Monday, July 28, 2014.

August 10, 2012

Understanding Tolstoy

Posted by Tom at 12:00 AM | Comments (1) |

February 14, 2012

Catching up with Texas' greatest novelist

An interview with Larry McMurtry, as well as a short video about a hidden gem of McMurtryism at the University of Houston's M.D. Andersen Library.


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October 10, 2011

The interactive digital book

Regardless of what you think about Al Gore's books, the format of his latest is pretty cool.

Posted by Tom at 12:00 AM | Comments (0) |

September 29, 2011

Markets in Self-Publishing

BainbridgeDespite our legislators' efforts, it's hard to keep vibrant markets down.

One of the most interesting emerging markets that I've been following recently has been in self-publishing. UCLA business law professor and longtime blogger Stephen Bainbridge - who, along with Larry Ribstein, is a blogosphere leader in advancing the understanding of corporate and business law principles - self-published his most recent corporate law book as a Kindle e-book. Professor Bainbridge passes along his reasoning for doing so here.

In short, Professor Bainbridge reasons that he will make money with his e-book than for law review articles, he controls the marketing and price of the book, and he keeps all the proceeds instead of just royalties. Moreover, the self-publishing route allows him to update his work in a timely manner so that he can provide analysis of recent court decisions that wouldn't be possible under the conventional book model.

Meanwhile, similar self-publishing ventures are emerging in the music industry.

For example, popular Houston-based musician Robbie Seay - the worship leader at Houston's fascinating inner-city church, Ecclesia - recently went the Kickstarter route to raise the funds necessary to self-produce his new CD. Seay - who melds spiritually-based contemporary music with a rocker's edge - raised enough money to self-produce his CD in two weeks and is now shooting to reach 1,000 backers in the next two weeks.

These are wonderful developments. Talented individuals taking risks that provide consumers at low cost with scholarship and music that might not otherwise get published.

In other words, the power of markets at work.

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April 21, 2011

The Quantum Story

Jim Baggott talks about his new book on the history of the quantum revolution.

Posted by Tom at 12:00 AM | Comments (0) |

December 8, 2010

Art DeVany on The New Evolution Diet

Clear Thinkers favorite Art DeVany (previous posts here) is preparing for the release of his new book, The New Evolution Diet: What Our Paleolithic Ancestors Can Teach Us About Weight Loss, Fitness and Aging (Rodale Dec. 21, 2010), so he presents his basic ideas on nutrition and exercise in the trailer for the book below. Russ Roberts' longer audio interview of DeVany from earlier this year can be listened to here and Patrick Kiger provides an excellent overview of DeVany's ideas on nutrition and exercise here.

Posted by Tom at 12:01 AM | Comments (1) |

July 21, 2010

Five myths about the death penalty

Peculiar Institution2David Garland of New York University has a new book coming out later this year on a common topic on this blog, Peculiar Institution: America's Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition (Belknap 2010). He previews the book in this WaPo op-ed in which he addresses the following five myths of the death penalty:

1. The United States is a death-penalty nation.

2. The United States is out of step with Europe and the rest of the Western world.

3. This country has the death penalty because the public supports it.

4. The death penalty works.

5. The death penalty doesn't work.

Check out the entire article.

Posted by Tom at 12:01 AM | Comments (1) |

July 14, 2010

Boomtown D.A.

Carol VanceAfter Le Affaire Rosenthal and the ensuing change at the top levels of the Harris County District Attorneys Office over the past couple of years, it's easy to forget that the local D.A's office was a model of stability and excellence during the previous generation.

Johnny B. Holmes, who ran the D.A.'s office for 21 years before retiring in 2001, is still relatively well-known to many Houstonians. But less well-known is that Holmes inherited a well-organized D.A.'s office from Carol Vance, who was D.A. from 1966-1979 and literally transformed the local office from a small-town outpost into one that other major cities copied.

I pass this along because I just finished reading Vance's autobiography, Boomtown D.A. (White Caps Media 2010) (it's not available through Amazon at this time, so I bought my copy through the publisher's site). For any long-time resident of Houston, it is a thoroughly enjoyable read. And for any attorney practicing in Houston, it is an essential read.

Vance was involved in his share of juicy cases, so the chapters on those cases are the meat of the book. Vance's big cases include the John Hill case of Blood and Money fame, the cases arising from the TSU race riot of 1967, the prosecution of two corrupt judges (District Judge Garth Bates and Supreme Court Justice Don Yarbrough), the amazing transformation of former UH professor Gerry Phelps, and the prosecutions of Elmer Wayne Henley and David Brooks, who were the sidekicks to the worst serial killer in Houston history.

Moreover, just as interesting to me as the big cases is Vance's explanation of how the D.A.'s office grew from a relatively small office that was easily overwhelmed by a big case into one that could take on virtually anything that was thrown at it. Vance had many people helping him with this task and he is effusive in his praise of those folks, many of whom went on to become successful judges and attorneys in Houston after leaving the D.A.'s office. And Vance has a field day describing his interactions with Houston's formidable criminal defense bar, including such legends as Percy Foreman and Richard "Racehorse" Haynes.

But most impressive is Vance's description of his efforts after leaving the D.A.'s office in becoming one of the leaders of prison care and reform in Texas. The Carol Vance Prison Unit in Sugar Land is named for him and has one of the lowest recidivism rates of any prison in the U.S., a result of that unit's robust Christian ministries that Vance nurtured and promoted.

Carol Vance is a remarkable man who became Harris County District Attorney at a key time in Houston's history. We are all the better for that. Check out his book and learn why. You won't be disappointed.

Update: The book's editor, Kit Sublett, passes along that Carol Vance will have a book signing at Brazos Bookstore on July 22nd, and that the book signing scheduled for July 31st at Murder by the Book has been postponed. Mr. Sublett also advises that the book is available at all Houston-area Barnes and Noble stores and the Barnes and Noble website.

Posted by Tom at 12:01 AM | Comments (3) |

July 2, 2010

Rational Optimism

The%20Rational%20Optimist.jpgMatt Ridley supplies a dose of good end-of-the-week vibes with this article based on his new book, The Rational Optimist (Harper 2010):

When I set out to write a book about the material progress of the human race, now published at The Rational Optimist, I was only dimly aware of how much better my life is now than it would have been if I had been born 50 years before. I knew that I have novel technologies at my disposal from synthetic fleeces and discount airlines to Facebook and satellite navigation. I knew that I could rely on advances in vaccines, transplants and sleeping pills. I knew that I could experience cleaner air and cleaner water at least in my own country. I knew that for Chinese and Japanese people life had grown much more wealthy. But I did not know the numbers.

Do you know the numbers? In 2005, compared with 1955, the average human being on Planet Earth earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one-third as many of her children and could expect to live one-third longer. All this during a half-century when the world population has more than doubled, so that far from being rationed by population pressure, the goods and services available to the people of the world have expanded. It is, by any standard, an astonishing human achievement.

We invent new technologies that decrease the amount of time that it takes to supply each other’s needs. The great theme of human history is that we increasingly work for each other. We exchange our own specialised and highly efficient fragments of production for everybody else’s. The ‘division of labour’ Adam Smith called it, and it is still spreading. When a self-sufficient peasant moves to town and gets a job, supplying his own needs by buying them from others with the wages from his job, he can raise his standard of living and those he supplies with what he produces. [.  .  .]

So ask yourself this: with so much improvement behind us, why are we to expect only deterioration before us? I am quoting from an essay by Thomas Macaulay written in 1830, when pessimists were already promising doom:

“They were wrong then, and I think they are wrong now.”


Posted by Tom at 12:00 AM | Comments (0) |

June 1, 2010

Can psychiatry be a science?

menand_bw

Louis Menand’s New Yorker article earlier this year that reviewed a couple of new books on psychiatry in the context of the confusing state of psychiatric literature posed the compelling question that is the title of this post:

You go see a doctor. The doctor hears your story and prescribes an antidepressant. Do you take it?

However you go about making this decision, do not read the psychiatric literature. Everything in it, from the science (do the meds really work?) to the metaphysics (is depression really a disease?), will confuse you. There is little agreement about what causes depression and no consensus about what cures it. Virtually no scientist subscribes to the man-in-the-waiting-room theory, which is that depression is caused by a lack of serotonin, but many people report that they feel better when they take drugs that affect serotonin and other brain chemicals. [.  .  .]

.  .  . As a branch of medicine, depression seems to be a mess. Business, however, is extremely good. Between 1988, the year after Prozac was approved by the F.D.A., and 2000, adult use of antidepressants almost tripled. By 2005, one out of every ten Americans had a prescription for an antidepressant. IMS Health, a company that gathers data on health care, reports that in the United States in 2008 a hundred and sixty-four million prescriptions were written for antidepressants, and sales totalled $9.6 billion.

As a depressed person might ask, What does it all mean?

Following on that provocative article, Russ Roberts' essential EconTalk series this week presents this fascinating interview of Menand on the state of psychiatric knowledge and the scientific basis for making conclusions about current therapeutic approaches of battling it.

Although hard and fast conclusions are few, Menand is asking the right questions about a subject that desperately needs better societal understanding. His article and interview are valuable contributions to improving that understanding.

Posted by Tom at 12:01 AM | Comments (3) |

May 10, 2010

The MD Anderson – Anticancer Research Venture

mdanderson This David Agus/TEDlecture from awhile back emphasized the need for new ideas and approaches in cancer research.

Along those lines, David Servan-Schreiber in the video below announces that he has teamed up with Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center in a new research project aimed at enhancing and bolstering cancer research and care. Dr. Servan-Schreiber’s website about the project is here.

Dr. Servan-Schreiber is the author of the best-selling book, Anticancer, A New Way of Life (Viking 2009). While serving as a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Servan-Schreiber underwent chemotherapy and surgery twice for brain cancer. After the second bout, Servan-Schreiber spent years researching a mass of scientific data on natural defenses against cancer. His book is the result of this experience and research.

As this Abigal Zuger/NY Times review notes, there is skepticism in the clinical research community regarding Servan-Schreiber’s conclusions and recommendations. So, M.D. Anderson’s interest in Servan-Schreiber’s approach is somewhat surprising.

Nevertheless, as Dr. Agus notes in his TED lecture, perhaps Servan-Schreiber’s ideas are the type that are needed to spur clinical research into better treatment protocols and innovative care procedures for cancer patients.

Posted by Tom at 12:01 AM | Comments (1) |

May 4, 2010

Gladwell on Operation Mincemeat and the vagaries of espionage

operation mincemeat Don’t miss this clever Malcolm Gladwell/New Yorker review of “British journalist Ben Macintyre’s brilliant and almost absurdly entertaining Operation Mincemeat, the espionage caper that threw the Nazis off of the Allied invasion of Sicily:

On April 30, 1943, a fisherman came across a badly decomposed corpse floating in the water off the coast of Huelva, in southwestern Spain. The body was of an adult male dressed in a trenchcoat, a uniform, and boots, with a black attaché case chained to his waist. His wallet identified him as Major William Martin, of the Royal Marines. [.  .  .]

It did not take long for word of the downed officer to make its way to German intelligence agents in the region. Spain was a neutral country, but much of its military was pro-German, and the Nazis found an officer in the Spanish general staff who was willing to help. A thin metal rod was inserted into the envelope; the documents were then wound around it and slid out through a gap, without disturbing the envelope’s seals. What the officer discovered was astounding.

Major Martin was a courier, carrying a personal letter from Lieutenant General Archibald Nye, the vice-chief of the Imperial General Staff, in London, to General Harold Alexander, the senior British officer under Eisenhower in Tunisia. Nye’s letter spelled out what Allied intentions were in southern Europe. American and British forces planned to cross the Mediterranean from their positions in North Africa, and launch an attack on German-held Greece and Sardinia. Hitler transferred a Panzer division from France to the Peloponnese, in Greece, and the German military command sent an urgent message to the head of its forces in the region: “The measures to be taken in Sardinia and the Peloponnese have priority over any others.”

The Germans did not realize—until it was too late—that “William Martin” was a fiction. The man they took to be a high-level courier was a mentally ill vagrant who had eaten rat poison; his body had been liberated from a London morgue and dressed up in officer’s clothing. The letter was a fake, and the frantic messages between London and Madrid a carefully choreographed act. When a hundred and sixty thousand Allied troops invaded Sicily on July 10, 1943, it became clear that the Germans had fallen victim to one of the most remarkable deceptions in modern military history.

Gladwell goes on to summarize the tale of how the Nazis fell for the caper, but then ponders whether espionage is really worth the trouble:

In the case of Operation Mincemeat, Germany’s spies told their superiors that something false was actually true (even though, secretly, some of those spies might have known better), and Germany acted on it. In the case of Cicero, Germany’s spies told their superiors that something was true that may indeed have been true, though maybe wasn’t, or maybe was true for a while and not true for a while, depending on whether you believe the word of someone two decades after the war was over—and in this case Germany didn’t really act on it at all. Looking at that track record, you have to wonder if Germany would have been better off not having any spies at all.

And the money quote:

Translation: the proper function of spies is to remind those who rely on spies that the kinds of thing found out by spies can't be trusted.

Read the entire review.

Posted by Tom at 12:01 AM | Comments (0) |

March 12, 2010

Exposing the myth of American exceptionalism

conrad_black Conrad Black’s prison routine allows him time to think and write, which is a good thing in view of the enormous waste that results from his dubious imprisonment.

This week Lord Black takes aim at the myth of American exceptionalism promoted in this recent Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnurus essay (Walter McDougall has examined the origins of this myth in detail in the first two books of his fine three-part series on American history). In challenging the myth, Lord Black takes dead aim at a common topic on this blog – the overcriminalization of American life:

The wages of this [Cold War] victory have included the stale-dating of the authors’ claim that America “is freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth.” It is more dynamic because of its size, the torpor of Europe and Japan, and the shambles of Russia.

But Americans do not do themselves a favor by not recognizing the terrible erosion of their country’s education, justice, and political systems, the shortcomings of U.S. health care, the collapse of its financial industry, the flight of most of its manufacturing, and the steep and generally unlamented decline of its prestige.

.   .    .   Rampaging and often lawless prosecutors win 95 percent of their cases (compared to 55 percent in Canada), by softening the pursuit of some in exchange for inculpatory perjury against others, in the plea-bargain system. The U.S. has six to fourteen times as many imprisoned people as other advanced prosperous democracies, and they languish in a corrupt carceral system that retains as many people as possible for as long as possible. There are an astounding 47 million Americans with a “record,” and the country glories with unseemly glee in the joys of the death penalty. Due process and the other guarantees of individual rights of the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments (such as the grand jury as any sort of assurance against capricious prosecution) scarcely exist in practice.

Most of the Congress is an infestation of paid-for legislators from rotten boroughs, representing the interests that finance their elections and exchanging earmarks with their colleagues like casbah hucksters.  .   .   .

Lord Black can sure still turn a phrase -- “casbah hucksters.” Ha!

Posted by Tom at 12:01 AM | Comments (9) |

March 1, 2010

The Code

Yanks Orioles fight If this Larry Getlen/NY Post review of Jason Turbow and Michael Duca's new book The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing, and Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America's Pastime (Pantheon March 9, 2010) doesn’t get you in the mood for Major League Spring Training and the upcoming MLB season, then nothing will:

Unbeknownst to most outsiders, all aspects of baseball — from hitting, pitching, and baserunning to dealing with management and the media — are governed by the Code, a complex series of unwritten rules that have evolved since baseball's earliest days.

This Code, which the authors describe as "less strategic than moral," includes behavioral rules for common baseball situations; the punishment for flouting those rules; and the "omerta" that ballplayers must never, ever, discuss the rules of the Code outside the clubhouse. [.   .   .]

* Cardinal great Bob Gibson believed that the Code entitled him to knock down any batter who bested him with a grand slam. So when the Chicago Cubs Pete LaCock did just that, Gibson felt he owed him one — unfortunately, the homer came during Gibson's final game. Gibson finally took his revenge 15 years later, plugging LaCock in the back during an Old Timers Game.

* When the Yankees took on the Angels in 1987, the announcers discussed how Angels pitcher Don Sutton was scuffing the ball. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, hearing this on TV, called Yankee manager Lou Piniella in a rage, demanding that the umpires inspect Sutton's glove. Piniella had to explain to the Boss, "The guy who taught Don everything he knows about cheating is pitching for us tonight. Want me to get Tommy John thrown out too?"

Posted by Tom at 12:01 AM | Comments (0) |

February 25, 2010

The future of the death penalty

Dow_ University of Houston Law Professor David Dow’s book -- The Autobiography of an Execution (Twelve 2010) – prompted Time to ask Dow several questions about the death penalty. A couple of his answers are particularly interesting:

.  .  . I tell people that if you're going to commit murder, you want to be white, and you want to be wealthy — so that you can hire a first-class lawyer — and you want to kill a black person. And if [you are], the odds of your being sentenced to death are basically zero. It's one thing to say that rich people should be able to drive Ferraris and poor people should have to take the bus. It's very different to say that rich people should get treated one way by the state's criminal-justice system and poor people should get treated another way. But that is the system that we have.

