Friday, June 30, 2006

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Pawlenty & Higher Ed: Merits vs. Politics

Some time ago, our esteemed contributor Xtra commented under my Economic World Cup post about providing incentives for college students to study math and science as a way to improve American competitiveness in the global economy. I've been meaning to revisit the subject, and lo and behold, your favorite governor and mine, Teflon Tim Pawlenty has opened the pathway to such a discussion.

This week, Teflon Tim announced a proposal that would offer two years of free tuition at the University of Minnesota, or other colleges in the MnSCU system, to students in the top 25% of their class and come from families making less than $150,000 a year. Students receiving the assistance must attend full-time and maintain a B-average, and students are eligible to attain two more years of free tuition if they major in math or a science. The rationale behind this is purported that it would keep Minnesota's best and brightest in-state while boosting our enrollment in math and science.

Politics aside, this is worthy start. This being a politically-charged election year, however, I think we must examine the proposal both on the merits and on its political nature.


On its face, Pawlenty's proposal fulfills, or seems as though it would fulfill, the objectives set forth in my previous post. We need an increasing number of young people who are trained and can work in math and science fields, and who are educated with an eye toward America's (and Minnesota's) global competitiveness. It seems both reasonable and fair; it targets mostly middle- and low-income students; it offers incentives to study math or science.

Detractors (including Brian Melendez, DFL state party chair) have claimed that the proposal gives unfair advantage to those students already doing well, while leaving others behind. Call me elitist, but I don't see a huge problem with that. If we are to do anything, it is encourage and reward those who perform. Unfortunately, however, we do not have an secondary education system set up to provide a level playing field. For example, Minnesota ranks near the bottom of states in African-American graduation rate (a dismal 44 percent), while posting one of the highest overal graduation rates in the country. Therefore, not all of the kids who could potentially achieve status within the top 25 percent of their class are afforded that opportunity based on our malnourished schools, which are primarily based in Minneapolis/St. Paul, but also exist throughout rural Minnesota. Ultimately, the bulk of students that will be able to take advantage of this proposal are those in property-tax-rich municipalities, located primarily throughout the inner- and outer-ring suburban school districts. Without investment in quality secondary education, this proposal unduly rewards those who already have the advantages of a high-performance education. But, I do agree, that this is a good starting point for further discussion on that subject.

The additional math and science incentive is another topic. Unfortunately, "math and science" are about as ill-defined subjects as one can find on a college campus. Is leisure studies a "science"? Is nursing? Is dental hygiene? The question is: Where do we draw the boundaries? Math and science are terms of art that can fit practically any individual definition. Also, who will decide what math and science are? The governor? Legislators? Educators? We don't know...

Another question here is why just math and science? I think the aim should instead point toward the goals of improving Minnesota's competitiveness on a global scale, and preparing (many) students for the economy of the present and future. This does not mean only providing incentives to math and science majors, but rewarding future educators who will instruct and develop the economic leaders of the next generation. Why not provide an additional two free years to education majors? What about areas of the local economy where there are shortages, such as in nursing?

There is also the matter of private colleges and universities that award a full 25 percent of all the bachelor's degrees in Minnesota. Students attending those institutions are left out in the cold as well.


No matter what the merits of this proposal, the real story here is in the politics behind it. I have to hand it to Teflon Tim; this was an incredibly shrewd move that has put his most likely opponent, Mike Hatch, on his heels fresh after his DFL endorsement.

The beauty of this move is that is completely deflates the legitimate point that Teflon Tim has moved the state backward in higher education. He has overseen the largest increases in state college tuition, hiked student fees, and has ignored faculty salaries. And now, with a Jedi wave of the hand, he can deflect all of that criticism with this proposal.

And what's better, he doesn't actually have to do anything with it. This is less than a campaign promise, it's merely words. Teflon Tim comes off looking like a moderate (even David Strom, Grand Poobah of the MN Taxpayer's League is in a huff over this thing) and if he does win re-election, he won't actually have to follow through on it. Why? Two likely scenarios:
  1. Democrats retain the State Senate and win a majority in the State House. They follow up on Pawlenty's proposal, and make amendments to it similar to what I described above. The proposal passes and goes to Teflon Tim's desk. He refuses to sign it, because the DFL has "distorted" his intent and it's no longer fit for the state. Period. End of discussion.
  2. Democrats retain the State Senate and Republican retain a majority in the State House. The proposal passes with amendments similar to my descriptions above. But, the proposal fails in the State House because Dr. No Phil Krinkie and his Zero-Tax Clan tie it up in committee, the necessary Republican votes do not materialize on the floor, or the proposal is gutted in a conference committee.

As a result, the criticism for not seeing the proposal through slides right off Teflon Tim and sticks somewhere else. Timmy gets a winning campaign message, and no blame when it blows up after the election. I'm awestruck.

The other question I'd like to ask here is: Why doesn't the DFL ever make proposals like this sooner? Instead, we fritter around with code words - health care, education - but we rarely present voters with something concrete. Is it fear? Are we inept? My suggestion and my hope is that Hatch comes out with something bold - most likely something to do with health care since that's the feather in his cap - and run with it. We need to beat Pawlenty back or else he'll run roughshod right over us with his folksy Minnesota smile and his in-the-closet extremism.

