Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Book Review: In a Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson

I wish I had discovered Bill Bryson's writing much earlier. I already have another of his books on order (A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail). Bryson's writing is witty and at times hysterical, as he takes us across the mysterious, engrossing and never ending source of gripping, tragic, tragic-comic, and comic stories that are Australia's history, people, land and unimaginable numbers of flaura and fauna. He is self-effacing but is willing to "efface" others when justified, not holding back when his encounters leave something to be desired.

He explores the Australian character via anecdotes of personal experience and history, and gives a comprehensive perspective and understading of this most unusual and mostly ignored continent/country. If you are interested in a voyeuristic experience that goes beyond the standard American's knowledge about Australia of kangaroos, Steve Irwin and the Bee Gees, and want to be laughing and enthralled at the same time, read this book.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Barack Oprah!ma

So what do you folks think of the Oprah phenomenon (and I'm not referring to how television seems to add sixty pounds to Ms. Winfrey, while only ten to the average pundit)?

Is this the beginning of a new trend? Will celebutards, rather than party politicians, choose our candidates in the future? What is the demographic that is attracted to a Winfrey-endorsed candidacy, and how will this affect the future of electoral debates? On a gut level (and gut-levels are the most appropriate when referring to a public persona like Oprah), I am uncomfortable with a television personality having this kind of impact and potentially affecting the outcome of the presidency. In my view, Obama is a marginal candidate, offering much style, especially charisma, over substance. You can only take his schtick so far, and he's not my number one candidate to deal with all the pressing issues faced by this country.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Book Review: The Age of Lincoln

Sometimes well written history is more dramatic and impressing than well written fiction. The Age of Lincoln is a great examlpe of this. The book reads like a historical dramatization at times as Burton weaves personal accounts, letters and other documents from the main actors in the drama and other sources into the narrative of the antebellum, Civil War and postbellum events. It is a sobering account of the reality of war, which was romanticized by the opposing sides as they preapred for the inevitable struggle that would follow secession. Burton also brings to life the deep passions that possesed both sides, including the sincere belief that their side was favored by God. You are left with an understanding of how these 40 to 50 years in American history profundly affected multiple aspects of America's future, some issues which remain unresolved to this day. It's a must read if you want a deeper understading of Lincoln, southern and northern mindsets, the role of African Americans, states rights, immigration, southern and northern economies and the many other components that made up the complex historical landscape of this period of our nation's history.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Bonds Indictment

Bonds has created a conundrum out which we will never emerge. Even if a jury finds him innocent, the court of public opinion has already rendered its judgment. Unfortunately, that judgment is also divided. So we will be left with people believing that he used steroids but it doesn’t matter because a) they don’t really help your performance or b) when he used them they were not banned (so how could he have cheated); others will believe he used them and feel that radical measures such as erasing Bonds' name from all the record books should hold, or that the records should employ asterisks freely, or that Bonds' stats should be adjusted to reflect a steroid-free career. But none of this will matter because in the end we will all lack the purity that we all seek from our game, that the game was played fair and square from beginning to end, that accomplishments are not marred by facts or rumors of cheating, that careers were made and built out of mental commitment and fortitude, and pure physical prowess.

I wrote earlier about one of the overlooked aspects of the steroids scandal: Assume that steroids do improve performance. How many times did a juiced at bat give an unfair advantage to a team? On how many occasions did warning track power become a game winning home run? How many times did a short fly out become a long fly out that drove in a go ahead run? Of course, the answers to these questions can never be found. And that’s the point. Because the “cheating” involved is as masked as can be, and it’s mixed in with all the nuances and intricacies that involve the team game of baseball, we will never find the smoking gun that can then be used to reconstruct the past.

How much of this has to do with changed morals? Who knows? But if the Bonds saga were a remake of Chariots of Fire, there would be a dramatic scene where Bonds would be sitting in his locker room, looking at his vial of flaxseed/clear or whatever it was, considering the ramifications of even appearing to cheat, and then tossing it into the trash and walking out into field triumphantly. What we’ll have instead is endless punditry on ESPN and Court TV. Stay tuned, or not.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Book Review: The Science of Influence: How to Get Anyone to Say "Yes" in 8 Minutes or Less! by Kevin Hogan

Kevin Hogan is probably a great public speaker and his fees are justified. He is at best, however, a mediocre writer. This book appears to have a lot of useful information that could probably help someone become excellent at influencing others. The problem is that the writing is very choppy and somewhat unstructured. As you read there is no sense of flow or how one section ties in with another. An influence tip is often given without a good example on how to apply it, with the burden of extrapolating the idea left to the reader with a series of questions. The influence "gems" are lost in a writing style that makes it hard to get the point of each bit of advice. This leaves the reader with a sense of needing to go back and put the pieces together on their own, which is ironic because Hogan, in addition to being a teacher of influencing techniques is also supposed to be an expert communicator. One glaring gap is the promise in the books subtitle about influencing someone in 8 minutes or less: nowhere is it spelled out exactly how this is accomplished.

