Archive for April, 2013

So Here’s the Thing

Posted on April 30th, 2013 in Uncategorized | 13 Comments »

Let me preface this blog by saying that I am a huge Larry David fan. My wife, in fact, has been known to call me the WASP Larry David.

There—that’s out of the way.

So last night I was taking the train home, which is what I do given my new life in the ‘burbs. I was happily immersed in Hilary Mantel’s really remarkable sequel to Wolf Hall, Bringing Up The Bodies, the saga of Thomas Cromwell and 16th century England. Read it, it’s great.

Until every ten or fifteen seconds, I started hearing this odd electronic chirping noise—like a plastic cricket made in Taiwan. It did have a Chinese water torture element to it, now that I think about it.

After hoping in vain that it would go away, I peered around trying to find it. Of course it was the guy seated behind me. Probably in his late 50s, he was playing some kind of card game—solitaire, maybe—on his Blackberry. And whenever he did something right, apparently, the game would make that incredibly irritating noise.

Don’t you just hate to be in that situation? Where you think, I could just suck it up and say nothing, but then I a) feel like a wimp, and b) have to listen to this incredibly irritating noise while I’m trying to read a really good book. But on the other hand, if I say something, then I feel like kind of a douche.

Again, given my empathy for Larry David, I don’t really care that much about feeling like a douche, so I turned around and said, with all the politeness I could muster—a perfectly plausible amount—”Excuse me, would you mind turning that down?”

I didn’t even say “turn it off,” which I thought was pretty reasonable of me.

The guy looked shocked. Outraged! That anyone could so object to the electronic sound effects of his smartphone game.

“You gotta be kidding me,” he said.

“You gotta be kidding me”? You gotta be kidding me.

I shook my head to reinforce the point that no, I wasn’t kidding him.

“Alright, alright,” he muttered, and turned the sound down.

And I thought about that for the uncomfortable ten minutes or so until the train reached my stop. Why on earth would someone think it was so outlandish to be asked to turn down the sound on his phone? What makes people think that they have the right to invade other people’s space with noise—especially noise of such a jejune nature?

And more: Why on earth was it important to this man that his card game be accompanied by electronic sound effects? Was it some kind of Pavlovian ritual? Some kind of aural addiction?

I have no idea what the answer is to any of these questions, which is, I think, a microcosm of why I sometimes feel so alienated from modernity.

The Great Debate

Posted on April 27th, 2013 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Economists Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart take to the op-ed page of the Times to defend themselves from recent criticism of their work, which has become a bulwark of austerity policies around the world and particularly in Europe.

Our research, and even our credentials and integrity, have been furiously attacked in newspapers and on television. Each of us has received hate-filled, even threatening, e-mail messages, some of them blaming us for layoffs of public employees, cutbacks in government services and tax increases. As career academic economists (our only senior public service has been in the research department at the International Monetary Fund) we find these attacks a sad commentary on the politicization of social science research. But our feelings are not what’s important here.


On the merits, Rogoff and Reinhart argue that there is less to their critics than has been suggested.

A sober reassessment of austerity is the responsible course for policy makers, but not for the reasons these authors suggest. Their conclusions are less dramatic than they would have you believe. Our 2010 paper found that, over the long term, growth is about 1 percentage point lower when debt is 90 percent or more of gross domestic product. The University of Massachusetts researchers do not overturn this fundamental finding

Not surprisingly, Paul Krugman disagrees.

Economic debates rarely end with a T.K.O. But the great policy debate of recent years between Keynesians, who advocate sustaining and, indeed, increasing government spending in a depression, and austerians, who demand immediate spending cuts, comes close — at least in the world of ideas. At this point, the austerian position has imploded; not only have its predictions about the real world failed completely, but the academic research invoked to support that position has turned out to be riddled with errors, omissions and dubious statistics.

That “riddled with errors, omissions and dubious statistics”? That means you, R and R.

Krugman actually goes on to make a pretty interesting argument here: That the reason austerity policies have become so popular is because they reflect the wishes of the one percent, who are overwhelmingly more concerned with budget deficits than everyone else is—and favor cutting Social Security and other “entitlements” in order to cut deficits. And since the 1% tend to be the drivers of economic policy, hence we have austerity measures.

So…will the debunking of Rogoff et al make any difference?

To the extent that we have policy of the 1 percent, by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent, won’t we just see new justifications for the same old policies? I hope not; I’d like to believe that ideas and evidence matter, at least a bit. Otherwise, what am I doing with my life? But I guess we’ll see just how much cynicism is justified.

I guess we will.

It’s Like an Opera, Really

Posted on April 25th, 2013 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Journalism…or Sexism?

