Friday, October 19, 2012

The Rise and Fall of Howard Cosell

I am old enough to remember when, in the mid-1950's, Howard Cosell gave up his job as a successful New York lawyer and began his radio show, "Speaking of Sports". At the time he seemed like a breath of fresh air, trying hard to bring some real journalism to the world of sports. Prior to Cosell, "sports journalism" was an oxymoron, as there was no effort among reporters to be objective and avoid hero worship of the athletes they covered. Cosell later switched to television, and when ABC landed the "Monday Night Football" contract, Cosell was instrumental in making MNF the insitution it became.

Cosell had a running feud with the print reporters, and in fact the title of his third book, "I Never Played the Game", comes from the frequent criticism leveled at Cosell by the writers that he didn't understand sports because "he never played the game". When this book came out in 1985, Cosell was already in a steep downhill slide toward irrelevancy. He had become completely disenchanted with his favorite sports, boxing and football, for reasons he details in the book. In 1982 he announced he would never cover another boxing match because of boxing's inherent brutality, and in 1983 he left Monday Night Football, saying the games all looked the same to him.

As ABC had acquired rights to some major league games, Cosell switched to baseball and was part of ABC's world series announcing team in 1979, 1981, and 1983. I watched those telecasts and Cosell was just awful. He had no feel for baseball, and in his first two books he had made it abundantly clear that he thought baseball was boring and worthless, destroying any credibility he might otherwise have had as a baseball announcer. Mercifully to viewers, ABC took him off baseball in 1985 after this book came out, and replaced him with Tim McCarver, a wonderful announcer who has since become a superstar and is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame for his great broadcasting.

Cosell's shtick was that he felt that "what happened on the field" was not all that interesting. Rather, he prided himself on getting the "stories behind the stories", i.e., talking about what was going on in the players' lives. How ironic, then, that his replacement, Tim McCarver, along with Tim's longtime broadcast partner Joe Buck, has shown us that what happens on the field can be terrible interesting. There is a saying that "baseball is only dull to dull minds", and by his brilliant success McCarver has demonstrated the truth of this aphorism, and the falsity of Cosell’s position.

Also ironic is that Tim McCarver, as an ex-player, was part of the so-called "jockocracy" that Cosell always railed against; Cosell felt that broadcasting jobs should go to people with journalism training, rather than to ex-jocks. McCarver's success shows the shallowness of this strongly-held belief by Cosell.

I recall an interview with Barbara Walters that Cosell did toward the end of his life. Barbara asked him "How do you want to be remembered." Cosell answered, "That's easy, as a good husband, a good father, and a good grandfather." Barbara: "Nothing about career". Cosell: "No, it's not important."

This odd statement really seems contradictory to all the pompous pronouncements Cosell made during his career about how important what he was doing was for the development of sports journalism. If what he was doing was ultimately unimportant, then why did he make such a big fuss about it?

Cosell died in 1995, a recluse during his last years, which seems odd for a person who always prided himself on what a close relationship he had, or at least claimed to have, with some of the people he covered. Sadly, he seems to have revealed himself in his later years to be a complete fraud. One suspects he would have been happier in life had he stuck with his original choice of profession.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Different Kind of Mandatory Sentencing

The numerous mandatory sentencing laws, under which judges have no flexibility in sentencing defendants, have caused the prison population in the US to balloon to seven times what it was in 1980, so that now the US imprisons its citizens at a higher rate than every other country in the world. Judges hate these mandatory sentencing laws, because it ties their hands, and a fair number of judges have resigned in protest at the injustices they are required to perpetrate. A common example is the girlfriend of a drug dealer, who gets decades in prison along with her boyfriend, even though her involvement in his criminal enterprise was minimal, or tangential, or perhaps even coerced.

One problem mandatory sentencing has caused is the  high cost of this ridiculous level of incarceration. In California it is estimated that it costs $70,000 a year to incarcerate an inmate. The Ohio legislature has taken a novel approach to reducing the runaway cost of all this incarceration. A year ago a new law was enacted which *prohibits* judges from sentencing first-time offenders to prison, when the offense is a low-level felony. As a result, the prison population has already shrunk to the 2007 level.

I sometimes think that whenever a judge sentences a defendant to prison, that judge should be required to give a statement setting out the projected cost to the state of the incarceration. It seems absurd for judges to be able to incur, on behalf of the state, these tremendous costs, with no accountability or consequence. When a judge runs for re-election, the burden his sentencing decisions have placed on the state could then be part of the public record, just like all other government financial information already is public record. Maybe then this "tough on crime" mantra that we constantly hear from candidates could properly be interpreted as "tough on taxpayers' pocketbooks".

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Sentence Adverbs

In school I learned that adverbs can modify verbs, adjective, or other adverbs. Never did I hear the term “sentence adverbs”, and it was only recently that I first heard of this concept.
As the name suggests, it is an adverb that modifies the whole sentence, and not a particular word in the sentence. An example is, “Fortunately, Hurricane Isaac missed Tampa and the GOP convention was able to proceed with its business last week. Unfortunately, all decisions had already been made beforehand, and there was no real business to conduct.”
Here the adverbs “fortunately and “unfortunately” are used as sentence adverbs, modifying the whole thought. One could use “It is fortunate that”, or “I think it is fortunate that”, instead of “fortunately”, but obviously the use of one word is preferable to the longer and more awkward phrase that would be needed as a substitute.
So far so good. But the problem comes in when such words are used improperly. A news anchor said “X allegedly killed Y.” Here the use of “allegedly” right before the verb makes it look like it is the verb that is being modified, and this makes no sense, for one cannot be “allegedly killed”. “Allegedly” here is being used as a sentence adverb, and needs to be set off with a comma (if at the beginning of the sentence), or two (if in the middle).
An even worse misuse of “allegedly” occurred in a news report which stated that “X was being charged with allegedly killing Y”. This is total nonsense; X was not being charged with allegedly killing Y, he was being charged with killing Y. The concept of “allegedly” is contained in the verb “charged”, and no further modification is necessary or at all useful. News people seem to be so obsessed with being politically correct that they continue to make these glaring errors.
The number one problem in this area is of course the word “hopefully”, whose careless use is widely castigated. I could say, “Hopefully, you will find this explanation of sentence adverbs helpful”. The problem here is that “hopefully” does not modify anything found in the sentence; it is thrown into the mix solely to convey the writer’s point of view. It is not a real adverb here, and should be replaced with “I hope”, or something similar.
(Some may complain that “hopefully” is a weasel word, in which the writer of speaker uses the passive voice in order to avoid responsibility for the matter at hand. An example is when a president responds to a scandal in his administration, as Reagan once did, by saying “Mistakes were made”. But this is not the real crux of the problem with ”hopefully”.)
While some grammarians have come to accept the use of “hopefully”, the best advice is still to avoid it unless you know your audience is accepting of such casual use of the language. One need not resort to awkward and wooden alternatives like “It is to be hoped”, or “One hopes”, as there are more natural-sounding options available like “Let’s hope”, or “With luck”. Let's hope you can learn to use them instead.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Why Romney Will Lose in November

