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EPA Going Soft February 26, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in sustainability.
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Disheartening news from the EPA today. Not budget cuts. Not a retraction on the finding that atmospheric CO2 is a public health hazard. Worse. The EPA is removing the waterless urinals from its California state headquarters and replacing them with conventional, albeit low-water-use, urinals. 56 urinals in all. The urinals were installed in 2003 and are being removed after “hundreds of complaints about odor, splashing, and pooling.” What kind of message is this sending? If EPA workers themselves won’t tolerate the minor hiccups of new green technology, how and why would they expect the rest of us to jump on the waterless urinal bandwagon?

The water grid is in as much trouble as the energy grid. Electricity can be generated locally almost anywhere and from a variety of clean sources: solar, wind, wool sweaters. But water that is suitable for industrial, agricultural, and personal use can only be generated from … well, water. And water is somewhat more difficult and expensive to transport than electricity. At least to places that you want and in a predictable and usable form. In case you haven’t heard, many US states have faced severe water shortages in the last few years.  The city of Atlanta has a dedicated water shortage blog. Isn’t it obvious that we need to stop using water for unnecessary functions like rinsing a urinal? Comcast Center is doing it! Brisbane is doing it! Come on EPA, what’s a little “splashing and pooling”? And really “splashing and pooling” don’t sound like problems specific to waterless urinals. They sound more like a function of the shape of the urinal, or maybe the height at which it is installed, or maybe the aim of the urinators. We have the technology to fix all of these problems, including aim. Odor? Okay, that might be more problematic although from what I understand most of the intellectual property involved in waterless urination disposal has to do with odor trapping and several of the techniques I have read about seem like they would work pretty well. And if these don’t work you could always open a window (of course this would compromise your internal climate control efficiency, but that’s a story for a different entry). Waterless urinals, they’re the way of the future. Even for women!

P.S. Can I put this on my Amazon wish list?


A Few Updates February 23, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in business, climate, football, science.
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I was going to write about composting toilets today. Or the startling wave of pseudo-defections from the democratic congressional ranks. Or the jobs bill. Or the Eagles’ release of Brian Westbrook. OK, I will write a little bit about that. But there have been a few developments in the topics I wrote about recently, and so I thought I would hit those.

First, Akio Toyoda is going before US congress tomorrow to explain/apologize for his company’s actions in the wake of the discovery of safety defects in several car models. Ten days ago I wondered if congress could subpoena the head of a foreign firm to appear before it. Now, it seems that they can. I still don’t understand how this works. While Toyota may have foreign headquarters, it is a multi-national that does most of its business in the US. Is that sufficient? Is this subpoena illegal but Toyoda is showing up as a public relations move because refusing would be tantamount to admitting wrongdoing? Anyways, ten days ago I also doubted that there is a smoking gun internal memo that demonstrates that Toyota acted in a willfully criminal way. Now, it appears there is a memo. Dug up by none other than the completely un-interested Detroit Free Press. Presumably, the memo states that Toyota “saved $100 million in 2007 by getting the government to OK replacing floor mats in 55,000 vehicles as a solution to sudden acceleration complaints.” Is this a smoking gun? Is it even a gun? First, which government green-lighted this? The US government? Second, what was the alternative? Doing nothing? If the rest of the memo demonstrates that Toyota couldn’t figure out what was really wrong and the best explanation it could come up with was a sticky floormat, then this memo is benign. Of course, if the rest of the memo shows that Toyota did know that something else was wrong and pulled a bait-and-switch in an attempt to spare itself a costly and embarrassing recall … Anyways, congress has subpoenaed (sp?) this memo. I guess we will know more tomorrow. Expect more commentary. Also, I feared/predicted additional recalls over every little perceived problem with Toyota vehicles, dangerous or not a la Intel’s 1994 recall over the Pentium fdiv bug.  Now it appears that Toyota is mulling a recall on Corolla over power-steering issues.