Posted on April 25th, 2013 in Uncategorized | 12 Comments »

In Politico yesterday, media reporter Dylan Baquet published a long story alleging that Jill Abramson, the executive editor of the New York Times, is losing the confidence and support of her reporters and editors.

Just a year and a half into her tenure as executive editor, Abramson is already on the verge of losing the support of the newsroom. Staffers commend her skills and her experience but question whether she has the temperament to lead the paper. At times, they say, her attitude toward editors and reporters leaves everyone feeling demoralized; on other occasions, she can seem disengaged or uncaring.

One of the criticisms of Abramson—all voiced anonymously—is that she’s often out of the newsroom on speaking engagements.

Abramson is “sometimes required to travel to represent the newsroom in important business decisions and also as an ambassador of The Times to industry gatherings, much like previous editors before her.” Abramson’s “unique status as the first female editor of The Times means she gets even more of these opportunities,” Murphy wrote.

Allow me a small, digressive point: This argument struck me as very much similar to things that Drew Faust’s communications armada says about her, and it occurs to me that perhaps the first female heads of large organizations should spend less time talking about being the first female heads of large organizations and more time running them.

In any event: Baquet’s story struck me as fair, on the whole, giving ample room to people who responded that such allegations merely reflected sexist attitudes towards female leaders. Does the Times managing editor really need to be “caring,” for example? Would you say that about a male head of an organization?

I think in the case of the Times, with its particular culture and the painful transitions it’s going through, the answer is yes. (Howell Raines also got caught up in being uncaring.) But you could certainly argue it either way.

Almost instantly, though, pundits, mostly women, began crying sexism. (Leaning-in, you might say.) In Slate, Hanna Rosin wrote that

the evidence the Politico story presents to support its thesis that there’s “widespread frustration and anxiety within the Times newsroom” is pretty thin. To me, these sound like the complaints of some disgruntled staffers. She yelled at a photo editor. She pissed off Baquet. She was “jetting off” to Sundance during the buyouts. (Whenever I read “jetting off,” I think “disgruntled underling.”)

Despite my job and, basically, my life, I consider myself something of a populist, and “disgruntled underling” is a phrase that makes me want to punch a wall. It’s been used against me in the past, and it’s just a nasty smear—suggesting anonymous, whiny, complaining drones who haven’t earned the right to criticize their betters. What is a disgruntled underling but a snob’s term for a whistleblower? Rosin is decrying sexism while indulging in classism.

In any case, it seems reasonable to be PO’d at a boss who’s hanging out at Sundance even as people are losing their jobs back in New York.

In the Daily Beast, Howie Kurtz echoes the sexism charge:

….hard-driving women are too often portrayed as harridans.

Also in the Daily Beast, Tricia Romano writes that…

….the article reads like a sexist fairy tale….

Here article is titled “Leave Jill Abramson Alone, You Sexists.

Oh, cry me a river. She’s the executive editor of the New York Times, which is not a job for the thin-skinned. Presumably she can handle a little criticism.

Here is my general rule: Whenever there is such overwhelming consensus about a thing, it is wrong. As, I think, it is in this case.

Here’s why.

For one thing, media reporting almost always relies on anonymous sources and hard-to-prove rumors. It’s not fair, but reporters, being well-versed in the rules of the game, are (rather hypocritically, I think) genetically averse to going on the record. In this case, Baquet clearly tried hard to present both sides of the story, and I think he did a good job of that.

Second, media reporting should focus on the powerful—not, as Rosin might suggest, the “underlings.” There’s been precious little of that in recent years, as the Observer has lost its nerve and Gawker has become less insider-y. I’m delighted to see a reporter accept the challenge of writing about the new editor of the New York Times—even though it’s eminently predictable that any criticism of the paper’s first female editor will automatically be dubbed sexist.

And finally, it’s not as if every new editor of the New York Times doesn’t get some tough coverage, if only because the last few of them haven’t been very good.

As (yay!) Melinda Hennenberg writes for the Washington Post,

The general response to Politico’s hot poop has been to wonder if a man in her position would have been so roundly trashed. And that, too, kind of cracks me up, because so many men in that position have been trashed

As more women assume positions of power—and good on ’em for it—it is a fait accomplit that any and all criticism of them will be labeled sexist. Some of it may well be. But not all of it. And this constant crying of (she-) wolf will soon trivialize even those legitimate charges of sexism, the way that the constant application of the term “politically correct” eventually rendered it meaningless.

A final point: Abramson defenders have been quick to point out that the Times won four Pulitzers this year, but it’s a fact that doesn’t prove much; very likely it says more about how the Times, with its comparatively strong economic situation, is able to commission reporting that other newspapers no longer can afford. It’s like winning the Kentucky Derby when all the other horses have broken legs….