1.  The man is a robot, at least he comes across that way to the public he is trying to persuade to vote for him. History shows Americans usually vote for the candidate they would most like to go out and have a beer with. One has to back to the 1970's to find exceptions to this rule.

2.  He is unable to tell voters what he stands for. Voters like to know their candidate has some passion and commitment to his values. Romney has none of this. Conservative commentator Joe Scarborough says that a friend of his who is a prominent Republican governor met with Romney and asked him three times why he wants to be president. He never could articulate a meaningful sentence as to why he wants the job, or what he wants to accomplish as president.

3.  He is unable to convince true conservatives he is one of them, while at the same time mouthing conservative platitudes which do nothing to convince the crucial voters in the middle to vote for him.

4.  He is unable to answer simple questions, as when he went on "Face the Nation" (the first non-FOX interview he's done in this campaign), and could not answer a simple question about whether he would continue the recently-announced Obama policy of not deporting illegals who came here as children and are being productive, law-abiding residents of this country. Bob Schieffer had to ask him five times (!), and he never was able to answer. Romney said he would put into place a long-term solution. Two problems with this. First, Romney refused to give any details of what this so-called "long-term solution" would consist of; and second, he seemed oblivious to the reality that getting any immigration bill through Congress was unlikely, given the partisan divide in Washington these days. Schieffer pressed him by asking, "But would you leave the policy in place while you pursued your long-term solution", and Romney still could not answer. I think the American voters, while not sophisticated, can recognize stonewalling when they see it, and reject it.

5.  He is obviously completely ignorant on foreign policy, as shown by his occasional statements in this regard. He wants voters to believe he is strong enough to stand up to Iran, whatever that means, when he isn't even strong enough to stand up to Rush Limbaugh! Voters are smart enough to see through this.

6.  His refusal to release his tax returns leads to inevitable speculation that he is hiding something. The irony here is that his own father, George Romney, pioneered the policy of releasing multiple years of tax returns, saying that one year can be a fluke, and only by releasing many years of returns can an accurate picture be had. Initial speculation was that he had paid no taxes in 2008 and 2009, after the collapse of the financial market. Now, Harry Reid says on the Senate floor that he heard there were ten years of no taxes paid whatsoever. Whether Reid is right or not is irrelevant; the point is that Romney has it within his power to clear this up in an instant, and has refused to do it. All commentators, Dem. & Rep. alike, say he should have done it along ago and got this out of the way, so that the campaign could focus on the real issues. Romney is tone-deaf on this issue.

7.  If the election ever does get close enough to be in doubt, the Democrats will have in the can and ready to go TV spots which will highlight Romney's many flip-flops and gaffes. Just about anything Romney has said can be refuted by Romney's own statements in the past. No candidate can survive this type of withering onslaught.

8. He gives no details as to how he intends to accomplish any of his campaign promises. Here is a partial list of promises for which no details have been given: create 12 million new jobs; stop Iran for getting nuclear weapons; enact comprehensive immigration reform; enact comprehensive tax reform; balance the budget even while cutting taxes for the wealthy and increasing military expenditures. This lack of detail is reminiscent of Richard Nixon's promise in 1968 that he had a "secret plan" to end the Vietnam War. Of course, there was no secret plan and the war dragged on four more years. And recently it has come out that Nixon actually sabotaged pre-election peace efforts, because he feared that a pre-election peace would cost him the election!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Inverse vs. Converse

The word "opposite" is found in the definitions of both of these words, so obviously there are similarities. However, they are not quite the same.

"Inverse" comes from the Latin "invertere", meaning to turn upside down or inside out. It is often used in mathematics, as in "3/2 is the inverse of 2/3".

"Converse" comes from the Latin "convertere", meaning to turn around. It is most often used in connection with words, rather than with mathematical concepts. In fact, the misstatement known as a "Spoonerism" is a form of converse, in which letters or syllables are inadvertently interchanged. An example is "lack of pies" rather than "pack of lies", or, the oft-cited one attributed to Rev. Spooner when officiating at weddings, "It is kisstomary to cuss the bride?"

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Who vs. Whom

I suspect most of us learned the (prescriptive) rules in school. "Whom" is used when it is the object of a preposition or verb, otherwise "who" is used. There are some who say that "whom" is on its way to obsolescence. I don't go this far, because I can't believe that "To Who the Bell Tolls" will ever sound better than "To Whom the Bell Tolls", nor can I believe that "To Who It May Concern" will ever replace "To Whom It May Concern."

More complicated sentence construction requires more analysis, and therein lie the difficulities. Take this sentence: "Give it to whoever wants it." What is being said is, "Give it to the person who wants it." Hence, "whoever" is correct. "Whoever" is the subject of the clause "whoever wants it", so "who" is needed, even though the clause itself is the object of the preposition "to".