Hogan makes no bones about marketing his online products, particularly tapes which cover the same subject. Is his style meant to leave you hanging and wanting to purchase a DVD set?

Some of his material is taken, and duly credited in the bibliography, from Nobel Lauretes Kahneman and Taversky, as well as the influence expert Robert Cialdini. I would recommend reading these original sources as well.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Book Review: Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America's Most Important Idea, by George Lakoff

First off, I tend to be conservative on most issues but I like to keep an open mind. I thought I might be persuaded to re-think some issues by a book written by a cognitive scientist who might lay out knowledge and insights backed up by research and scientific experiment. Lakoff's thesis is that people's political, ideological and other perspectives are ultimately shaped by on of two metaphors: the strict father family or the nurturant family metaphor. As I think back about the way I have developed my own views (coming from a strict father family background) and my often times knee-jerk reaction to some issues, I feel that there is a lot of credence to his model. However, I don't believe that the metaphors always trump logic and reason. Many of his statements and claims sound to me like standard left-wing slogans and cliches. Do I see them as that because that is what they are or am I filtering them through my strict father metaphor? I don't think one can assume that the latter is always or predominantly the case. I also wished that Lakoff would come out and state his premises clearly, rather then leave them to be inferred from the text. For example, he states that we humans are animals. Well, this premise obviously has a lot of implications for the arguments that follow, and the conclusions that derive from this premise have nothing to do with a strict father or nurturant family metaphor. This is where I think his arguments get seriously jumbled.

In the end, I find Lakoff's argument that the progessive idea of freedom is equal to the original idea of freedom that built this country unconvincing. His book says, basically, that any desire or want that liberals in general or the Democratic party specifically have, is a freedom tied to the real meaning of freedom. For example: socialized medicine? That's a "freedom to" have access to health care.

I also noted at least one major factual error: the United State's infant mortality rate is nowhere near what he claims it to be. I knew this immediately because I am familiar with that subject matter. Where else are there similar errors?

To be fair, there were some views that I found intriguing and valid. One was Lakoff's description of corporations as functioning in many regards outside the realm of public oversight and regulation, while having as much or greater impact on individuals' lifes than any government agency, in some cases.

It's an intersting book to read but far from the well-reasoned argument one would expected from someone of Lakoff's intellectual and academic caliber.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Random Musings on Baseball and the 2007 Post-season

The temperature at the start of one the games at Colorado was 50 degrees. Game time temperature in Phoenix was 93 degrees. Probably the largest temperature differential ever.

The Rockies regular season was supported in part by Tony Gwynn, Jr's key hit against Trevor Hoffman of the Padres. Hoffman is the all-time saves leader and the Padres were Gwynn, Jr's Hall of Fame father Tony Gwynn, Sr's old team. Interesting how these things happen.

There are enough side stories in the drama that is taking place in the post-season to make all the Yankees-Torre-ARod coverage excessive. For example, the Rockies ascendance from September til last night, when they won the NL Pennant. My favorite sidebar is the return of Kaz Matsui to a level of play and contribution that begins to reflect the kind of player he was in Japan. He went to the Rockies last year from the Mets. Met fans could not have gotten rid of him sooner. He was embraced by Clint Hurdle and went to the minors. Came back in late August and hit well. He has been a key part of the Rockies’ success this year. He scored 84 runs in 104 games, and also stole 32 bases and played solid defense. As a result, Kaz Matsui will get to the World Series before his more famous namesake Hideki Matsui. I’d like to know more about how his resurgence came about, particularly the role that Clint Hurdle played in reigniting him as well as the rest of the team. Of course, you won’t hear about any of this.