A Profile in Courage

Posted on April 25th, 2013 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

The word “brave” is highly over-used. For example, many politicians call other politicians “brave” when voting for something that might cost them their job in a few years. I’d give you “principled” for that, but not brave. Pat Tillman giving up a career in professional football to fight in Afghanistan—now, that’s brave.

So is this article written by my old friend, Michelle Cottle, about her diagnosis with breast cancer and her choice to have a double mastectomy. It’s not just the decision that’s brave—it’s her incredibly positive attitude about the choice and her decision to write so honestly about it.

Through it all, medical professionals kept reassuring me that I was a prime candidate for a breast-conserving lumpectomy. And every time they delivered this bit of comfort, I thought: “That’s wonderful. Tell it to someone else.” Because, whatever the usual protocol, the one sliver of a silver lining that I could discern in this massive cloud of shit was the opportunity to finally put the girls out of my misery: screw a lumpectomy. This situation called for the full Monty.

Michelle is a really talented journalist and a f’ing strong woman. I tip my cap to her.

No More Monkey Business

Posted on April 24th, 2013 in Uncategorized | 10 Comments »

Citing budget pressures, Harvard just announced the closing of its primate research center, which has had a checkered past when it comes to treatment of animals.

But this quote, from a former candidate to run the center, Dr. Jay Kaplan, feels right:

The primate center “didn’t have the name Harvard in it, and it was run for many years as a rather insular facility,” ­Kaplan said. “So the question you have to ask is, is Harvard really looking to more clearly consolidate their investment and activities and not be worried about this satellite facility 30 miles away?”

(Thanks, Boston Globe.)

There are 2000 monkeys at the facility…which seems like a lot to me. Anyone know what research was actually being done on 2000 monkeys?

Some Stuff on Language

Posted on April 22nd, 2013 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Reading the New York Post usually provides some examples of colorful language or unusual neologisms. In today’s paper, I had to laugh when I saw an ad for Hillside Honda’s “really big spring event.”

The ad says that customers will have to make “ZERO down payment…ZERO first month payment…ZERO security deposit” and “ZERO due at lease signing.”

Except there’s a little asterisk right after the word “signing” and on the very next line it says, “Excludes taxes, titles and dealer fees.”

So…not really zero then.

Also in the Post, columnist Phil Mushnick—I believe he should win a Pulitzer for commentary, and I’m not kidding—points out how uncool it was of Red Sox David Ortiz to pronounce, in front of “a ballpark packed with families,” that Boston “is our fucking city.”

It may seem a small thing compared to the obscenity kids in Boston were exposed to last Monday, but in such times those small things matter even more.

As Mushnick writes, “Even those moments intended to be right and righteous are now left compromised and diminished by “attitude” and crudity, short of being as good as they could have and should have been.”

(Maybe it was the steroids speaking.)

To put it another way: What would Lou Gehrig say?

My Cousin and the Whale

Posted on April 22nd, 2013 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

My cousin Lucy is a marine biologist, and has been passionately interested in nature since she was a little girl. (Her father, Allan Keith, is a pretty well-known birdwatcher in that community.)

When she graduated from college 26 years ago, Lucy’s parents’ “adopted” a whale for her as a graduation present, meaning that they donated to the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation. The whale, a humpback, had been given the name Istar, and has been studied since the 1970s. Istar was a female and gave birth to her first calf, as far as the foundation can tell, in 1977. Nine more calves would follow. Istar was, apparently, a regular in the waters off Martha’s Vineyard.

On April 16th, however, a humpback whale washed up on the beach of Quogue, Long Island—Istar. It’s not for sure yet, but it seems that the cause of death was a ship strike. The death may have been natural, though; humpbacks live for about 50 years, so Istar would have been nearing the end of her natural life.

Still and all…I can’t help thinking how sad that is. To have a connection, no matter how tenuous, to an animal for a quarter of a century—especially an animal as beautiful as a humpback whale—and then to see a magnificent creature reduced to this…


Krugman on Rogoff-Reinhart

Posted on April 19th, 2013 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

He rips the two economists—and their ideological adopters—a new one in his column today.

What the Reinhart-Rogoff affair shows is the extent to which austerity has been sold on false pretenses. For three years, the turn to austerity has been presented not as a choice but as a necessity. Economic research, austerity advocates insisted, showed that terrible things happen once debt exceeds 90 percent of G.D.P. But “economic research” showed no such thing; a couple of economists made that assertion, while many others disagreed. Policy makers abandoned the unemployed and turned to austerity because they wanted to, not because they had to.

There Totally is Life in Outer Space

Posted on April 18th, 2013 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Love this NASA animation on the discovery of three new planets that seem likely to be able to support life.