Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Nothing to lose means everything to gain

A couple days ago I commented on the stock market's odd reaction to the Northwest Airlines strike. I stand by my comment, and apparently The Economist does too. While British Airways has cut $1.8 billion/year in costs and is in a strong financial position, they have been crippled by their recent strike. Northwest Airlines, on the other hand, anticipated the likelihood of a strike, and on the verge of bankruptcy with little to lose, didn't give much in their union negotiations.

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Exploding cigar, anyone?

I hope Reverend Pat Roberston isn't planning to visit the United Kingdom; he may find himself stopped at the border.

Pat Robertson recently called for the assassination of Venezualan President Hugo Chavez, saying it 'would be cheaper than a war.' Wasn't there something in the Bible about 'Thou shalt not'...something...I'm sure someone as familiar with the Good Book as Rev. Robertson knows the saying! Apparently Rev. Robertson is also not familiar with the USA's long (and often comical) history of assasination attempts agains Chavez's friend, Fidel Castro.

Meanwhile, UK officials announced a plan to bar foreigners believed to inspire terrorism. Interior Minister Charles Clarke published a list of 'unacceptable behaviors' which would prompt deportation or a ban on entry. The list of activities, which covers any non-UK citizen in Britain or abroad, includes expressing views which foment, justify or glorify terrorist violence in pursuit of particular beliefs and seeking to provoke others to terrorist acts.

Calling for the assassination of a head of state? Definitely on the list!

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Monday, August 22, 2005

Great quote...

"Actually I rarely think the market is right. I believe non dividend stocks aren’t much more than baseball cards. They are worth what you can convince someone to pay for it."

- Mark Cuban, yesterday in a blog post

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Saturday, August 20, 2005

Northwest Airlines employees strike

Shares of Northwest closed down 10 cents, or 1.8 percent, at $5.38 Friday on Nasdaq, as the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, representing 5,400 mechanics, cleaners and custodians, went on strike.

I have to confess my surprise at this. I thought a strike, particularly a really crippling strike, would have been just the thing to tip the struggling airline into bankruptcy. Although bankruptcy is usually viewed as a negative, in this case it would allow Northwest to dump their pensions on the PBGC and restructure all their labor contracts. Today, bankruptcy could be a competitive tool in the airline industry.

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Thursday, August 18, 2005

Re-wilding America

Once upon a time in the Pleistocene Era (between about 1.8 million and 10,000 years ago) some really big animals (the technical term for which is 'megafauna') roamed North America. Cheetahs and lions roamed the western plains, hunting pronghorns, camels, and elephants.

Nearly all of the North American megafauna species became extinct about 13,000 years ago - not coincidentally, about the time humans arrived in the area. This disappearance has left glaring gaps in the complex web of interactions, upon which a healthy ecosystem depends. The pronghorn, for example, has lost its natural predator and only its startling speed - of up to about 60mph - hints at its now forgotten foe. The human extermination of 'top predators' such as cheetahs, lions, and wolves, has lead to countless problems farther down the food chain, which many scientist believe could best be remedied by resoring top predators and megafauna to the ecosystem.

No, I'm not crazy and yes, you read that correctly. A recent article in Nature magazine discussed the idea of repopulating North America with megafauna. Although many of the specific species are long extinct, they have close relatives among the lions, cheetahs, elephants, camels, and antelopes of Africa and Asia. In addition to strengthening North American ecosystems, this would provide a safety net for the world's megafauna, which survives today almost exclusively in Africa.

While this would certainly not solve all of North America's ecological problems (global warming, habitat loss, etc.), it is an idea that, at the least, bears consideration.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Behold His Noodlyness: the One True Monster!

One of the most exciting developments in fundamental physics in the last twenty years has been the development of so-called "String Theory." In String Theory, all fundamental sub-atomic particles are visualized and described mathematically as microscopic vibrating strings. Although as yet unproven, many physicists believe that String Theory has the potential to become the long-sought "Theory of Everything," through which the fundamental physical nature of all matter and forces will become understood.

Obviously String Theory IS correct, although misnamed (a secular humanist conspiracy perhaps?). As NOODLE Theory clearly unambiguously reveals, He has created the fundamental subatomic particles that form all matter in this universe in His own quivering image! You, me, the Earth, the stars...everything in the universe...are all built of trillions of tiny jiggling noodles, microscopic copies of our Divine Saucy Maker. Truly He is everywhere and in all things!
-Steve Lawrence, PhD

President Bush on Flying Spaghetti Monsterism (8/2/05): "I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought," Bush said. "You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, the answer is yes."

Summary of Stated Beliefs:
* The Universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster.
* All evidence pointing towards evolution was put in place by His Noodly Appendage.
* Global warming, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters are a direct consequence of the decline in numbers of pirates since the 1800s.
* Bobby Henderson is the prophet of this religion.

