Sunday, February 27, 2005


A good deal of the unrest in Christian denominations today relates to the complexity of translating dead languages into today's terms and visions. On Friday, while driving to the USC Mexican American Alumni Association Scholarship dinner, I listened to a guy who explained the real problems facing those who want to make biblical stories more living for today.

Separating the eternal from the temporal is not an easy task. Most of us grew up with a version of the bible that was translated about the time of Shakespeare. The King James Version (KJV) had a profound effect on English literature and language. But like the modern version that was just released, it was the result of a series of linguistic compromises made by a committee of scholars trying to think about what words meant. The most interesting thing to me about this is that a lot of the debate about the substance in the bible is among people who have not read the original texts and who do not have the ability to read those texts. The New Version International Translation seems to have brought the arguments about translations back to the fore - yet, it seems to have been done by a careful group of scholars who struggled over the meaning and nuance of the old texts. If you do a search on the net for things about biblical translations you get a raft of references and highly emotionally charged debates.

The issue is further complicated by those in denominations who want to advance their personal or political agendas through reinterpretation of language that ultimately becomes doctrine. My impression is that is exactly what is going on among Episcopalians at the present time. Part of the American church wanted to make a political statement. A good part of the rest of the communion did not believe those changes were appropriate or in keeping with God's word. But the American part of the church went ahead anyway. Ultimately, last week the Anglicans began what looks like a split where the Americans and the Canadians were asked not to come to one of the deliberative bodies of the church until 2008 - when the next Lambeth council is convened. For American Episcopalians who disagree with the changes in doctrine - there is little to give them comfort. Their American leadership seems intent on moving forward, regardless of the positions of others in the communion.

Last fall the Archbishop of Canterbury convened a group to look at the split - they issued a report with very carefully crafted language. The issues they argued included adeaphora - those things of practice or doctrine which might vary among the faithful without causing a split (for example, in one of the churches I grew up in there was a practice of using incense - but in all that I have gone to since that is not used) and subsidiarity - the Oxford English Dictionary defines subsidiarity as the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level. Subsidiarity is a concept that is essential to both Catholics and Episcopalians. It was also fundamental in forming our own Constitutional system. So the tension between moving decisions down to the level where they are most appropriate and yet keeping the substantive doctrine close enough to have some common thought is constant.
What was most important to me about the report was its constant reference to charity - of treating the discussions and the people engaged in them with the respect and dignity they deserve.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Anglosphere Singularity

I am in the middle of a book called the Anglosphere Challenge - which I have found to be provocative thusfar. This book should be read by many - it has a lot to say.

Bennett (the author) argues that Civil (and civic) society creates conditions where both technological advancement is most likely to flourish. There are five new ideas that I liked in the book so far.

First, he makes a distinction between bounded and unbounded issues. This is an idea originally from Hayek, through Charles Lindblom and a lot of others but it seems appropriate here. Bounded issues are those with a relatively understandable set of constraints and variables. He argues that NASA was adept at going to the moon because of its bounded nature and less capable of exploring space because of its unbounded nature. He goes on to argue that government tends to do better in bounded arenas. I think that is generally true. The war on poverty was a disaster because it was so unbounded. But then why are we so lousy at running prisons in California? Presumably a prison system is the ultimate in bounded organizations.

Second, he seems to think that civil society is the grounding that makes things go. Mancur Olson, the University of Maryland economist, argued in one of his last books before his untimely death, that as civil societies mature they become bogged down with increasingly important transaction costs. Civil organizations tend to form agendas and points of intersection that cost time just to meet. I think that is a correct notion. But Bennett seems to disagree with this premise. The evidence of the transaction costs in mature democratic institutions is pretty well established. In higher education politics there are tons of organizations in Washington that take a lot of time and effort to maintain. In the states, those "coordinative" organizations are less clear. So what are the break points which would reduce the propensity for Olsonesque thickets?

Third, he discusses the role of Robert McNamara and his systems engineers and their attempt to apply those concepts to unbounded problems like Vietnam. I grew up in that era, was in college then and beginning my career, and thought the LBJ/McNamara view of the world was looney, costly and destructive. McNamara and his generals including Westmorland, thought that if they just got the right data they could be successful. One of the alternatives at the time was Goldwater's which looked at the issues of the insurgency in a much more bounded sense. Goldwater's approach to Vietnam was to focus on a narrow sense of principles. The hubris of the systems engineers at the time looked at these issues as so many queueing algorithms. But was the alternative view any more reliable?

Fourth, he makes a distinction between the era of empire and the era of connected networks. He argues that this era is less about empires and domination and more about networks of like minded people and organizations. What that ultimately suggests is that things like Kyoto and the Crimminal Court are even more out of touch than they seem on first glance. The errors of treaties like that is that impose rather than coordinate. That is an interesting point.

