Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A slight change in the forecast

We were supposed to get 3-5 inches of snow today, and there were already a few inches on the ground was snowing when I woke up. I finished off my previous blog post, then ate breakfast and prepared to shower. I checked to see if there would be a delayed opening for my place of employment, and was surprised to find out that they would be closed for the day.

Then the snow changed to pure rain. Now we're forecast to get nothing but rain until late tonight. So, from my point of view, that whole calling work off for the day was probably not necessary. On the other hand, the majority of people who I work with come from points further west or north, and some of those areas are still getting snow, so it's very good for those people that they don't have to make their way into work.

That's one of the fun things about the weather where I live - when we have late winter storms like this one, we're often really close to the border between snow and rain, with rain to the south and east and snow to the north and west. The problem is that even with the best experts using the best technology, it seems to be basically impossible to predict where the rain/snow border will be to anything closer than 20 or 30 miles. You just have to wait for whatever happens - and pray that you get either rain or snow, and not the dreaded "wintry mix" of snow, sleet, and freezing rain together, otherwise known affectionately as "winter crap".

In any case, I'm not complainin'. This unexpected day off will give me the chance to procrastinate some mo ... I mean, finish all sorts of important tasks that I've been putting off!

Because I need to post something, dammit

I live a pretty dull life. I actually like it that way a lot of the time, but it does give me precious little worth writing about. Still, since not having anything momentously important to say hasn’t stopped millions of other bloggers, so why should it stop me? So, in no particular order ....

My youngest brother has been accepted into the physics doctoral program at Oxford. That's the Oxford in England, one of the world's more prestigious educational institutions. Yes, he's pretty smart. Not only can I not understand the sub-field that he specializes in - I can't even remember what it's called. (I'll have to ask him if he plans on trying to pick up an "Oxford accent" while he's there - that would be ... disturbing.)

Far less welcome was the news last Friday that my sister in law in Germany had to have surgery. She is apparently doing OK - nobody in the USA has heard from my brother since this past weekend, but since he would always contact us if there was a serious problem, we are going by the principle that no news is good news.

I have several important things that I need to start working on, the most important of which is looking for a new place to live. I have responded to these challenges so far in my usual fashion -- by procrastinating energetically.

I met an old friend who I hadn't seen in a couple of years for lunch this past weekend - he and his family seem to be doing pretty well, which is good news. We caught up on stuff that has been going on in our lives and reminisced about the "good ol' days" when we were growing up (in our case, mostly 80s and early 90s).

It's snowing here now - we're supposed to get mixed snow and rain for about the next 3 days. There isn't supposed to be too much accumulation, though, partly because the rain in the day will help melt the snow that fell at night. Unfortunately, all this freezing and thawing will probably make for a lot of ice on the roads.

There's more stuff that I don't have time to cover (or can't think of) at the moment, but it will have to wait ....

Monday, February 15, 2010

Presidents - the best of the worst (2)

John Quincy Adams (Elected 1824, defeated for reelection 1828, served 1825-1829)

Why so bad? The second man on the list of "bad presidents with a good side" was the oldest son of the first. Like his father, he served a single term as president, managed to be hated by his opponents while getting only half-hearted support from his own political allies, and was probably secretly relieved when he was defeated in the next election and thus got an excuse to walk away from an office that had pretty much become a living nightmare for him. Unlike his father, he became the first man to win a presidential election even though he came in 2nd to Andrew Jackson in both the popular vote and the electoral college. He managed this because the election of 1824 was a complicated 4-way race in which no candidate got more than 50% of either the popular or electoral vote. As per the United States Constitution, the election then decided by a vote in the House of Representatives. In the House of Representatives, the 4th-place candidate, Henry Clay, encouraged his supporters to vote for Adams rather than Jackson, which guaranteed a victory for Adams. Soon after, Adams appointed Clay as his Secretary of State. This looked like a painfully obvious case of Clay selling the votes of his supporters in return for becoming the senior member of the new president's cabinet. Jackson's supporters immediately accused Adams and Clay of reaching a "corrupt bargain" to thwart the will of the voters, and this accusation tainted John Quincy Adams badly even before he was sworn in as president. Jackson and his supporters used it again and again for the next 4 years, and amazingly Adams never even publicly disputed or denied it. Unlike his father, John Quincy Adams didn't end up having any significant accomplishments of his own as president, positive or negative. He did, however, mimic his father's inability to work well with others, including even Henry Clay, who might have been expected to be a close ally since they were both under attack for the same reason.

