Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Merrie in the Hospital

This morning I took Merrie to the emergency room. She was feeling short of breath.

We are relieved that her heart seems to be fine, but blood tests indicated some possible problems with her kidneys. The nephrologist suspects this may have to do with a new medication she’s been taking for the last two weeks.

She’s been admitted to the hospital, to see how things go in the next 24 hours or so. We’re hoping that things will be back to normal soon.

She has her iPhone with her, if you want to send along a text message or an e-mail.

Monday, July 30, 2007

No More Questions, Then No More Answers

Quote of the day:
“ We want people to ‘be themselves.’ But then they do something we don’t like and we wish they were someone else.”
--From “Daily Observations, The Courage To Be in 2007.”

William Lobdell used to be a religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times. On Saturday, July 21, 2007, he wrote about his spiritual journey on the front page of that paper.

His is a common case of someone finding certainty and “righteousness” in the rules and authority of religion and then being thrown into chaos when that “righteousness” is seriously questioned.

18 years ago a friend took him to a mega-church in Newport Beach, where he came to view the bible as “Life’s Instruction Manual.” He joined the church at the end of an emotional men’s retreat.

He started praying every day and says he had a strong marriage, great kids and a good job.

After about 10 years, he found that his wife’s Roman Catholicism appealed to him. He liked what he calls “its low-key evangelism and deep ritual, long history and loving embrace of liberals and conservatives, immigrants and the established, the rich and poor.”

So he signed up for the year-long conversion classes to join the Catholic Church.

Then Lobdell was assigned to report on the growing number of criminal sexual-abuse cases involving clergy in the Catholic church. As he investigated and realized the extent of the abuse, he began to be disenchanted. He decided not to join the Catholic church.

Then he reported on people who had left the Mormon church and had been shunned by former friends. He stopped going to church.

He then started reporting on corruption in the church. He began to investigate TBN, the Trinity Broadcasting Network, and found ministers living lavishly off donations from people with prayer requests.

And he investigated TV healing ministries and saw suffering, desperate people put their faith in a minister to whom they had given money.

He stopped praying and asked for a new beat at the Times.

William Lobdell thought he found “the answer” 18 years ago. It was clear and certain to him. It was built on the rules and authority of the church.

Then disappointment came, as it always does. His certain answer no longer worked. He saw no choice but to throw out everything and close down.

This is what happens when someone searches “out there” for a certain and definite answer. Then when he thinks he’s found it, he stops searching.

He stops searching, because, after all, he has already found what he needs to find, thank you very much, why should he continue searching?

But finding is in the act of searching. This means that when he stops searching he also stops finding. And the only choice left is disillusionment.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Casting Call for AI

Quote of the day:
“More people have faith in UFOs than in Bush’s presidency.” (Or in Congress, at this point.)
--Patt Morrison

San Diego is fortunate to be the site of the first auditions for the seventh season of "American Idol." Some 12,000 people with their guests have shown up at Qualcomm Stadium to take a stab at their dream. It's interesting how the show has different objectives depending on whether you are a contestant, a viewer or a producer.

It's just like radio call-in shows. People who call in think that the show is an opportunity for them to express their opinion. Listeners think the shows are about political or cultural points of view. Producers and hosts view the shows as entertainment, and the purpose of everything that is aired is to attract and hold an audience. The interests of callers are different from and secondary to the interests of the producers and hosts. They will choose issues and points of view to attract and hold the biggest audience possible.

Those who audition for "American Idol" think it is a chance to launch a music career. We who watch see it as a competition to see who is the "best" singer among the contestants. The producers see the show as entertainment, with the purpose of attracting and holding an audience.

Some producers of the show also anticipate a continued revenue stream, as some of the top contestants sign with Sony records to make CDs and perform on tour. Several contestants from past seasons continue to generate significant income for Simon Cowell and other show producers.

The dreams or aspirations of auditioners are way down the list of priorities for the show's staff, except later on when they make good material for entertainment. Also, the audience's choice of who is #1 or #2 or #5 matters little to the show's producers, who know that anyone in the top 12 or so may be generating significant revenue in years to come.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Ratman and Bobbin

Quote of the day:
“To suppose, as we all suppose, that we could be rich and not behave as the rich behave, is like supposing that we could drink all day and stay sober.”
--Logan Pearsall Smith

Some generous friends invited us to join them at the Del Mar races yesterday. A horse in one of the races was named Commissioner Gordon.

That’s a character from the 1966 Batman TV series--the fans of which walk among us each day as normal people.

At a fan site called 1966batfan.com I learned the following things. Cesar Romero, who played The Joker, refused to shave his mustache before his prodigious makeup was applied. And John Astin as well as Frank Gorshin played The Riddler.

Did you know that 29 different villains were featured on the series? One of the most fascinating was King Tut, an innocent college professor who became an evil Egyptian pharoah when he was hit on the head. He was played by Victor Buono.

Most of these villains were played by famous guest stars, including Burgess Meredith (The Penguin), Anne Baxter (Olga, Queen of the Cossacks), Art Carney (The Archer), Eartha Kitt (Catwoman--also played by Julie Newmar), Vincent Price (Egghead), and Milton Berle (Louie the Lilac).

Be sure to tune in tomorrow, same bat-time, same bat-channel!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Seeking and Finding

Quote of the day:
"A high station in life is earned by the gallantry with which appalling experiences are survived with grace."
--Tennessee Williams

In preparing for a sermon this Sunday at First United Methodist Church of La Mesa, I am again struck by how questionable biblical interpretations become embedded in our culture.