Fifth, he makes a distinction between civil and crony society. Hernando DeSoto has an interesting point in the Mystery of Capital about why he thinks some societies rely so heavily on family ties. Hayek, always back to Hayek, makes the distinction in the Use of Knowledge in Society that the ultimate goal of societal transactions is to simplify. The more decisions one can make without thinking the better. For example, when you buy an apple in a US market you never worry about the safety of the food. Crony society is a defensive society. Civil society is not. The risks in the US is that many of our civil institutions have been degraded a bit and we are moving to crony society in many areas. That is a big risk. Especially, if the model for transactions in society are becoming more Olson-like.

Finally, he talks about the concept of singularity - which he describes as a condition where data begins to become discontinuous - vertical, like a hockey stick. He argues that several forces are combining in technology and economic integation that move us into an era when the inevitablity of the civil society model will prevail. That sounds a lot like some of the discussions in Wired at the turn of the century for example Kevin Kelly in New Rules for the New Economy - if you go back and look at Kelly closely and turn it down a bit the rules still seem to be quite appropriate.

Thursday, February 24, 2005


In a post on Wired today Adam Peneberg argues that the subscription only model of the WSJ may render it irrelevant in the broader sense of having legs in its writing. Several years ago I was at a monetary conference with Robert Bartley in Mexico. We were riding to lunch and I asked him whether the electronic edition of the WSJ had cut into the print edition revenues. I said I found that with all my travel I really liked the electronic edition. He asked me "Do you still subscribe to the print edition?" I replied "Sure." He said "So we are now getting an extra $39 per year from you for the additional service of the electronic journal?"

But the question raised in Wired is worth pondering. The NYT recently queried its electronic subscribers whether we would pay (and if so how might be best to set up a subscription model) for the electronic edition. My immediate response (and I suspect a fair amount of others) was no. The Times gives you one perspective on the news. It is no longer, as a professor once told me when I was an undergradute, "America's paper of record." (If it ever was.)

So how does a closed model fit in with the open ones in the blogosphere? Obviously there are going to be many models that work but Peneberg's article is worth thinking about - it can be found at,1284,66697,00.html?tw=rss.CUL

Dr. Gonzo redux

A BBC article this morning got me to think about Gonzo again. Like the BBC often does it tried to put Thompson in context. It compared him to Tom Wolfe and others from the new journalism. At the time of his writing there were a lot of comparisons. Some of Wolfe's descriptions were absolutely fantastic.

The silver haired ladies of the casinos whose sound at the slots was something like "hernia, hernia, hernia"
Or the NY society matron who when throwing a cocktail party for the Black Panthers asked "I wonder if the Panthers have those little cheese balls at their own cocktail parties"

There may be a very good reason to have temporal writing - a lot of what is done in the standard media is really good for a day or so. What made HST's different was its attitude and its complete lack of detachment. As described yesterday, his writing had a profound and immediate effect on the 1972 election. It changed perceptions and was much more current and insightful than the Teddy White book of that era. But it may have been left to that moment.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The Sacramento Kings

Tonight the local breaking news was the trade by the Sacramento Kings of Chris Webber and Michael Bradley and one other for Brian Skinner, Kenny Thomas and Corliss Williamson. What a crock! The next move the Kings should make is out of Sacramento - they are so amateur - they have traded away several NBA title shots with their inept trades. They have tried to force the city into buying them a new arena for all those great seasonal minimum wage jobs. The Kings have come up short consistently - since they came to the city they have used a ton of excuses to excuse lousy trades and mediocre coaching. Why not make them move with Webber?

How the first city got bamboozled in doing a deal where public funds were offered to build a stadium is beyond me. Hopefully, most cities have begun to understand the folly of funding these teams and rich owners. But in the case of Sacramento - this trade is another example of inflated egos and nonsense. Their owners and their pimps suggested tonight that if we don't buy them a new house we might lose them?

And what exactly would we lose if they moved?

Dr. Gonzo

In the 1972 election Rolling Stone was fairly new and there was a (much) younger columnist who emerged who beat all the other journalists at the time. Each edition of Rolling Stone had a new tidbit from this guy who seemed to capture the moments of the election. A lot of what he wrote was made up - but it was often on point. His best was moments before Edmund S. Muskie - the putative front runner - dropped out. Dr. Gonzo - Hunter S. Thompson had a scurrilous attack on Muskie claiming he was the victim of a mysterious Brazilian drug which distored both his face and his vision. There were pictures - which showed to the rest of the world how truly tiring a national campaign really is. The whole thing was made up - but it was published literally right before Muskie dropped and what is more the explanation was plausible when one considered Muskie's statement and behavior two weeks hence.