And what about the future of the death penalty?

My prediction is that we're going to get rid of it for economic reasons. We spend at least a million dollars more on a death penalty case than on a non-death-penalty case. In the U.S., where we've executed 1,200 people since the death penalty [was reinstated in 1976], that's $1.2 billion. I just think, gosh, with $1.2 billion, you could hire a lot of policemen. You could have a lot of educational programs inside of prisons so that when people come out of prison they know how to do something besides rob convenience stores and sell drugs. There are already counties in Texas, of all places, that have said, this is just not worth it: let's fix the schools and fill the potholes in the streets instead of squandering this money on a death-penalty case. You don't need to be a bleeding heart to make that argument.

Supporters of the death penalty reason that there is nothing morally wrong about the state killing a person as punishment for murder where that person was lawfully convicted in a fair and accurate criminal justice process. But in making that moral justification the central tenet of their support, death penalty supporters are ignoring the glaring defects in the process that undermine their moral justification.

Posted by Tom at 12:01 AM | Comments (3) |

January 31, 2010

Lone Survivor

lone survivor (2) I recently finished reading Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10 (Little, Brown and Company 2009), Marcus Luttrell's engrossing story of his experience in surviving a vicious battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan. I recommend the book highly to anyone who is interested in United States foreign policy.

Lone Survivor is not a great book. A substantial part of it - particularly the parts of Luttrell's Navy SEAL training - are repetitive and unnecessary. Likewise, Luttrell's political views are somewhat simplistic and do not add much to the story.

But Luttrell's story is spot on in portraying the troubling problem that the U.S. Armed Forces face in fighting wars under rules of engagement that constrain doing what is necessary to accomplish the purpose of the war. During their mission, Luttrell and his squad mates had to make a key decision under the rules of engagement -- and it was not even a clearly wrong one -- that ultimately resulted in a disaster for the squad.

Luttrell's story is also insightful from a cultural standpoint. After fending off over a hundred Taliban attackers in battle, Luttrell was ultimately saved by members of an Afghan community who decided to resist the Taliban. The cultural dynamics at play are as confusing as they are fascinating.

Should the United States be sending true American heroes such as Luttrell and his comrades into such a complicated cultural conflict under rules that hinder them from accomplishing the mission?

It is a question that should be much more difficult for our government's leaders than it appears to be.

Posted by Tom at 12:01 AM | Comments (2) |

December 4, 2009

Shelby Foote

I would enjoy listening to the late Shelby Foote reading a phone book.

Posted by Tom at 12:01 AM | Comments (0) |

November 21, 2009

Gus Dies

Lonesome Dove Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove is one of the best Texas novels of our time. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was later made into a wonderful television mini-series, which starred Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as the iconic former Texas Rangers, Gus McRae and Woodrow Call.

One of the best scenes from the mini-series -- and arguably one of the best scenes ever produced for television -- is the scene in which Gus dies after being badly injured in an Indian ambush. After searching for his missing friend, Call finds Gus in a doctor's office after Gus has had one of his gangrene-infected legs amputated. Rather than have his other infected leg amputated, Gus elects to die.

Two old friends -- played by brilliant actors at the top of their game -- have a final conversation. Television has never been better. Enjoy.

Posted by Tom at 12:01 AM | Comments (0) |

November 10, 2009

Too Big Even to Consider Failing

Too big to fail2 As with many folks in the financial and legal world, I'm finishing up Andrew Ross Sorkin's entertaining new best-seller, Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System---and Themselves (Viking 2009). Clear Thinkers favorite Arnold Kling has the best analysis of the book that I've read to date:

Reading the book leads me to ponder the differences between Chauffered America--Hollywood, investment bankers, and high government officials--and Strip Mall America--people who launch businesses like restaurants, hair salons, and other small enterprises. [.  .  .]

The obvious sociological point is that the top finance people live in a bubble, with secret entrances, isolated offices, chauffered automobiles, and private jets. Even the top government officials inhabit this world. Sorkin describes Geithner arriving at the airport in DC and losing it over not being met by a driver. Forced to take a taxi, Geithner turns to his colleague and says that he has no cash. Perhaps this would have been a moment to teach the head of the New York Fed how to use an ATM. [.  .  .]

I do not see how reading this book can help but reinforce a Simon Johnson/James Kwak view of Washington captured by Wall Street. Paulson seems to have no use for anyone who is not a Goldman Sachs alumnus. Geithner seems to have no use for anyone who is not a CEO of a large financial institution. Both of them view the collapse of major Wall Street firms as Armageddon.

The "regulatory overhaul" promised by the Obama Administration is still the same-old, same-old. Chauffered America will be restored to its exalted status, with a few new rules and regulations thrown in.

Instead, somebody should be asking the deeper question about Chauffered America. If Chauffered America were to disappear, would the rest of us miss it? Or could Strip Mall America get along just fine without the big-time bankers and their friends in government?

One comes away from the book with the conclusion that the primary purpose of the government and corporate leaders involved in resolving the crisis was to maintain the elitist culture of Wall Street with regard to financial matters, while at all times making sure that the government protected the maximum number of the folks making the bad bets from ever having to endure the true extent of the risk that they took in placing those bets. That's why things like this happened.

As I noted after the demise of Lehman Brothers last fall, resolving the crisis was not rocket science. Sorkin's book establishes that the leaders who were calling the shots were never going to let on that such was the case.

Posted by Tom at 12:01 AM | Comments (1) |

September 8, 2009

Understanding storytelling

Story telling graph When young attorneys ask me how they can become more effective advocates in the courtroom, I usually tell them: "Become better at telling stories."

Several years ago, Derek Sivers interviewed the late Kurt Vonnegut, who was no slouch as a storyteller. Check out Vonnegut's views on story-telling, which he believed promotes the need for drama in people's lives.

Essential reading for anyone who seeks to persuade.

Posted by Tom at 12:01 AM | Comments (1) |

August 26, 2009

Re-tracing Graham Greene's journey across Mexico

The Lawless Roads In the first of a series of upcoming blog posts that will interest most Texans, The Atlantic's Graeme Wood addresses many of the difficult issues facing Mexico that have been a frequent topic on this blog. Wood is re-tracing the journey across Mexico of Graham Greene of The Lawless Roads fame seventy years ago:

Seventy years ago, Graham Greene crossed the US-Mexican border into a land blighted by violence, unrest, insurgency, and religious and counter-religious mayhem. If he came back today he would find a country riven by other forces, but in some ways just as chaotic, and just as worthy of the title he gave his account of the journey, The Lawless Roads.

The news out of Mexico is all bad. When I was a kid, my parents and I went across the border at Reynosa, Matamoros, and Tijuana to take awkwardly posed photos on the backs of burros, buy cheap Kahlúa, and eat frog-legs at Garcia's. Now the drug war has re-ignited, the rules of engagement between police and crime syndicates have changed, and the environment has become more savage. The government of Felipe Calderon has challenged the narco-traffickers and has militarized the border. Garcia's is still open, but tourists have vanished. College kids don't head down here from South Padre so much, which is a good indicator of the downturn, because they are college students, and that Kahlúa was awfully cheap. There are serious questions of whether Mexico is becoming that scariest of things, a military state in only partial control -- i.e., a Latin American Pakistan.

Only some of the drama is on the border. Greene's trip through Mexico crossed the country on its long axis and reported how Mexicans were dealing with the effects of the Cristero War, its violent suppression of the Catholic church, and the armed discontent that suppression sparked. Over the next cycle of posts, I will steer my rented Mexican Ford (an inglorious chariot that feels like it would crumple like a soda can, if I were to give it a bear-hug) along Greene's path, with deviations, to see whether that lawlessness is a permanent condition.

Posted by Tom at 12:01 AM | Comments (0) |

August 19, 2009

Robert D. Novak, R.I.P.

robert_novak-704681 Longtime Washington political columnist and television political pundit Robert D. Novak died yesterday, ending a virtually unparalleled 60-year career of reporting on national politics from the nation's capitol. David Broder, Jack Shafer. Tim Carney, Stephen Miller, Jeffrey Bell and the WSJ Editors do a good job of putting this formidable career and fascinating man in perspective.

Inasmuch as I was not particularly interested in Novak's obsessive-style of political reporting in his columns and on television, I didn't appreciate Novak until late in life. That changed when a friend recommended Novak's The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington (Crown 2007) (prior post here), which I probably would never have read but for my friend's urging.

Turns out that The Prince of Darkness is a thoroughly enjoyable read, particularly because Novak passes along his reflections on the relationships he had with virtually every major figure in American politics over the past 60 years, which pretty well spans my lifetime. I went from not really being interested in Novak to not being able to put the book down. It remains one of the most unexpectedly delightful books that I've read in the past couple of years.

Characters such as Novak are rare these days, and we are not the better for that.

Posted by Tom at 12:01 AM | Comments (0) |

August 2, 2008

The Waiting Game

waiter Moira Hodgson's W$J review of waiter/blogger Steve Dublanica's new book -- Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip--Confessions of a Cynical Waiter -- is a rollicking good time. Check out Hodgson's analysis of the merits of Dublanica's background for waiting tables:

Considering some of the customers he has to deal with, Mr. Dublanica's background was the perfect training for his job: four years in a seminary studying to be a priest followed by work at rehab centers and homes for the mentally retarded. He says that 80% of the people he serves at The Bistro are perfectly nice; the rest are socially maladjusted psychopaths. He also has to contend with servers on drugs and an irritable, jumpy boss: "Like a soldier home from war, his eyes are always scanning the horizon for threats."

By the way, be careful about sending that food back to the kitchen:

The third time a woman sends back her de-caf coffee, saying it's not hot enough, he dumps regular coffee into her cup, places it in a 400-degree oven, takes it out with a pair of tongs and delivers it to her table. But that story pales beside Mr. Dublanica's account of a waiter who plays floor hockey in the kitchen with a returned hamburger patty before hosing it off and taking it back to the table.

 

Posted by Tom at 12:01 AM | Comments (0) |

June 16, 2008

Bill King's story

New Picture (1) As Republican presidential nominee John McCain is doing his best to stoke public prejudice against job-creators and wealth builders, longtime Houston lawyer and businessman Bill King is promoting his new book, Saving Face (Somerset 2008), which is King's personal history of the savings & loan crisis of the late 1980's and early 1990's. Ironically, McCain knows quite a bit about the back story to King's book. McCain was one of the Keating Five, the Congressional supporters of former Lincoln Savings & Loan chairman and CEO Charles Keating, who was convicted of various corporate fraud crimes and served four years in prison as a result of highly-stoked but substantively-thin prosecutions that were ultimately overturned on appeal. Keating eventually pled guilty to a single count of bankruptcy fraud to limit further prison time and insulate a family member from prosecution. For a thorough review of the mendacity of the Keating prosecutions, pick up a copy of Dan Fischel's book, Payback: The Conspiracy to Destroy Michael Milken and his Financial Revolution (HarperCollins 1995).

King's story is the Houston version of Keating's and a precursor of the prosecutorial abuse that the post-Enron criminal prosecutions in Houston generated a decade later. Not only does King do an excellent job of explaining the financial, economic, regulatory and political underpinnings of the S&L crisis, he explores how the government wielded its prosecutorial power indiscriminately to serve up scapegoats to a salivating mainstream media and an ill-informed public. King is thinking about running for Houston mayor in 2009 and, based on the depth and perspective that he exhibits in Saving Face, King would probably be a fine mayor. The following is King's overview of Saving Face, which I recommend highly:

These days I find myself cringing when I hear media accounts that fraudulent and greedy mortgage brokers are responsible for all of the woes of the current housing bubble and the sub-prime defaults. I do so because the recriminations are an all too familiar echo of an earlier debacle. One to which I had a ring-side seat.

Many of you who have known me for some years know that shortly after law school I made the somewhat less-than-fortuitous career decision of joining a law firm that specialized in representing savings and loans. At the time it did not seem like a bad decision. The Houston real estate market was enjoying an unprecedented boom and the savings and loan industry had just been deregulated. Investors were clamoring to get into the business.

Within a few years of joining the law firm, I began investing in savings and loans and related businesses. By 1986, notwithstanding that I had started with barely two nickels to rub together after working my way through law school, I had built a small, but respectable, business empire consisting of savings and loan holdings, title companies, and real estate investments. However, within a couple of years, everything I had built evaporated into thin air.

The Houston market collapsed when the price of oil fell from over $34 per barrel in 1984 to $9 the next year. It did not recover to above $20 until 2002. Manufacturing jobs in the region fell by nearly 50% and for the first time in history Texans' personal income declined.

Bankruptcies in Houston tripled between 1983 and 1987. All but one of Texas' major banking holding companies failed. Harris County's population actually declined from 1985 to 1989. It was the first and only time in Houston's history that it has lost population. If you did not live through these times, the magnitude of melt down is hard to imagine.

It is certainly difficult to lose everything that you have worked for, but the environment that existed in the late 1980s and early 1990s had an even more ominous aspect. As the public became increasingly aware that the savings and loan crisis was going to take a major taxpayer bailout, there were ever more strident cries to hold someone responsible.

The complexity of confluence of interest rates, regulatory policy, oil prices, the Tax Reform Act of 1986, and the collapse of large portions of the real estate market that actually explained the collapse was too great to be reduced to sound bites. Politicians and bureaucrats began pointing the finger at those in the industry, and soon, the "S&L crook" was born. And there were enough egregious cases for the politicians and bureaucrats to hold up as "proof" of their argument that the "S&L crooks" caused the crisis.

The proposition that fraud and insider abuse had sunk the savings and loan industry was eventually discredited. In 1993, a National Commission concluded that fraud had caused less than 15% of the total problem. But in the heat of the moment, there was little interest in cool, scholarly reflection on the problems of the industry.

As the 1980s came to a close I watched as many friends, associates and former clients in the S&L industry were swept up in a maelstrom of civil and criminal litigation. Naively, it never occurred to me that I might be caught up in such a dispute as well. But I was.

Eventually, I prevailed in my battle with the regulators, but as you might imagine, it was an experience that left an indelible mark and from which it took me many years to recover. For some time I have been jotting down notes for a book about these experiences. For a couple of reasons, I recently decided to finalize such a book.

First, as many of you know, I am considering a candidacy for mayor of Houston in 2009. We all know too well that "negative campaigning" has become the standard today. Certainly going bankrupt in the savings and loan business will provide potential opponents ready ammunition. So first and foremost, I want to put the issue squarely on the table. If I decide to become a candidate, there will undoubtedly be some voters who will be troubled by these experiences. Some will believe difficult times such as the ones I went through are a crucible that better prepares a person for leadership. Most, I expect, will simply want to be advised of the facts so that they can be weighed with other issues bearing on their decision.

But beyond the potential political implications, the troubling similarities between what I saw in the S&L collapse of the 1980s and the sub-prime crisis playing out before us now demands some consideration. It is a well worn adage, but nonetheless true, that if we do not learn from our history, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes. Perhaps relating what I saw during the saving and loan industry collapse will provide some perspective on the current financial crises.

So for these reasons I have written Saving Face: An Alternative and Personal Account of the Savings and Loan Debacle. I have attempted in the book to tell the story of what I experienced during these times, but at the same time, to place my experiences in a larger, national context. I believe my story has some relevance to anyone experiencing trying times generally, and certainly to those in the Houston real estate industry, many of whom lived through these times as I did.

Posted by Tom at 12:01 AM | Comments (0) |

May 11, 2008

Nixonland

Nixonland2 George Will gives Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland (Scribner 2008), a history lesson.

Posted by Tom at 12:01 AM | Comments (0) |

April 8, 2008

Enjoying John Adams

john adams My son Cody and I have been thoroughly enjoying each Sunday night episode of the HBO mini-series John Adams, which is based upon David McCullough's brilliant biography of Adams. Given the extraordinary talents, troubling contradictions and fascinating relationships among the pivotal leaders of the American revolutionary era -- Adams, Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin and Burr, among others -- I have always wondered why some enterprising filmmaker hadn't made a first-rate movie about the era. John Adams producer Tom Hanks should be commended for pulling it off in a splendid manner. Rebecca Cusey's favorable review of the mini-series is here.

My vote for the book upon which the next movie of this era should be based -- Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton (Penguin Press 2004). Two other excellent recent books on this era are Jay Winik's The Great Upheaval (Harper 2007) and Joseph Ellis' American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic (Knopf 2007).

