Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Public Education Today

Either I am confused, or I am a hypocrite, or education has really changed since I was a kid. I hope it is only the latter but I am sure a case can be made for all three.

On the one hand, I comment to my wife about once per week about what a good education our kids are getting. The teachers at their school are engaged and committed, the facilities are fantastic, and a hands on approach to discovery has been masterfully intertwined with spontaneous thought and problem solving activities since I last sat in front of a droning "teacher".

On the other hand, I am aghast at the daily inquiries I receive from recently graduated job-seekers who cannot write a grammatically correct cover note. I am even more dumbfounded that an old joke I enjoyed as a youngster, about a man who was really hungry so he asked for his pizza to be cut into more slices, is no longer funny because the teens in the pizza joints today actually think that the "number of slices" is an accurate indicator of pizza size. Don't take my word for it, run to a pizza place right now and ask the pierced fellow behind the counter "how big is the medium" and he will give you a number-of-slices based answer. He will do this in complete earnestness and will fully believe he has provided a useful reply to your question.

I know my angst must be akin to that felt by my elders when many of us began to rely on calculators for basic math. They felt we would lose the ability to perform calculations manually (I suspect they were right to a degree) but it is difficult to discern any lasting detriment that may have caused. I find it much more distressing that we have all lost the ability to write with respectable penmanship and I sometimes wonder why there is not a more vocal outcry about that. At the end of the day, I recognize that different skills may be promoted and/or de-emphasized across generations of students.

So am I confused? Is education getting better, as I presume it is from observing my children's experience? Or is it getting worse as job seekers and pizza joint workers lead me to conclude? If it is one or the other, then I must be some form of accidental hypocrite (if that is possible). Or is education just evolving and emphasizing different skills? If this is the answer, how am I ever going to know how much pizza to order?

NFL Players at High Risk for Dementia

Attention Imaginary Readers: This has a slightly different tone than my usual posts as I pulled it straight from the Brain Today Blog where I breakdown daily news stories about Brain Health.

This headline is not surprising. Such a conclusion is perfectly consistent with our best theories as well as our casual observations. The fact that persons with a history of head trauma have greater risk for dementia is well documented and the connection to the NFL has been highly speculated for some time.

Now, as reported in the NY Times, the NFL has released the results of their own study on the matter. As part of a phone survey conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research last year, 1,063 retired NFL players were asked questions on a variety of health topics. The conclusions were stark, especially for younger aged retirees.

According to the survey, 6.1% of players aged 50 and older had cognitive impairment which is five times higher than the 1.2% rate of prevalence in the general population. More importantly, 1.9% of younger players, aged 30 to 49, had impairment which is nineteen times higher than the .1% rate seen in general.

These figures are even more alarming than many experts would have presumed and will undoubtedly raise new questions about the prudence of suiting up 9-year olds and sending them onto the little league field to bang heads. I love football as much as anyone but it is looking more and more like the costs of the game are greater than the enjoyment it provides.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Socialized Medicine: Truth or Dare

Earlier I wrote about why I thought the US government should take steps to ensure that all citizens have access to medical insurance. I did not suggest that the government should also provide the care; I was merely stating an opinion about one facet of the overall health care system.

The posting stirred lots of commentary and it is obviously a topic of interest and concern to many of us. As I continue to grapple with my own stance on how best to improve the system, I find myself reading opinions from many sources. Some are cogent and fact-based and can help one understand fundamental truths about how we might derive health and economic benefits from a revised approach. Others are drawn from religious devotion to a particular political philosophy and use scare tactics to persuade the audience. These are also informative as they can help one to understand the pragmatic issues around implementation and resistance to anything that threatens the status quo.

Recently I came across this well written piece describing why socialized medicine would be very, very bad for us all. I think it is a mix of the two approaches and I found it to be interesting reading. The writer clearly has his mind made up and makes some giant leaps of logic in his conclusion. That said, I appreciated his description of the macro-problems generally ascribed to socialism and I recognize that a complete nationalization of the health care system would be fraught with potential peril.