Thompson published some other stuff but clearly his 15 minutes was really during the 1972 election. He became a characture of himself - at the end of the election Fear and Loathing on the Campaign trail was published as a book - which did pretty well. But the real impact of his work was in the columns in Rolling Stone. At that time alternative media was a new idea. HST never again achieved either the prominence or the recognition that he did for those several months in 1972.

When word lept out about his suicide this week I was struck with a couple of things. First, I am reasonably sure that his work is temporal - it probably will not last through the ages - but at the time it was must reading whether you worked for Nixon as I did that year or McGovern (I was actually just out of the White House and working for a Congressman but was also working for the Committee to Re-elect the President (the initials should have been like a French pankake but in reality all of the media pronounced it in the terms they thought of the President). Second, there were a lot of related books at the time that were amusing or interesting - that again probably will not last. Richard Brautigan was current for a second revival in Trout Fishing in America. And there were others. But HST was the star. Finally, I was struck in reading the news reports that they had to explain who Dr. Gonzo was - that was not necessary in 1972 - even after with the horrible rendition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that hollywood put out. But it showed how fleeting fame can be. HST got caught up in his own schtick.

That is sad - the message in an LA Times Article recently was that some in the Blogosphere have a full head. True. But that is also true for many in the old media. What we always should look for is not objectivity - indeed that is often not possible - but accuracy and at the same time humility about the ultimate purpose of information in society. In that the Blogosphere seems often better equiped than more traditional outlets.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Teaching Hospitals

One comment which I did not offer was about the UC Davis Veternary program. This is the second time we have worked with them with Molly. What impressed me about their entire operation was the concern for Molly and their willingness to respond to all of our questions. Our son Pete took Molly for the original MRI - the oncologist then spoke with him about the prognosis in such stark terms that he was upset. That was not her fault but I think Pete recognized the seriousness of her condition. I spent a couple of days talking to our vet and to the Davis people about the risks and potentials of alternative strategies. I did a thorough net search on last weekend to discover whether we knew all we needed to know. I even asked our vet whether the surgeon was a bit too quick to cut.

But then came the operation. Pete took her to the hospital on Wednesday and as a I said in one of the other posts we then had to wait for a slot. We had been told by the oncologist that the surgeon was one of the best and we should try to fit Molly into the schedule. Each night she was there, and each morning, a student would call with an update. The students seemed to understand who Molly was and how important she has become in our family. When the time came for the operation on Friday - we were called before and after.

As noted on Saturday, I decided I wanted to go see her. I knew both the trauma that might be caused by visiting her and leaving and the trauma that it would cause us - the stitches are very large - but I thought it would help in her recovery.

Our main student was a young woman who expects to graduate in May. She was a Dartmouth undergraduate. When it came time to release her on Sunday, we spent a lot of time explaining the discharge instructions - in writing - but also with care to make sure we understood how to maximize Molly's recovery. She helped us get Molly to the car and into the car. As noted earlier - Molly is not 100% (surprise). She then reassured us that if anything developed after Molly was home to call back and either ask questions or bring her back.

For the past 30 years, at times I have spoken in the Legislature about the special nature of teaching hospitals - how they integrate teaching and care. All of that rhetoric was confirmed with this experience. While I would have preferred not to have this happen to Molly, I am comforted by the notion that a group of professionals takes their responsibilities so seriously.

Molly is home

We brought Molly home on Sunday and watched her for most of the day. She looks like some odd new poodle cut with her shaving necessary for surgery. She is going to rest for a couple of days as things stabilize - this was a big surgery. She is clearly in pain - even with a pain patch. But that should not be a surprise.

Last night I slept in her room - and you could hear her discomfort throughout the night. She pants a lot but then falls into sleep. But I hope she is making progress. At about 10 we bought her some hamburger - but she was not interested. We tried a bit this morning and she did try it. That is one of her favorites so it will be a good sign when she is ready to eat some of that.

Sunday, February 20, 2005


Last night we visited Molly at Davis. She is an odd sight. About half her body is shaved and she has an incision that runs from spine to belly. She is still tired. She would not even try a biscuit. But the spirit is there. Today we pick her up. No stairs for a couple of weeks - at least until the stitches come out. If dogs can be happy - she was clearly happy to see us and a bit sad to have us go. She whined when we left. Won't she be surprised to see us this morning!

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Is Ward Churchill a poster child for the state of higher education

Kessler's Cycle
Kessler's Cycle,
originally uploaded by drtaxsacto.
Yesterday I got an email from a young professor who, after he worked as an intern in my office, went on to do a PhD and is now on the Princeton campus and beginning his career. He expressed concern about attempts to discredit academia.