Israel in Gaza: Hamas under Assault

I'm reluctant to take sides in this conflict, which is looking more and more like a war. As the NYT notes in today's editoral, "Hamas Provokes a Fight," even though Hamas is responsible for this violence, Israel's arrest of many high ranking Hamas officials is "unsettling." Neither side is innocent. We should recall what Hannah Arendt teaches us about politics. She concludes her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, with the following verdict on Eichmann's actions:

For politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same. And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations—as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world—we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Observed: Colgate Toothpaste

Just a few groceries to pick up yesterday, and a tube of toothpaste was included on the list. Not enough groceries, even, to warrant a cart. Down the personal grooming aisle on the right-hand side (towards the checkout lines) I saw what really looked like a wall of cardboard Colgate. So, being the freakshow that I am, I set down my groceries and wrote down every type of Colgate toothpaste I saw. Here goes:

Colgate Total Whitening (in clean mint, mint stripe, and advanced fresh flavors)
Colgate Max Fresh (cool, clean mint, and cinnamint)
Colgate Luminous (crystal clean, and paradise fresh )
Colgate Sparkling White (vanilla mint, and cinnamon spice)
Colgate Tartar Control Whitening (crisp mint, cool mint)
Colgate with baking soda and Peroxide, and oxygen bubbles (fresh mint, and brisk mint)
Colgate Cavity Protection
Colgate Fresh Confidence

So that's sixteen different flavors of Colgate, all but three of these are mint, and frankly I can't tell the difference between any of them. If you include Crest, Aquafresh, and several others, it's probably something close to 50 different choices for a chunk of paste we put on the end of a stick. Most of us would be hard pressed to differentiate between any of these flavors, yet they're offered at different prices. I believe this is what they call 1st degree price discrimination--as opposed to, say, second degree or third degree.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

PeP @ 20,000

Primarily as an excuse to re-use this graphic of the pat-yourself-on-the-back machine (which is certifiably stamped with the Pie-Eyed Seal of Approval), I think it fitting to mention the fact that PeP Nation has jettisoned us to more than 20,000 hits! (Remember, it was not too long ago that we sputtered away at 10,000.) Never mind the fact that most of those hits came from the PeP contributors themselves...some of those hits had to come from other people. Right? Right?

(For a nice little recap of some of the PeP's greatest here.)

Wal Mart: the Great Debate

Follow this link:

It features a debate on the merits of Wal Mart between Barbara Ehrenreich and Jason Furman. Most of the readers/contributors of this blog are probably aware of Ehrenreich (sharing her dismal views) but Furman is a sharp guy. Part of the Clinton economic horde.

The Deadbeat Reporter On...Penalty Kicks

We've posted several times before, in different ways, about the World Cup. Togo's shambolic run-up to the tournament, Tom Powers' PiPress article that trotted out the ridiculous argument linking "illegals" and World Cup viewership, and also a tie-in with Fareed Zakaria's latest article on global leadership. (Oh, and check out the comments section for a world class circle jerk on the Zakaria piece).
Anyway, after watching the 0-0 snoozer between the Ukraine and Switzerland (which I predicted to myself) degenerate into penalty kicks, it became apparent that at this level penalty kicks are chock-full of randomness. Like an inverted game of playing chicken on the highway, and a less than proper way to decide the winner.

Fortunately, I found an article (Slate of all places) that takes a look at penalty kicks through the lens of Game Theory. A great read, and you won't watch PK's the same way again. [slate] [via deadspin]

Monday, June 26, 2006

Got Wedding Blog?

Nothing says romance like a wedding blog. I can already hear the echoes of the imaginary conversations between the two bloggers, across each other's cyberspace, and between them and their "readers." I'll wait for the book-length account of the whole affair, which is probably also forthcoming under the title, How Pieper Got Out of New Prague, Got Kissed and Got Engaged.

Warren Buffett: 'Wildly Generous Bigot'?

The news of multibillionaire Warren Buffett's graduated donation of more than $1 billion a year to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (as well as four others) really struck a chord with me, particularly in light of Xtra's expressed dislike of generosity.

What stuck out the most was the description during the news conference of Buffett's and the Gates's philosophy on wealth. Essentially, the three agreed that accumulated wealth ought to be shared with society. Rather than going to his grave in a coffin filled with $1 million bills (?), Buffett has ensured a lasting legacy through the work of his chosen foundations and in the lives of the millions of people he is helping.

The beauty of this gift, however, is not the sheer size of it, nor the causes it's going to. It is simply the fact that it is (by all accounts) genuine. This gift is not made as a corporate tax write-off, or for personal or political gain. It is merely a donation to concepts that work, with the primary concept that it takes money to make things like global health and education initiatives work. Warren Buffett, the iconoclastic investor, is showing the world where true investment lies, which is in humanity.

And now, before Xtra and 'Dingo can accuse me of weepiness, I depart.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Did somebody say.....Chevrolet?

Maybe it's just me, but the advertising on the Strib's homepage is a little ridiculous.

And yes, this is exactly how I'm coming off hiatus.

Was Kanye Wrong?

According to research recently conducted by Stanford University professor Shanto Iyengar Republicans don't hate black people, they are just cheap. What about Democrats you ask? They are bigots, wildly generous bigots. There is nothing I dislike more than generosity.


To our vast readership:

I am in the process of lobbying the resident gatekeepers, ergh, Administrators (PiedPieper and Mandingo) to incorporate an interactive side bar or something of the like. Pied has ignored me entirely and Mandingo has pleaded html ignorance. Thus, if anybody knows anything about html (can html be a verb?, Ill, a new topic/excuse to post picture of hot woman) please help me improve your blogging experience by posting your related knowledge on the subject in the comments section of this post.

