Knowing What I Don’t Know

Culture, Media / journalism, Politics, Uncategorized

Something interesting happened over the course of the 2008 presidential campaign. I have always been interested in current events and politics, and have always read the New York Times daily and The New Yorker weekly. I’ve usually supplemented those sources from here and there, CNN maybe, or my local newspaper. But I’ve felt reasonably well-informed based on those two publications.

During the campaign, for both professional reasons and simply because I was personally very interested, I branched way out from there. In the earliest days, (circa late 2005/ early 2006), I’d simply search for “Obama” in Google News and see what there was to see. As I did so, certain sites kept coming up — Lynn Sweet’s blog, Andrew Sullivan’s blog, the Chicago Tribune’s blog, Talking Points Memo, First Read, and more. As things heated up and a general search for “Obama” would yield way too many hits on Google News to be useful, I started to cycle through those sites in addition to the Big Two (NYT and The New Yorker).

No single news source turned out to be the one that had all the answers. But cumulatively, all of this reading gave me a lot of accurate information. Various ideas I formed based on that information were borne out — I was able to correctly predict many elements of the campaign, from whether Obama was indeed a viable candidate (in the very earliest days) to whether he would be able to get the Latino vote in a general election, to how Obama would fare against McCain in a head-to-head debate (back when such an outcome seemed unlikely), to what effect Sarah Palin would have on McCain’s campaign (the fact that my predictions tended to be pretty good was part of why I was interested in starting this blog; unfortunately, by that time, only the tail end of my Sarah Palin predictions made it here).

By the time of the election, I was ready to take a break from the information overload. (Me and everyone else who had followed this incredibly dramatic and incredibly information-rich campaign.) I figured my interest would return at some point after I had given myself a bit of a break.

My interest did return, but I faced something I didn’t expect. Because I was so extensive in my research and reading during the campaign, I now know that my usual sources offer some but not all of the story — or worse, offer what is purported to be the full story but is actually fatally skewed. I was repeatedly very annoyed with sloppy reporting from the New York Times during the campaign — that means that while I have always read news items with a jaded eye, my eye is much more jaded yet, to the point that I don’t feel I “know” anything that I’ve read in the NYT — it’s merely a starting point. The New Yorker is much, much better from my perspective — my bullshit sensors are tripped by their reporting far less. But they tend to choose relatively narrow subjects that they then plumb in-depth. I feel like I “know” what’s going on with something that they plumb, but at the expense of breadth. There are plenty of things I’m curious about that they don’t plumb.

So I’m faced with the uncomfortable knowledge that unless I do my extensive trawling again, I don’t really know what’s going on. I have the broad outlines. I have a variety of opinions.

That’s not enough.

This leaves me a bit in limbo when it comes to writing something about politics. It feels lazy to just ask the questions. It feels daunting to go in search of all the answers, so that I “know” something to the same level that I did during the campaign.

It’s an interesting exercise, though, a good wake-up call re: journalism and fallibility thereof. This knowledge that while I may read a lot about current events, the truth takes so much work to find. While I think the idea that blogs will take over from newspapers is problematic (another post, perhaps), I do think this is a service that blogs provide — going deep, doing the research, and providing other information rather than leaving it all to the major newspapers. The New York Times is far from worthless, but the New York Times PLUS my long list of daily blog reads during the campaign provided far more, and more accurate, information to me than the New York Times alone.

So now I read my New York Times every day, and think… “really?”

4 Comments

Annals of Scientific “I Thought So!”s: Recess

education, Uncategorized, US culture

Some people get annoyed when a scientific study goes and proves something that seems obvious. I love it. I find it very satisfying somehow — I don’t have the capability to go and do original research on all of this stuff, so it’s fun when someone else does the hard work and I get to say “I thought so!”

Here‘s the latest:

Children who misbehave at school are often punished by being kept inside at recess. But new research shows that recess helps solve behavioral problems in class.

Researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine reviewed data on about 11,000 third graders, collected in 2002 as part of a large study, financed by the Education Department, to determine how an array of family, school, community and individual factors affected performance in school.

The study, published last week in the journal Pediatrics, found that about one in three of the children received fewer than 15 minutes of daily recess or none at all. Compared with children who received regular recess, the children cooped up during the day were more likely to be black, to come from low-income and less educated families and to live in large cities.

Children who had at least 15 minutes of recess scored better than the others on teachers’ behavioral ratings. Dr. Romina M. Barros, a pediatrician and assistant professor at Albert Einstein, said the data were important because many new schools were being built without adequate outdoor space for students.

“We need to understand that kids need a break,” Dr. Barros said. “Our brains can concentrate and pay attention for 45 to 60 minutes, and in kids it’s even less. For them to be able to acquire all the academic skills we want them to learn, they need a break to go out and release the energy and play and be social.”

This has been kind of a bugbear for me. When my daughter was in kindergarten, there was no recess at ALL. They were supposed to have recess but they didn’t because it was half-day kindergarten and they had so much to fit into their brief day. (The fact that kindergarten has become the new first grade is another bugbear but I’ll save that for another time.) They just didn’t have as much time to socialize as I thought they needed, and even though they were there for only a few hours, it was a pretty intense time.

Since she’s started all-day grade school, though, I have noticed a definite correlation between behavior and recess. They normally have two recesses of about half an hour each, but they don’t if the outside temperature goes below 20 degrees. We’ve had a lot of that, which means a lot of “indoor recess,” and a lot more behavior problems. While taking a break and socialization are big parts of why recess is important, just plain running around and burning off energy is another huge part of it.

4 Comments

Shoe-Throwing Taking World By Storm!

International Politics, Uncategorized

The shoe. Look at the big honkin' sole on that thing!

Well, a bit of hyperbole. (That’s the fun thing about titles. Tailor-made for hyperbole.)

I do remember thinking when that Iraqi guy did it that it was the sort of simple-but-obvious thing that was likely to be replicated. What, are they going to make everyone take their shoes off at any sort of public event? (“They” being anyone who is in the business of protecting a high-up muckety-muck who faces a possibly disgruntled public.) Make everyone wear Crocs?

Now it’s happened again — a student threw his shoe at Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao yesterday. The shoe landed “several meters away.”

I had originally thought that this happened in China and that the thrower was Chinese, and actually stopped at this point in my draft last night because I suddenly worried what would happen to the thrower. I read about it this morning, though, and evidently the whole thing happened in England (a speech at Cambridge University) and it’s unclear what nationality the thrower was but he may have been German.

Evidently the Chinese media doesn’t want to give anyone any ideas, though — for a while, they left out the shoe-throwing from accounts of the speech. Chinese blogs went ahead and talked about it, leading (?) the media to break its silence.

Go blogs.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson expressed official displeasure: “Facts show the troublemaker who conducted this mean act is not accepted by the public, and he will not stop the trend of a developing friendly relationship between China and Britain.”

“Mean”?

3 Comments

I was wondering how this would play out…

US culture, US Politics
I took this photo of Obama volunteers in Columbus last fall (I dont know their names).

I took this photo of Obama volunteers in Columbus last fall (I don't know their names).

During the presidential campaign, I kept having the same conversation with fellow Obama campaign volunteers — that win or lose, we were going to keep doing stuff once the election was over. These volunteers all seemed to feel like they wanted to make the world a better place, and while that was part of why they liked Obama, they planned on doing that no matter what — and they were happy to meet others who felt the same way and to forge alliances and make contacts.

I’ve already seen a few large-scale manifestations of this, starting with the Obama-run “Day of Service” on January 19th, and going through various MoveOn and TrueMajority appeals I’ve seen that use the email lists they amassed when they were working on behalf of the Obama campaign.

But I’m now seeing the first truly grass-roots manifestation. There have been a spate of robberies in our area and one of the people I worked with on the campaign decided to do something about it. She’s forming a standard Neighborhood Watch program, but then also is organizing a series of informational events by the police department, covering ways that you can increase your security. (A neighbor had been robbed and then was given pointers on how he could help prevent it in the future, and she thought those pointers were worth sharing with the community.)

