Thursday, March 22, 2007

BOOKS: The Audacity of Hope

I didn't really know much about Barack Obama, aside from the general buzz about his great speech at the Democratic convention some years ago, about how he's a "walking hope machine", and the petty controversies over whether he's "not really black" or was educated in a madrasa. But having read his latest book, The Audacity of Hope, I have to say, this guy really does give me hope. He is a remarkable combination of idealism and pragmatism. His idealism, as expressed in the title, is the hope that our politics is not inevitably doomed to a downward spiral of partisanship and corruption, that there are enough fundamental American values that bind us together as a people and that just might be channeled into support for some common-sense policies to address our real problems. His pragmatism shows in a healthy humility (what sharp contrast to our current Decider and his inner court!) combined with an openness to crossing partisan lines to seek practical solutions. His book was not packed with specific policy prescriptions, but when he did discuss policy ideas, he reminded me of Matt Miller (author of the brilliant book "The Two-Percent Solution: Fixing America's Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love"), genuinely listening to both sides and suggesting reasonable compromises that might actually get something good done. The book was less full of policy prescriptions than it was about how Obama sees our nation, its people, and our problems, and about the personal history that lead him to see things as he does. He is a refreshingly authentic voice, a clarion call in our current political wilderness. I am impressed and genuinely excited about him, and even though I may disagree with him on a number of specific policies, I would feel very comfortable having such a reasonable man in the White House.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Continuing the Conversation with Hillary

"The Conversation" has been a recent theme of the Hillary Clinton campaign, and despite my initial skepticism, it seems that she actually may be listening as well as talking. In response to the demoralizing comments of General Peter Pace last week that "homosexuality is immoral", Clinton was asked whether she agreed that homosexuality was immoral, and responded:
Well I'm going to leave that to others to conclude. I'm very proud of the gays and lesbians I know who perform work that is essential to our country, who want to serve their country and I want to make sure they can.
Which of course is the old political side-step. She was called on it by numerous bloggers and community leaders, and a couple days later, made this statement:
Well I've heard from a number of my friends and I've certainly clarified with them any misunderstanding that anyone had, because I disagree with General Pace completely. I do not think homosexuality is immoral. But the point I was trying to make is that this policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell is not working. I have been against it for many years because I think it does a grave injustice to patriotic Americans who want to serve their country. And so I have called for its repeal and I'd like to follow the lead of our allies like, Great Britain and Israel and let people who wish to serve their country be able to join and do so. And then let the uniform code of military justice determine if conduct is inappropriate or unbecoming. That's fine. That's what we do with everybody. But let's not be eliminating people because of who they are or who they love.
I was delighted to read this. These words are right and they are unequivocal, and I'm glad to see you owning them by putting them on your website in text and on YouTube in video. So, in the spirit of continuing The Conversation, I'd like to ask a follow-on question. You say you're opposed to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", and you have called for its repeal. Me too. As an ordinary citizen, I do what I can, which is to talk it up in my blog, to support the outstanding advocacy of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, and to write to my Congressman and Senators, urging them to take action by co-sponsoring the Military Readiness Enhancement Act (HR 1246). The bill to repeal DADT has been introduced in the House, and has 114 co-sponsors (including my Rep, thank you, Mr. Becerra!). Alas, it has yet to have a champion in the Senate. Say, Senator Clinton, aren't you on the Senate Armed Services Committee? Ahem. Your words are great, now let's see the action. What are you waiting for?

General Pace Violates Uniform Regulations

Righteous indignation greeted Joint Chiefs Chairman General Peter Pace's recent remarks that homosexuality is immoral and should not be condoned by the military. A group of seven high-ranking and highly-decorated gay military veterans demanded to know, "Does General Pace believe we are immoral, or that our service was unacceptable? Does he appreciate the sacrifice and dedication of every patriot in our armed forces, regardless of their sexual orientation?" Surely his remarks have done more to undermine the morale of the 65,000 gay and lesbian troops on active duty than any alleged morale damage that their presence could cause. It is absurd that at the same time as the military is granting a record number of waivers for admitting felons and other convicts into military service, Pace can make comments like this: "The U.S. military mission fundamentally rests on the trust, confidence and cooperation amongst its members. And the homosexual lifestyle does not comport with that kind of trust and confidence and therefore is not supported within the U.S. Military." While Pace later apologized for expressing a "personal opinion", too little has been made of the fact that to express his personal opinion in a public forum while in uniform is a violation of military code. Would it be unreasonable to formally discipline General Pace for such a technicality? So long as it is a dischargeable offense for a servicemember to wear their uniform to a gay pride parade, it would be outrageous not to discipline Pace for expressing his opinion in uniform.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

