October 29, 2005

Peace and quiet in the suburbs

Unintentional irony award for the day goes to Bloomington resident, Tim Volk, quoted in the Star Tribune:

I think it's pretty loud. I was using my leaf blower and I could hear [the planes] over my leaf blower, and we know how loud those are.

So, the guy with the leaf blower is complaining about planes overhead ... Words fail me.

Posted by robe0419 at 5:31 PM

Plaming out

There's surely not much new that can be said about the 22 page indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

A correspondent of Andrew Sullivan's offers an analysis that seems persuasive, and highlights something that can be said in another way: these things—scandals, history more broadly—take some time to unfold. I wasn't around for Watergate, but let's look it up; E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy (not to be confused with his counterpart down the keyboard, Libby) were indicted in September 1972, and it took until August 1974 for Nixon to resign.

Like other investigations and scandals this one will wax and wane in the news cycle before it comes to its full conclusion.

Posted by robe0419 at 3:49 PM

October 27, 2005

Katherine Kersten's Korner

Don't read Katherine Kersten when someone else will do it for you!

In the interests of healthy political diversity I think it's important to read contrary opinions. Back in the day I used to pair The Spectator with The New Statesman in reading about British politics. I try to read George Will's column, though realizing that Will is not exactly representative of American conservatives today. I'll skim over Andrew Sullivan's blog sometimes.

One of the things that distinguishes Will and Sullivan is that they can write pretty well about interesting topics. Such is not the case with resident Star Tribune conservative, Katherine Kersten who mostly writes badly, and often essays on the mundane. Her columns are predictable in the worst way, never failing to advance a cliche where a new insight might have been possible. I feel sorry, really I do, for conservatives in Minnesota who have to put up with Kersten as their regular acknowledged local voice on the pages of the Star Tribune.

When she's not dull Kersten does provide moments of unintentional levity, and bizarre self-parody. Unfortunately to get to the comedy gold every fifth column or so, you have to read the dross.

But not anymore. Minnesota Politics blog now brings you Katherine Kersten's Korner: reading her so that you don't have to. It's good stuff.

Posted by robe0419 at 8:39 PM

October 25, 2005

Rosa Parks and Condi Rice

Ironic indeed that when a historic figure 92 years old dies in this day and age, that if you don't comment within 24 hours that you are left behind. I speak, of course, of Rosa Parks.

Others have more eloquently reminded us that Rosa Parks' actions were somewhat more organized protest than will be generally admitted today.

It's an interesting issue, and I'm not sure that it's specific to the civil rights movement, but I'll get to that in a moment.

As a general point, historians tend to over-emphasize the importance of organized social change. Organized groups leave records and appear before legislative committees, and send things to the newspapers to get them published. The changing of the minds of ordinary people, the sensibilities and opinions of the masses are less easily tracked, more easily overlooked.

When you turn to popular history and commonly held ideas about the past, I think that there's a bit of a tendency in American history for people to remember events as being more the lot of ordinary citizens standing up than organized groups orchestrating confrontations with what they oppose. The Boston Tea Party, for example, was more orchestrated than spontaneous, yet I would wager that most Americans think of it as the Sons of Liberty just getting fed up one day and smashing tea crates. It is just easier for most of us to remember historical events with a personal face, rather than an abstract organizational one.

It's not unique to the memory of the civil rights movement that people have a tendency to remember the personal actions, and slight the importance of organized groups. But you can add to this, I think, the general tendency in America—and other countries—to want a palatable history of one's country. It would be, it is, quite discomforting to think that until the civil rights movement organized and fought and suffered considerable violence against it, that the southern states of America were racist, only partially democratic, and that that political regime was enforced by violence widely—but not universally—supported by the white population. And if you want to push that analysis forward, the failure of the federal government to carry through the promises of the Civil War and the subsequent amendments to the Constitution, and dismantle the racist Southern political system, meant that America was not a truly democratic country. It's preferable for most people to think that this stain on democracy was small enough that small actions like a tired seamstress keeping her seat were enough to bring it down.

