November 29, 2015

“Suspected”? Really?

I have been eagerly awaiting news reports about the motives of the man who attacked a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs Friday. It was a fair bet that Robert Lewis Dear Jr. had some deep-seated antipathy toward Planned Parenthood, but evidence for that was technically only circumstantial.

Robert Lewis Dear Jr.
Robert Lewis Dear Jr.
Citing “a law enforcement official,” The Washington Post reported last night that Dear, used the phrase “no more body parts” in explaining the intrusion during which he killed three people. Well, what did people expect?

But, the Post story begins: “The gunman suspected of storming a Planned Parenthood clinic … .” Really? Was Dear only “suspected” of shooting up the clinic? With so many witnesses and TV cameras, are we really incapable of saying definitively that Dear was the shooter?

We live in a country—thanks be to God—in which people accused of a crime are considered innocent until proven guilty. Dear, of course, is not yet guilty in a legal sense; legally, he is a suspect. But certain facts are beyond dispute. Assuming that Dear was not employing alien technology that distorts reality, it is as certain that he stormed the Planned Parenthood clinic as it is that Kansas City won the World Series.

In saying that Dear is only “suspected” of attacking Planned Parenthood, The Washington Post is doing what the press often does to avoid seeming to assume legal culpability. Such behavior is understandable, but it is disingenuous. Dear may be a suspect, but his actions are not merely suspected.

Mayor of Colorado Springs John Suthers offered a more forthright way of speaking of Mr. Dear. He is quoted in The New York Times as saying that ”[t]he perpetrator is in custody.”

November 22, 2015

FanDuel and DraftKings

The daily fantasy sports sites FanDuel and DraftKings (and similar, less advertised sites) have quickly become big business. It is a business threatened by regulations having to do with gambling. Is playing fantasy sports with these new companies gambling or not; are the games games of skill or of chance? The answer is clearly yes, and the legality of these games may vary from one jurisdiction to another depending upon how gambling is defined. The question to be answered is almost always how much skill versus luck is required for a player to win.

FanDuel and DraftKings logos
Let’s step back for a moment regarding the skill/chance balance and look at the games more abstractly. Because outcomes are based on the performance of real players in particular circumstances, there is clearly an element of chance involved. A .300 batter gets a hit roughly one time out of three, but he can also have a drought that lasts for weeks. By the same token, teams are picked by players, and there is clearly skill in knowing what players to pick.

Without trying to calculate the ratio of skill to chance involved in these games—this is impossible to do precisely anyway—it is useful to consider somewhat analogous activities. Consider the New York Stock Exchange. Skill is clearly involved in picking stocks, but chance has a significant role in whether or not one makes a profit. The rapidly expanding hamburger chain that looks like a smart investment today could become the source of an E-coli outbreak tomorrow. Despite the enormous uncertainty involved in investing in stocks, playing the stock market—note carefully that idiom—is not considered gambling, not in the way playing the slots is construed as gambling, at any rate.

Now consider horse racing. Enormous skill is required to train thoroughbreds. Jockeys are also highly skilled. A horse race is not simply about what horse is fastest; strategy, tactics, and dumb luck ultimately determine the winner. Moreover, a person choosing a horse to be the winner of a race has a good deal of knowledge at his or her disposal—how many and what races the horse has won, how successful the jockey has been, etc. Yet playing the game of selecting equine winners—betting on a horse—despite the skill that may be required to be a winner, is considered gambling.

Are daily fantasy sports contests more like playing the stock market or like playing the horses? In fact, how is playing the stock market any different from playing the ponies? I cannot distinguish these three activities from one another. They are very much alike, particularly with regard to that fact that, in each case, the professionals who make a career of playing the game tend to be the people who make all the money. (Well, maybe the people who run the games make most of the money!)

Perhaps there is a bigger question to be answered than whether FanDuel and DraftKings are gambling enterprises.

November 21, 2015

In Praise of Steam Locomotives

W&LE 6401
Builder’s photo of W&LE 6401
(Click on photo for a larger image)
Above my desk is a framed builder’s photo of a Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway steam locomotive. The K-1 class Berkshire (2-8-4) was built for the railroad by ALCO in Schenectady, New York, in 1937.

I was thinking about this locomotive today and, by extension, all steam locomotives. Why were these pieces of machinery so impressive and mesmerizing to watch? Why, even now, are there so many people fascinated by steam locomotives? I haven’t researched these questions, but I think I have something of an answer.

Much of the attraction of steam locomotives—particularly of twentieth-century ones with external valve gear—is that they were practically the only instances of large, complex machines whose mechanisms were visible to the public. Even today, large machinery is either hidden in mills or factories or are driven by electric motors or internal combustion engines that move as if by magic.

Tower cranes, locks, stadium roofs, and earth moving equipment may be behemoths, but the source of their power is obscured from view. The movement we see is stately, though we know that they are animated by intricate frenetic dances of machinery within.

