Archive for 2015 February

Reporter: In defense of the gotcha question

Somebody had to defend the much-despised "gotcha" question. 

Ron Fournier, veteran reporter, digs into the legend and finds all kinds of juicy examples. Writes it up with great depth and precision. 

For example, where did the phrase "gotcha" come from? Fournier agrees with another reporter, and suggests that Bill Clinton might have introduced it into the political conversation. 

In a brief history of the gotcha question, Washington Post reporter Colby Itkowitz recalls that Bill Clinton called queries about his fidelity "a game of gotcha." Obama dismissed as "gotcha games" the controversy over comments about Pennsylvanians clinging to guns and religion. Bush griped about "gotcha" questions when reporters asked about whether he'd used cocaine. Sarah Palin dismissed any question she fumbled as "a gotcha."

Clinton objected because it wasn't a policy question, but Fournier argues that even if it's not a question about policy, it's fair to test political leaders on simpler grounds. Do they have any common sense?

Years ago, an Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton walked into the state Capitol media room at the end of a hectic legislative session and asked the journalists if we needed anything else from him.  We had asked Clinton questions all day. We were tired. We wanted him to shut up and go home.

So I said, "Yes, governor. I know you don't know much about baseball, but when there's a pop-up behind the third baseman, whose ball is it?" The other reporters snickered. Finally, they figured: a gotcha question Clinton wouldn't answer.

The governor bit his lower lip, lifted his eyes to the ceiling, and mulled. "Never played the game much," he finally replied, "but wouldn't the shortstop have the best angle on the ball?"

That innocuous exchange has stuck with me for nearly 30 years because it revealed much about Clinton as governor. He was ultra-accessible, intellectually fearless, and—more often than I liked to admit it—right.

An example: Another example: Fournier asked G.W. Bush at a big press conference with Vladimir Putin present if the Russian leader could be trusted — a throw-away, "gotcha" question, in a press conference with Bush and Putin both taking questions. 

I asked Bush the first question at a news conference in Slovenia with Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Is this a man that Americans can trust?" My editor and I had scripted a meatier two-part question about the U.S.-Russia relationship. This was a throwaway line, appended hastily to the end of the substantial stuff.

"Yes," Bush replied, before allowing Putin to answer a separate question. A few minutes later, the American president elaborated: "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul, a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country."

Bush told his staff later that I had caught him off guard. I had put him on the spot. Not wanting to openly question Putin's credibility, Bush nervously riffed his way into a quote that still reflects the tendency of U.S. officials to underestimate the Russian leader.

Asking good questions in pressurized situations means asking short questions that demand good answers. These are all good examples of short questions that open big topics.

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Megadrought in SW by 2050: news shocks climatologist

Like many other Americans, I have had difficult absorbing the recently published news that megadroughts are scheduled into the future for the Southwest. Just did not want to hear that, read that, learn the details. But because I intend to go back to the Mojave this weekend, after being foiled last weekend, I forced myself to read up on the study released just a month ago.

For my readers sake, I tell myself.

Because yes, the news is bad. A cut-the-crap headline might read:

Endless drought in Southwest by 2050: Study

Think you can see it in a graph. Tell me if I'm wrong. Look at the fall-off in moisture in the lower chart.


Yes, this is a projection based on mathematical models that represent the atmosphere, and yes, the climatology is tied to soil moisture, and yes, it's a high-end (8.5 RCP) projection. But on the top panel you see it graphically compared to two other modeling systems, and they are in good agreement. A correlation of .86 in one case, and .85 in another. 

A couple of other notes from the paper: some of the models actually project somewhat wetter winters, but it turns out not to matter to the big picture. Still the region trends towards desiccation.

But forget about the science of drought. Think about the news, about forest mortality, about vast lands of trees, species and subspecies, drying out and dying off. It's difficult. I'm not sure I can.

Helpfully Ken Caldeira, of Stanford and many other institutions, steps in and helps us understand — no matter how difficult the news — in a letter to David Perlman at the SF Chronicle.

These model results are the most reliable model results available in the world today. The models have been tested again and again against a wide array of meteorological observations. 

KencaldeiraIf this was one model saying this, it might be a model artifact, but when nearly every model says more-or-less the same thing, you have to pay attention and believe it might be pointing to something real. 