Codes of conduct:
* Prayers are ended with "Al Dente" rather than "Amen".
* Followers are expected to dress in pirate regalia to help avert global warming.

Benefits of conversion:
* Like the great noodles they worship, Flying Spaghetti Monsterists have flimsy moral standards.
* Every friday is a relgious holiday. ("If your work/school objects to that, demand your religious beliefs are respected and threaten to call the ACLU.")
* FSM heaven is WAY better; it's got a Stripper Factory AND a Beer Volcano.

Read more about FSMism here, and then read the Words of the Prophet.

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Avast ye swabs!

Today I be addin' "Pirate Mode" for me front page, thanks be t' th' Mediocre Minds Pirate Translator.



More intellegent design nonsense

Lyndon Johnson liked to tell a story about a Depression-era school teacher who was applying for a job in Johnson City, Texas, the president's hometown. The school board, he said, was divided on whether Earth was round or flat, so they asked him how he taught it.

"The poor fellow needed a job so much; he said, 'I can teach it either way.'"
Henceforth, if President Bush has his druthers - or if the school boards in Kansas, Pennsylvania and elsewhere that have decreed equal time for "intelligent design" in their classes have theirs - teachers will have to teach it both ways. Or maybe no way.

The idea of giving equal time to scientifically untestable beliefs that question established scientific principles says in effect that if enough people believe in something, you should not only respect that belief, but call it science. Yes, evolution is scientific theory; so is gravity.

The late Pope John Paul II recognized years ago that biological evolution had progressed beyond the hypothetical stage as a guiding principle behind the understanding of the evolution of diverse life forms on Earth, including humans. At the same time, he rightly recognized that the spiritual significance that one draws from the scientific observations and theory lie outside of the scientific theories themselves. To mush them up is to offend both, and some Catholic scholars have suggested that intellegent design (as known in the US: an alternative to evolution) is actually blasphemous.

Many people have been concerned by a recent New York Times opinion piece by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna and a close associate of the new pope, declaring, "Evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense ... is not true." Schönborn's opinion appeared to redefine the church's view on evolution, though he has since clarified that the article was based on personal opinion rather than Catholic doctrine. The two systems - belief in a divine origin and Darwinian science - aren't incompatible. They belong in different realms, and they're another argument why sectarian doctrine doesn't belong in public education.

There are no scientific studies that even mention intelligent design. It rests largely on the argument that DNA is too complex to have evolved through random selection. To shove it into the classroom as science is an attack on science itself (and in fact, many school boards introducing intellegent design have also inserted changes on the age of the Earth and on the Big Bang).

None of this would matter nearly as much if the United States were still leading the world in the training of scientists. But by almost any measure we are losing ground to China, India and other competitors in the global high-tech world. Teachers around the country say the president's statement will only encourage creationists and other fundamentalist activists who already have them afraid to discuss evolution.

Since his election campaign in 2000, the president led the cheerleading for tougher academic standards. His showcase No Child Left Behind education law requires teaching techniques and other school programs to rest on "scientifically based research" - the law uses the phrase 111 times. But apparently, when it comes to biology or geology, equal time for something that's scientifically untestable is good enough.

Excerpted from: Peter Schrag, Sacramento Bee, August 10, 2005

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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

It Takes a Designer

Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) came on the Diane Rehm Show this morning to discuss his new book, It Takes a Family. During the course of the interview, Senator Santorum made several comments that deserve more follow-up than Diane gave them.

A caller commented that he didn't believe that gay marriage was really a pressing issue. Senator Santorum's reply was that this is the most pressing issue in America today. He said that he was very concerned about the "breakdown of traditional marriage." I have two questions I would like Senator Santorum to answer regaring this. Did you marry for love, or was your marriage arranged by your families? Was a dowry paid?

Later in the same interview, Senator Santorum discussed the so-called "Intellegent Design Theory." In discussion of whether this "theory" should be taught in science classes, sociology classes, or anywhere at all in public schools, Diane asked one of her best follow-up questions ever, "Doesn't 'Intellegent Design' imply a Designer?" Of course it does, and unless the Senator is prepared to argue that humans are the creation of visiting aliens, it implies a deity.

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Thursday, August 04, 2005

How to make basketball better

In the last two or three years, the rookie of the year has been a high school player. There were seven high school players in the All-Star Game, so why we even talking an age limit?...As a black guy, you kind of think [race is] the reason why it's coming up. You don't hear about it in baseball or hockey...If I can go to the U.S. Army and fight the war at 18, why can’t you play basketball for 48 minutes and then go home?
- Jermaine O’Neal, Indiana Pacers’ forward
When the new NBA and players union decided to include an age limit (19, or one year after their high school class gradudates) in their new collective bargaining agreement there was widespread celebration from NBA and college coaches. The NBA coaches are happy, because they expect to get more experienced and mature players, and college coaches will no longer have to contend with NBA recruiters.

