Sunday, September 30, 2007

An Uneasy Game

Along with the Rivercats and the Dodgers my favorite sports teams come from the universities I attended - UOP and USC. Yesterday in Seattle, USC played a remarkably uneven football game. True, for a while it looked like the officials were being paid by the penalty. There were a couple of calls that stunk the place up. And Washington ended up with only 30 more yards of offense than the Trojans received in penalties (190 versus 160) The Trojans had 460 yards for the game and their time of possession was good but their offensive output was challenged. The Trojans just did not look like a #1 team. At least once in the season there is a time for upsets. Yesterday seemed to be that for the NCAA. Five of the top ten were upset. The Cal-Oregon game also looked like an upset in the making.

One thing showed for sure. The constant argument about which conference produces tougher football (the SEC or the PAC 10). California moved up to #3 - the November 10 showdown between SC and Cal may be the game of the season. Oregon should have moved up a lot. There is also a case for Arizona State being ranked higher in the polls. The AP and the USA Today polls were split with LSU inching out SC in the AP poll. Before this week LSU had taken on such traditional football "powers" as Mississippi State and Middle Tennessee. (Although to give them their due they also beat South Carolina and Virginia Tech.)

For the rest of the season, the Trojans hopscotch between very tough teams and lesser ones. They play at Arizona, and at Oregon and at Cal. And although the Fighting Irish are not this season, anytime a team plays in South Bend is tough.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The University and College Accountability Network

One of the most rewarding experiences I have had in my career has been working on a project to simplify disclosure of information to prospective college and university students, the results of that work were released in a press conference on Wednesday with something called UCAN or the University and College Accountability Network. The press from around the country was uniformly positive on this new resource for families.

As noted in an earlier post the disclosure sheet is a simple disclosure document that gives prospective students and parents a visual compendium of information that they (students and parents in focus groups) said they wanted. It is filled with links so that if you want to find more you can. It gives a good overview without mandating a one size fits all approach as had been suggested by some USDE officials.

What was more interesting to me as this project developed was how a wide range of people got involved to make suggestions. After some initial hesitation, college representatives began to offer a bunch of creative suggestions which made the sheet both clearer and more useful. Ditto for the suggestions from parents and students in focus groups. It is likely that this project will continue to develop as experience comes when people and colleges and universities begin to use it.

Amazingly the USDE released a revision of their electronic information site, (formerly called the COOL site) which, according to USDE officials, was also focus group tested. There was no claim that the site was ever seriously discussed with college and university representatives. The UCAN project was vetted with the USDE and also with staff Capitol Hill. It is not hard to think that USDE rushed the announcement of their site to steal the thunder of the UCAN project.

One of the problems that many of us have had with the USDE approach from Secretary Spellings and her hand picked chair of a commission to look at higher education policy (called the Spellings Commission) have had is their argument that the decision to go to college is actually like any other consumer decision. Charles Miller and Secretary Spellings seem to think that buying a melon and choosing a college are the same kinds of choice. But they are not. Indeed, in both cases, the decision can be improved with a higher level of information. But the kinds and depth of information required are fundamentally different. More importantly the decision points that students and their families bring to the college decision vary significantly even for the same institution. Some choose on the basis of faculty or alumni or location or programs - and the relative weight of those factors can vary. The UCAN project developed a set of information which all of the people involved thought would encourage further exploration. And that is what the college decision would involve. Charles Miller seems to think of the world in simple terms. Luckily most parents and students don't want that simple view.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The GM Mini-strike

The GM strike settled after one day. According to the UAW the strike was about a lot of things all relating to the "deindustrialization" of the US economy. Jobs in the auto industry are not the same as they were 20 years ago and they are unlikely to be as many or as lucrative as they have been in the past. That is true in the US and also true around the world. But one issue raised by the union is totally bogus - an accepted urban myth but bogus - our manufacturing sector is pretty vibrant and still dominates the world economy. Over the last several years all of the major indicators for the manufacturing economy have improved.

A recent study by the Cato Institute and Daniel Ikenson suggests just how silly the common logic is. Since 2002 "output, revenues, profit growth" have accelerated. 2006 was a record year. The US produces two and a half times more than the Chinese in manufacturing output.

The story is not all positive. For example, gross output in American manufacturing, while rising in some key areas like the extractive industries (Coal and Oil) has declined in things like textiles, leather products and printing. Operating profits have also risen in some key areas including furniture and machinery. In value added per worker, transportation equipment has actually declined. But those declines are more than offset in other areas. Compensation has risen during the period at pretty good rates for most manufacturing industries. Computers and electrical compensation is up into healthy double digit additions. Median salaries have grown the best in those areas of manufacturing that are in the highest demand. Ikenson's paper offers some very good numbers on each of the sector in key areas (wages, productivity, output).

Clearly part of the problem was the recession in the early part of the decade, then as in previous recessions employment in the manufacturing sector dropped pretty seriously - but since then those numbers have declined in most sectors or have been reversed. There are pockets of problems. Michigan, according to Ikenson, ranked 50th among the states in terms of additions of value added growth or of GDP growth.

This is not a problem that is limited to the democrats and a lot of the anger and rhetoric is aimed at China. The worry expressed by Ikenson that I share is that the rhetoric will begin to limit our continued efforts to liberalize trade around the world - that is most pronounced in Asia (Korea and China) and in our relationships with Mexico and Central and South America. What the critics of this seem to ignore is that while there is some evidence of decline in some industries the net effect of a more liberalized trade regime is the production of both more jobs and better paying ones.

Myths are often a hard thing to break but Ikenson's paper should help to dispel some of the most pernicious ones. In many cases, the political class does not take to data when it does not prove their case. The same could be said for people like the protectionist Xenophobic Lou Dobbs. For those interested in more than rhetoric, the paper should be very helpful.

NPR Nonsense

The NYT carried a story today that National Public Radio turned down an opportunity for their correspondent, Juan Williams, to interview the president. The story carried a lot of quotes from people in the field. But the summing quote on this idiocy might simply be "monumentally stupid."

The President offered the opportunity to the network, after they had requested a one on one for the last seven years. Bush offered to discuss race issues on the anniversary of increased federal involvement with the 50th Anniversary of Little Rock. NPR has been criticized by the right that they have a left of center bias (they recently did a one on one with Senator Clinton on health issues) but even if that were not true - and this decision makes it look like it is - the decision represents extraordinarily bad judgment. No conditions were put on the interview. Ultimately Juan Williams did the interview for Fox (which also has allegations of focus but they are a commercial network).

Is there any reason why my tax dollars should be going to NPR? I can't think of a one.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Hobbyhorses and Progress

Today, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities announced a joint project of more than 600 colleges and universities nationwide to offer a standardized information sheet for prospective students and their families on the Web. It is called the University and College Accountability Network (UCAN). I was heavily involved in developing that form. Simultaneously and not entirely coincidentally the US Department of Education announced an upgrade to their "Cool" website which allows at least some limited search based on a number of criteria. In the trades paper for higher education there was some yammering about both efforts. The UCAN form was designed with two purposes in mind. First, it would allow students to make some simple but informative comparisons. At the same time however, as any transparency project should do, it encourages prospective students and their families to drill down to the campus site to understand complex issues in a more coherent fashion.

The USDE project was also announced today. It is an interactive website which allows students to search colleges by a number of factors. In substance it looks a lot like a set of sites called Mentor sites that are active in a number of states. The virtue of the Mentor sites is that they also often allow students to submit an electronic application. The USDE site does not offer that flexibility and probably should not.