This Sunday’s reading is from Luke. It includes two sentences everyone who has been to third-grade Sunday school will remember:

“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

The usual interpretation--the one that is embedded so strongly that there is no shaking it loose--is an “if, then” statement.

We say, we assume, we live this: if you search, then you will find.

What is actually being said is something very different, and very hard for us to get our lives around: searching is finding. The act or attitude of searching is also the act or attitude of finding.

Conventionally, we think that the importance lies in finding, which is the result of searching. Searching becomes just something we have to do in order to find. Searching is, in itself, not important. Finding is the important part.

To me, this text says that the importance lies in searching, which is the same as finding.

It is surprising and life-giving to give up the desire for a result and simply step into searching. And it is how great things are found.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Unspoiled Coastline

Quote of the day:
"I can't stand purple. It doesn't suit me."
--Jenny Joseph, who wrote the often-quoted poem that begins “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple.”

The photos for the last several days were taken on the Fiscallini Ranch Preserve in Cambria, California. It is a stunning piece of untouched countryside along the California coast.

In Southern California the coast is packed with population and development, pretty much uninterrupted from the Mexican border to Santa Barbara. (The coast of Camp Pendleton Marine Base in San Diego County is also undeveloped, but faces the unfortunate inconvenience of being bombed from time to time during training exercises.)

Just north of Cambria, Highway One begins its climb through spectacular Big Sur. The highway is very well-traveled this time of year. Most of those heading north don’t stop in Cambria except for gas or lunch, because they are anxious to see Big Sur or Hearst Castle. Most of those heading south don’t stop in Cambria except for gas or dinner, because they’ve seen enough coastline for one day.

Merrie and I have been going to Cambria every year for 20 years. It’s a real treat to visit an actual small town on the California coast. In between visits, we forget how different it is from anything in Southern California. Then we arrive again, and we walk across the Fiscalini Ranch. It is amazing.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

One Sad Corporate Titan

Quote of the day:
“One man was so mad at me that he ended his letter: ‘Beware. You will never get out of this world alive.’”
--John Steinbeck

A spat between Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone and his daughter Shari has been at the top of the business news the last few days. On the surface, the disagreement is about Shari’s interest in and control over the company when her father dies. Viacom owns Paramount Pictures, Showtime, Comedy Central and other cable channels.

The reality is that this is a classic, almost stereotypical saga of one man’s enormous greed and ego running amok and running over everything in its path.

Mr. Redstone has made it clear that he will have a stranglehold on control of the company until he takes his last breath. If he was a happy guy there’d be nothing wrong with this.

He has been referred to in the Los Angeles Times as a “control freak.” Unless that term is taken literally, it is too facilely dismissive of this situation. It’s as if we want to classify how he operates as just a little eccentric.

The reality is that he is obnoxious and impossible to be around.

He is obsessed with his company’s stock price which, tellingly, has languished for quite some time. He tried to give it a boost by spinning off money-losing CBS. Get this: after the spinoff, Viacom’s stock continued to stagnate but CBS took off. Doesn’t that tell us something?

He cannot bear that someone else at Viacom might get some control over decision making, or might be seen as having a positive influence on the company. For Sumner Redstone, there is never enough control.

A few years ago he fired the executive widely considered the best in the broadcasting business, Mel Karmazin. Karmazin had done an extraordinary job building the Infinity stations and then CBS. When Viacom bought CBS, he became president of the combined company and there was great anticipation that he would work his magic to seriously build it.

He lasted just about a year. Redstone couldn’t stand having someone around who was talented, who knew what he was doing and was independent.

Not only is Redstone not a happy guy, he seems determined to alienate every key person who works for him and every member of his family. The only member of his family who does not have an argument with or lawsuit pending against him is his wife.

And so he sits in one of his very expensive homes, watching his exotic tropical fish and the stock ticker on CNBC.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

We're All One At Party Time

Quote of the day:
“Goodness isn’t just cool, it’s the new snowboarding.... Too many people seem to see goodness as the kind of tree that doesn’t exist unless someone is around to hear it fall. And that’s no way to save a forest.”
--Meghan Daum in the July 21 Los Angeles Times.

Last Friday Hector Tobar of The Los Angeles Times wrote a story about the residents of Naco, a town in far southeastern Arizona that straddles the border with Mexico. This is what he said:

“The residents of the two Nacos occasionally gather along the border for a party. They recently met on the western edge of town where the tall steel barrier ends. Only a low fence made of rail ties marks the border there: it is a hurdle so short and insubstantial that a toddler could cross it.

“’They served hamburgers on the American side, and we served tacos on our side,’ [city employee Rene] Siqueiros recalled.

“At first, Americans and Mexicans stayed in their respective countries, passing hamburgers and tacos across the short fence. ‘We were a little timid,’ he said.

“But after a few beers, people started to loosen up. ‘We crossed over to the American side and they would jump over to Mexico,’ Siqueiros recalled. After a while, Mexicans and Americans were all mixed up on both sides of the frontier.

“When the party ended, everyone stepped back into their own country and went home.”

Monday, July 23, 2007

A Vote For "Bobby"

Quote of the day:
“As a novelist, I tell stories, and people give me money. Then financial planners tell me stories, and I give them money.”
--Martin Cruz Smith

Quote of the day no. 2:
“I mean, people have access to health care in America. After all, you just go to an emergency room.”
--George Bush

The movie “Bobby” was roundly trounced by the critics when it was released last year. Too bad, because I enjoyed it.

