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Archive for June, 2010

After This, Hopefully the Yankees Will be a Little Less Timid About Spending Money to Attract Free Agents

[ 1 ] June 30, 2010 |

Shorter Verbatim Jay Nordlinger: “I think many of my conservative colleagues are far too gingerly when it comes to liberal media bias. Far too timid, delicate, and forgiving.” I can’t wait for Nordlinger’s follow-up about how the Azzuri are just too timid about trying to get fouls called in their favor by exaggerating or inventing contact…


What I’ll Be Reading on the Plane to Thailand

[ 3 ] June 30, 2010 |

I’ll be mostly off the grid traveling for the next two and half weeks, and I want to thank LGM readers for your many suggestions as to what I should take with me – a comments thread that is printed and archived in my trip folder for consideration as a I browse the airport B&N.

I have decided on one book I’m definitely taking with however – and it’s not even a paperback: Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do by Albert Laszlo Barabasi.

Barabasi first captured my imagination with his book Linked, a lay person’s guide to network science, and his new book is said to extend his analytical vision through time as well as space. His argument – drawing as usual on wide swaths of interdisciplinary science plus fascinating historical and current events anecdotes – is that “we work and fight and play in short flourishes of activity followed by next to nothing: our daily pattern isn’t random, it’s ‘bursty.'”

But what I’m in it for is not his findings but his methodology: Barabasi has developed this theory by culling data from our digital lives. “Mobile phones, the Internet, and email have made human activities more accesible to quantitative analysis, turning our society into a huge research laboratory. All those electronic trails of time-stamped texts, voice-mails, and searches add up to a previously unavailable massive data set that tracks our movements, our decisions, our lives. Analysis of these trails is offering deep insights into the rhythm of how we do everything.” I’ll be interested to see how he converts that mass of data into an argument, and I’ll be interested to see if I buy it.


The Latest Kagan Non-Scandal

[ 14 ] June 30, 2010 |

For the reasons cited by Barbara, this would-be Elena Kagan “scandal” about changed wording in an American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists position paper — being promoted by the likes of world’s-phoniest-“libertarian” Glenn Reynolds — is a complete joke. There’s no contradiction between the two drafts, because D&X abortions are, in fact, not medically necessary in a majority of cases. But this fact doesn’t mean that they are never medically necessary, and indeed the original statement implies that there are cases where D&X abortions are necessary or preferable for a protecting a woman’s health. Adding a statement to clarify what was implicit in the first draft doesn’t “distort” anything, and of course if ACOG didn’t think the statement was accurate Kagan had no power to get them to change it. There’s nothing here.

And since the only point of this feeble “smoking gun” is to allow Senate Republicans to mention the phrase “partial birth abortion” a lot, I should note once again that for reasons Judge Posner and Justice Stevens have explained the entire issue is a farce. The distinction between D&X abortions and other abortion procedures is wholly arbitrary, and for people who have supported irrational laws making such a distinction to pretend to care about rigorous medical science is nothing but comedy of the lowest form.

The Kagan farce

[ 5 ] June 30, 2010 |

The ritual of the Kagan hearings makes for a disgusting spectacle, but hey, Bismark, sausage, whatever.

Oh, Dusty…

[ 13 ] June 29, 2010 |

So, you’re down 6-3 in the bottom of the 6th inning.  Your starting pitcher has given up all six of those runs, and his spot comes up with two outs and a man on second.  Do you pinch hit for him?  If you let him hit, do you then replace him to start the 7th?  If your Dusty Baker, the answers are “No,” and “Of course.”

Keep trying

[ 22 ] June 29, 2010 |

Jeffrey Goldberg is evidently insisting — with the dubious aid of Eli Lake and evidence to the contrary — that Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda once had a “potentially meaningful relationship.” By the same token, I should note that I once had a “potentially meaningful relationship” with Kristi Yamaguchi, whom I sat next to on a 45-minute flight from Roanoke to Pittsburgh in December 1994. We chatted politely for several minutes before she realized that we shared nothing in common. She’d never read The Genealogy of Morals (which I was staring at to blunt my aerophobia), and I’d never read whatever she happened to be carrying; she slept, and I spent the next half hour wondering who’d feed my cats when our plane left a small crater on the side of a mountain. Every knowledgeable expert agrees that we never met again. However, I would like to believe that our relationship “was more like the relationship between rival Colombian cocaine cartels,” and — notwithstanding her later support for Mitt Romney — I would be much obliged if a handful of true believers would continue to argue that we were quite happy during the years we spent together.