She fired up the old Obama volunteer email list (local version) and we’re all pitching in same as before. Someone’s designing fliers to advertise the meeting, someone else is covering printing costs. We’ll each be taking a street or two to do literature drops, and we know the drill (can’t put them in mailboxes, etc.)

It’s fun to be talking to people I know through volunteering but not in everyday life again, and the project is working out fantastically well so far.

I can easily see this becoming a regular thing. The infrastructure already there can be put to quick and painless use for any number of purposes. I may even think up a cause to take up next time. (Hmmm….)

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Consuming From Income, Not Wealth

Economy, Politics, US Economy

I read an article called “A Smarter Stimulus” in the New Yorker when it first came out — I keep thinking of it again when I see disparaging references to the tax cuts in Obama’s stimulus plan, such as Frank Rich’s recent column.

I find the whole economic mess daunting and appreciated the clear explanation of one aspect of the proposed stimulus package that is encouraging.

Evidently not all tax cuts are equal.  The Bush tax cuts did not accomplish much because they were treated as a windfall, and people tend to shunt those into their savings accounts.  The Obama tax cuts will be different — they will take the form of less withholding from paychecks.  The article explains the difference, in terms of the effect on the economy:

The size of the windfall matters a lot: the bigger the windfall the more likely it is to be saved. One fascinating study of Israelis who received reparations from Germany found that those who received the biggest payments spent very little of the money, while those who received small payments spent it all

The key factor in these kinds of distinctions, Thaler’s work suggests, is whether people think of a windfall as wealth or as income. If they think of it as wealth, they’re more likely to save it, and if they think of it as income they’re more likely to spend it. That’s because many people tend to base their spending not on their long-term earning potential or on their assets but on what they think of as their current income, an amount best defined by what’s in their regular paycheck. When that number goes up, so does people’s spending. In Thaler’s words, “People tend to consume from income and leave perceived ‘wealth’ alone.”

So what does this mean for making a rebate work? If you want people to spend the money, you don’t want to give them one big check, because that makes it more likely that they’ll think of it as an increase in their wealth and save it. Instead, you want to give them small amounts over time. And you want the rebate to show up as an increase in people’s take-home pay, because an increase in steady income is more likely to translate into an increase in spending. What can accomplish both of these goals? Reducing people’s withholding payments.

That’s a large excerpt but not the entire article — I encourage you to read the whole thing.  The conclusion:

On its own, Obama’s rebate plan isn’t going to resurrect the economy. But it’s a policy that works with people as they are, rather than as we imagine they should be. And that’s a stimulus in itself.

3 Comments

Handy Dandy Vetting Guide

Politics, US Politics
Toms fancy glasses

Tom's fancy glasses

Sarahs fancy glasses

Sarah's fancy glasses

If they’re wearing fancy glasses, vet ’em thoroughly. REALLY thoroughly.

2 Comments

Still Not Used to an Articulate President

Politics, Uncategorized, US Economy, US Politics

I just watched Barack Obama’s chat with Matt Lauer before the Super Bowl. It appeared to be live — there were technical difficulties for example that presumably wouldn’t have happened in a taped segment, and some awkward camera cuts. Obama was funny, warm, and serious as called for and didn’t miss a beat when Lauer asked some gotcha-ish questions.

Nothing too deep of course — for example, Lauer asked Obama to face the camera and justify his preference for a national college football playoff to Floridians (whose Gators won the BCS Championship game). “Twenty-seven electoral votes,” Lauer kept saying. Obama smilingly found the camera and delivered his defense; “Congrats Gators, on an outstanding season. … Wouldn’t you feel better if you had beaten every team through a playoff system?”

There was more substance too, especially in terms of talking about the economy and the stimulus package. Obama made it clear that things are going to continue to get worse for several months, and then it would take a while after that before things got back “on track.” But he was full of reassurance, full of confidence that things WILL get back on track.

