Tuesday, May 31, 2011

LBJ: First and Last, Anything but Average

Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ Library)
Every six years Siena College releases a poll of the Best Presidents of all-time. Usually the race is between Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, but in 2010 Franklin Delano Roosevelt came in first. This might irritate some (like some historian friends of mine), but I want to look beyond the top and focus on the fascinating

Siena released their findings category by category, which makes me, a list nerd, very happy. Did you know Washington was the best at avoiding crucial mistakes? Buchanan had the worst leadership ability? But only one president ranked first in one category and last in another. Some people say Richard Nixon would be remembered as a good president if it wasn't for Watergate, but it's safe to say LBJ would have been considered one of the greatest if not for Vietnam. In the Siena poll, historians ranked Johnson 16 out of 43. Closer to average than to greatness. A three-star presidency. Here's how Johnson ranked, from best to worst:

Relationship with Congress, Rank: 1
With the help of congress, LBJ pushed through the biggest series of government changes since The New Deal (FDR ranked second). Even with foreign policy, he had an excellent relationship with congress. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving Johnson a blank check to yield unilateral military might in East Asia. As a former member of both houses of Congress, and Senate Majority Leader for six years, Johnson was able to strong arm and compromise when needed to get his programs passed.

Party Leadership, Rank: 3
LBJ: kicking-ass and
taking-names (LBJ Library)
Two years as Senate Minority Leader, six as Majority Leader, three as Vice President, five as President, LBJ had a powerful sway over the Democratic Party. If Barry Goldwater is credited as the ideological leader of the modern Republican Party, Lyndon Johnson should receive equal credit for engineering the modern Democratic Party. In domestic policy, there is little or no difference between Johnson's ideals and actions, and the current party platform. In 1964, over 80% of African Americans voted for Johnson, a stat that has continued for Democratic Party candidates ever since.

Court Appointments, Rank: 5
This high ranking has little to do with nominating Abe Fortas to the Supreme Court. Fortas was a justice for only four year before having to resign in disgrace. This has everything to do with the selection of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American nominated to the Supreme Court. Marshall was an extremely accomplished lawyer best known for his civil rights victories. He served for twenty-four years. The man even has a feast-day in the Episcopal Church, May 17, the day his Brown vs. Board of Education case proved victorious. Thurgood was a helpful ally of Johnson's policies.

Domestic Accomplishments, Rank: 5
Ability to Compromise, Rank: 9
Overall Ability, Rank: 9
Signing Medicare into law
with Truman by his side (LBJ Library)
Again, these show his success with the Great Society, civil rights, and anti-poverty legislation that continued the United States success as the leading world power, and LBJ's success as a great leader (when it came to working with American politicians).

Handling of the U.S. economy, Rank: 10
Willing to take Risks, Rank: 12
Executive Appointments, Rank: 12
Imagination, Rank: 12
Executive Ability, Rank: Rank: 12
More positive rankings, mainly for his ability to use the executive branch to promote his ideas. Imagination for his Great Society, War on Poverty, and Space Race success. Even with his failures, America began and ended his tenure as the most powerful country in the world. Note the high rank for "willing to take risks" when you see his rankings for "luck" and "avoiding crucial mistakes" later on.

Background, Rank: 15
LBJ was a college graduate who became a teacher before getting into politics. I guess historians took that information and said: "15". I consider this the least important and most confusing of all of Siena's rankings. Other than putting Thomas Jefferson first, I don't understand any of these rankings. They gave the otherwise-great Abraham Lincoln his lowest marks for his background. I guess being born poor, with little education, dealing with depression, but still becoming a lawyer, state senator, and popular orator means "28".

Leadership Ability, Rank: 15
Communication Skills, Rank: 16
His leadership was successful for 4 of his 5 years as president. For communication skills, which equal his overall score, I point you to an animatronic LBJ:

Intelligence, Rank: 21
A president of "average intelligence". No surprised super-brained Thomas Jefferson ranks first.

