Mike Kueber's Blog

March 28, 2015

The Leon Creek Trail turns into the Wild West

Filed under: Fitness — Mike Kueber @ 10:02 pm
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For the past few months, I have eschewed biking on the Scenic Loop in favor of riding the Leon Creek Trail. The Trail is not only flatter, but also safer because motor vehicles are not allowed. This week, though, the Trail seemed less safe and more like the Wild West, and I’m not referring to the snakes, deer, and roadrunners that are continually crossing in front of me.

As I previously blogged, I almost had an accident a few days ago when a fellow rider laid his bike down in front of me. Then yesterday, I had an altercation with a jogger who yelled at me as I went by because I failed to alert him that I was passing. I might have let the yell go except the guy was running on the left side of the Trail, so who was he to complain. As his words sunk in (“Hey, next time, tell me you’re passing on the right.), I decided to stop my bike and ask him if he was talking to me. He assured me that I hadn’t misheard his comment, but kept running past me, so other than a few exchanged comments, nothing more serious happened. Funny how the brain quickly decides whether to flee or fight.

Later in the same ride, I twice encountered skateboards rolling unmanned in front of me on the trail. Although I’ve never hit a skateboard with my bike, I shudder to think what would happen.

And then today, I happened upon several riders who seemed to be taking blind corners at about 25 mph. I’ve never heard of these speedsters running into anyone on the trail, but I would be shocked if they haven’t. If I were in control of the trail, I would impose a 20 mph speed limit, which happens to be as fast as I comfortably ride.

Btw – I checked with a good friend who regularly runs on the trail, and she confirmed that it would be good manners to alert runners who I am passing, even though 80% of them have music earphones that prevent them from hearing anything. I tried to employ those manners today, and eventually it got to be second-nature.  Plus, it gave me an excuse for a brief encounter.  A win-win.

March 27, 2015

The First Amendment and the expulsion of two SAE fraternity brothers at OU

Filed under: Education,Law/justice — Mike Kueber @ 9:06 pm
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Shortly after the SAE fraternity and two of its members were expelled from OU, I heard some chatter suggesting that these actions violated America’s constitutional right to free speech. But the chatter was quickly shut down by the conventional wisdom that you have the right to say something, and other people have the right to shun you for what you say.

Despite my law degree, I accepted this conventional wisdom despite a gnawing feeling that it was too simplistic. Today, however, I stumbled across a two-week-old article in the NY Times that reports legal experts – conservative and liberal – are in agreement that OU’s actions violated the First Amendment. The crux of the matter is that OU is a public institution and as such it is not allowed to punish free speech unless “the students’ chant constituted a direct threat, leading a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety, or if it seemed likely to provoke an immediate violent response.” This limitation would not apply to a business or even a private college.

Not surprisingly, the students of OU seem to approve the sanctions, but of course the First Amendment is not intended to protect popular causes. Rather, its purpose is to protect unpopular speech from popular mobs.

March 26, 2015

Saturday Night at the Stylized Movies #144 – Birdman

Filed under: Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 4:42 am
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During Pride & Prejudice (2005), there is a dance scene when all of the dancers except Darcy and Elizabeth magically disappear and the star-crossed couple is left alone on the dance floor. I thought the scene was effective, but not especially significant. I was more interested in the characters’ wonderful dialogue.

But then I watched another movie, Anna Karenina (2012), by the same director, Joe Wright, and the same leading lady, Keira Knightley. This critically acclaimed movie was stuffed with a surfeit of similar magical, unrealistic scenes that I thought detracted from the story. The Wikipedia article on the movie noted that critics approved the production design while “criticizing the script and Wright’s apparent preference for style over substance.”