Throughout he was comfortable and smooth. It’s not solving the health care crisis or creating peace in the middle east, but it was still nice to see. (Right! A brain! Excellent.)

1 Comment

David Palmer, Barack Obama

Culture, History, Media / journalism, Presidential Elections, US culture, US Politics
Dennis Haysbert as David Palmer, President

Dennis Haysbert as David Palmer, President

The New York Times has an article today called, “How The Movies Made a President,” (which includes a cool slide show). It examines various black archetypes in movies and TV and how they may have helped to prepare the ground for the ascendancy of Barack Obama. I had similar thoughts a few months ago but never got around to making a blog post out of ’em (I know, all the bloggers say that, right?). The article mentions Dennis Haysbert and the show “24” in passing — that was the starting point of my train of thought earlier.

I think the significance of that show is not only that it was popular and that the black President Palmer was a good guy, someone the audience is rooting for, but that Keifer Sutherland’s character Jack Bauer is a pretty Republican character, at core. He’s all about stoppin’ those damn terrorists by any means necessary. This wasn’t some lefty liberal show, at all.

I started thinking about this after seeing a Dennis Haysbert commercial for State Farm. He’s all calm, reassuring authority. I saw the commercial soon after some sort of political television — a debate, perhaps — and I thought at the time that it had to help Obama. There are just all sorts of resonances there. The phrases I transcribed from the commercial at the time were, “If this isn’t a recession, it sure feels like one,” (spoken wryly but seriously by Haysbert, standing in a grocery store) and then the standard State Farm tagline; “Are you in good hands?” Haysbert’s hands, the commercial clearly implies, are very good ones.

As of a year ago, Dennis Haysbert was willing to take some of the credit, too:

“As far as the public is concerned, it did open up their minds and their hearts a little bit to the notion that if the right man came along… that a black man could be president of the United States,” Haysbert, who believes that Obama is the “right man,” said in the January 21 [2008] issue of TV Guide. “People on the street would ask me to run for office… when I went to promote [24].”

[…]

“I think we both have a similar approach to who and what we believe the president is,” Haysbert said in another interview with the Los Angeles Times. “Barack doesn’t get angry. He’s pretty level. That’s how I portrayed President Palmer: as a man with control over his emotions and great intelligence.”

I don’t think anyone’s claiming that there is a direct line from one to the other; that if these black fictional representations hadn’t existed, Barack Obama wouldn’t have won, or that the fictional representations meant that any black politician could make it that far. Obama’s achievement is significant and singular. I do agree with Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, though, authors of the NYT article, that

The presidencies of James Earl Jones in “The Man,” Morgan Freeman in “Deep Impact,” Chris Rock in “Head of State” and Dennis Haysbert in “24” helped us imagine Mr. Obama’s transformative breakthrough before it occurred. In a modest way, they also hastened its arrival.

(Another thought I had while reading the NYT article — Michelle Obama is SO Clair Huxtable, isn’t she? Smart, polished, down-to-earth, nurturing, funny…. Is this not a total Clair Huxtable moment?)

3 Comments

Yeah, But We Have a Black President So Nanny Nanny Boo Boo

Culture, International Politics, Politics, Presidential Elections, Uncategorized, US culture, US Politics

T-shirt made by a bar in Georgia

I’m starting to see Obama being held up as an indication of how advanced America is compared to other countries when it comes to race relations. On the one hand that’s so awesome! Yay us! I do still get this little shock every time I realize that it’s actually true, and what it means.

On the other hand, it’s a bit too easy and pat. The fact that Obama was elected doesn’t mean that America no longer has any problems with race.

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Politics Detox

Presidential Elections, US culture, US Elections, US Politics
I took this photo of an voting information flier on the ground on election day.

I took this photo of a voting information flier on the ground on election day.

