories for eleven hours a day; they did not grow tall either. The difference is that those children were just being exploited, whereas the parents who push their children athletically want the best for them. The end result, however, is similar.

Ironically, overtraining doesn't even help kids swim fast. Being tall is a major advantage in swimming. (Every time a tall person takes a stroke with his long arms, he goes that much further.) You'll never see a short swimmer at the Olympics, except occasionally in the distance freestyles or in the breaststroke, and you'll see many exceptionally tall ones.

The real tragedy of this situation, of course, is not that the boys don't reach their full potential athletically. After all, a sport is just a sport. It's that these boys have to go through the rest of their lives short. There have been countless studies showing how height helps in various ways in our society, whether in terms of the amount of money you're paid or the way other people perceive you or the range of potential mates available.

It's not just the coaches who are responsible for this, though any coach who constantly works his charges to the bone without sufficient recovery time certainly bears a large responsibility. I've noticed parents who shuttle their kids from a practice in one sport to another in a different sport without even feeding them in between. These parents think that they're producing little supermen this way, but they're doing the exact opposite. Many of the cases I've seen where the children do two sports in one season result in the smallest children of all.

Another crucial factor is, of course, diet. Children who train very hard are frequently operating on a nutritional deficit, and must be fed constantly and well. Parents who don't pay attention to this are destined to have smaller children. Even worse is when a chubby 13-year-old decides to go on a strict diet at the same time that he overtrains; he is almost guaranteed to lose several inches of growth.

Most sports by themselves will not stunt growth. It's only the ones which require extremely high energy output, like swimming, or extremely long practice sessions, like gymnastics, which have this effect. A baseball player can do a number of wind sprints, toss the ball for a while, and do drills without having any effect on his growth. In fact, a little exercise is probably good for growth, as it stimulates the body's circulatory system. Swimming done in moderation is actually one of the safest sports, as there are no impact injuries (water is a very forgiving medium).

Some people were never destined to be giants, even with all the sleep and rest in the world. And there is of course no way of proving how much growth was lost due to overtraining in the case of each individual child. For that, you'd need to have two genetically identical versions of the same child, and have one overtrain while the other did more moderate workouts. Such an experiment would be extremely cruel and inhumane. But in fact it's being carried out daily by all sorts of ambitious coaches and parents.