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Joshua Sharf

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Main | October 2005 »

September 30, 2005

The Greatest Game Ever Played

"This is a true story..."

Well, mostly.

In this case, it's the story of amateur Francis Ouimet, who defeated 5-time British Open Champion Harry Vardon (he would go on to win a sixth) and Ted Ray in a playoff to win the 1913 US Open Golf Championships (true - but we'll revisit this).

It's also the story of how Americans like winners better than snobs.

Ouimet was a caddy (true), at a time when golf was an aristocratic sport. His parents were immigrants, but his house was directly across the road from the Brookline Golf Club (true). His father, a French immigrant, did just about everything possible to discourage his son's interest in what he considered to be a waste of time (true - well, the part about his father).

Vardon was the greatest British golf champion of all time, who revolutionized the game. But while he, too, was no aristocrat, he spent his life hoping his golf would win him acceptance on the golfing world's terms. He made the fatal mistake of assuming it was about winning.

In an age where Tiger Woods is heir to Jack Nicklaus who succeeded Arnold Palmer, it's hard to remember that golf was a vehicle for snobbery. But what it meant was that of all the people on the course that day, Vardon was the one most likely to give Ouimet the respect he deserved - one sportsman to another.

At least one reason Ouimet didn't make anyone worry was his choice of caddy - 10 year old Eddie Lowery (true). At the screening I saw, the audience cheered not only when Ouimet made the winning putt, but also when Eddie talked back to the crowd.

The acting was good, possibly because of the use of British actors for the British figures; perhaps because the cast is composed of relative unknowns, so we see only the role, not the actor.

It also didn't insult their intelligence. While Taft wasn't President any more in 1913, he was at the course for the tournament, and perhaps people still referred to him as President. The golfers played through rain - through downpours - and they played 2 rounds each the first two days. They evidently didn't use ball markers, either, which meant that one golfer could block another with his shot. Better to get that stuff right than to shade it, thinking people won't accept it.

Since the screenwriter also wrote a book about the subject, the storyline stays close to actual events, and emphasizes the parallels between the lives of Ouimet and Vardon. The only complaint I'd have is that the tension in the final round was artificial - Ouimet actually won by 5 strokes, and the pivotal hole was the 17th, not the 18th. When I found that out, I had to go back and check all the other details. The actual history reads like a set of movie cliches, so it's important not to do anything to call it into question.

In the end, if you can get past those details, The Greatest Game Ever Played is very entertaining.

September 29, 2005

Oooh, Are You Sure That's Good Idea?

If there's one writer I wouldn't want to piss off, it's Mark Steyn. And yet, displaying that keen sensitivity the UN is so known for, that's exactly what some UN representative to West Africa has decided to do. Apparently, there's not enough AIDS, corruption, death, disease, and famine nearby to keep him busy. And evidently, there's not much going on outside the UN compound, either. This "diplomat" has decided that he's got nothing better to do than pick a fight with a journalistic Vegematic.

The Spectator published a piece (go there, now, before it disappears into the archives) by one "Andrew Gilmour is senior advisor in the United Nations Office for West Africa, based in Senegal. These views are his own, rather than the UN’s." Mr. Gilmour's feelings are wounded by Mr. Steyn's insistence on calling attention to his employer's, ah, shortcomings. The fact that Mr. Gilmour can't actually tag the UN with opinions offered in its own defense should tell you all you need to know about the UN's spine.

I suppose I should actually wait for the Great Canadian-Belgian Himself to stoop to conquer. But what's the point of blogging if you don't blog?

So let's start at the top:

Question: what do the Taleban, Serb war criminals, al-Qa’eda, Rwandan genocidaires, the Ku Klux Klan, the Kach movement, the Japanese Red Army and the Janjaweed of Darfur have in common? Answer: two things actually. The obvious one, plus the fact that — like the Spectator columnist Mark Steyn — they all passionately abhor the United Nations, see it as an obstacle to their particular agenda and call for its abolition.

Question: what does this question tell us about the UN? The obvious, plus the fact that it always has to bring some Jews into the mix just to prove how evenhanded an honest broker they are. Just for the record, perhaps Mr. Gilmour could answer what the old Soviets, the Chinese communists, the Arab League, Robert Mugabe, and Fidel Castro have in common? Aside from the obvious.

The UN has always evoked violent passions, especially among its detractors. Its defenders tend to be rather calmer.

Yes, I remember the calm, civilized anti-war demonstrations invoking the UN's name leading up to the Iraq War, and the calm civilized way in which the demonstrators alternately hanged and burned Bushitler in effigy. Perhaps Mr. Gilmour has in mind the calm disdain that the bureaucrat always has for those whose money he's living off of. I suspect that if his beloved institution were ever threatened with anything worse than being ignored (although that's quite bad enough, thank you very much), you'd see a little less calm in the ranks.