I’ve been interested in politics forever but this election year was one for the ages. And all of that excitement wasn’t even crammed into a single election year — candidates announced that they were running for president about two years before election day (of the major candidates, John Edwards was first in December of 2006, and Barack Obama was last in February of 2007), and there was speculation and buzz well before anyone announced anything.

All told, this election cycle took up about three years of my life, with the intensity ratcheting up and up and staying at fever pitch from about the Iowa primaries (January 2008) through election day.

So perhaps it’s unsurprising that after the initial euphoria of election night, I’ve settled into a period of politics detox. I no longer obsessively click on the acronymed sites crowding my bookmarks toolbar (TPM, FR, DD, WM, 538) — several of them haven’t been touched since November 4th. I still read my daily New York Times but I glide over the politics and intrigue and pay more attention to the arts section and special sections like Science Times. The TV stays away from CNN and MSNBC and C-Span.

I believe this has been better for my mental health — but man, that was sure a fascinating election cycle.

I can sense that things are starting to change already. For one thing, I am so watching the inauguration. My daughter has the day off of school (hooray!) and we’re gonna make a day of it. That’ll invite CNN back into my living room, and I’ll want to see what Kevin Drum and Andrew Sullivan and Matt Yglesias and Hilzoy and everyone are saying about it. And I’ll disagree with some of it, probably, and write them emails and write stuff here and then see the counterarguments and that’ll probably be that. Detox completed, politics part of my brain re-engaged.

But for now, I’m still really enjoying ignoring politics in favor of things like the Science Times. Did you know that it’s been proven that lack of sleep is closely related to catching a cold? I thought so…

4 Comments

It’s Not That I’m Anti-Erect Penis…

Funny, Uncategorized, US culture

… but is it really a good idea for a major company to convert its logo into an erect penis? (Or reveal the existing erect-penisness of its logo, as the case may be?)

Joe Camel: An early example of the effective use of penis fear in advertising.  (Nose = penis.  Not erect though.)

Joe Camel: An early example of the effective use of penis fear in advertising. (Nose = penis. Not erect though.)

This was playing on TV during a nice, innocuous show about doggies on Animal Planet. It’s not one of those edgy web-only ads you see when you’re reading the Onion or something. (Speaking of the Onion, I immediately remembered their 1989 cover story, “Penis Fear,” which exposed the subliminal use of penises in advertising. Joe Camel was featured prominently. I tried to find that story online but the only references were made by a) me, and b) a guy who said he kept the issue for years and then his wife threw it out. The noive.)

If it were an advertisement for, I dunno, mattresses or something, I could maybe understand it. Ha ha. Clever. But a restaurant?

I mean, I see it now… the Arby’s logo sure does look like (a rather stumpy) erect penis. Or maybe a partially unrolled condom.

These are really associations they want to create?

(I almost titled this “I Don’t Have Anything Against Erect Penises” but thought that might be a bit too much…)

5 Comments

Just How Evil Are Real Christmas Trees?

Uncategorized, US culture

So I tend towards green-ness. I’m not an uber-environmentalist but I do what I can. I’m sitting here in my down jacket because I like to keep the thermostat relatively low in the winter, (and because it’s #@$% cold outside). We recycle. We don’t leave the water running when we brush our teeth. That kind of thing.

That means that when people say that real Christmas trees are evil and that fake trees are a more responsible choice (i.e., that plastic is greener than actual greenery), I am cowed enough to want to look into it before blithely buying another real tree this year. (Even though I LIKE real trees. A lot.)

My initial thoughts include:

– My community recycles (mulches) real Christmas trees. Does that count for anything?

– Christmas tree farms are better than strip malls, aren’t they? (But is that a false dichotomy? Maybe they tear down nice forests to plant the fertilized and insecticided Christmas trees.)

– Isn’t plastic, just, like, icky? And people don’t keep their plastic trees literally forever, do they? So is the environmental cost of dealing with giant hunks of plastic occasionally really less than dealing with gen-you-wine biodegradable trees annually?

So I set out to try to find out what is actually greener.

First, yes, it appears that plastic IS icky!

Continue Reading »

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