Saturday, March 31, 2012

Thank Goodness We're Not Celebrities

A recent post on "What Were They Thinking?" remarked about what Katie Holmes (Tom Cruise's significant other) wore when she went shopping the other day:
Katie Holmes looked like a hot mess from head to toe while out and about in Manhattan on Tuesday afternoon. The actress -- who typically looks somewhat pulled together -- hit the pavement in a mismatched outfit that featured a chocolate-brown fedora, grandpa-like cardigan, wrinkled red sheath, and suede peep-toe booties. We're too distracted to decide which element is most egregious, so you make the call.
While I can't say I'm wild about what Katie's wearing, I'm sure glad that my fashion instincts (or lack thereof) aren't evaluated each time I walk out the door.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Question Before the Court: Constitutionality not Morality

As many readers are no doubt aware, this past week the US Supreme Court has been hearing arguments as to whether some or all of President Obama's Affordable Health Care Act is constitutional or not. As I have pointed out in a previous post ("Morality vs. Constitutionality"), the question before the court is not whether President Obama's health care legislation is the right thing to do or not, the question is whether it is constitutional or not. The two are not necessarily the same thing. Something can be the right thing to do but may not be constitutional. As a case in point: slavery was constitutional prior to the passage of the 13th Amendment. I would hope all readers would agree that it was immoral before then.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The (Gender) Patent Gap

Here's an interesting (and brief) podcast and companion blogpost on the gender gap in terms of patent filings ("The Patent Gap"). Based on a recent paper by Jennifer Hunt, Jean-Philippe Garant, Hannah Herman, and David J. Munroe ("Why Don't Women Patent?"), the podcast notes that only 5.5% of commercialized or licensed patents are held by women and that this gap cannot be significantly explained by the fact that fewer women hold science and engineering degrees, as “women with such a degree are scarcely more likely to patent than women without.” The podcast (and the paper) further argues that closing the “patent gap” could “increase U.S. GDP per capita by 2.7%.” Not a bad jolt for an economy that's been struggling in recent years. Finally, the podcast offers suggestions as to how this gap can be closed. It is only about 5 minutes long and time well spent.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Pardon the Nepotism... "The Modern Maya" by Macduff Everton

Pardon the nepotism, but here's a book worth picking up if you are at all interested in Mayan culture: "The Modern Maya: Incidents of Travel and Friendship in Yucatán" by Macduff Everton. That's right, we share a last name. He's my cousin. A very talented one in fact. His writing and photography have attracted praise from many quarters (Andy Grundberg, the NY Times Photo Critic, compared him to Ansel Adams who, in my humble opinion, is the greatest photographer of all time).

I just received the book yesterday, so I haven't had time to read it (it's a bit long), but I did peruse the first edition of the book. The photographs in the latest edition are stunning, and if my cousin's writing is up to his usual high standards, the accompanying narrative is both readable and enlightening. Here's a description of the book from the publisher:
Ancient Maya cities draw travelers from all over the world to Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. But while tales of the “Maya collapse” give an air of mystery to the ruins, modern Maya still live in communities across the Yucatán, where they strive to maintain their culture and way of life despite centuries of political, social, and environmental disruption. Photographer Macduff Everton has spent more than four decades living and working among the Maya. His 1991 book on the modern Maya provided a superb photo-essay and ethnographic record of the Maya during a time of critical change and globalization. In this book, he masterfully updates his portrait of the modern Maya, while investigating the effects of NAFTA, tourism, the evangelical movement, world trade and maquiladoras, racism, sexism, and drugs on Maya communities. 
Combining splendid photography of ancient Maya sites and modern Maya communities with an illuminating narrative, Everton takes us into the homes and lives of farmers and chicle gatherers, ranch hands and henequen workers, as well as the Mayan-speaking urbanites who work at the resorts on the Riviera Maya. His long acquaintance with the Maya allows him to tell dramatic stories of how individuals and families have seen a way of life that was centered around the milpa (farm) and the cultivation of tropical forest products transformed by the effects of globalization and the necessity to labor for wages. At the same time, Everton also reveals the amazing adaptability of the Maya, who hold onto the essence of their culture despite all the destructive pressures from the outside world.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Our Internal Timekeeper: On Speaking Longer Than We Should

I just returned from a conference, and I was reminded how when we speak before audiences, we often lose track of time and speak longer than we're supposed to. At a typical conference (or at least the ones I attend), you are given 20 minutes to present -- 15 minutes for a formal presentation and 5 minutes to field questions from the audience. However, because it is so common for presenters to run over, virtually every conference has designated time keepers just to keep folks on track. Even then, it's sometimes hard to get the presenters' attend, and so they often run long anyway.