One particularly amusing yammer was from some bureaucrat in Florida who believes he has found the Rosetta Stone in the term "accountability." His hobbyhorse has been to support a bureaucratic "accountability" system which reduces the role of private and voluntary accreditation and which tries to make the 3000+ institutions in the country uniform. This Florida official opined that he was "wary" of "flashy graphics." Interestingly, in the focus group work done as the UCAN form was being developed the graphics linked to sites on a college website which could give students and their families more information was a major point of support. The focus group participants really liked the visual nature of the form and the ability to drill down on things which were important to that student or family. You can rest assured that this same bureaucrat will respond with a post about the "guild" of higher education (accreditation) and the virtues of accountability whenever a story about higher education appears, regardless of the subject.

The former chair of a USDE Commission on higher education also did some yammering about the independent college effort. He was quoted as saying " “They’re making an effort to act like they’re making progress and personally it doesn’t seem like much progress to me. They’ve been the biggest opponent to real transparency, that entity has, so I just have skepticism about them being transparent.” His definition of transparency was a one size fits all model which was the opposite of true information. Miller tried to run his commission like a fiefdom. For that and other reasons the report seems to have had little effect on public policy. The independent college effort was a genuine collaboration involving a wide range of colleges and universities and a group of admissions officers as well as other technical experts as well as students and families and even staff from Capitol Hill.

In the development of the UCAN project two things became clear. First, as the form was being developed we did a lot of listening to both students and their families as well as other interested parties. What we found was that the visual nature of the form, which the bureaucrat from Florida condemned, was an attractive feature. At the same time, we also found that parents and students after getting the overview wanted a simple way to drill down on issues that were of particular importance to them on the campuses they were interested in.

My guess is that college information sources will continue to develop. Both the USDE site and the UCAN sites are steps forward with slightly differing purposes. The ultimate test of either of these will be whether parents and students use them to help think about college choices.

One more comment on DPM

The quote in the earlier post about Amin also reminded me of a dinner I had with a small group and Senator Moynihan. There were about 8 of us at the table; Joe Gale, Moynihan's aide and then a bunch of academics in governmental affairs and in tax policy, and the Senator. He showed up late to the dinner and immediately ordered a neat Scotch. We had dinner with a lot of wine, I think he consumed a fair amount of it. And then he ordered up a large snifter of Brandy at the end of the meal. We then got down to business to talk about a tax issue. Moynihan spent twenty or thirty minutes in the beginning of our discussion laying out some clear thoughts about the development of the tax code. What struck me that night was first, his absolute command of tax issues. I've spent a lot of time trying to get to a reasonable level of understanding but the Senator took policy and mixed it with history and philosophy in a wonderful manner. But second, as he was talking I looked around the table and all of the academics were furiously taking notes on any paper they could find, almost like a graduate seminar in tax. Most of the academics had spent a good deal of their careers either studying tax issues or working on them for their universities but DPM could add something that each of us thought was valuable enough to record.

I did not work with Moynihan on a day to day basis. I did work a lot with his immediate predecessor (Jacob Javits). Both evidenced a charm and intellect that was contagious.

The UN then and now

In a post on Commentary's RSS Site this morning JAMES KIRCHICK wrote about Daniel Patrick Moynihan as UN Ambassador. At the time instead of a madman from Iran the General Assembly was being visited by one from Uganda. He said of Amin at the time the Uganda madman was visiting the UN, "[I]t’s no accident, I fear, that this ‘racist murderer’—as one of our leading newspapers called him this morning—is head of the Organization of African Unity.”

There is some reason for optimism in the UN in part because of its new leadership. But the last couple of days have suggested how fragile the opportunities for the organization are.

I worked with Moynihan when he was in the Senate (the seat now occupied by Hillary Clinton and as he reminded listeners often once occupied by Tammany era figure Roscoe Conkling.) Moynihan once told me of Conkling's quote soon after resigning his Senate seat (because of the Pendleton/Civil Service Act) he was quoted as saying "Those who fear the pernicious effects of patriotism has for scalawags and scofflaws, have not listened to the clarion call that reform has for these same individuals." Moynihan had a mix of a wonderful wit, a superb intellect and an unwillingness to accept prattle.

Monday, September 24, 2007

All Saints and the IRS

In Sunday's sermon the Rev. Ed Bacon gave a powerful message about the IRS's recent determination to drop its "case" against the church. All Saints posted a full set of documents, including a video of the sermon, on its website. It is a stirring sermon and well worth watching. While I am pleased with the conclusion of the IRS examination, I am not sure I buy some of Rev. Bacon's conclusions.

The case arose from a sermon which was given a week before the 2004 election which the Rector Emeritus, George Regas, staged a mock debate between John Kerry and George Bush and Jesus. Regas put a phrase in the sermon that supposedly exhorted the congregation to follow its conscience. But, at least in my reading of the sermon (I did not hear it) Regas stepped over the line permitted for charitable institutions. The IRS, not untypically, offered only a partial exoneration to the church. It made a determination that Regas had violated the prohibition for non-profits to become directly involved in elections but it said with current procedures that there were enough protections that the violation would not occur again. Their letter was obtuse, which could lead any reasonable person to conclude that the IRS had acted arbitrarily in their review of Regas' sermon.

Bacon made a vigorous and thoughtful case for the involvement of churches in issues of the day. And here I think he is correct. Churches have a responsibility to become involved in their societies including arguing for what Bacon characterized as issues of "freedom." At one time Bacon characterized the Episcopal church as "the Republican party at prayer", a funny line but probably true. He also argued that it would be a regression for the church to now become an arm of the Democrat Party. But the balance between being a moral leader and a political one is hard. I would add to the proscription that Bacon offered about religious leaders not being beholden to either party that they also not be beholden to government. The scriptural reference that Bacon missed was “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” In my opinion many modern religionists put too much reliance on government as the solver of problems. But in my reading of the Bible, there is a constant, and reasonable, tension between government and religious practice and expression.

The standards for the appropriate level of political involvement by charities are a bit fuzzy. The traditional measure is "substantial" involvement. About two decades ago the Congress adopted something called the Conable election (named after the Member of Congress who drafted it) which set up a test for charitable organizations to be assured that they had not crossed over the line by following a series of standards and filing a disclosure. But there is still an express prohibition from endorsement of a particular candidate or providing direct aid to one candidate over another. And here, at least in my opinion, Regas' remarks crossed over the line.

As Pablo Eisenberg argued in the Chronicle for Philanthropy earlier in the year "Some nonprofit leaders are arguing that the laws prohibiting political activity are archaic and should be dropped. But doing so would set a dangerous precedent and cause nonprofit groups to lose one of their most important qualities — their independence from government and elected officials." He goes on to say "charities and foundations intelligently realize that staying away from direct political involvement is the price they must pay for continuing to be exempt from taxation and supported by tax-deductible gifts." The question in Rev. Regas' sermon is whether he stepped over the line of moral suasion to direct involvement.

Regas made a case against the doctrine of preemptive war and for additional support for the poor. And in my mind, had he stayed at that level all of what he said would have been within the bounds of appropriate expression. But as you re-read Regas' remarks there is a strong support for one approach to the both issues. In the sermon Regas said (supposedly in the voice of Jesus) "Mr. President, your doctrine of preemptive war is a failed doctrine. Forcibly changing the regime of an enemy that posed no imminent threat has led to disaster." He then went through a series of other issues where the clear tenor of his remarks rejected the policies of one candidate (Bush) over the other (Kerry). One of his comments claimed that "Conservative politicians with the blessing of the Religious Right have strongly advocated the dismantling of social programs that provide a decent life for children once they enter this world." Does that mean that any questioning of the efficacy of funding for these programs is inappropriate? Before Regas made the claim did he bother to look at funding for programs for the poor over time to discover how much money was being spent on these purposes? Were the programs actually "dismantled?" If only "conservatives" advocated dismantling of social programs why would a democrat president sign the major welfare reform legislation of the last thirty years? Regas specifically ignored the strong evidence that the net effect of many social programs was not to reduce the underlying problems they were created to address. Indeed, a key question that every Christian should address is whether government actually produces the positive results that Regas claimed or whether more determined social action by Christians would better serve the needs of the poor.