A Pat Buchanan column this week had a usage which is dubious. In a column discussing the possibility of Romney choosing Condi Rice as his running mate, he wrote,  "Asked whom she voted for in 2008, Rice reportedly said, ' was a special time for Americans.'"  The "whom" here just does not sound right. After all, I have often been asked "Who did you vote for?", but never "Whom did you vote for?" If Buchanan wanted to insist on using "whom" here, he could have moved the "for" and made it "Asked for whom she voted in 2008..."

Another example appears in a recent devotional guide. The sentence reads, "Whom else would it make more sense to follow?" If we do the usual rearranging to to see if who or whom is correct, we have "It would make more sense to follow whom." But then, what about the "else"? It can't be rearranged to include the else, so we know something is wrong with using "whom" here. This is yet another example of going overboard in an attempt to be technically correct, and in the process spoiling the whole sentence, not to mention the whole thought.

When dealing with the written word we usually have the luxury of thinking through the correct usage, and re-arranging the word order if necessary to make it sound right, which the above writers failed to do. Speaking orally and off-the-cuff is more problematic. Best rule-of-thumb here is to use "who" if one is not sure, since a misplaced "whom" is much more grating that a misplaced "who".

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Gut Check for the NCAA

Ohio State received severe sanctions from the NCAA because several of its football players received free tattoos. In light of that, what is the appropriate sanction for Penn State, which looked the other way for 14 years while young boys were being raped. More and more commentators are coming to the conclusion that the daeth penalty is the only reasonable sanction for Penn State's football program.

Joe Paterno tells us from the grave that this is not a football scandal. But the Freeh Report shows otherwise. The Report documents how the Penn State higher-ups wanted to report the allegations of sexual child abuse to the authorities, but Paterno talked them out of it. This demonstrates the unreasonable power of the football program, which reportedly brings in $50 million a year to the Penn State coffers. Similar allegations coming from any other university department would have been dealt with by reporting to authorities, but the football program could not afford a black mark.

An NCAA official was quoted in today's paper as saying there is no specific NCAA rule governing what happened. We will see if the NCAA has any guts at all.

The Life and Career of Pauline Kael

My love affair with the movies began in earnest during the 1967-68 school year, when I was in graduate school at Purdue University. I used to make the long walk from West Lafayette across the Wabash River into downtown Lafayette at least once a week, to take in a movie at one of the grand movie theaters located downtown, movie palaces which since have all but disappeared from the American scene.

I soon became aware of the great  movie reviews written by Pauline Kael in The New Yorker, collections of which were published in book form every few years. It seemed to me that Kael had always been around. How surprisng, then, to read a biography of Kael recently by Brian Kellow, documenting that, following her dropping out of Berkeley after the 1939 Fall semester, she knocked around for almost 30 years before finally landing a steady job at The New Yorker (even then it wasn't really "steady", as she alternated with another critic for 6 months at a time out of each year).

The memoirs I've read of other titans of 20th-century journalism, including Joseph Alsop, Bob Considine, Ring Lardner, James Reston, George Seldes, and William Shirer, all contain accounts of the writer getting out of college and immediately going to work in journalism, and then working his way up steadily to a position of national prominence. To read about Kael's 29-year struggle was thus a real eye-opener for me. It is a testament to sticking with doing something you love, even through hard times.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Amistad Case: When the Executive and Judicial Branches Collide

I revisited the Amistad case recently by reading the book "Mutiny on the Amistad", by Howard Jones. Some new thoughts and insights resulted.

To recap briefly, the Amistad saga began in August of 1839 when a ship with 43 blacks aboard was found off the coast of Long Island. The blacks were taken into custody, and in a court hearing the following January it was determined that they were not legally slaves, having been kidnapped from Africa and recently sold in the Havana slave market. The new "owners" were taking them from Havana to their location in Cuba when the blacks revolted and took control of the ship.

The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the District Court as to the facts, but varied in that, while the District Court had ordered the Van Buren administration to take them back to Africa, the Supreme Court simply ordered that they were to be set free.

One aspect of this which jumps out at me is the tenacity and zealousness which which the attorneys for the blacks pursued the case. These 43 clients spoke not a word of English, and it was amazing that a way was found to communicate with them. A linguist was enlisted to figure out the language, and then find someone who could interpret. The linguist offered compelling testimony at the trial to show that these blacks must have recently come from Africa. The efforts of the attorneys were so effective that the trial judge early on proclaimed that it was obvious that these were not slaves, but rather had been kidnapped from Africa for sale at the Havana slave trading center.

Compelling testimony was also offered by a British official who was intimately familiar with the Cuba slave trade situation. He testified as to the huge numbers of blacks which had been brought into Cuba in recent years, in violation of the Britain-Spain treaty outlawing the slave trade. He also was able to testify from first-hand knowledge that it was routine to forge papers to purport to show the legality of slave ownership, when said ownership was in fact illegal.  To obtain this compelling testimony was yeoman work on the part of these indefatigable lawyers. Kudos to them.

The main significance of this fascinating case is the tension between the executive and the judicial branches of government. After the blacks were discovered and taken into custody, the Spanish government demanded their return, and President Martin Van Buren was determined to comply. There is an interesting scene in the movie "Amistad", in which the Spanish minister asks Van Buren when the Spanish property would be returned. Van Buren responds, "It's in the courts". The minister says, "But don't you control the courts?" Van Buren responds that in this country we have an independent judiciary,. The minister responds, "But if you don't control the courts, how can you rule?"

This is indeed the key question. I think it is safe to say that in the vast majority of countries in this world, there is not an independent court system. I doubt that anywhere is the court system as independent as it is in the U.S. Our founders put together a complex system of checks and balances, so that no one person or faction could get too powerful. The founders were determined to protect minorities from the power of the majority. Indeed, we look at almost anywhere else in the world and we see majorities oppressing minorities, even engaging in genocide in some instances.