Thus, with Rosa Parks these two tendencies, first that we understand history through personal stories, and second the largely unconscious desire for a palatable history, reinforce the emphasis on her personal protest.

Moving right along from Rosa Parks to Condoleeza Rice. Profiles of Rice rarely fail to mention her proximity as a child to the events of the 1960s, and her childhood friendship with one of the girls killed in the Birmingham bombings. So it says something positive about the development of American politics that there is a Republican ginger group to nominate Rice for the presidency in 2008.

It would probably be a great thing for American gender and racial politics if a single, childless, black woman who is interested in classical music and has a PhD could be the Republican candidate for president. But I really doubt it will happen.

Rice has shown no inclination to run for any offices outside the confines of the university. Her national political offices have all been appointive ones. Very few people in this day and age start their elective political careers by running for President, and fewer still by winning that office.

Of course there are exceptions, like Dwight Eisenhower, but Eisenhower had successfully prosecuted the Allied campaign in Europe on the ground. This has more electoral appeal than being one of the desk-bound architects of the American debacle in Iraq.

While it is more likely that the first black president and the first female president will be Republicans, it won't be Condoleeza Rice. Her biography seems impressive, but it isn't the biography of someone who is going to go out and put together a winning campaign for president.

Posted by robe0419 at 8:36 PM

October 24, 2005

On America's pastime

A couple of quick thoughts on the World Series.

(1) Instant replays don't solve all problems. They've had them in cricket for years, decades, since the last century, and there are still many occasions when the benefit of the doubt has to go to the batter. When in doubt, not out. This isn't to say that instant replays are a bad idea, they're probably a good one, unless you hold to some romantic notion that sports should never adopt new technology. But just so we all have our expectations in the right place. Americans place a lot of faith in technology resolving social problems. Sometimes that is misplaced faith.

(2) Salon also links to these nifty state-by-state poll results showing people's responses to the question, "Which team will win the World Series?" Now, I think it's interesting that in Minnesota and the Dakotas, Ohio, and Kansas—the home of three of four of the White Sox' Central division rivals—predict relatively strongly that the Astros will win. Whereas in Missouri, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania—the home of three of five of the Astro's Central division rivals—there is strong support for the White Sox to win the World Series. Kentucky and West Virginia, close to the Cincinnati Reds also in the Central Division, also pick the White Sox, if only narrowly. Illinois, of course, plumps 70 to 30 in predicting the White Sox will win.

My point is that there seems to be some evidence that a lot of people may be responding to a slightly different question, and picking that their divisional rivals will lose.

I think this is nuts. It looks way better for the Twins' season if the White Sox win, because then the Twins lost to the champion. If the Astros win, then you have to say that the Twins lost to the losing team in the World Series. Much better to console yourself with the thought that your team lost to the World Champions.

Posted by robe0419 at 5:32 PM

October 21, 2005


Why is it so hard to find a road race longer than 5km after mid-September in this town?

This marathon. And this kind of weather, on average.

But the Chicago marathon is October 22 next year, two weeks later than it has been the last few years. That is good news.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:51 PM

Don't you know there's a war on?

Remember when Afghanistan was the forgotten war? Now Iraq is in danger of being the forgotten war. Ironically, if there are indictments in the Plame affair, there will be even less chance that the minds of the country from the presidency to the poorest will focus on what is to be done in Iraq.

Matthew Yglesias and Sam Rosenfeld have an excellent article in the American Prospect about the lessons to be drawn from the Iraq war. Don't do it again is the short version.

But what to do now? The money that's been poured in (put on the national credit card) so far has been sunk. It doesn't affect what we should do now. There's a good argument that withdrawing American troops now is the least worst option. But although the war is becoming a debacle, and although that is more widely acknowledged, substantial numbers of American troops will remain in Iraq, largely forgotten, for a decade or more. The American body politic would rather sacrifice more soldiers than admit a mistake, and minimize the future damage to the treasury and the nation.

Posted by robe0419 at 2:24 PM

October 20, 2005

Welcome to Wisconsin

This road sign, at mile 43 on I-94, just near Menomonie (WI) has always struck me as interesting.