That was my first exposure to the concepts of production design and movie style. Doing some additional research on a Film Reference website, I learned production design falls on a spectrum between realism and stylization:

  • As in every cinematic subdiscipline, designers begin with the script and make their contributions within the limits and opportunities the story provides. The options available to them move along a spectrum from realism to stylization. (In this context, “realism” should be understood as a particular style that seeks to convince viewers they are watching events unfold in the real world.) The approach a designer takes (strict realism, heavy stylization, or something in between) is often predetermined by the genre of film on which he or she is working.
  • At the “realistic” end of the spectrum are stories such as war films, police dramas, and westerns. These genres derive much of their power from the illusion of occurring in the here and now. The violence and horror of the war film is most effective when viewers believe a soldier can be maimed or killed by the grenade dropped in the trench next to him, while the police drama convinces audiences that real criminals are being chased when both pursued and pursuer pound the pavement of real cities.
  • Another, at the opposite extreme, creates thoroughly unrealistic, heavily stylized environments that make no attempt to convince viewers they are watching any real, lived-in or live world. These designs try instead to create an alternative environment with an internally consistent logic that lasts as long as the film’s duration. Films from genres such as fantasy, science fiction, and the musical are often heavily stylized.

Birdman (2014) is a heavily stylized movie, with Michael Keaton starring as a former Hollywood superhero who, while attempting a comeback with a Broadway play, seems to continually converse with his erstwhile character, Birdman.

Count me as someone who leans strongly toward the realistic movies instead of a movie that ingeniously creates an alternate environment. The Rotten Tomato critics loved Birdman at 97%, while the audience was less enthralled at 80%. The movie won this year’s Best Picture Oscar, as did its director, Alejandro González Iñárritu. I previously wrote about Iñárritu’s first movie (2001), Amores Perror (Love is a Bitch), and complained about its dark story.  Upon further reflection, I should have also noted that the movie was heavily stylized.

The same can be said for Birdman – dark characters and heavily stylized. Not my cup of tea, but apparently what the Oscar people like.  I give it only two stars out of four.

I think this subject is analogous to modern-art paintings. The critics believe it is more artistic to paint something that doesn’t look real. Reality is deep enough for me.

March 25, 2015

Nature vs. nurture

Filed under: Culture,Fitness,Philosophy — Mike Kueber @ 5:07 am
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Today, while taking my daily bike ride on the Leon Creek Trail, I came upon a middle-aged, slow-moving couple riding single file in front of me, with the woman up front and the man a few yards back. As I was preparing to pass on their left, the man slowly veered to the left until his tires went off the edge of the trail and when he overcorrected his bike came back onto the trail and then went down. Fortunately, I was able to squeeze by on the left side of the trail, and as I went by him, three thoughts went through my mind:

  • First – “Whew, I missed him! That was close.”
  • Second – “What was that guy thinking? Idiot!”
  • Third – “I’d better stop and see if the guy is hurt.”

After stopping and turning around, the guy quickly called out that he was OK and I resume my ride. But as I proceeded down the trail, I wondered why my immediate reaction had been so self-centered. Yes, human instinct has a dominant concern for self-preservation, but the accident scene wasn’t very dangerous because I wasn’t traveling that fast, and even after I evaded the downed bike, my next reaction was to be peeved at the fallen rider instead of being concerned about him.

Ever since studying psychology in college, I’ve been familiar with the nature vs. nurture argument (coined by Francis Galton). I’m guessing my first reaction was mostly caused by nature, but my second reflects a disposition that my best friend describes as Ayn Randian.

March 15, 2015

The sombrero and mustache

Filed under: Uncategorized — Mike Kueber @ 2:54 pm
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When lounging poolside yesterday, a friend and I talked about our experience 40 years ago with Greeks (fraternities and sororities) when we were going to school. If the recent SAE incident in OU is not an aberration, their conduct has not changed much. To my friend, I compared the Greeks to the British aristocrats whom I have been observing in Pride & Prejudice, The Duchess, Downton Abbey, etc.  Membership in their clubs was traditionally reserved for white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs), and only recently has more diversity been afforded.

As part of the ongoing coverage of the Greeks, the San Antonio Express-News this morning contained an article cataloguing Greek misbehavior in the past few years, ostensibly to show that the OU incident was not an aberration. One of the items listed was as follows:

  • The sorority Chi Omega closes its Penn State chapter, which had been on probation since December 2012 when a photo appearing on the Internet showed members wearing sombreros and fake mustaches and holding offensive signs.”