Culture War!

[ 17 ] June 29, 2010 |

Actually, that’s not true. Indeed, I should emphasize that this is not an anti-soccer post; it is an “anti-using egregious cherry-picking to exaggerate the popularity of soccer as a spectator sport in the United States” post. Not only because the claims are empirically erroneous, but because who cares? The whole genre of writing that involves obsessing over how many people like the sports you like is just bizarre.

UPDATE: I should add that my “cherry picking” comment is not directed so much at Tim, whose claims are pretty reasonable, but more at the much stronger claims being made by the people Chait is engaging with.

Things I Miss About My Home Country

[ 0 ] June 29, 2010 |

The Montreal Jazz Festival. Also, this is more about “French” than “Canadian,” but sweetbreads are awesome. For Upstate New Yorkers, I especially recommend the Egyptian-style ones prepared here. (Nancy’s post was poignant for me because it was Stuart who introduced me to this particular delicacy…)

Only an Englishman Can Lead England?

[ 15 ] June 29, 2010 |

One difference between England and the USA when it comes to their respective soccer sides is that whenever England crash out of a tournament instead of winning it (the latter is the expectation), it leads to national soul-searching and finger pointing (whereas the Americans yawn and turn to NASCAR).  Head coach Fabio Capello has been the target of choice.  Just a couple weeks before the tournament began, the English FA removed an escape clause from Capello’s contract that allowed them to sack him without penalty following the World Cup.  Yet now, they’ve given Capello two weeks to learn whether or not he will stay on.

That’s consistent, enlightened management by the FA.  Capello did made a mistake or two in this tournament, e.g. he should have started James in goal all along, and putting Shaun Wright-Phillips on the left wing in the England USA match was daft, so too did Bob Bradley: why tinker with the lineup that (barely) beat Algeria for the Ghana match, and why in hell play Clark in midfield?  While imperfect, Capello did the best he could with the squad England have given him, and according to one Roy Keane, the English simply are not nearly as good as they think they are.  The problem wasn’t with Capello, it was with the level of talent in England.

Capello’s chief crime, besides having the temerity to not win the damn thing?  Not being English.  Because, well, an English manager would have done better.  To quote Harry Redknapp, current Spurs manager (and one who is touting himself for the not-exactly-vacant England job):

“I’m not talking about a Scottish manager or an Irish manager, I’m talking about an English manager because this is where we’re from, this is our country. We should be able to produce someone who can manage the England football team and let’s be honest, they can’t do any worse than what they [Sven-Goran Eriksson and Capello] have done.”

Umm . . . Sven reached the quarter finals in both the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, as well as the 2004 European Championships.  Capello qualified in style for 2010, and while England weren’t great, and couldn’t even top their group, they qualified.  What was it again that the last English England manager accomplished?  I think they beat Andorra twice . . .

This is ridiculous.  In addition to Redknapp campaigning for the job, the media are also putting forward Roy Hodgson as a solution to the “crisis”, and, wait for it . . . David Beckham.

Desperate times indeed.

“Special Rights”

[ 1 ] June 29, 2010 |

As we saw once again yesterday, conservatives on the Supreme Court are in favor of them.

I’ve made this point before, but in my experience if you bring up the idea that there’s any possible constitutional issue with the Hyde Amendment conservatives will react as if this was the nuttiest thing in the world — everyone knows that there can never be an obligation for the state to provide anything! But, of course, the Court’s conservatives are strongly committed to the idea that universities have to provide funding to religious student groups if they provide funding to any other type of group. And this is despite the fact that unlike with the Hyde Amendment these cases present an actual clash of constitutional requirements. The funding of medical services doesn’t raise any constitutional issues, but the providing state funding to religious student groups creates a dilemma where the establishment clause and free speech clauses of the First Amendment are in tension. I have no particular objection to resolving that case in favor of the latter value. Yesterday’s argument, however, where Alito asserts that religious groups are entitled to taxpayer money even if they refuse to comply with with the university’s neutral “all comers” or nondiscrimination codes*, is far weaker. And certainly gives away the “special rights” show.

*Or as Alito refers to nondiscrimination policies in the reasonable, moderate, apolitical manner for which he is justly famed, “prevailing standards of political correctness.”