I have looked at some of this model output before, but when you look at them as graphs of probability distribution functions it doesn’t really mean very much emotionally. 

When you stack these model projections against reconstructions of past climates, the results are so sobering that they have me ready to go out for a drink. 

I remember visiting ruins of American Indian civilizations in the desert southwest, places like Mesa Verde, where large civilizations flourished based on an agricultural foundation. It is thought that the rains dried up in year 1276, and a 23-year drought played a major role in causing this civilizations to fail, leaving us with the ruins we see today. 

If you look at the chart showing rain in the desert southwest (Figure 1), the drought of 1276 is like a little blip compared to what is in store for us. 

As a climate scientist, I sometimes think climate change is something we can just muddle through. I have been concerned about excessive alarmism, thinking that climate change might turn out to be not so bad for the average person after all.  These results have me questioning that complacent attitude.  

It looks like the droughts in store for us later this century will make the droughts that did in the Mesa Verde civilization look like child’s play. 

And after that? Let's just say, Caldeira doesn't perk up. Read the whole thing, if you dare.

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To know yourself you must sometimes be by yourself

Last month Backpacker magazine ran a tough-minded Mark Jenkins essay on journeying alone called Go Solo. At its heart it goes something like this:

Ever since Aron Ralston got himself caught between a rock and a hard place in Utah’s Blue John Canyon, hung there for five days, and then amputated his right forearm to escape, going solo has gotten a bad rap. When his story comes up in conversation, someone inevitably proclaims that “Ralston was an idiot. Going alone is stupid.”

Such a person is someone who should not go alone into the wilderness. Ralston’s mistake, if he made one at all, was not that he went alone, but that he failed to leave word with someone of his likely whereabouts. I have gone out alone and told no one where I was going too many times to count. Is this behavior really reckless and irresponsible?

There was once a time when exploring the backcountry by yourself was seen as a primary path to understanding topography, both geographical and psychological. Our most cherished wilderness heroes—Thoreau and Muir, Leopold and Abbey—frequently went on solo adventures. Can you imagine free-spirited Muir leaving precise notes about where he planned to wander? In Walden, Thoreau’s manifesto about humankind’s relationship to nature, he writes, “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” Leopold spent weeks alone on horseback in New Mexico’s Gila wilderness without a second thought. And Abbey! He would have pissed on a personal locator beacon.

What’s happened in the last few decades? It feels as if the weight of technology has ironically pushed us back into the Dark Ages, when the wilds were believed to be so treacherous and malevolent that they could not be assailed alone. The modern mantra is you must go with a partner, or better yet, a group. But does that really get you where you want to be?

“Distrusting our capacity to be alone, we too quickly look to others to save us, often from ourselves,” writes Sarvananda in Solitude and Loneliness: A Buddhist View. This seems to me to be a clarifying description of our hyper-social age.

Simple as it sounds, to actually know yourself you must sometimes be by yourself.

Jenkins thinks through our doubts about going alone, and thoroughly, ultimately making clear that although honest-to-God he treasures going solo, and has good reason to trust his capabilities, still he's often grateful for company. Which no doubt is true, but methinks he dismisses as irrelevant the shame and fear with which many contemplate solitude.

Not sure he's thought that part of solitude through, in other words, Yet thank God for a popular writer who will stand up and say that yes, solitude is a human right, and, in the crowded 21st century, a rare privilege.


This weekend, with luck, will return to a pinyon pine I happened upon on in the Mojave last year and want to see again.

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The photographer as fearless story teller

The highest compliment paid in the land of journalism, sez me, is to say that such-and-such a writer, Mike Royko in Chicago, say, or Carl Hiaasen in Miami, or Joseph Mitchell in New York, is/was "fearless."

Well, in the land of photography, no one in our time has been more fearless than Duane Michaels. (Not even Robert Mapplethorpe, who to my eye may have borrowed a bit from his predecessor.) Michaels dares to not just capture moments, but to portray his imaginings, even the silly ones, and yet never seems to lose that connection to his inner self, his yearning being. .

Now an exhibit of his work is on display at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. The New York Review of Books gives us just a taste of this in a delightful set of his slide shows, beautifully optimized for the web, called Midnight Movies for the Mind.