Coincidentally, my son, Bobby, and his wife, Heather, posted a Facebook photo from a military conference in Corpus Christi wearing a sombrero and fake mustache. I referred them to the article and added, “The PC police are everywhere, except the frontlines :).

Heather soon responded – “Well a Hispanic person placed those ‘costumes’ on us. But in all those who may be offended I have removed the photo.”

I had mixed feelings about mentioning the article to Heather and Bobby because I was torn between rejecting the PC or alerting them to it. Obviously, Heather took it as an alert, which is the only sensible thing for the wife of a young officer to do today.

March 12, 2015

Jon Stewart brings some perspective to the SAE controversy and rampant racism in America

Filed under: Culture,Law/justice — Mike Kueber @ 8:12 pm
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Last night on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart attempted to prove that he is an equal-opportunity satirist by devoting the second segment of his show to skewering Hillary Clinton for her lame, almost risible explanation for declining to send government emails from a government server – i.e., carrying two phones would be inconvenient.

But, true to his nature, Stewart reserved his most serious sarcasm, and the first segment of his show, for a video of a busload of SAE fraternity members drunkenly singing to keep black people out of the OU chapter of the fraternity – “You can hang them from a tree, but they will never sign with me. There will never be a nigger SAE.”

Stewart compared the SAE video to another video by an OU linebacker, Eric Striker, responding to the SAE video:

  • “I’m so motherfucking furious right now. SAE just fucked it up for all you fucking white fraternities. The same motherfuckers talking about racism don’t exist, be the same motherfuckers shaking our hand, giving us hugs, telling them how you really love us. Fuck you phony ass fraud ass bitches.”

Since the revelation of the videos, OU has disbanded the SAE fraternity and expelled the two SAE members for creating “hostile learning environment for others.”  The linebacker is being recognized on FOX Sports are an heroic leader of his team.

The last part of the SAE segment, however, was the most interesting, and relates to my previous discussions of logic and critical thinking. Steward showed a series of clips where conservatives tried to minimize the SAE incident by characterizing it as an isolated event that does not reflect a prevalent attitude. Then, as is Stewart’s wont, he showed conservatives arguing against welfare and food stamps based on isolated incidents of abuse – e.g., as buying salmon with food stamps.

But Stewart wasn’t willing to accept that both sides employ similar misleading tactics in making their arguments. He wanted the moral high ground that welfare fraud wasn’t prevalent whereas racism was. To win his argument, he used two punches:

  1. According to Stewart, the recently released Justice Department report on Ferguson was “as comprehensive a catalogue of race-based predations as anyone’s going to find.” Stewart failed to mention that the Department’s principal proof of racial animus in Ferguson was six racist jokes that had been communicated on employee computers.
  2. Megan Kelly on FOX was guilty of inadvertently incriminating herself and all conservatives by saying that any in-depth Justice Department examination of employee computers of most companies would likely find six similar jokes. Thus, according to Stewart, Kelly didn’t exonerate Ferguson, but rather indicted all of America.

Which brings us to our critical-thinking skills. Does the fact that some people send or receive jokes that compare President Obama to a chimpanzee mean that those people and their agency/companies are dangerous racists that must face the heavy hand of the law? Attorney General Eric Holder seems to think so because he has said the Ferguson government will be dismantled by the Justice Department unless it agrees to voluntary reforms. The SAE chapter has already been dismantled by OU.

Another question – is it more important to weed out racists than bigots? What about jokes disparaging Catholic priests or Muslims or Russians or illegal immigrants or fat people or gay people or people on welfare? If a company doesn’t vigorously weed out these snarky people, does the government intervene?

This is a slippery slope for government.