Best regards,


A Man of Means by No Means

Incentives matter and ultimately Governments incentivize certain types of lifestyles, tacitly rewarding those lifestyles. This is a long winded way of making me rethink the concept of means testing (as it relates to such entitlement programs as Social Security and Medicare, not Medicaid) and the extent to which it fails to achieve horizontal equity.

My father is keen on telling people that my brother and I represent a perfect balance: he saves everything, I spend everything. My brother is famously cheap; he squeezes every penny till it screams. And, alas, I am a spendthrift. Fast forward to retirement age, in all likelihood, my bro’ will have a much more secure retirement unless knight ridder decides to buy the blog (even then, my contributions have to rank in the bottom quarter with our resident master of the proverbial wet bag of shit-‘dingo), even assuming equal earnings.

Means testing typically looks at one’s means or revenue or income—however you want to call it—in the period when a person is receiving the benefits. As one gets older, or more specifically, when one retires, their income is no longer labor income but rather capital or asset income (i.e. interest and drawdowns from your 401 k or IRA). If you reduce one’s benefits (that they were taxed for in the first place), due to significant asset accumulation, while maintaining the benefits for someone with equivalent lifetime earnings, you are effectively taxing thrift. Capital income at the time of one’s retirement should not be the basis for benefits, but rather lifetime earnings.

Phraseology: "Cabin Forecast"

--Dave Dahl, Chief Meteorologist 5 Eyewitness News

After getting back from the warm and wistful (dare I say, "elegiac"?) Prairie Home Companion at the Grandview Theaters I tuned into the ten o'clock forecast on Channel Five. Feeling particularly Minnesotan last night after the movie, I took notice when Dahl announced this weekend's "Cabin Forecast" for all of greater Minnesota.

There is some connection here between APC and the "Cabin Forecast", but maybe I was still hungover from the movie. See, APC was both an ode to the dying art of the radio program and an examination of the often dark Minnesota ethos. The cabin, and going "up North" are often the centerpiece of Keillor's romantic Lake Wobegon yarns. And it's also the type of romance that makes us so proud of our 10,000 lakes.

However, if you've ever been ensnared in traffic on 94W on a Friday afternoon up around Rogers, you know that the romance quickly evaporates on the buckling asphalt. Middle fingers, cheap bikinis, and an expensive trailer hitch are all a part of the dream.

When adjectives become . . . commodities

I've been searching for a word or an explanation for the following retail phenomenon. For example, books make good gifts. Seizing on this fact, some book stores now have sections where they sell "gift books." Another example: tattered jeans. Seizing on the fashionableness of such jeans, jeans are now made and sold as "tattered jeans." Adjective. Noun. Product.

In both examples, what used to be made by individual gestures and uses - books into gifts, jeans into tatters - is presented as pre-made and sold as a special kind of product. What is going on here?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Argument for Moral Superiority in War

In two recent pieces in The New York Times, Haim Watzman's op-ed, "Hiding Behind the Enemy," and A.O. Scott's review of "The Road to Guantanamo," the authors lament the lapse of adherence to now accepted moral norms in times of war. A.O. Scott points to the abuse of prisoners in Guantanamo as a shameful practice that "squanders a crucial strategic advantage in the fight against terrorism, namely the moral superiority of liberal democracy to the nihilism and extremism that oppose it." Watzman, similarly, argues that rather than elide morality, commanders should enforce it because "It is an element of an army's strength. . . . An army that does not take risks will be easily beaten by an opponent that does." Both statements are underpinned by two assumptions—first, that democracies should behave morally in war, and second, that the moral high ground is a valuable vantage point in war, especially in an asymmetric one between state and non-state insurgent actors.

Is any of this true? Neither Scott nor Watzman marshal any historical evidence to prove this. In fact, if we examine A.O. Scott's argument, we see that what he laments as a strategic blunder is not the reality of Guantanamo, but rather the fact that this reality has been made so easy for all to see, that the quasi-documentary about it "may already have lost the power to shock." The point implicit here is that the appearance of morality is what is important, not the actual following of it. What people believe is going on is more important than what is actually going on. In war, as in politics, public opinion and appearances are the only reality that counts. In Guantanamo, then, the U.S. has lost a strategic asset in failing to be recognized as the morally superior country in the war against terrorism.

The truth here is one that Niccolo Machiavelli, author of The Prince and The Art of War, knew very well. It is not only not necessary to follow what people generally hold to be morally good, but in many cases what is called good will lead to ruin in enterprises such as war. So a prudent army captain should always make it appear that his troops behave well, while in reality doing whatever is necessary to win. As Machiavelli wrote in one of his most famous lines, "For a man who wants to make a profession of good in all regards must come to ruin among so many who are not good." In other words, pace Scott and Watzman, there is no strategic advantage in imposing on one's army "moral" rules that only put soldiers' lives in jeopardy. But this must be emphasized to avoid confusion: this is not to say that there is not an advantage in appearing to follow morality, and that armies should follow it whenever possible. It is to say that morality carries no intrinsic or absolute value in war. Indeed, the arguments on offer by both Scott and Watzman for adhering to it testify to this fact because they make it an instrument to achieve a strategic advantage. And just like any instrument, when it stops working, you pick up a new one. And in some cases, this, lamentably, will be torture and the like.

Late-night Cliffhanger: The Advertisement


She had wandered back into town to find a candle or die. So odd to her: this one door, with the light on. Light always filled her with delight, or at least the pictures of it.

