Thursday, January 31, 2008

Camelot in one sentence

My former colleague Whet Moser has the best one-sentence summary of the mysteriously deified Kennedy administration:
apparently the sex-addicted son of a Neville Chamberlain sympathizer gave America the sense of national possibility it needed to get into the Vietnam War, leave a bunch of Cuban exiles for dead as part of the worst coup attempt ever, run to the brink of nuclear apocalypse, and help install the Baath party as the ruling party of Iraq.
I'm up for some more of the same, applied to outrageously overrated graven images like Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. If nothing else, telling truth in one sentence might just take the snooze out of history class.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Reform for me but not for thee

Catalyst Chicago doesn't always pick fights with city school reformers, so it's especially interesting when they do. This story by John Myers appeared in December:
Chicago Public Schools is closing in on its goal of opening 100 new schools under Renaissance 2010, but almost half of the communities identified as most in need of high-performing schools have yet to get them.
No surprises here. Some of the same communities, mostly South Side and mostly black, that were shortchanged by the old educational order are being shortchanged by the new one: East Garfield Park, Near South Side, Riverdale, Roseland, South Chicago, South Shore, Washington Park, West Elsdon, West Lawn, and West Pullman.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Vietnam's revenge

A tidbit from Stephen Kotkin's article on Vietnam in the January 30 New Republic
(requires $ubscription although you can get a taste here):
At 17.5 percent, Vietnam has a significantly higher degree of per capita Internet penetration than China (10 percent) or Indonesia (8 percent)....

Vietnam ranks sixth globally in recorded hits on MIT's "open courseware" site, which offers information from more than fifteen hundred college courses -- exclusively in English. If nothing else, this testifies to aspirations.
Actually, the site (which is not the same as an MIT education but no doubt a sight better than none at all) does offer at least some courses translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Thai, and both simplified and traditional Chinese. Among the most frequently visited are courses in classical mechanics, linear algebra, electricity and magnetism, and circuits and electronics.

Monday, January 28, 2008

What voting is like these days

A good blog post can bring all the abstract junk of journalism down to earth. Case in point, Ann Bartow at Feminist Law Professors on voting in the South Carolina primary.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Rick Perlstein

My profile of the author of Before the Storm and the forthcoming Nixonland is in this week's Chicago Reader. If you'd rather read excerpts, Digby has some.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Marketing the South

If you've ever wondered how a flag that sympolizes slavery, racism, terror, and treason came to be a piece of Americana treasured by those who think themselves conservative patriots, you may be interested in this press release summarizing an article on the marketing of the South from the February Journal of Consumer Research. Authors Craig Thompson and Kelly Tian report on a
broad coalition of Southern mythmakers [who] sought to defend the honor of their Confederate ancestors, rebuke the cultural stigmas that had been ascribed to white Southern identities and perhaps most of all, attract infusions of Northern capital needed to build a more prosperous New South.
The key white identity myths are the Lost Cause (Confederate soldiers as "gallant Christian Knights"), Moonlight and Magnolias (white Southern womanhood as "a vulnerable vessel of virtue"), and Celtic Rednecks (poor whites as hillbillies).

And, I gather, the less said about those human beings owned by the first two categories of people, the better.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A bit of business

If you don't find me here some days, or if you discover a sudden need to keep up with Midwestern genealogy, you can mosey over to


Rhetorical questions from Sam Smith:
What is the bipartisan solution for. . .

The Iraq war, which was started and continued with full support of both the Republican and Democratic parties?

The destruction of the Constitution through such means as runaway wiretapping and the Patriot Act, both of which have received strong bipartisan support including from major Democratic presidential candidates?

The harm done by the cynical No Child Left Behind Act, which received broad bipartisan support?

The growing use of torture by the US government, support for which is so bipartisan it hasn't hardly been mentioned during the current campaign?