In his defence (sort of) ... John Quincy Adams really was a bad president, in the sense of being ineffective and accomplishing little, but this was not because he was corrupt. On the contrary, he was too rigid in his principles to be effective. Remember the old saying that "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree"? John Quincy Adams was very different from his father in some ways, but he matched and even exceeded Dad in his determination to do what he thought was right, regardless of political realities or consequences. There is no evidence that there was any "corrupt bargain" between Adams and Clay in 1824. Clay and Adams agreed with each other on more issues than either of them agreed with Jackson, so it was no surprise that Clay ended up supporting Adams when the election came to the House of Representatives. Adams had worked with Clay in a diplomatic role before when both of them were on the team of American diplomats who negotiated the treaty with Great Britain that ended the War of 1812, and he considered him a capable negotiator who could make a good Secretary of State.

Why didn't Adams even defend himself against the charges that made much of the country question the legitimacy of his presidency? He apparently considered it beneath his dignity to answer the charges. This might sound bizarre and unbelievable to many people today, but it actually fit well with Adams' personality. John Adams Sr. had been stubborn, but also had a down-to-earth streak and did not hesitate to let people know exactly what he thought. John Quincy Adams, on the other hand, had the hypersensitive sense of "personal dignity" of both an elite gentleman and an opinionated intellectual, and often responded to criticism by silence that was meant to show that the accusations of his opponents were not even worth responding to. Unfortunately, that approach is almost never successful in politics. American politics had become more populist, more aimed at the "common man", since his father's time, but John Quincy Adams had moved in the opposite direction. He was successful in almost every other office that he held - as an assistant to US ambassadors in Europe and then an ambassador himself, as Secretary of State (the "Monroe Doctrine" was actually mainly his creation"), and after his presidency as a long-serving Congressman from Massachusetts, where for several years he was virtually the only elected official in the national government to openly criticize slavery while also advocating government funding of scientific research, which most politicians of the time considered to be outside the government's responsibility.

When it came to presidency, however, he was almost comically mismatched. He was probably painfully aware of this for most of his presidency, but he followed his own rigid sense of personal behavior and never said anything about this.

Presidents - the best of the worst

Today is Presidents' Day, one of the more obscure national holidays in this country, but one which got me thinking, in true history geek fashion, about various Presidents of the United States.

Some Presidents are generally considered good, or if people can't agree on whether they were good or bad, at least historically important for good or ill. In this category one can find Washington, Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, possibly Ronald Reagan - as we get closer to the present day, people can't even agree on whether a President was historically significant or not, let alone whether they were a positive or negative influence.

At the other end of the spectrum are the Presidents who are usually considered bad. In this category one can find John Adams, his son John Quincy Adams, James Buchanan, Ulysses S. Grant, Warren G. Harding, Herbert Hoover. When it comes to Presidents within living memory (basically everybody after World War II), opinion about the really bad ones is even more divided than about the good ones based on a person's political views, so I don't even want to make tentative suggestions!

Finally, there are the Presidents that are considered not spectacularly bad, but are generally considered mediocre or just plain dull. In this category one could place Presidents such as James Monroe, James K. Polk, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, Grover Cleveland, William Taft, Calvin Coolidge, Gerald Ford, and possibly George Bush Sr.

Needless to say, the presidents who are generally considered good, or at least significant and controversial, tend to get most of the attention. What about the bad ones, though? Do they deserve their lousy reputations? Even bad Presidents sometimes have good moments. Consider the first man usually considered a bad President ...