A male voice-over intones, "By 2500, America's Information Age will be no more. The affairs of our specious will be conducted in darkness."

Nothing is necessary if not candles.
The Lighting Material Solutions Group

Minneapolis ... as Mecca?

While I remain solidly loyal to St. Paul, a city I find far superior to our sister across the River, I cannot help but applaud and stand in amazement at the level of cultural and creative additions that have been made to Minneapolis in the past two years. And I am not alone.
The new Guthrie Theater is lauded as another cultural landmark putting Minneapolis on the map, in the most recent issue of Newsweek. (Click here for a kick-ass Strib special section.) Dubbing Minneapolis "The Design City," Newsweek places it at the forefront of its a list of the top locations in global culture. In addition to the new Guthrie, of course, is the Minneapolis Central Library, a new wing at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and last year's unveiling of the Walker Art Center expansion.

Despite all this, I will remain in St. Paul, the fairer city. Yet, bravo, Minneapolis. Bravo!

(And, don't forget, the Guthrie's opening extravaganza is this Sunday...Heiruspecs and POS are playing...)

Late-night cliffhanger: Denouement

She was a neighbor, from an apartment building across the street.

She lives alone, and she had been lying in bed nearly asleep when she heard her back door open, and heavy footsteps on the floor. She didn't have time to reach for her glasses, but she squinted at her doorframe just as a large figure walked down her hall, past her bedroom. She called out "hello?" and didn't get a response. She instantly started to panic; her door had been locked, nobody else had a key, what the hell was somebody doing in her apartment at midnight?

So she bolted. She ran from her room, picked up a heavy object to defend herself (candleholder) and sprinted into the street, where she saw the bright light above my door and instinctually ran for it.

But what if I had been no better? What if it was "out of the frying pan and into the fire?" When I opened my door, we were facing each other at the bottom of a narrow, steep stairway, and I was taller and larger than her.

She looked like she needed to sit down, so I offered her a chair in the front room. I purposefully moved calmly and left my front door open, so she didn't feel trapped in the apartment with me. We called the cops, they came and checked her apartment. A friend of hers - who had a key to check on her plants if she was gone - had come in to crash for the evening, not realizing she was home. No harm, no foul, the cops talked to them both and got it straightened out.

But what about her perception of danger, and her trust in me based on a front door light? It made me think of a report on the local public radio about crime on campus (at a university of 15,000). They had interviews with female dorm residents, who described walking home late at night with keys in hand and cell phone dialed to 9-1. But there have only been a couple - like two or three - random attacks on campus in that situation. Almost all of the violent crime on campus happens between people who know each other, in dorm rooms or similar scenarios. Same thing with "rape myths" - most rapes occur between people who know each other, not in a dark alleyway with a stranger. But which scenario, which attack, do people prepare for?

And what about me? I never really think of "street crime." I left my light on simply to avoid fumbling with my keys.

I live in a town of about 30,000 and bike thefts usually happen in rashes, when some wayward urban youth bring up a van from a nearby big city and steal 100 bikes in one weekend then return and sell 'em. I know quite a few people who leave their cars and homes unlocked. But I've seen quite a few barfights here, and I know of at least one horrific murder in this town.

My wish is - aside from providing a narrative to be parodied - just to provoke your own thoughts on the perception of crime and danger versus the reality.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Summer Reading

I don't do much during the summer. I don't do much during the Fall, Winter, and Spring neither. But to bide the time I read and make lists...of things I want to do, am doing, need to buy, want to buy, should do, shouldn't do, etc.
So, here's my summer reading list in honor of the first day of summer:

Currently Reading.
Hell's Angels, Hunter S. Thompson

Next Up. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
HIP: The History, John Leland
The Places in Between, Rory Stewart
Blink, Malcolm Gladwell
The Boys on the Bus, Tom Crouse

If I get through all of these by the end of August I'll be lucky. Thoughts?

Late-night cliffhanger: Unsolicited Help

As she learned forward towards me I was startled by her tone:
“Why do you have your light on at this hour, have you no love for nature?” she admonished.
I was taken aback, hurt, but ultimately disappointed in myself.

I confessed “I seriously considered turning the light off before I left, but it is so bright and brilliant, as if it were a moon. But this causes me embarrassment to regard something man made as equal to nature’s splendor, and pain when I consider my contribution to nature’s spoilage. I have been considering penance but I am not sure how other Gaea devotees engage in penance”

She was impressed by this display of contrition and his obvious personal devotion to our ecology. His sin was to be forgiven. She pressed her body towards his and brushed her natty dreadlocks away from her face (BTW: the candle is made in Japan and is the byproduct of whale blubber, hypocrite) inviting the Green Cowboy to meet her with his lips. Of a sudden, their moment was destroyed, the candle’s flame made contact with her arm pit hair causing their bodies to be consumed by fire...

Late-night cliffhanger: The set-up

True story: I keep odd hours at work. Last night, I decided to go back in around 9PM for a couple hours. The stairs leading to my front door are narrow and steep, and in the dark it can be quite annoying to fumble with my keys. Thinking ahead to my return later that night, I left the light on above my front door. It's actually a very bright light, as comforting as it is useful.

I returned around 1130PM. I was cleaning up the apartment a bit and about to go hunting for my toothbrush (I just returned from camping, so the essentials are still scattered) when there was a knock at my door. I looked at the clock: 1205AM. The light above my front door was still on; I had weighed the financial and environmental costs of leaving it on even though I was already home (seriously, I did), and decided that for that evening, I was going to enjoy saying to the night-world "I live here!"