Bacon pointed out that the IRS actions against All Saints had chilled actions that some churches might have taken. He then went on to say "Because of the IRS's inconsistency and vagueness it is still an open question for us and our colleagues across the country whether we will be investigated again the next time any one of us is called upon to preach about the war, poverty, bigotry, or any other social and moral issues as they relate to current governmental policies. It therefore perpetuates the intimidation inherent in the threat of IRS investigations based on inferences rather than fact." But I am not sure that it would be wise to clarify in an absolute sense where the absolute boundary is for churches to engage in political activity. Clearly, at least from my perspective, many religious leaders have too high a connection to government and to its programs. That we as Christians are called to work on all of the issues that Bacon enumerated does not suggest that we should support all of those policies as only coming from the government.

Beginning with either the story of the Exodus through the story of Christ's birth, religious people have always had an uneasy relationship with government. That is simply a part of the nature of government and of religious faith. While I was uneasy about the IRS actions against what I believe to have been a minor violation of involvement in political campaigns by a former rector of the church, I am equally uneasy with the ready acceptance that many religious leaders offer to using the government as an instrument of Christian policy.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Columbia and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Monday's appearance of the terrorist and Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia University as a part of his visit to the UN has generated a lot of discussion. It should. The tensions here are profound and they should be.

The underlying principle of a university should be a locus of broad discussion and debate. By many measures Columbia does not measure up to that standard. It currently prohibits military recruiting on campus and gave an unruly welcome to the head of the Minutemen (a right wing nutter). Ahmadinejad should be a reviled figure in the world. He was a part of the group of Islamic terrorists who captured and detained American diplomatic personnel during the Carter administration. He denies the Holocaust. He consistently has called for the extermination of the nation of Israel. He seems to be trying to develop nuclear weapons for his country. He has been accused of killing people who disregard Islamic precepts in his country and advocating the same for people outside it.

There is also the distinct possibility that the Iranian leader will use this appearance as a propaganda tool. In the same way that David Duke used his public appearances to highlight how intelligent he could appear this guy will use any video selectively. His most recent American appearance on TV, with Mike Wallace, should have been an embarrassment to American journalism. Wallace looked and acted like a lapdog and allowed Ahmadinejad to lay out his bizarre ideas without challenge. Wallace pitched so many softballs to the Iranian leader it was troubling.

There is some discussion about him also trying to go to Ground Zero where the World Trade Center was. Here the issue is less complex - he should not be allowed to go.

Some of the opponents to the appearance have asked whether a university would have allowed Hitler to appear in 1939 - and the answer to that rhetorical canard should have been absolutely. But in both cases that should only be on certain conditions. He should not be allowed to enter the forum without an assurance that alternative points of view can be included in the appearance.

Even with that on balance, and were the university to allow the kind of debate and discussion that should go on in this kind of forum, I would be supportive of having him coming to campus to speak. I am not confident that Columbia will allow the kind of free questioning of the speaker that they should. The Wallace interview is also not a good bellweather. Wallace allowed himself to be a pawn of Ahmadinejad's rants. The Iranian leader proved himself to be a skillful propagandist when he appeared with Wallace - but I suspect if the University follows what it should that students and professors in the audience will prove a more equal match.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Ends, Means and Civil Discourse

The Move.on ad generated a story in the Washington Post this morning which said that the leaders of this "small" organization were "unmoved" by the furor caused by the ad. The Post quoted an email sent out to supporters which said in part "Maybe you liked our General Petraeus ad. Maybe you thought the language went too far," they wrote. "But make no mistake: this is much bigger than one ad."

The Iraq issue is an important one. So the email was partially right. But so are the bounds of reasonable discussion. The leaders of Move.on seem to have no conception of what is appropriate. If the goal of the organization is to get us out of the war as quickly as possible, the personal attack on an officer who, by all accounts is an honorable man, is simply an over-step of immense proportions.

Dylan had a song during the Vietnam era - which was an antiwar ballad called With God on Our Side - which ends with the couplet "If God's on our side, He'll stop the next war." But the point should be because you feel you on the moral side of the equation does not allow you to act immorally. The Move.on folks don't seem to get that.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Paywall at the WSJ

In 1999 I was at a monetary conference run by the Claremont Graduate University in San Miguel de Allende. Robert Mundell was there (right after he had received the Nobel in Economics) and so was Robert Bartley, at the time the Editor of the WSJ. On the way to one of the sessions I had the chance to sit next to Bartley. I asked him if the Journal had lost any subscribers because of the pricing of the paid electronic version. He said "Do you still by the print edition?" I responded yes - I still liked the print edition at home but on the road the electronic edition was wonderful and also as a research source it was wonderful. He than said "I guess we are getting $39 more in revenue than we did before the edition." I thought it was a cute answer but not entirely satisfying. A few years before Kevin Kelly had written 10 Rules for the New Economy in which he argued, "embrace the free." But soon after the conference the crash happened and the notion of the free was challenged. Yet the substance of my original question lurked in the back of my mind.

From one perspective, Bartley was right. The WSJ subscription model (the paywall) generated revenue they could not have expected, at least from subscribers. But on the other the paywall did two things. First, it made the WSJ's commentary less accessible to readers and bloggers and thus less quoted in the public discussions and by others and second, it may have also reduced the possibility for alternative revenues to come over the transom. While the policy may have made the Journal's news a bit more exclusive - as Kelly reminded us, in this era exclusive may limit influence and the real value of the commodity that the Journal or any other news source produces.

But there was a story in today's news that suggested that the Journal's new owner Rupert Murdoch is giving serious consideration to changing the policy and either eliminating the fee (which is now $39 for subscribers) or modifying it. It probably makes some sense. What is odd about the paywall policy is that a lot of the other WSJ services are very accessible - several of the columnists are available outside the paywall - either in full or part.

There are several alternative pricing models in traditional media - some give almost everything away for free (or with a bit of advertising on the site) and other charge for all or part of it. The Sacramento Bee created a political subscription service for their top political writers - but I ended up not subscribing to it because only one of the writers is worth reading and gets the ideas of blogging and I thought the price to reward ratio seemed a bit small. It will be interesting to see whether Murdoch indeed changes the paywall and how he does it.

The two photos are of Mundell from the conference. There were a couple of highlights about that conference. First, we had a very good and late night discussion about the relative value of the Euro. Second, Vicente Fox, who was then running for President of Mexico stopped by for a speech. He was good. That was the second time I met him - I also saw him early in his term as Governor when he spoke to a group in Guanajuato. In that conference I liked his Spanish because it was simple!
Finally, Mundell had a very young child with him. At one point I asked him about keeping up with the young tyke who was then about two. He said it helped to have a younger wife.

The End of the Season and some thoughts for next

Tonight's game in Oklahoma was a great capstone for the season. The Cats nailed the Richmond Braves 7-1. They had two more homers (Merloni and Colamarino) Before the game Tony DeFrancesco named Lou Merloni as the Captain for the game. It was well deserved. Merloni has been an inspiration to the team. He did not disappoint tonight and hit a homer.

The Bee had a story this morning about Tony D our manager for the last five years. He has been great. He won three championships in those years. There is a good chance that he could be moved up in the As organization or could be seen in some other team. Tony D has the reputation of keeping the locker room and the dugout loose. When we have seen him at the team luncheons he has a graceful presence. He seems to genuinely care about his players.

His record is an amazing one. In his five years we played in three championship series and had a sweep in all three series. In a couple of years like this one, the parent club seemed almost indifferent to the problems of running the AAA franchise - there were hundreds of moves (this season more than 180) and yet he figured out a way to get players to work together.