A frustrated gentleman (LBJ Library)
Luck, Rank: 28
Integrity, Rank: Rank: 34
Avoid Crucial Mistakes, Rank: 37
Pretty poor rankings here. Luck and Crucial Mistakes seem equally paired. The man was on a great hot streak, but Vietnam was the end of his luck. His successor, Richard Nixon, was even worse when it came to avoiding crucial mistakes. As for integrity, I'm kind of shocked he's ranked so low after taking the moral high ground when it came to civil rights, health care rights, and poverty aid. Seems dropping agent orange and napalm on a foreign country made him lose points.

Foreign Policy Accomplishments, Rank: 43
43 is the worst a president can be ranked in a category, and Johnson got it for one reason: The Vietnam War. The war was a quagmire, one which many consider the first (and maybe only) war The United States lost.

Inspecting the troops (LBJ Library)
Johnson went all-in for victory but did not succeed. Eventually, the communists were victorious, and the U.S. lost over 50,000 troops. Johnson refused to run for re-election, as his foreign policy disaster overshadowed every single domestic success.

The war split the Democratic party, leading to the election of Republican Richard Nixon. This ended an era where 28 of the past 36 years Democratic presidents were in power. Republicans took power and held the presidency for 28 of the next 40 years. Still, over 40 years later, many of Johnson's policies are still in place, and his work for civil rights helped push the south into democracy for the first time. 

What do you think of LBJ? What other president deserves a high five and a middle finger?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Yay Barca, Nay Yanks

I broke my most important sports commandment. The five commandments are as follows:

  1. Always root for Syracuse.
  2. If Syracuse is not involved, root for an Upstate New York Team.
  3. If not Upstate team, root for Team America.
  4. If not any of these, and the teams are evenly matched, root for a good game.
  5. In all other games (99% of them), Always Root for the Underdog.

Then along came Barca.

FC Barcelona has only two games left this season, but they are about to cap a season that some claim to be the best ever. They have won 42 games, drawn 10 times, and lost 5. They've won the La Liga title, and they are one win away from being crowned Champions. They are not underdogs.

I came to Barcelona via Ronaldo, the top-class striker for Real Madrid. I played Ronaldo constantly on my PES 2009 video game as he was always quick with a goal. ESPN 3 (one of the Internet's greatest non-Netflix related gifts) was showing a match, known as El Clásico pitting Real Madrid against Barcelona.

Ronaldo was serious. The whole game. Every game I've seen him play in I doubt he has cracked a smile. Then along came Barcelona's Lionel Messi. His hair was shaggy, and he always seemed to be smiling off the pitch. On the pitch, he was incredible. The whole team was incredible. Their time of possession was over 60%, passing the ball precisely, slowly working their way up the field, slowly looking for a player to break through. While Ronaldo earned a yellow card for pushing Barca coach Josep Guardiola, Barcelona routed Real Madrid 5-0. I became a fan.

I'm having a tough time reconciling my love for Barca with my total hatred for the New York Yankees (note my "upstate" commandment clause). The Yankees, for the last century, has been the dominant team in baseball. And don't get me wrong, I idolized their heroes in my childhood. But the Yankees of the last 30 years have left me cold. It probably has a lot to do with money. They consistently have the highest paid team in the sport, grabbing superstar after superstar to puff up their chances of victory. Barca, similarly, doles out huge salaries to their superstars. But it's, uh, different. Barca has a youth system that help condition and improve most of their superstars from a young age.  Messi, Iniesta, Puyol, and Xavi were all members, and have rewarded Barca's early investment by staying at the club.  Also, Barca's sponsor is UNICEF. The team actually pays UNICEF for the rights to have their logo on their jerseys, a rare deed (unlike some notable corrupt bargains in the news).

Or maybe it's just I'm relatively new to association football, and thus I gravitate to the team that does the best. Or maybe I like Barca because it's European. Or maybe I hate the Yankees because I'm jealous of their success.

Or maybe it's how they play. Incredible. That's how. Great plays, pristine passes (as Dick Vitale would never say "Fundamentals Baby!") and never a dull second in a game regularly mocked for dullness. On Saturday, May 28th, Barcelona will face Manchester United in the Champions finale and I will be stressed out the whole game. Should be a close game (no, not all soccer games are close). I seriously can't wait.