Professional conferences aren't the only place I've witnessed this phenomenon. I've seen it happen at company retreats, church gatherings, workshops, board meetings, and so on. Unfortunately, at such events there typically aren't time keepers, so it becomes next to impossible to reign folks in. Thus, it's quite common for people to be told they have 5-10 minutes to speak, but they take 20.

I'm not sure why this is. I suppose sometimes it's because folks think that time limits only apply to others or that what they have to say is more important than what others have to say. However, I think that most of the time, it's a function of a lack of preparation and a poor sense of elapsed time.  When we don't prepare beforehand and simply trust that we'll say what we need to say in the amount of time we've been allotted, we end up rambling on about unimportant details, taking more time than we should, and boring people half to death.

Thus, in the interest of short meetings, conferences, retreats, and respecting other peoples' right to have their say, here are some modest guidelines for making presentations:
  1. Prepare. Few of us are natural speakers (I'm certainly not), and we usually do better if we write down what we plan to say. This helps to keep us from repeating ourselves needlessly and spending too much time addressing minor points and too little time addressing important ones.
  2. Practice. Presentations flow much smoother when we practice. Practice also allows us to time how long our presentations are. You may be surprised to discover that you often don't have enough time to talk about everything you want to. That's OK. That helps you focus on what's important.
  3. Bring your notes. Notes helps keep us on track, preventing us from needlessly repeating ourselves, spending too much time on minor points, and too little time on important ones (see point #1 above). Unfortunately, ever since Johnny Carson made off-the-cuff monologues the norm (although he actually had note cards at the front of the stage), many people assume that good speakers speak without notes. And while a few of us are gifted at this, most of us aren't. Unfortunately, too many of us think we are when we're not. 
  4. Don't tell people how long you plan to talk. Once you do, their clocks starts ticking, and if you go over, they will start tuning you out. I once heard Marcus Borg speak at a Baptist church in McMinnville, Oregon, and when he stepped to the podium, he made a big deal about putting a timer on the podium and stating that he was only going to speak for 45 minutes. As you might have already guessed, he spoke for much, much longer. When he reached the 46 minute mark, people started squirming in their seats, and by the one hour mark, only half the crowd was listening. And when he finished over a half-an-hour later, only a handful were hanging on his every word.
  5. End on time. Easier said than done, but if you prepare, practice, and bring your notes, you'll finish on time and send your audience home happy.
I make no claims on being a great orator. However, I do know that when folks follow the above suggestions, they are seldom thought to be bad ones.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Compared to What? Southern Baptists and Race

A recent story on National Public Radio (NPR) focused on the upcoming election in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) that might result in the election of the SBC's first African-American (Pastor Fred Luter) denominational President ("Black Leader For Southern Baptist Convention?"). The story was framed in terms of how historic this would be, given that the SBC was founded in a dispute over slavery (it split from the Northern Baptists -- now American Baptists -- over whether missionaries could own slaves) and was an implicit supporter of segregation for a number of years. The SBC recently apologized for its support of slavery and segregation, but the reporter (Guy Raz) implied that the SBC still has a way to go in terms of overcoming its racist past when he noted that the SBC is still 80% white. In fact, he suggested that its racist past is one of the reasons why it is still 80% white.

But is that a fair characterization? A quick check of the 2010 US Census would have told Raz that 70-75% of Americans are white, so in terms of racial composition, the SBC is a relatively decent snapshot of America. That is, if one were to assign a random sample of Americans to a particular denomination, it wouldn't be a whole lot more diverse than the SBC currently is. Perhaps more impressively, the SBC is far more integrated than most mainline Protestant denominations (the American Baptists being the exception), which run about 90-95% white. In other words, mainline Protestant denominations, which include such denominations as the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Church (ELCA), the Presbyterian Church, the United Church of Christ (UCC), and so on, which have historically been quite progressive on issues of race, are actually doing worse in terms of diversifying.

As I was listening to this story, I was reminded of a piece of advice one of my good friends offered me several years ago: When hearing a statistic, one of the first questions you should ask is, "Compared to what?" It is still good advice. I just wish more folks would follow it.

