May 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Those helpful higher oil prices, Sinbad and snipers, an explosive ‘Iron Man,’ and other observations

With a tip of the straw boater to legendary columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

THERE IS A CONTRARIAN VIEW, TO WHICH I SUBSCRIBE, THAT MAINTAINS SUSTAINED HIGHER OIL PRICES could prove to be a positive development in the end. To the extent that elevated oil prices encourage industrialized nations to shift away from fossil fuels and turn to alternatives like wind, solar and conservation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions), the recent price surge could represent the proverbial blessing in disguise.

While I’m not ready to join MarketWatch columnist Chris Pummer in rooting for $8-a-gallon gas prices, the positive “green” ramifications of increased demand for oil, and pressure on prices, are hard to ignore. It will make it easier for Congress to support tax credits for alternative forms of energy, and it should spur private sector efforts for solar and wind power.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently released a report suggesting that the U.S. could derive 30% of its electricity from wind power by 2030 (up from the current 1%). For the market to work its magic, however, the cost of wind power must be competitive with that of oil and coal generated electricty.

WILL FUTURE HISTORIANS SEE COMEDIAN SINBAD’S DEBUNKING OF HILLARY CLINTON’S BOSNIAN SNIPER story as the pivotal moment in the Democratic Party 2008 presidential race? Sinbad, who had accompanied Clinton to Bosnia in 1996, refuted the New York Senator’s claim of a harrowing, corkscrew landing at the Tusla airport, and a harrowing dash across the tarmac to avoid possible snipers (“She lied. It’s on video. There’s no other side to it, because it’s on video.”) The exposure of Clinton’s fabrication helped deflect attention from Sen. Barack Obama’s emerging problems (Bittergate, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright) and raised renewed questions about her own credibility at a critical juncture in the campaign.

WHEN IS A RECESSION NOT A RECESSION? It doesn’t raise confidence in practitioners in the dismal science to learn that economists can’t agree on whether the U.S. has slid into a slowdown or is suffering from a recession. Deciding where in the business cycle we are is an academic question, in one sense, but that designation carries great significance in an election year.

HAVE THE MERITOCRATIC ORIGINS OF THE SAT BEEN FORGOTTEN? As Smith College and Wake Forest University decide to abandon the SAT Reasoning Test as an admissions tool, let’s not forget that the SAT was originally established to introduce greater fairness in college admissions. A standardized test, it was thought, would allow schools to compare talented public high school students with those educated in elite private schools.

IN A GREAT HOLLYWOOD TRADITION, THE NEW FILM “IRON MAN” HAS IT BOTH WAYS, attacking the violent business of war and yet delighting in high tech pyrotechnics and massive explosions. Best moment of the movie: Jim “Mad Money” Cramer’s over-the-top cameo where he complains: “It’s a weapons company that doesn’t make weapons!”

SPEAK, MEMORY? HOW PLASTIC ARE OUR MEMORIES? Rob Walker’s Sunday New York Times Magazine article “Can a Dead Brand Live Again?” has a fascinating take on the question of human memory. Walker reviewed research on consumer’s memories of brands from the past.

The researchers found that subjects presented with a fake Disney World ad inviting them to “remember the characters of your youth: Mickey, Goofy . . . ” were significantly more likely to say they recalled that as children they had met “a favorite TV character at a theme resort” than those who didn’t see the ad. The fascinating thing was what happened when they repeated the experiment, tweaking the ads to include Bugs Bunny, who, of course, is not a Disney character at all. About 16 percent of subjects subsequently claimed that, as children, they shook hands with Bugs Bunny at a Disney theme park. Repeated fake-ad exposure apparently led to higher false-memory rates.

If the research is to be believed, then it is frighteningly easy to mold our memories of the past. Shades of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, where the past is constantly being revised.

FROM PHILIP K. DICK, SCIENCE FICTION AUTHOR EXTRAORDINAIRE COMES THIS month’s closing words of wisdom: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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November 2007: Nobody asked me, but…

The missing GOP candidates, farewell to Cold War warriors, and other observations…

With a tip of the hat to New York’s man-about-town columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER AND JEB BUSH WOULD BE LIKELY REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES TODAY, and probable frontrunners, but for two factors: the U.S. Constitution, which legally bars the California Governator from running because of his foreign birth; and Bush clan fatigue, which effectively bars the President’s younger brother and former Florida governor from pursuing the Oval Office. It would have been a different primary season with either of these “missing candidates” on the ballot.

On paper, at least, Schwarzenegger would have been formidable, especially in a general election. Consider: Schwarzenegger offers a rags-to-riches life story; he has instant national name recognition as a famous movie star; he married into America’s most prominent Democratic political family; and he is chief executive of our largest state, and, from all accounts, a leader who is mastering the art of political compromise. Not only that, Schwarzenegger’s eclectic political beliefs track fairly closely to those of many Americans: the action-hero governor espouses free market economics, environmentalism, moderate immigration policies, and libertarian views on social issues.

Sure, Schwarzenegger has his political liabilities and personal flaws—sordid behavior towards women during his Hollywood days; some ethical questions about his business ventures; possibly some lingering health issues from his heart bypass; and, reportedly, a fascination with political power for power’s sake—but none more damaging than those of, say, Rudy Giuliani.

California’s 55 Electoral College votes, which haven’t been in play for a long, long time, would have made Arnie’s bid irresistable for conservative Republicans (who might otherwise have looked askance at the former bodybuilder’s candidacy).

Speaking of Golden State electoral votes, some California Republicans are pushing a June 2008 ballot initiative that would allocate them by congressional district, rather than the current winner-take-all system. If the initiative passes (which is very unlikely), it would mean any GOP candidate could count on an additional 15-20 electoral votes, enough to guarantee a national victory.