Racial discrimination in Madison

Filed under: Culture,Law/justice — Mike Kueber @ 3:02 am
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I recently posted about critical thinking and dubious conclusions of racial discrimination in Ferguson and San Antonio. Today, USA Today contained an article pointing suggesting that Madison, WI should be added to the list of racist cities. According to the article, titled “Blacks lags whites in Wisconsin well-being”:

  • African Americans in Wisconsin’s capital significantly trail whites in dozens of measures of well-being. Those include employment, household income and percentage of children living above poverty.”

This media characterization of Madison is especially newsworthy, not only because Madison is the location of the latest “cop-kills-unarmed-black” incident, but also because Madison is a highly progressive city that often makes lists of “best places to live.”  The article attempts to provide a balanced discussion of the issue by quoting three people:

  1. A local firebrand. “Racism is at the heart of Madison’s problems — blatant racism, covert racism and institutional racism,” said Eric Upchurch, a member of the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition. The group took part in a march Wednesday to demand “justice for Tony Robinson and all those murdered by police.”
  2. A sympathetic police chief. Among Madison’s whites, 95% of adults hold jobs, the median household income is $65,000 and only one child in 20 lives in poverty. By contrast, the Race to Equity Report found that blacks experience 25% unemployment, a household income of $25,594 and a child poverty rate of 58%. Madison’s racial disparity is strikingly evident in arrest statistics. A USA TODAY analysis of arrests made in 2011-12 found the rate of arrests of blacks is 9.6 times greater than that of whites. That’s greater than the disparity in Ferguson, Mo., and one of the widest gaps found in any large or midsize American city. “If you have a problem being a social worker with a badge, I hope to hell we find you out,” said Chief Mike Koval, Madison Police Department.
  3. A logical out-of-state academic. Authorities point out that disparity in arrest figures does not automatically mean police are racist. David A. Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who studies relationships between race and crime, said disparity signals leaders to look closely to determine why the disparity exists, and determine whether fixes are needed. “It may indicate discriminatory practices by police, but it may not,” Harris said. “It might be that people in poorer neighborhoods — something often correlated with a high percentage of minority (residents) — are demanding more police services, as they should.”

As I was thinking about the various numbers being bandied about, I thought about two other statistics on racial inequality that are often overlooked:

  1. Wealth. In 2013, according to Pew Research, white households had an average net worth of $149,000, black households $11,000, and Hispanic households $13,700.
  2. Parenthood. In 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 25% of white children were in single-parent households, 67% of black children were, and 42% of Hispanic children.

These two numbers indicate that white kids, with two parents and an inheritance, have a huge advantage over black and Hispanic kids and this advantage makes in unreasonable to expect that, even in the absence of racist conduct, school suspensions and police interventions will be racially indistinguishable.

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix to these two numbers.

March 7, 2015

Critical thinking – racial discrimination in San Antonio and Ferguson

Filed under: Culture,Law/justice,Media — Mike Kueber @ 2:04 pm
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Following up on my recent post about logic and critical thinking, this week’s media reporting included two glaring examples of failing to use the aforementioned abilities.  The first, an article in the San Antonio Express-News, suggested that racial bias was behind the fact that a disproportionate percentage of blacks and Latinos were suspended from school in San Antonio and Bexar County.

  • “Among racial groups, in the 19 school districts that are all or partly in Bexar County, black students are far fewer in numbers, but about 15 percent of them were suspended out of school in the 2011-12 school year, compared to 10 percent of all Latino students and 5 percent of white students.”
  • “The findings ‘bring up civil rights issues,’ said Daniel J. Losen, the center’s director and the report’s principal author. ‘We know from studying the data that suspensions are strong indicators of lower academic achievement and higher numbers of dropouts. It doesn’t help anyone much, from what we can tell.’”

I comment as follows to the author of the article:

  • Francisco, your article seems to suggest that the disproportionate suspensions of blacks and Latinos raise civil-rights issues. If that is your point, I think you (or your cited experts) should explain why this is causation, not mere correlation. Further, I don’t understand why the reported numbers don’t include Asian students. If suspensions are the converse of academic achievement, you would expect Asian students to be subjected to fewer suspensions.”