Posted by Tom at 12:01 AM | Comments (1) |

March 26, 2008

Throes of Democracy

Throes of Democracy2 One of the best books that I have read over the past several years is Walter A. McDougall's Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History 1585-1828 (HarperCollins 2004), the first book in McDougall's planned trilogy on American history (Gordon Wood's 2004 review of Freedom Just Around the Corner is here).

For anyone interested in the development of the market economy in American society, Freedom Just Around the Corner is essential reading. One of McDougall's central theses is that most of American society's dynamic successes (and also many of its failures) are attributable to the creative entrepreneurial spirit of its citizens, and that the source of a considerable amount of tension within American society are the forces that attempt to contain this spirit. McDougall sums up his viewpoint in the preface to his widely-anticipated and just-published sequel to Freedom Just Around the Corner, Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era 1829-1877 (HarperCollins 2008):

I believe the United States (so far) is the greatest success story in history. I believe Americans (on balance) are experts at self-deception. And I believe the "creative corruption" born of their pretense goes far to explain their success. The upshot of is that American history is chock-full of cruelty and love, hypocrisy and faith, cowardice and courage, plus not small measure of tongue-in-cheek humor. American history is a tale of human nature set free. So how you, the reader, respond to this book will depend in good part on how you yourself (all pretense aside!) regard human nature.

McDougall has a wonderfully engaging style, which is reflected in the following Freedom Just Around the Corner excerpt about the tragic death of Alexander Hamilton in his duel with Vice-President, Aaron Burr. After the Federalist-but-statesman-first Hamilton undermined the rudderless Burr's Federalist campaign for New York Governor by supporting Burr's Republican opponent, McDougall described what happened next (pp, 395-96):

When in April 1804 Burr gleaned just 40 percent of the tally, he invoked the code duello and called Hamilton to pistols on the green at Weehawken, New Jersey. Hamilton's son had been killed in such an affair just a year before and he was well aware of Burr's marksmanship. But Hamilton consented in July 1804 to perform one last service for his country. He killed Burr's career by permitting Burr to kill him.

I've just started Throes of Democracy, but I have read enough to know that it is going to be a rollicking good ride. Michael Kazin's somewhat indifferent NY Times review of Throes of Democracy is here.

Posted by Tom at 7:50 PM | Comments (0) |

February 20, 2008

Born Standing Up

born_standing_up.jpgDon't miss this Smithsonian.com excerpt from comedian Steve Martin's new autobiographical book, Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life (Scribner 2007). Take, for example, Martin's hilarious description of the implementation of his novel theory of comedy in one of his initial shows:

A skillful comedian could coax a laugh with tiny indicators such as a vocal tic (Bob Hope's "But I wanna tell ya") or even a slight body shift. Jack E. Leonard used to punctuate jokes by slapping his stomach with his hand. One night, watching him on "The Tonight Show," I noticed that several of his punch lines had been unintelligible, and the audience had actually laughed at nothing but the cue of his hand slap.

These notions stayed with me until they formed an idea that revolutionized my comic direction: What if there were no punch lines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anticlimax? What would the audience do with all that tension? Theoretically, it would have to come out sometime. But if I kept denying them the formality of a punch line, the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation. This type of laugh seemed stronger to me, as they would be laughing at something they chose, rather than being told exactly when to laugh.

To test my idea, I went onstage and began: "I'd like to open up with sort of a 'funny comedy bit.' This has really been a big one for me...it's the one that put me where I am today. I'm sure most of you will recognize the title when I mention it; it's the "Nose on Microphone" routine [pause for imagined applause]. And it's always funny, no matter how many times you see it."

I leaned in and placed my nose on the mike for a few long seconds. Then I stopped and took several bows, saying, "Thank you very much." "That's it?" they thought. Yes, that was it. The laugh came not then, but only after they realized I had already moved on to the next bit.

Now that I had assigned myself to an act without jokes, I gave myself a rule. Never let them know I was bombing: this is funny, you just haven't gotten it yet. If I wasn't offering punch lines, I'd never be standing there with egg on my face. It was essential that I never show doubt about what I was doing. I would move through my act without pausing for the laugh, as though everything were an aside. Eventually, I thought, the laughs would be playing catch-up to what I was doing. Everything would be either delivered in passing, or the opposite, an elaborate presentation that climaxed in pointlessness. Another rule was to make the audience believe that I thought I was fantastic, that my confidence could not be shattered. They had to believe that I didn't care if they laughed at all and that this act was going on with or without them.

I was having trouble ending my show. I thought, "Why not make a virtue of it?" I started closing with extended bowing, as though I heard heavy applause. I kept insisting that I needed to "beg off." No, nothing, not even this ovation I am imagining, can make me stay. My goal was to make the audience laugh but leave them unable to describe what it was that had made them laugh. In other words, like the helpless state of giddiness experienced by close friends tuned in to each other's sense of humor, you had to be there.

At least that was the theory. And for the next eight years, I rolled it up a hill like Sisyphus.

My first reviews came in. One said, "This so-called 'comedian' should be told that jokes are supposed to have punch lines." Another said I represented "the most serious booking error in the history of Los Angeles music."

"Wait," I thought, "let me explain my theory!"

Martin also passes along an interesting observation about longtime Tonight Show host, Johnny Carson. It took some time for Martin to earn Carson's professional respect:

I was able to maintain a personal relationship with Johnny over the next 30 years, at least as personal as he or I could make it, and I was flattered that he came to respect my comedy. . . Johnny once joked in his monologue: "I announced that I was going to write my autobiography, and 19 publishers went out and copyrighted the title Cold and Aloof." This was the common perception of him. But Johnny was not aloof; he was polite. He did not presume intimate relationships where there were none; he took time, and with time grew trust. He preserved his dignity by maintaining the personality that was appropriate for him.

The excerpt also includes Martin's chance encounter with Elvis. Classic.

Posted by Tom at 12:10 AM | Comments (0) |

February 19, 2008

Importantitis

Orson%20Welles.jpgTheater critic Terry Teachout made an interesting point the other day in this W$J op-ed about one of the hazards of great achievement relatively early in one's career:

Leonard Bernstein set Broadway on fire in 1957 with "West Side Story," a jazzed-up version of "Romeo and Juliet" in which the Capulets and Montagues were turned into Puerto Rican Sharks and American Jets. It was the most significant musical of the postwar era -- and the last successful work that Bernstein wrote for the stage. His next show, 1976's "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," closed after seven performances. For the rest of his life he floundered, unable to compose anything worth hearing.

What happened? Stephen Sondheim, Bernstein's collaborator on "West Side Story," told Meryle Secrest, who wrote biographies of both men, that he developed "a bad case of importantitis." That sums up Bernstein's later years with devastating finality. Time and again he dove head first into grandiose-sounding projects, then emerged from the depths clutching such pretentious pieces of musical costume jewelry as the "Kaddish" Symphony and "A Quiet Place." In the end he dried up almost completely, longing to make Great Big Musical Statements -- he actually wanted to write a Holocaust opera -- but incapable of producing so much as a single memorable song.

Teachout goes on to discuss the career of Orson Welles, another performer who peaked early with "Citizen Kane" and then spent the remainder of his career attempting to scale that peak again. Teachout compares Welles and novelist Ralph Ellison to choreographer, George Balanchine:

Contrast Ellison's creative paralysis with the lifelong fecundity of the great choreographer George Balanchine, who went about his business efficiently and unpretentiously, turning out a ballet or two every season. Most were brilliant, a few were duds, but no matter what the one he'd just finished was like, and no matter what the critics thought of it, he moved on to the next one with the utmost dispatch, never looking back. "In making ballets, you cannot sit and wait for the Muse," he said. "Union time hardly allows it, anyhow. You must be able to be inventive at any time." That was the way Balanchine saw himself: as an artistic craftsman whose job was to make ballets. Yet the 20th century never saw a more important artist, or one less prone to importantitis.

I've admired the trait that Teachout notes in Balachine in Texas novelist, Larry McMurtry, who churned out interesting novels and short stories for 25 years or so until he reached the pinnacle of his profession at the age of 50 with his 1985 Pulitizer Prize-winning novel, Lonesome Dove. Even after hitting a grand slam with Lonesome Dove, McMurtry didn't rest on his laurels; he went back to work producing a novel every several years or so. Although many of those novels and other works (the screenplay to Brokeback Mountain, for example) have been highly entertaining, he has not been able to produce a work on the level of Lonesome Dove. The odds are that McMurtry won't (he is 72 now), but my sense is that he is much more likely to do so pursuing his craft the way in which he is doing it rather than sitting around contemplating what the next great American novel should be.

Posted by Tom at 12:05 AM | Comments (0) |

January 19, 2008

China Road

china_road_cover_inside.jpgClear Thinkers favorite James Fallows, who is currently working in China for The Atlantic, posts a recommendation for China Road (Random House 2007), a new book about China by NPR's long-time China correspondent Rob Gifford. Inasmuch as one of the best books that I read last year was Adrian Goldsworthy's extraordinary biography of Julius Caesar, Caesar: Life of a Colossus (Yale 2006), one passage from Gifford's book that Fallows includes in his blog post intrigued me, particularly given the West's difficulties over the centuries in maintaining normalized political relations with various Chinese governments:

Chairman Mao was just the most recent of a long line of re-unifiers, and if Emperor Qin were to return to China today, he would recognize the mode of government used by the Communist Party. I have to say that I find this idea rather scary, that two thousand years of history might have done nothing to change the political system of a country. Imagine a Europe today where the Roman Empire had never fallen, that still covered an area from England to North Africa and the Middle East and was run by one man based in Rome, backed by a large army. There you have, roughly, ancient and modern China. The fact that this setup has not changed, or been able to change, in two thousand years must also have huge implications for the question Can China ever change its political system.

Posted by Tom at 12:00 AM | Comments (0) |

September 18, 2007

Until Proven Innocent

Until%20Proven%20Innocent.jpgJeffrey Rosen reviews Stuart Taylor and K.C. Johnson's book on the angry mob that nearly lynched the lives of several young men in the Duke lacrosse team case:

At least “many of the journalists misled by [former DA Mike] Nifong eventually adjusted their views as evidence of innocence” came to light, the authors conclude. That’s more than can be said for Duke’s “activist professors,” 88 of whom signed an inflammatory letter encouraging a rush to judgment by the student protesters who were plastering the campus with wanted posters of the lacrosse team and waving a banner declaring “Castrate.” Even when confronted with DNA evidence of the players’ innocence, these professors refused to apologize and instead incoherently attacked their critics. In the same spirit, the authors charge, the president of Duke, Richard Brodhead, fired the lacrosse coach, canceled the season and condemned the team members for more than eight months. The pandering Brodhead, in this account, is more concerned about placating faculty ideologues than about understanding the realities of student life on his raunchy campus.

Does the foregoing remind you of the actions of another group of self-righteous crusaders?

Posted by Tom at 12:10 AM | Comments (1) |

November 13, 2006

The Blind Side of big-time college football

Blind Side2.jpgLast week, the resignation of my friend, Iowa State head football coach Dan McCarney, prompted this post reflecting on how the pressures of big-time college football prompted a resignation that is quite likely contrary to the long term ability of Iowa State to remain competitive in big-time college football. As if on cue, George Will, in this NY Times book review, provides his view on the new book by Michael Lewis of Moneyball fame, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game.

In Moneyball, Lewis explored how the small-market Oakland Athletics were able to remain competitive against far richer clubs in Major League Baseball by emphasizing objective evaluation of players and, in so doing, introduced sabremetric statistical analysis to the general public. As Will notes, Lewis “is advancing a new genre of journalism that shows how market forces and economic reasoning shape the evolution of sports.” Lewis’s latest book involves big-time college football, which -- as noted earlier here -- has long been a means by which universities in the U.S. have compromised academic integrity to rent athletically-gifted young men to serve as cash cows for the institutions. As noted in my earlier post, the National Football League reaps the fruits (as if those teams really needed it) of an effectively free farm system that college football provides, while the vast majority of the universities -- including Iowa State -- either lose money or barely eke out a profit in their football programs.

Moreover, Lewis examines how the winds of change ripple down from the NFL to big-time college football and dictate the course of the college game. One case in point is Lawrence Taylor, who singlehandedly changed the nature of professional football by becoming the prototype of the huge, athletic and extraordinarily fast outside linebacker who could increase the pressure on the quarterback. At about the same time as Taylor was wreaking havoc on QB's, Bill Walsh's West Coast offense was spreading the field, which made it even more important for teams to find agile offensive linemen to block the likes of Taylor. Most important was to protect the QB's blind side, so the position of left offensive tackle increased in importance and, as a result, the position's economic value skyrocketed.

As demand increased in the NFL for the colleges to produce another kind of freak of nature to play what had been an obscure position but now was now one of the most important positions on the field, Lewis explains that the colleges were more than willing to compromise any notion of academic integrity to admit athletes who project to have the physical stature and talent to play the demanding left tackle position. In short, it's not just the star QB or running back who gets the royal treatment from the institutions in this day and age -- potential left tackles are now included, too. Lewis' book describes one of those freaks of nature, a freshman tackle at the University of Mississippi with an I.Q. of 80 who bounced from foster home to foster home as a youth.

Just as we should not be surprised that many folks enjoy betting illegally on college football, neither should we be shocked with the corruption in college football that Lewis examines in his book. One of my uncles who played SEC football during the late 1920's used to tell me how much money he was paid under the table even in those days. Moreover, there is no question that big-time college football -- even as corrupt as it is -- is a pretty darn entertaining form of corruption. As noted in my previous post, there is a model that would likely minimize the corruptive elements while not affecting the entertainment value of college football much, but it's going to take leadership and courage from the top of the educational institutions to promote and implement such reform.

Unfortunately, those considerations were not on the minds of the Iowa State administrators last week as they began figuring out how to replace a very good football coach who had just left one of the most difficult jobs in his profession. Similarly, my sense is University of Miami president Donna Shalala will not be contemplating those matters when she begins her search to replace Larry Coker later this month as head coach of one of the most storied programs in all of big-time college football. That seems to be the tunnel vision that is generated from the sponsorship of professional football by U.S. academic institutions.

Posted by Tom at 4:35 AM | Comments (0) |

November 10, 2006

A good football coach steps down

Dan McCarney.jpgDan McCarney, the "dean" of the Big 12 Conference football coaches, resigned under pressure on Wednesday as head football coach at Iowa State University after 12 seasons. The announcement barely made a blip in the local Houston media, but Coach Mac's resignation highlighted many aspects of the troubling direction of major college football, a topic that has also been touched on here, here, here and here.

I am biased about Coach McCarney, who is called Coach Mac by most everyone. As regular readers of this blog know (see here and here), Coach Mac and I have been friends since growing up together in Iowa City, Iowa, where we played together on City High School's championship football team in 1970. I moved to Houston with my family shortly after finishing high school and Mac went on to play football at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, but we remained in contact over the years as I went to law school and began a legal career in Houston and Mac went on to the Iowa coaching staff after graduating from undergraduate school. When Hayden Fry was hired to revive the downtrodden Iowa program in 1979, Coach Mac was one of the only coaches who Coach Fry retained from the previous coaching staff. As with most of Coach Fry's personnel decisions, retaining Coach Mac was a good one.

For the following decade, Coach Mac was a part of an extraordinary Iowa coaching staff that not only revived Iowa's football fortunes, but also produced such outstanding head coaches as Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, Kansas State's Bill Snyder, Iowa's Kirk Ferentz and South Florida's Jim Leavitt. In 1990, Coach Mac followed Alvarez to Wisconsin, where they took over a 2-9 Badger program and, by 1993, had the team winning the Big Ten Conference championship with a 10-1-1 record, which included a Rose Bowl victory over UCLA. The next year, Iowa State came calling for Coach Mac and the native Iowan was off to Ames for his first head coaching job.

Over the years, Mac and I have laughed many times about the fact that neither of us really had a clue of what he was getting into at Iowa State. We both knew that the university had long been a coaching graveyard and had eeked out a barely-winning record only a couple of times in the previous 15 years. Ames is nice little college town, but it is in north central Iowa, pretty much in the middle of nowhere in the opinion of most good college football players. As a result, the football program has always struggled to attract good football prospects, who usually have sexier alternatives to living in central Iowa for four years. The physical facilities of Iowa State's football program were poor and the entire football budget at the time was just over $3 million, which was by far the smallest of any public school in the then newly-constituted Big 12 Conference that included such far better-funded programs as Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, and Nebraska, just to name a few. To make matters worse, Iowa State was a clear second fiddle in the state of Iowa to the University of Iowa, which has a far superior football tradition and an athletic budget more than twice as large as Iowa State's. Most folks assume that Kansas State was the toughest head coaching job in the United States before Bill Snyder resurrected it in the 1990's, but I think a good case can be made that the Iowa State job was even more difficult before Coach Mac took over.