Then, this:

In the West, the common criticism is that the UN is a slow, excessively bureaucratic talking-shop urgently in need of reform since, as it is now set up, it doesn’t have the capacity to confront the great challenges of the coming decades. For those opposed to the war in Iraq, the UN’s fault is that it couldn’t stop the invasion; for those in favour that it didn’t support it.

Along with time, Senegal must have a straw surplus, because Mr. Gilmour's been very busy making men out of it. Certainly one criticism in the West has been that the UN is inefficient. But that's hardly Steyn's problem with it. It's not that it doesn't have the "capacity to confront challenges." If that sentence means anything - an open proposition, to be sure - it's that the UN can't confront evil. But here's a UN defender openly demonstrating his disdain for the sort of moral clarity that could make the UN something worthwhile.

Look at the list Gilmour starts out with. Of those groups, there's not a single one that the UN has had a role in subduing. Not one. Aside from some no-doubt-very-calm tsk-tsking, the UN was either late to the party or never got around to RSVPing in a single case. Gilmour may take pride in the UN's list of enemies, but its complete impotence in deaing with them shame one capable of it. The UN didn't support the invasion becuase it doesn't really think Saddam was all that bad. In that sense, its position on the war was a symptom, not the disease.

Gilmour defends the regional voting bloc system as the moral equivalent of Samuel Gompers and the 10-hour day. It's the only way that the poor countries of the world can stand up to the rich and powerful. I suppose the analogy works if you equate governments with countries. But the problem with the regional blocs isn't just that they don't vote with the US. It's that they allow the governments as good at stealing elections as stealing cash to claim moral equivalence. In what possible sense can these governments be said to represent the interests, much less the wills, of their populations?

You think this really bothers the UN's supporters? A substitute b-school professor of mine really couldn't have cared less that the Human Rights Commission boated Libya, Sudan, and Cuba among its members. And all of Gilmour's protests that the replacement will be better can't hide the fact that he ignores the little inconvenience that agreement was achieved at the price of actual change. The new body, the Human Rights Council, doesn't have anything in its charter that keeps creeps like Castro off the board.

Most importantly, in one of the most radical restatements of international law of the past century, the entire UN membership went along with a declaration accepting the right of the world community to take military action in the case of governments failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. Prime Minister Tony Blair was right when he said, ‘For the first time at this summit we are agreed that states do not have the right to do what they will within their own borders’. No longer will governments who carry out mass butchery be able to hide behind the mantra of national sovereignty to prevent the UN interfering in their crimes. This is a reform as profound as it gets.

What? Oh, I'm sorry, I couldn't hear while I was yawning. Does Gilmour really believe that any government thinks this applies to them? The only clear loser here is - surprise, surprise - Israel, because it's the only country that a UN subjected to the whim of the Arab League can consistently get a consensus to condemn. Why not a consensus to invade? Aside from the humiliation of getting its butt kicked all the way back to Turtle Bay.

In the end, Gilmour can only make his points by charicaturing Steyn's, allowing him to dismiss or ignore the moral bankruptcy of his employer.

September 28, 2005

Not a Leading Indicator

As the major (and not-so-major) media continue to hyperventilate about consumer confidence, nobody seems to be asking if this really is a leading indicator. Turns out, it's not much of one at all. That doesn't mean it's meaningless, it's not just much of a predictor of consumer spending.

The St. Louis Fed makes public economic data that would make your head spin, just before it nodded off to sleep. While they don't have the Conference Board's numbers, they do have the University of Michigan index of consumer sentiment, a reasonable proxy. They also have an inflation-indexed history of personal spending. I compared the two over the history of the Consumer Sentiment index, from January of 1978. That period covers just about every conceivable economic condition except a depression, including a major runup in gas prices during 1978-80.

Since the Index is constrained between 0 and about 100, rather than compare actual spending, which rises almost continuously, I compared the Sentiment Index to the change in personal spending, both monthly and annual. I compared them contemporaneously, and both leading and lagging the Index by 1, 3, 6, and 12 months.

The best correlation was a contemporaneous comparison between the Sentiment Index and the year-over-year change in spending. Here's a chart, with the Sentiment Index on the left, and the spending rescaled to overlay:

This is about a .70 correlation, meaning that just about half of the annual change in spending can be explained by consumer sentiment. And we still haven't established a cause-and-effect here, either. (The correlations to monthly changes were awful, under .20.)

But at the risk of burying the lead, compare the correlations when I lead the Sentiment Index (i.e., when I use it as a leading indicator) with when Iag it:

Consumer sentiment is a terrible leading indicator, but a tolerably good follower. What that says to me is that people's perceptions of the economy, and even of their own finances, are more a reflection of what they've been reading than of what they've been saving.

Applying this to our current situation, we shouldn't be surprised if personal spending doesn't rise much this month compared to last year, but we certainly shouldn't be projecting Christmas sales on the basis of this number.

September 27, 2005

What's a Little Stoning Among Friends?