Second, the IPCC in particular, climate science in general, and I fear science in uber-general is taking a beating this past week over mistakes in the most recent IPCC report. The most significant conflagaration regards a claim in the report that the Himalayan glaciers that currently feed four of the largest river systems in the world and are home to one quarter of the world’s population will disappear in 2035. The real projection is 2350. Don’t get me wrong. There is a real difference between 2035 and 2350, both in terms of implications for the China and the Indian sub-continent and for reverse-implications on climate trends in general. But this difference does not mean that environmental prospects for China, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are good in an absolute sense, it does not invalidate all 3,000 pages of the report, and it does not mean that climate scientists are either incompetent or sensationalist alarmists. Regarding the Himalayas, most IPCC climate event projections have turned out to have been conservative because of unknown and unmodeled positive feedback loops. As climate science has advanced and as climate has advanced (yipes) most of the “discoveries” have been of accelerant type effects that increase warming, not of damping effects. I won’t live long enough to see the Himalayan glaciers disappear one way or the other but it wouldn’t surprise me if the estimate is revised significantly downward in the next report. Even if the estimates are not revised, by 2035 the Himalayan glaciers would lose 10% of their mass, the Ganghes, Yangtze, Indus, and Brahmaputra would lose 10% of their capacity while the population of their deltas would grow by some unknown percent. Regarding the rest of the report, I haven’t really read it but I will put it on my queue. But most importantly, regarding the competence and morals of the climate science community. I am a scientist of sorts and I will not pretend that scientists do not seek fame (some do) and are free of self-serving agenda (some have). But I also will not pretend that scientists don’t make mistakes (all do). It’s not that I can’t count the number of mistakes in scientific articles I have authored, it’s that I don’t want to for fear that there may actually be mistakes beyond the ones I know about already. The nature of science is uncertainty and new discovery. Mistakes and wrong hypotheses are inevitable. In fact, they are significantly more common than breakthrough discoveries and theories. IPCC is a large body and while some members undoubtedly seek fame and others undoubtedly have personal interest in climate change alarmism (either to spur funding for their own research programs or to spur business for their solar panel company), IPCC as a body does not. This is a mistake. And not even a scientific mistake. It’s a typo. People, scientists and scientific writers and copy editors make mistakes.

Third, three cheers for the Intel stimulus package.

Finally, Brian Westbrook. The Eagles released him today after eight years of service, 64 touchdowns, two pro-bowls, and a 2007 season for the ages. Of course, there was also the matter of multiple knee and foot operations, two concussions, numerous missed games including the 2003 NFC championship tilt against Carolina that the Eagles lost at home 14-3, $7.25 million due on March 5th, a significantly younger, healthier and cheaper model in house, and the magic number 30. Such is the NFL. Absolutely brutal. Brian, it’s been a treat watching you. I won’t forget the punt return against the Giants in 2002 (2003?). Or the two touchdowns against them in 2008. Or the screen pass in the Tampa Bay game. I know that you haven’t made as much money as you wanted to make and probably deserved to make. But do yourself a favor and retire. Don’t put yourself through more foot surgeries. Don’t let two concussions become three. Or six. Don’t let the NFL take more from you than it already has.

That’s My School February 22, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in education, politics.
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Have you heard of Harriton High School in Rosemont, PA? That’s right, it’s the school that spied on its students through the webcams of the laptops it issued to them. The school that’s now being sued for a breach of the fourth amendment. I graduated from this school in 1990. Larry Summers (former Treasury Secretary, former Harvard President, and current National Economic Council director) graduated from there in 1971 at the age of 16. I wonder what Larry thinks about this.

Here’s what I think. Who didn’t see this coming? Let me tell you something about Harriton that you probably already figured out. For a public high school, it has one of the wealthiest student bodies in the country. Harriton students may not be as wealthy as the ones that go to Beverly Hills high, but it’s closer than you think. I don’t know how things were circa Larry, but in 1990 I knew many people who lived in 5,000 square foot houses, drove BMWs to school, and took yearly vacations to Vail and St. John’s. Not that this matters and not that I have anything to complain about financially, but my last four houses/apartments together haven’t totaled 5,000 square feet, I have never been to Vail or St. John, and although I did drive a BMW twice, it was only for ten minutes apiece. Coincidentally both BMWs belonged to people named Charlie. Thanks Charlies! Point is, Harriton students don’t need school-issued laptops and everyone knows it. I would bet actual money that most Harriton students already had a laptop when they were issued one by the school. Given this, what could have possibly been the justification for this huge outlay? The stated one was that Harriton is a forward-thinking school that prides itself on innovative use of technology, but the real justification feels like its something much more depraved. At best, it’s narcissism gone wild. More likely, it’s closer to “Girls Gone Wild” (TM). People are going down over this. Hard. And that’s exactly what they deserve. In fact, everyone involved deserves to get dirtied by this. School officials. The students and their parents. The county.