Once Van Buren made up his mind what he wanted to do, he requested an opinion from his Attorney General, and the Attorney General dutifully provided an opinion in support of returning the ship and captives to Spain. The AG's conclusion was that the vessel and cargo should be delivered to the Spanish minister, as the lawful representative of the government of Spain. Under his reasoning, it would then be up to Spain to sort out the legalities, i.e., whether the black captives were slaves or free men, and whether they should be charged with murder and piracy for taking over the ship and killing two of the officers. The AG relied heavily on a 1795 treaty between the US and Spain, which provided: "All ships and merchandise of what nature soever, which shall be rescued out of the hands of any pirates or robbers on the high seas, shall be brought into some port of either State; and shall be delivered to the custody of the officers of that port, in order to be taken care of, and restored entire to the true proprietor, as soon as due and sufficient proof shall be made concerning the property thereof."

This is obviously a simple-minded and straightforward argument, lacking in any nuance whatsoever. Did the blacks really qualify as "pirates or robbers"? If they were in fact free men legally, then they had the same right of self-defense as any other free men, so how could they be deemed to be "pirates or robbers"? And what constitutes "due and sufficient proof" of the ownership of the slaves? Through the hard work of the lawyers it was shown that the papers on board the ship were fraudulent, so how can those papers be deemed to be "due and sufficient proof"?

Van Buren was so confident of a ruling in the administration's favor that he ordered a navy ship to stand by to deliver the blacks to the Spanish government as soon as the ruling was made. He specifically ordered this to be done before the defendants had time to perfect an appeal of the decision. After all, the trial judge was a good Democrat, appointed by Van Buren's predecessor, Andrew Jackson, and Van Buren was supremely confident of a favorable result.

However, trial judge Andrew T. Judson ordered the administration to return the blacks to Africa. The administration appealed, and the case found its way into the Supreme Court. Van Buren was again confident of a favorable decision, as 5 of the 9 justices were Southern. Much has been made of the appearance of John Quincy Adams to argue on behalf of the black captives. It was felt by the defense team that a high-profile person was needed at this point, hence the request to Adams to join the team. However, the argument of Adams was more political than legal, and ultimately had little effect on the case. Indeed, Chief Justice Story, in a letter to his wife, said that Adams' defense was "an extraordinary argument, extraordinary for its power, its bitter sarcasm, and its dealing with topics far beyond the record and points of discussion." Much of Adams' argument was a harangue in which he complained about the interference of the executive branch in the case. The opinion rendered about a week later by Chief Justice Story ignored the executive interference issue, and followed the arguments that had been developed by Roger Baldwin, the lead lawyer on the case.

This highlights the problem lay people often have when they choose a "high profile" lawyer, one whose flamboyance and "bedside manner" far exceeds his or her actual legal ability. I have seen this phenomenon over and over, and it really is disheartening.

The main value of the Jones book for me is his account of the aftermath of the Supreme Court's Amistad decision. One aspect of this worth noting is the pressure the group of abolitionists known as the "Amistad committee", which had been directing the defense efforts, exerted on the lawyers to make a claim to the ship on behalf of the blacks. The lawyers properly rejected this request, as this claim had not been made during the legal proceedings. This illustrates how demanding clients can be, especially ones driven by fanatical ideas, but including those driven by egomaniacal self-centeredness, and ones in emotionally stressful situations, like divorce. As a lawyer one must stand firm against these extreme demands. The committee also made other demands, such as wanting to charge all of the people involved in imprisoning the blacks with false imprisonment. When denied that, the committee wondered if the federal government could be found liable. Baldwin correctly responded that this can only happen if the imprisonment was without probable cause and done out of malice, which I believe is still the law today. Other demands were similarly deflected.

The status of the legal slave Antonio is interesting. He was the captain's personal slave, and at one point had expressed that he wanted to return to Cuba, which is what the Supreme Court ordered. The abolitionists were dead-set against this, and after being advised there was no legal recourse, Antonio was submitted to the underground railroad and ended up a free man working in Montreal.

The group of blacks remained in limbo for some months, as the abolitionists struggled over what to do with them. Finally, in late 1841, enough money was raised and the remaining 35 survivors were put on a ship to Africa.

Spain continued to press its claim for indemnification until the Civil War ended the matter. A congressional committee even went so far as to authorize the payment, but the committee report falsifying the date of the capture of the group, in which it was stated the date was 1840 instead of 1839, meaning that the blacks would have been in Cuba for 14 months instead of 2 months, brought a scathing rebuke from Adams, who was still in the House of Representatives at that time.

The motivation of Van Buren in opposing freedom by the blacks was not just to soothe over US-Spanish relations. It was also said that he was pandering to the southerners whose votes he would need to be re-elected in 1840. How ironic, then, that he was defeated in that election, and in the process lost 3 of the 5 states considered part of the "deep south".

An eerily similar pandering failure took place in the year 2000, when Al Gore infamously said that Elian Gonzalez should have his custody determined by a Florida family court, instead of being returned to his father in Cuba. This was just an incredible idiocy on Gore's part, and his later defeat in Florida was sublimely ironic. All that pandering to the Cuban-Americans in Florida, sacrificing his integrity in the process, and for what? No integrity left, and no presidency. Gore must have gone brain-dead when he made that statement. It could not have been an off-the-cuff comment, as it was a very calculated attempt by him to break with the Clinton administration, and show his independence. How in the world could he have thought it was fair to make Elian's father come to this country, where he had never been, where he knew nobody, and did not speak the language, to litigate his right to custody of his own son? It makes absolutely no sense, and Gore should be ashamed of himself, as should Van Buren. Both sold out their integrity for votes, and both were defeated. American voters may not be sophisticated, but they at least know when they are being blatantly pandered to, and they rightfully reject such attempts. (Which is why Obama will beat Romney in this year's election. Romney is so obviously pandering that his election would be unthinkable.)