Through the glass of my front door I could see a figure leaning in from the narrow stairway, not quite committed to actually standing in front of my door. I was quizzical, but nothing else. I opened the door. There stood a woman in her late twenties, looking frantic and trembling, clutching a candleholder.

O Cruel Mistress, MNSpeak

If the Twin Cities bloggerdom were a mafia family, MNSpeak would be the Don. While serving as a blog itself (although, I must admit, I have never found the conversation as enlightening as that found on the PeP Network) it's most important function is through The Aggregator, a feature that classifies and previews blog posts for 200-odd Minnesota blogs.

MNSpeak, however, has played a cat-and-mouse game with the PeP for much of its stormy history. Sometimes we've been including in The Aggregator, other times we've been left in the cold. It's as if we are courting a fickle lover, one whose heart belongs to no one, yet belongs to everyone. Admittedly, I can understand MNSpeak's neglect during the Pie-Eyed Dark Ages (circa Dec. '05 to April '06), when nary a peep was heard from the PeP. But now, as the Pie-Eyed Picayune has blossomed into a Renaissance, we receive the same treatment. Today, we are included in The Aggregator. Tomorrow, we shan't even contemplate.

Tell us, MNSpeak, what must we do to remain forever in your good graces?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Dowd Zings Fukuyama

"You'd think that incorrectly predicting history is over would get you banished from the intelligentsia forever, but Mr. Fukuyama proffered another big idea, warning that the pendulum was not making its customary swing left because "values" voters were clutching it. "There's a guy I buy my barbecue from who says, 'I think we're in a class war and my class is losing,' " he shared."

Dowd adds, "(Is this The End of Barbecue?)"


Biking, Helmets and Risk Assessment

I don't wear a helmet when I ride my bike. Am I crazy? Probably not, but surely many people think I'm being stupid not to wear one. It can't hurt, they say. And it might save my skull.

True enough. But I don't see what makes bicycle riding more dangerous than, say, walking, and we don't think it crazy to go for a walk without wearing a helmet, even though it couldn't hurt. If the danger in biking is that one might fall off, then there is little danger if you are a competent bike rider. If the danger lies in the chances of being hit by a car, then biking is no more dangerous than any other mode of transportation, including walking.

But if we're going to actually get serious about risk assessment and being safe, instead of just exhorting people to wear helmets, then we should discuss every activity and determine what level of risk to one's health is too much to accept. Is skiing too risky? Driving? Flying? Walking? Rock-climbing? Walking at night? You get my point. People die in car accidents all the time, yet we don't think it crazy to ride in one. I think people are nuts to go skiing, yet if they have fun doing it, so much the better for them. I realize that it all depends on how competent one is about these things. There is nothing inherently dangerous about such activities. They only become dangerous when someone really doesn't know what they are doing.

I think people should take the same attitude toward biking. Of course you could fall off and die - but you can also die in a car accident. But many people never get into a car accident because they are defensive drivers, just as many bikers have been riding for years without falling off, and many of these bikers have never worn a helmet.

Chill out people. There are more important things to worry about than helmets.

The Stakes is Not All that High

I rediscovered The New York Times Book Review after a year hiatus. Since I don't work at Starbucks anymore (and thus unable to steal the Sunday Times) I haven't had the money or inclination to pick up a hardcopy. And the Book Review, like most things paper, just isn't the same online.

I found a gem last Sunday. Read Anthony Swofford's review of Daniel Pinchbeck's 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl to experience a superb beat down of the outerspace, pointy-nosed Fantasia that most present-day surrealists espouse. Essentially, 2012 is Pinchbeck's follow up to Breaking Open the Head, another trip into the psychedelic minefield. Pinchbeck really does think psychedelics are the answer (where have we heard/felt/thought this before?) and damnit why don't the rest of us? However, Swofford sums up his ass-kicking of the hippy, New Age theodicy thusly:

"Since when can a guy on mushrooms land a punch? And no one likes a global morality bully who's tripping. Whatever happened to just taking drugs?"

ps Do read Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception for some real writing on the psychedelic experience. No strings attached.

Let them eat grass...

This past weekend we were driving south out of St. Paul on West 7th/Hwy 5. As we were passing Fort Snelling, we noticed two lonely souls on the bridge carrying signs. One said: "Take Down Fort Snelling!" and the other: "Fort Snelling - Symbol of American Imperialism." Of course, any Minnesotan worth her salt ought to know the conflicted history behind our former frontier military outpost. It was set up to take this land from its American Indian inhabitants, violently if necessary. In a classic bit of American diplomacy, the government "purchased" land Fort Snelling sits on in exchange for guaranteed annuity payments, which the the tribes would rely on to feed themselves. After the military officers in charge failed to make the payments - uttering the famous words, "Let them eat grass..." - a battle ensued, which the tribes lost handily. It was a tragic and despicable chapter in our state's history.

My first thoughts, though, were of the two protesters. In my cynical way, I derided them as fools. This symbol of "American imperialism" is nothing but a museum, a relic of events ocurring a sesquicentennial ago. Yet, reflecting on the lives lost, and the savage treatment human beings were afforded at our own government's hands on soil just a mile or two from where I live, I can't help but wonder if they are to be admired. Some force drove those two people to stand out on a bridge, hold up signs decrying a national and state monument, and advocate for a cause that stands absolutely no chance of going anywhere. They achieved nothing but the inhalation of far too many gas fumes. I simply do not have the passion and wherewithal to face such fruitless and debilitating efforts. Yet, those two people managed to get me to look farther into the history of Fort Snelling than I had before. They managed to make their position stick in my head long enough for me to blog about it. So who, exactly, is the fool here? The protesters or me? Did they, in fact, accomplish an objective?