It does two things well. First, it shows a snapshot of 1968--the culture, music, look and politics of the time. I was a teenager at the time, but this film really took me back. I was reminded how chaotic and divided we were. And how the culture was quite different from today.

Second, the film provides a compelling reminder of Robert Kennedy’s vision, and why so many people were yearning to be close to it.

Conservative entertainers dismissed this film as propaganda about a flaming liberal written and directed by the son of a flaming liberal. That’s unfortunate, because it has something to teach all of us about America’s purpose and ideals.

Emilio Estevez (who, thanks to his proximity to his father Martin Sheen, certainly must be at least a smoldering liberal) worked on “Bobby” for six years. He shows a great sensitivity for the feeling of the time.

Many characters, both fictional and fictionalized, are portrayed in the film, and the film is set up to be mostly about them. Unfortunately, the film does not do a good job of exploring any of these characters. It’s unclear why a few of them are even in the film.

But the film does work when seen as a sort of 1968 pastiche rather than an in-depth portrait. And hearing Kennedy’s eloquent (and non-partisan) words in 2007 was both moving and refreshing.

It’s worth renting “Bobby.”

Sunday, July 22, 2007

American Idol: Presidential

Quote of the day:
“Here’s exciting news for New York City: Pope Benedict will be visiting New York in the spring.... And the good news is, he’s bringing his wife, Posh Benedict.”
--David Letterman

Quote of the day no. 2:
“Besides the good things which he possesses, [the American] every instant fancies a thousand others.... This thought fills him with anxiety, fear, and regret.”
--Alexis de Tocqueville

Unbelievable financial statistic of the day:
Percentage of BMWs and Mercedes on the road which are leased: 80%.

Now here’s an excellent idea for the televised presidential debates, the next one of which will be on CNN tomorrow night.

Writing in yesterday’s New York Times, Gail Collins talked about John Edwards whispering to Hillary Clinton that it would be nice to have debates “with a smaller group of people.” Edwards didn’t know that a live microphone was nearby.

The comment enraged Dennis Kucinich. He holds the very logical view that participating in the debates is the only way the public can hear his message. Sounds reasonable. The thing is, Kucinich participated in 21 televised debates when he ran in 2004.

I’ve mentioned before that I like watching the debates because they are an excellent way to see the candidates unscripted and spontaneous. At least that’s the idea.

With 8 Democratic candidates and 10 (or 11 or 12 or how many exactly?) Republicans, the debates consist of two things: 30- 60- or 90- second candidate statements and constant attempts to regulate and manage the discussion.

Clearly, most of the candidates now view the debates primarily as opportunities to generate sound bites. This compromises the purpose for having the debates in the first place. That is, if you assume the purpose is to learn more about the candidates than is reported in headlines and sound bites.

Collins’ idea is this. After each debate, invite viewers to go online to vote for who they want to see go home. She says, “Ratings will soar.”

She is facetious, of course. But I found myself seriously considering this as a possibility. Why not?

Think of the advantages. All kinds of people who normally don’t vote would participate. The most-marginal candidates would be weeded out, only after having the chance to prove themselves.

Limiting the voting to online would at least partially prevent people from voting many times. The problem of underage voting would need to be dealt with.

But I gotta say I like the idea. We have the chance to vote for or against so many talent-show contestants these days. Why not have the chance to vote in the biggest talent show of them all?

Saturday, July 21, 2007

What Does "Support Our Troops" Mean?

Quote of the day:
“There are probably four objects that people commonly worship as much, or perhaps more, than God: 1) their mothers; 2) their children; 3) the Bible; and 4) the flag.”
--Rev. Clayton Childers

I walked by a house yesterday that had a “Support Our Troops” sign in the yard. It got me to thinking about the meaning of that slogan.

I don’t think it means support our troops. If it does, why would someone put it in on a sign in her yard? Does anyone not support our troops? Who needs convincing?

I think it really means that we need to all agree on our military mission. Or at least present a unified front. The assumption is that, if our troops hear disagreement about their mission, they will be demoralized.

There probably is some truth in that. But that truth needs to be weighed against the essential truth of our nation. That truth is that disagreement is part of our founding. It is a building block of our system and fundamental to our nature.

Indeed, during the Iraq war we’ve heard from many troops who themselves disagree with our mission. Yet they obey orders and do their jobs.

Certainly we should be clear in support of our troops. But why do we need to act as if they don’t understand that the strength and power of America is demonstrated when people are free to openly disagree with our government?

Friday, July 20, 2007


Quote of the day:
"We're taught to expect unconditional love from our parents, but I think it is more the gift our children give us. It's they who love us helplessly, no matter what or who we are."
--Kathryn Harrison

Yesterday Merrie, Sophie and I drove north from San Diego on I-5, I-405 and the 101. Like many Southern Californians, we’ve made this trip hundreds of times. It’s more difficult than ever.

The number of cars using these highways continues to grow, and speeds continue to drop. I-405 from LAX to I-10 must be one of the reverse wonders of the world. It is always jammed and very, very slow. I can’t remember the last time this was more than stop-and-go, no matter the time of day.

Our average interstate-highway speed through the 50 miles of the L.A. region was about 30 mph.

As long as I’ve been driving, there have been drivers who weave from lane to lane, always looking for the fastest way through. Yesterday, about a third of the drivers on the road were doing this. It was a sort of zig-zag ballet.

Speeds are much higher, too--when there’s little traffic. There are always people going at least 90.

See my entry We Refuse to Understand Real Risk.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Hedge Funds or Hedge Hogs?