Let me know if any of you figure out the solution.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Branding 101

The Red-Sox have worn at least nine different jerseys and three different hats on the field this year.

I have never claimed to be a marketing expert but I have been exposed to the basic principles and understand which ones have been tested and proven. I know, for example, that branding is a successful tactic for building an emotional bond with a consumer.

This is important because it has also been well proven that emotionally involved consumers are more loyal and more likely to exchange their money for your product. So how do you stir emotion and create a bond with your consumers? The answer is pretty complicated (translation: got me...) but I know that it starts with recognition.

Your audience must consistently recognize your product among the myriad of consumer messages that bombard them up to 10,000 times per day (according to reliable sources). In this regard, a consistent look is key.

In the corporate world, the term "logo-cop" is commonly attached to the marketing people charged with protecting the integrity of company trademarks to ensure that whenever they are used, they show exactly the right colors, precisely the right type-face, appropriate white space, agreed tag-lines, acceptable associations, and complete adherence to all of the guidelines in what they call a "graphics standards manual". That's right, they have an entire manual about how to use the company's logos.

So why on earth do MLB and the NFL screw with helmets and logos and uniforms on such a regular basis? If every MLB team is wearing a red cap on a certain day to "honor fallen soldiers", it builds emotional distance with the fans and dilutes the impact of the tribute. It's like a bunch of strangers honoring your relative, not your favorite player paying homage. When all teams wear camouflage uniforms to show support for the military, it may be patriotic but it comes at a cost that the league may underestimate.

The NFL is much worse. It seems like they appreciate branding when you read about fines being levied for uniform violations. Then you watch a game and it's all throw-back uniforms and referees dressed in prison garb. Rather than seeing an intra-conference rivalry that resonates with historical context and pulsates with urgency and significance, I feel like I accidentally tuned into an NFL Europe game that means nothing to me.

I guess the owners are the ones who need to get the message: design a uniform that communicates what you want it to say about your team and stick with it. Always. Forever. Don't blow up the connection with your fans and start over every couple of weeks.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Turn the key, be idle free.

Contributed by Auggie
Now I’m no card-carrying member of Green Peace, and I don’t buy carbon credits to offset my consumption of fossil fuels, but I’m at least somewhat conscious of my actions and how they impact the environment and/or our dependence on foreign oil. That’s more than I can say for some people.

Recently I’ve noticed an annoying behavioral pattern. Whenever I go to the local supermarket (which is quite often since I’m void of the meal-planning-ahead gene), I find at least one car idling in the parking lot. And I’m talking about a 68-70 degree pleasant evening, so I doubt these people are keeping their cars warm/cool for comfort. Sometimes the car is empty and sometimes there’s a person in the passenger seat. I can’t help wondering about the motivation for leaving your car running while shopping (it’s illegal in many places). I would ask one of these people, but I’m afraid they would sense my contempt like a dog senses fear and promptly twack my Adam’s apple with a four-bevel architectural scale.

Surely the reason is not, no . . . it can’t be! Someone please convince me it’s not pure laziness. That would be absolute zero of the laziness scale.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Small Market Baseball Teams

As I have made clear to you imaginary readers, I loved the book Money Ball. Part of my enjoyment of that book came from my appreciation of small market baseball and all that is wrapped up in the twin concepts of winning with fewer resources and competing as a team as opposed to as a cluster of stars with a supporting cast.

By most informed opinions, market size refers to the population of the team's geographic audience or team's cut of income derived by the league from TV revenue. Both of these are reasonable proxies for "how much total revenue can the team generate". Turns out, "small market" is a nebulous term and some of the teams that I thought qualified for inclusion in this group actually play in large markets.

I loved the Money Ball premise of getting value for players to compete in an economically unbalanced league. The Oakland A's were the example in that book and the evidence was compelling that they had found a formula for success. Since reading it, I have kept a keen eye on the success of Oakland, Minnesota, San Diego, and Kansas City, as teams I considered to be "small market" because their star players always seemed to end up in New York, Chicago, LA, or Boston through free agency.