From Tom Shales's WaPo review this morning of the new Geena Davis vehicle, "Commander-in-Chief":

But when she gets tough, she's formidable, even if "the issues" in the pilot are not exactly earth-shaking. Chief among them is the case of a young woman in Nigeria who, by local custom, is to be buried up to her neck in sand and stoned to death for the crime of having sex and giving birth before marriage.

Maybe such things really happen, but by leading off the series with it, Lurie suggests that the show won't be about a female president and her problems of adjustment but instead about a myopic busybody who sees herself as a feminist first and leader of the people second (or third).

Ah, that old "local custom," kind of like deep-fried Adulteress-On-A-Stick at the Minnesota State Fair.

In fact, the northern third of Nigeria has been suffering under a brutal form of Sharia (that's Islamic Law to you, Tom), of the sort advocated by people who did a little earth-shaking piloting of their own about 4 years ago. They use the flimsiest of pretexes to terorrize local Christians, rampage through the streets, pass death sentences on government officials, ban women from public transportation, and yes, sentence women to be stoned to death. (And this is what they do to people they're trying to help.) It's a wonder he didn't accuse Geena Davis of just doing it for the oil.

Maybe he'd be more upset if he saw what they did to gays, Lawrence notwithstanding.

Tom, I realize that most of the time you're fixated on the color of the President's ties, so perhaps the problem might seem more serious if the man fighting it were wearing red. But if you're going to write about political shows and pass judgment on "issues," it might help if you actually knew something about the issues.

Cheap Imitations

So in checking this morning's emails, I found a gem in there from something called the "Arabs Against Discrimination." Going to their website, we find that:

Arabs Against Discrimination is a non-governmental organization legally registered in France. AAD was established by a group of concerned Arabs with the aim of exposing and combating all forms of discrimination and racism which contravene human rights covenants and established international law, using all possible media, legal and cultural channels to achieve this aim.

AAD really should be renamed "Ayman George's Bad News from Israel." It's little more than a news digest from the English-language Israeli press, a cheap, lazy imitation of MEMRI, trying to portray Israel in the most unflattering light possible.

Ayman George is the administrative conatct for AAD, listed in Giza, a suburb of Cairo, now swallowed by the expanding city. A quick Google search reveals that there's an Ayman George who edits and reports for the "independent" Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram. MEMRI reveals that, in fact, Al Ahram and its foundation are Egyptian government organs. Al Ahram also publishes a monthly Arabic-language digest of the Israeli print media. Ayman George may be a common Egyptian name, but I didn't get any hits other than this one, and it sure is a good fit.

So, this means that the Egyptian government is clumsily and covertly subsidizing a project whose job is to discredit Israel. Given that Israel actually has a free press, they just pick out anything that's not complimentary, and file it "discrimination again [insert non-Jewish group here]."

Is anyone surprised that such a group would interpret "human rights convenants and international law" as applying only to Jews, and only to Israel?

No, I didn't think so.

September 26, 2005

A Word of Advice

If at all possible, don't ever go into a Comcast office to try to transact business while you're reading Atlas Shrugged.

It just makes it all seem so...real.

September 23, 2005

The Alliance Storms LPR

I'm pleased to announce that the Leadership Program of the Rockies has accepted the Alliance's own Ben DeGrow into the class of 2006.

For some reason, I'll also be joining Ben, bringing to three the number of Alliance members who've gone through the program. I'm really looking forward to this.

September 21, 2005

Starting Over II

Come to think of it, this would be an auspicious time to think of starting over. I'm starting (or trying to start) a new career. Fall is traditionally when school starts (although I'm past that - heh). And Fall is when the trees are doing the hard work anyway, getting ready for Spring. If Elul and Tishrei aren't about stating over, they're not about anything. On the 13th, just after the Blog Went Dark, I turned 39, and while I plan to follow Jack Benny's example of staying there, the last year before 40 is also a good time to start over.

A lot of starting over going on...

Starting Over

See what happens when you try to improve things? In trying to upgrade from the buggy Berkeley database to MySQL, and from the old MT 2.64, which was getting increasingly difficult to find replacement parts for, I managed to break the system entirely. So now, in addition to looking for work full time, working full time, and trying to study for the CFA part time, not to mention obligations to family, friends, community, and dog, I've got this.

So, over the next few days, I'll be re-creating the blog layouts and designs, translating Cold Fusion into PHP and HTML, and updating links all over the place.

It still doesn't look too good right now, although the archives are available at the same old URLs.


Power, Faith, and Fantasy

Six Days of War

An Army of Davids

Learning to Read Midrash

Size Matters

Deals From Hell

A War Like No Other


A Civil War

Supreme Command

The (Mis)Behavior of Markets

The Wisdom of Crowds

Inventing Money

When Genius Failed

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Back in Action : An American Soldier's Story of Courage, Faith and Fortitude

How Would You Move Mt. Fuji?

Good to Great

Built to Last

Financial Fine Print

The Day the Universe Changed


The Multiple Identities of the Middle-East

The Case for Democracy

A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam

The Italians

Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory

Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures

Reading Levinas/Reading Talmud