Quote of the day:
"There's nothing remarkable about [making music]. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself."
--Johann Sebastian Bach

Today’s high temperature in Baghdad: 102
Today’s high temperature in Phoenix: 112

Financial news headline of the day:
“Two Bear Stearns hedge funds essentially worthless.”

What is a “hedge fund”? In effect, it’s a mostly-unregulated mutual fund for rich people. The minimum investment is typically $500,000.

Because they don’t have the restrictions of mutual funds, hedge funds can invest in just about anything. And they do--whole companies, new issues, Chinese bonds, copper futures, real estate and more.

The reason they are called “hedge” funds is that, initially, they were created to provide a very sophisticated way for investors to hedge their bets--that is, protect themselves from major market fluctuations. The funds were sold on the premise they could do this while making a substantial return.

Due to the level of skill needed to accomplish this, hedge funds carry an extraordinarily high cost. Most charge an annual 2% fee plus 20% of any investment return. Some are 3% plus 30%.

Because they are so larcenously lucrative, hundreds of hedge funds have been created in the last several years. Taking costs into account, most of them underperform market indexes. In fact, I don’t know of a single hedge fund that has consistently beaten the market for five years.

With such huge fees, managers of these funds must take significant risks to make the kind of returns that attract investors. More often than is reported, they lose lots of money,

Occasionally, as in the Bear Stearns case yesterday, they go bust.

And, occasionally, a few do incredibly well for a year or two. Then money pours in from investors who tell themselves the costs are worth it.

What happens after that is anyone’s speculation. But the odds are that these investors will lose money.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Shoving for Peace?

Quote of the day:
“It is possible to own too much. A man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never quite sure.”
--Lee Segall

Annoying news lead of the day:
“President Bush announced an initiative yesterday to shore up the Palestinian president and to begin building a Palestinian state, signaling that his administration will use its remaining time for a major push for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
--Helene Cooper in the New York Times.

I am grateful for any effort toward peace, but this effort is annoying for two reasons.

First, “pushing” for peace points to an arrogant we-know-better-than-you-what’s-good-for-you attitude. Attempts to “push” peace don’t work, except in the short term.

Long-term peace requires a very high level of trust, which takes time and patient skill to nurture, especially in this situation.

Which brings me to my second annoyance. It is truly incredible that Bush is now pushing peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Just after he took office in 2001 he literally and summarily abandoned the long-standing peace process in the Middle East.

Hundreds of people on all sides had built trust and committed thousands of hours to ongoing, painstaking negotiations. Most of those people were non-partisan career diplomats. It is insulting, demeaning and arrogant--not to mention tragic--to simply toss their work aside.

And now, more than six years later, a big announcement comes that we are going to “push for peace.” I wish someone would tell President Bush that he can’t just switch this off and on when he decides decisions.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Vote For Reality TV

Quote of the day:
“It is my contention that Aesop was writing for the tortoise market. Hares have no time to read.”
--Anita Brookner

There are many, many reality shows on television. Except for a lapse or two, I used to steadfastly avoid them, fearing the tainting of my soul.

Which reminds me of something Mark Twain said when someone asked him how he felt about accepting money that might be tainted. He said, “It’s tainted alright. T’aint yours and t’aint mine.”

Merrie and I watch three or four reality shows, without guilt. They are often improvised live-action soap operas, and they can be quite entertaining. More than that, I think reality shows serve two constructive purposes.

First, they provide a glimpse into a range of real human behavior. We see people at their best, at their worst and at all levels in between. This can be both revealing and instructive.

Second, we learn about celebrity. Specifically, we learn that celebrity cuts both ways. “Putting yourself out there” exposes you to the potential of being known and appreciated for your talent or personality. At the same time, it exposes you to sometimes-withering criticism--both fair and unfair, both dispassionate and bitterly angry, both private and public.

Most people with high public profiles--entertainers, politicians, college presidents, corporate chiefs--have some mechanism to shield them from the nastiest criticism. There are always some people who are angry or disgusted with them, even though they may rarely encounter these people directly.

What participants on reality shows discover is that celebrity brings good and ego-gratifying things, and it brings negative and humiliating things. On these shows, this is highly dramatized, as contestants sometimes are humiliated to their faces on national television.

Maybe that’s a good and permanent way to learn that celebrity is not even close to the nirvana that, on the outside, it seems to be.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Moving From Condemnation to Understanding

Quote of the day:
“Who will you love when the savior you were promised never comes?”
--Dead Heart Bloom

Constructive dialogue doesn’t just happen. We don’t have the patience for it. There needs to be a structured process.

Most of the members of the United Methodist California-Pacific Annual Conference participated in such a process a few years ago. It was called “discernment.”

A bit of background. In deciding policy and direction, the United Methodist Church operates as a pure democracy. Matters are decided by Roberts-Rules debates followed by votes in legislative session at both the regional and national levels.

This system is by design adversarial. On each motion, those on both sides are heard from, and then a vote is taken. The majority vote prevails. Those who are not in the majority have to live with it.

We had attempted through legislation for many years to come to terms about the role of gays and lesbians in church leadership. But our conference remained bitterly divided and stuck.

The aim of the discernment process was not legislative but rather attempting to sense the direction of the church in the midst of people opening their hearts to each other. It may sound a little strange, but it was quite powerful.

The central method used was simple. Groups of eight to ten people would agree to basic ground rules and then each person would answer some specific questions about their experience. This method was repeated in many venues over almost two years.

Listening to the experiences of people in the structured setting of discernment was extraordinarily enlightening to me. I had thought I knew everything that needed to be known about this issue.