Global warming, around which Republicans and Democrats have reached a consensus to keep as much below the surface as possible?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Jencks on consequences of immigration

One of the few benefits of not being employed is being able to admit when you're late with something but it's interesting anyway. Last fall Christopher Jencks, formerly of Northwestern, laid out a characteristically straightforward account of the "immigration charade," as he calls it, in the guise of a review of a somewhat confused Pat Buchanan book. Here's the nugget:
Allowing employers to hire immigrants almost guarantees that unskilled natives will have more trouble finding steady work. Between 2000 and 2005 the unemployment rate among eighteen-to-sixty-four-year-old natives without high school diplomas rose from 10 to 14 percent; among their foreign-born counterparts it fell from 9 to 7 percent.
(The numbers are from this article from the Center for Immigration Studies by Steven Camarota.)

Jencks contends that a balance must be struck between the needs of native dropouts and of desperate immigrants, and that
The only way to strike a balance is to crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, offer visas to more unskilled foreign-born workers, and set the number of visas with an eye on how that number will affect job opportunities for unskilled natives.
Note the strategically deployed passive voice. Any administration that did this would have to be willing to offend powerful employer lobbies, powerful immigrant lobbies, those do-gooders who feel sorrier for uneducated foreigners than for uneducated natives, plus it would have to somehow insulate from politics the setting of those visa numbers. Good luck with that.

Monday, January 21, 2008

It's not the light bulbs

Chicago Architect, the new magazine of AIA Chicago, is mostly not on line. That includes Dennis Rodkin's short piece on Doug Farr's ambitious new book Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design With Nature. I'll get to review it later in a couple of places. For now, his key message is that no amount of compact fluorescent light bulbs and Priuses will save us.
We have to think beyond the light bulb, the car and the building to the block, the neighborhood, the corridor.... If you want to green, densify.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Beyond Beyond Petroleum

It used to be "Beyond Petroleum," before that it used to be "British Petroleum." The green mask came off the other day when it changed its corporate mind and invested in Canadian tar sands, the excavation of which Greenpeace has characterized as "the biggest global warming crime ever seen." Part of the story here. (H/t Common Dreams.)

George Monbiot puts this fracas in perspective:
When you review the plans for fossil fuel extraction, the horrible truth dawns that every carbon-cutting programme [from CAFE standards to insulating houses] is a con. Without supply-side policies, runaway climate change is inevitable, however hard we try to cut demand. The talks in Bali will be meaningless unless they produce a programme for leaving fossil fuels in the ground.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


A lot of folks seem to be having trouble with the "change" rhetoric in the presidential campaign, which as far as I can tell is just a way for all candidates to distance themselves from the moronic persona and policies of George W. Bush, without actually proposing what to do differently. On the Democratic side, Sam Smith's pungent as usual:
there is nothing about Obama that gives him a copyright on hope and, if you really want change, then logic would point you to John Edwards. But our politics have been subsumed by the values of television and so we continue to look for an American Idol instead of an American President.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Sacrifice without pain

"Asking Americans to sacrifice has become the untouchable third rail of U.S. environmentalism," writes Jason Mark in Earth Island Journal, online at Utne, covering the renewed debate over nuclear power as a way to reduce carbon emissions and combat global warming. It seems that it's either nukes or sacrifice (as in drastic energy conservation). Mark quotes Betsy Taylor of the Center for a New American Dream:
"I do think we are coming back to the old celebration of self-reliance and alternative technology at the local level. If we have a future with less oil and less nuclear, we will live differently, with less stuff and less energy consumption, but with more joy and more security. But we will have to rethink the McMansions and the two SUVs in the garage."
Mark concludes:
"That kind of vision makes nuclear power irrelevant. If we can reach a societal consensus that what we desire is a slower and smaller way of living, a reconceived notion of success, then we can fundamentally reformulate our energy system."
I don't see any groundswell for "slower and smaller," no matter how it's sweet-talked. Do you?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Health care culture

Mary Beth Regan dredges up a number of interesting ideas about our health-care system in the Johns Hopkins Public Health magazine. Here's one, from JHU health policy prof Thomas A. LaVeist:
more tightly regimented treatment protocols to level the playing field. "The one place we don't find racial or ethnic disparities in health care is in the active-duty military," he says. "In the military you don't have black culture or white culture, you have 'green' culture," he says.

"When the lifestyles, health care access, and practice are similar, the outcomes are similar," he says. To LaVeist, U.S. experience shows that health care does not flourish when left to a free market. "There are public goods and services that are not optimally distributed by the free market—for example, police services, emergency services and national defense," he says. "Health care may also be one of them."