But if Tony D gets his chance in the bigs - either in the As organization or somewhere else - the team should think about trying to attract Merloni in as a manager. Lou probably has a couple of good years left in his career and the Framingham native has a big commitment to Massachusetts. But his leadership of the team during this season were pretty clear. On the field he played in 110 games,100 hits and three homers. In the post season he had a total of four homers. He has had experience in the bigs but also demonstrated leadership capabilities for the team.

Merloni had a great season in 2007 - although before the first 2008 game (April 11) he will have just turned 37. In the current roster only reliever Julio Mañon is close to him in age. That is not to say he looks like someone his age or plays like someone his age. Merloni had a number of great plays at 3d base.

Two other comments about tonight's game. First, the ESPN 2 people were underwhelming in their coverage of the game. At several points in the game they would claim a situation for a batter which was about two pitches off. They also butchered several Cats names. They seemed almost indifferent to the AAA players. I got to listen to the radio coverage which had Johnny Doskow and his Richmond counterpart - they were both pretty good. Second, Oklahoma looks like a good park for baseball. At some point it would be a kick to see every AAA ballpark. I've been to a couple including the Zephyrs field in New Orleans and the Sounds. The Zephyrs stadium is a bit junky, the Sounds one is pretty nice. I've also been to the Grizzlies place in Fresno. What is fun about AAA ball is the individual personalities in the stadiums that we have visited so far.

Forbes Factoid

Of the 400 richest Americans some do not have a college degree. Indeed, four of the top five (Bill Gates, casino owner Sheldon Adelson, Larry Ellison, and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen) are college dropouts. The average net worth of the non-college graduates is $5.96 billion compared to $3.19 billion for the graduates on the list. One more item, technology is now an important part of the sources of wealth - a few years ago it was real estate but now technology makes up a bit more than 20%.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Journey back to OJ

This weekend's story about bizarre behavior by OJ Simpson brought back memories of the criminal and civil trials related to Simpson's involvement in the murder of his wife and Ronald Goldman. When both trials happened I found myself in a strange position as a result of a business trip.

During the criminal trial I had either the good fortune or the bad to be in a car listening to all four summations. I had not paid much attention to the trial before then but because I was doing a series of client visits and had about an hour drive between each - I got to listen to Marcia Clark, Christopher Darden, Johnnie Cochran and Barry Scheck. What struck me at the time was how really bad the first three were in their summations. Clark had a hard time putting two logical thoughts together. Darden was not much better although he tried an emotional rap which, in my hearing, fell flat. Cochran was a clown who seemed more in love with his own theatrics than in trying to get to a conclusion. But then came Barry Scheck. Scheck's summation should be studied in law schools He began with a brief comment on the standard for criminal cases for judging a person guilty and then in a concise, yet compelling, order raised a series of questions which people could raise about several elements in the case.

Clark began her summation with this " I want to sit down and talk to you and tell you, "What do you want to know? What do you want to talk about?" Because that way I don't have to talk about stuff you don't want to hear, stuff that you don't want explained, stuff that you are not interested in, and I can't, and I always have a sense of frustration. So I'm sorry if I say things that you don't need to hear or I explain things that are already clear to you. Please bear with me because I am not a mind reader and I don't know. " It did not get much better. Darden said in part "And I don't know. This is the evidence in the case. You're going to have to decide what that means. You can interpret what he says. You don't have to just take it literally. You decide what that means. It could mean a couple things." Cochran had the line which attacked the court's dignity "If it did not fit, you must acquit." Sheck's analogy was to a bug in a bowl ""How many cockroaches do you have to find in a bowl of spaghetti" before you won't eat it? he asked. "This is reasonable doubt." But his rhetoric was backed by substantial and carefully prepared refutations of what Darden and Clark should have presented.

By the way Clark is now a "special" correspondent for Entertainment Tonight. Darden also left the prosecutor's office for jobs in academe in Southwestern Law School and CSU LA. Scheck is on the faculty of Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in NY.

I am not an attorney, although before I went back for my doctoral work, seriously considered getting a law degree. I was appalled by the conduct of the trial judge (Lance Ito - the joke at the time was "What do you call a small burro in Spanish - burrito and a small judge Judge Ito"). But Scheck did not engage in anything but in building doubt in the substance of the prosection case. Clark and Darden's summations were so weak that Scheck's careful defense was stunning in contrast. But the surprising thing for me is that based on hearing only the summaries and not having participated in the media circus leading up to the verdict, I might well have voted not guilty.

When the civil trial came up, with a slightly lower standard of proof, I was fully prepared to have them come to the conclusion they did. The simple answer for me was that since I did not have to sit through either trial (the civil judge was mounds higher in competence than Judge Ito) I was comfortable with both seemingly contradictory verdicts.

So what is going on here? The whole thing sounds so bizarre that I am not sure where the truth lies. I am tired of Simpson's shenanigans. If he is guilty (and from the preliminary stories it looks like he did something very stupid), then he should spend a lot of time in jail. But I am willing to let the jury system work once again. The only hope I can have is that the media will not see this as another circus pass. Unfortunately, my hope there is probably hopeless.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Explaining Norman Hsu, Ted Stevens and John Doolittle

The current controversy about Norman Hsu is evocative of an earlier one that hit the Clinton political organization when Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie and Johnny Chung and a Buddist monk offered the Clintons and Gore a raft of shady money. But thinking that the problem is limited to the Clintons would be short sighted. I am bothered by the string of links that the Clinton machine has to shady fundraisers but I am more bothered by the way that we use consultants in the political process.

A good deal of those problems (from Clinton's to Stevens to John Doolittle) relate to how much reliance we have developed on the federal government. Got an issue? - get the feds to become involved. Want someone else to solve your problems? Get the feds involved. One of the funniest mails I have gotten in the last several years was from Mr. Doolittle (whose major achievement in his entire political career seems to have been raising money) when he offered support for term limits but of course worked hard against enacting them for members of congress.

Politics attracts some people who simply want to get close to power (that may or may not be Hsu's motivation). But in recent years we have created an industry where a politician like Doolittle can claim it is OK to take 15% off the top of every campaign contribution. Or where a politician like Stevens can assume that it is ok for some buddies to provide expensive repairs to his house (with no "strings" attached). Or where you can have successive generations of the Clinton dynasty skating on the edge of ethics in taking dough from such questionable figures like Trie or Hsu. The consultants look at political issues or campaigns as so much rent. It is not inconceivable to me that some of them worked hard to make the campaign finance laws so complicated so they could continue to advise politicians and take their spread.

The UC Meltdown part 2

What would a campus do to get a distinguished economist and academic to come and speak on campus? What if that economist had done great work both as the Secretary of Treasury and in the World Bank? What if that same distinguished economist had also done some things that many disagree with? Would it be OK to have him on a campus if he fired a Black media star "academic" whose scholarly record was a joke? Would they tolerate an economist who argued that one result of free trade is increased pollution in developing countries? Would they tolerate a former college president who raised questions about differences between men and women in the sciences - not in the sense of an absolute but more in the sense of how educators should deal with the issue? Would they tolerate this economist who also served as president of one of the flagship universities in the world and worked hard to reform undergraduate education?

Clearly, most thinking people would like to hear such a person. Indeed, part of the academic environment should be a locus for healthy debate and discussion. Some might think that Cornel West, the Black professor, should not have been fired. Others might believe that the environment is so pristine that the tradeoffs that this economist argued are not reasonable. Still others might question whether this economist's motives or knowledge about differences between the sexes are based on reliable research. All of those things can be debated and discussed. But not if you yammer to stop him from coming to campus.

UC Davis had been slated to have Larry Summers, the former Harvard president, come to campus for a lecture. But because of the intolerance of a group of professors on campus the invitation was withdrawn. They circulated a petition which read in part "this invitation is not only misguided but inappropriate at a time when the university is searching for a new president and continues to build and diversify its community." The leader of the group that got the invitation lifted commented for the Davis Enterprise “I was appalled that someone articulating that point of view would be invited by the regents,” she said. “This is a symbolic invitation and a symbolic measure that I believe sends the wrong message about the University of California and its cultural principles.”