I thought back to when I was a freshman in college and was also the county youth chairman for the Goldwater campaign. As was common then each student had to take a year of what was then called Western Civ. About October, the time of the Sumerians in this class, the professor stopped his lectures on Sumerians and did what most people would call a rant today suggesting that Goldwater and Fascism were the same thing. I was reasonably polite in the first of these sessions but in the second I began to debate him. I pointed out that Goldwater was running on a platform of reducing the influence of government in our lives and that the fascists (National Socialists) were not into that at all - so he was historically inaccurate as well as silly. We spent the next two weeks debating his thesis. Later in that period - to suggest what a jumbled undergraduate career I had - our university (University of the Pacific) did the first teach in on Vietnam. We closed the campus down for a day and had a really fascinating set of discussions that stretched from strong supporters of the policy we were pursuing at the time - to strong dissenters. It was a wonderful experience - actually both experiences were wonderful. Exactly what a university should be - a locus for thought and care.

But higher education has a problem - which my young friend pointed out. He is worried that a local talk show host (and lots of others in the new and old media) seem to spend a lot of time trying to discredit the enterprise. I replied that indeed universities should be places of diverse ideas - but that unfortunately many were not. Churchill seems to have been granted tenure because he claimed a heritage which seems on even cursory examination seems to be phony. He made outrageous remarks that most Americans find offensive. But how does academia deal with an issue so seemingly corrupt as a Churchill - whose scholarship is non-existent, whose qualifications are equal to his scholarship and who seems to have been hired not for either scholarship or qualifications but to fill a box on the form.

Many institutions in society have gone through fundamental change in recent years. They have adapted to new conditions - they have outsourced that which they do not do well and have (in the best of cases) refocused there energies on their core missions. Higher education has been slow to adapt - it is by its nature a conservative institution (despite the propensity for liberal faculty members - about five years ago I had a faculty representative comment to me he thought the role of the faculty was to impede change).

A couple of conclusions can be reached. First, some of the most interesting adaptations in higher education are happening at the periphery. The net actually becomes an equalizer for those institutions that care to use its power. Second, Kessler's cycle seems to apply here - at some point for those of you who do not know his idea, I will explain it in greater detail but David Kessler came up with a notion a few years ago to explain changes brought about by technology and the adaptive responses of existing providers which I believe is very powerful. The media and academia are beginning to feel the pinch and intrusion of new technologies - many in both sectors are suggesting "woe is us" rather than thinking creatively about how to adapt to the new conditions.

My young friend, and now colleague, is not taking that tack. There is hope for academe.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Today in Two Parts 2

For the past two days I have been working with two universities in the Association. They have a common religious heritage and are thinking about how to accomplish two goals - to improve their Christian mission and at the same time to organize their activities more efficiently.

Yesterday, I did a presentation for one board where I talked about the changes in authority discussed earlier in this blog. As I have thought about it two things have been added. First - Craig's list is another manifestation. Second, in a discussion with a colleague during the week he came up with the following phrase "Irreversable intermediation replaces uncertain incrementalism" - when I heard it - although I was a bit uncertain about whether I wanted to use the jargon, I was annoyed at myself at not thinking about this in terms of disintermediation. (i.e. Withdrawal of funds from intermediary financial institutions, such as banks and savings and loan associations, in order to invest in instruments yielding a higher return.) - the term has a specific usage as above but also has come to mean the changes we have experienced in markets.

Today, a group from both campuses started a discussion about linking their two institutions. The session began in a way that is often done in Christian institutions with a meditation. One key person recounted a more modern day version of the parable of the talents - remember the land owner who gives three servants varying amounts of money - one invests it, the second a bit less and the third buries it in the ground. When the master returns he is grumpy at the third. As Matthew tells it we then come to a conclusion -

For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. Matthew 25:29

As the person recounted it he came to a slightly different conclusion. That is that we are expected to use our talents and to take risk. Indeed if you think about it that is what the parable is trying to tell us. We each have gifts that we should use.

Today in Two Parts 1

Molly's surgery was done today and they called and think she came through it ok. I spent a good deal of the day thinking about her, praying a bit that she would come through, and then thinking.

Thursday, February 17, 2005


Today was supposed to be Molly's surgery. But because Davis is a teaching hospital, that got put off to deal with a larger emergency. I spent the afternoon at board meeting of one of the colleges I represent. While the place is an exciting one - there is lots of energy in the students and the faculty and more importantly there is an ascendent feeling there - I spent a lot of time thinking about our dog.

I also talked to an old friend. His wife had cancer a couple of years ago and seems to have survived it - but not without the horrors of chemo. He is bright guy. I worked with him about 30+ years ago - he came from a Washington DC family of prominence. After that he went to law school and then for a PhD in Economics - and then has taught in a couple of places (Emory, Cornell and now Northwestern). He worked in the Reagan FTC - which took back the idiocy from the Carter era of Mike Perchalk (I am sure that is not the way he spelled his name - but he was a demo staffer who took over the FTC and thought that the job of the FTC was to screw up the US economy.