To Mac and Iowa State's credit, they agreed at the outset that turning Iowa State's program around was going to be a long-term project. As he did at Iowa and Wisconsin, Mac literally threw himself into the job of rebuilding the Cyclone football program, taking on any speaking engagement and going anywhere to promote Iowa State and its athletic teams. An outstanding recruiter, Mac and his coaching staff began to expand Iowa State's traditional Midwestern recruiting base to such football hotbeds as Texas, Florida and California. Mac began to challenge Iowa's traditional toehold on the best recruits in the state of Iowa. The progress was slow, though -- Mac's teams lost 42 or their 57 games during his first five seasons.

However, by the 2000 season, Mac and his staff had built a solid foundation for the program. Behind QB Sage Rosenfels (yes, the Texans' backup QB), Iowa State went 9-3 during that season and won the university's first post-season bowl game in the university's 108-year football history (over Pitt in the Insight.com Bowl in Tucson). That started a 40 game run where Mac's teams were 25-15, a remarkable feat considering that Iowa State was competing in the brutally-tough Big 12 Conference and playing tough Iowa each season (Mac's teams won six of their last nine games against their in-state rival). By the 2004 and 2005 seasons, Coach Mac had his teams on the cusp of the Big 12 North Division title both seasons only to lose them in an excrutiatingly close final game in each season. Nevertheless, after Iowa State had gone to only four bowl games in its history before Coach Mac's tenure, Mac took the Cyclones to five bowl games in six years, winning two of them. Coming into the 2006 season, optimism was high that the Cyclones would again contend for the Big 12 North Division championship and go to yet another bowl game.

Alas, the 2006 season did not turn out as planned. First, the Cyclones faced one of the toughest schedules in the country, including an initial stretch of Big 12 games at Texas, at home against Nebraska, at Oklahoma and at home against Texas Tech. Iowa State lost all four and were battered in the process, losing six senior starters to season-ending injury. Lack of depth is a chronic Achille's Heel at a place such as Iowa State, so a thin and deflated Cyclone team was smoked over the past two weeks by mediocre Kansas State and Kansas teams. That brought out the "what have you done for me lately" crowd in full force, many of whom were calling on Iowa State to fire Coach Mac despite the fact that few of them have any idea how difficult it is to win consistently at the top levels of major college football.

Suddenly, a little over a year after one of Mac's best wins as a coach, Mac concluded it was not right for him to become a divisive issue for the university. Understanding Spike Dykes' advice that "you lose 10% of your support each season" as a college football coach, Mac understood that he was 20% in the hole at Iowa State based on that formula. So, he elected to resign as head football coach at Iowa State, a difficult job that he would have gladly continued to perform for the rest of his coaching days. Take a moment to watch his performance during the press conference (click the video camera icon on the left side of the page) to announce his resignation -- Mac exudes the class and passion with which he handled all of his duties at Iowa State. In this age of cold-hearted and businesslike coaches who are constantly posturing for the "better" job, it is refreshing to watch someone such as Mac, who wears his big heart and humanity on his sleeve.

Thus, 12 years after arriving at Iowa State, Mac leaves the football program in far better shape than he found it. The football budget has quadrupled in size under Mac, but it remains the smallest of any public institution in the Big 12 Conference (Texas and A&M's football budgets are at least 4 to 5 times larger than Iowa State's). Mac worked behind the scenes continually to improve Iowa State's facilities and they have improved substantially during his time there. However, Cyclone athletic department officials are now attempting to raise another $135 million for facilities upgrades in an effort to keep up with the seemingly endless arms race of major college football. In one of the more bizarre aspects of Mac's resignation, that imminent capital funds campaign was one of the key pressure points that prompted the resignation of the best fundraiser in the history of the Cyclone football program. So it goes in trying to keep up with the Joneses in the wacky world of college football.

After coaching the Iowa State team in its final two games this season, Mac will kick back for a few days, but then I suspect that he will back out looking for another opportunity. His motor is always running and he has a passionate love for coaching. Inasmuch as Mac is widely popular among his fellow coaches, I am confident that he will land on his feet.

However, I am not so sure about Iowa State. The institution is caught in the proverbial rat race of attempting to compete with far-better funded programs and the gap between Iowa State's resources and those of programs such as Texas and A&M are likely to get even larger. The pressure of that competition has now prompted Iowa State's administration to take what appears to be a huge risk that the program will decline from the solid foundation that Mac painstakingly built over the past 12 years.

Does Iowa State think that it is going to hire someone who will magically recruit better athletes to Ames than Mac? That's highly doubtful as Mac is one of the best recruiters in the business and Ames is always going to be a difficult sell to all but a few of the best football prospects. Does the institution think that it is going to hire someone who will coach better than Mac? Maybe, but Mac is a pretty darn good coach and how many more wins does Iowa State really believe it can achieve through slightly better coaching methods? And even Iowa State officials readily concede that it is highly unlikely that they will ever be able to find someone who can match Mac's tireless enthusiasm for promoting the institution and the football program.

The bottom line is that seasons such as the one that the Cyclones and Mac are enduring this season are inevitable at a program such as Iowa State's. That is one of the costs of attempting to compete with limited resources at the highest level of major college football. That's not a particularly pleasant reality, but it's dubious decision-making to take big risks based on an emotional reaction to a disappointing result that is inevitable. That appears to be precisely what Iowa State is doing in letting Mac get away. Wouldn't embracing a good coach who understands the institution's limitations and has competed effectively in spite of them be far less risky and much more likely to result in continued success?

Ironically, the Cyclone family now finds itself looking for a new head coach who has the depth and characteristics of . . . well, Dan McCarney. Iowa State will be extremely fortunate if they find one.

Posted by Tom at 4:44 AM | Comments (4) |

October 9, 2006

The NY Times on James Baker's new book

baker_19122003.jpgFormer White House Chief of Staff, Secretary of State and Secretary of Treasury James Baker, III, who spends his time these days at the Baker Institute at Rice University, has written a new book entitled “Work Hard, Study . . . and Keep Out of Politics!” Adventures and Lessons From an Unexpected Public Life." The title of the book is the legendary advice of Baker's grandfather, James Addison Baker, who was one of the founders of the venerable Houston law firm, Baker & Botts.

This NY Times review of Baker's new book belittles the current Bush Administration, even though the book does no such thing. That passes for a book review in the NY Times these days.

Posted by Tom at 5:03 AM | Comments (2) |

October 5, 2006

Runnin' with the Dogs at Texas-OU Weekend

Texas-OU.jpgThe greatest annual rivalry game in college football is renewed this Saturday in Dallas as the Texas Longhorns and the Oklahoma Sooners strap it on at the Cotton Bowl, and this year's game is highlighted by a new book about the game, Mike Shropshire's Runnin' with the Big Dogs: The True, Unvarnished Story of the Texas-Oklahoma Football Wars (William Morrow 2006).

Shropshire's book is rollicking fun, focusing on the classic 1967 game, which is the first game of the series that he covered. However, the author also vividly develops the culture of the game, which involves a blow-out weekend in Dallas each year during which wild-eyed fans of each team continually confront one another. Legendary coaches such as Darrell Royal, Bud Wilkinson and Barry Switzer are a big part of the book, as are current stellar coaches, OU's Bob Stoops and UT's Mack Brown. In this recent Wall Street Journal ($) review of the book, Texas Monthly's Skip Hollandsworth observes the following about the game's unique setting:

[T]he atmosphere is so combustible that it really makes no sense to play the game in the hometown of either team. So it's played at a neutral site: the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Which means that on the Friday before the game, Interstate 35 coming south from Oklahoma and north from Austin is jammed with frenzied fans, their cars, SUVs and pickups decorated with either red Boomer Sooner or orange Longhorn flags and their back windows covered with semi-obscene slogans decrying their rival's ineptitude and lack of -- how to put it? -- manhood and legitimate parentage.

By the time these fans hit the city limits, horns are blowing and beer cans are flying out the windows. The fans either check into hotels (which are booked months in advance) or they barge into the homes of friends and relatives who have ill-advisedly agreed to let them stay. Soon they're out again on Dallas's streets, resuming the horn-blowing and can-tossing. I have some Dallas friends who are so determined to avoid the Texas-OU madness that they don't just leave town; they leave the state.

When the game finally begins, few of these fans have had any sleep. They're bellowing at the enemy and clutching the flasks of margaritas that they smuggled into the stadium -- and those are just the grandparents. As Mr. Shropshire writes in his very entertaining history of the rivalry: "You'll find audiences more genteel and reserved at cock fights."

And Hollandsworth passes along one of his favorite anecdotes about the annual rivalry:

In 1976, Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer and Texas coach Darrell Royal were standing with President Gerald Ford right before the pre-game coin toss. An Oklahoma fan, standing nearby, suddenly yelled: "Hey, who are those assholes with Switzer?"

Who can't love a game that has included players named Wahoo McDaniel (who later became popular on the pro wrestling circuit), the appropriately-named Joe Don Looney (what was the name of that remote island where he ended up?) and the majestically-named Duke Carlisle? Kick-off is at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday.

Posted by Tom at 5:05 AM | Comments (6) |

August 5, 2006

The view from the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan

rory stewart.jpgScottish author and diplomat Rory Stewart has packed a lifetime of fascinating experiences into his 33 years. In this interesting interview tucked into the weekend Wall Street Journal ($), the WSJ's Jeffrey Trachtenberg talks with Stewart, who has become one of the foremost authorities on the day-to-day problems involved in stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan after years of brutal totalitarian governments.

Born in Hong Kong, Stewart went on to receive undergraduate and master's degrees in Modern History and Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Balliol College, Oxford University, and has written for the New York Times Magazine, Granta and the London Review of Books. After college, Stewart served in the British Army and Foreign Office in a variety of capacities before electing in 2000 to set off on a two-year, 6,000 mile walking journey through Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal. He chronicled his journey through Afghanistan during the the winter of 2002 in The Places in Between (Picador/Macmillan 2004), which Harcourt Harvest published this past May in paperback.

Stewart returned to public service in late 2003 as Deputy Governorate Coordinator (Amara/Maysan) and Senior Adviser and Deputy Governorate Coordinator (Nasiriyah/Dhi Qar) in which Stewart established the governance structures of Maysan province, resolved tribal disputes to restore security and consolidate the authority of the Iraqi government and the police, set up NGOs and civil society organizations, ran municipal elections, inaugurated a new Provincial Council in Dhi Qar and saw the province through to the transfer of sovereignty in June 2004. Stewart was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by the British Government for his service in Iraq.

Last week, Harcourt published Stewart's second book -- The Prince of the Marshes -- in which Stewart describes his recent experiences in Iraq, including the troubling problem of persuading the Iraqis to embrace the Coalition's mission there and the abject failure of a Coalition military unit from Italy to come to Mr. Stewart's rescue when his compound came under a brutal mortar attack. During the WSJ interview, Stewart provides many insights into the practical problems involved in stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan, including the following:

Q: Did you expect to find the Afghanistan you describe in your first book -- poor, hungry and feudalistic?

A: No, I was surprised. I wasn't prepared for how poor and remote from the rest of the world Afghanistan turned out to be.

Q: Is Afghanistan going to be a perpetual war zone?

A: For the next generation it will be fragile and unstable. You're unlikely to have much government control of the tribal areas. People have a very strong sense of honor and admiration for courage. Particularly young men can become quite excitable and sympathetic towards violence. The older generation would like peace. But half the population is under 18, and that's where a lot of the trouble is coming from.

Q: Very few people you met [in Afghanistan] seemed opposed to the Taliban. Does this suggest that fundamentalism is part of the country's culture?

A: Rural communities are much more conservative in their Islamic beliefs than we acknowledge. If they had problems with the Taliban it had to do with burning their village, or stealing a donkey. But they were in favor of the social codes. In Kabul, there is a lot of unhappiness that people are allowed to drink alcohol. Outside the urban areas you'll find people are surprisingly xenophobic.

Q: Near the end of book, you describe a mortar and small arms attack on your compound in Nasiriyah. Is Iraq the new Yugoslavia, a country that only a tyrant could govern?

A: I don't know the answer to that question. Certain Iraqis seem to want a more authoritarian government. We were pushing for gentler policing, but a lot of Iraqis were suspicious of that. Iraq probably needs a very firm government to restore security. What it needs above all are good politicians flexible enough to restore a sense of national identity.

Q: In light of the behavior of the Italian Quick Reaction Force when your compound was attacked, what chance is there that a multinational armed force can successfully serve as a buffer between Israel and Lebanon?

A: This is a real problem. I don't believe in multinational armed forces except as a symbol. As a fighting force they are often inadequate militarily. Their strength is political; their presence spreads the blame. A coalition says a broader section of the international community is involved. The interesting thing is that the Nasiriyah province is looking better than some other parts of Iraq. Perhaps the Italian approach of doing very little turned out to have positive consequences, in that the Iraqis sorted themselves out rather than relying on foreigners.

Jonathan Tepperman, deputy managing editor of Foreign Affairs, has more on the folly of relying on a multinational force to resolve the ongoing Hezbollah-Israeli conflict.

Posted by Tom at 8:52 AM | Comments (0) |

July 18, 2006

"A peep show of utter horror"

death penalty2.jpgOn of my favorite books of 2003 was Erik Larson's Devil in the White City (Crown 2003) (website here), the engaging tale of Chicago and the 1893 World's Fair, which has just finished an astounding 124th straight week on the NY Times Bestseller List. A movie is currently being planned for the book, so the Chicago Sun-Times interviewed Larson and several other experts on the "White City" to determine the source of the fascination over the 1893 Fair:

On the one hand, Larson says, the White City was designed and built by the Gilded Age elite "as a way of demonstrating that America could come up with this level of sophistication. They went for drama at a time when architecture had very little relevance for most of the country, paving the way for things to come by inserting into the American psyche an appreciation for architecture. The sheer beauty in that array of buildings in the Court of Honor, ingeniously using the backdrop of the lake to stage the whole thing, was enough to knock anybody flat."

But if the White City was a dream made real, much of the rest of Chicago was a nightmare.

"The fair gripped people," [Chicago Architecture Foundation lecturer Christopher] Multhauf says, "partly because it was a vision of beauty in a place that was so squalid." The streets were a quagmire of mud and manure, the air laced with soot and the rank aroma of stockyards and slaughterhouses. Poverty was widespread; labor unrest simmered and sometimes boiled. Prostitution flourished. Not far from the baronial mansions of Prairie Avenue, there were 31 brothels on Clark Street between Congress and Harrison, all of which were open at the time of the fair. The German writer Paul Lindau called Chicago "a peep show of utter horror, but extraordinarily to the point."

Read the entire article and, if you have not already done so, pick up this fine book.

Posted by Tom at 5:56 AM | Comments (0) |

March 20, 2006

The Odd Couple -- Ali and Cosell

cosell and Ali.jpgIn this NY Times article, Boxing author Budd Schulberg reviews Dave Kindred's new book about the fascinating relationship between Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell, Sound and Fury : Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship (Free Press 2006). Schulberg gives the book a hearty thumbs up, and notes that Kindred opens by describing the Ali-Cosell relationship in the context of Edith Wharton's famous quotation about light:

"There are two sources of light, / The candle, / And the mirror that reflects it." The homely kid from Brooklyn and the black Adonis from Louisville alter-egoed each other so perfectly that each seems both candle and mirror to the other.

Schulberg also notes in his review two of best lines about Cosell:

[T]the gifted columnist Jimmy Cannon skewered Cosell as the only guy who ever "changed his name and put on a toupee to 'tell it like it is,' " and the boxing historian Bert Randolph Sugar said, "He demonstrated again and again that he knows very little about the game but is not afraid to describe it" . . .

Posted by Tom at 6:19 AM | Comments (0) |

November 28, 2005

The gift of a good book

reading a bookpoint.gifIf you are looking for a holiday gift idea, check out The New York Times Book Review's 100 Notable Books of the Year 2005, along with its lists for 2004 and 2003. For a time, you can review the Times' notable book lists from 1997 through 2002 here.

Posted by Tom at 5:58 AM | Comments (1) |

July 18, 2005

Why they hate us

Faith at War.jpgYaroslav Trofimov is a Wall Street Journal reporter from the Ukraine who is fluent in Arabic. While carrying an Italian passport, Mr. Trofimov traveled through the Middle East recently interviewing Muslims for his new book, Faith at War : A Journey on the Frontlines of Islam, from Baghdad to Timbuktu (Henry Holt and Co. 2005).

In this NY Times Book Review, reviewer Philip Caputo notes that many of Mr. Trofimov's encounters led him to the conclusion that poverty is not the root cause of Islamic extremism. More often than not, the most radical ideas regarding Western civilization came from the relatively wealthy and privileged who had experience with the West, not the downtrodden who are typically cast as the primary source of Muslim animus toward the West. One anecdotal experience is particularly telling:

On [Mr. Trofimov's] first stop, Cairo, undergraduates dining in a McDonald's a few days after 9/11 demonstrate that it's possible to delight in a Big Mac and in the fiery deaths of 3,000 Americans at the same time. "Everyone celebrated," an 18-year-old university student gushes as she dips her fries into ketchup, "cheering that America finally got what it deserved."