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Relevance of Libraries

I have to admit: Until recently, I never fully realized the importance of public libraries in our society. Sure, they're great for the kids, and it's nice that people too cheap to buy the Sunday paper pick up one of those newspaper sticks (and, really, are those necessary?), but all in all, I didn't see the big deal.

This changed one rainy Saturday afternoon when my lovely and I visited the St. Paul Central Library downtown. The fact is, libraries in the 21st century are not just about frumpy ladies who shush you at the drop of a dime, but about gathering sources of information and turning that into knowledge.

The question of whether libraries are relevant is certainly valid. It's also prescient, as evident by the impressive new digs of the downtown Minneapolis library and the improved space of the St. Paul Lexington Avenue library (scheduled to open Sept. 9). One can argue that with the wealth of information available through the Web, what need is there for these massive physical structures? If we can store gazillions of gigabytes of data in one relatively small box, what is the point of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on buildings to house them? The answers are both simple and complex.

First, the Web is great at providing information. But that information is neither here nor there without the ability to cite your source (!), prove its authenticity, or delve deeper into the subject. The problem with the Web is that since there is so much information, we can't delineate (in many circumstances) fact from fiction.

Second, the Web (obviously) is not free. Not only must one pay for an Internet connection, one must also pay for the equipment necessary to run that connection, and have the wherewithal to understand how to use, maintain, and update that connection. Libraries, if nothing else, at least provide (through free Internet) access to a world that many people are denied.

Third, the public library of the 21st century, as opposed to the library of the 19th century, is a place not simply for solitary information-gathering. Rather, it is a community space, open and accessible to all, that can be used to advance the pillars of our free society. The perfect example of this is the architecture of the new Minneapolis Central Library. From the moment you walk in the door, you feel connected to the community. Meeting spaces, conversations, educational outreach, civics lessons, citizenship classes, you name it; it's all there. Libraries are not simply stoic monuments of information. They are, and must be in order to survive, organisms that foster discourse and community interaction.

Ok. I'll shush now.

Saturday, June 17, 2006


The New York Times over the last few months has run a number of articles on one theme: the unprecedented busyness of our lives. But this busyness, apparently, does not affect us all equally. The Times has focused on privileged college students looking to make it in the professional world by cramming their resume with internship and leadership experiences, and the even more harried individuals they will become once ensconced in that world. "The Lost Summer" (June 4) considers the former, while Sunday's "Pencil It In Under 'Not Happening'" documents the latter, the euphoria felt by the overscheduled, harried professional class when someone calls to cancel - er, "reschedule" - a social obligation.

I've said this to the Pied before, I think "busyness" is a real phenomenon that is worth studying (and is being studied by social scientists and social theorists), and that it has much to do with new technologies (cell phones, email, Internets, etc.) that have profoundly changed the way humans relate to each other nowadays.

However, I have become increasingly skeptical of the idea that such busyness is a new and interesting characteristic only of elite, political, juridical, medical and otherwise professional and highly-educated classes. The phenomenon seems to afflict most ordinary citizens: we're all "busy," if not with doing, at least with thinking and planning. Or rather, we have become accustomed to think that we ourselves and everyone else is so busy — and the NYT has been reinforcing this view.

Why are we so busy? For what purpose? Is it worth it?

Friday, June 16, 2006

Phraseology: "Shambolic Preparation"

--ESPN commentators Adrian Kersten and Tommy Smith describing Togo's tumultuous run-up to the 2006 World Cup

During Togo's first World Cup match against South Korea, which they lost 2-1, both Adrian Kersten and Tommy Smith (think of the two chaps from the Guinness commercials calling a soccer match...brilliant!) kept saying that Togo had a "shambolic preparation" for the World Cup. In fact, they used it so often that I felt compelled to look it up. According to The American Heritage Dictionary, "shambolic" is an adjective that is chiefly British slang. It means, "Disorderly or chaotic".

If you get the chance, catch these two guys calling a game...Chris "You're with me, Leather" Berman could learn a few things. Brilliant!

In case you don't know about Togo, they've had four different coaches in four months, and their latest coach, Otto Pfister, quit three days before their first game over player bonus money. However, as it turns out, he returned to the squad the day of the South Korea game, where he and the team suffered an unfortunate but thrilling defeat.
If you want to know more about Togo, check out the New York Times article. [NYT]

The Economic World Cup

Last week, Fareed Zakaria wrote an extended piece in Newsweek that coincided with a series of articles on global leadership and the U.S. position. The comparison Zakaria made is of the U.S. to Great Britain at the end of Queen Victoria's reign, which occurred at the last turn-of-the-century. Great Britain, at that time, was the world's sole superpower, a nation unmatched in its influence and reach, and unparalleled in its technology and military prowess. Yet as the 20th century proved correct, the winds of history have a way of turning even the most dominant empires into dust.