Hearing from people actually dealing with it every day showed me how little I knew.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Political Healing

Quote of the day:
“He’s a writer for the ages--for the ages 4 to 8.”
--Dorothy Parker

For most of us, political dialogue doesn’t exist. We read or hear statements by political leaders which are usually encapsulated criticism of the opponent’s action or point of view.

We read opinion in magazines, newspapers and online. The goal of these pieces is not dialogue but persuasion.

We listen to radio or TV talk shows where the aim is to entertain by inflaming the impugned idiocy of the other side, thus creating conflict. Short, clever, self-righteous diatribes are the staple, from both hosts and callers.

We talk with our friends and discover they have become as stirred up as we are by the lunacy of those we disagree with. The ensuing conversation is not dialog but rather an assemblage of cherry-picked facts that support our pent-up point of view.

In real dialogue, listening comes first, and the goal is not persuasion but understanding. An excellent example is described by David Briggs of Religion News Service.

In a story published yesterday, he talks about a dialogue between John Kerry supporters and those of George Bush in the “battleground” of Ohio in 1994. It wasn’t easy.

It happened at the Forest Hills Church, Presbyterian in Cleveland Heights. Rev. John Lentz had sensed a bitter partisan division in the church and wanted to find out why there was such tension.

Participants were uneasy and uncertain at the beginning. But what happened over time is revealing. This is how Briggs puts it:

“The focus shifted from trying to convince people who held different beliefs that they were wrong to listening to other members talk about how their views were shaped by having a family member in the military or escorting women into abortion clinics.

“Respecting one another also meant being open to change.”

One participant decided to stop listening to constant criticism of liberals by radio and TV entertainers. He says the idea that those who oppose the Iraq war are unpatriotic is “nonsense--that’s just nuts.”

A conclusion reached by the participants:
“When we seek and share the same values, our differences can lead to creative dialogue instead of confrontational disagreement.”

Saturday, July 14, 2007

We Are Irrational

Quote of the day:
"Just to live in the country is a full-time job. You don't have to do anything. The idle pursuit of making a living is pushed to one side, where it belongs, in favor of living itself, a task of such immediacy, variety, beauty, and excitement that one is powerless to resist its wild embrace."
--E.B. White

Have you noticed how irrational human beings are? The misapprehension of risk I talked about yesterday is one example.

Another is that even when there is repeated, overwhelming evidence against someone’s assumptions, he or she will continue holding on to those assumptions.

This confuses me. People’s opinions and beliefs are intractable--even in the face of careful and balanced research and teaching. We have a tendency to revere our own opinions and beliefs. Ministers encounter this daily.

Cultural critic Louis Menand has some marvelously refreshing comments about this in the July 9/16 New Yorker. He is reviewing Bryan Caplan’s book The Myth of the Rational Voter, but these thoughts are his:

“People exaggerate the risk of loss; they like the status quo and tend to regard it as a norm; they overreact to sensational but unrepresentative information (the shark-attack phenomenon); they will pay extravagantly to punish cheaters, even when there is no benefit to themselves; and they often rank fairness and reciprocity ahead of self-interest.

“Most people, even if you explained to them what the economically rational choice was, would be reluctant to make it, because they value other things--in particular, they want to protect themselves from the downside of change.

“They would rather feel good about themselves than maximize (even legitimately) their profit, and they would rather not have more of something than run the risk, even if the risk is small by actuarial standards, of having significantly less.”

Friday, July 13, 2007

Misapprehension of Risk

For the superstitious, see my post Where 7 Comes From, which also talks about where 13 comes from.

Quote of the day:
“Do you notice that in almost all of these, a superhero is needed to save us? There is no idea that people en masse might do anything about it. Isn’t that interesting?”
--Jim Hosney, film teacher, reacting to a series of trailers before the movie 28 Days Later.

Question of the day:
When was the last time you used the word “fracas” in general conversation?

One of my many eternal exasperations is what I call the “misapprehension of risk (MOR).”

In the days after 9/11 I imagined panicked people, worried about a terrorist attack, keeping track of each other by cell phone. All the while they’re ignoring the much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much greater risk to their health of using a cell phone while driving.

Human beings are funny.

Parents often reflexively keep their children away from strangers, thinking they are a big risk. They choose to ignore the research which consistently shows that the much bigger risk to children comes from family members and others known to them.

Human beings are funny.

This week’s risk available for misapprehension is the risk of being struck by lightning while wearing an iPod. The news story I saw had an appropriately gruesome picture of the injuries someone suffered when this happened.

Give me a break. A very, very large break.

During a rainstorm or not, you are at bigger risk of falling into a hole, being bitten by a bat, or being sat on by Arnold Schwarzenegger than being struck by lightning.

Among the real risks to wearing an iPod are:
hearing loss from playing it too loud,
walking in front of a speeding car that you don’t hear coming,
alienation from other humans,
and, if you’re a teenager, damage from a parent who is annoyed by your lack of attention.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Friendlier Restaurants

Quote of the day:
“The film that ensues is acrylically bright, and the only way to match its median sound level would be to blow up a trombone factory.”
--Anthony Lane, in his New Yorker review of Transformers.

The credit-card industry may just be getting set to make our lives easier, according to Dimitra DeFotis in the July 9 Barron’s.

How about this? When the time comes to pay your bill, instead of giving your card to the waiter, he brings a card-swiping machine to your table. You just swipe your card and maybe sign, and you’re off.