Professor Stanton, the leader of the pack here, might also think about the symbol of controlling speech on campus. From my point of view it is a much greater wrong message.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Victory Lap

How do you describe the fourth home game in a series? (actually this was a different game than the last three against Salt Lake) This turned out to be the final game of the PCL championship which keeps the Rivercats' streak of never having been defeated in a Championship series game. We won 4-3. Tony D probably kept Brad Knox in one batter too many Fernando Tatis scored three runs in the top of the eighth with his home run. But those runs were not enough to match the fourth inning play of the Cats;where for one out the Cats scored four runs. In the top of the eighth Jesus Feliciano was thrown out of the game - I am not sure why he beefed what looked like a third strike. And then there were the fans - in it pumping up the players for the whole game.

The crowd was electric - as they were in the last three games of the Salt Lake series - although this one had 14,414 fans in attendance - it was the most crowded I have seen the stadium this season - indeed on the outside before the game - the signs suggested a sellout.

Between them Knox and Blevins had a total of 87 strikes on a total of 131 pitches. Colamarino got two more RBIs in the series. And in this game we had no homers. We had six hits, the Zephyrs half that. They had two errors. But then there were the fans who stayed with the game for the full nine innings. In our section, the Thunder Sticks became an opportunity to make improv jokes with a prop. Some of those were even funny.

But then there were the fans - electric as they were in the Salt Lake series. I do not even care that I will have to wait until April 11 to see more Cats ball. And then there were the fans.

Branch Rickey, Jr. as league president presented the trophy to Art Savage. Both mentioned the fans. So did Tony D. They should have.

On a spontaneous effort the players did a victory lap for the fans - and then there were the fans. Ultimately, and what I learned from the last two series of games, is that baseball is an interactive sport.

Why the University of California is in Trouble

The LA Times published two competing interpretations of why Duke professor Erwin Chemerinsky was unceremoniously dumped from being dean of the new UC Irvine Law School. They are hotlinked in this post because both are worth reading. One because of its absurd logic and the other because of the elegance of the statement. By all accounts Chemerinsky is a distinguished, left of center, legal scholar. He is a frequent commentator with Chapman's dean on the Hugh Hewitt show. They are sort of a point-counterpoint and do a wonderful job of explaining various legal issues. On those discussions I rarely agree with the point of view of Chemerinsky but he is always intelligent and thoughtful. In the case of hiring a dean you should be looking for someone who has some management skills but also someone who can be an intellectual leader in the school. Although I do not know anything about Chemerinsky's management skills (and a lot of that is a) proven after hiring and b) can be delegated to staff) but his intellectual integrity and substance is undisputed.

Victor Davis Hanson argues in an NRO post today that UC should hire him back. I disagree. But Hanson does comment "We have too many law schools as it is, so a new one at Irvine does not need to offer instant proof of why we don't need another."

What is undisputed is that the offer to Chemerinsky was contingent on approval by the regents. The Chancellor of Irvine claims in a piece in the LA Times that he rescinded the offer to Chemerinsky as a "a management decision -- not an ideological or political one." Chancellor Drake claims it was not based on pressure. He then goes on to claim "Independent thinking and autonomy are essential qualities that we seek in our law school dean. As academic leaders, we must also guide the university in ways that will inspire open discussion and empower our students to be courageous in seeking the truth. And we must ensure that the broader goals of our institution prevail." I guess the Chancellor believed that professor Chemerinsky would not engage in "independent thinking" and would be too dependent on some unnamed forces. What balderdash.

A WSJ Post had the following quote which disputes Drake's story "Irvine psychology professor and one of the members of the search committee that selected Chemerinsky to be dean — saying that the chancellor told the committee during an emergency meeting Wednesday night that he was forced to make the decision by outside forces whom he did not name." The local paper (Orange County Register) also contradicts Drake's story quoting a Drake conversation with Chemerinsky where he said “’say some conservative opposition had developed to me, and we needed to strategize, maybe I needed to plan a trip out to Orange County,’” The Register story also implicates that both former Assemblyman Scott Baugh and LA Supervisor Mike Antonovich expressed opposition to Chemerinsky. But one wonders why UC would fold to the likes of those to politicos.

The Times gave Chemerinsky a chance to also comment on the event. His LA Times opinion piece offers a differing, and more credible explanation. In a phone call from the chancellor the professor was told he "had proved to be "too politically controversial." The Duke law professor then offers a strong defense of academic freedom which includes the a comment which Drake seemingly does not understand "All that matters is that the individual be committed to creating an institution where all viewpoints will be respected and flourish. That is what academic freedom is all about."

Chemerinsky had begun to put together an advisory board which included a couple of very conservative legal scholars. One of those,Viet Dinh, (Georgetown) seemed to sum up what the community of legal scholars think about Chemerinsky, "I disagree with Erwin on so many things, but with all the many panels and discussions I've had with him, I've never found him to be any other thing than a straight-up academic," Dinh said. "I think he is one of the great scholars of our days."

The case for a new public law school in Orange County is weak. Several reviews by the state coordinating agency found no justification for creating a new campus. California has a ton of law school opportunities in the state, although only a few are in public institutions. Public policy over the last decade has raised fees in the public institutions so they are very close to those paid by students in the private institutions. So the differences between public and private institutions are slight. The supporters of the campus offered the notion that only a public campus could produce "public interest" lawyers. The data on the subject suggests that invented argument is nonsense. Evidently Chancellor Drake believes that his campus will not be complete without a law school. It is what some people in academe call the "edifice" complex. That is supplemented by local civic boosterism. One of the claims by local supporters is that the new "public" law school will never require governmental support. One would ask then how is this new school public? There are lots of other questions about the new campus that suggest it will have a hard time becoming a parallel to the other UC law schools (Boalt, Hastings, UCLA). From Drake's actions on this case it is unlikely that this new law school will have a tough time finding any credible person to fill the role of founding dean.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

More on the Despicable Ad

It turns out that the New York Times was complicit in the ad about General Petraeus. Depending on the source a Monday full page ad in the Times as Move.on used would cost between $167,000 and $180,000 but they only paid $65,000. The Times in 2006 had a loss of $534 million. Five years ago the paper's circulation was almost 1.2 million on a daily basis - it is now less than 1.075 million. (although one source suggests circulation of 1.1 million) In May of 2007 the Times reported a 2% drop in circulation. Polls suggest that daily newspapers are believable to only about 60% of their local populations. That is down from about a decade ago when it was closer to 80%.

None of that is surprising.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Tonight's game - two down in the Championship

One of the dynamics of this season's Rivercats team has been the changes (now more than 180 roster changes since the start of the season). Last season, one reason the team did not do well was because of the roster changes. But this season, we seem to have been able to move players in and out and yet someone steps up to the plate. The picture is of Brian Stavtsky - who has spent most of the season on injured reserves or in Midland and Jason Perry. Stavitsky did a double in the top of the ninth to help secure our victory. He played in only 22 games this season. When he was with Sacramento he did a lot of first base coaching. Perry played part of the season for the Cats before being traded to the Detroit Tigers. There were 180+ other moves like that on the roster.

JP was a mainstay for us and played about half the season for the Cats. But he went down to Midland. He played 21 games for Midland the AA franchise.

One of the new guys at the end of this season has had a tough time adjusting. Richie Robnett came up to AAA and has had a rough time getting hits but in AA at Midland he hit 18 home runs in 121 games. He has had a hard time since he was advanced to the triple A club at the end of the season. Lloyd Turner, profiled early in the season, never seemed to be able to hit this season at the AAA level. As he went down to the 43 games he played in A ball, he only hit .230. But during his time with the Cats he made a couple of spectacular defensive plays. As I commented earlier, he also has the heart to play big league ball. I hope we see him back next season. However all of these moves work - the team has figured out how to work together.

