Monthly Archives: January 2009

My brief summary and review of A World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Gödel and Einstein by Palle Yourgrau, who believes many modern philosophers are complete dicks to Gödel and that he should be appreciated more, this being Yourgrau’s second book attempting to remedy that.

Time may be an illusion, and lunch time may be doubly so, but Gödel should have eaten lunch anyway.

(It was good.)

Body hacking of another kind: Learning to work out with a cervical spinal injury.

Last year I was diagnosed with disk disease in my cervical spine, aka the neck. At least one disk is herniated (poking into the actual spinal cord) and the other ones aren’t looking too keen either. On top of that I was dealing with a crush of the ulnar nerve through the elbow, which might have been related to the neck injury as well. It caused pain and headaches the likes of which I’d never imagined, plus some loss of fine motor control in my hands- not fun for a writer.

Note the serrations in my spinal cord and the lack of curvature in my pine.

Note the "serrations" in my spinal cord and the lack of curvature in my neck. Ow.

This year I am recovering, and for the first time in a long time I can exercise and do rehabilitation, a process I will document here.

First off, there is something I am not going to do for a long time, if ever again. For a while my main workout was Krav Maga, which I loved doing. But Krav is dangerous and violent, and my neck is still in no shape to take those kind of risks. It was the best work out of my life, and I miss it.

What I can do is build up pretty much every muscle in my body that doesn’t cause me neck pain to work on. I had my first meeting with Winston, my personal trainer on the 15th. We did arms, legs, and plank for core. He tried to get me to do a sit up, I flatly refused- I can’t do them without hurting my neck. He also tried to do some stretching and decompressing of my neck by basically pulling on my head very carefully. This backfired a bit and gave me some headaches. But we have another appointment on the 2nd, and he plans to talk to a more experienced physical therapist about how best I can work around my vague disability.

That’s my main take away: get help and complain a lot. If it hurts, don’t do it, and let the PT know.

This idea of exercise as body hacking departs from my own, but I can see its validity. In fact, I was very touched by a post in 2007 where a physical therapist decided to post a top five body hacks list after seeing my presentation. There is a certain magical quality to attention, and when it’s paid to the body, it can teach you much about yourself as well as making you stronger.

Looking back to Obama’s night

I have recently returned from the inauguration, but this was written the night he was elected. I am running behind, but more on understanding implications than just writing.

Nov. 5/6

Mccain conceded before the polls closed in Alaska or Hawaii; Obama gave his acceptance speech, and the honking and shouting in Cambridge, Massachusetts began. By 1am something frenetic was beginning to sizzle in the air. I walk down Mass Ave to Harvard Square. Encountering a jubilant group of well muscled students, my first (clearly compulsory) high five feels like it’s going to take off my right shoulder.

Cars go by honking, each with their own tattoo, a couple with a kind of car alarm like regularity. Then a Cambridge night bus goes by, driver pounding out his own song oblivious to any political sanctity of municipal on-the-clock time. Something is starting, and no one is starting it. My own footsteps take on a kind of involuntary musicality. I am happy, an infectious almost involuntary kind of happy, coming on like getting damp in a growing rainstorm. Everything around me is getting more musical.

Harvard Square is packed. Whoo hoo! woah! honk! Then the Yes we Cans begin, mixed with some yes we dids. (I thought it was the earliest concession speech of my life; my mom confirmed she was pretty sure it was the earliest of hers too.) People are feeling powerful, filling the streets and climbing the street furniture, dripping from the fences and climbing over each other, still waving campaign signs. Yes we did.

Pretty soon they are chanting Obama! Obama! But no cry lasts for long against the general exuberance. There is no rally here, no event, not even a party.

This is a riot of happy.

It was, said one bemused cop who was vaguely stopping anyone from heading even deeper into Harvard Square, like when the Red Socks won the World Series. “Did you expect this?” He snorted. “We probably should have.” What we didn’t know at the time was that this involved a lot more of the world than the World Series generally does. Pictures and videos were rolling in of spontaneous happy riots breaking out all over the US, all over the world. They were dancing in the streets in Canada, Jubilant in Europe, singing in Brazil. Everyone owned this election, even if just a little bit. A lot of the world was exhaling in relief. It’s more than relief here, something has broken free, and is riding the crowd every bit as much as the crowd is riding it.