I was in a Paris shop a few weeks ago, when, for the first time in eight years, I bought sports merch. Now, quietly resting in my dresser for nine more days, is a red jersey. On the front, the FCB badge and the UNICEF logo. On the back, a #10 and the words MESSI. There's no turning back now.

I must ad a sixth sports commandment: To root for Barca until they turn evil -- next year maybe.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Netflix Instant: A Cinematic Stimulant

You can watch this right now.
I recently convinced my friend Neil to set up Netflix Instant on his Wii. We watched part of "Spinal Tap" and I headed home. I week later I asked him if he used it since. "Oh my God, it's like crack!"

I recently did a search for my top Twitter terms. "Netflix" and "Instant" were the top words. These came from post after post of excitement over each exciting addition to their library.

I recently read an article stating Netflix Instant accounts for 30% of all Internet traffic.

I recently added nearly 50 MST3K movies to my queue.

I recently began watching "Baseball" one of eighteen Ken Burns documentaries available.

I recently found out Netflix added my favorite foreign film. In fact, most of my favorite foreign films are on Netflix Instant.

I recently realized, hey, I'm paying Netflix for this service, and I'm harping on it like a shill! Calm down me, don't give it to the man! Where's my chill pills?

I'm just happy that Netflix Instant, coupled with my Roku player, has been, for two year, my favorite entertainment product. It's like owning a video rental store. And just like a video store, the selection is limited, full of terrible films I will never watch, but I appreciate it nonetheless.

Woe be the day when I will be without either a television, the Internet, or a Netflix account. I will go through withdrawal. That is when I will crash.

(if only "Crash" was on Netflix Instant, that would have been perfect. Ah well. Eegah!).

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Beatles and the curse of the Best ofs.

When anyone asked me what my favorite album was, I always said it was something by The Beatles, usually "Help!", "Revolver", or "Abbey Road". So one lonely day I sat down and tried to settle this question by rating each Fab Four album.

Four lads from Liverpool (Library of Congress)
I rated each song of The Beatles from 1 to 5 stars (in reality from 2 to 5, they've never had a truly terrible song). I gave the song content of an album 85% of the score. I gave another 10% to the tracklisting. As anyone who's made a good mixtape (or watched "High Fidelity") knows, how songs flow together matters. The final five percent is for personal bias. If it was the album that started my obsession (Sgt. Pepper's), or reflects an era in my life (Help!), it deserves higher marks. If it's a great album, but also a soundtrack to a dull movie (Magical Mystery Tour), it might lose a point or two.

Then there's the problem with compilations. If you're to advise someone on buying a Beatles album, you wouldn't avoid suggesting "Past Masters 2" just because the songs were recorded and released over a five-year period instead of all-at-once. You certainly need "Hey Jude" and "Day Tripper" in your Beatles collection. (I don't care that you can buy the songs separately online now -- albums still matter -- what's that? I can't hear you). If you think that allowing compilations will lead to a slippery slope, you are correct! Let's do this.

Album Songs Flow Bias Total
Sgt. Pepper83.710598.7
Rubber Soul81.410596.4
Abbey Road81.010596.0
White Album80.59594.5
Past Masters 281.48392.4
Please Please Me76.59590.5
Magical Mystery Tour77.38489.3
With the Beatles75.38487.3
A Hard Day's Night74.58486.5
Let it Be73.78485.7
Past Masters 171.88382.8
Beatles for Sale68.08480.0
Yellow Submarine72.34278.3

The success of Past Masters 2 on my list, (sixth overall, tied for second for song content) even with lower flow and bias ratings, is alarming to album purists. It only gets worse when you include their best of albums, "Red", "Blue", and "1".
Red album 85.09599.0
Blue album85.09498.0

Now this top Beatles album list is starting took bad. The Red Album, due to being full of great songs, no filler, and has the bias of being the first Beatles album I've ever owned, skyrockets to the top of the list. The only detriment that album has is its tracklisting is in chronological order. For the most part, hearing their musical progression makes for an exciting listen. Though sometimes the songs just don't flow well together from one to the next. It's no side 2 of "Abbey Road" (otherwise known as the standard of flow).