Breaking Points

[ 22 ] June 29, 2010 |

I’ve been using a local coffee bar as my office for parts of this summer when not in the coding lab for my agenda-setting project. Besides some excellent lattes and a new appreciation for white wine, my visits have yielded me a chance to observe and connect a bit with the people who work there.

Something I’ve noticed is the absence of regular shift breaks among the staff, with the exception of those who occasionally duck out for a cigarette during lulls while still keeping an eye on the counter. Thinking back to my earlier days in the service industry, I began wondering why these hardworking baristas were not automatically required to take short breaks when they were on the clock for more than seven hours. Had something changed over the years?

So I checked into the OSHA regulations and the Fair Labor Standards Act and was surprised to learn that in fact, federal law does not require employers to offer breaks of any kind to adult workers. (The standards are different for minors, which explains what has “changed” since the days when I was working in fast food and diners – I grew up. One other exception: as of just this year, the FLSA was updated to mandate breaks for breastfeeding mothers.)

Everyone else? Forget about it. States may pass laws requiring breaks, but as far as I can determine only seven have done so, not including Massachusetts. (MA does require a lunch break.) Some workers receive mandated breaks through collective bargaining agreements, but these are few and far between in the service industry. Employers may of course choose to offer breaks and many do, but this is at their discretion. Meals, snacks, coffee, even bathroom breaks can be limited by employers – the latter having been a significant issue among assembly line workers (just read this Cornell University Press study entitled Void Where Prohibited: Rest Breaks and the Right to Urinate on Company Time).

At a place like Amherst Coffee, when employees sneak breaks I have observed it is often with the excuse of “stepping outside for a cigarette.” Indeed, although the law doesn’t provide for smoke-breaks anymore than it provides for bathroom breaks, many people (not all) seem to feel that their best chance of legitimating a five-minute break from work is to claim they need a cigarette. I have noticed a similar pattern at my workplace – it is smokers in our building who regularly step outside for air and respite.

All this has raised two questions in my mind. First, is there a connection between the lack of mandated employee breaks and smoking patterns? I don’t know about food service workers, but a study has been done among nurses that shows that those who smoke are much likelier to take (be allowed to take?) breaks than those who do not. (There are also some interesting gender dynamics at play when it comes to smoke-breaks.) What an irony if cigarette smoking, known for its ill-health effects, turns out to be the predominant means by which employees can reap the health benefits of regular, short work-day breaks. Perhaps if we want to truly address tobacco addiction in this country we also need to do something about workers’ rights to breaks in general.

Which leads to my second thought: why the heck shouldn’t we have laws mandating shift breaks in this country? It’s true that such breaks are already common in some industries. At Amherst Coffee, for example, there is an informal system in place with which the staff seem pretty happy, judging by their general enthusiasm about their jobs and the sense of family you feel at the coffeeshop. Indeed, one can imagine such an informal system might in fact work to food service employees’ benefit, since my guess is it allows them to split tips between fewer employees per shift than might be required if breaks were regularized into a one-size-fits-all system that did not account for the ebb and flow of traffic into the shop.

Still, the problem with leaving this up to employers’ discretion should be obvious – not all businesses will engage in the kind of employee-friendly practices you find at Amherst Coffee. By not treating this as a basic workers’ rights issue, we are as a nation also missing an opportunity to utilize shift breaks to promote public health more generally.

But it’s not just about regulating businesses. It’s also about creating a culture of respect for labor rights among consumers. In the restaurant business, the incessant demand for speedy service and the disincentive to split tips among additional workers per shift means there would be a minor trade-off between breaks for employees and customer service. Laws to protect employees might help disseminate a sensibility of patience among the consumer population that would make it easier for small businesses to ensure their staff are well-rested.

At any rate, all this has made me realize that I too ought to get out of my office more during the work-day. One of the downsides of academic work where you set your own schedule is that we often don’t allow ourselves breaks (or at least, not breaks that actually take us away from our computers…) I for one can’t recall the last time I stepped outside my office just for five minutes of sunshine or fresh air. But I’d sure be a lot healthier and more productive if I did.

For now, I’ll just keep relying on my friendly neighborhood baristas to make sure I don’t work too hard. And in return, I won’t begrudge them their fresh air / smoke breaks, even if it means I have to wait a little longer for my next drink. I hope many LGM readers follow suit as you frequent local businesses in your communities this summer.


[ 9 ] June 28, 2010 |

This is incomparably awesome:

Via Duss.

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