Since most of us won't make it to Pittsburgh in the next week or so, let me offer just a taste of Michaels' inimitable style, half-funny, half-sexy, always seemingly inspired.


This one from a show in l986 called The Bewitched Bee.

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The soar into the stratosphere of the 1%

As one news organization after another has gotten on board the income inequality bandwagon, the graphics have gotten ever telling. Each seems to be competing to best tell the story graphically.

The WSJ had an especially good set of interactive graphics on Inequality in America lately.

But here's the simplest and perhaps the best to date, on the soaring wealth of the 1%.

This one comes from the Los Angeles Times — give credit where credit is due.


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Not getting enough sleep? Take a nap, research says

Washington, DC–A short nap can help relieve stress and bolster the immune systems of men who slept only two hours the previous night, according to a new study published in the Endocrine Society’s Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism (JCEM).

A news release on napping from The Endocrine Society:

Washington, DC–A short nap can help relieve stress and bolster the immune systems of men who slept only two hours the previous night, according to a new study published in the Endocrine Society's Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism (JCEM).

Lack of sleep is recognized as a public health problem. Insufficient sleep can contribute to reduced productivity as well as vehicle and industrial accidents, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, people who sleep too little are more likely to develop chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and depression.

Nearly three in 10 adults reported they slept an average of six hours or less a night, according to the National Health Interview Survey.

"Our data suggests a 30-minute nap can reverse the hormonal impact of a night of poor sleep," said one of the JCEM study's authors, Brice Faraut, PhD, of the Université Paris Descartes-Sorbonne Paris Cité in Paris, France. "This is the first study that found napping could restore biomarkers of neuroendocrine and immune health to normal levels."

The researchers used a cross-over, randomized study design to examine the relationship between hormones and sleep in a group of 11 healthy men between the ages of 25 and 32. The men underwent two sessions of sleep testing in a laboratory, where meals and lighting were strictly controlled.

During one session, the men were limited to two hours of sleep for one night. For the other session, subjects were able to take two, 30-minute naps the day after their sleep was restricted to two hours. Each of the three-day sessions began with a night where subjects spent eight hours in bed and concluded with a recovery night of unlimited sleep.

Researchers analyzed the participants' urine and saliva to determine how restricted sleep and napping altered hormone levels. After a night of limited sleep, the men had a 2.5-fold increase in levels of norepinephrine, a hormone and neurotransmitter involved in the body's fight-or-flight response to stress. Norepinephrine increases the body's heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar. Researchers found no change in norepinephrine levels when the men had napped following a night of limited sleep.

Lack of sleep also affected the levels of interleukin-6, a protein with antiviral properties, found in the subjects' saliva. The levels dropped after a night of restricted sleep, but remained normal when the subjects were allowed to nap. The changes suggest naps can be beneficial for the immune system.

"Napping may offer a way to counter the damaging effects of sleep restriction by helping the immune and neuroendocrine systems to recover," Faraut said. "The findings support the development of practical strategies for addressing chronically sleep-deprived populations, such as night and shift workers."

Other authors of the study include: Samir Nakib, Catherine Drogou, Maxime Elbaz, Fabien Sauvet, Jean-Pascal De Bandt and Damien Léger of the Université Paris Descartes-Sorbonne Paris Cité.

The study, "Napping Reverses the Salivary Interleukin-6 and Urinary Norepinephrine Changes Induced by Sleep Restriction," was published online, ahead of print.

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An inequality graphic that’s not a chart but a cartoon

Take a glance at this depiction of the raging income inequality debate. It's refreshing, because on this subject there have been approximately 573 stories, studies, and graphs, graphs, graphs posted in the past 48 hours or so in the press, and this is about the only one that's been humorous.

It's incredible, the volume of this debate, and its implications, in a thousand realms beyond the purely economic.

We in the Ojai Chautauqua will be debating this issue later this year I expect, so I have been gathering inequality grist for the mill, and boy is there a lot. Endless. 

A Gallup poll found a recent improvement in economic outlook, for example, but still two-thirds of those polled this month said they were dissatisfied with the distribution of income in this country.