This reminds me of No Child Left Behind, for better or worse. Some teachers kick and scream because that law, or some small-minded implementations of it, have reduced their professional discretion. Medicine is both better organized and much more professional (in the sense of a learned profession) than education, so I don't know that this particular proposal is going anywhere.

But professionals -- in health care or education or whatever -- who abhor the idea of "more tightly regimented treatment protocols" might want to be involved in profession-based attempts to bridge cultural and economic gaps, rather than fighting efforts to correct them.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The menace of ethanol, continued

Kurt Kleiner has a thorough-looking update on "the backlash against biofuels" over at Nature Reports Climate Change (h/t to Rachel's Democracy and Health News). I didn't know that a UN official had called them a "recipe for disaster" (PDF). My favorite Kleiner quote is from Eric Holt-Giminez of the FoodFirst Institute for Food and Development Policy:
I think a lot of environmentalists got caught with their pants down. They were thinking of biofuels in a local, non-industrial way.
Aww, isn't that sweet? You'd think they'd have noticed what happened when they exposed organic food production to the corporate-controlled mercies of federal government regulation. Part of that story's here. (Full disclosure: I live in a part of the country where pretty much every politician from right to left worships at the temple of biofuels in Decatur, Illinois, AKA the ADM headquarters.)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Capitalism is driving Oliver James crazy

"Great swaths of the population believe they can become rich and famous, and that it is highly desirable. This is most damaging of all -- the ideology that material affluence is the key to fulfillment and open to anyone willing to work hard enough."

Over at
Alternet, author Oliver James is arguing that capitalism as practiced in English-speaking nations is promoting this, whereas the kind practiced in, say, France isn't; that this worldview is more prevalent here now than it was, say, 20 or 30 years ago; that it's the reason for our higher rates of mental illness than in the past; and that if this worldview were turned around the rates of mental illness would be halved in a generation.

This argument is full of many of the same holes as the popular rants against sprawl (James Howard Kunstler, for example), including the generational time frame. (That's a pretty fair description of the American Dream in the 1800s, for heaven's sake!)
It also overlooks that "mental illness" is a fast-expanding category now that it's become a pharmaceutical money-maker. And even if everything else he wrote were true, it wouldn't follow that it could be undone or that undoing it -- returning to some ill-defined state of "reduced consumerism and greater equality" -- would magically return us to the status quo ante.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Finger paintings by Guido Daniele

Some exotic "finger paintings" being emailed around the web without credit are worth a look at the artist's own (COPYRIGHTED!) web site. By Guido Daniele of Milan, they're clever and colorful and I'm not prepared to determine whether they're high art, or how high. Weigh in if you dare.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Paleos try to annex Wendell Berry

Scott Richert represents the paleo kind of conservatives, those who realize that capitalism is not their friend. Writing in The University Bookman (h/t Jameson Campaigne), he gives a friendly review to Eric Freyfogle (a University of Illinois law professor who has long argued that the environmental crisis requires a rethinking of private property rights in a more communal direction) and to a collection of essays about the Kentucky agrarian poet and essayist Wendell Berry.

Berry has long escaped partisan categorization (over the years he's been featured in Mother Jones and Mother Earth News) and the paleos' clumsy efforts to appropriate him as some kind of conservative Catholic are a stretch that would be funny if Richert weren't so invincibly earnest. There seems to be a boom in books by and about Berry these days, and I'll be interested to see if any of them can take him on his own idiosyncratic terms, horse farming and all, without trying to assimilate him into traditions (like Catholicism) that are many thousands of years younger than his agrarianism.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Quote of the Week

"Ever since eating a chicken fetus and drinking turtle blood in Beijing a few years ago, I’ve felt compelled to sample the local culinary weirdness of my various travel destinations. I bought a bottle complete with a ten-inch centipede suspended in the booze."

Steve Asma, effervescent philosophy professor at Columbia College Chicago, writing (eventually) about retired Buddhas in a cave up the Mekong in Laos. Read the whole thing; it may give you a taste for his book, The Gods Drink Whiskey, a first-person tour of Buddhism as it is and not as many western devotees wish it were. Review here (2005; PDF).