But he came back to academia - wrote a book about the public choice perspective on the legislative process. It was a pretty good book which I used in a course I teach on legislative process. It was good to hear from him - one of his former students will become the Federal attorney for Sacramento. If she learned the law under him - she learned it well.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The HP Board

The inevitable discussion in some of the press is that Carly allowed HP profits to grow and that she was forced out because she is a woman. Nonsense. She was forced out because shareholder value declined during her tenure. HP became a slow witted whimsy of a company beat out at both ends.

What in the world would the board - looking at that performance - offer her a performance bonus? Is that responsible?


I am struck by something which seems at least clear to me. In recent days the dems have struggled with the notion of why they lost the 2004 election - they have begun to think it is something about values. They have trotted out a couple of people who suggest that it is about values and that the value of charity - of shared nature of society - is something that they should be strong on. Unfortunately much of the rhetoric I see them advancing relates to shared but governmental values. Government becomes the facilitator of and transmitter of charity - there is very little recognition of allowing individuals to keep the fruits of their labors or to stand for their own responsibility. That is, of course, a stylized view of the world of course there are dems who do not fall into that trap - but in my mind no less compelling.

Bush's agenda includes a lot of government taking care of problems (more than I would consider appropriate) but also a lot of encouraging individual responsibility (not in Medicare) - the themes in a lot of areas(Social Security) seem to more clearly offer the positive prospect of individual's control over their own lives - as in line with the previous post about trends of authority. They also offer the potential of changing the argument - Social Security may not be a discussion of the third rail but of ownership. If it becomes that (and a lot of the media are trying to steer away from that) Bush wins.

Hayek said that economic man is always striving - becoming - a mass of wishes and aspirations. The dems definition of charity seems to ignore that simple concept.

Monday, February 14, 2005

The Nobel Peace Prize; The NYT and the Washington Post

Dan Henninger, the WSJ political Friday columnist, suggested that the people of Iraq should be nominated for the Nobel Peace prize. What a wonderful idea. The burning image of the election was the young woman with ink on her finger. The stories of people braving the terrorists threats to cast there vote will be in my memory each election day for the rest of my life. It seems so mundane to walk down the street and cast a vote - even though our votes sometimes actually count. His article is on the WSJ opinion page.

The New York Times and the Washington Post published differing stories about the election results - seems the Post said multiparty democracy is bad for the region - can they find anything about W that they will report fairly? The NYT reported that the election was likely to prevent a theocracy from being formed - seems multiparties will need to do some negotiating.

But back to the Peace Prize - after offering it to Carter for his manifold buffoonery - it would almost be an affront to the brave people who exercised their franchise. Remember Carter was the one who thought the Chavez election was OK. But sometimes the right thing to do is self evident. Let's hope the Nobel committee does the right thing.


originally uploaded by drtaxsacto.
For most of the last decade an important part of our family has been a golden retriever that chose us. Right before daughter Emily went to her first year of college we decided to get a dog. We found a family that had bred their golden once and went out into the delta near Courtland to see if we could find a puppy. One ball of fur climbed into Emily's lap and we had found our dog.

We brought her home and almost immediately she proceeded to have every problem imaginable. She had all sorts of puppy diseases. At least twice we needed to shave her bare. At about two she was diagnosed with a tumor on her rear leg. Amazingly that was about the time that I had been diagnosed with a melanoma. So we lived through our problems together. I watched my surgery and watched after Molly as she went to UC Davis to be operated on.

But she became a part of our family. She was incredible in many ways. She learned one trick well. You could put a milk bone on her nose and she would flip it up and catch it in her teeth. But what she was was our Perl Mesta of the house. She would greet everyone as they came to the house.

When we went to the dog park she had two qualities that differentiated her from the average mutt. First, she was an awesome frisbee catcher. She would catch frisbees on the run either from a distance or in pursuit. But more importantly she seemed to think more of people than other dogs. She would meet and greet all of the humans in the park, in seriatum. Often one of the males would try to hump her and she would rip his head off but would then go back to visiting with her human friends.

She was remarkably social. I travel a lot and yet each time she would go wild whenever I came home.

She and I developed a posse around the neighborhood. There was Harold and Judy and a bunch of others that no one in my family knew. For a couple of years we would walk the neighborhood and gossip. Harold was a retired railroad person. Judy's husband (who eventually died) had worked for the phone company. Neither of them were people I would normally seek out. Then there was Isao - who was a Japanese national with a golden. Very organized and a big person on working in training his dog - Heidi. When someone else in our family would walk her parts of the posse would question the person to make sure Molly was OK with the other person on the leash.