P.S. As many readers know, I am not a Southern Baptist. Rather, I attend one of those historic denominations (UCC) that is behind the SBC in terms of diversity.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Common Courtesy and Following the Rules

I don't want to come across as a legalist, but does anyone else get tired of people who seem to think that they're exempt from following rules they find inconvenient and then get indignant when you call them on it? You know who I mean:

  • People who smoke in non-smoking restaurants
  • Single drivers who drive in the car pool lane during commute time
  • People who don't shut off their cell phones after they're asked nicely by flight attendants
  • Individuals who cut to the front of the line rather than waiting patiently like everyone else
  • People who walk on "ground under repair"
  • Drivers who take up more than one parking spot when parking is a premium (e.g., at malls during the holidays)
  • Pet owners who take their dogs to pet-free beaches
  • People on planes who place both of their carry-ons in the bins above, raising the probability that someone behind them won't have room for their bags

I'm sure you can come up with more examples, and again, I don't want to sound like a legalist, but doesn't common courtesy count for anything? I'd like to think so.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Boomerang: Debt and Bankruptcy in the World's Cities and Countries

Many of you may be aware that the City of Stockton is on the verge of filing for bankruptcy ("Stockton, A Former Boomtown, Teeters on the Edge of Bankruptcy"). If it does, it will become the largest city in the U.S. to go under. It isn't the only city in California to find itself in trouble. Vallejo declared bankruptcy in 2007, and San Jose is struggling with an increasing debt burden that has led it to lay off a large percentage of its employees ("Making Sense of San Jose's Pension Mess"). Most of this debt is a combined function of unwarranted spending on public projects that were funded through bond issues, incredibly generous retiree health and pension benefits, and the subprime mortgage crisis that led to a collapse in the real estate market and a decline in city and state revenues.

It is, of course, more complicated than that, and the tale of the debt woes of U.S. cities as well of several European countries is hilariously recounted in Michael Lewis's most recent book, "Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World," which begins by focusing on a series of European countries that are struggling with overwhelming amounts of debt (e.g., Ireland, Germany, Iceland, and Greece) and ends with a look at the struggles of California cities, in particular, San Jose and Vallejo. Lewis's previous book, "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine," is also a great read, as it explains in humorous detail, what the subprime mortgage crisis was all about. You may recall that Lewis is also the author of "The Blind Side" and "Moneyball."

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Election (Not Weekend) Update

A few months ago I wrote that if the economy didn't improve, come January 2013 Mitt Romney would be sitting in the White House and Republicans would control the House and Senate ("Will President Obama Be Reelected?"). Since then, the economy has improved, and President Obama's prospects for reelection are much better than they were six months ago. In fact, as long as the European debt crisis or rising oil prices don't cause the U.S. economy to go into a tail-spin (which is, of course, a very real possibility), President Obama should serve another four years as President (assuming he doesn't do anything really stupid between now and November).

However, the Democrats are still in danger of losing control of the Senate, primarily because while 21 Democrats are up for reelection, only 10 Republicans are. The fact that Republican Olympia Snowe has decided not to seek reelection may help the Democrats, but it probably isn't enough. Thus, looking forward to year from now, currently it appears the while a Democrat will be sitting in the Oval Office, Republicans will be controlling the House and Senate.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Anatomy of a Swing

Elsewhere I've written about how important it is for hitters to be choosy at the plate ("Moneyball and the Science of Hitting"). That when they are ahead in the count (3 balls, 0 strikes; 3 balls, 1 strike; 2 balls, 0 strikes; 2 balls, 1 strike; 1 ball, 0 strikes) or it's the first pitch of an at bat, hitters should only swing at a pitch that is in their hot zone. If it's not there, take it because when you swing at a pitch outside of your hot zone, the odds of you getting a hit are poor.

Another aspect of hitting that is important is the transfer of the weight from the back leg to the front leg at the moment of contact. Take a look at the pictures of the swings of Albert Pujols, Mickey Mantle (from both the left and right sides), Wade Boggs, Ted Williams, Derek Jeter, Barry Bonds, Rod Carew, George Brett, and Alex Rodriguez (some of the greatest hitters of all time). All are pictures of the hitters at or near the moment of contact, and note that in every case, they are hitting off a stiff front leg and their back toe is pointing straight down, either barely touching the ground or just above it. In other words, one of the things that made (and makes) these hitters great hitters is that at the point of contact, ALL of their weight is on the front leg, and none of it is on the back. 

What I find interesting how many people who've been involved in baseball for a good part of their lives are unaware of this. Many believe that at the point of contact, some or most of the hitter's weight should be on the back foot (I hear Little Leaguers told this all the time -- "squash the bug!"), but as the photos below show, that simply isn't the case. Hitters should keep the weight back for as long as possible, but in the end, when they're about to ht the ball, their weight needs to shift forward.

Mickey Mantle
Mickey Mantle

Wade Boggs

Ted Williams
Derek Jeter

Barry Bonds
Rod Carew

George Brett
Alex Rodriguez