Unfortunately, this deal is not as good as these coaches have made it out to be.

First, for every Carmelo Anthony, delivering a national title to their team, there are twenty versions of Stephon Marbury and Tim Thomas: players who leave after one season, sending programs into downward spirals and costing coaches their jobs.
What if Lebron James was not allowed to play [in the NBA], would he still have gotten his Nike contract? I think he would have. So I don’t think he is going to college. So what does he do?
- Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski
In the future, players like James have only two legitimate options for that one year. They can go to Europe and get paid while competing against lesser talent, or (more likely) they can play in the NBA Developmental League, which will be the NBA’s version of a minor league. If the very best players go to the Developmental League, then the second and third-tier players coming out of high school — guys with a very realistic chance of making the NBA eventually — will begin to follow and fortify the league. As the NBADL rises, Division I college basketball will fall.

What solution is there for college basketball? Some (of the few who have acknowledged a problem) have suggested paying college athletes. College basketball, however, can never provide the basketball development experience that full-time play in a minor league could, and will never be as attractive to players anticipating a professional career.

The solution can be found in every NCAA advertisment: put the student back in "student-athlete". Recognize that someone desiring to become a professional athlete can be better served by a development league than by a university, and focus on those who simply play the game for fun before beginning their real career. Require college basketball players to pass the same admission standards and the same academic requirements as other students.

This is unlikely to happen because large universities, alumni, and the NCAA are too wedded to the current system (a minor league in denial about its nature). Alumni care more about their alma mater's win-loss record than its academic reputation, and universities (and hence the NCAA) are at the mercy of alumni money.

But wouldn't it be great to have real amature basketball, with athletes playing for fun and for respect in their spare time? Basketball players desiring to go pro could do so out of high school (through minor leagues) rather than faking interest in a degree. Universities and coaches would not be concerned with their players transferring because the players would be there for a degree first and the game second. We can always dream.

Note: Lest readers think that this is a "sour grapes" column, I am an alumnus the University of Kentucky (the winningest program in college basketball), lived for the past several years in metropolitan Detroit (home of the Pistons, NBA champions in 2004 and runners-up in 2005), and am currently a graduate student at Michigan State University. And when I was there, my high school had an outstanding program which produced several NCAA stars and NBA players. So I have nothing to be bitter about!

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Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Nashville isn't even pretending any more

I channel-surfed across a "country music" special on ABC tonight, and I was shocked at how little country there is left in the music. As I write this, I am watching a band consisting of three electric guitars, an electric bass, and a drum set. They are all dressed like a heavy metal band (ratty jeans, black T-shirts, tattoos all over) and the lead singer looks like a Kurt Cobain wanna-be (slightly long unkempt hair and a couple days' stubble on his face). The song sounds like something you might have heard on Top-40 radio fifteen to twenty years ago.

I have argued for years that "modern country" (or "young country" or "hot country" or whatever the local radio station calls it) is just rock/pop repackaged with cowboy boots, a hat, and a (usually fake) southern drawl. Apparently the labels have decided that its not even necessary to repackage any more, but that just calling it "country music" is enough.

If you don't believe me, try calling your local "country music" radio station and asking for Jimmie Rodgers ("the father of country music"). They probably won't even know who he is, and if they do, won't have his music, much less be willing to program it. Try asking for Hank Williams. Not Hank Williams Junior, not Hank Williams III (whose music is more country, and better than his dad's), but the Hank Williams. You might get lucky and find a station willing to play a couple of his songs (more likely they'll play a cover by Junior), but it's pretty unlikely. Even Johnny Cash, who has regained a measure of popularity over the last decade, is hard to find on "country music" playlists. Loretta Lynn recently released an outstanding new album, which many have suggested is the best in her long career, chock full of original material (she wrote every song on it), but you wouldn't know about it if you listen to "country" radio.

I'm not suggesting that country music, or any artistic style (music, literary, visual, or other), should be frozen in time. Change is inevitable. But no genre has done as much to lose its history than modern country music. "Oldies" stations keep older rock, R&B, and Top-40 songs and musicians in the public eye, but very few stations (mostly independently owned and operated) continue to play older country music. How many people even know what real country music sounds like?
Nobody saw them running
From 16th Avenue
They never found the fingerprints
Or the weapon that was used
But someone killed country music
Cut out its heart and soul
They got away with murder
Down on music row....

They thought no one would miss it
Once it was dead and gone
They said no one would buy them ol'
Drinkin' and cheatin' songs
Well there ain't no justice in it
And the hard facts are cold
Murder's been committed
Down on music row

For the steel guitars no longer cry
And the fiddles barely play
But drums and rock 'n' roll guitars
Are mixed up in your face
Ol' Hank wouldn't have a chance
On today's radio
Since they committed murder
Down on music row
From "Murder On Music Row" by Larry Cordle.

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