So, with your forbearance, let me post some notable inequality facts in graphic form in the next few weeks. I'll keep it succinct, and humorous if remotely possible, as in this example thanks to a friend and to The New Yorker.


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How the super-rich live: far above the rest of us

By sheer coincidence, this weekend both the L.A. Weekly and the New York Times ran stories on how representatives of the super-rich, are taking over the heights of the city.

Call it unaffordable housing — penthouses for the super-rich. Not the 1%, but the .01, the Thousandth Percent. Apartments that cost tens of millions of dollars. It's fascinating to see how these two publications put up the stories, and fascinating to see how far the world of the super-rich is from us.

For example, 64% of the Time Warner Center is owned by shell companies (LLCs) which use a loophole to pay a minimum of property taxes, for clients from around the world whose names are kept hidden — many of whom, it turns out, have been charged with environmental or financial crimes.


(The picture agove shows graphically how much of these newly constructed skyscrapers is owned by represented by LLCs and, credibly, the super-rich.)

Both stories break new ground, each in its own way. Attached with the L.A. Weekly piece by David Futch is footage taken by a drone that flew over a contested building site in West Hollywood, formerly occupied by Capitol Records, where a developer wants to build a skyscraper for the super-rich on top of a well-known earthquake fault.

Naturally, the developer has a different description of the fault: see the story here. The developer's geologists will challenge the state's earthquake maps and argue that a surface thrust fault — which breaks the surface — is not located below the site, and thus it's okay to build a skyscraper there. What's the motivation?

The profit potential is clear for Millennium owners Jeffries and Aarons: An owner recently listed a residential penthouse at their soaring New York City skyscraper, which is also dubbed Millennium Tower, for a headline-generating $34.5 million.

Meanwhile in New York, the Times finds that most of the multi-million dollar condos are being sold to foreigners, a fair number of whom have been accused of criminal activity in their home countries. And the prices they pay don't help New Yorkers so much as they help their fellow rich.

What is more, [economist] Mr. Parrott said, the skyrocketing prices of the pieds-à-terre are affecting the price of real estate in the city more broadly. “There’s a downside to having such pressure at the top. It pulls up the prices overall. When owners of $10 million condos see that there’s a big market for $95 million condos, they’re more likely to raise their prices,” he said. “Then the person at $2 million raises his prices, then the person at $1 million sees that and there aren’t any prices below $1 million.”

This was the complaint of the activists quoted in the Los Angeles story: that the city is selling out to the super-rich, leaving no place for ordinary people.

How the other Point Oh One Percent live: far far above the rest of us.

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A Cubist from California (with wit)

At the Museum of Modern Art is an exhibit of modern abstract painters, the first since an epochal show from l958. It's called The Forever Now.

The title hints at the problem facing the painters in the show: what can be painted that hasn't been painted before?

Or, as Peter Schdjeldahl puts it in The New Yorker:

The ruling insight that [curator] Hoptman proposes and the artists confirm is that anything attempted in painting now can’t help but be a do-over of something from the past, unless it’s so nugatory that nobody before thought to bother with it.

This is a problem that comes up in other art forms, of course, and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco has often written words to the same effect, as in Someone Else's Song:

I can't tell you anything you don't already know.
I keep on trying, I should just let it go.
I keep on singing, your eyes they just roll.
It sounds like someone else's song from along time ago.
You already know the story and the chords are just the same.
You already know I love you, and I sound like what's-his-name.
But you can't stop me, I want you to know.
I know it sounds like someone else's song from along time ago.

Regardless, many of the paintings in this show use old techniques to new purposes. Here's my favorite, from Nicole Eisenman (who doesn't always employ this technique, by the way):


I saw it and couldn't help but laugh: a Cubist from California! 

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Mary Oliver: on “the traction” of poetry (On Being)

On Being, with Mary Oliver:



With my pencil I traveled to the moon and back, probably a few times.

I had trouble with the Resurrection so I would not join the church.

I think that life is much more interesting with a spiritual part.

I spent a lot of times [walking around in the woods in Ohio) and I think it saved my life [in childhood]. I did find the entire world in looking for something.

I wanted the "I" to be the possible reader. I wanted the experience that happened to be my own, but I want it to…enjoin the reader into the experience of the poem.

"Wild" has become a lazy word lately, a clichéd word.

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