What's Wrong With American Idol

Tonight's American Idol results show had us spitting at the TV with disgust. I was still smarting a bit from last week when AJ got booted off and Sanjaya went forward. AJ's "Feelin Good" was the bomb, and it's unfathomable how Sanjaya's uninspired "Steppin' Out With My Baby" was favored. No offense to Sanjaya, who's got a decent voice but not an Idol voice, and is way outclassed here. This week, it was apparent on his face that Sanjaya was expecting to go home, so he was shocked, the judges were clearly shocked, and we were all shocked when he went forward again, denying a seat to the far more deserving Sundance, whose "Jeremy" rocked. And on the girls' side, we thought it was pretty clear cut which two should be going home, and one was as expected, but our jaws hit the floor when Haley took the spot that totally should have gone to Sabrina. Her jazzy, powerful "Don't Let Go" was so far and above Haley's pallid "If My Heart Had Wings", it's just so wrong.

As I stewed over this gross miscarriage of justice, I started thinking to myself, what's wrong with American Idol. And for some reason, I started musing "what would Steven Levitt think?" Pondering the incentives and the system, it occurred to me why it is flawed. For starters, of course, it's not explicitly a search for singing excellence, otherwise it would be determined by qualified judges and not by 37 million Americans voting by phone. But beyond that, even assuming that all of the voters were honestly voting for the best performers (as opposed to the best looking, most popular, favorite song genres, etc, which is a big assumption), the one-person-one-vote system could be expected to determine the top performer, but should not be expected to determine a qualified rank order for the rest. In these earlier weeks, we're being asked to vote for the best, but the decision being made is who are the worst. Think of it this way. Suppose that 75% of the voters have reasonable taste and judgment, and 25% don't. The 75% of the voters who do have good judgment will have put their one vote toward those who truly are the top performers. But in these weeks, those votes don't matter. What matters is who got the most votes among the bottom half of the class. And those are being determined by the 25% who lack judgment. Thus, one would expect that in these intermediate winnowing rounds, the decisions of who gets sent home are going to be rocky and spurious. And so they have been.

A better system for these elimination rounds would be for people to vote for the bottom rather than the top. Or if that seems too mean-spirited (what? Idol mean-spirited?), each person should get to vote for as many contestants as are going forward.

I also think there's some amount of game theory that enters into it. I'm suspecting that an appreciable chunk of voters may vote based on song choice and genre, as there are a variety of genres being represented. For instance, there are probably a good number of country music fans watching the show (see Carrie Underwood for proof), and perhaps a lot of them don't have an appreciation of other genres, and may not have appreciated Sabrina's sophisticated rendition of an En Vogue R&B tune. Perhaps they voted for Haley just because they prefered a country song. I'm not slamming country here. I appreciate country music, and I really like the Faith Hill song. Which was all the more reason Haley was a disappointment. She's a pretty girl and she can sing decently, but we need more than decent here. Her interpretation was uninspired, a bit fast yet lacking drive, and when she got to the chorus, where the song just wants to soar, well, Haley's voice just didn't have wings. And yet she'll be back and Sabrina goes home. So wrong.

In honor of Paula, I'll find something nice to say about American Idol. Kudos to them for the highlight on charity that they announced tonight. The money that they will probably be giving toward the needy in Africa and here at home is admirable, and the attention they will be bringing to charitable efforts will be invaluable. Looking forward to hearing more about that. Charity is sweet music indeed.

BOOKS: Real Food

My friend Anne recently loaned me the book Real Food by Nina Planck, subtitled "what to eat and why". The book was a happy convergence of two interests I had been developing in recent years: shopping for food more responsibly (e.g., local produce from farmer's markets, cage-free chicken and eggs, pastured beef) and cooking and eating more healthily (with a particular eye on cholesterol and blood pressure). Thus I eagerly devoured the revelations contained in this book.