Somehow, I have come to equate "no stars" with "small market" which still seems like a reasonable perspective. That is until you look at the statistics below:

Markets of more than 10 million people

21,199,865 New York Mets, New York Yankees
16,373,645 Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers

Markets of 5-10 million people

9,157,540 Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox
7,608,070 Baltimore Orioles, Washington Nationals
7,039,362 Oakland Athletics, San Francisco Giants
6,188,463 Philadelphia Phillies
5,819,100 Boston Red Sox
5,456,428 Detroit Tigers
5,221,801 Texas Rangers

Markets of 3-5 million people

4,682,897 Toronto Blue Jays
4,669,571 Houston Astros
4,112,198 Atlanta Braves
3,878,380 Florida Marlins

3,554,760 Seattle Mariners
3,251,876 Arizona Diamondbacks

Markets of 2-3 million people

2,968,806 Minnesota Twins
2,945,831 Cleveland Indians

2,813,833 San Diego Padres
2,603,607 St Louis Cardinals
2,581,506 Colorado Rockies

2,395,997 Tampa Bay Devil Rays
2,358,695 Pittsburgh Pirates

Markets of 1-2 million people
1,979,202 Cincinnati Reds
1,776,062 Kansas City Royals
1,689,572 Milwaukee Brewers

Oakland plays to a bigger audience than Boston? St Louis, recently glamorized in this blog for their star studded history, is in the bottom few? Beneath Minnesota and San Diego? What gives?

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Brett Report

I know that Favre gets a lot of media attention and that many people find that irritating. That's why this short note is not about "Favre the football player" but about "Brett the person". Okay, I guess that's the same thing but bear with me, at least it's not about football.

One personality trait that is high on my list of endearing charcteristics is the ability to poke fun at oneself. I learned today that Brett has this ability.

I learned it on the radio while driving to work when I heard a Sears advertisement about the TV's they sell. Favre was the shopper and his over-publicized voice was easy to recognize. In the ad dialogue, the sales assistant expresses surprise that Brett makes up his mind so quickly and so definitively about which TV to buy. At first, Favre seems testy that this would be surprising and suggests that he doesn't wish to be seen as a waffler. But here is the closing dialogue:

Favre: I'll take it.
Assistant: Great!
Favre (with great uncertainty): I don't know....

Clearly, he is aware of his image, knows the image is at least partly deserved, and is willing to publicly accept his own role in crafting that image. Good for him.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Courteous Drivers

I am a courteous driver and I appreciate other courteous drivers. Really.

However, I do not appreciate "over-courteous" drivers. These specimens can be difficult to discern from a similar group (and may in fact be the same group) that we know as "drivers with their heads stuck up their anatomy". I don't dislike these people but I dislike their driving and wish they would understand why they are dangerous.

You might see these people yielding to other cars when they in fact have the right of way. That is noble and I encourage it when you are leaving the jammed parking lot of a Thin Lizzy concert*. However, when in the flow of moving traffic, many nearby drivers will be operating under the assumption that traffic rules will be obeyed, those with the right of way will proceed, and those required to yield will do so. When one driver decides to change the rules out of politeness, it is very disruptive to all other drivers who expect traffic rules to be followed. This even includes the recipient of the polite gesture.

Because these courteous drivers interrupt the expected flow of traffic, they in fact drive unpredictably, which is to say "dangerously".

* Thin Lizzy is still drawing the hip crowd, dog.

Sympathy for the Devil?

Contributed by Auggie
My contempt for the sports media has been well documented in these pages, but more recently I’ve lightened my attitude. The key to my attitude adjustment is accepting the fact that the media’s true mission doesn’t necessarily meet my expectations as a consumer. Media outlets today are not about sports reporting - they are about sports commentary, opinion and hyperbole. They serve a market of sports fans that apparently thrives on this type of content. If that’s the business model that works, and the market responds, then so be it. If I don’t like it then I’m the one with the problem. Now that my expectations match reality, I simply filter out the insipid drivel and focus only on content that matters to me while my self-induced stress level plumments. However . . . I still have a set back now and again. The latest example involves Terrell Owens of the Buffalo Bills.