Make of it what you will.

Posted by robe0419 at 2:13 PM

October 19, 2005

Baumol's disease and the historian in the archives

Matthew Yglesias and Fontana Labs discuss how the price of higher education just keeps going up, and wonder when the thin reed that is middle class parent's finances will break, and they'll all send their kids to the University of Phoenix.

In general this phenomena is known as "Baumol's disease," (James Surowiecki has a good introduction here), and it's particularly relevant that the industries afflicted—health care and education—have a large extent of government funding, even in the United States.

I tend to think that part of the problem is that "productivity" in these fields is difficult to measure. If you measure productivity in education by the number of children in a classroom, well, yes, that's not going to rise if you want to keep class sizes small. But to stick with education for the moment, if your measurement of productivity is "knowledge acquired," well there have been an awful lot of improvements in productivity in education and health care in the past century. Calculus, for example, was once a subject reserved for Masters students taught individually or small (2-3) groups of students, now it's introduced at the junior year of high school. Similarly, in health care, if you measure patients treated per hour by a doctor, well sure, there has been little improvement over the years. But the productivity of a doctor's time has increased markedly over the century, thanks to improved drugs etc.

I might be reading Baumol wrong, but the problem with his analysis seems to be that he focuses on productivity measured in units of output: patients seen, children taught in a classroom, for example. But is this the appropriate measure of productivity in health or education? I think not.

Health outcomes are difficult to measure, but there are better measures of productivity in health care than patients seen, such as years of healthy life added, mortality or morbidity avoided etc. In education, the pupils are themselves an input to what is being produced, so it's not clear to me that it's appropriate to count them as an output too.

I was thinking of these issues just last week at the National Archives, where I was photographing 9000 pages of surveys from the 1920s. It's great that the National Archives allow you to do your own copying, and don't charge for you it, because if I had to photocopy all those pages it would have cost about $1500 and I would have boxes and boxes of paper that is easy to lose. The digital camera could make some fundamental changes to the way historians approach archival visits, allowing us to "hit" the archives, copy what we need quickly, and then go analyze it at home. Clearly this wouldn't work for all historical research, including parts of my own, but a lot of trips could be shortened this way.

The laptop too, by speeding up note-taking and making it more legible, has also improved historians' productivity in the archives. But really the method of history is little changed since Ranke. For the most part we sit there and we read.

As any historian whose work covers the turn of the twentieth century will tell you, the productivity of reading for research increases markedly when the costs of printing and typewriters came down. It really is incredible how much more quickly you can do research with printed compared to hand-written sources. But whether this compensates for the increase in the volume of material that can be read is debatable. In short, the productivity of historians will always be limited by the speed with which they can read, and then the speed with which they can think and write.

In research as in teaching, Baumol's disease is apparent. Yet productivity is not just measured in units of physical output. It is also measured in the value of the thing produced. At least in the case of health care and teaching the marginal value of labor may well be increasing, as better health and more knowledge are produced in the same amount of time. Moreover, if people are prepared to pay for the output of these services, and pay increasing amounts over time, then the marginal value product of labor in services can also increase.

By this point, if not way, way earlier I've probably lost most of my audience [Earlier. Much, much earlier. -ed.] But my point is this -- the productivity of labor intensive service occupations like teaching, research, and health care has increased through the application of technology and should continue to do so over time. Even the humble blog has contributed to this; as I've mentioned before, in the not so distant past if I'd wanted to share my thoughts with the world I would have had to print this out, and then send it to people I thought I might be interested. Now I can publish it for all to see, whether that is 1 or 100 people.

Posted by robe0419 at 3:27 PM

October 18, 2005

Fort Snelling/Minnehaha Park warning

UPDATE: 2 November 2005 Via email from the Minneapolis police the news that this was a hoax: "Minneapolis Police have announced that the reported sexual assault of a woman at gunpoint in the Minnehaha Off-Leash Dog Park on Oct. 17 was unfounded. The woman told officers today that the crime had not occurred." Good news.