They are happy when they block traffic. They are thrilled when they let it through. The price of getting through: you have to high five everyone beside your car. Another nightbus comes by, empty, to outrageous applause. All this goes for the police as well. An old grizzled black Cambridge policeman missing his front teeth demonstrates an almost magical power to move the crowd around by high fiving people and shouting “Yes we can!” with an honest if dual-purposed glee. He waves people back and frees up the road, while they stumble over each other to come high five him.

Yes we did! Yes we did!

As I walked into Harvard square a middle aged black man in a tatty suit jacket stopped me. He stopped me in particular because I had to know, he had to make me know something.

“I’m going to be a better man from today,” he explained in a thick accent, “I’m not going to cheat on my wife anymore.”

I laughed. I always laugh when a) surprised and b) buying time to make out people’s accents. He didn’t give up on me. “I’m telling you!”

“Yeah? Can I take your picture?”

In fact he wants the moment recorded for posterity, the birth of the new man. He wants the big glowing clock in the background to record the moment. He grabs a random stranger to be part of the picture, pressing him into his story rebirth from cynicism and lying into loyalty, but not actually telling him. They grin, I snap.

He’d cried three times that night, he’d told me. He hadn’t cried since his father died. Unsure what one says when the election of the first black president of the United States of America and a man so eloquent and inspiring as to put to shame two generations worth to come before him, who is overturning perhaps one of the most terrible and hated regimes of the post WWII western world reduces a middle aged black immigrant not only to sobbing but to a kind of religious remaking of character, I settle for “Wow.”

I cried when my father died too, but I also cry at particularly well produced 30 second ad spots. I didn’t cry Obama Night.

“I’ll be a better man,” he tells me again, clearly on his way to cry number four. We melted into the crowd and don’t see each other again.

Why didn’t I cry? I was still ineptly hiding my blubbering on my 4th viewing of the More Perfect Union speech. I care about race, I care about history. All the things that were moving people that night to hug and cry and whoop and honk were things that matter to me a lot, but not a tear. Nothing I can say about what happened in Harvard Square on Obama Night doesn’t sound like the Obama campaign, and that bothers me. I can say it was the kind of hope that hearing about the cure for a disease brings. Hope! Ew! I can say it wasn’t about Obama it was about the people making something different happen by their force of will, but Obama says that! No fair! If the Obama campaign detected what was out on the street and cynically used it to get elected, well, bugger.

But I’m not sure if what I saw out there will let him. There’s an old story about a group of people getting in to see FDR and laying out a proposal. It impressed him, and he advised them “Now go out there and force me to do it.” Politicians are subject to the occult forces of societies. The demons of our collective moods possess them, and the best can mold their possession into something history judges kindly, but they certainly don’t defy it. Whatever strange spirit was traveling around Harvard square wasn’t summoned by the people, it was riding them, it is riding America, not the other way around. I wonder how much the next administration can resist, and how much it would be at their peril.

By late in the evening, people have worked out how to play the car horn. Someone is honking with their own unique stuttering song. Da a a aa da da. Da a a aa da da. Da a a aa da da.

An Iraqi man grabs me from the crowd to take his picture, pointing at a button on his chest that says “Iraqis for Obama”, he asks me to not put his face in the picture. I pause. “I don’t think it matters anymore.” We both hesitate, realizing that really, something has changed. I take the picture, button, hands, and face.

What Happened: The Problem with Journalism

I just finished Scott McClellan’s What Happened about his time in the White House and as the press secretary for the Bushies. It portrays McClellan as pretty much exactly the person I imagined him to be. Also, not a work of literature.

But when he talked about the state of political journalism he hit his stride, and a lot of what he said is worth keeping to hand:

To this day, I’m often asked about the “liberal media” critique. Is it true? Is the problem with Washing ton in part a result of the fact that left-wing journalist are, in effect, at war with conservative politicians and trying to bring them down?