The real question remains: how is it that  Supreme Court, which has no abilty to enforce its rulings, continues to maintain its position in American government? The irony is that its rulings can only be enforced by the executive branch. If the executive branch decides the court's rulings are not worthy of enforcement, what happens then?

The only case I know of where this happened was in an 1830's Native American rights decision, after which Andrew Jackson reportedly said, "John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it." In the early 1970's many feared another such incident would come up, when the Court ruled that Nixon had to turn over the Watergate tapes. What if Nixon had refused?

It is said that the U.S. is the only country in the history of the world founded on an idea. Part of this idea is the delicate separation and balance of powers set out in the constitution. That idea is still respected enough today that the U.S. continues to honor its court decisions. This is the only way to prevent the majority from running roughshod over the rights of minorities.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What's Wrong with our Politics, Part One

In 1980 candidate Ronald Reagan asked the famous question, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago." Using this approach, he beat an incumbent president in a landslide.

What is wrong with this question? Well, several things. First, it assumes that our voting decisions are made solely on the basis of our own personal sense of well-being, rather than on what is good for the country as a whole. Surely there are many voters who are more principled than that, at least one would hope so.

But the real problem with this approach is that we are being asked to vote on how well we perceive things to be at the present moment, with no thought to what the longer term consequences are to a given approach. It used to be, I think, that people planned for the future, thought in terms of future goals. Thus, immigrants came to this country, and the parents worked hard, often working 2 or 3 jobs to support their families, but they were willing to do this because they saw a better future for their kids and grandkids.

But how do we make decisions now? Too many of us just "vote the bastards out" if we perceive that the economy is weak. We make decisions based on the "right now" situation, rather than on what is best for the long-term welfare of our families and our country.

A good example of this is Ronald Reagan himself. During his administration, the U.S. borrowed heavily against the future, spending money it didn't have, which meant passing on a huge debt to our descendants. This sort of approach may make people feel good in the short term, but it is no way to safeguard the long-term health of our country.

Another problem with Reagan's question is that it ignores the importance of foreign policy. We cannot vote solely on economic issues; we need to take into account the question of which candidate has the judgment and temperament required to make the critical foreign policy decisions which every president has to make.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Mitt Romney and Job Creation

Mitt Romney likes to claim that because of his experience in the private sector, he "knows how to create jobs". Let's examine this proposition.

First, being the president is a different matter from being the CEO of a private company. There is no evidence whatsoever that success in the latter translates into success in the former.

Second, the GOP position which Romney embraces holds that it is not the public sector  that creates jobs, but rather the private sector. Consequently, how does Romney propose that as president he will "create jobs". Romney reminds one of Nixon's claim in 1968 that he had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam. Claims like this are as bogus as can be.

Third, an examination of Romney's record at Bain Capital casts doubt on the job creation claim. Indeed, Romney has backed off of his original claim that 100,000 jobs were created, and now says "tens of thousands". The reason is that the companies he took over which were successful may have created 100,000 jobs, but the net job creation was much less, due to the many companies which failed under the "leadership" provided by Bain.

Fourth, a much more apt comparison would be Romney's record as governor of Massachusetts. His record of job creation during his governorship ranked him 47th out of the 50 states!! This really gets to the heart of the matter. If Romney's leadership is so great for the economy, why did he rank 47th out of 50? I expect the Obama campaign will hammer at this over and over, as it has already started doing in the battleground states like Ohio.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Persecution of John Edwards

It was obvious from day one that the Justice Dept. was way out of bounds in bringing the criminal case against John Edwards. The law is murky, and the facts are murky, making for a hopeless task for the prosecution. Even the Federal Elections Commission, charged with enforcing campaign finance laws, could not find there was any violation here. And yet, the Justice Dept. persisted, and after a long trial Edwards was found not guilty on one count, with the jury unable to reach a verdict on the other 5 counts.

What lessons can we learn from this debacle? The main one seems to be that the justice system needs to keep its hands off political issues. In a democracy the electorate will decide these matters, and a criminal prosecution is completely out of keeping with our great traditions.

The case against Alaska Senator Ted Stevens was similarly flawed. In fact, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, writing in "The New Yorker", says that "The Stevens case was more than an unsuccessful prosecution. It was a profoundly unjust use of government power against an individual--a case flawed in both conception and execution."

In the Constitutional Law class I took in law school, we studied the concept that the court system keeps it hands off of issues deemed to be "political questions". Of course, the question of what is and is not a "political question" is not always easy to determine; obviously there are cases in the middle that can go either way.

Thank goodness the Edwards jury was thoughtful and mature enough to realize that the case was bunch of crap. Yet, it is a crying shame that Edwards had to be subjected to this horrible torture. Surely our scarce resources can be better spent pursuing real criminals!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Decline of the Indy 500 (and our culture)

When I was growing up the Indianapolis 500 was always considered one of the year's major sporting events. I can't think of any sporting event other than the World Series which so captivated people's imaginations.

Yet, this morning when SportsCenter had a long fluff piece on it, praising its great tradition, the piece just rang hollow. Only when I realized the race was going to be on ESPN's partner ABC did I realize the point behind the piece. ESPN was simply trying to boost the ratings for the ABC broadcast of the race.

What has happened since my childhood? Today the race seems irrelevant to anything. In fact, I heard that they were having trouble getting a full field of 33 cars for the race, and the racetrack itself was going to finance some teams so that a full field would race.

Obviously, NASCAR has taken over. It is not hard to see why. The contraptions which run at Indy are in no way cars, in fact, I don't know of any name for them, it is simply called "open-wheeled racing". NASCAR, by contrast, has vehicles which actually look like, and are, cars.

But the real question here is why auto racing is so popular in the U.S. It certainly is not a sport, as the result is determined not by the drivers, but by which team has the best group of engineers. This is shown by the fact that it is not the driver who qualifies for a race, but rather the car.