Last year I spent a lot of time traveling - even more than usual. And through that time Molly began to develop lameness in one front paw. We did a couple of visits to her doctor - who she really likes to visit - remember the Pearl Mesta persona. She had a couple of fatty tumors( I read up and was relieved. But then a couple of months ago she began to develop lameness. An unwillingness to go for walks. We tried a lot of different things. We went to her vet and he appropriately thought lets take this a step at a time - but all the time she developed more and more lameness. We put on the dumb hat which was designed to limit her biting of that paw. All the while she was accepting of it but not happy about it. she lost her zip but not her demeanor.

Then we decided to increase our search. Last week we did an Xray evaluation and then up to an MRI. The MRI told us what we did not want to hear - she has a sarcoma (
in that same lame paw. The only way we can solve the problem is to amputate. We spent the weekend thinking about the options. Without an operation and that one - eventually the tumor would spread to her spine - she would eventually become totally incapacitated. Could be a couple of months or as long as a year but the prognosis is seemingly absolute.

We read in depth about the prognosis for canine amputees. The prognosis is actually pretty good. We talked to a raft of doctors. We read a lot on the net. But kept coming back to the final issue - either we act - with a pretty good chance for and extension with a significant decline in pain or we watch the progression of the inevitable.

So today was fish or cut bait day. We had two more long discussions with Veternarians and then committed to have our dog lose a leg - with the hope that her quality of life would improve. An odd juxtaposition but one that, at least on the evidence we see now to be the right one. But all the while we wait, and pray, and wait , and pray and hope that she is granted some more time to work her magic in 3/4 time.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

The Oscars

This is the first time in many years that my wife and I have seen the entire group of movies nominated for best picture. They are an interesting group - different but each with a right to be there. Here is my take on the big 5 and one that is not there.

The one that is not there is the Passion of the Christ - which like Michael Moore's trash was not included. In a sense the decision seems right. I thought the Passion was a wonderful movie - intense and important - but not entertaining. The five that are on the list were all in one sense entertaining. The Passion was something different. In the week that we saw the Passion we also met Bishop Tutu - it was during Holy Week and was a wonderful yin and yang of faith.

#1 - The Aviator - what a lousy movie. DiCaprio has few abilities as an actor. Kate Blanchett is pretty good as Hepburn. But the story is poorly tied together. Costumes are wonderful - that might be the niche for this. One might call this Titanic for Entrepreneurs.
#2 - Sideways - We really enjoyed this. It has a quirky cinematic style but one that fits the story. The key actors are wonderful and they work well together.
#3 - Finding Neverland - We really liked this one too - although there are some historical inaccuracies about the story of Barrie. The costumes here are good. So is the interaction of the characters.
#4 - Ray - Jamie Fox should actually get the Oscar for best actor. He became Ray Charles. In several instances, I thought how did they do this? Ray died before the movie was finished.
#5 - Million Dollar Baby - Michael Medved has criticized this too much. Indeed the advertising is a bit deceptive - this is not a fight film. But the character development between Eastwood, Freeman, Swank and the Priest and the PWT family of swank are each developed well. Their interaction is also wonderful. Sure, Eastwood euthanizes Swank - but the story is bigger than that.

So how does one vote - I would vote for Million Dollar Baby - it clearly was the best movie of the year. The other three (I would leave out Aviator) are all great - and for a year which started out with a lot of disappointing movies turned out to be one where there were some interesting movies in the end.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

The declining role of authority

Alternative Medicine
Home Schooling
Sarbanes Oxley
Dan Rather’s demise as a “journalist” and revelation as a partisan screed

What do all those things have in common? A decline in the authority of things which we believed to be self-evident as recently as five years ago. In each instance there is an increase of the primacy of the individual decision maker – should corporate accountants or their big firms have control over the probity of financial statements – No longer. Should doctors control the flow of information about your health – No more. Should the school bureaucracy have control over the education of your children – No. Can people establish reliable markets for all sorts of detritus – Sure. Did Dan Rather have an authoritative and independent view of events – not if you perpetuate lies and distortions the blogosphere won’t allow it.

The risk of this change is obvious – the individual no longer can rely on the authority that once determined a lot of how we do things. There may be lots of times when authority structures help provide what Hayek called simplifications of society. In his classic essay he suggested that one of the indicators of advances in society was the increasing number of decisions that could be made without thinking. But some of those authority structures abused their status. Technology has allowed us to intervene to make those grants of authority more transitory. Create a system which disrespects the role of creators of intellectual property and no matter whether you have the law on your side or not – you will lose that right.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Davos - real or absurd

One of the things that came to mind with the leaving of HPs Chief is whether the Davos forum is real or absurd - or real absurd.