In addition to the causation-correlation delusion described in The Halo Effect, the article is also guilty of the delusion of single explanations. There is no attempt to consider other possible causes of the connection between racial status and school suspensions, such as academic achievement. The lazy writer simply makes an incendiary, politically-correct assertion.

The New York Times took a similar path in reporting on the Justice Departments findings about Ferguson policing.  In an article titled, “Racially Discriminatory Policing Was the Norm,” the Times dutifully reported the Justice Department findings:

  • Black people are two-thirds of Ferguson’s population, but from 2012 to 2014, they accounted for 85 percent of police traffic stops, 90 percent of citations issued, and 93 percent of arrests. The Municipal Court also treats blacks more harshly, according to the Justice Department’s findings. The harms of Ferguson’s police and court practices are borne disproportionately by African Americans, and there is evidence that this is due in part to intentional discrimination on the basis of race…. Our investigation has revealed that these disparities occur, at least in part, because of unlawful bias against and stereotypes about African Americans. We have found substantial evidence of racial bias among police and court staff in Ferguson. For example, we discovered emails circulated by police supervisors and court staff that stereotype racial minorities as criminals, including one email that joked about an abortion by an African-American woman being a means of crime control.”

Notice the skillful use, twice, of the qualifier, “at least in part.” Technically, this relieves the Times from the obligation to report on other, possibly more significant causes, outside of racism, for blacks to be involved with the Ferguson PD.   The actual Justice Department report, not the Times article, seems to consider and reject this possibility:

  • City officials have frequently asserted that the harsh and disparate results of Ferguson’s law enforcement system do not indicate problems with police or court practices, but instead reflect a pervasive lack of ‘personal responsibility’ among ‘certain segments’ of the community. Our investigation has found that the practices about which area residents have complained are in fact unconstitutional and unduly harsh. But the City’s personal-responsibility refrain is telling: it reflects many of the same racial stereotypes found in the emails between police and court supervisors. This evidence of bias and stereotyping, together with evidence that Ferguson has long recognized but failed to correct the consistent racial disparities caused by its police and court practices, demonstrates that the discriminatory effects of Ferguson’s conduct are driven at least in part by discriminatory intent in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Talk about conclusory, unsubstantiated allegations! And the ubiquitous, “at least in part.”

Of course, even if we can’t expect the media to report on complex issues of causation, we might hope that it discusses solutions. And the only obvious solution is that the system must be jury-rigged so that 13% of all school suspensions, nationwide, go to blacks, 17% go to Hispanics, and the remaining 70% go to others.  But I’m not sure that is the color-blind society that MLK dreamed of.

Sunday Book Review #154 – The Halo Effect by Phil Rosenzweig

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 2:17 am
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A few years ago, my son Tommy took my advice and signed up for a college class on logic. I had taken a philosophy-logic class in college and felt that the subject-matter was the essence of what college is intended to teach – i.e., clear thinking about important issues.

A few days ago Tommy, who has been out of college and working for a few years, told me that he was interested in revisiting the subject of logic, especially as applied to his business work. He hadn’t save his college text book and was wondering if I had anything on the subject in the library. I didn’t have anything, but I was able to find four such books at the San Antonio Library. He and his fiancé selected the most inviting of the four, and left me the other three, one of which was the most excellent, The Halo Effect, by Phil Rosenzweig.

The Halo Effect, written in 2007, is subtitled “… and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers.” As suggested by the subtitle, this book doesn’t provide “ready-made answers, for plug-and-play solutions that might give them a leg up on their rivals.” In fact, it spends quite a few words debunking earlier books that do this, like In Search of Excellence (1977), with its Eight Practices of America’s Best Companies, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (1994), with its Timeless Principles of Enduring Greatness, and Good to Great (2001), with its Seven Characteristics of Companies that Went from Good to Great.  Instead, The Halo Effect identifies faulty thinking that often leads to incorrect assumptions. The nine identified delusions:

