Monday, November 29, 2010


Is there anything coming up with the Wikileaks that is surprising? I can’t find much at all.

It has already been widely reported that Arab states want the US to get rid of Iran as a nuclear state. What we get from Wikileaks is the names of the Arab leaders, and that’s all.

The fact that Putin and Berlesconi have some common predilections? Trivial and gossipy.

The fact that the Obama Administration reached out to Iran but expected those gestures to fail, and had alternative plans for tightening and extending anti-Iran measures? No surprise.

The fact that no one trusts what Iran says? Now, that’s news!

Yemen complicit with the CIA? Surprise!

Karzai paranoid? Already public knowledge that others think this about him.

Karzai’s brother working for the CIA? Well reported.

Pakistan has poor leadership? Please. ISI is close with the Taliban? Come on, how could that be?

That the US would like to see North Korea implode and join South Korea? Nice they’d like to see that – the essential weakness of North Korea is not news.

The Obama Administration pulling the anti-missile installations under Russian pressure, and perhaps getting cooperation in return? Well reported.

In fact, I wonder if there isn’t a lot of dis-information in the leaks. For instance, is Israel as much of an independent actor as it is reported to be? Isn’t that exactly what the US would want to portray – “Well, you can trust us, but we don’t know what to do with the Israeli’s.” Good cop, bad cop.

What is embarrassing is the reaction of the US diplomatic community. They seem foolish and ingroupy – they are invading our space! How can anyone trust us now? They have crashed our little game! Not much of it seems so serious and intelligent, tell you the truth. But now they react so predictably – OK, people in the government, we’re going to shut it down, OK? Let’s be careful!

Who trusted them before? It all seems like crap to me. It’s scary to think again about how limited our “leaders” are. Sure wouldn’t want to make me join the Foreign Service….

Budd Shenkin

Saturday, November 27, 2010


This is a post about education policy. New York Times columnists David Brooks and Tom Friedman, among others, insist that we need to concentrate as a nation on improved educational achievement, because that’s what jobs are requiring. Everyone knows our numbers suck, and Tom and David want us to concentrate on education, and they think parents need to be proactive with motivating and disciplining their children. This is the future, they say, and if we are inattentive, our nation will suffer severely. I agree.

There must be many, many reasons our achievement numbers suck. The outrageous proposition that education is a jobs program, propounded by risk-adverse teachers unions, is an attractive culprit, because they set self-interest against the public good. But I’m wondering if some of the reason lies in what I call the Warm-Heart/Cold-Mind dichotomy (WHCM, which sounds like a radio station.)

WHCM was presented to me most cogently in medical school. As a young liberal, with two classmates I started the Public Health Club, and Dean Robert Ebert assigned Dr. Dieter Koch-Weser to advise us. For our first session he assigned us a couple of articles that presented a dilemma of public health policy that, truthfully, I wasn’t ready for.

It is heart wrenching to imagine or to see babies and children dying from malaria. Some projects eradicated malaria in local areas. What happened when they stopped this suffering? Well, the ultimate results were not so great, it turned out. Evil though it was, malaria kept the population in check. Absent malaria, overpopulation ensued, and the suffering was worse than ever. I don’t remember the details of what actually ensued, but take my word for it – the cure caused more suffering than the disease.

As I say, I wasn’t ready to handle the conundrum – what does one do, then? Koch-Weser didn’t have any specific advice on that either, as I recall. But it was a memorable session – after all, it was 45 years ago and I remember the moral turmoil and policy confusion it caused in me.

Other liberals were confused, too. My Public Health Club co-founder, Carol Wolman, who had actually been to Africa, said that African doctors treated those in the cities and didn’t do public health, which would save ore lives, because they were short-sighted, and couldn’t resist taking care of the sick person in front of them. It could be a case of WHCM, but she probably neglected the fact that Africans who got to be doctors were from the wealthy class, and went back to treat the wealthy. Just a liberal confusion, I guess, with “mirror thinking” that others think the way we do.