Why haven't the big spending teams made it all the way to the World Series? The Yankees didn't and it looks like neither will the Red Sox. Basically, everything changes in the post season because in essence, the post season consists of a second season of at most 19 games for any one team, assuming the Division, League Championship and World Series each go their limit. This second season consists of three mini-seasons comprised of a potential five, seven and seven games apiece. In a five game season, anything can happen. Teams can go 0 and 5 or 5 and 0 and everything in between. The same applies to a seven game season. But to advance to the next round, each team has to basically play .500 ball, plus win one more game. During the course of any 5 or 7 game stretch, virtually any team can accomplish this, from the lowly Devil Rays to the mighty Yankees. Ultimately, the series lengths are great equalizers. Statistically, one could assume that the shorter the series, the greater the equalization factor. Thus, the 1973 Mets beat the Big Red Machine, but were unable to handle the Oakland A's in seven games. The Yankees have similarly been defeated in the first round each year. And, I suppose, that's part of the beauty of the post-season, where the underdog has a decent chance of overcoming the favorite, simply because you are playing a microcosm of the regular season.

If the Rockies and Indians both go to the World Series, their combined payrolls of $116,097,267 will be significantly less than either the Yankees $189,639,045, or the Red Sox $143,026,214, and only slightly above the Mets $115 million plus payroll.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony Visit PS 36 in the Bronx

On September 25, 2007 JLo and hubby Marc Anthony visited PS 36 in the Bronx to kick off their new tour and to promote healthy living for kids. The Bronx, in addition to being attached to the mainland, being the third poorest county in the country, and having an avenue named Hoe, is also known as the most obese borough of the City of New York. It was good to see JLo back in the neighborhood, especially encouraging young kids to stay healthy. She and Anthony were greeted by a joyous, screaming mob of elementary school kids, their parents, and neighborhood residents. As an amusing aside, when Marc Anthony met the prinicpal, Ms. Nilda Rivera, he immediately recognized her as one of his elementary school teachers when he was a youngster in Manhattan. The emotion of the day peaked when JLo and Marc Anthony were serenated by the children's choir and both broke into tears. I must say that since the visit, the spirits have been high in the school and I am sure that there will be positive long term effects from their appearance. Kudos to the couple! (See the video clips from their visit to the left of this post).

Saturday, September 22, 2007

I Have Discovered Another Irresistible Force

I should be receiving a Noble Prize for this one soon, if not at least a KFC discounts booklet. There is an irresistible force in the universe, stronger than gravity and probably comingling with quantum energy. This irresistible force draws every human who's ever walked by a display cannon to stick his or her head in the barrel. See the incredible photo below for evidence!

As you can see, neither the diameter of the cannon nor the size of the human head can overcome this irresistible force. This chap was outfitted with anti-stickheadincannongear (see small knapsack on back) and was still unable to resist The Force.

In my early study of this phenomenon, I had presumed that the ratio of height of cannon to height of person would reduce the strength of the Irresistible Force. I was indeed surprised to find that I was wrong, despite the strong mathematical predictions suggesting the opposite.

I had been toiling for over three years studying this freak of nature, as I called it when I initially encountered it, though my mother-in-law thought I was referring to her, which I was, sometimes, when I was informed that an obscure amateur scientist had begun a similar investigation years ago, when the earth was black and white, but failed to proceed further in his studies since he used himself as the cannoneed subject, and furthermore was unawares that the cannon depicted here was not a display cannon but rather a live one that was shortly thereafter employed to distract the enemy's flanks, leaving behind only shreds of experimental notes and an old buy one get one free Dairy Queen coupon.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

New MTA Rules Do Not Go far Enough

We are occasionally reminded by the MTA of their new rules of proper subway conduct. Personally, I don’t think they go far enough to address all the serious issues of discomfort that afflict New Yorkers on a daily basis. According to the MTA’s new rules, it is a violation to:

• Jump the turnstile or enter the system improperly, even if your MetroCard is not working properly. Author’s note: there are proper ways to jump a turnstile, the most encouraged one being the Fosbury Flop.

• Refuse to present special fare card to police officer or transit employee. Telling the officer or employer he has three guesses is also a violation.

• Straddle a bicycle, wear in-line or roller skates, stand on a skateboard or ride a scooter. You are, however, allowed to do all five at once.

• Move between end doors of a subway car whether or not train is in motion, except in an emergency or when directed by police officer or conductor (emergencies do not include removing one-self from a malodorous condition because the rider next to you had one too many Gorditas at Taco Bell).

• Place one's foot on the seat of a subway, bus, or platform bench; occupy more than one seat or place bags on an empty seat when doing so would interfere with transit operations or the comfort of other customers. You can place other people‘s feet on a chair so long as it is not inconvenient to them and you agree to meet for drinks at the next stop.