Friday, January 11, 2008

The timidity of TV

TV "news" isn't liberal or conservative, it's stupid. John Hockenberry tells all in Technology Review:

In the spring of 2005, after working in television news for 12 years, I was jettisoned from NBC News in one of the company's downsizings. The work that I and others at Dateline NBC had done--to explore how the Internet might create new opportunities for storytelling, new audiences, and exciting new mechanisms for the creation of journalism--had come to naught. After years of timid experiments, NBC News tacitly declared that it wasn't interested. The culmination of Dateline's Internet journalism strategy was the highly rated pile of programming debris called To Catch a Predator. The TCAP formula is to post offers of sex with minors on the Internet and see whether anybody responds. Dateline's notion of New Media was the technological equivalent of etching "For a good time call Sally" on a men's room stall and waiting with cameras to see if anybody copied down the number.
Read the whole thing if your stomach is strong.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Business schools, a history

As someone who's spent some time arguing that journalism isn't a profession, I'm intrigued to run across a book that apparently makes a similar argument about management. Writing in Teachers College Record, James O'Toole of the University of Denver reviews Rakesh Khurana's From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession. Here's O'Toole's lead:
When prominent doctors, lawyers, and journalists are caught betraying the ethics of their respective professions, it is their peers in the medical, legal, and media communities who typically are the first to condemn their behavior. In sharp contrast, the collective silence of American business leaders was deafening during the Enron, Arthur Andersen, WorldCom, Tyco and other turn-of-the-millennium corporate scandals. Nary a CEO spoke out publicly against the illegal and unethical practices of the likes of Messrs. Lay, Kozlowski, et al. Instead, as Federal Express’s CEO Fred Smith recently admitted to BusinessWeek, he and his fellow executives decided 'to lay low' until the storm blew over.

Dang! I may have to add this institutional history of business schools (of all things!) to my reading list.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

New teachers

There are two kinds of new teachers, according to Public Agenda: those who come to the profession through traditional schools of education, and those who come to it via alternative pathways such as Teach for America, Troops to Teachers, and The New Teacher Project. A recent study conducted by PA and the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality found that the two groups see their work rather differently.

Short version: the alternative-route new teachers are much more likely than their traditionally-trained colleagues to report administrative interference and to report that they were assigned hard-to-teach classes, and less likely to report helpful feedback from colleagues. The report doesn't answer the followup question,
whether the contrast comes out of differences in the
reception, training and support these alternate-route
teachers receive on the job or whether they stem from
different standards these new teachers (many
of whom come out of selective colleges and universities
or have served in the military) may bring to the job.

IOW, do they have higher standards, or are they soreheads?

Monday, January 7, 2008

Rating presidents -- not

Rick Shenkman of History News Network blogs (and, increasingly, videos) from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association:
Eric Foner got a roaring response from a large crowd gathered to hear about the ratings of presidents -- and why they're a parlor game and nothing more. He recalled that the libertarians came up with a rating system a few years ago that ranked presidents on the basis of their budget expenditures. Those who increased the budget the least came out on top. In their poll Harding was first, Andrew Johnson was second, and Lincoln came in dead last. Foner noted that the famous Schlesinger polls (by both Sr. and Jr.) were also flawed. Both Schlesingers consulted mainly white men. The 1992 poll conducted by Schlesinger Jr. included a single African American and a single woman. Foner speculated that if more black scholars were included the ranking of Woodrow Wilson would not have been nearly as high on account of the Virginia[n]'s notorious racism. One historian enjoyed Foner's presentation so much he said he would have paid admission to get in.

BTW, if you have any taste for history, Foner's Reconstruction 1863-1877 is a must-read.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

What if political reporters covered the NFL?

Thanks to Marc for calling my attention to Jim Caple at ESPN's page 2, who finds a new way to mock American political journalism. How it would look if sportswriters took the same approach to the NFL season as they do to presidential politics? Granted, the cases aren't perfectly parallel, but still...

July 20: The New York Times devotes 10 days of training camp coverage analyzing which teams have raised the most money in ticket and replica jersey sales so far.

