Monthly Archives: April 2008

"Next time a controversy breaks, take a deep breath"

Truer words have rarely been spoken. FlyOnTheWall has some valuable advice to pundits who want to pronounce on every shift and change, whether it’s politics or markets:

It’s a problem endemic to real-time coverage of campaigns. Many things become clear only in retrospect. When the longue durée is measured in days, not centuries, we often mistake signal noise for significance. Think, if you will, of the coverage of the stock market – you can get updates every 30 minutes, explaining in detail why the market is moving as it does, even though expected levels of volatility alone can explain most of these movements. I can tell you with a high level of confidence why the market moved as it did over a decade, a year, or in many cases even a quarter, but only a fool would claim to know why it moves as it does every half hour. These reports tend to focus on whatever economic indicator or earnings report has just been released as the causal explanation for broad movements. In a similar fashion, shifts in opinion polling tend to be ascribed to the stories that are dominating a given news cycle, and those stories receive much of the attention they do because they are presumed to be capable of shifting opinion. But the laws of probability tell us that some of those apparent shifts are bound to be illusory. Others may be the result of grass-roots organizing or social networking. And some will simply stem from voters becoming better acquainted with the candidates. Sorting the wheat from the chaff is no mean feat, but that humbling truth doesn’t seem to impact coverage.

The washing machine had disappeared…

Three guys with skullcaps and graying beards driving to Hebron with a washing machine for a Palestinian stonecutter.

What sounds like the set-up for some joke – there were three orthodox Jews and a washing machine – is one of the most moving accounts of today’s Israel/Palestine conflict you’ll read. I can’t remember who first pointed me to Gershom Gorenberg’s blog, but it was a true mitzvah.

The journey west

My family is fortunate enough to spend some time each year in the beautiful mountains near Lake Tahoe. Our particular spot is near Lake Donner, named after the group whose trek west in 1846 became tragically stuck near what was then called Truckee Lake. Most Americans know the Donner Party because of the cannibalism that enabled some of the group to survive the terrifying winter in the mountains.

But if that’s all you know, I couldn’t recommend more highly Desperate Passage, Ethan Rarick’s new history of the Donner Party. It’s an utterly mesmerizing account of the story, which makes vivid not only the harrowing months in the mammoth snows, but also the extraordinary travails all pioneers faced in the journey west.

As a relatively new westerner, I had no idea how strenuous and slow the trek from Missouri to California was before the railroad came. In the 1840s the 2,000 miles between Independence, Missouri and California was true wilderness. Pace many John Wayne movies, the danger wasn’t the native Americans, who were overwhelmingly friendly in the days before genocide really took hold. The danger was that unprepared and underequipped families were venturing into truly harsh, unforgiving, often unmapped terrain.

The first wagon train went west in 1841. When the Donner Party left Independence in May, 1846, there were probably about 700 wagons heading west. The Donner group was probably the last to set off. That was the first of many errors they made. You won’t read a more gripping book this year.

Tax happiness (sort of)

I slightly beat the rush by going to the post office yesterday to send my money to the IRS and the State of California. Although part of me was pained to write the checks, there was also a part of me that felt civic pride in paying my taxes. Of course I wish a smaller percentage went to our ridiculously bloated defense budget. But I want better public schools, better public transportation, roads without potholes and many other things that tax revenues can provide. In our vehemently anti-tax society, is this the most transgressive idea around?

I’m not alone. Rustbelt Intellectual feels the same (fantastic post on many levels) and there is a great tale on HP Phenom about David and Lucille Packard in 1963. It’s a contrast with Oracle’s Larry Ellison, who recently successfully appealed down his property tax assessment. Here’s what happened with the Packards 45 years ago:

Meanwhile, over at the Los Altos Museum, Lucile Packard’s scrapbook is on display, with a remarkable sequence of three letters from November and December 1963. The first, from HP’s attorney, said that the assessor had advised that they could probably qualify for a very large tax reduction with the Williamson Act agricultural exemption for their new 33 acre Los Altos Hills property. The second, from Dave Packard, said “we won’t file for that, since most of the taxes go to local schools, and we want to carry our fair share of the load”. The third, from the attorney, reported that when he talked to the county assessor, the response was “well, THAT makes my day!” thus beating Clint Eastwood to the words.