It's about to get worse. Here comes a Beatles mix tape! A collection of great songs, each one flowing together perfectly, creating a perfect album to love and cherish. Is this mix tape my "favorite Beatles album of all time"?

1. I am the Walrus
2. Helter Skelter
3. Help!
4. Day Tripper
5. She Loves You
6. Hey Jude
7. Can't By Me Love
8. Revolution
9. I Should've Known Better
10. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
11. Tomorrow Never Knows
12. A Day in the Life

Okay, that's not a real mix tape of mine. But who knows, it just might be the greatest album of all time.

Monday, May 16, 2011

America: A Young Democracy

When did freedom ring? When did America live up to its ideals? Some would say it still hasn't, given such things as anti-gay laws, anti-muslim laws, illegal immigration laws, and lack of prisoner rights (including, in some cases, the loss of the right to vote, indefinite detention, and, in a few notable cases, torture). 

Yet for most citizens, there is a high level of freedom, and for our country a high level of democracy. But obviously this wasn't always the case, and certainly not solved by our independence in 1776.

Question: When did American become a full-fledged Democracy?

Let's take a look at some data, focusing on two modern reports, and from there we'll work backwards. The first is the respected Democracy Index. In 2010, the United States placed 17 out of 167 nations, and among the 26 nations listed as "full democracies". The second report, Freedom in the World, listed the United States as "free" in 2010, receiving top marks for political rights and civil liberties.

Now let's go through their methods for figuring out our rankings, and figure out when we became a viable democracy.