It is interesting that only half of adults would be willing to use a payment terminal at their table. I guess the other half thinks it’s more secure to give their plastic to a waiter, who goes in the back, maybe to steal the number so he can sell it.

Does anyone not know that the number one and two sources of stolen credit-card numbers are paper files and the plastic card itself?

In addition to eliminating the time it takes your waiter to carry your card to the register and come back with the form, paying at the table would be MORE secure, not less.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Good Summer Viewing

Quote of the day:
“Who are we?”
--Michael Moore, in Sicko

Quote of the day no. 2:
“First, we must learn to count to one.”  
--Martin Luther King

See Sicko. It’s worth your time.

I know what you’re thinking. “In the middle of summer, why would I want to go to a film about health-care policy? Boooorrring.”

The thing is, it’s not boring. In fact it’s probably more interesting and entertaining than the other films at your multiplex.

Yes, Michael Moore can be hard to take. But there’s little of him in this film. None of the ambush and embarrass scenes as in his previous films. I don’t like that technique. I think it’s petty and almost childish (“I’m gonna tell my mom!”)

If you think Moore is a flaming liberal, I’m sure you won’t see the film. That’s too bad, because it’s about all of us.

The film is a series of personal stories from people who might be your neighbors or siblings or friends. Just normal people trying to go to the doctor to get some help. We all know someone who could share a similar story.

These stories are set against those of other normal, everyday people in other nations who also have needed to go to the doctor.

The movie is sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, sometimes poignant--but always entertaining and interesting. It is Michael Moore’s best film.

I encourage you to put your preconceptions aside and simply go see it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

CNN vs. Michael Moore

Quote of the day:
“Whenever it is universally known that power is the creation of its victims, the world trembles.”
--Earl Shorris

When I turned on CNN this morning, my eyebrows were almost burned off by Michael Moore.

They were replaying a bit of Wolf Blitzer’s Situation Room from the day before. They had scheduled an interview with Michael Moore and introduced it with a piece by their medical reporter, Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Gupta had called into question a statistic or two from Moore’s movie Sicko. He also said he liked the film. The discrepancies Gupta were pointing out were small, but he said Moore had “fudged” some numbers.

That’s what lit Moore’s fuse. What ensued was both entertaining and quite constructive.

The other criticism was that Moore did not report any of the problems or the costs of the French, Canadian and British systems, all of which he praised. His response to this was that, in his memory, there had been nothing but criticism of these systems in the American press for the last ten years or longer.

I think Moore makes an excellent point there. Of course there are problems with the French, Canadian and British systems. Can you remember seeing anything positive about them in the press? I can’t.

The salient point for the average American is that, in these countries, health care is free and accessible to all. That’s what Moore portrays. As citizens of each of these nations talk about what it’s like going to the doctor, they actually seem calm and satisfied. Can you imagine?

We are so conditioned to working our own system, it’s hard for us to imagine not having to do that anymore.

The most-important thing to come out of the Michael Moore-CNN fracas is not about health care. It’s about the role of the media.

Moore took Wolf Blitzer and CNN to task for failing to be more aggressive in reporting about Iraq as well as health care. He also was still mad about their criticism of his previous film Fahrenheit 911. He said, correctly, that the facts he presented in that film have not been disputed, and that his conclusions have turned out to be true. And he asked for an apology, which didn’t come.

Moore is right to criticize. News organizations such as CNN have become accustomed to simply repeating facts that are shoved their way by self-interested organizations, including the U.S. government and think tanks sponsored by the health-insurance industry.

They no longer are able or willing to investigate or even question, and certainly not with any depth. So it is left to Michael Moore, with all his obnoxious self-righteousness, to present something other than the “company line.”

Monday, July 9, 2007

Extraordinary Journalism

Quote of the day:
“Love’s a fire, but whether it’s going to warm your heart or burn down your house, you can never tell.”
--Joan Crawford

Quote of the day no. 2:
“ What they discovered, in a year of work that reveals more about the inner workings of this White House than any previous reporting, is a vice president who used the broad authority given him by a complaisant chief executive to bend the decision-making process to his own ends and purposes, often overriding Cabinet officers and other executive branch officials along the way.”
--David Broder

Broder is referring to a detailed, in-depth, meticulously reported story in The Washington Post by Barton Gellman and Jo Becker. It carefully describes from behind the scenes how Dick Cheney has amassed his unprecedented power, and how he is using it.

Gellman and Becker’s four-part story is here:
It is long, but it’s very much worth your time, for three reasons.

First, it is well-written, interesting and involving. In places it reads like a political thriller, and I bet it’s much better than most of the political fiction at Barnes and Noble.

Second, it is a lucid behind-the-scenes account of how power can be (and has been) used, misused, manipulated and abused. Maybe we will face no long-lasting negative consequences from Cheney’s terms as vice president. But we all share responsibility for his presence in this position, and we may not be so fortunate if we allow this again.

Third, this kind of reporting, while still very much present in a few news organizations, is being displaced in our consciousness by shallow and repetitive press-release-based news conference and events coverage. Gellman and Becker worked on this story for a full year--interviewing, researching documents, following up leads, verifying facts, writing, rewriting.

They and the Post deserve our thanks for reminding us of the potential positive power of the press.

If you honestly don’t have the time or patience to read the Post story, I strongly recommend Hendrik Hertzberg’s summary in The New Yorker. You can find it here:

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Underwater Mortgages

Quote of the day:
"It is much easier to make war than peace."
--Former French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau

23 percent of adjustable-rate mortgages are in negative equity, according to Alan Abelson in today’s Barron’s. That compares with 17 percent one year ago.