There have been a couple of things that happened this year that suggest that Davos is an event whose utility is questionable. Is this an event for people in the know to tell the rest of us how much they know? Or a secret handshake society? Or merely a locus for a bunch of overly inflated egos that need a place to hang out? Has its utility declined? Is this the current edition of Renaissance Weekend?

Consider this - Carly was a constant and visible presence at Davos - should she have spent more time thinking about how to make HP better? What did she learn about business there?

Eason Jordan made the idiotic comments about the US role in targeting journalists. CNN is a joke but this made them look even more foolish. They have since seemingly tried to obscure the comments which several reliable commentators from left and right have reported. Did Jordan really think he could take a cheap shot and not get caught?

The WSJ produced an interesting an informative guide to getting things done at Davos. Yes, there seem to be a lot of movers in the world at at least part of the conference. But the way it has grown you now need to plan your efforts at going there - which events to get to, how to snuggle up to the CEOs or government officials in the right receptions.

Should they now have a red carpet entrance like other trashy celebrity events? I wonder.

How many universities does it take to change a lightbulb?

This morning I spoke to a group of friends of Sallie Mae (the big gun in student loans - created pursuant to a bill originally introduced by one of my former bosses - US Senator Winston Prouty) about accountability. Congressman McKeon has introduced a bill which alleges to change the way colleges and universities are accountable in three areas - the transfer of credit, pricing issues (called college costs) and funding (allowing for profits to derive 100% of their funds from federal sources.

McKeon argues that higher education has raised prices willy nilly. While colleges and universities could do a better job of figuring out how to build budgets and while some of the rises in prices have been a bit high - Buck's solution is wrong headed - report to the Inspector General of USDE and then publish the results (originally he proposed to limit federal student aid funding for institutions whose prices increased by more than 2X of the CPI). Colleges need to communicate more clearly about costs. But why should any change in prices (or the appropriateness of such changes) by correlated to the CPI. In the last several years - with one exception- Congressional spending has exceeded the average change in the rate of tuitions. Part of the increases in tuitions nationally have been caused by changes in assumptions about who should pay in public institutions. Should Congress be under the same gun? That is absurd.

But McKeon does not stop there. He proposes to eliminate a rule which requires that at least 10% of an institution's funding come from non-federal sources. A decade ago some of the for profits got caught ripping off students. The 90/10 rule - which requires at least 10% of funding come from other sources - was created to slow that down. Coupled with some state reforms - the proprietary institutions have improved their performance. Elimination of the rule would bring us back to the prior state.

Finally, there is the transfer of credit issue - it is sometimes hard to transfer among institutions. Indeed, there may be some roadblocks between proprietary and public and independent institutions. But requiring institutions to accept credits from another institution is baloney.

In at least two of these instances - higher education is starting to move - in transfer of credit - institutions are getting better at thinking about how to equate coursework. And on college costs - there are a number of very good ideas in play about how to make higher education finances more transparent - but mandating the standards in federal law is about the worst way to achieve further progress. I guess the old truism is correct - what is the opposite of progress?

Carly is out

Carly Fiorina is out at HP. Hurray!!!! In an old Firesign theater skit there was a bit about "our generated veneered" leader. She was such a leader. She had a great press agent but absolutely no business skills. As an HP shareholder I have watched her leadership miss a couple of big opportunities, overpay by a factor of something like the national debt of several developing nations for Compaq, cut a sweet deal with the former CEO and then claim she had an idea about how to execute business strategy. All the time HP languished to the backwaters of both stock performance and technology - an 8% dump last year, for example.

HP, at one time, allowed its people to innovate. It made some great products - but always with an attention to engineering. Let's hope the board has some ideas about how to revitalize this once great company. The market understands what the resignation means - HPQ jumped $2 almost immediately - or about 10% above its prior sluggish performance.

There are a couple of messages here. First, beware of a CEO who spends more on publicity than on the business. Second, watch out for "big" deals - even though the integration of HP and Compaq proceeded pretty well - the premium paid and the loss of focus was an important stall.

There are a couple of promising developments - the open source initiative seems especially ripe. But getting back to the key business elements that made the company strong in the past seems job 1.

I taught the HP merger case at two universities in Mexico in 2003 and was amazed that the students got the issues quite well. It was a wonder that the board did not get it. Maybe now they will get back to the core.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Los fanaticos de activismo

On Tuesday I have a speech to a group of Latino activitists. I am undecided what I should say. There are plenty of themes. They are interested in assuring that more students can enter higher education. That is something I agree with strongly. In an economy like California, we need all the talent we can get and we need to assure that the best and the brighest have the opportunities to succeed in college. But this particular group also starts from many PC assumptions. One of the first conferences where I spoke to this group was around the time of Proposition 187 - the wrong headed idea to reduce the costs of illegal immigration. I began my talk with a quote "What are we to do then? Shall we remain supine, while these daring strangers are overrunning our fertile plains, and gradually outnumbering and displacing us? Shall these incursions go on unchecked, until we shall become strangers in our own land?" - the activists were ready to string me up until I informed them that had been Pio Pico - the last Mexican governor of California. I then said he was wrong then - Pete Wilson is wrong now.