School officials? Enough said. I don’t know that anyone is going to “prison” over this, but I wouldn’t bet against it at this point. Over-privileged defendants in high-profile cases have gone to “prison” over less. American society likes to see people knocked off of high pedestals even for small transgressions (see Stewart, Martha). It’s our national sport, with apologies to NASCAR and partisan politics.

The students and their parents? What hubris would lead you to accept such ridiculously superfluous gift from the school? Was it the same hubris that led the Trojans to accept a bronze horse from Greece? This is what happens when you are used to getting free stuff. You don’t question it. “Of course I should get ridiculous free stuff! I’m wealthy!” To quote Monty, “I’m rich! I should be able to run over as many people as I want!”

The county and the taxpayers? I cannot believe there wasn’t a public outcry over this program when it was first floated. How could you possibly justify your tax dollars bankrolling this extravagance? Have you no sense of proportion whatsoever? Does it not dawn on you that there could be better uses for this money? Does the fact that Harriton has a shiny new campus that would make most liberal arts colleges blanche not stroke your collective egos sufficiently? I sincerely hope that one of the things that comes out of this case is a realization that the current system of public education funding through local property taxes is seriously broken. On the one hand, school systems in low and middle income areas across the country are crumbling. Just eleven miles away from Harriton, the Philadelphia public school system is in dire straits. On the other hand, school systems in pockets of wealth essentially do … this. If ever there was an illustration that some school districts have too much money for their own good!

This summer is my 20 year high school reunion. I don’t know that I was necessarily going before this story broke. Now I question whether there will even be a reunion at all. Larry, next year is your 40 year reunion. Are you going?

Siberian Khatru February 18, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in education, family, music.
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I was the YES concert at the Warner Theatre in Washington, DC on Monday night. Row B. About 15 feet from Chris Squire. 12 feet from Chris Squire’s gut. And only 8 feet from the speakers. Oy, my ears! It’s been two days and there is still a low-grade ringing! Also, I had the flu and on the drive down could hardly bend my fingers around the steering wheel. But ears and flu aside, it was amazing.

Despite collectively being 180+ years old, Squire, Steve Howe, and Alan White absolutely wailed. White did a 5 minute drum solo in the middle of Astral Traveler. Howe (one of the most underappreciated guitarists in rock history) was ridiculous. I spent half the night just watching his fingers. The other half I spent watching his face. He looks like the Crypt Keeper. And this is actually less freaky than he looked when he was younger. Squire rocked too although at times I thought he was bass-syncing. The three original members certainly out-wailed the two younger “replacements.” For this tour (or maybe even permanently), Rick Wakeman was replaced by his son Oliver. Or maybe a time machine brought circa-1980 Rick to the present. Either way, except for Siberian Khatru (one of my favorites) and Astral Traveler (another) he wasn’t featured prominently. Jon Anderson was replaced by a French Canadian named Benoit David who was separated at birth from Peter Scolari and who doesn’t sing at the nearly-female register that Anderson did. A quick Google search performed seconds ago shows that Benoit is the lead singer of a YES tribute band called Close To The Edge. Hmmm. If I were to form a YES tribute band, and I would if not for my lack of musical talent, it would be called MAYBE. Actually, I don’t need to form my own YES tribute band of my own, Close To The Edge must be looking for a frontman. Call me, guys! I know the words! Mostly.

The audience was as ridiculous as the band. I had floor tickets for a Violent Femmes concert once. I was also on the floor at a Bowie concert. OK, so this wasn’t like either of those. But it was pretty wild considering I must have been one of the ten youngest people there. The median hair color at the concert was gray. Going in, there were multiple faces I recognized. I am not from Washington and I am not a YES groupie despite what you might think from this post. One of them may have been Eric Bach, a professor at the University of Wisconsin (Eric, was that you?) But the others must have been politicians or other national figures. Steven Chu? Rahm Emmanuel? Who knows! There was a 50 year old behind me who screamed “WE LOVE YOU!” after every song and sometimes within songs. YES songs are long. Behind him was a 90 year old guy in a wheelchair with his two 70 year old sons. The sons knew the words to every song. The guy on my left was wearing a YES hat, a YES tie, had a YES license plate with Bill Bruford’s signature on it and watched most of the concert with is eyes closed. During the encore a bunch of 50 year old women rushed the stage. One of them may have been Michelle Bachman.