Posted by Tom at 6:48 AM | Comments (0) |

June 29, 2005

Shelby Foote, R.I.P.

shelby foote.jpgShelby Foote, the historian whose three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative took him 20 years to write and who became the star of Ken Burns' 11-hour 1990 PBS documentary on the Civil War, died on Monday at a Memphis hospital at the age of 88.

Here is Mr. Foote's description of Gen. Robert E. Lee's slow ride home after surrendering at Appomattox:

Grief brought a sort of mass relaxation that let Traveller [Lee's horse] proceed, and as he moved through the press of soldiers, bearing the gray commander on his back, they reached out to touch both horse and rider, withers and knees, flanks and thighs, in expression of their affection.

Posted by Tom at 6:51 AM | Comments (0) |

June 17, 2005

Squandered Victory

squandered victory.jpgOver a year ago, this post noted Hoover fellow and former U.S. Iraqi advisor Larry Diamond's reservations the United States' failure to provide adequate security for the Iraqi people who are willing to risk commitment to democratic principles.

Now, Mr. Diamond has written a book on his experiences in Iraq and, according to this New York Times book review, the book harshly criticizes the Bush Administration's adoption of the Rumsfeld Policy of attempting to reconstruct Iraq with a relatively small fighting force:

Mr. Diamond believes that one of the "most ill-fated decisions of the postwar engagement" was President Bush's acceptance of the plan designed by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld - "to go into Iraq with a relatively light force of about 150,000 coalition troops, despite the warnings of the United States Army and outside experts on post-conflict reconstruction that - whatever the needs of the war itself - securing the peace would require a force two to three times that size." Committing more troops than the United States initially did, Mr. Diamond argues, "would have necessitated an immediate mobilization of the military reserves and National Guard (which would come later, in creeping fashion), and might have alarmed the public into questioning the costs and feasibility of the entire operation" - a development that might have slowed the gallop to war.

The lack of sufficient troops, Mr. Diamond goes on, would create a further set of problems: an inability to prevent looting and restore law and order, which would further undermine Iraqis' trust in the United States; and inability to seal the country's borders, which would allow foreign terrorists to enter and help foment further violence. "The first lesson," Mr. Diamond writes, "is that we cannot get to Jefferson and Madison without going through Thomas Hobbes. You can't build a democratic state unless you first have a state, and the essential condition for a state is that it must have an effective monopoly over the means of violence."

Posted by Tom at 5:17 AM | Comments (0) |

March 20, 2005

More on "Conspiracy of Fools"

Conspiracy of Fools.jpgFollowing this earlier excerpt, The New York Sunday Times is running this second excerpt from Kurt Eichenwald's new book on the Enron scandal, Conspiracy of Fools.

I am about halfway through Conspiracy of Fools and it is excellent. With more information and the benefit of more hindsight, Mr. Eichenwald's book will likely replace the earlier Smartest Guys in the Room as the best book on the Enron scandal.

Posted by Tom at 11:16 AM | Comments (3) |

February 24, 2005

The real economics of Hollywood

This Jonathon V. Last-Daily Standard article reviews Edward Jay Epstein's new book, The Big Picture (Random House 2005), which examines the fascinating and ever-changing economics of moviemaking. To give you an idea of what's going on in Hollywood economics, consider this:

In 1947, Hollywood sold 4.7 billion movie tickets. The studios were hugely profitable movie factories.

Times have changed. . . Television came to compete with the movies, as did home video. And despite a population boom, movie-going fell out of favor. In 2003, only 1.57 billion tickets were sold, a third the number 56 years earlier, while the real cost of making movies increased some 1,600 percent.

It wasn't just production costs that exploded. Today the average movie costs $4.2 million to distribute and nearly $35 million just to advertise. (The comparable 1947 figures, adjusted for inflation, were $550,000 and $300,000.) Such peripheral costs, Epstein explains, have grown so large that "even if the studios had somehow managed to obtain all their movies for free, they would still have lost money on their American releases."

How did Hollywood respond? Epstein observes that Hollywood transformed itself from a factory for making movies into a clearinghouse for intellectual property, which is at least as profitable as making movies used to be. The result?

The truth is that, even with terrible movies, the studios have to try hard not to make money. In this way, today's Hollywood is very much like the studio system of old. The two business models are so favorable that the quality of the product is beside the point. The difference, of course, is that the movies from the studio era were often quite good.

Read the entire review. Hat tip to EconoLog for the link to this review.

Posted by Tom at 6:30 AM | Comments (1) |

January 31, 2005

Disneywar

First it was the battle to fight off the Comcast bid.

Then, it was the trial of the corporate case of the decade.

Now, it's the book -- Disneywar: The Battle for the Magic Kingdom (Simon & Schuster; 2005) by James B. Stewart, the former Pulitizer Prize winning Wall Street Journal reporter and the author of Den of Thieves, which chronicled the insider trading scandals of the 1980's. According to this NY Times article, Mr. Stewart's new book is not going to be particularly complimentary of Disney CEO, Michael D. Eisner.

Regardless of one's opinion of Mr. Eisner's performance in running Disney from a business standpoint, everyone must concede that he does have a knack for keeping the company in the news.

Alas, yet another epitaph that few CEO's envision: "Kept company in the news."

Posted by Tom at 6:05 AM | Comments (0) |

January 14, 2005

Galveston's Jack Johnson

In this NY Times Book Review, David Margolick reviews Geoffrey C. Ward's new biography on Galveston's Jack Johnson, who was the first black heavyweight champion of the world. Johnson's story is an enthralling and important tale.

When Johnson first won the heavyweight championship at the relatively advanced age (for a boxer) of 30 in 1908, it was one of the most important dates for African-Americans between Emancipation and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's. At the time, the mere idea of a black man being the heavyweight champ sent many people into a panic, including more than a few in the press corps. When retired heavyweight champ Jim Jeffries was persuaded to make an unwise comeback to take on Johnson late in 1908, Johnson's throttling of the over-the-hill Jeffries triggered some of the nation's worst race riots of the early 20th century.

Inasmuch as Johnson endured a substantial risk of being lynched at some of his fights, his prominence and feats staked new ground for many black Americans, who were still just a half century removed from slavery. During this week in which the modern news media has been expressing outrage at Randy Moss' touchdown celebration last Sunday at Green Bay, it is important to remember that such silliness likely would have prompted far worse consequences in America less than a century ago.

Stylistically, Johnson was the precursor of Muhammad Ali. He developed artful footwork and movement to avoid the bull charges of the other heavyweights of the era, which was dominated by brawlers. Although the media of the era acknowledged Johnson's physical strength, standard racial stereotypes of those times held that black fighters lacked substance and would wilt when truly tested. The fearless and provocative Johnson took that stereotype and stood it on its head.

After he lost the title, Johnson -- who died in a car crash in 1946 at the age of 68 -- became a frustrated and embittered man, who in his later years even turned on the American legend, Joe Louis. As a result, Johnson alienated himself from even the generally supportive African-American community of the times, which was much more comfortable with the soothing presence of Mr. Louis. It was not until after Ali took a page from Johnson's free-spirited ways in promoting his boxing career that historians began to reassess the meaning of Johnson's life and societal impact. That process continues with Mr. Ward's new book, as well as Ken Burns' new documentary, The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson: Unforgivable Blackness, which premieres on PBS on January 17 (next Monday).

Check out this fascinating story about a remarkable Houston-area native. You will not be disappointed.

Posted by Tom at 5:41 AM | Comments (0) |

December 23, 2004

Death in Texas

Sister Helen Prejean is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille in Louisiana. She is America's leading abolitionist with regard to the death penalty and the author of Dead Man Walking, which was made into one of the best movies about the death penalty.

In the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books, this article is adapted from Sister Prejean's new book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions that Random House is releasing next month. Sister Prejean sharply criticizes then-Governor George Bush's denials of clemency to a large number of Texas death row defendants in Texas, noting that he distanced "himself from his legal and moral responsibility for executions." The entire article is compelling reading, as the following excerpt reflects:

George W. Bush during his six years as governor of Texas presided over 152 executions, more than any other governor in the recent history of the United States. Bush has said: "I take every death penalty case seriously and review each case carefully.... Each case is major because each case is life or death." In his autobiography, A Charge to Keep (1999), he wrote, "For every death penalty case, [legal counsel] brief[s] me thoroughly, reviews the arguments made by the prosecution and the defense, raises any doubts or problems or questions." Bush called this a "fail-safe" method for ensuring "due process" and certainty of guilt.

He might have succeeded in bequeathing to history this image of himself as a scrupulously fair-minded governor if the journalist Alan Berlow had not used the Public Information Act to gain access to fifty-seven confidential death penalty memos that Bush's legal counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, whom President Bush has recently nominated to be attorney general of the United States, presented to him, usually on the very day of execution.[1] The reports Gonzales presented could not be more cursory. Take, for example, the case of Terry Washington, a mentally retarded man of thirty-three with the communication skills of a seven-year-old. Washington's plea for clemency came before Governor Bush on the morning of May 6, 1997. After a thirty-minute briefing by Gonzales, Bush checked "Deny" ? just as he had denied twenty-nine other pleas for clemency in his first twenty-eight months as governor.

But Washington's plea for clemency raised substantial issues, which called for thoughtful, fair-minded consideration, not the least of which was the fact that Washington's mental handicap had never been presented to the jury that condemned him to death. Gonzales's legal summary, however, omitted any mention of Washington's mental limitations as well as the fact that his trial lawyer had failed to enlist the help of a mental health expert to testify on his client's behalf. When Washington's postconviction lawyers took on his defense, they researched deeply into his childhood and came up with horrifying evidence of abuse. Terry Washington, along with his ten siblings, had been beaten regularly with whips, water hoses, extension cords, wire hangers, and fan belts. This was mitigation of the strongest kind, but Washington's jury never heard it. Nor is there any evidence that Gonzales told Bush about it.

The article concludes with the following observation:

As governor, Bush certainly did not stand apart in his routine refusal to deny clemency to death row petitioners, but what does set him apart is the sheer number of executions over which he has presided. Callous indifference to human suffering may also set Bush apart. He may be the only government official to mock a condemned person's plea for mercy, then lie about it afterward, claiming humane feelings he never felt. On the contrary, it seems that Bush is comfortable with using violent solutions to solve troublesome social and political realities.

Read the entire article.

Posted by Tom at 8:36 AM | Comments (0) |

December 22, 2004

Sports notes on UH bball, Jackie Sherrill, golf, Mack Brown, Gene Conley and Friday Night Lights, Houston style

The Houston Cougars men's basketball team had a nice win over LSU last night, as new coach Tom Penders continues to make my post on his hiring look bad.

Meanwhile, former Texas A&M, Pittsburgh, and Mississippi State head football coach Jackie Sherrill has teed off on the NCAA in a lawsuit over in Mississippi. The over/under bet on this lawsuit is $1 million.

On a more pleasant note, 55 year old Austin resident Tom Kite -- fresh off an impressive performance in the 2004 U.S. Open -- plans to rejoin the regular PGA Tour next month and become the oldest exempt player in Tour history.

Also on the golf scene, in concrete evidence that securities regulators do not have enough to do, this recent Wall Street Journal ($) article reports that regulators have embarked on sweeping inquiries into Wall Street gift-and-entertainment practices, particularly golf junkets that Wall Street firms provide to mutual-fund executives and other money managers they are trying to woo for trading business:

NASD regulators, for example, have started to examine golf outings that Bank of America Corp. provided to Fidelity Investments' head of stock trading, people familiar with the matter said. As the bank worked in recent years to win trading business from Fidelity, it hosted the executive, Scott DeSano, at the annual AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament several times, allowing him to play alongside the pros competing in the event, which raises money for charity.

What next? Eliot Spitzer to sue?

Also in the combat department, as the University of Texas football team and its supporters prepare for their trip to L.A. for the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, the Dallas Morning News' Greg Fraley throws down the gauntlet and declares the run for the Roses a make or break game for Longhorn coach Mack Brown:

Texas and Brown must win a game on the main stage for once, or never again demand to play with the big boys.

It will be a real live put-up-or-shut-up game for a team notorious for underachieving in these moments. . .

It will be the Longhorns' highest-profile bowl appearance since they went into the 1978 Cotton Bowl ranked No. 1 but lost to Notre Dame.

This is not the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl, a regular stop off the main bowl draft for the Longhorns. . .

The only way the Longhorns' task could have been easier would have been if Pittsburgh had landed in Pasadena.

Michigan is 13th in the BCS standings. Only Pitt, the Big East co-champion, is worse among the eight schools in BCS bowls at No. 21.

Michigan, which shared the championship of the stodgy Big Ten with Iowa, has the name but not the chops this season.

The Wolverines lost to Notre Dame, which has fired its coach, and to Ohio State (7-4). San Diego State came within three points of the Wolverines, at Michigan.

This is not an opponent of the USC-Oklahoma-Auburn level. Michigan is not even Utah, which may be out of coaches before its bowl game.

The Longhorns must cleanly handle Michigan and prove they belong at this level, . . .

Brown asked for this chance. Now, he must do something with it.

And that would be a first, too.

Brown has been a convenient target of barbs because his teams promise so much and deliver so little under the spotlight.

In 17 seasons at North Carolina and Texas, Brown has never won a conference title. That is somewhat understandable at North Carolina, where basketball is king and Florida State was in the conference for part of his tenure.

An 0-for at Texas, flush with resources and talent, is unfathomable.

The bigger the moment, the worse Brown's Texas teams have played. Look at his big-game resume:

? Five consecutive losses to Oklahoma and uber-coach Bob Stoops.

This is as big a mismatch as there is in the college game. The thought of Stoops throws Brown into a panic. The gap is growing. Texas' dull offense does not even challenge Stoops and his staff.

? An 0-2 record in Big 12 championship games. Texas lost to Nebraska in 1999 and, with a BCS berth at hand, was upset by Colorado in 2001.

? A 3-3 bowl record. Last year's 28-20 loss to Washington State represented a dreadful showing by Brown and his staff. Texas acted as if it had no idea Washington State, which led Division I-A in sacks, would blitz. With the offense collapsing in the face of the heavy blitz pressure, Brown removed the mobile quarterback (Vince Young) for the stationary quarterback (Chance Mock).

Reputations are formed by a body of work. There are lots of wins but no landmark triumphs during Brown's seven seasons with Texas.

A win against Michigan would have substance because of the setting.

A loss to Michigan would make it easy not to take Brown seriously for a long time. . .

Moving to thoughts of Christmas, if you are looking for a gift for a sports-interested family member or friend, this Boston Globe article reviews the new book by Gene Conley, one of the last athletes to play two professional sports (Major League Baseball and the NBA) at the same time for much of his professional career. Conley's is a remarkable story, as reflected by this snippet from the article:

There was the time he struck out Ted Williams in the All-Star Game. Then there was the time he had to separate Tom Heinsohn from Wilt Chamberlain during a heated exchange in an NBA game. . . No one else ever won a championship ring in two major sports. No one else played against Jackie Robinson, Frank Robinson, and Oscar Robertson. No one else played with Carl Yastrzemski during the summer, then joined Bob Cousy for the winter. No one else lockered next to Hank Aaron and Bill Russell in the same calendar year.

Conley also confirms the truth about the legendary story in which he and a teammate got off the Red Sox team bus and Conley was not seen again for 68 hours. Ah, those were the days.

Finally, this Houston Press article provides an interesting analysis of the evolution of the high-powered suburban high school football programs in the Houston metropolitan area. Call it the natural evolution of Friday Night Lights.

Posted by Tom at 8:07 AM | Comments (2) |

December 15, 2004

A Fight at the Opera

Herbert Breslin became master tenor Luciano Pavarotti's publicist in 1967 and ultimately dumped Placido Domingo from his client list so that he could become Pavarotti's manager. He lasted as Pavarotti's manager for 35 years.

However, now Mr. Breslin is Mr. Pavarotti's ex-manager, and he has written a book about Pavarotti that is the subject of this hilarious NY Times Book Review by Jane and Michael Stein. Here are a couple of delicious snippets:

As Pavarotti got bigger in every way, Breslin's adoration shrank. By the time of the Three Tenors, a pop phenomenon engineered not by Breslin but by the impresario Tibor Rudas, Breslin was miserable. "A big, big, big mistake" is how he describes Pavarotti's original deal to sing with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras for charity, lamenting that "Once, I had been Luciano's creator. . . . Now I had been reduced to his foil. My role was to act as a buffer and, most important, to get him more money." Finally he bemoans that "managing an artist can be like serving a life sentence in Alcatraz."