Street hacks

Mobile phone repair shop in India

I went to a talk last night by Nokia’s Jan Chipchase on street hacks, the phenomenon of mobile phone repair shops in Ghana, China and India (and many other places) where skilled entrepreneurs can do just about anything with your phone. Dual SIM card? Sure. Broken screen? No problem. Want to change the band on which your phone operates? Of course.

There are many aspects to explore in Chipchase’s work, but the one that intrigued me the most was the global network of innovation that’s behind the phenomenon. The mobile phone repair stall in the market in Accra learns a lot by doing, of course, but it’s also connected to Internet-based information and incredibly sophisticated, rapid response publication.

Reverse engineered repair manual

The above picture of a reverse-engineered repair manual was particularly startling. Apparently, you can subscribe to this, and Chipchase reckons it takes about a week from the launch of a new phone to the appearance of the repair manual. A fantastic innovation story.

Bowling for president

Rustbelt Intellectual, who lays claim to true bowling expertise, gets it right:

I want a President who will solve the mortgage crisis, who will restore investment in our cities and public transportation, who will deal with the ongoing hemorrhage of well-paying jobs, and who bring America’s health insurance system into line with the rest of the (post)industrial world. I don’t care if they can hit a strike or a spare or if they bowl together or alone. I just want to get America out of the gutter.

Sober historical analysis

From The Edge of the American West:

President Bush came into power at a time of peace and prosperity. Absent a visit from rainbow-maned ponies, pulling carts filled with, um, heaping piles of peace and prosperity, President Bush will leave office with the country mired in not just one but two wars and the economy in shambles. Not to mention: he stole an election, used 9/11 to divide rather than unite the nation, shredded the Constitution, polluted the air and water, refused to throw a drowning city a flotation device, institutionalized torture, and…ZOMG, HE’S THE WORST PRESIDENT EVER!

Google Calendar sync alert

I just mysteriously lost a bunch of entries on my Google Calendar. I don’t think I did anything, but it seems other people have had the same problem and it looks like it traces back to the recently launched Google Calendar Sync. See, for example, this message.

If you trawl around the Google Calendar Help, you’ll find a good number of similar messages. What you won’t find, as far as I can figure out, is any answer or, you know, help.

Update Curiouser and curiouser. As if by magic, one day later my personal calendar is back with all messages present. Praise Murphy.

Berkeley roots

I’ve lived in Berkeley for nearly three years now, and I couldn’t be happier. But my family and I took a major step last week when we moved into a new house, our first home purchase (we’ve been renters until now). Our house is in precisely the neighborhood we wanted — the Elmwood — which allows us to walk to stores and restaurants. And come Halloween, we’re at the Bay Area’s epicenter, a few steps from Russell Street. People have already advised us that we’ll need a minimum stock of 1,000 pieces of candy for the night.

So my enthusiasm for Berkeley is now matched by increasingly deep roots here. Sadly, needless to say, yesterday was a really bad day for Berkeleyites. I agree with Timothy Burke’s puzzlement over John Yoo’s continued employment by the University of California Berkeley.

(Then again, I’m adopting the standard local stance of amused bewilderment at some of the actions of the Republic of Berkeley. Today’s San Francisco Chronicle reports that my city spends $1 million annually “on domestic and foreign policy matters hatched by its 45 citizen commissions, which outnumber those in virtually every other city in America and debate everything from regime change in Iran to the plight of nonneutered dogs”.)

Arrant nonsense

It’s easy to miss Jeremy Paxman and BBC’s Newsnight. His evisceration of the huckster behind Brain Gym is a classic. You can watch it at about 35 minutes into last night’s program. First he calls in “arrant nonsense” and then he goes on to point to “idiotic statements”. Here’s Prospect’s summary:

A wide-eyed mumbo-jumbo spouting Californian would-be guru like Dennison was always going to prove easy fodder for the likes of Paxman; and so it proved. “Can you just explain what a brain button is, please?” Paxman began, feigning interest, before having fun with Dennison’s wackier claims—among them, the belief that the human body is “electrical” and that “processed foods do not contain water.”