My answer is always the same. It’s probably true that most reporters, writers, and TV journalists are personally liberal or leftward leaning and tend to vote Democratic. Polls and surveys of media professional bear this out. But this tilt to the left has probably become less pronounced in recent years, with the ascendancy of a wider variety of news sources, including Fox news, demonstrating the popularity and therefore commercial viability of conservative views. And more important, everything I’ve seen both as a White House press secretary and longtime observer of the political scene and the media, suggests that any liberal bias actually has minimal impact on the way the American public is informed.

The vast majority of reporters- including those in the White House press corps- are honest, fair-minded, and professional. They try hard to tell all sides of the stories they report, and they certainly don’t treat information or statements coming from a conservative administration with excessive harshness or exaggerated skepticism. And even when a bit of bias does seep through, I believe the public sees it exactly for what it is. We in the Bush administration had no difficulty in getting our messages out.

If anything, the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House and to the administration in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during my years in Washington,the choice over whether to go to was in Iraq. The collapse of the administration’s rationales for war, which became apparent months after our invasion, should never have come as a surprise. The public should have been made much more aware, before the fact, of those uncertainties, doubts, and caveats that underlay the intelligence about the regime of Saddam Hussein. The administration did little to convey those nuances to the people; the press should have picked up the slack but largely failed to do so because their focus was elsewhere- on covering the march to war, instead of the necessity of war.

In this case, the “liberal media” didn’t live up to its reputation. If it had the country would have been better served.

I’ll even go a step further. I’m inclined to believe that a liberal-oriented media n the United States should be viewed as a good thing. When I look back at the last several presidential administrations- the two Bushes, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford- I see a succession of conservative/centrist leaders. either right of center or just left of center, who pursued mainstream policies designed to satisfy the vast bulk of middle-class American voters. All of these presidents were at least moderate on economic policy, generally pro-business in their orientation, and within the mainstream on most other issues, from foreign policy to education to the environment. And the congressional leaders they worked with were, generally speaking, from the same mold- conservative or centrist. Over the past forty years, there have been no flaming liberals in positions of greatest power in American politics.

Under these circumstance, a generally liberal or left-leaning media can serve an important, useful role. It can stand up for the interests of people and causes that get short shrift from conservative or mainstream politics: racial and ethnic minorities, women, working people, the poor, the disenfranchised. As the old saying goes, a liberal reporter ought to take up the cause of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable,” speaking out on issues that otherwise would be neglected or ignored, exposing wrongdoing, and helping to keep the powerful in government and business honest.

Furthermore, I welcome a media that are skeptical and untrusting. The more so the better- as long as they are honest and fair. Those who are in positions of power should have to continually earn the trust of the governed. They should be constantly challenged to prove their policies are right, to prove they can be trusted, and to prove they are accountable. That is the way we are more likely to get to the important, sometimes hard truths. In today’s information-based society, if a media outlet or journalist goes overboard they will pay the price… (bit about Dan Rather) …

So I don’t agree with those who excoriate the “liberal media.” As long as they do their job professionally, I have no problem with liberal reporters, and I certainly dealt with them happily enough as press secretary. The real problem with the national media is the over emphasis on controversy, the excessive focus on who is winning and who is losing in Washington, and the constant search for something or someone to pick on and attack. These bad habits too often cause the larger truths that matter most to get lost in the mix.

Any and all typos are mine, all mine.

He’s quite right that there isn’t actually much evidence of a liberal bias. Most actual studies that have gone by in my time as a journalist have indicated something more like conservative bias in political reporting. Of course these things are impossible to measure realistically, because someone has to pick the center in order to figure out which side of center something is, and the political center is the ultimate subjective quality in the universe.

I do think conservative views get taken more seriously, and that once a voice is established, reporting doesn’t know how to get away from it. Journalists tend to develop a self reinforcing list of experts. When you do an interview you want someone gloriously authoritative, so some of that can rub off on your reporting. Once someone is interviewed, they have more of that prestige, and it becomes harder to get away from them. That’s how we ended up listening to the same idiocies about the war in iraq and the mortgage market, to name a couple, over and over again, then had to hear the same people come back years later to say no one could have foreseen what was coming.