And what of Pavarotti's legendary appetite?:

Gluttony is a big theme in Breslin's demystification. "It's not just that he likes to eat," he snipes. "He loves to smell food, to touch food, to prepare food, to think about food, to talk about food. When he comes into a room, he begins sniffing like a dog, and his first question is, 'What smells so good?'" We are treated to scenes of him using a tablespoon to gobble up caviar to the point of nausea and of his "swaying belly flowing over the edge of the chaise longue."
Not only is Pavarotti a pig, but he has bad taste, and his house in Modena "looks like something on Queens Boulevard, crammed with trinkets, tchotchkes, anything and everything." When Pavarotti falls in love with the decor of his suite at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, he makes Breslin buy all the furniture, drapes and bedspread, and ship it to Modena. "It looks like a big blood clot," Breslin observes.

Read the entire review. What a hoot!

Posted by Tom at 5:09 AM | Comments (0) |

November 24, 2004

The real Oskar Schindler

This NY Times book review examines Holocaust historian David M. Crowe's authoritative new biography of Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who saved more than 1,000 Jews from the Nazis during World War II.

Interestingly, Mr. Crowe's book -- Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities and the True Story Behind the List (Westview Press 2004) -- differs sharply with the idealized portrayal of Schindler in the Oscar-winning 1993 Steven Spielberg movie Schindler's List and Thomas Keneally's 1982 historical novel that inspired the movie.

One of the particularly interesting differences between the book and the movie is how Schindler's Jewish workers are depicted as Schindler prepares to flee in the face of the Russian invaders. In the movie, the Jews are depicted as worn down and overwhelmed. Mr. Crowe contends that the Schindler had in fact prepared the Jews to be "an armed guerilla group. "They were armed to the teeth, ready to fight till the death."

Check out the review.

Posted by Tom at 6:24 AM | Comments (0) |

November 16, 2004

The Godfather Returns

This NY Times book review tells us about The Godfather Returns, the latest book in the Godfather series that the late Mario Puzo began in the 1960's.

Before Mr. Puzo died in 1999, he signed off on the hiring of someone to continue the Godfather saga. So, in 2002, Random House ran a contest to pick the successor to Mr. Puzo, and the winner was Mark Winegardner, who is chairman of the creative writing program at Florida State University.

The review basically says that the book is decent, but lacks the originality of the original book and the first two Godfather films. Stated another way, the book is not as good a story as the first Godfather novel, or the Godfather and Godfather II films, but is better than Francis Ford Coppolla's abomination, Godfather III. Thank goodness for that.

Posted by Tom at 6:06 AM | Comments (0) |

November 5, 2004

Perilous Times

In this New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani reviews Perilous Times, the new book about American restrictions on civil liberties and free speech by Geoffrey R. Stone, the Harry Kalven Jr. distinguished service professor of law at the University of Chicago. As the review notes, the restrictions of civil liberties under the recent Patriot Act are not unusual in time of war in the United States, regardless of whether the President is a Republican or a Democrat:

Impassioned yet methodical, [Professor Stone] lays out the vital role that free speech plays in a healthy system of self-governance, using lots of case studies to illustrate his arguments while creating a devastating portrait of those public figures whose commitment to free speech has been weak or hypocritical. Woodrow Wilson, who tried to squelch any disharmony that might impede his mission of making "the world safe for democracy," comes off especially poorly, and Franklin D. Roosevelt emerges as a president who would support civil liberties in the abstract, "but not when they got in his way."

However, Professor Stone is reassuring that America's commitment to civil liberties is strong, and that each period of restriction has been followed by a period of stronger restoration:

After each period in which the nation went too far in restricting civil liberties, Mr. Stone argues, "the nation's commitment to free speech rebounded, usually rather quickly, sometimes more robustly than before." A Congressional report declared that the Sedition Act of 1798 had been passed under a "mistaken exercise" of power and was "null and void." The Sedition Act of 1918, which was repealed two years later, helped give birth to the modern civil liberties movement. And in 1976, President Ford formally prohibited the C.I.A. from using electronic or physical surveillance to collect information on domestic activities of Americans, and the new F.B.I. director, Clarence Kelly, publicly apologized for F.B.I. abuses under J. Edgar Hoover.

Such developments buttress Mr. Stone's argument that "the major restrictions of civil liberties of the past would be less thinkable today than they were in 1798, 1861, 1917, 1942, 1950 or 1969," and that "in terms of both the evolution of constitutional doctrine and the development of a national culture more attuned to civil liberties, the United States has made substantial progress." Mr. Stone writes that in its 1971 Pentagon Papers decision (which held that the government had not met its "heavy burden of showing justification" for a prior restraint on the press), "the Supreme Court, for the first time in American history, stood tall - in wartime - for the First Amendment." That case was only one in a series of Vietnam-era decisions in which the court suggested its understanding, in Mr. Stone's words, "that dissent is easily chilled, that government often acts out of intolerance when it suppresses dissent, and that it is essential to protect speech at the margin."

Read the entire review.

Posted by Tom at 7:58 AM | Comments (4) |

October 25, 2004

Joseph Ellis on George Washington

Brandeis history professor David Hackett Fischer -- author of Washington's Crossing and (Oxford 2003) and Paul Revere's Ride (Oxford 1994) -- provides this favorable book review of Mount Holyoke College history professor Joseph J. Ellis' (author of Founding Brothers (Vintage 2002) and biographies on Thomas Jefferson and John Adams) new book, His Excellency: George Washington (Knopf 2004).

Professor Fischer notes that Professor Ellis' book is skeptical of the "conventional idea of Washington as a leader who won the trust of others by honesty, virtue, dignity, and character; a man not consumed by ambition or avarice, but driven by his ideals, and devoted to the principles of the Revolution:"

He dismisses it as a fiction and even a deliberate falsehood, "fabricated" in large part by Washington himself. In its place, he argues that the true Washington was a man of "tumultuous passions," "aggressive instincts," "bottomless ambition," "personal avarice," and "a truly monumental ego with a massive personal agenda."

Many men who knew Washington agreed on the passions but believed that he gained full control of them. Ellis argues to the contrary that Washington never mastered himself, and "his aggressive instincts would remain a dangerous liability" through his career. The thesis of this book is that Washington's life was a continuing struggle against dark inner forces, which led to an "obsession with control," which in turn caused him to favor control mechanisms for America, including a highly disciplined regular army, strong central government, and hierarchical society. . .

Some elements of Ellis's conflict model are solidly confirmed by other sources. Jefferson wrote of Washington, "his temper was naturally high toned, but reflection and resolution had obtained a firm and habitual ascendancy. If however, it broke its bounds, he was most tremendous in his wrath." Adams added, "He had great self-command. It cost him great exertion sometimes, and a constant constraint."

Read the entire review. Professor Ellis' latest book is yet another in a long line of fine books over the past decade that have focused on America's Revolutionary War-era leaders.

But wait a minute. Just how good are these books? In this review, Matthew Price reviews University of Georgia historian Peter Charles Hoffer" new book, Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud -- American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin (PublicAffairs 2004) contends that the history profession has condoned sloppy scholarship and an "anything-goes" ethical climate:

Hoffer revisits the now-familiar cases of a quartet of historians brought low by scandal in 2002: former Emory University professor Michael Bellesiles, who was accused of falsifying data in "Arming America," his controversial 2000 study of 18th- and 19th-century gun culture; Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, who were both found to have used material from other scholars without full attribution; and Mount Holyoke's Joseph Ellis, who was rebuked for spinning tales of his nonexistent Vietnam combat record in classes and newspaper articles. According to Hoffer, these were not just isolated incidents but symptoms of a wider problem -- one that goes far beyond the headlines to the very way history is written and consumed in America.
. . . Hoffer is particularly harsh on Bellesiles, who resigned from his job at Emory and was stripped of the Bancroft Prize in the wake of the controversy over "Arming America."

To his defenders, the former Emory historian was the victim of a conservative plot, spearheaded by the National Rifle Association, to discredit Bellesiles' conclusion that, contrary to the image of the musket-wielding patriot, few early Americans owned functional guns. But in Hoffer's telling, Bellesiles engaged in deliberate "falsification" of his data. Furthermore, Hoffer asserts, Bellesiles published his book with the trade publisher Knopf (which eventually withdrew the book from circulation) rather than a scholarly press "in order to claim . . . immunity from close professional scrutiny." (While an investigative panel formed by the AHA found no outright falsification, they condemned Bellesilles' evasiveness about his source records, many of which could not be traced.)

As for Goodwin and Ambrose, who are also published by trade presses, Hoffer brushes aside their claims that the instances of missing footnotes or insufficient citations were just unintentional and isolated lapses in otherwise sound work. Whatever the intention, Hoffer writes, the end result is the same: "plagiarism," which under AHA standards, he notes, does not require actual intent to deceive. (He brings greater sympathy to the case of Joseph Ellis, whose scholarship itself was not questioned, suggesting that the same imaginative powers that led him to lie about his life story may have helped him write more subtle and nuanced books.)

Read the entire review.

Posted by Tom at 6:10 AM | Comments (2) |

October 7, 2004

Understanding terrorism

Although I am generally supportive of the way in which the Bush Administration has conducted the war against the Islamic fascists over the past three years, I have never been comfortable with the Administration's characterization of the war as the "War on Terror." Not only does that moniker obscure the real enemy -- radical Islamic fascism -- but its vagueness risks inclusion of legitimate rebel movements against tyrannical regimes. I mean, really -- would the United States be siding with the Iranian or North Korean governments if rebel movements in those countries began to use tactics to undermine those tyrannical regimes similar to those that are used by Islamic fascists against America and Israel?

Dr. Philip Jenkins is a prolific author and an outstanding professor of history and religious studies at Penn State University. He is best known for his recent books The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) and The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), which are outstanding works on the changing nature of Christianity in the world. The Next Christiandom explores the emergence of Third World countries as the future demographic and cultural center of global Christianity, and The New Anti-Catholicism examines how modern political correctness toward minority groups has not deterred major media outlets from casting the Catholic Church and its teachings in the worst possible light.

However, Professor Jenkins is also an expert on the concept of terror, and his new book Images of Terror: What We Can and Can?t Know about Terrorism (Aldine de Gruyter, New York 2003) explores the social construction of terrorism as a concept and problem. In this review of Images of Terror, reviewer Daniel McCarthy notes that Professor Jenkins asks the salient question: What makes a particular incident an example of terrorism, rather than a conventional crime? Although a generic definition of terrorism is possible to develop, the application of that definition to a particular event is much more difficult as a variety of social forces and media interpretations shape our understanding of the event:

[A]s a new understanding of the problem [of terrorism] takes hold, older interpretations may be forgotten entirely and even retroactively discredited. The interpretation that was plausible in the 1980s became, under the influence of a changing ideological climate, a thing that only crackpots believed in the 1990s. This, says Jenkins, is what happened to the theories of those who warned of the dangers of Islamic terrorism during the Clinton years. In the 1980s, when terrorism was understood as a phenomenon connected to outside dangers?to the Cold War and the Iran-Iraq War, for example?such warnings might have been taken seriously. In the 1990s, however, terrorism increasingly came to be understood as something associated with domestic far-right militants, and those who talked too much about Islamic terrorism risked being dismissed as racists or Islamophobes. After 9/11, the prevailing understanding changed again, and people who may have sounded like cranks five years earlier were now experts on a real and obvious danger.

Indeed, as Professor Jenkins points out, the concept of terror is neither new nor particularly unusual in American history. However, the social and political forces that shape our understanding of terror events make it seem that way:

[W]hile the images of terror shift, the reality of terror may remain constant. Terrorism in United States is certainly not a recent development. Jenkins provides a chart enumerating more than forty-nine major acts of terrorism in the United States between 1939 and 2001; he notes, however, that despite this long history of terrorism, news media would often react to a major terrorist strike within the country as if it were the first time terror had come to the United States. The media, however, are not alone in their forgetfulness and revisionism. Jenkins argues that intelligence agencies and government departments also change the way terrorism is understood, prompted by changing diplomatic and political realities.

As one example, Professor Jenkins points out how the government's handling of the information that 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta probably met with Iraqi intelligence agent in the Czech Republic in early 2001 reflects the conflicting interests within the U.S. government at the time:

Czech intelligence originally claimed that [Atta met with Iraqi intelligence agent in the Czech Republic in early 2001], but the Czech government later disavowed that report. Might the government have had other reasons for discrediting the story? An Iraqi connection to 9/11, no matter how tentative, would have been cause for war, something that Jenkins says the U.S. State Department was eager to avoid at the time.

Professor Jenkins maintains that we can reach a better understanding of terrorism and its implications by asking specific questions that undermine the political or social twists that a societal force may attempt to place on a particular terroristic event:

There may be things we can never know about terrorism, certainly about specific acts. In general, however, consumers of news and information can adopt strategies to arrive at the clearest understanding possible. First, says Jenkins, readers must ask, ?How do we know this?? (p. 193). They must evaluate the sources?and the sources' sources?carefully. Second, they must ?realize that claims have consequences? (p. 193), asking cui bono while considering also how a certain piece of information may harm the interests of various actors. Finally, ?the greatest weapon for the critical consumer of terrorism claims is memory? (p. 194). Images of Terror as a whole is concerned with that third point: the purpose of a social constructivist analysis, after all, is to show that things have not always been understood the way they now are and that other interpretations are possible. Memory provides some context and some grounds for hope in the effort to understand terrorism.

Thus, the "War on Terror" paints with a broad brush where a more measured stroke is needed. The sooner that we understand that the war is against radical Islamic fascists who seek state power to effectuate totalitarian control similar to what occurred in Iran in 1979 and in Afghanistan in the 1990's, then the quicker we will be able to develop the military and political policies necessary to defeat these tyrannical forces against progress.

Posted by Tom at 7:15 AM | Comments (0) |

August 11, 2004

This is unfortunate

With all the bad television shows that we must endure, I am saddened to learn this.

Posted by Tom at 9:20 AM | Comments (2) |

August 10, 2004

Whose Constitution Is It, Anyway?

In this Wall Street Journal ($) book review, Northwestern University Law Professor John O. McGinniss reviews Stanford Law Dean and Professor Larry Kramer's new book -- "The People Themselves" -- in which he argues that the notion that the judiciary is the sole true arbiter of the Constitution under the American government is a fairly new and inaccurate view. As Professor McGinnis notes from Professor Kramer's work:

. . . the men who wrote the Constitution would have been aghast at a judicial monopoly on its interpretation. At the time, judges did not claim some exclusive power of constitutional settlement. They believed that judicial review stemmed from their duty to interpret all relevant laws in the course of litigation. But they did not dispute that the White House and Congress had their own duty to interpret the Constitution in the course of their own official actions.

Only later, when the Federalists feared that they would be voted out of office, did the doctrine of judicial supremacy come into play, to insulate Federalist court decisions from correction. But Mr. Kramer shows that presidents from Jefferson to Lincoln refused to yield all authority to judges. They embraced "departmentalism" -- each branch of government claiming an equal right to discover the Constitution's true meaning.

Professor Kramer notes that the doctrine of judicial supremacy has serious implications to American government and society:

Because the court is selected from a narrow social class, he notes, it tends to reflect the views of a modern "aristocracy." Only the willingness of other branches to disagree with the court prevents our constitutional republic from degenerating into a constitutional oligarchy -- with a priestly caste ruling, in effect, by fiat.

Mr. Kramer goes even further. He believes that "the people themselves" should be principal enforcers of the Constitution, as they long enforced the British Constitution through such devices as jury nullification and mobbing -- i.e., disturbing the peace. But the American Constitution differs from that of George III. In the U.S., the people themselves can reconstitute all branches of the government -- by voting for certain candidates instead of others, of course, and by thus affecting political appointments. Electoral accountability is the essence of popular constitutional control. Thus Americans have not typically resorted to mob violence. The contrast with the British Constitution is striking.

But Professor McGinnis is not completely sold on Professor Kramer's theory that varied interpretations of the Constitution protect our society against the tyranny of the majority:

The American Constitution also differs from the (unwritten) British one in its source of authority. In 1789 the Framers drafted a specific text that the people themselves ratified in every state. It is this consensus that gives the Constitution its power and justifies the disregard of even democratically made laws that conflict with it. But the meaning of that consensus can be discovered only by referring to the words themselves and to their historical context -- not by relying on the "political-legal" interpretation that Mr. Kramer suggests. Constitutional interpretation based on politics places the people's own considered judgments at the mercy of rash and temporary majorities. Only a document fixed by law -- and subject to strict rules of amendment -- can protect, in the words of Justice David Brewer, "Peter Sober from Peter Drunk."

Read the whole piece. Good stuff.