John Adams (Elected 1796, defeated for reelection in 1800, served 1797-1801)

Why so bad? As the 2nd President of the United States, following George Washington, it was almost inevitable that John Adams would be seen as lacking compared with his predecessor. Even with this huge handicap, though, he managed to do worse than almost anybody expected. During his one term as President, the United States almost got into a war with France and political hostilities reached one of the highest peaks in the history of this country, with some fearing that civil war would break out. The worst single action for which President John Adams is remembered, though, was his approval of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which targeted the political opponents of Adams' Federalist Party and in the case of the Sedition Act, was almost certainly unconstitutional. On a more personal level, Adams managed to get along poorly with virtually every single other government official with whom he worked, including his entire cabinet.

In his defense ... John Adams certainly made many mistakes as President, and was indeed a very difficult man to work with, but his greatest accomplishment is little remembered because it is something that did not happen. Adams successfully maneuvered to avoid a war with France, a war which was strongly supported by his own Federalist party, and apparently did it for the simple reason that it was unnecessary, and in his own words, "great is the guilt of an unnecessary war".

Adams never fit in well with his own party. Most of the senior Federalists owed their loyalty to Alexander Hamilton, who was considered the effective leader of the Federalist Party even though he held no public office at the time Adams became President. Adams kept all of the members of Washington's old cabinet, which turned out to be a serious mistake because they were all much more loyal to Hamilton than to him. Meanwhile, the leaders of the opposition Republican party (who are actually the ancestors of today's Democratic party, just to add a little confusion) did not realize how serious a split was developing between Adams and the rest of his party, and focused their attacks on Adams. For much of his presidency, Adams was essentially a man without a party, and he actually liked it that way, because he was the last president who tried to continue Washington's tradition of standing completely above party politics. His negotiation of a diplomatic agreement with the French infuriated his fellow Federalists, especially Hamilton, who had become second-in-command under Washington of a new army that the US was raising in case of war with France. It also baffled Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other Republican leaders, who had been assuming that Adams was working closely with Hamilton to push the USA into war with France. To make a very rough modern analogy, it would be kind if like if, 1 day before George W. Bush's ultimatum to Saddam Hussein in 2003 had expired and the Operation Iraqi freedom started, Bush had suddenly announced that, in cooperation with the United Nations, he had reached a diplomatic solution to the crisis after weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiating, and that now, thank God, war would be unnecessary. Try to picture the reaction from both pro-war and anti-war sides. Then multiply it at least a dozen times, and you probably have some idea of how the political world reacted to Adams' announcement that he had gotten an agreement with the French.

In 1800, Hamilton urged Federalists to oppose Adams and line up behind another candidate, and many did. This helped Jefferson win the election, although the odds would probably have been against Adams even if the Federalists had been united. How often do Presidents knowingly go directly against the policy of their own party and knowingly shoot their chances for reelection in the foot simply because they have concluded that a war is unnecessary and they must try to avoid it? Adams did, and IMHO that has to county for something.

Next ... the good side of another bad president, the son of the first one!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Strange winter, cool summer, and climate change

It's been a weird winter in the eastern USA - after getting some heavy snow back in December, the heavy snows seem to have largely ignored the far northeastern states for the past month and a half, and have totally clobbered places further south, like Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C, while cold weather has made much of the southeast little warmer than the northeast. Here we have had a pretty cold but dry winter with less than average snowfall after the beginning of January. The real weirdness for us was actually last summer, which was one of the coolest and wettest on record. This brings up a problem for many people - if the world is supposed to be getting warmer, why are we getting abnormally cool summers and winters with heavy snows falling much further south than usual? Before anyone panics, yes, I do know that short-term weather doesn't always correspond with long-term climate change, and that even if the whole planet gets much warmer, some spots will actually get colder at certain times of year. I don't think that most people think about weather and climate in that way, though. Farmers and other people whose work and livelihood is heavily impacted by seasons and long-term climate as well as short-term weather might take a longer view, but I think that your average city or suburb dweller doesn't remember or think as much about long-term changes in weather patterns. This is an entirely subjective judgment on my part, and I might be totally wrong (that certainly has been known to happen!), but it seems to me that quite a few people will see a cool summer and heavy snowstorms further south than usual, and think "Global warming, my ass! More like a new ice age coming - those so-called experts don't have any idea what they are talking about."
To be honest, that's my gut reaction, a reaction that gets neutralized by what I've read about global warming and climate change, but still lurks in the back of my mind, waiting for another chance.