Tonight's game in New Orleans had the Cats winning but not until the ninth. That keeps the Cats streak on the championship series at eight games - if they win on Friday, they will have three series for the championships and three sweeps. Friday promises to be a good game. The Cats will again offer Thunder Sticks and Dollar Dog night.

Economic Logic and Mike Gallagher

This evening as I was coming back from the airport I listened to Mike Gallagher, who by my estimation is the Rodney Dangerfield of talk show hosts. (He is the sixth most popular talk show host - or so he claims). As noted earlier, I have grown tired of talk show hosts and here is an example of why.

Gallagher did a discussion of helmet laws and iPhone pricing. He described Apple's decision to reduce its prices on its iPhone as a ripoff or a scam. (Although he also said it was the best product of this type he has seen - here he is right). Gallagher does not list where he went to college or that he ever studied economic. There are two flaws in his "logic." First, the early adopter's issue. He (and I) bought the iPhone in the first sixty days of its offering and then Apple reduced the price by $200 - thereby cutting their margins. But those of us who bought the phone early got two things of economic value - which we could have chosen to forgo. The first was techno bragging rights. Those of us who bought the phone early got between 2 and 60 days of being able to have people go WOW to our purchase of a wonderful new device. I bought mine on June 30 - so I got all of the months of July and August and some of September - assuming that is worth about $3 per day - the $200 premium is clearly worth it. But wait, we get $100 back from Apple for being an early adopter (as noted in an earlier post - the better choice for Apple would have been to allow us frontliners to stay there as the next generation phone comes out). So in essence the cost of being an early adopter was less than a Venti non-fat hot chocolate per day. That seems cheap.

Gallagher seems to argue that there is a single clearing market price for goods. That is not true for many products unless you add the element of time. When the next generation of iPhones comes out would he argue that the current version, with presumably fewer features, be priced at the same level? Of course not.

As noted in an earlier post, some "marketing" experts argued that Apple's pricing was too expensive and that their market was very small. Those prognosticators, based on the first two months of sales, seem to be quite foolish. As almost every reviewer has commented this device has features that no other device of its kind has. Presumably, as a shareholder of Apple (and I am) I would want the company to maximize profits in my behalf. As a consumer (and I am) I would want the price to be as inexpensive as possible.

In my mind there is a second issue, for the small percentage of early adopters who bought the 4 gig phone. I assume they also get the $100 but their product is discontinued (giving strong support to the notion that the early adopters bought the most powerful device available and were thus less interested in the clearing price of the phone). For the rest of us, we got the larger model for what it cost the early adopters to get the discontinued model.

Gallagher makes a pretty good point - i.e. that government regulation of prices is not a good idea (he extended the analogy to laws that require helmets for motorcycle riders). Yet, somehow he seems to think that a pricing change early in a product cycle is somehow a scam. That is nonsense. Early adopters pay a premium. But if he understood the dynamics of Moore's Law he would understand that the inevitable process of prices in technology is in a downward direction.

In the tech world there is a second issue - that being that prices reduce as the technology advances. One could make a very good argument that the price reduction in the iPhone price actually protects our initial investment - especially, if as some of the blogs suggest, a 3G model will be available by yearend.

Apple's goal throughout the product cycle should be to maximize profits not to set a single optimal price. That is an important concept that Gallagher seems to fail to grasp.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Despicable has generated a lot of press in the years it has been operational and some of their efforts have been somewhat positive but they went over the top in an ad in the New York Times. The ad was titled General Petraeus or General Betray Us? and it makes the outrageous claim that this well respected military commander doctored his testimony before Congress to comply with the interpretation that the current administration favors.

That kind of rabid partisanship is despicable. It is fine to disagree with the Administration's policy. It is also reasonable for members and others to raise questions about the General's conclusions - which are based on judgments. But to question the motives of our commander in Iraq steps over the line of reasonable debate. A good deal of our political discussion misses the necessity in any republican form of government for civil discussion. These ideological morons seem to think that standard should not apply to them. Let's hope that their contributions dry up. It is time for to take its own advice.

It is also questionable why the New York Times would sanction this kind of extreme nonsense. They've shown again why their readership continues to decline.

The first game in the PCL championship

The Rivercats won tonight in New Orleans - 5-3. That is the seventh straight win by the team in three championship series for the PCL since the team came to Sacramento. On this sixth anniversary of 9/11 the Cats scored in first, second, seventh and ninth. Shane Komine pitched six very credible innings to be followed by Manon, Flores and Ziegler (who got the save). If there was a concern for the game - they left 10 on base compared to the Zephyrs 4. Nick Blasi and Brant Colamarino (who came up from Midland to replace Daric Barton continue to hit very well. So does Lou Merloni.

There is one more game in New Orleans tomorrow and then three possible games in Sacramento.

The Right Strategy for the iPhone early adopters

In this mornings readings there are two speculations on the changes in iPhone pricing. The first is from Steven Levitt (Freakanomics) in the NYT titled Should Apple Burn its Economics Textbooks? Levitt argues that the move to cut prices was right but still made some early adopters angry. Levitt argues that the best thing for the company to have done is to have offered a $200 rebate. That way everyone is equal. It cuts into Apple's profits but keeps people happy.

In the last couple of days as I was traveling I talked to several iPhone users (and one Motorola employee) and asked them about the kerfluffle. Their response (admittedly not a real sample) was about the same as mine. They bought the phone because it was something they wanted and the original price was fine at the time. One person expressed a bit of disappointment that the drop in price did not also offer generation 2 of the phone. The Motorola guy was also interesting - he said that Motorola still looks at the Apple relationship they had with some interest. (Apple's key chips were Motorola and at the same time the original iTunes phone the Rockr was a Motorola phone - the Rockr did not sell well at all.) But he was interested in whether I liked the phone - he also asked me which phone I moved from (the Razr).

Levitt's article (which is a regular feature of the Times) also offers a pointer to a blog entry by a marketing guy named Seth Godin. His solution for the grumpies is a lot more creative and would probably cost a lot less dough. In his column he seems to understand (as Levitt seems not to) that the decision to purchase a technology product like the iPhone involves both economic and status considerations. So his solutions suggest that you should reward the status. His three proposals are
•Free exclusive ringtones, commissioned from Bob Dylan and U2, only available to the people who already had a phone. (This is my favorite because it announces to your friends--every time the phone rings--that you got in early).
•Free pass to get to the head of the line next time a new hot product comes out.
•Ability to buy a specially colored iPod, or an iPod with limited edition music that no one else can buy.

I must admit I am not a very good subject for this speculation. As I commented earlier, I was not at all disappointed that Apple dropped its price. I am hopeful that they will figure out how to do a 3G phone (which would replace EDGE with a faster network) with decent battery life and a slightly higher level of memory (16gig) and soon. And at that point I will be prepared to step up to the plate again. There is a price to being an early adopter that I am willing to pay. But Godin's suggestion about getting to the front of the line plus a couple of ring tones (hopefully wider than Dylan or U2) would also be fine. In the end, depending on how the credit is finally structured, I may use it to buy the next generation of iPhone and thus get something close to what Godin proposed.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The realities of Minor League Baseball

After yesterday's game, the Oakland A's activated Daric Barton,who played in 136 games this season producing 9 home runs and 70 RBIs and batting .293. Barton was originally drafted by the Cards as a first round pick in 2003 out of high school (Huntington Beach) but ended up with the As organization. He moved quickly from the Ports to the Midland Rockhounds in 2005 and then on to the Rivercats Carrying on a Rivercats tradition, he has been a mainstay at First Base. His defensive work provided several thrilling moments during this season.

What is curious about the activation is the timing. The As are in the dumper. During the recent division playoffs Barton had four home runs including the game winning one yesterday. He had 69 strikeouts in 516 at bats for the season. The As are in good shape at first - Dan Johnson is batting .339. For the Cats there are some possibilities to replace Barton at First - might look at Closser, Brown or Merloni or someone from Midland.