Let me begin by saying this: in my entire sports viewing life, there has never been an athlete I disliked more that T.O. I just can’t stand the guy. But even I have to stick up for him in this case. It seems he’s being ripped by some members of the media for not commenting after the Bill’s disappointing loss to the Patriots Monday night. Let’s see, there were 44 other active Bill’s players for the game that could have commented just as easily. Owens’ performance did not stand out positively or negatively, so why was it so important to get his take on the game? I’ll tell you why: the so-called reporters were hoping to prod him into a controversial comment that they could parlay into a “story” - a story that would spawn follow-up “stories” and faux analysis. In short, they were exhibiting the laziness we’ve come to expect and trying make their jobs easier at the expense of professional pride. Heaven forbid they would write a story about football. If T.O. had thrown one of his teammates under the bus, they would have had the story they craved, but when he doesn’t comment then he’s “not facing the music” and “not being a leader”. The guy can’t win, even when he doesn’t comment, he’s the story.

For fans interested in real football, and reporters interested in writing about football, I would recommend reading Allen Wilson of The Buffalo News. The following article provides some good insights including offensive line play, defensive formations, down field blocking, matchup advantages etc. Actual on-the-field game stuff. Thanks Allen, there is hope after all.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Jordan's Acceptance Speech

Note: This is a shortened version of his full speech which ran about 30 minutes total and had much more emotion at the beginning.

As I have written before (here and here), speeches matter. Especially these days when real life gets digitized and preserved forever online. It will be interesting to see how, if at all, this touches Jordan's legacy.

I heard about this speech before I actually heard the speech. Once I watched and listened, I went searching for more video that matched the descriptions I had heard. I guess I just don't see what many others claim they see.

It seems like every blogger and sports talk host with an ax to grind took the opportunity to paint Jordan as a disgruntled bully with no grace or sense of gratitude. I agree that he used this platform to remind us of the various grudges he carried through his career but, unless you are purposely ignoring the structure of his message, it's obvious that he used those stories as literary props along the path to a bigger message. He was speaking about his sources of motivation and, I thought, paid respectful tributes to those who had challenged him along the way.

Throughout his career he played to win, stayed out of trouble, and served as a daily example of the relationship between hard work and success. Jordan is not the self-deprecating type and it would not have been fitting to see him take the stage and affect the kind of over-the-top humility that so many others invoke just because that is the socially expected approach to accepting an honor.

I thought his speech was honest and genuine and I give him credit for entering the HOF with the same flair and originality that earned him his entrance.

Friday, September 11, 2009

At a Complete Loss of Blog

I am flabbergasted.

My plan was to use this blog as an outlet for when I had some burning comment to make and no one interested in hearing it. Figured I could give the old imaginary readers an earful and move on.

Now I am faced with an unfamiliar circumstance. Something has me riled up but I can't find the words to describe the magnitude of my exasperation. I have the "burning" without the "comment".

Apparently, political partisanship has become so ingrained in certain sectors that some people were actually upset that the elected President of the country addressed school children last week. They said he was planning to "indoctrinate them with presidential thinking". They said this as if it were a bad thing and threatened to keep their children home, out of harm's way.

I wonder who would be an acceptable speaker in these people's minds. Everyone has an agenda. Everyone has a message. Seems like letting your children be exposed to a speaker who was elected President by the nation's citizens would be about as safe as you can get.