FYI for those readers who frequent the trail that runs between Minnehaha Park and Fort Snelling (on the route of the old Minnesota Central line).

It's not in the papers as far as I can tell, but apparently yesterday at 8.30am (17 October) a woman riding a bike alone was forced off her bike at gunpoint by a white man in a blue jacket, dragged into the woods, beaten and raped. According to the notice that was posted at the head of the trail (Minnehaha Park end) the man hasn't been apprehended.

I learnt of this after running up the trail and coming across two police cars parked a short way from the entrance. The notice that has been posted to warn people of what happened says something like "Attention Women," which is appropriate in as far as sexual assaults like this are predominantly directed against women. But it sure got my attention as well.

{Update: Reported on WCCO's website}

Posted by robe0419 at 3:45 PM

October 13, 2005

Notes on the state of Virginia

With apologies to Thomas Jefferson for being much less erudite under the title he coined.

Well, first up, do they ever speak funny down there. And so do I, of course. Many episodes of mutual incomprehension while speaking the same language.

The first thing I saw when I stopped for dinner was this sticker on a car.

Think about it for a moment ...

I was down in the Old Dominion to do a 20 mile run, the Stonewall Jackson Ambulance Run. Good event. Well organized, nice up and down course, and a solid 20 miler on the roads. If you're going to race a road marathon you face a dilemma -- you want to practice running on the surface you will race on, but if you run too much on the tarmac your risk of a stress fracture or whatever goes up. Not so good. I lucked out—in the New Zealand sense of getting bad luck—with the weather: four days out the forecast was for calm and 45 degrees, a sort of distance running ideal. What we got was 73 degrees, a 69 degree dewpoint and hours of rain that varied from the misting to torrential. Not quite the same as 45 degrees and calm.

I took the opportunity to have a gander round the Fredericksburg area after the race. In this endeavor I was transported by a car that is, in fact, worse than the Chevy Classic, I derided just last month. I speak of the Chevy Cobalt.

Even less acceleration than its stablemate, a rear window that difficult to see out of, large blind spots ... But it did have this cool feature I'd never seen before. Perhaps I just haven't been around long enough.

Northern Virginia is an interesting place for the suburban sprawl that is occurring on top of Civil War battlefields. Thus you see scenes like this:

Yes, yes, that's Jefferson Davis Highway outside the anonomall. Now, you could make the argument that commerce cures old war wounds, and all this is well and good, building over the scars of the past. That might me true. But I was put in mind of the argument that Tony Horwitz makes in Confederates in the Attic: that the South still hasn't really accepted that it lost the war. When you get right down to it the South was fighting to preserve slavery, and there's not a lot of glory in remembering that. It's necessary and right to remember the war, and preserve parts of its history -- the parks that now sit on old battlefields seem appropriate. But naming a highway after someone—in this case US 1—seems like a commemoration of what they did. Not so good.

At least it was reasonably clear what the Civil War was about. Now we have a war in Iraq where it's not clear what the objective is, and what the troops are doing there. Nevertheless we should support them according to Budget Rent-a-Car who adorned the windows of all their cars in the National Airport lot with these stickers.

The quibbler in me wanted to point out that by national affiliation they're not my troops, though I am paying some amount in taxes for their upkeep. It's true that supporting the troops should be a rather anodyne, apolitical opinion, but these yellow stickers have been rather commonly linked to support of the Republican Party. Surely they know that at Budget?

The rain kept teeming down all day, so I sought out indoor activities, including the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library. It's a little more modest than the modern presidential museums and libraries, but then James Monroe did not die a wealthy man or fundraise for his library.

Soaked from the rain and tired of repeating everything I said I bade farewell to James Monroe and drove the lawnmowerChevy Cobalt back to D.C.

Posted by robe0419 at 8:51 PM

October 11, 2005

Local man guilty

Saturday's Washington Post featured this rather Onionesque caption to a picture, accompanying a sad article about a cat being stamped to death.

All the story lacked was the headline "Local man found guilty" to complete the resemblance to "America's Finest News Source".

In case the link to the article doesn't work here (page 1, page 2) are images of the paper version.