What was coming was painfully obvious.

I think when McClellan says “They try hard to tell all sides of the stories they report,” he’s actually talking about the false balance problem, which worked out well for him, but makes me want to beat my head against my desk. False balance is like watching someone make terrible algebra mistakes through a one way mirror. A balanced report about the state of, say, vote fraud would define it, and then tell you who is doing it. If one side is stuffing ballots or purging voter rolls and the other isn’t, that’s what you say. You explain the context of the fraud, and the history that lead to it. Balance in this case comes from investigating all sides.

False balance is much less work. Once you have a story on one side, you look for something, anything, related on the other. It’s different from trying to find the same thing on the other side, but you have to notice that you changed the meaning of what you’re talking about to catch false balance happening.

You write them up as equivalent, claim the story is about one thing even though it’s truly about two things, and go home early. This is how bad voter registration cards becomes the same thing as ballot stuffing or voter purges. If you actually sit back and think about it, voter reg cards are no where near the stories that purges or ballot stuffing are, because they don’t involve actual voting.

If Mickey Mouse showed up on election day- that would be a story.

False Balance means you don’t have to dig around as much, and even better, no one yells at you.

That gets to the other thing I think McClellan missed in this analysis. People don’t like getting yelled at and punished, and the severity of the punishment doesn’t actually make that much of a difference in how hard people try to avoid it. I think this resulted in a much more cowed and self censoring media over the last eight years. It’s very similar to what we talk about happening in the repressive Chinese media environment- say the wrong thing and you get a phone call no one wants to get. Here, it came with nasty phone calls and public shaming. The ultimate threat in China was being taken away in the middle of the night. Here it’s losing access to sources. Turns out the Chinese may have been trying too hard- you can get most of the compliance you want with a well placed cold shoulder. This is pretty in line with what we know about the psychology of social defection. People don’t want to do it, and that’s all it takes to game the media.

But McClellan’s vision of a good journalist as (these days) being liberal, afflicting the powerful and constantly making the government prove itself goes to the heart of the social contract of the press. Our checks and balances lie in being contrarians. The center and the right should have faced a liberal media for 40 years. And Hugo Chávez should face a conservative media. We’re supposed to be pains in the ass with very harsh ethical standards to obey.

The other thing McClellan nails is the loss of perspective that comes from increasingly inside baseball reporting. News stories going in depth on polls are kind of ridiculous. A report on how progress is going on an attempt to get people to react to something rather than how they are reacting is so conceptually convoluted and naval gazing I might have to have a lie down. Hence things like “covering the march to war, instead of the necessity of war.”

Completely separate from journalism one other thing about the book struck me. McClellan does a spirited endorsement of school busing when talking about his own childhood in Texas. Listening to it I couldn’t help but think, where was the Republican conservatism in this? I noticed after that every time he expressed his values he completely failed to sound Republican. His political values were totally out of line with the people he served and what he was accomplishing. People constantly end up this deep in structures without noticing that kind of thing. It’s kind of Milgram but with cocktail parties.

The entirely of What Happened can also be read as one huge positive book review for a book called The Permanent Campaign and Its Future which seems to have been quite the come to Jesus for McClellan. And yeah, now I kind of want to read that book. So What Happened was a pretty successful book review, laid out in the patterns of the suffering Scott McClellan along the rest of the nation.

A blog? A blog.

I began blogging (pitifully without software) just a touch under 10 years ago. After moving on to terrible software, I continued until it seemed that blogging had conquered the world. Eventually, I even moved to adequate software. Then, a year and a half ago, I deleted everything and my online presence went largely dark. I wanted more peace and quiet, and it’s a decision I have never regretted. My blogging was always highly personal- I even nominally blogged the birth of my child– and that had become stressful.

This blog will not, for the most part, be about me. Though I may occasionally fail to resist the urge to complain about bad customer service.