But the most amazing thing about the concert was that my little brother got us the tickets. When I said to him “I didn’t know you liked YES” he said “I have YES on the brain from growing up with you.” Not that you read this blog, E, but I love ya. Oh, and thanks for letting me crash on Monday night.

P.S. While on the subject of Washington, DC … happy birthday American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. What would we have ever done without you? Maybe things would have been much worse. Possibly. Maybe things would have been the same. Possibly. Maybe things would have been better. Not likely. At any rate, you are now just a political football and a $862 billion check my kids will pick up. Cheers!

P.P.S. Great article about teachers in this month’s Atlantic. Actually, most Atlantic articles are great. This is just the only one I’ve read from this month’s issue.

Going Public? February 13, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in climate.
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When I (re)started this blog a few weeks ago I gave myself eight weeks before deciding whether to go “public”. My previous blog died on the vine after about five posts. I suspected this was going to happen and so I didn’t let anyone read it. Figuring the same fate may befall blog 2.0, I started out by blogging anonymously. I set the blog to searchable, but I didn’t put my real name anywhere, and I didn’t tell anyone the URL. No one I know would ever associate “PhillyBluejay” with me much less guess that I would give a blog that title. I figured that if I can motivate enough to keep this blog going for two months with no readership, then I am probably in for the long haul. But the more I think about this, the more I believe that one of the reasons the first blog died was that no one was reading it. There was no self-imposed pressure to continue blogging to satisfy an adoring public. And there was no feedback about what I had to say. And so I am softening up a little bit. Or maybe just a little bit faster than I thought I would. After much prodding I finally gave up the goose (URL) to my wife. I started blogging under my real name. And now, someone has reposted my “On Snow and Rush” piece. So perhaps the blog will go public more quickly than I initially thought. Then again, this other blog has no followers yet either, so maybe not.

P.S. Unfortunately, tim-climateissues reposted before I found and fixed a factual error in the post—annual precipitation in Antarctica is about six inches not half an inch. I am an environmentalist, but the last thing I want to do is misrepresent the science or come off like someone who justifies sounding the alarm by exaggerating the numbers. The real numbers are frightening enough.

P.P.S. I finished a 2000 piece jigsaw puzzle in six days. Just saying. My wife got me this 5000 piece one for Valentine’s day. I’m tempted to start it also. I also have this one still in shrink-wrap. It was a present from my brother for … something … getting my PhD maybe? I am a jigsaw puzzle machine. The only person I know who can do them faster than I can is my cousin. Although my son may catch up in a few years. He’s four and a half and can already do 200 piece puzzles by himself relatively easily.

On Snow and Rush February 11, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in climate, politics, science.
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Actually, mostly on Rush. The main point of this entry is the question: “Is it possible that Rush Limbaugh is really as big an idiot as his recent comments about the east-coast blizzard  disproving global climate change make him appear to be?” For the record, I think the answer is no. I hate Rush with the white hot passion of a thousand suns, but I just can’t believe that an organically grown national political figure can be an idiot to such a degree. Note, that’s not to say that a national figure can’t be an idiot. I mean, Sarah P is obviously an idiot. Dan Quayle was Sarah P’s blueprint. King George the 43rd is an idiot. Maybe not a Palin-class idiot, but he’s up there. And it’s quite likely that Clarence Thomas is an idiot. But all of these rose to national prominence relatively quickly before enough anecdotal evidence of their idiocy could accrue and go viral. Still on the same record, I believe that 2004 was the last year someone like George 43 could be elected president. Why? Because YouTube came along in 2005. And someone like George could never withstand the scrutiny and ridicule that goes along with viral video.

Anyways, Rush I hope you are reading this. Without global climate change in general and global warming in particular a 100-year blizzard like the one that is keeping me home today is much less likely to happen. Why? Because snow is not really a function of air temperature. In other words, it is not the case that the colder it is the more it snows. In fact, the opposite is true—the colder it is, the less it snows.  Antarctica is the coldest place on earth (by far). It is also one of the dryest places on earth (by far). The average precipitation in Antarctica is six inches a year. The fact that Antarctic ice is several miles thick is because the cold drastically reduces evaporation and this has allowed the precipitation to accumulate over hundreds of thousands of years. This is the reason why the loss of Antartic ice sheets (like Larsen B) is such an environmental disaster. Even assuming the climate stabilizes at a point that will allows those sheets to regrow, this will take tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of years. Same goes for the Greenland ice sheets and mountain glaciers around the world. Whatever we lose of these reservoirs is not coming back anytime soon.