And it is virtually unwatchable. All it is is a group of cars parading around a track in circles. What is there to watch in that? It comes down to the fact that the only reason to go to a race is the chance of seeing a spectacular wreck. In fact, recently a driver apologized to the fans after a race that there weren't more wrecks to watch, and he said the race should have continued until fewer than half of the cars were left!

This fascination with gore and violence permeates other sports as well, a clear sign of the deterioration in the culture of this once-great country. Football has a serious crisis, with former players suing by the hundreds over the head injuries that have rendered their post-NFL lives practically useless. The "bounty program" of the New Orleans Saints illustrates the depravity of this sport.

Basketball is little better. It used to be that a player had to dribble if he was moving with the ball. Now, he is allowed to take 6-7 steps if he is going to the basket, and mayhem ensues. It is more like rugby than it is like real basketball.

And of course there is hockey, where players are allowed to fight with little effort made to prevent the fights. It is what the fans come to see, because otherwise hockey is unwatchable.

And then there is mixed martial arts, in which the object is to destroy the other person.  All of these illustrations show the depravity to which our culture has sunk.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Illusion vs. delusion

Recently I was reading an essay by the great writer Joan Didion, considered on of the pioneers of what's called the New Journalism, in which the writer injects his or her own personal feelings and thoughts into coverage of the story. At one point I expected the word "illusion" to pop up, but was surprised to find instead that the word used was "delusion". Obviously I did  not appreciate the difference between these two words, so I decided to investigate.

The difference turns out to be fairly straightforward. Both words refer to false perceptions, but "illusion" is a false perception about something outside of ourselves, while "delusion" refers to a false perception about something within ourselves. Think of "optical illusions" regarding the former, and "delusions of grandeur" regarding the latter.

The actual passage, from the essay "On Self-Respect", is that "innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself". The dictionary definitions of "illusion" are broad enough to allow that word to be used here, but accurate usage does require "delusion" here, so Ms. Didion is correct, because she is referring to a false perception within ourselves.

Monday, May 21, 2012

About those "high" gas prices

Americans are typically whining about gas prices believed to be "high". A number of issues come to mind regarding this phenomenon.

First, gas prices in Europe have long been roughly double those in the U.S. Yet you don't hear Europeans constantly whining about it, they just live with it, organize their lives so as not to be so dependent on scarce fossil fuels.

America used to be infused with a "can do" spirit among its people. If there was a problem, we would roll up our sleeves, get to work, and figure out how to surmount it, and then do it. Now, it seems that the response to any setback is to complain about it, to point fingers at those deemed to be responsible. A more sensible approach would be to return to the way we used to be, with a "let's solve this problem together" attitude.

Second, studies have shown that the true cost of a gallon gas in this country is $12 a gallon, factoring in all the costs involved, including military costs required to maintain the Middle East supply of oil. Those who like to complain about high taxes and too much government might want to consider whether they are willing to pay the extra $8 a gallon over what they are paying at the pump.

A third observation on this subject is that many Americans imagine that producing more oil in this country would solve the problem, or at least help the problem. Republicans chant "drill baby drill", which sadly is being done in all seriousness. The fact is that oil prices are determined by the world oil market; that's just the way it is. A marginal increase in production in the U.S. would have a negligible effect on world oil prices, hence would not change gas prices here.

A fourth observation is that Americans seem willfully oblivious to the need to conserve our dwindling supply of fossil fuels. If you walk up and down the street in almost any American town, you see more vans, SUV's, and trucks than compact cars. Too many people seem to think they need to drive gas-guzzlers, when with a little ingenuity and creativity they could make do with smaller vehicles. People buy gas-guzzlers, and then complain when gas prices rise to half of what people in many other countries pay.

A fifth observation is that our love affair with cars has contributed to a breakdown in our national health. The obesity problem continues to get worse and worse, and yet we still drive to places that we could walk or bike to. Along the same lines, cars have contributed to a breakdown in a sense of community, as we zip from place to place, rather than traveling in a more leisurely way that would enhance community instead of destroying it.

A final observation is that, sadly, gas prices on election day will probably go a long way to determining the results of the 2012 presidential election. This says a lot about the sorry state of our politics, but that is a subject for another post.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Florida woman gets 20 years for firing in the air to ward off an abusive husband

The story on this is found at

The judge said he had no discretion under the Florida mandatory sentencing law. Mandatory sentencing has been thoroughly discredited, as it gives the judge no discretion to consider the circumstances surrounding a particular crime. This is another example of the right-wing fear-mongering that has lead to a serious decline in our culture.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Different Justice for Rich and Poor?

I say yes, but not for the reasons you might think. Over the years I have noticed over and over that certain prominent people get prosecuted for acts which would go unnoticed by the criminal justice system if committed by ordinary people. Two recent examples come to mind, with two trials which started in the U.S. on the same day two weeks ago.

The first is the John Edwards trial. This is the only example I have ever heard of where someone being blackmailed gets prosecuted, and the blackmailer gets off scot-free. Surely this would never occur if a prominent person was not involved.

The second case is Roger Clemens. Here is the only example I know of where someone gets prosecuted for denying he committed a crime.

Just to be clear, I think both of these individuals are despicable people, but being despicable is not a crime. (For my view of Clemens, see my post of 2/07/08). Surely our justice system has better ways to spend its limited resources.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Case of the Found Lottery Ticket

This Arkansas case is really unusual. A woman discarded a lottery ticket into the trash when she mistakenly thought it was not a winner. Another woman fished it out of the trash and collected a million dollars. Now it is in court and the women who threw it away was deemed to be the rightful owner. Details of the story are at

Normally when property is abandoned, you lose your right of ownership. This is why law enforcement is allowed to search your trash without a warrant, because you are deemed to have abandoned it. There must be some wrinkle in the Arkansas lottery law which supersedes the general rule.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Rachel Maddow vs. Alex Castellanos on Meet the Press

In the weekly roundtable discussion last Sunday, Rachel Maddow made the point that women make 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. Republican strategist Alex Castellanos continually interrupted her, which Rachel calmly called him on. Then, having been warned about this interrupting, he finally let Rachel finish and then said, “I love how passionate you are. I wish you are as right about what you’re saying as you are passionate about it. I really do.” Rachel responded, “That’s really condescending." And she was absolutely right about that. Kudos to Rachel Maddow for responding in a mature and articulate way to the crass Castellonos, instead of losing her cool, as I no doubt would have done.