Posted by robe0419 at 7:08 AM

October 5, 2005

New job for Michael Brown

I guess disgraced former FEMA director, Michael Brown, whose previous job was at the International Arabian Horse Association could stick around for this show.

(Brown's FEMA biography has not yet been erased from the FEMA website. An archived PDF copy is here)

Posted by robe0419 at 9:50 PM

October 4, 2005

Still not quite there

This was the fourth election under MMP, and the New Zealand media still have a little way to go in understanding it.

Jim Sutton, Labour's Minister for Trade Negotiations and Agriculture lost his electorate seat at the election by about 6,000 votes. Interestingly, the party vote in this partly rural South Island electorate only went to National by about 900 votes, which should give some pause to the notion that there was a big city-country divide.

Now there's all kinds of talk that Sutton might lose his seat in Cabinet because he lost his electorate. To which I say, huh??

No one has questioned Sutton's capability as a Minister, a role in which he's advanced New Zealand's interests by negotiating several free trade agreements (Chile, Singapore), helped keep up the pressure on the protectionist EU and United States to liberalize trade, and done a good job in managing Labour's relationship with the agricultural sector. He's not the most dynamic member of parliament, and he will probably never be leader, but he's been a competent, diligent Minister in a government that has had some less than competent and diligent Ministers.

Whether or not he wins his electorate is immaterial to those qualifications for being in Cabinet.

Moreover, with his opponent, Jo Goodhew—by all accounts a capable and personable candidate—ranked 31 on National's list, while Sutton was 11th on Labour's, there was plenty of incentive for people in the electorate to vote tactically and get both Sutton and Goodhew into Parliament.

It also bears mentioning that Marian Hobbs—one of the few Labour MPs to massively boost her electorate majority, and Labour's share of the party vote in Wellington Central—has stepped down from Cabinet. That should make it a little clearer that electorate votes don't translate into Cabinet selection.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:47 PM

October 3, 2005

Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins

Back in March the history and literary blogs were busy discussing the case of Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins, a relatively obscure writer often identified as African-American, but who may have been white, according to the research of Holly Jackson at Brandeis.

Jackson did not mention any trace of Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins (EDKH) in the 1870 or 1880 censuses, and I did not find any potential matches in the 1880 census database, when searching with the assumption that she was named something resembling Emma Hawkins.

Somehow my post on this topic gets high ranking in Google, so it has attracted some comment, including one that should get more notice (scroll down to the comments by Neil).

In 1870 EDKH was living with her mother, sisters and grandmother, after her father had died. Then in 1880, she was living with her mother and sisters. Because her mother was enumerated under her maiden name, Quincy, Emma does not appear as a "Kelley" in these censuses.

Emma and her family are enumerated as white in both 1870 and 1880. I will just reiterate what I wrote back in March, that always being described as white is good evidence of being white, whatever meaning you want to ascribe to "being" and "white."

Posted by robe0419 at 10:16 AM

High variation

The story of the weather in Minnesota is not so much the average, but the variation. Almost every April and October there is a week where it varies more in 7 days than it ever did in Wellington in a normal year.

This is that week: 85° for today, and snow by Wednesday here in Minneapolis. I could lose three fingers and still be able to count on that hand the number of times it snowed during my Wellingtonian childhood. It once hit 30°C in twenty years living there.

Posted by robe0419 at 9:34 AM

"Interesting" things

The Star Tribune had an article from New Zealand yesterday. It makes the country seem a little quaint, but also note the possibly Midwestern use of the word interesting:

Britain's Prince Andrew faced a knotty problem Saturday at the unveiling of a sculpture in New Zealand.

The prince was asked to say something about the sculpture commemorating the links between New Zealand and England when he looked back at a tangled knot of gray rods behind him.

"This sculpture is, um, interesting,'' Andrew said. "Having looked at it now...''

The rest of his words were drowned out by laughter from the crowd ....

The sculpture commemorated the 200th anniversary of the death of Admiral Horatio Nelson at the historic Battle of Trafalgar.

Up the republic!

Posted by robe0419 at 9:27 AM