In Africa in the late 70’s and early 80’s there was mass starvation. The response was food airlifts. Wrong and fuzzy-thinking, said an article in the New York Review of Books. If you save the children and don’t provide for more food production domestically, it will just happen again and be worse and create even more suffering. As it happened, I think there was more food production, and now AIDS has taken care of winnowing the overpopulation problem. Maybe the article was wrong; maybe too cold hearted and not hopeful enough that the future would actually experience advances that could support a larger population. Or maybe not.

Then as a pediatrician I saw what happened in the Intensive Care Nursery. Severely premature babies had literally a million dollars spent on each one, with profits to the hospitals that built the biggest and best ICN’s, and large salaries for the neonatologists and many pediatricians becoming neonatologists, hundreds of thousands spent for later rehabilitation, only a rare baby without deficits..Triumphs, yes, but lots of failures, and immense total costs, and resources drained from other, less dramatic areas.

So, to education policy. Years ago, they closed our neighborhood, fully-integrated school because it was “too good,” literally. The School Board made it into some kind o a magnet school where no one from the neighborhood goes any more, and where it doesn’t attract envy for being too good. God forbid someone should achieve.

Last year Berkeley High proposed that many math and science AP classes be abolished, the resources to be scattered to the underprivileged and underachieving groups in an unspecified way. It came within a whisker of being passed.

More generally, how much money are we spending on remedial education? A lot. Any Nobel Prize winners emerging from that expensive enterprise? If I were the father of an autistic kid I would certainly appreciate the tens of thousands of dollars that the school districts would be paying for one on one treatment. I can understand the power of the autism lobbying groups who want their children cared for. But still.

Have you had a friend or relative become a teacher for the developmentally delayed (aka, retarded)? A noble enterprise, to be sure. But the apogee of civilized achievement? At what opportunity cost?

So, you can talk about the weakness of the parents who do not value education for their children and make them turn off their cell phones and study instead. You can talk about the importance of caring for each child. You can say that a society is measured by the way it treats its weakest members. As a pediatrician I have a certified warm heart.

But as a cold-hearted public policy analyst, seems to me we most urgently need to support our best, and our next-best, and our third-best, those with the highest potentials. We should be able to do all of it, true. We spend too much on Pentagon waste, true. We could redo our entire educational menu and upgrade the quality for all, true.

That ain’t gonna happen. India isn’t going to do malaria control and agricultural reform and population control and educational upgrade all at once, and we’re not going to do defense reform, governmental efficiency upgrade, health care priority reform, and educational reform all at once, either. No long bombs, only three yards and a cloud of dust. So, when Tom and David tell us where our priorities need to be, are they going to say anything about our caring for the developmentally delayed and the autistic, or are they going to concentrate on getting parents to turn off the TV’s? Are they going to talk about liberal, warm-hearted groups that form what an objective observer would call special interests?

Back atcha, guys.

Budd Shenkin

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Giants Win the World Series

I don’t believe in God, certainly not in the old-fashioned sense of a Man on a Throne. But I do think God is a pretty good heuristic.

“Heuristic” means to me “as if.” You don’t really believe this is so, but it’s useful to believe it. Now, that’s not Pascal’s Wager, which tells us to bet on the existence of God, because if God does exist you will be rewarded, and if he doesn’t, well, what have you lost? That’s not a heuristic, that’s a cost-benefit analysis.

Here is a good example of a heuristic: if you play the stock market, it is useful to believe that there is an “operator” who is manipulating the market to draw you in and take your money. There used actually to be operators, but they don’t exist anymore, or so we are told. Still, the market acts as though there were one. It goes down to scare you, and then down again, and then again so you finally sell your stock, and now that the operator has bought your stock at a cheap price, up goes its price with you on the sidelines in frustration. The mythical operator has struck again.

So, I don’t believe in God. But it’s useful to think that “God will provide.” You can’t plan everything, you can’t be sure of everything, sometime you just have to take a chance, move to America and leave the Old World behind, and think that “God will provide.” It might be you yourself who will provide, or the Massachusetts Indians, but it’s useful to think of God up there to help you.

And so it is with baseball, itself the holy of holies. Not that “God will provide,” because anyone who has grown up rooting for the Phillies, the A’s, the Giants – in fact, I guess everyone except the Yankees – you know that God will not in fact provide. You will lose and lose and lose, and be drawn into thinking that this might be the year, and then you will lose again. So I have always figured that if our team is not mathematically eliminated in September and the games still have even theoretical meaning, it was a good year.