In comparing the U.S. of today to the Great Britain of 100 years ago, Zakaria makes some very valid points, but ultimately does not explore any concrete thesis. First, he goes through all of the ways that the U.S. is going down the tubes. He inevitably trots out statistic after statistic illustrating how the rest of the world is poised to not only overcome the U.S., but leave us in the dust. My favorite happens to be the fact that the U.S. graduated more people in 2006 with sports-exercise degrees than electrical engineering degrees. The bottom line: While the U.S. has higher growth and greater potential than most industrialized countries (such as France, Spain, Germany, and Italy), it will not be able to compete with the hunger, ambition, and sheer volume of intelligence, manpower, and cost-effectiveness of China and India.

Zakaria, however, then goes on to disprove this bottom line by explaining how the U.S. fosters a creative environment, how we have the best universities in the world, and that we have an increasing population, as opposed to the expected declines in other countries. The bottom line here: While the U.S. may fall dramatically behind in all of these numbers, it will never fall that far behind because of its spirit and ingenuity.

Could it be that we're actually doing both? That while our educated classes decline, our fortunes will be buoyed by the environment and nature of the U.S. economy? Well, yes, but under strict contingencies.

First and foremost, education must be a top priority. That blanket statement won't do, though. In order to compete in the world economy we need to determine what the role of the American worker is in that economy. Historically - well, for much of the past century - the traditional role was that of manufacturer. Over the past decade, and certainly in the near future, manufacturing will become nonexistent as a strong player on the national level. Simply put, U.S. workers cannot compete with Chinese, Indian, or Bangladeshi workers in the manufacturing trades. That's not a put-down to U.S. workers. It's the truth. The longer we deny that truth, the slower and more painful the death of U.S. manufacturing will be. Instead of going through that, we need to focus our educational efforts on three fronts: (1) Reeducating workers already in the workforce in innovative ways that will allow them to provide for their families while moving the U.S. forward economically; (2) ensuring that all children in the U.S. are prepared for the economy they will encounter after they graduate from high school; and (3) freeing resources for higher education to become hotbeds of technological, scientific, and other scholarly innovation. This means investing - heavily, in some areas - to earn the dividends on the other side.

The other priority is to remove xenophobic politics from the national scene. A fair, effective, and efficient immigration system - one that not only provides immigrants with the opportunity to live and work in the U.S., but also gives incentives toward citizenship - is absolutely essential if we are to compete with the "rest of the world." While our population may be increasing - certainly a positive sign when compared to our West European brethren - we cannot possibly compete with a couple billion people and change in Southeast Asia. In order to fulfill the promises of a global economy, we have to be a global country. The moment we start to truly regress in our immigration policies is the moment we will start slipping from our status as sole superpower.

I speak in the Spirit of Truth.

Someone found Jared, our ex-roommate, out in Yosemite National Park. Shut yo' goddamn ass up.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A Little Site Reconstruction

Dear Readers:
Our blog has gotten pretty big now, so in an attempt to manage the damn thing we're doing some minor site reconstruction to keep everything running smoothly. We've installed a new hit counter, fixed some administrative glitches, and shuffled stuff around on the right sidebar. Other things, such as a bloody power struggle, are taking place behind the scenes. Don't worry, we will stay the course.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Minnesota's environment: "nothing less is at stake than everything"

I was accused - amicably - of entering this blog with a manifesto clutched in my earth-stained hands. Dennis Anderson, in his recent Star Tribune article on the status of conservation funding and efforts in Minnesota, brought that manifesto home to the state. He blasted local politicians for ignorance and general mishandling of environmental issues, but some of the harshest criticism was reserved for the weak-kneed approach of some local conservation groups. "Conservation is and always has been a contact sport" and those working to conserve the incredible natural history of Minnesota must be willing to fight as such.

He also called for a wholesale redefinition of conservation in Minnesota, and pointed out that the faults of those in power likely reflect the faults of those whose who voted for them. Indeed, he described a "matrix" of elements in our human society that have lead to both a) the need for conservation efforts and b) the current failures of such efforts.

Anderson closed by saying:

"The challenge, bit by bit, year by year, is to change this matrix - at the Legislature, in publishing and broadcasting, and among Minnesotans at large."

"In the case of the state's lakes, rivers, forests, prairies - and us - nothing less is at stake than everything."

What he described were the symptoms of merely and strictly 'politicizing' environmental awareness. If all those players - senators, representatives, citizens, maybe even the conservation groups - considered and understood our environment in an immediate, personal fashion, before considering and understanding it in a removed, political fashion, Anderson would not have to decry the relegation of conservation in Minnesota.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Suicides at Guantanamo Bay

All societies have a notion of permissible killing. It is unclear, however, what our society believes about suicide. Surely it is a controversial issue. Is suicide ever permissible, and if so, under what conditions and in what ways?

The three suicides at Guantanamo Bay, as a New York Times editorial rightly suggests, were "the inevitable result of creating a netherworld of despair beyond the laws of civilized nations, where men were to be held without any hope of decent treatment, impartial justice or, in so many cases, even eventual release." Reduced to live humanly incredibly inhuman conditions, it is no surprise that these inmates found it more glorious and noble to die by their own hands than to continue to suffer under their captors. We know from the experience of Nazi concentration camps that humans can be made to go willingly to their death. Now we know from Guantanamo Bay, if we didn't already, that under conditions of extreme distress and captivity, where there is no hope for release, humans will decide to take their own life as their only way out.

And it is worth documenting again the perverse reaction to these suicides on the part of the camp commander: "Admiral Harris's response was as appalling as the suicides. 'I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us,' he said. The inmates, he said, 'have no regard for life, neither ours nor their own.'" Under normal circumstances, suicide may be ridiculous. But these aren't normal circumstances. Moreover, a jailer is in no position to accuse his prisoners of morally inappropriate action in trying to escape. And to call these suicides an act of warfare is beyond comprehension.