The question of the day is, will the other shoe drop?

Let’s take a journey back in time. To 1999. That’s when the stock market, led by technology stocks, was red hot. It had been red hot for four years.

Many people had avoided the market for those four years, either because they thought it was too risky or because they didn’t understand it, or both.

After watching the market make 20+ percent gains every year for four years, some of these folks threw in the towel (more precisely, the trowel--because hole-digging is involved) and jumped into the stock market. That was the first shoe dropping.

Then came 2000, and the market headed south in a hurry. Some of those who had gotten in a year earlier panicked and got out. They lost a lot of money. That’s the second shoe dropping.

Many others stuck with it. And now, seven years later, most of them are doing just fine. They’ve bought new shoes.

So. Almost one-quarter of those with ARMs now look at their mortgage debt and the selling prices of homes around them and see that the first is more than the second. Many of them purchased in the last year of the “boom.”

Will they be able to hang in there? Or will the second shoes begin dropping?

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Where 7 Comes From

Quote of the day:
“It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.”
--Oscar Wilde

Scads of cute little news stories have popped up about the fact that today is 7/7/07. All of these news stories cite instances of the number seven appearing in our daily lives. But not a one has said how the number came to be significant or “lucky.”

There you have it. Another example of how we have lost a coherent sense of where we’ve come from. Or at least THAT we’ve come from somewhere.

There probably are many people who think seven became lucky in Las Vegas. You could say we are “illnumerate,” though I think that term is used to describe widespread math inability.

The specialness of seven goes waaay back to ancient numerology, in which a particular meaning was attached to certain numbers.

Specifically, the number 4 was used to signify the earth (everything that was on the ground or came from the ground). The number 3 was used to signify the heavens (everything that was up that was visible).

This meant that any equal combination of 3 and 4 signified completeness or perfection. Thus seven was understood as the perfect number. So was 12 (3x4).

Likewise, 6 (7-1) was considered a permanently imperfect number. So was 13 (12+1).

This was the understanding as the stories in the bible were written down, edited and assembled. That’s why there are seven days of creation, 12 tribes of Israel and 12 apostles. And the instruction to forgive “seventy times seven” originates from this. There are multiples of seven and 12 in stories throughout the bible. And, of course, the ever-present-in-Revelation-and-horror-movies 666.

The number 40, 4 times ten, is an earth-bound number. Thus it is used to describe the number of years the Israelites were in the wilderness with Moses, the number of days of rain that caused the flood and the number of days of Jesus’ temptation.

In the early days of Christianity there came to be 3 faces of god, the trinity. Meanwhile, there were the four corners of the earth and the four elements of ancient alchemy--earth, air, fire and water.

Later, as our system of time evolved, there were 7 days in a week, 24 hours in a day and 12 months in a year.

And then, there came craps.

It all came from way back.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Language in the U.S.

Quote of the day:
“Invoking simple solutions to complex problems is an easy and effective rhetorical device. No need to do research, check facts, consider complexities--just assert the solution and, as long as it is close enough to what people are ready to believe, the argument is won.”
--John Moore, chair of the linguistics department at the University of California San Diego, and Ana Celia Zentella, professor in the department of ethnic studies, UCSD.

Moore and Celia Zentella are quoted from an excellent column they wrote in the June 28th San Diego Union-Tribune about the issue of Spanish and English usage in the U.S.

They continue:
“From media discussions, one would think that Latino communities are Spanish-only language ghettos where no one is willing to learn English. However, the facts say otherwise. More than 70 percent of Spanish speakers in the United States are also fluent in English, and a very large number of U.S. Latinos can only speak English.

“Those who do not attain fluency in English are almost exclusively first-generation immigrants who came to the United States as adults....

“[T]hese first-generation Spanish speakers are learning English in greater numbers than has ever been the case in our history as an immigrant nation, and many of their children are learning little or no Spanish.

“The perception that Spanish speakers won’t speak English is simply false--they do and they do so faster than earlier immigrants did.”

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Art For Art's Sake

Quote of the day:
“The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved--loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves.”
--Victor Hugo

Observation of the day:
From Joni Mitchell, who commented during the documentary All We Are Saying that the press had gotten stupider and shallower in the last 20 years.

Is art created for an audience, or just for itself? The reasonable answer, as always, is both.

How does this happen? Gramophone columnist Armando Iannucci makes a relevant comment in the July issue. He begins with the paintings of J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851).

Turner is best known for his distinctive landscapes and vividly rendered ships at sea. But the last paintings of his life, which were not appreciated at the time and remain under the radar today, are more exercises in color than in depiction.

They are still landscapes, but the colors have so taken over that the paintings foreshadow not just impressionism but also Rothko-style abstraction. Iannucci suggests that if you know the earlier paintings and encounter one of the very late paintings you might think that that Turner was going “mad.”

Iannucci recalled his own delight in seeing the paintings in the context of Turner’s whole career when he visited an exhibition at the Tate Museum. It seemed to him that the paintings were a logical and extraordinary culmination of an amazing creative life.

And it is at that culmination that the artist could finally just create art just for its own sake. In the process, something new is begun.

One of the musical examples Iannucci brings up is the Beethoven String Quartets. He says they are “works that are built on a lifetime of writing for these forces, and yet this time written through with a willful disobedience of the standard rules of quartet composition, whether in length, number of movements, or in development of the material.

“In the late quartets I always hear the sound of Beethoven saying ‘At last, this is really what I’ve always wanted to say.’”