I am so astounded by the absurdity of this story that I just don't know what else to say. I am at a complete loss of blog.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Birds of prey

Contributed by Auggie

When the Tampa Bay Rays went to the World Series last season, you could be forgiven if you had to pause and ask yourself “are they in the American League or National League?” Not much of a baseball tradition in Tampa Bay. In fact, the last decade or so has seen several newbie’s rise to prominence. In 1997 the Florida Marlins won the World Series in only its fifth year of existence (Cubs fans everywhere were seen pouring gasoline on their heads). The Arizona Diamondback topped that by taking the prize in 2001 in only its fourth year (sales of nylon rope spiked in the North side of Chicago). Florida won it again in 03, and more recently the Colorado Rockies and Rays have made it to the series before losing. If you root for underdogs, or typically embrace the latest rage, then those were glory years for you. But, if you have an affinity for baseball tradition like I do, then Booorrring! I suppose all traditions need to begin somewhere, but if we could just slow the pace a little that would be great, thanks.

One team with a rich and illustrious tradition is the St. Louis Cardinals, and they are in the thick of the race again this year - as they so often seem to be. For baseball afficionados, the Cardinal’s tradition rivals any other. All-time greats include the likes of Roger Hornsby, Dizzy Dean, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Stan “the Man” Musial, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson and Ozzie Smith to name just a few. It's current star Albert Pujols will no doubt rank high among the greats when all is said and done. It's storied history includes classic events that define not only to the Cardinal’s tradition, but embellish baseball’s tradition as America’s pastime as well. Notable events include: winning 43 of their last 51 games in 1942 before beating the Yankees for the Championship; the 1946 seven game WS classic against the Red Sox when Enos Slaughter dashed home from first on a hit to left-centerfield in the bottom of the eighth; Bob Gibson’s dominating performance in the 68 series against the Tigers; and the famous Don Denkinger blown call in the 1985 I-70 series against the Royals of Kansas City.

Witnessing the storied history are fans that are devout, knowledgeable and classy. The mid-western fans appreciate the game, and seem to lack (in relative terms) the odious disposition of their kinfolk in the Northeast corridor (I’m looking at you Philly, NY and Boston).

The Cardinals are currently battling the Dodgers for the National League’s best record. They have legitimate Cy Young candidates in Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainright, an MVP candidate in Pujols, and their key mid-season acquisition, Matt Holiday, has not disappointed. Don’t be surprised to see them in the fall classic yet again. The tradition endures

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


I like interesting numbers.

Today's date is a great one that comes in bunches of twelves at the beginning of each century. We always get a 01-01-01 and an 02-02-02 and so forth right through 12-12-12 every hundred years. If you are unlucky in the year of your birth, you can live a long life and never enjoy one of these dates.

I am sure many of you have noted that just after 4 am last July 8th the time and date read: 04:05:06:07:08:09. This is another phenomenon that repeats in bunches after long lapses.

Just to erase any doubt about my peculiarity, I always note when the odometer on my car reflects a palindromic total. I observed this morning that the odometer hit 86,100 and I made a mental note that, most probably on Friday, I will see 86168 on my commute. Sometime around Thanksgiving I will get to see 88888. That will be a good day.

When I was younger, I made a note of the date when I turned 10,000 days old and celebrated briefly at a bar after playing squash with colleagues. I was living in Italy and solicited presents at the office (albeit unsuccessfully) in early 1996 when I aged to 1 billion seconds.

I am especially amused, in some inexplicable way, by prime numbers. Something about the way they are distributed unevenly through the counting system makes them mysteriously appealing to me.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Mt. Rushmore

Let's be honest, Mt. Rushmore is cool. It was a great concept executed brilliantly and now it's a unique landmark of splendid grandeur. I went to see it once and it did not disappoint; it was every bit as awe inspiring as I suspected it would be when I first saw photos of it as a kid.

I like to use the Mt. Rushmore ideal in other realms as well. That is, I like to think in terms of "who would be represented on the Mt. Rushmore of ________". For example, who would be on the Mt. Rushmore of medicine? of film directors? of Standford University? of philanthropy? All difficult questions that are fun to consider. Such an exercise is surprisingly hard and makes me wonder how much debate and negotiation went into the design of the mountain.

