Heard at the Texas Book Festival 2008
Things I Heard at the 2008 Texas Book Festival, 8-9 November 2008
Ms T and other friends and I went to the Texas Book Festival this year, as usual. This is an event to benefit public libraries, where many of the new books of the past year are discussed and sold. Forty thousand people and a couple hundred authors converge on the state capital building for a weekend, and talk and read. The authors talk and read. The other attendees listen and ask occasional questions. Oh, and they buy books and get them signed by the authors. All in all, a very nice way to spend part of two days. If you are interested, see www.texasbookfestival.org.
Texas Book Festival? Texas? Books?
Now, now, be nice. There are several people in Texas who read. The festival is a large, well-organized event that occurs at the end of October or beginning of November every year. The festival takes over the state capital building for a weekend. The building, by the way, is the largest state capital in the country, no surprise ("They make 'em bigger in Tayxus, boy"). But the visible above-ground building is not enough. There is a two-story extension underground, going out several hundred yards to the north of the main building. There are a dozen rooms in use for sessions most of the time, including the House and Senate chambers and their galleries -- the legislature meets for only three months every two years, so they don't need them -- plus additional venues outside at large tents set up on 11th Street, plus the art museum, a downtown theater, and so forth, about twenty-five in total. And there are a half dozen other long tents strung three blocks on the west side that contain related vendors: publishers and booksellers from large to small and academic, and a tent where authors sign books after their sessions. Some of the proceeds go to support public libraries in the state, $2+ million in the last ten years.
We go to this event every year, and we have even gathered moss: we have one friend who comes in from New York City every year, and another from Houston, and we coordinate with another local couple. A lot of people go to this event, about forty-five thousand this year, though probably many as fanatical going from open to close as we are. This being a college town, there is inevitably a liberal bent to the audience. And, this year more than we had noticed before, white heads: the average age is well above the MTV generation. Bodes ill for the future of the printed word. But we knew that from other evidence.
There are just about two hundred sessions in the two days. I got to ten of them, which is a lot given how many simultaneous sessions compete for one's attention. One sits in a session with from a couple dozen to a thousand other people and listens to various authors read from their recent books, or discuss them, or be asked questions about them by a moderator. Writers of historical and political non-fiction are often asked questions about their particular topics or about current events. Fascinating to hear from real experts for a change rather than the average TV pundit.
Here are some notes that I took about, I thought, especially cogent or interesting statements made by someone or other. No, I did not record who said what or in answer to what question. Just these notes. Some of the text here is additional context needed to understand the recorded statement. (Note: this was the weekend *before* the election, so no one knew which direction the country was going to take a few days later.)
>From a panel of political historians:
Condeleeza Rice was very surprised by the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections. Why? She had been told repeatedly by political and historical experts in the area that this was the likely outcome, but she chose "to have faith in the people" rather than listen to the experts. In a National Security Adviser, that failure to listen, to choose faith over logic, reveals serious incompetence. Imagine how much worse it is in a Secretary of State.
For one historian, the most appalling breach of civil rights and American principles was the "extraordinary rendition" program. The key background figure in the program was David Addington, Cheney's legal counsel and chief of staff.
On the upcoming election and politics in general:
93% of counties in the US voted the same way in the last four presidential elections.
Election fraud? There always have been, and will continue to be, shenanigans in the critical states where the margins are thin.
2% of the population moves from one state to another every year. About 60% of those moving choose to move into a county of their political persuasion.
Political parties are more homogeneous today than before. There are no more conservative Democrats, as there used to be in the South, or liberal Republicans, as there used to be on the coasts.
Bush and Rove governed specifically to exclude liberal Republican elements, to purify the party.
Party line voting is the highest since the early 20th century.
There is no middle anymore where compromises can occur.
There is a feeling that a party has to stand for something so that it can be voted in or out.
State and federal legislatures are gridlocked. All weird progress occurs at the local level.
Big issues require big coalitions to fix them. "You can't cut paper with one blade of a scissor." However, if your goal is to maximize party unity, excluding fringe elements and the opposition, then you cannot form coalitions to tackle these big problems.
Regarding personalities and knowledge gaps of the recent campaign, "Ignorance can be cured. But meanness, divisiveness, and partisanship cannot."
Read UrbanArchipelago.com. (Yes, really.)