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Self-Evident Truths

Quote of the day:
"There's nothing constant in the world,
All ebb and flow, and every shape that's born
Bears in its womb the seeds of change."

A while back I ranted and raved about those who see the King James bible as the one true bible. In effect, they believe that the book dropped to the earth with a thud in 1611, with nothing relevant before or after it.

I get the distinct impression that many people treat the Declaration of Independence the same way: it just appeared all of a sudden, thanks to the brilliance of the Founding Fathers (otherwise known as the 2F’s).

Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the document, and Benjamin Franklin, who edited it, were indeed both brilliant men. But what they were brilliant about was history. They had read deeply and had had an unusually broad cultural experience.

The Declaration of Independence came out of this knowledge and experience, which included the historical scope of English and European attempts to govern. These attempts went as far back as the Etruscans as well as the ancient tribes of northern and central Europe.

Also brought into play by Jefferson and Franklin was an inherent grasp of classical ideas, especially those of Plato, Aristotle and the bible.

To say America was born out of nothing is ludicrous. And the one idea that is unique in its prominence--that “all men are created equal”--is a ways down the list of America’s attributes, according to many.

At least, that’s the way it seems when people say “America is the greatest nation on earth” and mean that Americans are somehow better or more special than others.

The principle upon which we are founded is “all men are created equal” not “all Americans are created equal.”

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Seeing Inside Myself

Quote of the day:
“You know what they say about fear. The only cure is to cut off your head.”
--Ronald Bass and Michael Hertzberg, from the movie Entrapment.

As part of some routine medical tests, today I had an echo-cardiogram. It’s similar to a sonogram in producing images of what is happening inside your body.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of watching my heart beating. More precisely, watching all the individual movements of my heart as it beat.

I could see one side of the heart pump, then the other. I could see the valves opening and closing. It was simultaneously eerie and wonderful.

I lay there thinking that my heart does all these things continuously, and has for many years. It was hard for me to focus on just the physiology of what was happening. A very gentle sense of awe settled on me.

When we were finished I shook the technician’s hand and headed to the parking lot.

It was a quiet pre-holiday evening at the hospital. I passed just one person in the hallway. It was a nurse coming on duty. I started to say hi but she was distracted.

It was a glorious evening outside.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Is Rock the New Jazz?

Quote of the day:
"There is not enough time to do all the nothing we want to do."
--Bill Watterson

The other day I was very surprised to hear Tom Petty say that rock is becoming more like jazz and blues: a historical American art form with small appeal. His comment was part of a documentary about contemporary music called All We Are Saying, produced by Rosanna Arquette.

Others on the documentary suggested that the mantle of cultural change-agent, to the extent it exists in music, has now been passed to hip-hop. Just like rock in the 60s and 70s, and jazz in the 30s and 40s, hip-hop is now the forum for the musical expression of youth.

We who grew up in the rock era like to think of rock music as creatively superior to hip-hop. But it’s really not. As several other musicians admitted in All We Are Saying, the fundamentals of rock are simple chords and rhythms.

Nonetheless, hip-hop is very different from rock-and-roll. Whether you like either, both or neither is a matter of taste based on experience.

Jazz is a different matter. Because the field is wide open to rhythmic and melodic variation and improvisation, a key characteristic of jazz is restraint.

In the July/August 2007 Atlantic, Benjamin Schwarz reviews a book of essays about Frank Sinatra’s huge cultural influence in the 20th century. He calls that influence second only to Elvis Presley’s.

In the 1930s and 40s, Schwarz writes, “jazz, as played by the big bands, was the most popular musical form.” He goes on to say that the initial “poppy” phase of Sinatra’s career “hastened the demise of the big bands and unmoored a mass audience from sophisticated popular music.”

So, in addition to looking for entertainment, maybe what we need to be looking for is sophistication. Who are the musicians setting new standards, and going places never gone before?

Some say Eminem has done this for hip-hop, or that Radiohead is doing it for rock. I suppose we won’t know until this era is over.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Poor Warren Buffett

Quote of the day:
“My wife and I tried two or three times in the last forty years to have breakfast together, but it was so disagreeable we had to stop.”
--Winston Churchill

Quote of the day no. 2:
“I’m a mover, I’m a shaker.”
--Young MC

Poor Warren Buffett.

First of all, we’re not talking about the Buffett who is wasted away again in margaritaville. I’m sure you know who Warren Buffett is (the most successful investor of the last 50 years), but I thought I should point that out.

I say he’s “poor” in the sense that he may be more out of fashion than he’s ever been.

The heart of his investment method is quite simple. He carefully calculates what he calls the “intrinsic value” of companies, and then he buys stock in the companies that are not selling at their full intrinsic value.

And then he holds, and holds. He’s been quoted saying that the best time to sell is “never.” His fundamental-investing philosophy says that the price of the stock will rise in response to its intrinsic value. To Buffett, it doesn’t matter when. Months, years, decades. He’ll wait.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. The desire for a world quick and gratifying grows by the hour. This is not Buffett’s world.

He is very unpopular among momentum traders, especially those who measure their manhood by their ability to extract small profits from a day of putting hundreds of thousands of dollars at risk while trading ferociously.

To these people, and to many others, investing is a hip-and-happening game where the fastest and cleverest win. The more arcane and complicated the transaction, the better. The more leveraged (the more debt), the better.

Interesting that the biggest winner, by far, in the investment game remains Warren Buffett. He has made more money as an investor than anyone in our lifetimes. No one else is close.

He can buy and sell Donald Trump a hundred times. I wish he would buy him and hold him.