This exchange illustrates the drawback to these "discussions", which have to be squeezed into a limited portion of time, with the result that no in depth analysis can take place. This subject probably needs several hours of time to explore adequately. I have no doubt Rachel is correct about her stat, as she is a top-notch journalist, but we need to then analyze the stat to make any sense of it.

 Years ago I heard a stat which explained a lot about this issue. That stat was that "never-married women make as much as never-married men". This shows rather conclusively that it is the injection of family into the equation which leads to the disparity. Another study looked at couples in which both partners had careers, and who were committed therefore to sharing household duties equally. The study found that early on the couples were fairly successful at this. However, once the first child was born, it changed dramatically. Therefore, the problem should be said to be caused by the decisions couples make to divide up household duties after the children start coming, and not to a problem with the employment market.

The points Castellano made about men working more hours per week and going more into fields that pay well compared to women were probably valid, but a more nuanced analysis would go much deeper than this, and look at choices women make compared to men, regarding their career path. This explains the so-called "gender gap", not some meaningless statistic thrown out without any context or explanation.

My sister sometimes says, "Do your want the facts, or do you want the truth?"  I don't know all the dynamics at play in the gender pay gap, but I do know this: if you tell me that women make on the average 77 cents on the dollar compared to men, you have told me the facts, but you have told me nothing about the truth.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Breaking down the Hilary Rosen Comment

A CNN contributor made the comment that 'Ann Romney never worked a day in her life'. Since then she has been vilified, and also the Democratic party by association, since she used to be a part of it. But let's analyze this with some intelligence, instead of blind partisan rhetoric and emotion.

Several networks have shown a Mitt Romney campaign speech from just this past January, in which he is advocating that women on welfare be required to "go to work", even if they have small children. He repeatedly uses the term "work" in this context, obviously advocating that they should get a job outside the home. Rosen is vilified because she seems to be saying that working in the home is not "work", but Romney used this term in the exact same way, and, to be honest, this is the generally accepted use of the term. Everybody works in his or her home; even those who live alone have plenty of work to do at home to maintain a household. So, perhaps we should rethink the vilification of Rosen, and acknowledge that the usual and accepted use of the term means holding down a job outside the home.

The second thing about this is that the comment was in response to Romney claiming that he consults his wife for advice on "what women care about". This is really the heart of the matter; that is, most women do not have the luxury Ann Romney has of staying home and taking care of a household, because they have to work for economic reasons. Most women are not fortunate enough to be married to a millionaire. To say that he consults his wife to find out what women want is an absurd joke for Mitt Romney, and the Rosen criticism is right on point.

A third point is that Rosen is a paid CNN contributor, not associated with either party though she once was a Democratic employee. The vilification of her by the right-wing fanatics seems silly when you realize that.

A fourth point is that at the same time this has been going on, a GOP congressman made the ludicrous claim that "78-81 Democratic congressman are members of the communist party". This outrageous claim has engendered little media scrutiny compared to the relatively innocuous Rose comment. Then we have the claim by a Romney supporter, Ted Nugent, that if Obama is reelected, he will be "either dead or in jail". He went on to make other inflammatory comments.

Our media is so biased toward the right that the relatively innocuous Rosen comment has been beaten to death, while the absurd, over-the-top comments of the right get a pass. Welcome to 2012 America.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The end of my postal chess adventures: the Benko Gambit with h3 instead of g3

I played chess by mail off and on from the middle 1960's to the early 1990's. Most of this was under the auspices of the United States Chess Federation, playing in their annual Golden Knights tournaments. In the Golden Knights you start in a preliminary section, playing six opponents, and if you score well you advance to an intermediate round. If you score well there, then you advance to the finals.

By the late 1980's I had become disenchanted with the USCF, as I had come to believe that it was a completely incompetent organization, if not a downright corrupt one. However, I had to maintain my membership as long as I had postal chess games going. My last USCF-sponsored tournament was the 1984 Golden Knights. I qualified for the finals, and in the finals I had a long, drawn-out game with Murray Kurtz, which lasted two and a half years. Neither of us was violating the time limits, but he was in Canada and this delayed the mail by a day or two each move; plus, we got to an ending and it was not decided until 54 moves had been played. I was anxious for the game to end so I could drop my USCF membership, but I was also anxious to get the draw because that would give me an even 3-3 score in the finals, which to me would have been a great accomplishment. So, I fought on.

Kurtz-Weaver, 1984 Golden Knights finals, Benko Gambit
1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 c5 3 d5 b5 4 cxb5 a6 5 bxa6 Bxa6 6 Nc3 d6 7 e4 Bxf1 8 Kxf1 9 Nf3 Bg7 10 h3

This move was new to me, but I came to understand that it makes eminently good sense. Usually when White "castles by hand" he plays g3, and then his king on f1 goes to g2. Now White will need an extra tempo for the by-hand castling, but this is trumped by two considerations: first, White often plays h3 anyhow to prevent a Black knight from coming to g4; and second, the White King is much more safely placed on h2 than it is on g2. Black often puts his Queen on either b7 or a8, and he then gets tactical shot possibilities if the White king is on that same diagonal, as it is on g2.

10...0-0 11 Kg1 Nbd7 12 Kh2 Qa4 13 Re1 Rfb8 14 Re2 Rb4 15 Qe1 Ne8 16 Nd1 Qa7 17 Bd2 Bxb2?!