Posted by Tom at 11:20 AM | Comments (0) |

August 7, 2004

Gordon Wood on Ben Franklin

Gordon Wood is the Alva O. Way university professor at Brown University and one of America's foremost authorities on the history and philosophy of the American Revolution. His brilliant books "Radicalism of the American Revolution" and "Creation of the American Republic" are essential for an understanding of American politics and its political system from the Founding Fathers era to the present. The subject of this previous post is Professor Wood's review of University of Pennsylvania professor Walter A. McDougall's new book, ''Freedom Just Around the Corner,''which is a fine book that I am currently enjoying greatly.

Now, Professor Wood has produced what it appears to be another fine book. In this NY Times Review of Books review, the reviewer points out that one of the most intriguing aspects of Professor Wood's new book on Benjamin Franklin -- "The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin" -- is the approach in which it was written:

This study is not a biography, at least not a conventional one. Wood focuses on Franklin's personal development and constructs his narrative around various turning points in the life, almost like a bildungsroman. We learn the choices Franklin made, the conflicts he had to resolve. This is the most dramatic of the recent Franklin books.

One of Professor Wood's points is that Franklin was hard to pin down as a personality. For example, many of today's politically correct on the left would have a hard time dealing with Franklin:

The politically correct would most likely hector him if they could. For Franklin was a slaveholder. It's true he turned against slavery, and ardently so, at the very end of his life, but he took a long time getting there. He could be a bigot as well. He wrote nativist diatribes against the large German population in his own colony of Pennsylvania. In 1751 he argued for excluding everyone from Pennsylvania except the English; Morgan calls him ''the first spokesman for a lily-white America.'' Franklin loved the company of women, but he was no feminist. He treated his wife miserably, and he admonished young brides to attend to the word ''obey'' in their vows. He worried that handouts to the poor would encourage laziness, and he was a fervent supporter of a strong military.

On the other hand, those on the right of the political spectrum would also have a difficult time embracing Franklin:

Modern right-wingers would probably be even more uncomfortable with him than left-wingers. Take his religious views. Franklin was a deist; God, in his opinion, was a distant presence in the affairs of men. He was no churchgoer. He accepted neither the sacredness of the Bible nor the divinity of Jesus. His ideas about property rights were similarly unorthodox. Beyond basic necessities, he said, all property belonged to ''the public, who by their laws have created it.'' Brands calls such remarks ''strikingly socialistic.''

What most sets Franklin apart from contemporary conservatives, however, is his attitude toward that panoply of issues gathered under the heading of ''family values.'' As a young man he consorted with ''low women,'' and fathered an illegitimate child. In 1745 he wrote a letter to a youthful friend -- long suppressed -- offering advice on choosing a lover. (Older women, he declared, were preferable to younger ones.) Franklin was always an incorrigible flirt. How much actual sex was involved is anybody's guess, but one incident stands out among the rest. When he was in his 70's and living in Paris, he became enamored of the captivating 33-year-old Mme. Anne-Louise Brillon, one of the leading lights of Parisian society. Even the puritanical John Adams was enchanted by her. She was no less taken with Franklin, and their vivacious correspondence consisted of a determined campaign on his part to bed her and her equally stalwart resistance, based on the customs of the day and what was proper between a widower and a married woman. Their bantering give-and-take, as quoted by Brands, constitutes one of the most charming episodes in early American history and -- since as far as the historians can tell they never did sleep together -- also one of the most poignant.

As a result of Franklin's extraordinary nature and accomplishments, Americans tend to sentimentalize him, which Professor Wood cautions against:

The other problematic theme concerns Franklin's ''Americanness.'' He seems almost a checklist for those national qualities Americans take pride in -- and others despise us for. Yet Wood alerts us to be careful in how we think about this aspect of his character. For he was the most cosmopolitan of the founders, at home anywhere. Twenty-five of the last 33 years of his life were spent abroad, and those years were anything but a hardship for him. He was wined and dined and celebrated by the Europeans more than he ever was by his own countrymen. Soon after arriving in London he was complaining about the provinciality and vulgarity of Americans. In Paris he was quite simply a superstar, acclaimed as the equal of Voltaire, and he gave thought to settling permanently in ''the civilest Nation upon Earth.'' These sentiments did not go unnoticed back home, and Franklin fell under suspicion of being a foreign agent, first for the British, then for the French. When he returned to Philadelphia for the last time in 1785, it was in part to clear his name.

In the end, Professor Wood's book attempts to answer the difficult question: What changed Benjamin Franklin from a citizen of the world to a citizen of the United States?

The Revolution was not a conflict over taxation or home rule, not even a dispute over the rights of Englishmen. For him it represented something universal, a world-historical event, ''a miracle in human affairs.'' That is, Franklin never stopped being the urbane cosmopolitan, the ultimate sophisticate. He stayed true to himself. But by 1776 he had concluded that the only way to remain a citizen of the world was to become an American.

Gordon Wood on Ben Franklin. Don't miss it.

Posted by Tom at 2:10 PM | Comments (0) |

July 30, 2004

Sex, Love and Voting

Ray C. Fair is a professor of economics at Yale University. In this Wall Street Journal ($) article, , Professor Fair's new book -- Predicting Presidential Elections and Other Things -- is reviewed and it sounds like a winner:

How can you guess who might be having an extramarital affair? This is an important question, and it deserves to be treated with scientific rigor.

Start with a theory. As a first approximation, it seems reasonable to suppose that the likelihood of having an affair depends on income, age, number of years married, marital satisfaction and religiousness. Next, find some data -- say, a sex survey published in a magazine like Psychology Today or Redbook. Now fit the data to the theory (which means having your computer run a line through a cloud of points -- a technique called linear regression) and do a statistical test to see whether the theory is any good. And what do you know? It is!

Now comes the fun part: prediction. Using the results, you can guess which of your friends and neighbors might be straying from the matrimonial paddock. Likely candidates for an affair are those who (1) have a high wage rate, (2) have been married a long time, (3) are relatively young given the length of their marriage, (4) aren't very happily married and (5) aren't particularly religious. Want something more quantitative? Well, all else being equal, an extra 10 years of marriage increases the predicted number of adulterous encounters per year by about six. (Warning: Blackmail based on these findings is strongly discouraged.)

Predicting adultery is only one of the interesting subjects that Professor Fair addressed. However, during this political season, the most interesting subject is his model for predicting Presidential elections:

By trial and error, Mr. Fair comes up with a list of eight: the growth rate of the economy, inflation, the number of economic "good news" quarters leading up to the election, whether an incumbent is running, how long the incumbent party has held the White House, whether there is a war on and, finally, a "party variable" in case the electorate has an innate preference for one party over the other. As data, he uses election results from 1996 (when President Clinton beat Bob Dole) back to 1916 (when President Wilson beat Charles Hughes).

After fitting the data to the theory, Mr. Fair finds that all eight variables affect voting at greater than chance levels.

And applying Professor Fair's model to the Presidential elections from 1916 through 1996 reflects that it is pretty darn accurate:

From 1916 to 1996, Mr. Fair's theory only calls two elections incorrectly. In 1960 Nixon received 49.9% of the vote, but according to the theory he should have received a 51.1% -- a relatively small discrepancy. More embarrassing to the author's analysis is the 1992 election, in which President Bush's predicted share of the major-party vote was a winning 50.9%, whereas his actual share was 46.5% -- a whopping 4.4 percentage-point error.

Moving to the 2000 election, which lies outside the data set used to construct the theory and is therefore a good test of its validity, Al Gore should have received (a losing) 49% share of the vote that went to the two major parties, but he actually got (a losing) 50.3% share. Not bad.

So, how does the Professor size up the 2004 election?:

Mr. Fair's analysis will be cheering to President Bush, who, as a Republican president running for re-election when the Republicans have been in power only one term, enjoys the best possible incumbency situation. The only way he can lose, the theory suggests, is if the economy suddenly tanks.

Looks like another book to add to my reading stack.

Posted by Tom at 9:08 PM | Comments (0) |

July 17, 2004

The men who would be Presidents

Ryan Lizza of the New Republic reviews three books from three former Democratic candidates for President -- George McGovern, Gary Hart, and Mario Cuomo -- in which the three provide their views on how the Democratic Party should regain control of the American government. Particularly interesting are Mr. Hart's views toward redirecting American foreign policy, which Mr. Lizza summarizes in the following manner:

Few Americans have more right to say ''I told you so'' than Gary Hart. During the 1990's, when the foreign policy establishment was obsessed with Star Wars and other issues left over from the cold war, Hart headed a commission on national security with another former senator, Warren Rudman. Its report, issued early in 2001, warned of catastrophic terrorist attacks in which ''Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers.'' Incredibly, the work of the Hart-Rudman commission was widely ignored by the press and the Bush administration.

''The Fourth Power'' builds on the many ideas of the commission, offering sweeping recommendations for how America should orient its foreign policy in the 21st century. Hart's timely central argument -- an alternative to both the neoimperialist impulses of the Bush administration and the creeping Kissingerian realism of the Kerry campaign -- is that the traditional military, political and economic powers of American foreign policy should be constrained by and imbued with a fourth power, America's unique principles. To those who advocate a crusading foreign policy of preemption to ''rid the world of evil'' and spread democracy -- even at the point of a gun -- Hart argues that the first casualty would often be America's moral authority: ''There is a vast difference between advocating, as I do, that America live up to its own principles and advocating, as the Bush administration does, that the rest of the world live up to America's principles.'' At the same time, Hart counters Kerry's retreat to a Kissinger-style foreign policy, based largely on America's interests, with a humble but still idealistic internationalism, with the spread of liberal democracy at its core. It's a call for nation building without Abu Ghraib.

In 1993, Hart sent President Clinton a memo arguing that the end of the cold war was the ideal occasion to reorient the military ''for new missions relating to hostage rescue, counterterrorism, low intensity conflict, guerrilla warfare and stabilization of new democracies.'' Much of this prescient document is reprinted as an appendix. We were told.


Posted by Tom at 8:00 AM | Comments (0) |

July 9, 2004

Sobering assessment of American approach toward Islamic fascism

This NY Times Book Review reports on the controversial new book, Imperial Hubris by a current Central Intelligence Agency officer who was able to publish the book on the condition that his real name not be revealed. This is the second book by "Anonymous" (his first was Through Our Enemies' Eyes: Osama Bin Laden, Radical Islam and the Future of America) and his latest book is certain to generate controversy among both hardliners on Iraq and critics of the administration's policy.

As Gerald Posner noted in his earlier Why America Slept : The Failure to Prevent 9/11, Imperial Hubris excoriates America's political, military and intelligence establishment (going back to the mid-70's, with the qualified exception of President Reagan and his C.I.A. director, William J. Casey). Moreover, the book also calls for a complete re-evaluation of the nation's foreign policy toward Muslims and the Middle East:

If the country's foreign policy remains status quo, Anonymous warns, "America's military confrontation with Islam" will broaden "with escalating human and economic expense." He predicts that Al Qaeda "will attack the continental United States again, that its next strike will be more damaging than that of 11 September 2001, and could include use of weapons of mass destruction."

In addition, Anonymous accuses United States leaders, elites and media of being in denial about the nature of the Qaeda threat and the balance sheet on the war on terror: he argues that America must stop using the terrorist paradigm for Al Qaeda and accept "the fact" that the group is "leading a popular, worldwide, and increasingly powerful Islamic insurgency," and he asserts that United States victories against Al Qaeda have thus far been tactical ones that have failed to slow "the shift in strategic advantage toward al Qaeda."

And even though he advocates a harsher approach to fighting radical Islamic fascists, Anonymous is not a supporter of the Bush Administration's decision to invade Iraq:

[Anonymous] sees the American invasion of Iraq as "an avaricious, premeditated, unprovoked war against a foe who posed no immediate threat but whose defeat did offer economic advantages." For Osama bin Laden, Anonymous argues, the American invasion and occupation of Iraq were like "a Christmas present you long for but never expected to receive" ? a gift from Washington that "will haunt, hurt, and hound Americans for years to come." He sees Iraq becoming another breeding ground for Al Qaeda, and the postwar insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan as magnets for anti-American fighters.

"U.S. forces and policies are completing the radicalization of the Islamic world, something Osama bin Laden has been trying to do with substantial but incomplete success since the early 1990's," he writes. "As a result, I think it fair to conclude that the United States of America remains bin Laden's only indispensable ally."

Anonymous even disputes the Bush Administration's assessment of Al Qaeda's goals for its war against the United States:

Anonymous contests the argument put out by members of the Bush administration that Mr. bin Laden wants to destroy America because he hates our values, freedoms and ideas. In Anonymous's view, the Qaeda leader hates us "because of our policies and actions in the Muslim world" and Al Qaeda's attacks are meant to advance a set of clear, focused and limited foreign policy goals: namely, an end to American aid to Israel: the removal of American forces from the Arabian Peninsula; an end to the American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq; an end to American support for repressive, apostate Muslim regimes like Saudi Arabia; an end to Amerian support for Russia, India and China against their Muslim militants; and an end to American pressure on Arab energy producers to keep oil prices low.

But make no mistake about it, Anonymous definitely does not propose dealing with Al Qaeda with kid gloves:

If current American policies toward the Muslim world are not changed, Anonymous writes near the end of this harrowing and often deliberately provocative volume, America will be left with only a military option for defending itself ? an option he says that should be used not "daintily," as it has been in recent years, but with the sort of bloody-minded ferocity used "in France and on Pacific islands, and from skies over Tokyo and Dresden" during World War II.

Posted by Tom at 5:49 AM | Comments (0) |

June 24, 2004

McMurtry on "My Life"

Larry McMurtry, Texas' finest novelist and the author of the incomparable 1986 Pulitzer Price winner Lonesome Dove, reviews former President Bill Clinton's autobiography My Life in this NY Times Review of Books review. Mr. McMurtry gives the book a generally positive review, and observes the following:

During the silly time when Clinton was pilloried for wanting to debate the meaning of "is," I often wondered why no one pointed out that he was educated by Jesuits, for whom the meaning of "is" is a matter not lightly resolved.

To judge from this book, Clinton has never been able to understand why Kenneth Starr, the special counsel appointed to investigate Whitewater, pursued him so ferociously. The answer is to be found in the soil Kenneth Starr sprang from. His hometown, Thalia, Tex., lies along what local wits sometimes refer to as the "Floydada Corridor," a bleak stretch of road between Wichita Falls and Lubbock that happens to run through the tiny town of Floydada, Tex. It's a merciless land, mostly, with inhabitants to match. Towns like Crowell, Paducah and Matador lie on this road, and nothing lighter than an elephant gun is likely to have much effect on the residents. Proust readers and fornicating presidents will find no welcome there.


Posted by Tom at 9:18 AM | Comments (1) |

May 11, 2004

Larry McMurtry on General Grant

In this NY Times Review of Books review, my favorite novelist -- Larry McMurtry, author of the incomparable "Lonesome Dove" and many other fine novels -- writes about Mark Perry's new book, "Grant and Twain: The Story of the Friendship that Changed America." This is a magnificent review about the fascinating General Grant, who never seemed to be able to live up to other people's expectations except President Lincoln's. The entire review is a must read, and I pass along an the following excerpt that McMurtry uses from Grant's "Personal Memoirs" that is the central focus of Mr. Perry's book:

Put Grant in a fresh uniform and within half an hour it would look as if he had fought the Battle of the Wilderness in it. In uniform or out, Grant rarely seemed at ease, neither in his clothes nor in his skin. His penchant for casual, if not ragged, garb is never better illustrated than in the famous passage in his Personal Memoirs when he goes, at last, to meet Lee at Appomattox Courthouse in hopes of receiving the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia?as poignant a moment, in my view, as one will find anywhere in the history of war:
When I had left the camp that morning I had not expected so soon the result that was then taking place, and consequently was in rough garb. I was without a sword, as I usually was when on horseback on the field, and wore a soldier's blouse for a coat, with the shoulder straps of my rank to indicate to the army who I was. When I went into the house I found General Lee. We greeted each other, and after shaking hands took our seats....

What General Lee's feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly....

General Lee was dressed in a full uniform which was entirely new, and was wearing a sword of considerable value, very likely the sword which had been presented by the State of Virginia; at all events it was an entirely different sword from the one that would ordinarily be worn in the field. In my rough traveling suit, the uniform of a private with the straps of a lieutenant-general, I must have contrasted very strangely with a man so handsomely dressed, six feet high and of faultless form. But this was not a matter that I thought of until afterwards....

We soon fell into conversation about old army times.... Our conversation grew so pleasant that I almost forgot the object of our meeting....