Regard for life? If anyone has little regard for life it is Admiral Harris, whose remarks show how little consideration and empathy he has for the pathos and extreme anguish of his prisoners lives. However dangerous they may be, they are still human.

Mutual Fund Madness

Should I rescue myself from a mutual fund? I know, I funds are inherently a risky venture (although with less risk than some other options). However, I've been clinging to a particular fund, Putnam Discovery Growth A, for more than four years now. I've had a great 2006 up until this month when the whole thing took a nosedive. As you can see by the 5 year time-scale things have been on the up and up. But until March of this year, I have yet to really turn a profit. The whole game, though, is wait and see.
To give you some type of perspective. I began the investment in January of 2002 (just before I left for Italy, and right after 9/11). The gains aren't as big as they seem.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Week in Review

Well, folks...another week is over and hopefully a new day is dawning. I'm snowed in here at the desk by a blizzard of dandruff, whipped into a frenzy by a nearby fan. Let's take a second to ponder this week's somewhat meager output, and the continued absence of Archduke and Anti. Okay...let's move on.

  • As usual, Ilya fires off a well-sourced missive. This time about Global Warming, Al Gore, and apocalyptic fearmongers. Proto-typical.
  • Xtra travels to the Heart of Darkness, errr....communist Vietnam. The horror! The horror!
  • Ben Kessler is still getting it in the ass from his admirers.
  • We welcome another contributor to the ever growing firing squad, Green Cowboy. Yes, the Bearded Matriarch was referenced at least once in his inaugural post.
  • Tom Powers, the unlettered lout from the Pioneer Press (Terry Schiavo, JP II) missteps in his opinions on the World Cup.
  • Mandingo attempts to bring a new feature to the blog, Phraseology.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Phraseology: "A bias for action"

--Tony Snow during 06/07 morning press conference on the death of Al-Qaeda terrorist Abu Musab Al Zarqawi

Thursday morning, while choking on a banana, I listened to the White House press conference that announced to a waiting world the death of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi (tough name to type, by the way). At one point, Snow used the phrase "A bias for action" to describe the tenor of the current Iraqi regime. It's stuck with me the whole day.

Hopefully, if I remember, I'll make "Phraseology" an every Friday-thing where I recall an interesting phrase or word I came across throughout the week.

What's Up with the Pioneer Press? and Tom Powers?

I won't recap the death rattle of the Pioneer Press heard far beyond the Mississippi. But I will comment, oh so briefly, on the travesty that is Tom Powers' opinion on soccer and the impending World Cup. TP came out with with a vitriolic attack on soccer that carried undertones of racism. Check this little number:

"If the government really is serious about identifying illegal immigrants, it soon will be provided a unique opportunity to record their whereabouts. All the Department of Homeland Security has to do is monitor the city-by-city television ratings of this month's World Cup soccer tournament. Agents should be dispatched to any area in which the ratings reflect an unnaturally high level of interest. That likely signals a concentrated pocket of illegals."

Regardless of the fact that he's patently incorrect (with the majority of soccer players and enthusiasts in the U.S. being white, suburbanites) it's inflammatory journalism with little point. Check out the full article here.

ps Any thoughts on the sexual orientation of "Goleo VI", the World Cup 2006 mascot?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Misplaced Hippie of Good Fortune is Dead

To the protagonists of the Pie-Eyed Story: I'm in. Pieper talked me into it, and by that I mean he grabbed me by the ear and wrenched me into the room. I have been a loyal reader since the inception, keeping up on Minnesota current events and provoking worldly opinions...and the occasional pile of horse dung (sometimes I go back and read the Bearded Matriarch just for the heck of it).

Back in the day I was the MHOGF. However, a subsequent "haircut and real job" and other life changes convinced me I couldn't assume the name again. What did I come up with? A Green Cowboy. Weak sauce, I know. Truth is, I may be no more green than the average joe. I don't drive a hybrid, I don't belong to Greenpeace, and I have never ridden a 17-foot Zodiac on a suicide mission to foul the prop of a Japanese whaling ship in Antarctic seas. Nor am I a cowboy; in fact, one of the few times I have been on a horse I walked away bow-legged for days. However...I live in the cowboy part of the US and it is my team's mascot. Additionally, there is a lot to say for a "cowboy" approach to life; I have lived a good part of my life outdoors; and yes, once, I did help shoot, skin, and butcher a 900 lb. steer.

As for the title of green, I think Ilya touched on it nicely in his global warming post:

"Our environment will only be adequately protected once it becomes the object of our love, guarded with jealously against those who would despoil it."

I call myself green because I think ecological considerations of our actions must be inherent in everything we do. It's a simple position, but it has striking consequences. It is based on two ideas: 1) We live in, and are entirely dependent upon, nature. 2) Natural systems and organisms have an inalienable right to exist, and an intangible value, both of which must be respected. This in mind, I don't call myself an "environmentalist." That takes ecological considerations out of everyday life and puts them in the arena of politics. That makes concern over the environment a voter issue that belongs to environmentalists and that is only visited by other parties.

Instead, concern over the environment should be present in everything we do, from presidential votes to choosing toothpaste brands. We consider the effects of all of our decisions on our own welfare, it's second-nature. Consideration of the effects on the environment's welfare should be as such. We can't view the environment in a political context - we must view it in a personal context.

Thus, I'm no environmentalist. But I am green.