July 24, 2012

Posted by orrinj at 7:14 PM


Mayberry R.I.P. : Declinist panic. Hysterical nostalgia. America may not be over, but it is certainly in thrall to the idea. (Frank Rich , Jul 22, 2012, New York)

[T]he underpinnings of our discontent are almost uncannily reminiscent of those that marked all our other modern waves of American declinism. Witness an essay by the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington written in 1988 for the journal Foreign Affairs on the question "The U.S.--Decline or Renewal?" The proximate crisis of declinist panic then was the October 1987 stock-market crash and the economic rise of Japan. Surveying that era's own blizzard of declinist lit, led by the historian Paul Kennedy's best-selling The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Huntington compiled an inventory of woes that can be found in most of the 2012 sequels: America was losing its competitive edge, piling up trade and fiscal deficits, declining in growth, and falling behind in education, research, and development. And, as Huntington pointed out, the declinist panic of the late eighties was the fifth in a mere three decades--following the "Sputnik moment" of 1957-58, the economic rise of Europe and Japan in the late sixties, the opec oil shock of 1973, and the cornucopia of woes of the later seventies (Watergate, defeat in Vietnam, the Iranian hostage crisis). Since then, the spin-and-dry cycles of morning and mourning in America have repeated themselves like clockwork, with scant variation from the Huntington template. Hardly had Bill Clinton celebrated peace and a booming economy in his 2000 State of the Union valedictory than the tech bubble burst and the market crashed once more, soon to be followed by 9/11 and the long "Why do they hate us?" funk of the American soul.

In the post-World War II years of American might, it is hard to find a sustained period when America was not fretting about its status in the world and its ongoing or potential decline. That includes those golden years apotheosized in Coming Apart, That Used to Be Us, and The Andy Griffith Show, when rising affluence and the Cold War ostensibly unified the country around core values. It's not just Mad Men that has exposed the romantic view of the fifties and early sixties as a golden age to be something of a sham. In her revisionist 2008 excavation of that period, Inventing the "American Way," the historian Wendy Wall shows how America's mid-century political and business Establishments were sufficiently frightened about the prospect of disunity that together they manufactured an American consensus and sold it as a brand, the American Way.

The American Way was promoted in every medium available, from billboards to Superman comics. One representative stunt in 1947 was the Freedom Train, a red-white-and-blue locomotive christened the Spirit of 1776 and charged with barnstorming the nation to exhibit a bounty of historic and patriotic documents. The project was promoted by Harry Truman's attorney general, Tom Clark, financed by major corporations, and packaged by movie and advertising executives. The mission was to demonstrate to one and all that America "was unified, consensual and inclusive"--or, in other words, a nation adhering to "the vital center," a term that would be coined by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1949. The launch was celebrated in Philadelphia to capitalize on the 160th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention, with an Independence Hall jamboree of patriotic songs and speeches broadcast on NBC. But though the train would chug on for sixteen months, it was nearly thrown off-track by one dispute after another. Some of the exhibition documents--including copies of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and of William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper The Liberator--were dumped. The Gettysburg Address survived the cut, but by being paired with an 1865 address by Robert E. Lee. Attempts to permit white and black viewers in the South to mix freely were met with resistance, with the consequence that at a few stops, the Emancipation Proclamation was exhibited to segregated audiences. Even the choice of "freedom" as a rubric was a carefully considered avoidance of the more contentious "democracy."

A decade later, just as Mayberry was being readied for prime time, fears of decline were ratcheting up further. Bipartisan panels of elite leaders convened by the Rockefeller brothers in the late fifties--ranging from liberal stalwarts like Adolf Berle and John Gardner to conservative grandees like Henry Luce and Henry Kissinger--published their collected findings in a 1961 report titled Prospect for America. "The number and the depth of the problems we face suggests that the very life of our free society may be at stake" was the opening sentence. This history has been either forgotten--or willfully blocked out--to such an extent that a period marked by rising civil-rights conflict is now routinely trotted out by some 2012 declinists as a Platonic baseline of American unity, centrism, and fairness against which today's America can be found so sorely wanting. That nostalgia for what never was tells us more about the roots of the current declinist panic than any of the pie charts and graphs used to track America's present statistical erosion.

The roots are, of course, just our Calvinism.  The fact that we are achingly aware that Eden lies in our past and not in our future has saved us from all kinds of utopian schemes.

But one does well not to take seriously the whingeing of folks who live in a comfort undreamt by their fathers.

Posted by orrinj at 6:44 PM


Posted by orrinj at 6:26 PM


Overcoming Assad's dark legacy (Deutsche Welle, 7/24/12)

[I]t remains uncertain whether a rebel victory would bring better times, for Syria will have to struggle with the legacy of the regime. Assad and his father have been in power for over 40 years. They both described themselves as secular, but that did not stop them filling key political, military, and economic positions with Alevi Muslims - the same Shiite minority that they belong to.

It's true that some members of the government came from the Sunni or Christian elites, but the center of power stayed firmly in Alevi hands. And the brutality with which they defended this position is likely to have woken a thirst for revenge among the regime's many enemies. Should the Assad regime fall, it is likely that there will be a few nights of bloody reprisals.

Margret Johannsen, political scientist at the University of Hamburg's Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (IFSH), says it is very likely that the violence will continue if and when Assad falls. She points out that the country is split along many ethnic and religious lines - a circumstance that will not be changed a successful coup.

If the Assad regime does fall, it would be crunch time for the two major opposition groups - the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the National Coordination Committee (NCC). These two blocs claim that together they control over 90 percent of Assad's opponents, and both have declared they will represent all of them, regardless of ethnic or religious background, if they get to form a new government.