It helps to remember Job, and believe that sometime, maybe at an unexpected time, the plagues will finally relent. Maybe. And that great turn of your luck will not depend on any particular virtues of yours, but it will simply be a gift from a heuristical God.
And so it was this year. There was no reason to think this year would be any different for the Giants. None. Excellent pitching, which they had had before. A lack of bats, severe, I thought. So all through the year GM Brian Sabean brought in people and tried them out. Some worked – Aubrey Huff at first – and some didn’t – Bowker in left. Most famously, the “accidental Giant,” Cody Ross, became a Giant off waivers only because the Giants didn’t want him to go to San Diego. And then he comes up with five homers in the playoffs. It’s skill on Sabean’s part, and on manager Bruce Bochy’s part, and luck, and chance, and happenstance, and you could say it just was the fact that God decided to smile on you, for no particular reason that we can figure out.

For me it was particularly amazing, since my beloved brother Bobby is a die-hard Phillies fan and season ticket holder. While the Giants were making their amazing run at the collapsing Padres in September, when it seemed that God was just determined that they should win, Bobby and I faced the prospect of rooting against each other. After 34 years in the Bay Area and being partners in Giants season tickets I am acculturated – the Phillies are my second-favorite team. (Actually, if the A’s recover, that might not be true – but they will definitely be my second favorite team in the National League.) So the best we could hope for would be that the Phils and Giants would not face each other in the first round although the odds were against it. But fie on the odds – God provided, and they faced different opponents in the first round, so we could root for each other’s team, and both teams won. Voilá!

Then our Giants were on to the powerful Phillies, with their winning experience and very solid lineup, featuring the great Shane Victorino (inside joke – he’s from Maui and has a featured box on the Maui News sports page every day, really funny home town boosterism, “Victorino and Phillies advance to League Championship series!”)

How was every desire coming true? Where was this coming from? How was it that every move worked out? The new players produced, Wilson kept saving games, Uribe hit an 8th inning homer to beat the Phillies. How did we beat their great pitchers? Ryan Howard looked at a third strike when he should have been protecting the plate. Bobby and I communicated carefully with each other, since we each knew where we stood. From not believing they could catch the Padres, to the World Series. Why was he smiling on us?

God smiled again. I was due for tickets to the 6th game but my partner Jim wanted to trade his 1st game tickets for my 6th game. It’s a deal, Jim!

Ann, as my wife, always has first call on the tickets, but usually says that someone else will appreciate it more and gives them up. But this time I prevailed on her to go with me, to both the Phillies game and World Series #1 game against the Rangers. While she was reserved for the Phillies game, she said it was great. Then for WS #1 the reserve evaporated. It was a wonderful night. Balmy. Mellow. Joe Montana was sitting two rows ahead of us across the aisle. Other SF notables popped up here and there. We belonged there; these are our seats, our city. Tony Bennett sang I Left My Heart in the second inning because he was late – took Muni to the ballpark. 83 years old, but the voice is there. It was November, but it was in the 60’s, calm, comfortable, perfect, the whole night. (The next night it was Steve Perry from Journey singling “Lights” about the City, and when they stopped playing that, the crowd kept singing. A sports writer from Texas who repeatedly trashed the Bay Area had to write as he visited here, “I take it back. I love this city.”)

Ann said, “Look at the sky!” It was remarkable. It was like slate, but a bit uneven, blue-black, some parts darker than others, but not moving at all, perfectly still. Aaron, one of my partners with the tickets, turned around and said, “Look at the sky.” Look at the sky.

It was tight, and then the 5th inning happened. We kept scoring and were a couple of runs ahead. Then Uribe hit a three run homer to push us way in front. Everyone around us looked at each other, gave high fives, and then literally said stopped and said to each other, “My God.” There was singing and I was dancing as Ann laughed at me, and laughed with everyone else. In the 7th Tony Bennett sang God Bless America and so did we.