Anyways, snow requires either a high atmospheric moisture content and a zero (Celsius)-crossing downward temperature gradient or sub-zero temperatures and an upward moisture gradient.  The latter set of conditions is what gives “lake effect” snow. Cold low-moisture air passes over a warmer body of water, picks up evaporate and immediately dumps it as snow. If the body of water is a lake then the snow usually hits the land on the lee side. The former set of conditions is what we have here. It isn’t unseasonably cold on the east coast. In fact, it’s unseasonably warm. Last month was the warmest January on record. But it is still below freezing. What it is is unseasonably moist. There is an unusually high moisture content in the atmosphere right now. And the reason for that is that global temperatures are unusually high and there is an unusually high amount of evaporation from the oceans. Get it, Rush?

Actually, I think you do. Unlike Sarah, George, Dan, and Clarence you didn’t burst on the national scene in a matter of months. You have been a national figure for over twenty years. You have a nationally syndicated radio show and a nationally syndicated television show. If you really couldn’t grasp basic scientific concepts, people would have called you on it on a national stage and you would have lost face and stature with your own constituency. The reason this isn’t happening is that you aren’t really an idiot (not in the IQ sense anyways) and that nobody really believes that you are. When you act like this, when you lie like this, the tacit interpretation is that you are doing this for a political end. That you are lying in the way politicians do. That you are grandstanding. The problem is that while your educated followers believe that you are grandstanding, your uneducated followers (and these are probably the majority) simply believe you. They don’t see you only as a political facade, they see you as a scientific authority too. And frankly, that’s scary.

Rush, I don’t begrudge you your political ends. But I begrudge your quasi-political means. And if you aren’t willing to do the world a huge favor by shutting up completely, do us a somewhat smaller favor and stick to talking about politics where your posturing and opinion-making can be somewhat justified. Don’t tread on scientific ground. You may not be a clinical idiot, but you aren’t a scientist either and like too many other politicians in your party you have no respect for science, the same science which has given you the world you live in, your radio show, and your cochlear implants. Quit abusing the first amendment and the definition of the word theory. And quit acting like the idiot you probably aren’t.

Toyota Doesn’t Deserve This February 11, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in business.
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I have a Prius. A 2007. I’ve had some annoying problems with it, the most annoying being that the gas gauge is messed up and signals that the tank is empty when there are 3+ gallons left in it, leaving me to play a game of gas tank chicken using only the trip odometer. It also does this strange thing when I hit a pot-hole. My wife has said that she has noticed strange acceleration and problems with the breaks. I haven’t. The 2007 model isn’t mentioned in any of the recalls, but the way things are going there may be a gas-gauge recall next week. And a dome-light recall the week after that. And a back-left speaker recall after that. And a screw-it-all-models-recall after that. Is this deserved? Is this really what we want?

Evidently, Toyota malfunctions have already been linked to 19 fatalities. I’ve read this terrible story and a few others like it. They are haunting. Toyota has already paid dearly for these. The scheduled recalls are going to cost two billions dollars. Lost reputation and future business are going to cost billions more. And it should pay dearly in direct compensatory damages to the families of the deceased. But now I am reading about reopening unsolved cases involving Toyotas and about multi-billion dollar class action lawsuits involving lost future resale value.  People, what do you think is going to happen to your resale value if Toyota goes out of business?

Is Toyota actually in danger of going out of business because of this? Probably not as things stand now, but things could change in a hurry. Toyota does about 200 billion dollars worth of business annually and usually reports profits of around 8 to 15 billion, although in 2009 it reported a 4 billion dollar loss. Toyota can survive a 2 billion dollar recall. It can probably survive several of them. It can probably survive several billion dollars worth of lawsuits. And losing 20 to 40 billion dollars in annual sales. And a reduced credit rating. And 50% of its stock price. It can survive these things and it will, although it might lose as much 25% of itself in the process. By the way, if this happens, some the 25% will come from the 35,000 US manufacturing jobs in Tennesee, Kentucky, Indiana, etc. And some more will come from US Toyota dealership jobs.