Trains, planes, ships, rockets, and even highway vehicles can impress us with their size and speed. Their sounds can induce awe. But they are secretive in a way that the steam locomotive is transparent.

The sense of power of the locomotive is enhanced by sight and smell—by the smoke, the escaping steam, the flames peeking out beneath the grates, by the smell of lubricants and of burning fuel. And then there is the sound—not the uniform growl of diesel engines or traction motors, but the punctuated exhaust that increases with speed, the hiss of steam escaping the cylinder cocks, and the thump-thump of the feedwater pump.

The real attraction, though, is the motion of the wheels, valve gear, and connecting rods. The driving wheels can be taller than a person; the main rod and connecting rods often seem outrageously heavy and long, almost too big to move quickly. Yet these components do move rapidly, in an action overlaid by the blur of the lesser rods of the valve gear that, through their insanely complex motion, control the valve that admits steam to the cylinder, thereby driving the piston, piston rod, and, ultimately, the drivers themselves. There is nothing like it, and we will not see its like again.

November 8, 2015

The “Perfect” Gin and Tonic

Ginger beer and gin
Fever-Tree ginger beer and Bombay Sapphire gin
I recently discovered that a local supermarket has several brands of very good ginger beer. I am fond of the stuff, which is a sort of ginger ale with serious attitude. On my last supermarket trip, I came home with a carton of Fever-Tree Premium Ginger Beer. It’s good stuff.

Eventually, I got around to reading what was inside the carton. The text suggested that Fever-Tree ginger beer can be used “to create the perfect gin and tonic.” (The ginger beer includes quinine, apparently, so it has more than carbonation in common with tonic.) Conventional mixers mask the taste of fine spirits, I was told.

I like gin and tonic, and I am particularly fond of Bombay Sapphire gin, so I though I would give ginger beer a try as a substitute for tonic. I poured two ounces of gin over ice and filled the glass with Fever-Tree ginger ale. The result was tasty, but it tasted simply of ginger beer. The subtle combination of tastes of Bombay Sapphire was completely lost. In fact, I couldn’t taste the gin at all!

Bottom line: I recommend Bombay Sapphire Distilled London Dry Gin, and I recommend Fever-Tree Premium Ginger Beer. I don’t, however, recommend drinking them together.

November 6, 2015

Maybe MSNBC Got It Right

Tonight, with less fanfare than we have seen for previous presidential debates, MSNBC hosted a “Democratic Candidates Format.” The candidates were Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley. The questioner was Rachel Maddow.

The event did not use the rules for presidential debates that I recently suggested, but it was, I think, a civil and useful enterprise. The candidates were questioned individually. Only one appeared on the stage at once. Both the questions and the answers were intelligent and interesting.

The format reminded me of Inside the Actors Studio, which uses a similar format to interview actors. It is a format that is invariably interesting and illuminating.

Perhaps MSNBC has figured out how to give Americans the measure of their presidential candidates. I think that maybe MSNBC got it right.

November 4, 2015

Inclusiveness Does Not Trump Truth

I did not watch the installation of Michael Curry as Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church; I was in church at the time. (The timing of the service was something of a mixed bag.) As soon as I had time, however, I began reading the sermon that the new PB preached at Washington National Cathedral. I was not far into the sermon when I was stopped dead in my tracks by this passage:

Many centuries later, Julia Ward Howe, writing in the midst of America’s Civil War, spoke of this same movement, even amidst all the ambiguities and tragedies of history. This is what she wrote:

In the beauty of the lilies
Christ was born across the sea,
with a glory in his bosom
that transfigures you and me,
as he died to make folk holy
let us live to set all free,
while God is marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah,
God’s truth is marching on.
Of course, as even someone ignorant of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” might suspect, the above is not what Julia Ward Howe wrote. (The Wikipedia article on the text includes a facsimile of the original publication in The Atlantic Monthly—see below.) In particular, the stanza quoted was originally
In the beauty of the lilies
Christ was born across the sea,
with a glory in his bosom
that transfigures you and me:
as he died to make men holy
let us die to make men free,
while God is marching on.
The important lines here are the antepenultimate and penultimate ones. (I have no idea what lilies have to do with anything or what glory in one’s bosom is.) The lines were written, as Curry notes, during the Civil War, when men—almost exclusively men—were dying, Howe and others hoped, to eliminate slavery. (The Emancipation Proclamation was still a year off.)
“Battle Hymn of the Republic”
Howe poem as originally published

The “quotation” in the sermon is, quite simply, incorrect, and Curry’s assertion about what Julia Ward Howe wrote is a falsehood—not a good way to begin tenure as presiding bishop. I don’t think it was necessary to put words in Howe’s mouth to illustrate the “Jesus movement.” Knowing the context of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” we know that (1) “men” was often used to mean people, and (2) human males were actually dying for a cause.