Aug. 11: CBS declares that the Ravens are the new Super Bowl front-runner due to their convincing 29-3 victory over the Eagles in the first exhibition game. Analyst Jeff Greenfield, however, says the week's biggest winner is the Texans, who must now be considered a serious Super Bowl contender by coming out of nowhere for a surprisingly close 20-19 loss to the Bears. "They far surpassed expectations in this week's primary, and don't forget, five Super Bowl champions have come out of Texas," Greenfield says. "The biggest loser, meanwhile, is New England. The Patriots had the biggest war chest and they still lost."

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Is it lunchtime yet?

Tom Philpott at Gristmill looks over and links to five big local-food stories of the year:
"From low-income neighborhoods in Milwaukee to Detroit and Brooklyn, to the very heart of industrial agriculture, people are getting their hands dirty and building up their own alternatives to industrial food. ..."
OK. Everyone needs a hobby, and this certainly beats stamp collecting. But I've never been able to quite convince myself to be a food zealot and believe that any kind of localism could actually work as a food system for everybody.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Insurance matters

A lack of health insurance can be a death sentence. A report published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians finds that
  • For all cancer sites combined, patients who were uninsured were 1.6 times as likely to die in five years as those with private insurance.
  • The relationship between access to care and cancer outcomes is particularly striking for several cancers which can be prevented or detected earlier by screening and for which there are effective treatments, including breast and colorectal cancer. At every level of education, individuals with health insurance were about twice as likely as those without health insurance to have had mammography or colorectal cancer screening. ...
  • Women without health insurance are about half as likely as those with private health insurance to have received a mammogram in the past two years (38.1 percent of uninsured women versus 74.5 percent of insured women age 40-64), a pattern seen for all race/ethnicities studied (white, African American and Hispanic) at all levels of education.
I haven't found a link to the article itself, but EurekAlert has an extensive press release.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Ten Commandments as laws

Blogger Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars knows all Ten Commandments and eviscerates right-wing politicos (Huckabee being the latest) who think that that portion of the Bible should be written into US law.

The short version: only two of commandments would even be constitutional as laws (not murdering and not stealing), and they of course are moral injunctions commonplace under most religions or none at all.

It used to be that liberals could be defined, in part, as people who felt that all good things should be written into law, such as wearing seat belts and not smoking. Conservatives were, in part, people who considered this kind of thing imprudent, utopian, or just plain wrong. These days I would, as a first approximation, define an intelligent conservative as someone who appreciates how un-conservative the idea of writing the Ten Commandments into law is.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

What have you changed your mind about?

Edge's World Question Center asks "What have you changed your mind about?" One of my favorite responders is Stewart Brand of the Whole Earth Catalog and, more recently, How Buildings Learn, who writes:

As a landlocked youth in Illinois I mooned over the yacht sales pictures in the back of sailboat books. I knew what I wanted — a gaff-rigged ketch! Wood, of course.... Well, I bought a sequence of wooden sailboats. Their gaff rigs couldn't sail to windward. Their leaky wood hulls and decks were a maintenance nightmare. I learned that the fiberglass hulls we'd all sneered at were superior in every way to wood....

The message finally got through. Good old stuff sucks....

The Precautionary Principle tells me I should worry about everything new because it might have hidden dangers. The handwringers should worry more about the old stuff. It's mostly crap. (New stuff is mostly crap too, of course. But the best new stuff is invariably better than the best old stuff.)

I was going to say that I'm in the process of changing my mind about snow (here in northwest Indiana we're well into our second foot and it's still coming), but I think that's just aging, not mind-changing.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

History -- what are you thinking?

Talk about off off topic -- I found the following quotation in a New York Review of Books article by Charles Simic on Christopher Marlowe (not on line unless you're either a print subscriber or have a spare $3); it's originally by David Quint, who was writing in The Cambridge Companion to Christopher Marlowe, which I make no pretense of having read or even seen:
There are two rival traditions of epic [poetry in imperial Rome]: the first is associated with Virgil and the epics of the imperial victors, and the second is associated with Lucan and the epics of the defeated. The victors experience history as a coherent, end-directed story, and the losers experience history as contingency and open-endedness.
May your New Year be open-ended.