I’ve heard that hospitals are the modern equivalent of medieval cathedrals, but now I think it might be sports stadiums instead. At the ballpark we were one, knit together, being blessed. How else can you look at it? It was just a gift from a heuristial God, and it was our job to take it, to accept it, to appreciate it, to be blessed with it.
It’s probably the best sports experience I’ve ever had, in a lifetime of watching sports. And blessedly, my brother Bobby was good enough to send me a text that said, simply “congratulations.” The Phillies have had three great seasons, and Bobby has been through enough to know that when your games still mean something in September, and you make it through the playoffs to the second round, you, too, have been blessed by a heuristical God.

What a night, what a series, what a set of playoffs, what a season, what a sky, what songs, what a crowd. What a life.

Budd Shenkin

Thursday, November 11, 2010


My wife Ann is never late. I have learned a lot from her. And she has learned a lot from me, about how to tolerate being late. Opposites attract.

But when it comes to going to the airport, she wins. In fact, she has won so much that I try to be very early even when I’m not with her. We don't just make compromises when we get married, we change.

So today we left super-early for the San Francisco Airport to drop off Ann, Sara, and nine month old the magnificent Lola – up at 6:30, out the door at 7 for the maybe 40 minute drive to SFO for the 9:15 flight. We almost made it; probably would have if we had left 10 minutes earlier. Just not quite.

Maybe you have to feel sorry for the guy afterward, but most people had trouble ginning up sympathy at the time. KCBS reported that a heavy set guy in his 50’s in white pants and a tank top, with his 16 year old daughter in the van where he had apparently been living, decided to express his frustration with his straying, divorcing wife by calling KCBS, saying he had a gun and a bomb, and that he was going to stop traffic on the upper deck of the Bay Bridge, which is of course our route to SFO. He succeeded even if he really didn't have the gun and bomb he said he did. He was on the suspension span, we were not far behind on the East Bay side of Yerba Buena Island. We stayed on the bridge not moving for one and a half hours; people got out of their cars just to look around, look down at the Bay, and kind of look at each other. That's what we did, too.

It was the KCBS story of the day as we listened to what we couldn't quite see -- the man threatening to jump, being talked back onto the bridge, handcuffing himself, and the bridge lanes finally opening up, just in time for us to arrive at SFO at 9 AM, and the flight to go bye-bye without wife, step-daughter, and magnificent grand-daughter. They rebooked on the 2 PM flight and faced 5 hours in SFO with a magnificent 9 month old who loves to walk holding on to two fingers a few inches to the side and above her head. Much better than napping. Oh, joy!

We did well, even though leaving early was supposed to prevent this. No one panicked, although it was gruesome to try to reach United Airlines on the phone – could only get someone in India who couldn’t understand our telling her the number of our tickets, much less call ahead about our predicament, etc. Telephone answering trees are carbuncles on the body of the modern world. "Which of the following services best describes what you want...." How about, "none of the above, we're sitting on the Bay Bridge not moving?" Sitting there, time moving but not us, with the wonder of cell phones and smart phones and internet connections, but United Airlines cocooned off and unreachable. Couldn’t get SFO itself either. Not that it would have mattered.

I just heard from them, 14 hours after we left this morning. Lola was good, but slept only 15 minutes and spilled four different liquids the ladies were trying to drink. I had said, why not wait for tomorrow? But Ann said, no, I’m going today, if we have to go on any airline, if we have to go through Honolulu; we’re going. The lure of Maui is just too great. Maui is warm, the pool is warm, the surf and beach are beautiful, and the Sports Page beckons. Maui is something special for Ann, beyond the obvious. There is something that draws her, something that makes her relax, feel good, flow through the day. Probably because she was there all the time as a girl when her father consulted for Chevron and there was nothing at all where our house now stands. We are sometimes asked what we do there. We say, mostly wait for repair men. But it doesn't matter, there's something in the water.

So, I’m wondering – we left home in plenty of time under normal circumstances. I’ve been a very good boy. I have taken her habits and made them my own. We’re not going to leave any earlier next time, are we? I guess not. Being early is sensible, if you think about it. We're not nuts, just prudent. Took a long time for me to get there.

Budd Shenkin