  1. The Halo Effect. The tendency to look at a company’s overall performance and then characterize that company’s culture, leadership, values, etc. as consistent with the performance. Actually, studies have shown that those characteristics reflect past success, but don’t predict ongoing success.
  2. The Delusion of Correlation and Causality. Two things may be correlated, but we may not know which one causes which. E.g., employee satisfaction does not lead to high performance; rather, company success leads to employee satisfaction.
  3. The Delusion of Single Explanations. Studies might show that a single factor is highly significant, but that significance is exaggerated because that many other important factors tend to co-exist with it.
  4. The Delusion of Connecting Winning Dots. Most studies focus on business winners, and this focus precludes an in-depth understanding of what differentiates winners from losers.
  5. The Delusion of Rigorous Research. Because most data is polluted by the Halo Effect and other delusions, huge amounts of data will still produce flawed thinking.
  6. The Delusion of Lasting Success. Almost all so-called winners will regress to the mean. There are no blueprints for lasting success.
  7. The Delusion of Absolute Performance. Success is not about getting better; rather, it’s about being better than your competitors.
  8. The Delusion of the Wrong End of the Stick. A strategy that worked for one company might have not worked for a dozen other companies.
  9. The Delusion of Organizational Physics. Business performance is not science; rather, it is an art. What works in one place at one time may not work at another place in another time. A good manager will play the percentages, while recognizing that there is no certainty.

The bulk of the book focuses on the delusions and then finishes with two chapters on the solution, which is that a company needs to excel at (1) strategy, and (2) execution, but that luck often plays a critical role.  Companies that have excelled for a longtime are exceedingly rare, and they have probably benefited from series of lucky events. Like the Spurs getting David Robinson in one draft and Tim Duncan in another. That good fortune, along with good strategy and execution, resulted in the NBA team with the all-time highest winning percentage.

March 6, 2015

Saturday Night at the Movies #143 – A Love Song for Bobby Long

A few days ago, John Travolta was widely mocked for planting an “awkward” kiss on Scarlett Johansson on the Academy Award’s red carpet.  The implication was that the 61-year-old actor was a Biden-esque groper inflicting unwelcome attention on a much younger beauty. The situation seemed similar to the even-older sportscaster Brent Musburger once talking about the beauty of an Alabama quarterback’s girlfriend.

The responses of the women in both situations was essentially the same. The quarterback’s girlfriend, Katherine Webb, immediately came to Musburger’s defense:

  • “I think the media has been really unfair to (Musburger). I think if he had said something along the line if we were hot or sexy, I think that would be a little bit different. The fact that he said we were beautiful and gorgeous, I don’t think any woman wouldn’t be flattered by that. I appreciate it, but at the same time I don’t think I needed an apology.”

Similarly, Scarlett Johansson came to Travolta’s defense:

  • The image that is circulating is an unfortunate still-frame from a live-action encounter that was very sweet and totally welcome. That still photo does not reflect what preceded and followed if you see the moment live. Yet another way we are misguided, misinformed and sensationalized by the 24-hour news cycle. I haven’t seen John in some years and it is always a pleasure to be greeted by him. There is nothing strange, creepy or inappropriate about John Travolta.”

While reading about the Oscar’s incident, I learned that Johansson and Travolta had starred in a 2004 movie, A Love Song for Bobby Long,” and I decided to take a chance on it. After watching the movie, I am not the slightest surprised that Johansson took umbrage at the media making fun of Travolta over the kiss. Not only did they co-star in the movie, which makes his familiarity with her reasonable, but also they had great chemistry in the movie as father-daughter.

Although the Rotten Tomato critics panned the movie (43%), the audience loved it (80%), and I agree with the audience. The movie is about a couple of Southern literate guys who have gone bohemian, and I can’t imagine a better place than New Orleans (maybe NYC or Austin) to go that route. The duo becomes a trio when Johansson arrives from Florida to take the place of her recently-deceased singer-mom. All three characters are interesting and worth rooting for.

I give the movie three and a half stars out of four.  And I say, quit picking on us old geezers who, like Augustus McCrae, have a little sport left in them.