There has been a class inversion in the parties over the last forty-fifty years. Now we have blue-collar Republicans and white-collar Democrats; used to be the other way around. Remember labor unions?
"Congressional leaders should find the center of their caucus. A President should find the center of the country."
Advice to the incoming president, whoever he is: [again, this was four days before the election]
Citizens are not as stupid as many politicians treat them. People "have more than two brain cells to rub together," though we might not have two nickels.
Aggressively pursue reform: health care, taxes, Iraq, energy, finance.
We have a cultural civil war, exacerbated much by the recent divisive election campaigns.
Be an inspiration, an exemplar, *not* just a reflection of common America. Being a reflection instead of an inspiring example tends to paint learning, eloquence, and thoughtful analysis as elitist instead of as desirable. This is just wrong. We need leaders who are smart and thoughtful and eloquent.
Education! Teachers! Not the same old "No Child Left Standing" policy that we have suffered due to severe under-funding.
Mandatory public service of some sort: good idea.
Some problems with the American family. E.g., children by age 15 still living with both parents: US = less than half, Europe = two-thirds.
Pursue reconciliation across the aisle in Congress and in the public: DINK AMT Democrats need to reach out to working and middle class conservatives. ("DINK" = Double Income No Kids, i.e., lots of disposable income. "AMT" = income at the level that would be hit by the Alternative Minimum Tax if the limits weren't raised every few years. The AMT was originally intended to get the rich, but inflation has brought it down to the upper middle class.)
In blind testing of policy alternatives with the general public, Republican voters prefer Democratic tax policies, so long as they are not identified as coming from the Democrats.
"Don't say, 'Vote for Obama because it will rid America of its original sin.' "
W wanted to accomplish several things: (a) Succeed where his father had failed: a second term, deposing Saddam Hussein in Iraq; (b) Do something transformational, be a Reagan: privatize Social Security, export democracy.
On Internet traffic:
Clicks don't lie. People often do.
Bill Tancer writes the ILoveData.com blog and a Time.com column on the Science of Search.
Advance marketing campaign for a recent teen movie: they created MySpace profiles for the (fictitious) characters in the movie, and engaged an audience before it was released.
Suppression of comics in the 50s:
Comics sold 60-100 million copies per month in the late 40s. By far the #1 entertainment medium of the time. [Wow. At the time, the US population was less than 180 million.]
Bending Science, how special interests corrupt public health research:
The na´ve view: pure science flows out of some sort of pure academic pipeline. After it's published, it may be spun by the advocates to say what they want. Reality: "policy-relevant" science is often not peer-reviewed or published in normal channels.
Scientists who don't want to bend the science are routinely driven out by the advocates, harassed with lawsuits and accusations.
There are several common methods for bending scientific research and its results.
Shaping research: design the study to generate the outcome you want. E.g., choose statistical tests carefully to get the results you want. In one case, legal discovery in a lawsuit found a smoking-gun email in which a researcher detailed how he had gone through a dozen tests before he found one that gave the result he needed, and he ended the email with "Damn! Am I good!"
Hiding research: clinical trials are routinely done in secret by private companies. The data is not available to other researchers to analyze.
Packaging research: get a consensus statement "from a blue ribbon panel." Some former panelists have complained that they didn't think that they agreed with any such statement until they read it in someone's advertising.
Attacking the scientists and their methods: a particular favorite of the tobacco industry. Second hand smoke study: attacked the chi squared test vs chi test. Lead paint impact on children study: industry filed scientific misconduct charges against the researcher. Even though the charges were baseless, they occupied the researcher for ten years, effectively removing him from the scientific field. Harassing lawsuits are also a tactic.
Spinning by public relations: e.g., advertise, hire people to write letters to the editors.
This type of science is boring, too, not cutting edge: test yet another chemical or drug for health impacts on rats or monkeys.
What can help? Exposure, transparency: clear provenance of data, reporting conflicts of interest, reporting of adverse affects.
Read "The Republican War on Science," by Chris Mooney.
The Office of Technology Assessment was killed by the '95 Congress, but its reports are still online.
Example of where transparency is needed: proprietary ownership of the algorithms used to analyze the data. These are model-based; they examine only what the researchers want to examine. E.g., in air quality studies, tall smokestacks send pollutants to the stratosphere, where they don't get counted. If they're not counted in the model, they don't exist.
Read on, y'all!