The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming

On the trip to DC I read Bjorn Lomborg's new book. It is called Cool It - the Skeptical Environmenatlist's Guide to Global Warming. On the whole I think it is a real contribution to the discussion on this issue.

Lomborg has some choice lines in the book including these. "Kyoto unfortunately has become the symbol of opposition to a United States uninterested in the opinions of the rest of the world. Thus, Kyoto has received political resuscitation without being seriously questioned for its efficiency or achievability. And this is the real issue: Kyoto is at the same time impossibly ambitious and yet environmentally inconsequential. It attempts to change century old energy patterns in fifteen years, ending up costing a fortune and delivering almost nothing." Or "The last global warming fear was the inquisition," he then goes on to offer a bit of history about the burning of witches who were thought to have influenced changes in the climate during the period of the inquisition. The fervor that some of the proponents of the theories are almost Torquemadaesque.

Not surprisingly the book has generated a lot of heat but I also think it generates some light. Tim Flannery, for the Washington Post, hyperventilated a bit about the book, he dismissed Lomborg as a "darling of those who believe that markets should not be regulated and that concerns about the environment are overblown." Chris Mooney(BA English, but with a long record of writing about science issues) at Desmogblog commented "Lomborg seems to ignore worst-case scenarios and precautionary thinking. Although he spends much time discussing how societal changes--the moving of persons and property into harm's way--make us increasingly vulnerable to hurricanes, he fails to seriously consider the idea that when you add global warming to said societal changes, the result could be a double whammy." Jonathan Adler at National Review wrote a pretty positive review. Salon's review was basically negative. They comment "By ignoring the vast uncertainty underlying these forecasts, and every alternative outcome except his preferred "moderate" warming scenario, "Cool It" reduces to an uninteresting discussion of why folks alive today should choose 4.7 degrees of warming rather than 4.4 as the optimal outcome for our grandkids." MIchael Critchon, in his review, said the book "will further enhance Lomborg’s reputation for global analysis and thoughtful response. For anyone who wants an overview of the global warming debate from an objective source, this brief text is a perfect place to start." So the responses come out about where one would expect them to be.

The real question for me about global warming is what kinds of lenses we should use to look at the problem. The major proponents of the theories seem to argue that a good deal of the issues we face in this area are somehow cumulative. i.e. The issues are so interactive that unless we take their solutions evil stuff will occur. Like the economist that they emulate (Malthus) these kinds of predictive models are most often wrong - but more importantly the costs of coming up to the standards that many would have us do may exceed any bounds of rationality - even if the worst case does occur. Even with that, doing nothing does not seem like a good idea.

What I liked about Lomborg's approach is a clear headed approach to a complex issue where many people seem to want to express an opinion without a scientific basis. Does a 4.7 degree increase in temperature mean that all temperatures are going to go up by that amount or something different? Lomborg suggests the latter.

What are the suggestions that Lomborg has? First, he suggests that all of us take a deep breath. It is too bad that many of his critics did not do that. Second, he suggests that some small changes are going to be a lot more effective than the common wisdom. I am not sure I agree with all of his ideas but I think they mostly make a lot of sense.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Not quite the same but wonderful nonetheless

After last night's exciting game I had to go home do a bit of work and then sleep for 3 1/2 hours so I could make a 6 AM flight to our nation's capitol. The defect of that was that I would miss the Pacific Division Championships at Raley Field. I arrived at Reagan at about 4 PM and went immediately to the Red Carpet Room. My thought was that I could at least see the box score as it developed. The radio broadcast over the net has never worked very well - but I thought I would be able to track the progress of the team in increments. So that is what I did. Attendance at this Sunday day game was only 5000 - I suspect it may bump a bit for the PCL finals.

The Bees jumped out to a 2 run lead in the first. And until the fifth both sides were scoreless. Then Petit got a single, Blasi one too, and then Merloni. Then up comes Daric Barton who hit a home run. That put us up 4-2. I thought I could safely go from the airport to my hotel. When I got to the hotel I again dialed into the Rivercats site and watched the end of the game unfold. I now think I know something of the early wire reporters for baseball who would recreate the action for the radio by reading the game log which was teletyped from the field. The last play of the game was also fitting - Merloni to Barton for the final out.

The Cats now go up against New Orleans which made pretty easy work of Nashville. During the regular season the Zephyrs won only 75 games but they have been on a hot streak - winning 7 of their last 10 games in the regular season and 3 of the four playoff games they played against the Sounds. New Orleans was only six games over .500 and in both their home and away records they were only three games up (home was 37-34). We ended the regular season with 14 games over .500 and won the last 4 and 8 of the last 10. The Zephyrs are also the team that suffered two major injuries on their last visit to Sacramento. We joked at the time that they might well not want to come back to Sacramento. This is the end of the season for the PCL championship - and I suspect they will put away those worries. The first two games are in New Orleans starting on Wednesday then they come to Raley's starting on Friday.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

One more - this one also with feeling

In the regular season the Rivercats had just under 150 home runs (about one a game for the 144 game schedule). In the last two nights they've had 8. Tonight's game was filled with all the emotions of last night. It also had a repeat of the thunder sticks (which I called a sausage). But this one went into extra innings and this time unlike the second game in Salt Lake the Cats pulled it out in 10 with a Danny Putnam home run (his second of the evening). The game might not have gone into extra innings but for a lousy call be the home plate umpire in the top of the eighth which allowed Salt Lake to tie the game up. But the Cats refused to let down (neither did the fans).

The photo is of Danny Putnam coming in after punching out his game winning home run. There were about a third less fans at this game (8000) than at Friday night's contest (12,000).

The Nashville Sounds lost tonight which means that the New Orleans Zephyrs will go to the PCL Championship. They had a one game better record than Salt Lake in the regular season and fourteen fewer wins than the team they defeated. But in the best of five series that are the divisional championships, all that is not important.

The Pacific Division series is now tied at 2-2 with the final game tomorrow at Raley Field. The winner of that game advances to New Orleans on Wednesday.

The Grecian Formula Terrorist

Osama released his latest tract and it must have proved a bit disappointing to him. Much of the response to his "teaching" was cackles of laughter. But with at least two other developments the situation we need to deal with in relation to what Osama represents came into greater focus during this week.

First, this new Osama mixes metaphors in odd ways. One commentator, James Robbins of National Review Online, commented "His speech, such as it is, is an interesting fusion of pseudo-Marxism and standard Islamism, sprinkled with political sound bites that rob the address of whatever seriousness it might aspire to. The real terrorism is global warming and the failure to observe Kyoto! Please. And the bit about how Americans are suffering under credit card-debt and mortgage payments — it’s like his speech team is cribbing from the presidential debates. I really expect more from a terrorist mastermind." Second, this "holy" man seems to be overly concerned about his appearance. Since his last Al Jazeera U-Tube presentation he's died his beard and he also seems to have trimmed it. I always thought pride was a vice - and who is he appealing to with the new younger look?

Robbins also makes the funniest comment I've seen on the tape- "It really must gall him that President Bush can fly into al-Anbar Province in Iraq, the former al Qaeda stronghold, while the only thing Osama can fly into is a rage." Because Osama's fifteen minutes seems to be over does not mean that the threat of radical Islam is not continuing.

Yesterday, Dennis Prager had as a guest the author of a book called My Year Inside Radical Islam by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. I have not read the book but I found the hour of interview quite interesting. Gartenstein-Ross made a wonderful distinction between being a conservative in religion and a radical. The conservative is bound by rules. As a person moves from that position to the radical state the rules become more outside the norm. Gartenstein-Ross made a significant point about one step in his conversion where his colleagues in an Oregon mosque berated him because he wished to trim his beard for a national debate competition. I guess the rules which Osama lives under are different than those for lesser adherents to Islam. Ultimately, extremist views go out of style. People were not granted rational thought simply to ignore it.