But it shouldn’t happen. Toyota doesn’t deserve it. Quotes like “lawyers are ‘champing at the bit’ to get after Toyota” (see this CNN article) will have you believe that Toyota is guilty of at best criminal negligence and at worst conspiracy. But is it? Prior to the public apologies by Mr. Toyoda himself (why did his dad spell the name of the company differently than his own name, anyways?) the company has been in public denial mode, blaming floor mats, discounting the scope and severity of the problem, etc. But this is a panic-driven public relations failure. It may be negligent, but it is no more negligent than any other carmaker has been in the face of a similar situation (Ford Pinto exploding gas tank anyone?). And it certainly isn’t a willful conspiracy. Do you honestly believe that Toyota knowingly put out potentially dangerous vehicles and is now in the process of a massive cover-up? This is the most socially responsive and responsible auto company in history!  They had never dealt with something like this before (to their credit). They were caught off-guard and they panicked. They tried to use denial to buy themselves a little time to find and fix the problem, and when they couldn’t they stonewalled rather than coming clean. They goofed. Badly. But only after the fact. They aren’t Philip Morris. They didn’t knowingly put out harmful product and lie to the public and to congress about it. Maybe there is a smoking hot trail of internal memos with titles like “We should probably issue a proactive recall” and “Screw it, nothing is going to happen.”  I doubt it. By the way, can congress investigate a foreign company?

Assuming that there is nothing premeditated and willful here, how is what Toyota has done any worse than what Ford and GM have done? Ford and GM know quite well that huge SUVs are dangerous. Not to the people driving them, but to the other cars on the road. Does GM get sued every time a Yukon hits a Civic at 25 mph and kills everyone inside? And Ford/GM’s refusal to invest and build fuel-efficient cars and continuing to push oversized, unnecessarily-horsepowered, low-mileage vehicles may be just as criminal. Not only for perpetuating unsustainable driving practices and propping up the oil industry, but by stupidly reducing their own ability to compete globally and extorting 50 billion dollars worth of bailout from the taxpayers. Crying to congress about lost jobs in swing-states is extortion. And extortion is criminal.

I am sure that GM and Ford are ecstatic about what is going on. And this isn’t just schadenfreude. This is a chance to get back some of their lost standing and US marketshare. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are privately prodding the legal feeding frenzy, not that lawyers need to be prodded. But the truth is that the US would trade GM for Toyota in a heartbeat. And the worst thing that could happen is for Toyota to falter and make it easier for Ford and GM to continue with business as usual.

If Toyota puts a recall on the 2007 Prius, I will take it to the dealer and get whatever software patch will presumably fix the problem. And I will get the gas-gauge rebooted while I am at it (that worked the last time and stayed fixed for about four months). But I am not signing up for any class action lawsuit. And I will buy five more Toyotas before I buy a GM car.

The Art of Failure February 8, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, drama.
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A few weeks ago I finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw, a collection of his New Yorker essays. WTDS is different than Gladwell’s first three books, Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, and it’s a better read and better food for thought than the more recent two. There are many good essays in WTDS, “Blowing Up”, “Connecting the Dots”, “Late Bloomers”. But the one that made the biggest impression on me and which will stay with me the longest is “The Art of Failure,” which looks and how and why people fail when the stakes are high.

In this little vignette, Gladwell makes a distinction between “panicking” (panicing? that doesn’t look right) and “choking.” Panicking is what happens when your mind goes blank and you start doing random stupid things. Novices panic. People who are in a situation for the first time panic. Choking is overthinking. Thinking about things that should come naturally and fluidly such that they come awkwardly and haltingly. Professionals choke. People who have been in a situation hundreds of times choke when the stakes are raised on that situation. Gladwell gives JFK Jr.’s small plane crash as an example of panicking (Jr. had no experience with flying in bad weather, flying at night, or instrument landings and had to do all three for the first time together) and Jana Novotna’s Wimbledon loss to Steffi Graf as an example of choking (Novotna was up handily and blew her lead because she was in awe of the moment and of Graf). Choking is the “higher” form of failure. The more sympathetic form. But in many ways the more twisted and painful form. Fascinating.

WARNING: self-flagellation ahead. Children, people over the age of 60, and women who are pregnant or may become pregnant may wish to quit reading now. If you are taking nitrates for chest pains, consult your doctor before continuing to read. Continued reading may result in headaches, nausea, blurred vision, painful urination, and certain sexual side effects. Erections lasting longer than four hours require immediate medical attention.