An SNC spokesman - who wishes to remain anonymous - said the council intends to set up a government of national unity. He added that since administrative and government experience would be essential, the SNC would work together with representatives from the old regime - as long as they are not suspected of any crimes.

"We will not make the same mistake as in Iraq, namely allowing society to fracture again," the spokesman added. "We will avoid that mistake. If we keep to this plan, we will be sure of setting up a new government."

But bringing the population to put their trust in a national unity government is such an immense task that it would require no less than a cultural revolution. 

The mistake in Iraq, though noble, was to try to prevent fracture in hopes of instant revolution.
Posted by orrinj at 4:54 PM


Poll: Romney preferred over Obama to handle the economy (Susan Page, 7/24/12, USA TODAY)

Despite concerted Democratic attacks on his business record, Republican challenger Mitt Romney scores a significant advantage over President Obama when it comes to managing the economy, reducing the federal budget deficit and creating jobs, a national USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds.

Shouldn't that be, "thanks to Democrats' focus on the fact he's a successful businessman, Mr. Romney scores a significant advantage on handling the economy"?

Labor braces for attack should GOP sweep in November (Michael O'Brien, 7/24/12, NBC News)

 AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says he fears that Republicans would do to labor unions at a national level what they've sought achieve in the states should Mitt Romney win the presidency and the GOP control Congress come next January.

And Labor joins in to say he'll pass reforms like the ones Wisconsin just endorsed?

Posted by orrinj at 6:11 AM


A Parent Power Watershed : A judge lets parents pull the 'trigger' on a failing school. (WSH, 7/23/12)

 With a judge's ruling last week in Southern California, a group of parents has become the first in the country to take over their children's failing public school after pulling a "parent trigger."

California enacted this reform as an unprecedented accountability measure in 2010. It allows parents of children in persistently failing schools to force dramatic change through petition drives. If a majority of parents at a school sign a petition, they can close that school, shake up its staff, or convert it to a charter.

At least that's the idea. But implementing the law requires some minimum cooperation from the local school establishment, which in California has resisted parent trigger from day one. That's how the parents of Desert Trails Elementary School ended up in court. [...]

" As Judge Malone ruled, school officials can't disregard a trigger drive simply "because in their judgment, converting the school into a charter school is unwise, inappropriate, or unpopular with District employees or classroom teachers."

The ruling effectively hands Desert Trails to the parents, ordering the district out of their way as the judge says they can "immediately begin the process of soliciting and selecting charter school proposals." This represents a potentially revolutionary power shift. For all the PTA meetings and solemn assurances from superintendents and union leaders that parent input into public schools is sacred, the ability of parents to force change has typically been nil.

Posted by orrinj at 6:00 AM


Tour de France: Are drug-free cyclists slower? (Wesley Stephenson, 7/23/12, BBC News)

Dr Tucker says you can see a marked difference between today and the bad old days when there were no tests for blood doping or drugs such as EPO.

"In the late 1990s and early 2000s if you were going to be competitive and win the Tour de France you would have to be able to cycle between 6.4 and 6.7 watts per kilogram at the end of a day's stage.

"What we are seeing now, in the last three or four years, is that the speed of the front of the peloton [of] men like Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali, is about 10% down compared to that generation and now the power output at the front is about 6W/kg."

He says that they should actually be getting faster, not slower, because of advances in technology and sports science.

He thinks that what we are seeing now is a human race as opposed to the pharmaceutical races we saw in the past.

"The physiological implications of riding 6.5W/kg are for me, as a physiologist, beyond belief. What they are doing now is physiologically plausible."

Posted by orrinj at 5:57 AM


Letterman puts on a show in Mayor's Cup opener (Steve Virgen, 7/21/12, Daily Pilot)

Many people call Carson Letterman by his nickname, "Late Night."

He certainly put on a show on Saturday, this one coming on the mound and ending just before noon. He had an all-star lineup helping him out, but he was in the spotlight.

Letterman pitched a one-hitter with 11 strikeouts to lead the Costa Mesa National Little League Majors Division All-Stars to a 1-0 victory against Costa Mesa American in the first game of the best-of-three series to win the Mayor's Cup.

Posted by orrinj at 5:54 AM


Shaved Heads: Less Attractive But More Powerful: Toss the toupee: New research finds Americans associate shiny scalps with masculine dominance. (Tom Jacobs, 7/23/12, Pacific Standard)

Men: Do you want to project an aura of confidence, strength and overall masculinity? You could experiment with testosterone supplements, or study the swagger of Don Draper during a Mad Men marathon.
Or you could just shave your head.

Three newly published studies "provide consistent evidence that a shaved scalp is associated with dominance," according to Albert Mannes of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. Writing in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, he reports that, at least in U.S. culture, a lack of hair connotes a forceful, assertive personality.

Guys opt for the "shaved style" because "it looks sharp and intimidating," according to a style columnist for the Ask Men website. While "sharp" is in the eye of the beholder, Mannes' research suggests "intimidating" is right on the mark.

Posted by orrinj at 5:43 AM


A Surprisingly Long List of Everything Smartphones Replaced : Hundreds of dollars and as many pounds of goods supplanted, thanks to a single device. (CHRISTOPHER MIMS, July 22, 2012, Technology Review)

If you spent enough time in the dark ages before they were ubiquitous, you've probably got a sense of the sheer number of physical objects which your phone replaced. But have you ever tried listing all of them? You might be surprised at just how long that list can grow. Here's mine...