Planck's main message is that nearly everything we (Americans) thought we knew about healthy eating -- avoiding butter, eggs, and red meat, opting for skim milk and skinless chicken breasts -- is wrong. Her positive prescription is to eat "real food", concurring with Michael Pollan's advice to not eat anything your great-great-grandmother would not have recognized as food. Her diagnosis of why modern Americans suffer from so much coronary disease, arteriosclerosis, diabetes and other maladies is the large-scale replacement of "real food" with industrialized food: refined vegetable oils, trans-fats, cattle and poultry raised in unnatural crowded conditions with unnatural diets and pumped up with antibiotics and steroids, and dairy products with most of their nutrients blasted out of them and then anemically added back in.

I devoured the book, mostly because I was hungry for what she had to say. I think she makes a convincing case for most of her main arguments, with explanations suffused with the depth of her research but plainly stated so that anyone can understand them. Numerous references to medical and scientific studies give credence to some of the controversial claims, where it was helpful to know that she's not alone in making them. The footnotes and the biochemistry and leavened with pieces of her personal food journey (grew up on a farm, tried to live a "healthy" diet, but ended up with improved health when she came back to "real food"), and anecdotes of the politics of how some of our misguided conventional wisdom developed.

The frustrating part is that it's not nearly as easy as it ought to be to find "real food". You've got to hunt around for pastured beef, and "raw" dairy products are even illegal in some states (though not in California). And even with our blessings of farmers markets and Whole Foods, Anne and I are wondering where we could possibly find Planck's ideal poultry - not just free-range, but raised on a combination of grass, grain, and grubs. But we'll keep looking. Planck has got me convinced it's the right thing for my health and for the planet's.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Much Ado About Cloning

I really don't get what all the fuss is about over cloning cows in the food supply. In December, the FDA made headlines when a team of scientists delivered a 678-page report concluding that the meat and milk from cloned cows was indistinguishable from that of non-cloned cows, and the FDA issued an official preliminary finding that meat and milk from cloned animals was "safe". What surprises me is that anyone was surprised by this. Cloning is just a technique for creating something that sometimes occurs naturally: twins. Can you imagine anyone going around saying "I'd be afraid to eat the meat of a cow that was a twin. The FDA should force farmers to label such things. I want required labels that say 'This meat comes from a steer that had an identical sibling.'" Anyone who espoused such views would be considered a bit nutty, and rightly so. And cloning is different how, exactly?

Almost as long as humans have been farming, they have been seeking techniques for manipulating their stock to select for superior qualities. Selective breeding, artificial insemination, and various other assisted reproduction technologies have been employed for ages with nobody caring nor needing to care. And even cloning has been used for ages on plant stock. When it comes to our fruits and vegetables, people have long been eating clones. Surprise! Nobody noticed (except perhaps to notice the increased availability of superior produce).

I understand that some people may be ethically squeamish about animal cloning, but that shouldn't cloud objective judgment over whether such food is safe. And even ethically, the only rational argument I've heard against animal cloning is the "slippery slope" concern that it's a step too close to human cloning. In response to that, I would note that we seem to manage fairly well keeping a bright line between animal husbandry and human ethics, otherwise cannibalism and eugenics would be equally viable worries. The reproductive technologies routinely employed in agriculture would surely boggle the mind if one were to take on the misguided exercise of trying to analogize them to human practices and human ethics.

Thus I was bemused to read in today's LA Times of the spectacle of some of LA's top culinary stars gathered around a table for a double-blind taste test of cloned vs non-cloned beef, and of these otherwise very sophisticated people expressing "ick" reactions to the notion of cloned beef that one would normally expect from some country rube confronting escargot for the first time. Kudos to chef Mark Peel of Campanile for hosting the event, and to those who joined (even if with reservations). Some notable foodies refused to even have anything to do with it (the Times article names some names). In the end, none of the gastronomical luminaries were able to distinguish the cloned from the non-cloned beef. Quelle surprise.

I can understand epicures concerning themselves with distinctions between cattle raised on corn versus those raised on pasture, or cattle treated with growth hormones versus those not. Those are certainly distinctions that may have an actual effect on the resulting meat (or milk). But whether an animal is cloned or not, there's simply no basis for expecting any difference. And as the old saying goes, a difference that makes no difference is no difference.