Clearly, these rules do not begin to address the myriad discomforts encountered by subway riders. For starters, the MTA should consider adding the following rules:

• Any idiot playing a computer game at a high volume will have his or her subscription to Loud and Idiotic Video Games cancelled.

• Business people will not be allowed to “talk shop” just because they happen to run into each other on the Number 6. We do not need to hear about how “Bob is clearly not in charge” or how “Jen is in way over her head”.

• Tourists will be banned from acting as if they are on a high speed roller coaster every time a train pulls out of a station.

• Conductors will not be allowed to say that there is a train “directly behind this one” unless they can prove that a train once snuck up on this one from above.

• Conductors will not be allowed to embellish in any way, shape or form the indication of a stop except at the last stop when they will be required to say “Baddee, baddee, baddee, that’s all folks.”

I think these rules are reasonable and should be adopted post-haste by the MTA board or pre-haste before the next threatened strike deadline.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

What Would You Do?

The Cardinals are in the heat of the pennant race near the end of the season. They're getting their butts kicked a la Texas Rangers/Baltimore Orioles recently. To get to this point in the race, LaRussa has relied extensively on his bullpen. The bullpen is exhausted, and every reliever has been used at this point. There are two innings left to play. In other similar situations, managers have brought in position players to pitch the final one or two innings. If you are Tony LaRussa, do you bring in Rick Ankiel for the last two innings?

Sunday, August 19, 2007

A Dubious Distinction?

About two weeks ago Tom Glavine of the New York Mets joined the 300 wins club. There was a lot of media attention, and the pressure showed on Glavine, the usually stoic-faced starter who played for the Braves before coming to the Mets. Among the issues raised by Glavine's achievement was the possibility that he may be the last 300 game winner. Only a few other pitchers have a slight outside chance of getting there - Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina among them - but given their age and recent downslides probaly won't. After he reached the 300 win milestone, the Mets had a special day at Shea for him, showering him with kudos, including video congratulations from other members of the 300 win club, as well as a variety of gifts, all well deserved for a pitcher who never threw hard but won mostly with guile and intellect.

No one has really paid attention to another "milestone" that Glavine is likely to reach this year: he is 3 wins shy of becoming a 200 game loser. What's just as striking about this "achievement" as the 300 wins is that, along with becoming the last pitcher to win 300, he may also become the last pitcher to lose 200. The next two in line are Roger Clemens at 183 and Jaime Moyer at 174 but it's unlikely that either of these two will pitch long enough to catch up to Glavine, especially Clemens who now only pitches two-thirds of a season after he is lured out of retirement by a record-breaking financial offer.

Will the media trail Glavine from stadium to stadium after he loses number 199? If he loses 200, will the Mets hold a special day at Shea, where he returns the gifts he got for his 300 wins? Will Tom Seaver give a speech and be the first to welcome Glavine to the 200 loss club? This is tongue in cheek, of course, but it's interesting how one pitcher can become the symbol of the way starting pitching has changed in the majors, such that Glavine may become the last man to have enough decisions, i.e. pitch enough good innings for a sufficently long time, to have both 300 wins and 200 loses.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Subway Platform in Need of Repair

My station on the train is the number 6 at Castle Hill Avenue. Over the years, trucks above the clearance limit have banged into the bottom of the platform, at the intersection of Castle Hill Avenue and Westchester Avenue. The pictures below show the damage that the supporting beams under the platform have sustained: many are bent, some are entirely missing. You can also notice the signifcant rusting of the beams. The trucks continue to bang into or scrape along the supporting beam, probably on a weekly basis. I've witnessed this many times myself.

I was told by an MTA worker recently that the whole line in the area is scheduled for major repairs. Perhaps they should begin sooner. I'm not an engineer, but after what happened in Minnesota, I think it would be prudent to quickly inspect the platform and make necessary repairs as soon as possible.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Some Behavior I Don't Understand

Sometimes you have to wait for a bus for a long time here in the City. Eventually the bus does appear and what sometimes happens is that another bus will be trailing behind, maybe by a block or less. The first bus will be packed, with standing room only. The next bus will be relatively empty. Here's what I don't get: almost everyone waiting will get on the first packed bus rather than wating maybe less than a minute for the next one. Why? I don't mind waiting a relatively short time for a comfortable ride for a seat.