Here are my thoughts on a couple that are sure to inspire disagreements among the imaginary readership:

Mt. Rushmore of the Boston Red-Sox:
Ted Williams, Cy Young, Babe Ruth, Carl Yastrzemski

Mt. Rushmore of the NFL:
Jim Brown, John Madden, Al Davis, Joe Montana

Mt. Rushmore of the NBA
Wilt Chamberlain, Red Auerbach, Julius Erving, Michael Jordan

Mt. Rushmore of Golf:
Jack Nicholas, Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan, Tiger Woods

Mt. Rushmore of Rock and Roll:
Mick in the 60's, Mick in the 70's, Mick in the 80's, Mick in the 90's

Of course there are no right answers here; I look forward to any thoughts you care to share.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Science vs. Business

Hard science is the realm of facts and principles and axioms. It is the home of complex fields such as physics and chemistry and it houses constructs like Newton's Laws of motion, Planck's constant, and Avagadro's number.

Soft science describes fields such as psychiatry and sociology where the "facts" are a shade more ambiguous than "hard scientists" will accept as absolute. In these fields, there are still a lot of theories that are somewhere along the path between hypothesis and proven fact.

There are also vast pools of human activity in fields that draw upon science but are not, in and of themselves, scientific. I make a living in one of those fields; we call it business.

I know there is an academic field known as the Science of Management where one can study topics such as marketing theory and strategic resource management. You can make a case but let's just agree that business lies far away from physics on the continuum of science.

There is a general perception that participating in the field of "hard science" requires deep intellect while participation at the other end of the spectrum requires mere common sense. I notice this when working with scientists who, despite no business experience or track record of success, believe that their opinions about commercial strategy are sound.

I think this is due to the lack of barriers. The average man on the street cannot insert himself into a debate about Bernoulli's principle because he lacks a basic understanding of fluid dynamics and is not conversant in the jargon of the physicist. However, the average electrical engineer can easily voice an opinion about an advertising campaign or a price change because there are no barriers preventing the input. Accessibility to the topic gives rise to an impression that the subject matter is simple and easy to command.

I think hard science requires a strong intellect applied deeply and narrowly to a topic and I think businss requires an equally strong intellect applied broadly and comprehensively, although less deeply, over many fields. Importantly, it is due to the lack of hard facts and known quantities that the terrain of business is more difficult to navigate. When nothing is known and many parts are moving, experience and intuition must be combined with objective observation and analysis to discern a successful course of action.

Consider this, in the hard sciences, there is often an answer that is definitively right. For example, thirty-seven 1/2 inch bolts may be required to support 10.61 tons of traffic on a particular bridge. Such a conclusion could be calculated and confirmed using known facts and proven properties.

In business, there is no absolute right and wrong; there is only relative better and worse. A good strategy is good but not as good as a better strategy. Even with hindsight, we can know only if decisions led to goal achievement but we never know if the goals were set properly. Business is a murkier world which is, in many ways, more difficult to survive than science.

We all find our niche and you may not have what it takes to earn a living in science. But if the scientist next door thinks he could sell shoes as well as you, he is probably fooling himself as well.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Random Thoughts

Cy Young: The winningest pitcher in Boston Red-Sox history.

1) Seems like the best way to become a Cy Young caliber pitcher is to leave the Red-Sox. Witness the remarkable resurrections of John Smoltz and Brad Penny. What gives?

2) Allegations of ballot box stuffing in the recent WWDS poll of personalities will be vigorously investigated. Well, that is if one of you imaginary readers chooses to vigorously investigate them.

3) There's a new spider in town and he is huge. Tried his web on for size yesterday afternoon.

4) Brownie (a.k.a. The Great Browndini) has made two escapes since I posted about him last time. In one especially impressive accomplishment, he removed the tube connecting his downstairs to his upstairs. I have no idea how he did it.

5) My front sprinkler ran all day yesterday. One neighbor complaint but no legal action so far.

6) One more week till the NFL kicks off. I guess I am in for one more year with my mistress.