SOME KEY FIGURES IN COLD WAR HISTORY DEPARTED THE SCENE in the last month or so. Among them: Soviet spy Alexander Feklisov, who claimed to have overseen the espionage of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; Kremlin hawk Vladimir Kryuchkov, one of the last heads of the KGB; Victor Rabinowitz, American lawyer (and Communist Party member) whose clients included Paul Robeson and Alger Hiss; John Noble, an American who survived some nine years in Russia’s gulag; and Milo Radulovich, a casualty of McCarthyism, unfairly fired from the Air Force Reserve as a security risk, whose cause was championed by Edward R. Murrow.

WASN’T NEIL DIAMOND’S REVELATION THAT HE WAS INSPIRED by JFK’s daughter Caroline Kennedy in writing the hit song “Sweet Caroline” touching? Or am I going soft?

WILL THAT WIND FARM IN NANTUCKET SOUND EVER BE BUILT? The Cape Cod Commission recently denied a permit for local transmission lines for the project; it seeks to generate clean power through some 130 wind turbines sited six miles off the Massachusetts coast. The wind farm developer, Cape Wind Associates, began the regulatory process in 2001 and has faced stiff opposition from local NIMBY (“Not in My Backyard”) activists. Cape Wind now seeks regulatory relief from the state’s energy facilities siting board, but it looks like timely approval for this much-needed alternative to fossil fuel generation will remain a long shot.

REALCLEAR POLITICS’ BLAKE DVORAK’S TOUGH CRITIQUE OF THE CNN/YouTube debates includes this memorable line: “With the fare presented ranging from the inventive to the ridiculous, the experiment was certainly a nice reminder for why the Founders cherished individual freedom but dreaded direct democracy.”

ROSIE O’DONNELL MAY HAVE LOST A SHOT AT A TALK-SHOW ON MSNBC, but, based on her blog entry announcing that news, she may have a future as a haiku poet. Think any MSNBC executive would cop to the “Rosie Show” as his or her idea today?

KNUTE ROCKNE, Notre Dame’s legendary football coach, provides this month’s quotation (one that might resonate with the embattled current Fighting Irish coach Charlie Weis): “I’ve found that prayers work best when you have big players.”

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (April 6th, 2007): Nobody asked me, but…

As Jimmy Cannon used to say, Nobody asked me, but…

AN ADDITIONAL DELAY FOR THE CAPE WIND project, caused by a slower-than-expected review by the federal Minerals Management Service, means America’s first offshore wind farm can’t expect approval until at least 2008. Cape Wind Associates wants to construct 130 wind turbines in a 25 mile-area of Nantucket Sound, but has faced opposition from local residents who fear the windmills will kill wildlife (birds) and ruin the natural seascape. Some of the resistance, however, is NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard), plain and simple. The company claims its project could produce about 79 percent of the daily electrical energy needs of the Cape and Islands.

All things considered, offshore wind power appears to offer the least-environmentally damaging source of energy—it’s renewable, clean and, according to some estimates, capable of providing significant amounts of energy for the Northeast and West Coast. Wind sure beats coal and nuclear, and Denmark has relied on offshore wind power farms without significant environmental downsides, so it’s not completely untested. if any project ever deserved regulatory fast-tracking, Cape Wind would seem to be it.

IS THE UNITED STATES A GREATER THREAT TO WORLD PEACE THAN IRAN? Apparently 48 percent of Germans think so, if you believe the latest polls there. Claus Christian Malzahn, Spiegel Online’s Berlin bureau chief, calls the current anti-Americanism the “wonder drug of German politics.” He adds:

Not a day passes in Germany when someone isn’t making the wildest claims, hurling the vilest insults or spreading the most outlandish conspiracy theories about the United States. But there’s no risk involved and it all serves mainly to boost the German feeling of self-righteousness.

Malzahn also sees hypocrisy at work: “You can call the American president a mass murderer and book a flight to New York the next day. You can lament the average American’s supposed lack of culture and savvy and meanwhile send off for the documents for the Green Card lottery.”

The strange popularity of David Hasselhoff in Germany now becomes more explicable. The Hoff is now starring in a production of Mel Brooks'”The Producers” in Las Vegas.

IT’S OK WHEN AN AUTHOR DEMONSTRATES INSIDER KNOWLEDGE, but only when he or she shares that with the reader. Lawrence Downes did just that on the New York Times editorial page when he recently wrote about Senator Barack Obama’s Hawaiian upbringing, “For Obama, Estranged in a Strange Land, Aloha Had Its Limits.” Downes also grew up in Hawaii and in discussing the many cultures and races who came to the island tells us that “…A pidgin English field guide would list buk-buks, pakes, buddaheads, katonks, mokes, titas, popolos, yobos, blalahs, haoles and portagees.” But then Downes doesn’t translate the terms for us! Too precious by half.

Here are the translations of these terms (some of which are derogatory), drawn largely from e-Hawaii’s Pidgin English Dictionary: buk-buks (Filipinos), pakes (chinese ), buddaheads (Japanese from Hawaii), katonks (Japanese from mainland U.S.), mokes (large, tough Hawaiian males), titas (female mokes), popolos (African Americans), yobos (Koreans), blalahs (large Hawaiian males), haoles (Caucasians) and portagees (Portuguese).

THE NEW, QUIETER SINGLE FROM COUNTRY DUO BIG AND RICH, “Lost In This Moment” features John Rich’s smooth, distinctive voice; Rich sang lead occasionally for Lonestar, so he knows his way around a ballad.

THE WORDS FOR THE WEEK FROM DWIGHT EISENHOWER, whose intelligence, wit, and insight were underestimated by many: “Here in America we are descended in blood and in spirit from revolutionists and rebels — men and women who dare to dissent from accepted doctrine. As their heirs, may we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.”

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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