Maybe this is one of those areas that economists like Levitt, Landsburg or Friedman can investigate. These are the economists who look at things other than wages, inflation, production, etc. They examine everyday behavior to identify why people behave in certain ways or why certain results exist. This is what fascinated me about economics when I was an undergraduate. I didn't care so much about employment rates, GNP or those sorts of things. I especially didn't care for the heavy math. So I find this branch of economics intriguing, fascinating and entertaining. Check these authors out.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Cross-Bronx Expressway

Where do I start? The Expressway is anything but express. It’s more like a long, slowly shifting parking lot. Power Broker Robert Moses built it in the 1960’s to speed traffic through the Bronx from Long Island and into Manhattan and New Jersey. It should have been named the Avoid-the-Bronx Expressway. The irony is that it’s actually very difficult to get across the Bronx from east to west or vice versa. When I take my kids to the dentist in Riverdale from Castle Hill the choices are 1) pay $15.00 for car service and ride for 40 minutes; 2) take two buses for an hour and 30 minute ride and 3) take the number 6 train from the Bronx to 125th street in Manhattan, then take the 4 train back into the Bronx to switch to the number 2 train which you take back into Manhattan to then take the number 1 train back to the Bronx to 231 St where you can transfer to a bus to Riverdale. By the time you get to the dentist’s their baby teeth will have fallen out and they’ll be ready for dentures.

Now you might ask, "Hey, Bronxilla, why don't you just take your kids to a local dentist?" the answer is: the practice is excellent. The have weekend hours; their offices are thouroughly cleaned after each patient; and their offices are open so that there is no opportunity for anyone to do anything inappropriate.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Sample Jokes from My Stand-Up

Albert Einstein accomplished a lot but when people praised him he would be humble and say "I stand on the shoulders of giants". I haven't accomplished as much, so when people praise me I don't say "I stand on the shoulders of giants". Instead I say, "I sit on the faces of midgets".

I used to know a blind guy who was terrible with his finances. He was in debt up to his eye sockets.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Penny Change Dilemma

No matter what, I can't win when there's a penny owed me for change. I feel cheap if I wait for the penny, say after I give a merchant $4.00 for a non-sales tax $3.99 item. But I feel ripped off if the merchant hesitates in giving me my penny change. And if I walk away without my penny as if I didn't care, I berate myself afterwards for my false indifference. Maybe next time I'll just get another product so there's no penny change involved, and avoid this whole dilemma.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

A Sample of My Humor Writing

I am a student of Asian migration and have lived among Asian immigrants for the past twenty years. My book details all the cultural nuances of the Hmong, a Vietnamese ethnic group displaced by the Vietnam War. I focus particularly on a sub-set of the Hmong, who tend to be tall for their group. I had to publish under a pseudonym to protect my privacy. Here is my book: The Hmong Among Us Are Humongous, by Hugh Mingus.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Unpsoken Issue About Steroids in Baseball

Prior to the revelations about Bonds' alleged steroid use, I used to wonder if baseball fans fully appreciated the chance to see perhaps baseball's greatest hitter ever perform. My view now is that Bonds remains a great hitter but the accolade of greatest ever no longer applies, given that his use of them, if true (and based on what I've read/heard to date, it is true), has given him the extra power boost to jack up his numbers to the level of super-human/immortal.

Of course, there is no way to tell by exactly how much steroids increased his homers. But the point is that he used a substance to help him do it. Whether others did it or not is not the point, he, and others already possessing a high level of skill and power seem to have benefited the most - see McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro. Who knows? The only other ideal to no one using them would have been that everyone used them.

The not knowing of the actual impact of the steroids is what makes this issue so hard to get a handle on. And there's another area of not knowing that I have not seen discussed but I think is even more important than the individual records and hall of fame issues that have been bandied about. This question which has no answer is: did steroid use help a team win that otherwise would not have won a game? Did any steroid ringers hit game winning home runs or deep sacrifice flies that gave their team an edge they would not have had? Again, we'll never know. And that will be the enduring problem with this whole thing, that the use of steroids by a group of ballplayers to gain an advantage in strength has tainted a whole era of ballplayers.

We like our baseball to be pure. A bad call here or there we can live with. We can tolerate Robert Fick and Alex Rodriguez slapping at fielder’s gloves, because we can see it’s wrong and there’s real time public humiliation. Stealing signs has intrigue to it. We can tolerate bad character in a player, and even misdeeds off the field, but anything that casts doubts about the purity of the game takes us aback – corked bats, thrown games, gambling on your team.

p.s. Based on Ron Darling's commentary on Met telecasts I believe he agrees with me - and he went to Yale.