The reason this essay stuck with me is that I have a somewhat unhealthy relationship with my failures, past and future. I spend an inordinate amount of conscious thought (and probably a significant amount of sub-conscious thought as well) analyzing and re-analyzing past failures and attempting to diagnose and avoid impending ones. It’s a wonderful way to be. I recommend it. It’s like going to Disney World, if you are someone who really hates Disney World.

Now I have a fun new self-analysis game. Here it is. Many of the failures that have troubled me most, both as they were happening and afterwards, have been failures to think my way out of, through, or around a problem. The stakes usually aren’t high other than in my own mind. Also, no one is watching other than me. This was just me alone, trying to come up with an idea or an approach and just getting nowhere. When this happens, my mind starts to race, jumping from thought to thought, essentially it panics. But when it happens, I also think not only about the problem itself but about my way of thinking about it. In other words, rather than just thinking (which presumably should come naturally given that the problem is in my domain of expertise) I think about thinking. And I think about the fact that I am thinking about thinking. And this is the definition of choking. So, what is happening during those times? Am I choking? Am I panicking? Am I choking on my panic? Choking on my panic about choking? I can’t figure it out. I can’t even tell which conclusion I would prefer. Then again, when this happens maybe I am not choking or panicking. Maybe I am just reaching the end of the internet.

NEXT UP: a self-flagellatory review of “The New Boy Network.”

Don’t Tell, Let Me Guess February 4, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in politics.
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Have you been following the “don’t ask, don’t tell” debate? Normally, I would question whether, given everything else that is going on with this country right now with healthcare, jobs, Afghanistan, the SuperBowl, the Oscars, etc., our legislators really need to take time out to talk about something like this. But given the fact that the Scott Brown election (and, really, how did this happen? What happened, Massachusetts?) has allowed Republicans to filibuster congress into a state of deadlock, they may as well talk about this. Hey, we’re not going to get a vote on healthcare or climate or TARP2.0 anytime soon anyway. Not even a cloture (my new favorite word) vote. Also, it’s never a bad time to re-examine prejudice and hatred. Any time we can legislate against prejudice and hate, we should take the opportunity to do so.

I know how I feel personally about DADT but I came to this feeling indirectly and so I don’t know if it is legitimate or not. I don’t have any close friends who are gay. This isn’t as much of a statement as you may otherwise think because: i) I don’t have many close friends to begin with, ii) I don’t ask whether my friends are gay I just guess and then keep it to myself, and iii) I personally don’t care whether someone is gay or not and not because I am explicitly tolerant but because there is a limit to the number of things I can care about and this didn’t make the cut. Point being, I don’t have personal experience with this. But I do have personal (or at least … ummm … cultural?) experience with something like this. I am Jewish. And being Jewish is similar to being gay in the senses that: i) it is a minority position and one that has historically been discriminated against, ii) it is not immediately evident like being black or being a woman is, and iii) it just is. And although anti-Semitism is not what it used to be, at least in “the west”, I have faced several situations in which I was advised to actively hide this fact. And believe me, I walked away from these situations as fast as I could. Because nothing is more insulting than being told that something about you which you did not consciously choose and cannot readily change is distasteful or inappropriate or lacking. And so whereas I am not someone who shares voluntarily, I don’t tweet my deep dark secrets to the world, and I personally don’t require other people to explicitly acknowledge, accept, validate, and celebrate every aspect of my being, I would want no part of DADT. DADT can go to hell. And people who don’t feel comfortable with openly gay people, or openly Jewish people, or openly vegetarian people, or openly “furry” people can go with it.