Dying to make men free is a concept that might be scary in a sermon, and Wikipedia notes that, in many modern recordings, the penultimate line is rendered “let us live to make men free.” This makes the line more relevant in a 21st-century context, but it isn’t what Howe wrote. Curry substituted “folk” for “men,” which is an informality out of character with the rest of the poem. The use of “folk” and (on the next line) “all” make for much weaker poetry than do the original words.

No doubt, a concern for “inclusiveness” was responsible for the substitutions for “men.” I can appreciate the impulse for such changes, but there are times when they are inappropriate. Sometimes the substitutions just do not work. (The Hymnal 1982 changed “Rise up, O men of God!” to “Rise up, ye saints of God!” though the original title is cross-referenced in the index. Mercifully, “God rest you merry, gentlemen” was not similarly “fixed.”) At other times, changes rewrite history, and history deserves to remain, well, historic. I am reminded of the consistent rendering of “brothers” in the epistles as “brothers and sisters” in the New Revised Standard Version. This may make feminists feel good, but we deserve to know what was actually written. Whether Paul, by convention, referred to the saints collectively as brothers or whether he was a male chauvinist pig, I don’t know. That’s another conversation.

I do not, in principle, object to “inclusive” language, though achieving it is often a writer’s nightmare. As an objective, however, achieving inclusiveness is not as important as being truthful. Curry could easily have paraphrased Julia Ward Howe. He had no right to misquote her.

October 29, 2015

Suggestions for Presidential Debates

I’ve been watching the latest Republican presidential debates. I didn’t watch the debates live because I wanted to see the PBS Nature program on pets, followed by the remainder of the second World Series game. From this experience, I have a few suggestions for future debates, which I  list below. Note that this is not a complete specification for future debates.

1. Make the debates more widely available. Debates should be presented on broadcast networks, so people without cable can see them. The debates should be streamed live on the Web and should be available for later viewing on the Web and on demand from cable systems. They should also be broadcast on radio. Perhaps some voters will still not be able to see (or hear) the debates, but most people will.

2. Remove the live audience. We should be interested in what the candidates have to say, uninfluenced by audience reaction. If there has to be an audience, admonish its members to be silent during the proceedings. If people really want an audience that is allowed to react, assemble a Republican audience for Democratic debates and a Democratic Audience for Republican debates. That should be interesting.

3. Ask all candidates the same questions. Although it may be interesting to be able to contrast candidate A’s position with that of candidate B, it is more helpful to know what all the candidates have to say, especially regarding policy matters. It is also helpful to know if a given candidate has no opinion or only a half-baked opinion on a given subject.

4. Enforce time limits. The time limits for candidate responses to questions are never aggressively enforced. This is particularly irritating when a candidate goes on and on without answering the question asked. (See below.) If the rules of the debate allow for one-minute answers, for example, a candidate’s microphone should be cut off by a studio technician after 60 seconds. Presidents, after all, have to be able to use their time wisely, as they get no more of it than the rest of us.

5. Allow candidates to think about what they are about to say. I suggest that, after a candidate is asked a question, the candidate’s microphone not be turned on for 10 seconds. This allows for collecting one’s thoughts and preparing to answer the question that was actually asked. Of course, each candidate should have suitable time information displayed on the podium.

6. Reward succinctness. If candidates are given, say, a minute to answer, give them credit for time not used. If a candidate answers a question in 50 seconds, let him or her answer another question in 70 seconds.

7. Reward responsiveness. Candidates should not be allowed to avoid answering a question by talking about something else entirely. Nor should the American people have to put up with such a diversionary tactic. If, in 15 seconds, a candidate has not begun addressing the question posed, the microphone should be cut off and the allotted time for the answer forfeited.

8. Stick to policy and procedural questions. Voters want to know about issues such as what the candidate thinks the U.S. to do in the Middle East or the criteria the candidate would use in selecting a Supreme Court nominee. Matters particular to one candidate—haven’t you been inconsistent about one thing or another, for example—are best handled in other fora.

9. Don’t allow rebuttal. Allowing a candidate rebuttal time whenever his or her name is mentioned interrupts the flow of the debate. Rebuttals can be made later in interviews, speeches, or press releases.

10. Encourage truth-telling. This is a difficult suggestion to implement, but it is well worth looking for a mechanism to do so. Political candidates are notorious for shading the truth, and many assertions of candidates are debatable. On the other hand, candidates are not above trying to get away with outright lies. (Carly Fiorina’s story of the nonexistent Planned Parenthood video that she swears she saw is a good example of this.) Debates should employ neutral fact-checkers. Admittedly, fact-checking is difficult to so and to display—particularly on radio—on the fly. Perhaps a good mechanism would be a follow-up program on the same network a night or two later. Video of clearly false statements could be shown along with discussion of the truth by experts. Here is a place where rebuttal may be appropriate. Objectivity is both important here and difficult to achieve, but voters need to know when a candidate is espousing an outright lie.