Certainly it is tempting to recover the gambit pawn here, but perhaps Black should not be so ready to part with his dark-squared bishop. But if I don't take on b2, he then neutralizes my bishop with 18 Bc3. Hard to know what is best here. At the time I felt that the endgame was in my favor, since my passed pawn on c5 is protected, while his passed pawn on a2 is unprotected and isolated. However, Murray demonstrates a deeper understanding of the position.

18 Nxb2 Rxb2 19 a4 Qa6 20 Re3 Nc7 21 Bc3 Rb7 22 Qc1 Rab8 23 Nd2 Ra7 24 Rg3 Ne8 25 Nf3 Qc4 26 Nd2 Qe2 27 Kg1

This illustrates what is said to be the other drawback of the system with 10 h3, which is that White often moves his king back to the g-file, expending another tempo. However, it seems irrelevant here as we have been engaging in aimless maneuvering anyhow.

27...Nef6 28 Qc2 Nh5 29 Re3 Qa6 30 Qd1 Ng7 31 a5 f6 32 Qf1 Qxf1 33 Kxf1 Rg5 34 Nc4 Rb3 35 Bd2 Rxe3 36 Bxe3 Ne8 37 Ke2 Nc7 38 Rb1 Kf7 39 Bd2 Ke8 40 g4 Kd8 41 Kd3 Kc8 42 Nb6ch Nxb6 43 Rxb6 Rb7 44 Rxb7 Kxb7

Here I thought sure that I had achieved the draw. My knight on c7 holds the Queenside, leaving my king free to guard the weak pawn on e7. How is White to break through?

45 Kc4 Kc8 46 f4 Kd7 47 h4 h5?

Murray said after the game that he thought this was the losing move. However, it seems that White is threatening 48 f5 no matter what I do, so probably Black was lost regardless.

48 f5! gxf5 49 gxh5 Ke8 50 exf5 Kf7 51 h6 Kg8 52 Bf4 Kh7 53 Be3 Kg8 54 Bxc5! Black resigns 1-0

Only while doing research for this post did I learn that Murray finished second in that tournament, scoring 17 and a half out of 18, and then he was a co-winner of the 1990 Golden Knights with a perfect 18-0 score. He also won the 1991 Canadian Correspondence Chess Championship with a 13-1 score.

Having determined to cut my ties with USCF, toward the end of my postal chess adventures I played in tournaments with two other organizations, the CCLA and the APCL. In 1990 the Kansas Chess Association held a postal tournament, and I played in that as well. In a game against Jason Kasick, Black played the Benko so I got a chance to try my hand at the White system with h3.

Weaver-Kasick, 1990 KCA postal, Benko Gambit
1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 c5 3 d5 b5 4 cxb5 a6 5 bxa6 g6 6 Nc3 Bxa6 7 e4 Bxf1 8 Kxf1 d6 9 h3 Bg7 10 Nf3 0-0 11 Kg1 Nbd7 12 Kh2 Qa5 13 Re1 Rfb8 14 Qc2

I vary from 14 Re2 as played by Murray in the last game.

14...Ne8 15 Bd2 Qa6 16 Nd1 Nc7 17 Bc3 Nf6 18 Ne3 Nb5 19 a4 Nxc3 20 bxc3 Nd7 21 Ra3 Rb7 22 Rb1 Rab8 23 Rab3!

After all the rooks are exchanged on the b-file, my passed a-pawn will become quite strong.

23...Rxb3 24 Rxb3 Rxb3 25 Qxb3 Nb6

Practically forced, as I was threatening to get my a-pawn moving with 26 Qb5. Black will now be able to capture my a-pawn, restoring material equality, but in return I will get a decisive kingside attack, due to the unavailability of Black's queen and knight to help in defending the Black king.

26 g4 h6 27 c4 Nxa4 28 Qb8ch Bf8 29 g5 h5 30 Qe8 Nc3 31 Nf5! gxf5 32 g6 fxg6 33 Qxg6ch Bg7 34 Ng5 Black resigns 1-0

He would have to give up his queen to stop the threatened mate.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

American Hubris

It is really depressing to see so many examples of this topic. Let's start with the drug laws. We now imprison our citizens at four times the rate of just back in 1980. The blame for this can be laid entirely at the feet of the draconian drug laws. The mandatory minimum sentences enacted at the federal level back in the '70's caused a number of federal judges to resign, as they could not in good conscience impose the draconian sentences required by this idiotic law. And over 90% of the federal judges signed a petition asking Congress to come to its senses on this issue. Of course, Congress has typically ignored the voices of reason.

Our hubris causes us to blame the supplying countries, and view the solution as cutting off the supply lines into the U.S. Blame the users in the U.S. for the problem? Of course not, nothing is ever our fault. Emphasize more and better treatment programs, instead of tossing folks in jail for using? Of course not, that makes too much sense.

European countries imprison people at 1/7 the rate of the U.S. But should we try to learn from these countries? Of course not, that would be admitting they have better ideas than we do. California now spends more on incarceration than it does on education! What kind of sense does that make?

A similar situation exists with regard to health care. European countries spend about half of what we do on health care, with demonstrably better results. But do we study how they accomplish this and try to implement improvements here? Of course we don't.

And in foreign policy, why do we think it is our inherent right to dictate to countries all around the world how they are to organize their governments? Would we stand for any other country doing the same to us? Of course not, in fact there was a big stink back in 2000 when it was alleged that Al Gore had received campaign contributions from China. Yet, we not only influence elections in other countries, but there are a number of instances in which we have assassinated leaders in other countries. We tried numerous times to assassinate Fidel Castro, without success, and he lives on to this day, in fact he just met with the Pope.

Why do we continue wars such as the one in Afghanistan? What do we hope to accomplish? Anybody who knows anything about that region knows we have already done all we can, and should pull out immediately. But we don't, even with a "hope and change" president at the helm.

I could go on and on, but I am already too depressed.