Finally there was the beginning reaction to the report from General Petraeus. Senator Schumer, if he ever had any credibility outside of his narrow far left constituency, he preassessment of the situation in Iraq blew that away. Schumer made the outrageous claim that the only reason President Bush was able to go to areas which were previously quite dangerous was not because of the efforts of our troops but because the various factions decided the only way they could protect themselves was to take up the job themselves. Ultimately the initial reports about Petraeus' conclusions seem about right. We are doing pretty well with the military part of the "surge" but the political situation continues to be troubling. One hopes that the American political establishment will look at the Petraeus report and our resultant policy options with care. Clearly, all sides in the American discussions have done the same kind of metaphoric mish-mash that was evident in Osama's tape. We deserve better.

One more with feeling

Last night's Rivercats game was one of the most awesome I have seen. Four home runs - Merloni, Barton, Piedra and Putnam. Fans pumped up - loud- Aided by some plastic sausages that could be banged together and handed out to everyone who came in. At times the banging of those noisemakers was overwhelming.

The design of these were interesting - they came uninflated but when you blow them up they have a self-sealing strip inside which allows them to stay inflated. When they are banged together - each fan got two each - they make a hollow sound.

The level of emotion in the stadium was huge. Part of that came from the team - they had lost two one run games in Salt Lake. But the fans were also pumped up.

During most of the season when the Cats start off with a run run lead, as they did in the second of this game, they fall behind. The Bees came back in the third and fourth but we answered back in the bottom of the fourth. We then added runs in the fifth and sixth. Nashville also won last night playing at home. The Cats and the Sounds need to win the next two to meet each other in the PCL finals.

Friday, September 07, 2007

One more game (at a time)

Last night was a disappointment. The Salt Lake Bees have been vexing all season and the first two games of the playoffs were examples of that vexation. We were 5-3 versus the Bees at home this season. In Wednesday's game the Bees won in the 10th. But last night they simply rallied better than we did. We were ahead late in the game 10-6. And earlier we were ahead 7-4, that was an exciting inning. But in the seventh they came back within one. So we added three in the eighth - they matched it and then in the ninth they added two - with a final result of 11-10. Part of our problem was errors - 5 in the game.

We return to home tonight but in a five game series we have to win all the games to stay in the playoffs. Oddly, Nashville is facing the same problem in their playoff with New Orleans. They are down 2-0 even though they had the best record in the league. Nashville had 89 wins during the regular season, we had 84, the Zephyrs had 75 and the Bees a mere 74 - but at this point that really does not count.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Luciano Pavarotti

He died today of pancreatic cancer. While a good deal of his later years were held up to some ridicule - he stayed on the stage longer than he should have - what struck me most about him was two things. First, was his voice in his prime. Pavarotti was the voice that most of my generation thought of as the tenor. He had a wonderful voice but more importantly he had an exubarnce that drew you into his music. In Rigoletto one of the famous arias is Questa o quella - I remember watching him judge a vocal competition where one student chose the aria and the maestro carefully explained not only the music and the moment but the phrasing. He brought the young student many steps ahead in a few short phrases but he also brought the TV viewers to understand just what the Duke of Mantua was trying to convey in that short but important aria. He was clearly the Italian tenor of his age.

But second was his contribution to music. Indeed, the two other tenors of the age, Francisco Carreras and Plácido Domingo have made significant contributions to music. Their three tenors performances were wonderful and fun. Domingo has offered a wide range of both key roles in opera and a number of contributions to music that were a lot less quixotic than Pavarotti including some innovative leadership in Washington, LA and Mexico City. In later years Pavorotti got a reputation for canceling out of performances. José Carreras, the Spanish tenor, has a wonderful voice that was made even more compelling by his remarkable fight against leukemia. Both Carreras and Domingo seem, from a distance of a fan, to be a lot less endowed with the diva like qualities that Pavarotti seemed to exhibit. Neither of the other two were so easily the subject of characture. Frankly, I liked their voices better than Pavarotti. But his star power brought a lot of people to recognize that opera was not the enterprise of stuffed shirts.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Apple Announcements today

Today Apple announced a series of changes in their Phone and iPod product lines. From my perspective the best new announcement was the new Nano.

A lot of the blogs are grumping about the $200 reduction in price on the iPhone. My response? So what. It will help to get more product out into the market and the elimination of the 4 gig model is confirming the market. Most buyers simply did not want the smaller model. I've had the product for two months and would expect to pay a premium for what I consider to be the best phone I have ever had. I keep finding new things about the product after the two months I've had it. I bought David Pogue's book and as usual he does a pretty good methodical job of explaining things you can do with it. The company looks on track to hit 1 million phones by October 1. That is outselling the LG Chocolate phone. The announcement also includes a 99¢ ringtone based on music that you download. That sounds like a pretty good deal. You need a new version of iTunes which should be available by tomorrow on the iTunes site. But what about the other product announcements?

Jobs' announcement also included some numbers - music - 32% of the music released in 2006 was released only in digital form. That suggests a longer term trend which Apple continues to ride. The cross marketing with Starbucks (which was another annoucement) is an interesting feature but without a full integration with the Hot Spots that T-Mobile offers - there is only limited utility. I have kept my Hot Spots account with T-Mobile which I find to be very useful when I am traveling. If I were the big labels I would be worried - the trends are against their business model. Hooray.

The new iPods are a mixed bag. They've sold 110 million units from the first generation model (which was a 5 GIG one) - which is about four years of sales. The biggest new product is the iTouch. What is now called the Classic iPod is an incremental step forward. The largest(classic) model is now twice the capacity for about the same price (that would hold all of my music and the 11,000 photos on my hard disk. 160 gigs is a pretty huge device. But for people that have the 80 gig model I am not sure that is an easy buy. The new Nano (some people have called this the Fatboy) is wonderful and a fundamental redesign from the last Nano models - you might look at this as a third new offering. I think it may be the most important "new" product. It looks like the ideal personal video viewer. The screen is a 2" (or about .5' less) with a 320X240 screen. The pricepoint for the larger model is $199.

The iTouch is basically an iPhone without the phone. It comes in a 16 gigabyte model. In comparison to the Nano for $200 more you get double the capacity and a larger screen. You also get WIFI for the iTouch - which is an addition. I am not sure, with an iPhone already, that I am likely to buy an iTouch. The addition to the iPod product line is the WIFI, but that is already present on the iPhone. The screen is the same as the iPhone. Put another way the iTouch plus $100 gets you an phone. There should be a market here and compared to the non-selling Zune - it is a better product. In May, the Zune, after being out for six months, had just under a million sales.

One would expect that the next generation of iPhones will be offered with the 16 GIG capacity and (hopefully) 3G wireless. My expectation is that the new model will come to market in Q1 of 2008. The best line of the day was the artist (KT Tunstall) who ended the show - who said "Steve Jobs is actually making it more fun to pay for it than to steal it."

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

A fine end to the regular season

The Rivercats finished strong. They won 7 of their last eight games (3 against Colorado and then they Swept the Sidewinders in Tucson). SInce I was at my daughter's wedding, I missed the last two home games and so had to keep up with the team on the road (not that I am complaining). The Salt Lake Bees lost their last two games and were 4-6 for their last 10. Their last game was against the bottom hugging Las Vegas 51s - where they lost 12-5.

The surprise of the division was Fresno - who finished second, one up on Tucson but higher than I think they have ever achieved.

We had the second best record in the league with 84 wins (.583) - half of those were at home (which means we had an identical record at home and away). Salt Lake was much stronger at home (winning 43 of their 74 games at home). The other division pits Nashville against New Orleans.

It is on to the playoffs - our first home game is on Friday. The first two games are in Salt Lake. The division and league championship series are each five game series.