Speaking of intolerance, hatred, and social progress … at some point prior to the 2008 election, actually several years before, I got into a discussion with someone about the order in which we would see American presidents who were: i) a woman, ii) black, iii) Jewish, iv) gay, v) physically disabled, vi) mentally disabled, vii) a dwarf. Well, two of those have already been answered. We saw mentally disabled first (43) and black second (44) and we’re still waiting on the others. I remember at the time that my predicted order was i) woman, ii) black, iii) Jewish and iv) gay. My rationale for picking a woman first is that it was the safest route politically. Women’s liberation was the oldest of the four movements (actually, my predicted order matches the order of the liberation movements), there are already women in very prominent national political positions (notably Hilary), and that other G8 countries have had women as recent heads of state (Thatcher, Merkel) and women had been on national tickets albeit only as VPs (Ferraro, Palin although this was before Sarah P rose to … “prominence”). I struggled between Jewish and black and ended up predicting black because: i) I figured a country with a conservative Christian demographic as large as the one in the US would never elect a Jewish president, and ii) the third season of “24” was getting people used to the idea of a black president. I went with gay last because open gays have made relatively little inroads in national politics. There are many women, blacks, and Jews in congress and at least one of each on the Supreme Court. Are there any openly gay representatives or senators? And remember, Mark Foley and Larry Craig are no longer in congress! Anyways, I was obviously wrong and we have a black president before we had a woman president. But maybe it’s time to revisit the rest of these predictions as well. Woman/Jew/gay? Jew/woman/gay? Maybe our next president will be a gay Jewish woman! Like Rachel Maddow if she were Jewish. I would certainly vote for a Rachel Maddow/Drew Brees ticket.

Meet the New Blog February 3, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in football, politics.
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Hopefully not the same as the old blog.

Yes, this is my second blog. My first blog lasted all of six months and about ten long-winded ranty entries. This one will be different. Maybe. The entries will mostly be shorter. And they will be more frequent. And maybe, just maybe, I will tell my friends about this blog. The other blog was like a dark secret.  Not that there was any R-rated material in it, I just didn’t care whether anyone read it. Actually, I did care. I just wanted the followers to be anonymous and organic. I left the blog searchable and figured people who were interested in what I had to say would find it. Except they didn’t. Or maybe they did and just figured I had nothing interesting to say. Screw it. Here goes.

Who are you rooting for in Superbowl XLIV? That’s 44 for the non-Roman and 2/7/2010 for the non-football. I’m rooting for the Saints. Which goes against the grain for me. I generally don’t root for underdogs in sporting events in which I don’t have a personal interest. I always want the better team to win because that satisfies my sense of justice and world order. The better team should win. That’s why they are better. When the Phillies lost the 2009 World Series to the Yankees (I am from Philaldelphia and a fan of most of the city’s sports teams, can you tell by the title of the blog?) I wasn’t upset. The Yankees were the better team. They had the higher payroll and used it to get the better players. They deserved to win. And by that calculus, the Colts deserve to win also. The Colts don’t spend more money than the Saints but, by a combination of luck and better player management, they do have better players at most of the key positions. There are other reasons for me to root for the Colts and against the Saints. I think Peyton Manning is funny. I think Reggie Bush is a punk. My two favorite football names are Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie. I was upset when Drew Brees had his hairy facial birthmark removed. I don’t want the Saints to win a SuperBowl before my beloved Eagles do. Really, the only reasons I have to back the Saints are that I love their uniforms, that Drew Brees is 5’11, and that I got a speeding ticket in Indiana once. But I am backing the Fleur-de-Lis. Why? Because I found out the other day that Peyton is a Republican and has donated to Republican candidates. Only $9,500 mind you, but still.

Here is another fun fact about me: I’m a liberal. And the fact that “the mainframe” is a Republican scares me. Not that Peyton uses his current ubiquitous platform to advance Republican agenda. That particular football niche is actually currently empty, but will be filled by Tim Tebow if and when he sticks and succeeds in the league. What scares me is Peyton using his football and endorsement popularity to enter politics and re-energize the Republican party. And if you think I am crazy, just look at Heath Shuler (D-North Carolina) and Steve Largent (R-Oklahoma). Just two years ago, Lynn Swann ran as a Republican against Ed Rendell for Pennsylvania governor. He lost, but he did run. And if not for the San Diego Chargers, Jon Runyan would have run as a Republican out of one of the South Jersey districts. And he still might. I don’t know what it is. But a disproportionate number of Republican football players end up in politics.  Or maybe a disproportionate number of football players end up in Republican politics. Jack Kemp anyone? And it doesn’t stop at football, really. Robin Roberts. Jim Bunning. Both ex-Phillies by the way. The only ex-jock Democrat that comes to mind is Bill Bradley. You’re telling me Peyton couldn’t make it further than any of these guys if he wanted to? Get realistic. The mainframe will go as far as he wants to go. Our only hope in 2028 is that Drew Brees is a Democrat and that Brees/Clinton (Chelsea) can take down Manning/Bush (Jenna).

Oh, and that Drew ends up with more SuperBowls and more funny ads than Peyton. Go Saints!