It's not surprising that a lot of people in the USA disbelieve in global warming/climate change. One thing that I think distinguishes popular attitudes in the USA from those in many other countries is that historically Americans have a strong streak of distrusting "the experts". This is sometimes called anti-intellectualism, but I think that it would actually be more accurate to call it "anti-expertism". The idea is that experts in various fields are really a self-appointed elite who don't know much more than ordinary people do, but who pretend that they do in order to justify a privileged position for themselves and control over the lives of others. This concept is often closely connected to fear of strong government, a classic theme of US history that always comes back to center stage even after it sometimes fades into the background for a while. Not surprisingly, anti-expert feelings are usually especially strong when the experts are telling people unpleasant news, like that people will have to make major changes in their lifestyles or face climate changes big enough to negatively impact all of human civilization - or that they will face these climate changes even after they make major changes to their lifestyles. Anti-expert beliefs are strong enough for many Americans that they will see anything that seems to contradict the "experts", even if it is not scientifically valid, as proof positive that the experts are "full of it".

Unfortunately, recent weather patterns in the eastern US don't exactly make global warming look plausible to large numbers of people who are inclined to be highly critical of the whole idea in the first place.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

What I miss this time of year

Greenery! Plants! A landscape that looks alive!

Oh well, "only" 3 more months until greenness returns to the landscape.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Overprotective or underprotective?

I talk to my father often, and among other things we exchange opinions about almost any random topic that happens to occur to either of us. One of the things that Dad persistently comments about is his worry that today's parents, and society in general, are overprotective of children. As one example, he points out that when me and my brothers were kids, we would walk a considerable distance from the house to wait at a bus stop, and we walked alone or with other kids from first grade onward. Now, in the same town, the buses seem to make about 4 times as many stops, so that many kids don't have to walk beyond sight of their house. When they do, there is always one, often more than one, parent who watches over a group of kids until they are picked up (usually a mother, occasionally a father). Are children today (Dad asks) actually in any more danger while walking or waiting at a bus stop than they were when me and my brothers went to catch buses to school 15 or 20 years ago? For that matter, are they in any more danger than they were when my father took a bus to school as a boy some 50 years ago? Or is there just a perception of greater danger because when something bad does happen to a child, it often becomes a big media event and puts the fear of God into parents that something as horrible will happen to their children if they aren't always there to watch over them? I wonder the same things. I also wonder, though, if perhaps the opposite is true - parents in earlier generations were less protective than they should have been because when something bad happened to a child either by deliberate criminal action or tragic accident, people tended to "hush it up" and not talk about it. I was talking with a co-worker yesterday who has two kids, and I mentioned this question. She agreed that parents, including her and her husband, definitely seemed to worry about their kids in more situations and act more protective than in earlier generations. She wasn't sure whether this is due to parents today being overprotective or parents of earlier generations being underprotective, but she did tell me a couple of examples from her own experience of how earlier generations of parents were probably too inclined to cover up or ignore potential dangers rather than address them.

It's a real conundrum to me. Like a lot of these issues, it raises more questions the more I think about it. Is there a price to being extremely protective of children, and if yes, what is it and is it the increased safety worth the cost? Does being overprotective actually make children much safer, or is it more perception than reality? Is Dad looking at the past with rose-tinted glasses and forgetting about real and serious risks that kids ran in a time when parents felt less need to be watchful, and safety standards for toys and other products were minimal or non-existent? Am I idealizing my childhood in the same way? Is greater protectiveness a general trend throughout most sections of US society, or is it restricted to middle and upper-middle class families in suburban areas, or even just some particular parts of the country? Is this trend effecting other nations and cultures outside the US?

All of these questions and I don't even have any children of my own. This is a classic example of how my brain, perversely, tends to think most about the things do not have any direct practical effect on me. I can worry about how childhood and parenting have changed when I'm neither a parent or a child, but I completely skip worrying about something more relevant, like whether I should start putting money into the 403b plan that my employer offers, or whether the rollover IRA from my previous employer's retirement account still has enough money in it to buy more than a decent meal.