Freedom of the World's view of a free democracy:
  1. A competitive, multiparty political system; Year: 1796
    This is something we've had for many years, at least for the two main parties (it's currently extremely difficult to win any election on a third party ticket). The last time this was not true is debatable. During Reconstruction (1865-1877), the Radical Republicans placed rules on southern governments, ruining competition, and allowing the Republicans 12 years of rule. But the true beginning of a competitive, multiparty system began in 1796, when Thomas Jefferson split off with the Federalists to face (and lose to) John Adams as a Democratic-Republican in the second presidential election. The first two elections were won by George Washington, who did not officially belong to a political party.
  2. Universal adult suffrage for all citizens (with exceptions for restrictions that states may legitimately place on citizens as sanctions for criminal offenses); Year: 1965
    LBJ Signs the Voting Rights Act
    That's a big exception (by some estimates a 5.3 million exception in the U.S.). In my opinion, universal adult suffrage did not become official until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. You can argue for 1971 as well,  when adults between the ages of 18 and 20 earned the vote with the passage of the 26th Amendment (previously you could be drafted at 18 but not vote until 21). Every year previous to 1965, voting intimidation and ineligibility kept universal suffrage from becoming a reality. Starting with the first election, you were not allowed to vote if you were non-white, female, or if you did not own land.  The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, led to suffrage for freemen and former slaves, but women still were not allowed the right to vote (not until 1920). By the end of Reconstruction in 1877, "Jim Crow" laws made it tough or nearly impossible for African-Americans in the south to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 righted most of this wrong (the poll tax, another barrier to voting, was declared illegal a year later).
  3. Regularly contested elections conducted in conditions of ballot secrecy, reasonable ballot security, and the absence of massive voter fraud that yields results that are unrepresentative of the public will; Year: 1965
    Some gerrymandering aside, most congressional and presidential elections are regularly contested (and can switch parties). For massive voter fraud, some may point to the hyper charges between both parties in recent years. Politically, it's probably too early in history to confirm the 2000 Presidential Election results as "unrepresentative of the public will" (an extremely close race nonetheless - being a candidate's brother in charge of disputed ballots). The Presidential Election of 1876 would count, where Rutherford B. Hayes beat Samuel Tilden, even though Tilden had the popular and electoral votes, and was decided along party lines in congress.. Hayes gained the presidency without incident though, in return for ending Reconstruction, which, in turn, led to voter intimidation and fraud throughout the South for nearly a century. Again, 1965 looks to be the key, where African Americans were not long disenfranchised.
  4. Significant public access of major political parties to the electorate through the media and through generally open political campaigning; Year: 1800
    Other than the failed Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which tried to push press to a single side (for the Federalists and John Adams, against Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic Republican), public access of the (usually two) political parties have been given saturated coverage by the media. Today there are presidential debates (since 1960) and primary elections (through most of the US history party nominees were picked behind closed doors). The two parties views (and sometimes a third or forth) are represented through the media through news and campaign ads. So although the media rights and public access hasn't always been 100% (still probably not), I'll pick 1800 as when this clause was fulfilled. When Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams, the Alien and Sedition Acts failed their cause, and the media were once again free to question, probe, and criticize.
    Democracy Index's methodology:
    1. "Whether national elections are free and fair"; 1965
      Samuel Tilden was robbed
      Compared with most other countries, the United States has an excellent record of free and fair elections. This again goes back to the Voting Rights act of 1965, the first year that men and women, no matter their race nor geographic location, could vote in an election, without fear of intimidation or retribution. There has been 11 presidential elections since 1965, and in all but one (cough cough 2000) the candidate who received the most votes won the election. There has been no clear example in the modern era of a candidate with poor voter approval stealing an election. With term limits set in place after Franklin Roosevelt's term, there's been an inability of the executive branch to skew multiple elections in their favor.
    2. "The security of voters"; Year: 1965
      There has been no major successful voter intimidation efforts in recent times. Intimidation probably reached its peak during the Jim Crow years. Yet, in recent times, one can cast a ballot anonymously and successfully without fear of reprisal.
    3. "The influence of foreign powers on government";  Year: 1776
      This has always been close to zero. Since ousting Great Britain in the American Revolution, our nation is prideful of its independence. Current contenders for influence would include China (who we owe a massive debt to) and Israel (who, for better or worse, has a successful lobbying group), but neither has a solid command over our government. We've been close allies at times with Great Britain, who encouraged our entry into World War II (we still took 3 years), and who previously burned down our White House (a bad influence). Currently The United States is the large foreign influence on our allies, never the other way around.
    4. "The capability of the civil servants to implement policies". Year 1829
      Minus the obvious congressional gridlock, the Constitution and current government structure allows for successful innovation and change. These policies might be supported by special interest lobbies, but nonetheless, most rules are voted on by congress, implemented by senate-approved members of the executive branch, and overseen by a large judicial branch. There has hardly been a time in American history where our country failed to move forward with new laws and policies. But for the sake of picking a date, I chose 1829, the first year of Andrew Jackson's administration. Jackson created a powerful executive branch which was able to control policy equal with the other two branches.
    So my best estimate of when the United States became a free democracy was in 1965. Our stature only improved in 1971 when we let adults who can be drafted to war also be allowed to vote. We've been pretty good ever since. Previous to 1965 we were a "flawed democracy" in the terms set by the Democracy Index. It's debatable if we were ever in a "hybrid regime" (maybe Lincoln suspending habeus corpus in the Civil War, the Radical Republican's rule during Reconstruction, or Franklin D. Roosevelt's 12 years as president). As for being an "authoritarian regime", the United States, even under British rule, citizens never had it that bad. Slaves and Native Americans, though, had an awful time, so maybe previous to 1861 we were authoritarian. Nevertheless, congrats to our country on over 40 years of relative freedom and democracy!

    Although I am the totalitarian ruler of this blog, disagreements, advice, or comments are appreciated.

      Tuesday, May 3, 2011

      Karma for Killers?

      Here's a list of major dictators and mass murderers, and the way they went out.

      Idi Amin - Natural Causes
      Leopld II of Belgium - Natural Causes
      Mao - Lung failure
      Stalin - Stroke
      Kim Il Sung - Heart Attack
      Tito - Gangrene
      Pol Pot - Heart Failure under house arrest
      Milosevic - Heart Attack, under arrest
      Hitler - Suicide
      Goebbels - Suicide
      Mussolini - Shot
      Ismail Enver - Shot in Battle
      Osama Bin Ladin - Shot
      Tideki Tojo - Hung
      Eichmann - Hung
      Saddam Hussein - Hung

      Note, that only three of these men were successfully brought to justice in a court of law (four if you count the inevitable trail result for Milosevic).