But I am more inclined to talk about the role of the family in getting students ready for college and perhaps a new USC Demographics Center study that suggests that the enrollments in California will grow because this generation of immigrants is fast assimilating. Their catchphrase was "Immigrants are not Peter Pan." - meaning many think of demographics as stuck in time and as populations continue in a society they change. I will also probably talk about our need to continue to work with Mexico. In spite of the stumbles that President Fox has made as president - there are some interesting developments in many parts of the country. In November I led a group with the new Governor of Aguascalientes and his staff - a remarkable set of principled and smart people in a very pretty and dynamic part of Mexico.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Sometimes you wonder

Shinto Shrine Near Fish Mkt 5
Originally uploaded by drtaxsacto.
There are a lot of different customs around the world and each offers an opportunity to both look at what is done there and what you would do in the same place. What caused the tradition to begin? Why does it continue? Does it give those who deal with it satisfaction? Are there any downsides that impede other actions in society? Are there hidden or unknown motives in the tradition?

I was in Tokyo in 1998 when this picture was taken and received an explanation of why these statues were covered - which was fundamentally unsatisfying. But what this very quiet little park, near the very noisy fish market and another religious shrine which was also noisy -taught me was when people come to our country what things do they see as different that I understand to be commonplace?

More on the Iraq Election

There is a post at detailing an interesting development in Iraq. The citizens of Al Mudhiryiah encountered a group of terrorists and responded by killing several of them and burning their cars. The tide is turning.

Gonzalez Confirmed but then there is California

The dems protesth too much. Gonzalez, like Miguel Estrada before him, was/is a great nominee. Ken Salazar was especially unimpressive - indeed the whole point is to offer opportunity not based on race or ethnic background. But the AG was a nominee based on his qualifications and the dems who voted against him did so because they thought wrong of his ethnic background - at least as they conceive of how he lives his life. The Grand Kleegle from West Virginia, who masks as the senior senator, must be quite happy.

As one looks at the proposal by the Governor to change redistricting it does not look as advertised. The 1990s process was actually pretty good - but this proposal includes a zinger to link partisan advantage in districts - in essence to compact the partisan splits. In reality there are areas of the state where dems and reps have huge advantages and the notion of compact districts and protecting commuities of interests, IMHO, is more important than trying to get the exact political split in the legislature. The ideal here should be to force most elected representatives to move to the center. This one needs more scruitiny.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Mr. 3000 and SOTU

Among my other propensities is a profound like for baseball movies. So last night as I was coming across the country I watched Mr. 3000. I am not a big Bernie Mac fan - I just have never gotten his bit - but I thought he was convincing as an arrogant ball player who when forced back into the majors to get 3 more hits - actually learns some humility. Most of the characters are not very well developed. Some of the scenes are outrageous. But Mac does a good job in convincing you of his character. There are a couple of good supporting roles including Boca (Michael Rispoli) and a couple, like the manager - could have been better developed. But for flying across the country it was pretty good. Between that and iTunes it can almost make a long flight bearable.

When I got home I listened to the SOTU - I liked the speech and wonder whether the "man from searchlight" - who seemed more like a man in the headlights or the congresswoman from botox actually get the joke. Isn't the opposition supposed to come up with a convincing alternative? Set a timetable for leaving Iraq - great idea! Keep Social Security in its shambles until we really have to act quickly - another great idea! Who is this kid in Searchlight and can someone really believe the story was not yet just another politician's invented life?

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Two views of reality

This morning I heard Bill Kristol and Mark Shields talk about the current setting in politics in the US. There were some interesting contrasts. Kristol spent his opening suggesting that we are in the middle of a fundamental change in international order - i.e. the Cold War is over and the new kinds of challenges we face from terror and other sources changes the dynamics and that we may also be in a political realignment - where the bounds are also uncertain.

Shields, when he came up, seemed to want to justify that everyone at some time loves government - he offered the free market person in a red state who asks for federal intervention when his can of tuna is filled with botulism.

Kristol does not like the President's Social Security plan but Shields seemed inclined to spend his time both in opening and Q&A defending a false front. Indeed, a lot of what some conservatives talk about is how to make government less intrusive. Lots of those discussions are inexact. But the depth of Shields comments and reservations seemed to suggest that the liberal crackup is in full bloom.

Kristol did not have all the answers but at least he was trying to think about the right questions.