Posted by Tom at 9:33 AM | Comments (0) |

April 25, 2004

Rich Uncle of America

This David Brooks NY Times books review discusses Ron Chernow's new book, "Alexander Hamilton." Hamilton is the architect of American capitalism, and Mr. Brooks' review concludes that Mr. Chernow has written the best biography yet of this fascinating but underappreciated man. For example, Hamilton's youth was no picnic:

When Alexander Hamilton was 10, his father abandoned him. When he was around 12, his mother died of a fever in the bed next to his. He was adopted by a cousin, who promptly committed suicide. During those same years, his aunt, uncle and grandmother also died. A court in St. Croix seized all of his possessions, sold off his personal effects and gave the rest to his mother's first husband. By the time he was a young teenager, he and his brother were orphaned, alone and destitute.

Incredibly, however, Hamilton overcame his tortured youth quickly to excel in the American revolutionary society and government:

Within three years he was a successful businessman. Within a decade he was effectively George Washington's chief of staff, organizing the American revolutionary army and serving bravely in combat. Within two decades he was one of New York's most successful lawyers and had written major portions of The Federalist Papers. Within three decades he had served as Treasury secretary and forged the modern financial and economic systems that are the basis for American might today.

Finally, Mr. Brooks notes that the vicious political rhetoric of our day has its roots in Hamilton's legendary disputes with Thomas Jefferson:

Though they were historic, Hamilton couldn't have enjoyed his years at the Treasury Department. These days we think our politics are nasty and partisan. But our discourse looks like a Platonic symposium compared with the vicious fighting that marked the early Republic. While they were secretaries of treasury and state, Hamilton and Jefferson waged internecine warfare that was, as Chernow notes, of ''almost pathological intensity.'' Members of each man's camp wrote abusive newspaper essays against the other. The secretary of state proposed Congressional legislation censuring the secretary of the Treasury. The Jeffersonians fabricated crude lies about Hamiltonian embezzlement schemes.

This fight was about what sort of country America should be, and what sort of people should govern. Hamilton embraced the urban, enterprising virtues: vigor, drive, competition. Jefferson dreamed of a country that would be pastoral, egalitarian and decentralized. Hamilton won the battle, but not the affections of posterity.

Hamilton has always been one of the most fascinating and enigmatic of the Founding Fathers. In many ways, he is the most quintessential American of them all. As such, I am looking forward to reading this interesting new book.

Posted by Tom at 10:03 PM | Comments (0) |

April 20, 2004

The end of liberal hope in Russia

Joshua Rubenstein, a regional director of Amnesty International and the author of "Stalin's Secret Pogrom" pens this Wall Street Journal ($) review of James H. Billington's new book, "Russia In Search of Itself," and notes as follows:

More than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West has only begun to confront a disheartening paradox: That at the height of Mikhail Gorbachev's program of glasnost and perestroika in the late 1980s, the prospects for democratic reform seemed more promising than they do today in a nominally democratic post-Soviet era.

The Russian media, including television news, once carried far more critical discussions of Stalin's crimes. Intellectual journals reached millions of readers and explored the country's history and politics, and its economic failings. And the parliamentary elections of 1989 confirmed that liberal, independent-minded figures, like the physicist and veteran dissident Andrei Sakharov, could run against the Communist Party and command sizable support.

But the country's badly managed attempts at capitalism and democracy in the 1990s have soured a majority of the population. Privatizatsiia, or privatization, of the country's industrial and natural resources has resulted in such an audacious pattern of grand theft that Russians have coined the term prikhvatizatsiia, or confiscation, to mock the process. The brutal war in Chechnya continues to inflict untold suffering on civilians. Meanwhile the rule of law is a hollow shell. Since 1994, nine members of the country's Parliament, and 130 journalists, have been murdered, no doubt because they either sought to expose the truth about official corruption and organized crime or because their political activity got in the way of someone's plans to turn a fast buck.

And Mr. Billington does not lay the blame for these developments solely at the feet of Russian President Vladimar Putin:

Vladimir Putin alone is not responsible for this collapse of liberal hopes. It was Boris Yeltsin who insisted on too much power for the office of the presidency. And with increasing government control of the mass media, there remain few outlets for critical reporting on Mr. Putin's policies. The increasing appeal of Russian nationalism has brought with it frequent, physical attacks on foreign-looking outsiders, including dark-skinned people from the Caucasus, African students and even U.S. Embassy Marine guards, as well as assaults on Jews and Jewish institutions. Mr. Putin has condemned such provocations only half-heartedly. . . Under Mr. Putin's leadership, the country is moving toward "some original Russian variant of a corporatist state ruled by a dictator, adorned with Slavophile rhetoric, and representing, in effect, fascism with a friendly face." In other words, a type of regime that seeks to maintain order "through a Pinochet interlude."

Posted by Tom at 7:18 AM | Comments (0) |

April 18, 2004

The man "who believed the solution to every human problem was death"

Richard Pipes, a professor emeritus of history at Harvard, reviews Simon Sebag Montefiore's new book on Josef Stalin, ''Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar'' in today's NY Times Review of Books. The entire review is well worth reading, and this tidbit about Stalin's post-WWII mood is a good sample:

Stalin emerged from the war utterly exhausted and more than ever convinced of his infallibility. In his last years he became inordinately capricious, suspecting everyone and ready to jettison on trumped-up charges even his most loyal followers. He spent much time vacationing in his lavish palaces. He indulged in drunken orgies, where he would force his ministers to dance for his amusement: ''He made the sweating Khrushchev drop to his haunches and do the gopak that made him look like 'a cow dancing on ice.' '' The Polish security boss, Jacob Berman, was made to waltz with Molotov.

Posted by Tom at 8:06 AM | Comments (0) |

April 4, 2004

Professor Lessig on copyright infringement

In this NY Times Review of Books piece, Adam Cohen reviews Stanford professor Larry Lessig's important new book, "Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity" (Penguin Press 2004). The illegal downloading of music over the Internet has brought attention to copyright issues more than at any time in America's history, and Professor Lessig has been at the forefront of the "copyleft" movement, which advocates a common sense rethinking of our copyright laws to facilitate creativity and the free exchange of knowledge. As Mr. Cohen notes in his review, Professor Lessig has an entertaining way of pointing out the frivolous nature of many copyright disputes:

For the silliness to which copyright battles frequently descend, it is hard to improve on Lessig's story of the Marx brothers telling Warner Brothers, after it threatened to sue if they did a parody of ''Casablanca,'' to watch out because the Marx brothers ''were brothers long before you were.''

Professor Lessig's theories are based upon the historical use of ideas, points out Mr. Cohen:

Lessig grounds his argument about the new rules' impact on the culture in a basic observation about art: as long as it has existed, artists have been refashioning old works into new ones. Greek and Roman myths were developed over centuries of retelling. Shakespeare's plays are brilliant reworkings of other playwrights' and historians' stories. Even Disney owes its classic cartoon archive -- Snow White, Cinderella, Pinocchio -- to its plundering of other creators' tales. And today, technology allows for the creation of ever more elaborate ''derivative works,'' art that builds on previous art, from hip-hop songs that insert, or sample, older songs to video art that adds new characters to, or otherwise alters, classic films.

The societal threat of the copyright explosion ultimately is constriction to the development of new ideas:

The result of this explosion of copyright, Lessig argues persuasively, is an impoverishment of the culture. Corporations now have veto power over the use of copyrighted materials, in many cases long after the creators themselves have died, and they can use that power to lock up a significant part of our cultural legacy. At a ridiculous extreme, Lessig tells the story of a filmmaker who tried to get clearance for a several-seconds-long shot, in a documentary about Wagner's Ring cycle, of stagehands watching ''The Simpsons'' backstage during a performance. The Simpsons' creator, Matt Groening, gave permission. But Fox's vice president for licensing, as Lessig tells it, demanded $10,000 for the rights and added, ''If you quote me, I'll turn you over to our attorneys.''

In the meantime, Stephen Manes over at Forbes.com is not as impressed with Professor Lessig's book:

Man the barricades for your right to swipe The Simpsons! According to Stanford law professor and media darling Lawrence Lessig, a "movement must begin in the streets" to fight a corrupt Congress, overconcentrated media and an overpriced legal system conspiring to develop "a ?get permission to cut and paste' world that is a creator's nightmare."

That's the gist of Lessig's inflammatory new screed, Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity ({(C1)}Penguin Press{(T1)}, $25; free online starting Mar. 25). A more honest title? Freeloader Culture: A Manifesto for Stealing Intellectual Property.

"There has never been a time in our history when more of our ?culture' was as ?owned' as it is now," Lessig huffs. Huh? In the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s a handful of companies exerted ironclad control over the movie, radio and record businesses; Xeroxes and tape recorders were nonexistent. Though "cut and paste" was limited to scrapbooks, creators of all stripes somehow managed to flourish.

Contrary to Lessig's rants, today's technology has made creators freer than ever to devise and distribute original works. But technology has also given consumers powerful weapons of mass reproduction with strong potential for abuse. The intellectual property issue of our time is how to balance the rights of creators and consumers.

In this post, Professor Lessig responds to Mr. Manes' criticism.

We all need to become better informed about this increasing risk, and Professor Lessig is a valuable teacher on these issues. You can bet that his book is on my reading list.

Posted by Tom at 12:01 PM | Comments (0) |

April 3, 2004

VDH on General Patton

George C. Scott's magnificent performance in the 1970 film "Patton" triggered a generation of interest and scholarship in this fascinating hero of the Second World War. In this Claremont Review of Books review of a new biography of Patton, Victor Davis Hanson provides an interesting and valuable overview of the previous biographies of General Patton. My brother Matt -- who reads everything on General Patton -- prefers Carlo D'Este's "Patton: a Genius for War," of which VDH writes:

In fact, we owe D'Este a great deal for his evenhandedness: although an Omar Bradley or Eisenhower might better appeal to his own sense of decorum, D'Este was too much the scholar not to see that beneath Patton's repugnant crudity there was both talent and, in the end, humanity?and a tactical genius that simply overshadowed Eisenhower's and Bradley's combined.

Read the entire review for an interesting analysis of one of America's great generals of the 20th century.

Posted by Tom at 1:24 PM | Comments (0) |

March 28, 2004

American Hustlers

Gordon Wood is the Alva O. Way university professor at Brown University and one of America's foremost authorities on the history and philosophy of the American Revolution, reflected by his brilliant books "Radicalism of the American Revolution" and "Creation of the American Republic." Accordingly, when Professor Wood speaks about American history, we should listen closely.

In this NY Times Review of Books review, Professor Wood opines favorably on University of Pennsylvania professor Walter A. McDougall's new book -- ''Freedom Just Around the Corner'' -- that explains America's enormous progress during the period of 1528-1828 to be attributable largely to Americans' propensity to hustle. As Professor Wood observes:

This unusual book by Walter A. McDougall is the first of what will be a three-volume history of America. If this volume, which covers the period 1585 to 1828, is any indication of the promised whole, the trilogy may have a major impact on how we Americans understand ourselves.

''The creation of the United States of America is the central event of the past 400 years.'' Imagine, he says, some ghostly ship, some Flying Dutchman transported in time from the year 1600 to the present. ''The crew would be amazed by our technology and the sheer numbers of people on the globe, but the array of civilizations would be recognizable.'' China, Japan, India, Russia, the vast Islamic crescent, South America and Europe are not all that different now from what they were in 1600. ''The only continent that would astound the Renaissance time-travelers would be North America, which was primitive and nearly vacant as late as 1607, but which today hosts the mightiest, richest, most dynamic civilization in history -- a civilization, moreover, that perturbs the trajectories of all other civilizations just by existing.''

Professor Wood remarks further:

[Professor McDougall] unabashedly writes of Americans and assumes throughout that there is something called an American character. Only the character he describes may not be what many Americans would want to admit about themselves. Unlike other national narratives, which he says tend either to celebrate or to condemn America -- and in righteous seriousness -- his book aims to do neither. Instead, he wants to tell the truth about ''who and why we are what we are,'' and to tell it entertainingly. His is thus a ''candid'' history. Its major theme is ''the American people's penchant for hustling.'' We Americans, he claims, are a nation of people on the make.

. . . But we have more con men and hucksters than other nations not because we have a different nature or are worse than other peoples. It is just that ''Americans have enjoyed more opportunity to pursue their ambitions, by foul means or fair, than any other people in history.''

Of course, he admits that there are many hustlers in a ''positive sense: builders, doers, go-getters, dreamers, hard workers, inventors, organizers, engineers and a people supremely generous.'' These qualities are what justify Americans' faith in themselves and their destiny in the world. But the negative connotations of hustling and swindling are very strong and dominate much of our literary and popular culture, and, indeed, our entire history. ''If the United States . . . is a permanent revolution, a society in constant flux,'' then, McDougall writes, we would expect all periods of American history at all levels of the society ''to be washed by turgid, overlapping waves of old and new forms'' of what he calls ''creative corruption.''

Because our high and noble ideals of freedom and individual rights contrast so vividly with the often grotesque realities of American life, every period of our history, McDougall says, is marked by disharmony. He then quotes Samuel P. Huntington to clinch his point: ''America is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope,'' a hope expressed in Bob Dylan's words as ''freedom just around the corner.''
The price of all this hustling was high, and McDougall does not flinch from describing the violence created by the dynamism of white Americans, including the elimination of hundreds of thousands of native people, mostly from disease, and the enslaving of hundreds of thousands of Africans. Other historians have graphically described the chicanery and greed of white Americans in their scramble for power and profit in early America. But these historians have usually written out of anger and righteous indignation. Not McDougall. He cynically, or he would say realistically (since cynicism suggests a moral judgment that human nature might be different), accepts, even celebrates, all the bribery, land-jobbing and double-dealing as the consequence of Americans' having so much freedom.

Professor McDougall's observations particularly resonate with me. Houston has been a wonderful and generous home for my family and me over the past 30 years, and this great city was developed largely by the unwieldly entrepreneurial spirit that Professor McDougall identifies in his book. The freedom that we Americans savor invariably involves risks, and one of those unfortunate risks is the risk of being cheated. But as Professor McDougall reminds us -- just as Sir Thomas More did in this earlier post -- man's attempts to eradicate such wrongdoing often harbors the greater risk of eradicating our freedom.

Posted by Tom at 12:26 PM | Comments (5) |

March 21, 2004

The intersection of drug policy and prison policy

This Brent Staples' NY Times Review of Books article that reviews "Life on the Outside, The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett," Jennifer Gonnerman's new book about how the government's criminalization of its drug policy has led to a large and growing portion of society that is chronically disenfranchised, at enormous societal cost. Ms. Gonnerman, who has wrote extensively about drug policy as a staff writer for the Village Voice, tells the story through the family of Elaine Bartlett, a young mother of four who received a sentence of 20 to life for her selling cocaine to an undercover cop in a motel near Albany, her first offense. As Ms. Gonnerman notes:

The United States is transforming itself into a nation of ex-convicts. This country imprisons people at 14 times the rate of Japan, eight times the rate of France and six times the rate of Canada. The American prison system disgorges 600,000 angry, unskilled people each year -- more than the populations of Boston, Milwaukee or Washington . . .

Ex-cons are marooned in the poor inner-city neighborhoods where legitimate jobs do not exist and the enterprises that led them to prison in the first place are ever present. These men and women are further cut off from the mainstream by sanctions that are largely invisible to those of us who have never been to prison. They are commonly denied the right to vote, parental rights, drivers' licenses, student loans and residency in public housing -- the only housing that marginal, jobless people can afford. The most severe sanctions are reserved for former drug offenders, who have been treated worse than murderers since the start of the so-called war on drugs. The Welfare Reform Act of 1996, for example, imposed a lifetime ban on food stamp and welfare eligibility for people convicted of even a single drug felony. The states can opt out of the prohibition, but where it remains intact it cannot be lifted even for ex-prisoners who live model, crime-free lives.
* * *
Mass imprisonment has not hindered the drug trade. Indeed, drugs are cheaper and more plentiful today than ever. In addition, many of the addicts who are held in jail for years at a cost of more than $20,000 per inmate per year could be more cheaply and effectively dealt with in treatment. What jumps out at you from ''Life on the Outside'' is the extent to which imprisonment has been normalized, not just for adults from poor communities but for children who visit their parents in prison. Spending holidays and birthdays behind bars for years on end, these children come to think of prison as a natural next step in the process of growing up.

Although both major political parties share blame for failing to address America's drug policy in a responsible manner, the Bush Administration's failure in this area -- coupled with its failure to address such major issues as health care finance reform, income tax reform, and environmental policy reform -- provides a solid basis for the Democrats to attack the Bush Administration in the upcoming election. Although the Bush Administration has performed admirably under difficult circumstances in prosecuting the war against Islamic fascists, its performance on domestic issues such as those mentioned above has been abysmal. If President Bush loses the election this November, that lack of leadership on those key issues will likely be the reason why.

Posted by Tom at 11:38 AM | Comments (2) |

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