Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Citius, altius, brutus

It's an even-numbered year, so we must have an Olympics on our hands. The quadrennial orgy of sun, fun, and infrastructure spending that is the Summer Games is taking place in Rio de Janeiro and blessedly drawing some attention away from the ongoing conflagration that is the United States election cycle.

The Olympics were designed to celebrate excellence in athletics -- hence the motto "citius, altius, fortius", or "faster, higher, stronger". While the best and brightest eventually get their due when they reach the business end of their events, for me that's only part of the allure. I also enjoy hearing the stories of people such as Siri Budcharern Arun, a 14-year-old swimmer from Laos.
Laos has one Olympic-sized swimming pool, but it is rarely used and too far from the capital for the athletes to reach regularly.
Instead, Siri Arun trains five times a week in the public, city-centre pool, without any lanes reserved for professional swimmers and sometimes under the monsoon deluges that hammer Laos.
While she tries to hone her rhythm and technique, kids clown around and launch themselves off diving boards nearby.
So far she has got her personal best down to 33.71 seconds, a good 10 seconds shy of the world record and a time that is unlikely to see her progress beyond the early heats.
But she keeps coming back, hoping to give herself the best possible chance in Rio.
In addition to athletes who qualify based on their performances, Olympic organizers also provide competing nations a small number of wild-card entries to make sure all 204 member nations have representatives at the Games. This Olympics also features the first team comprised of refugees fleeing conflict in their home countries. This isn't merely an exercise in handing out participation ribbons; it's about spreading the message of the Olympic movement and providing further inspiration for athletes from developing nations. Without this kind of outreach, the Olympics would quickly resemble cricket or European soccer, a closed shop accessible only by those with the best resources.

In proper doses, inspiration and patriotism can do great things. It is all too easy to overdose on them, though, and the Olympics is no exception.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Oh, Nebraska

My home state doesn't make the national news very often. We Nebraskans tend to be staid, good-natured but somewhat vanilla folk. That unremarkable nature can be annoying. When my old junior high was evacuated in 1998 because of a foul, unknown odor, several national news reports gave the city as Grand Island, New York. (Thankfully, when a stray accordion case caused a similar evacuation earlier this year, there was no such confusion.)

When Nebraska does make the news, though, it tends to be entertaining. Take for example the story that broke this week of state Sen. Bill Kintner being asked to resign over allegedly having an explicit sex video starring himself on his state computer. Kintner, of Papillion, is a Tea Party-backed politician with a track record of deriding gays, women, minorities, and the poor. From Joe My God:
Kintner has loudly opposed same-sex marriage, gay adoption, and transgender rights. He has also publicly declared that Christians should let gays know their business isn’t wanted by providing them with bad service.
The good senator appears to have a keen eye for other people's splinters. Pity he can't turn that hawk-like gaze on his own actions.

As I said, Nebraska rarely makes the headlines, but I've managed to compile a fun, if modest, set of stories over the past year or two. Some of my favorites are below the fold.

Commies to the left of me, Christians to the right

Upon moving to my new neighborhood, I rather flippantly called it a "barren, suburban hellscape". Part of that was probably born out of frustration at being so far from... anything, really. It's a 90-minute commute to campus, with the train station alone at least 15 minutes' walk from the apartment. It's akin to commuting between Grand Island and Lincoln five days a week.

There's also the fact that the most notable buildings in the immediate area are a recycling center, a building supply store, and a wastewater treatment facility. Affordable rent in Tokyo still comes at a cost.

All that said, poking around the neighborhood has produced a few interesting findings. Pictorial evidence of said findings is below the jump.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Your long read for the weekend

A reading recommendation for those with a bit of time on their hands -- check out this deep dive from the New York Times, "When You Dial 911 and Wall Street Answers". It's the first in their "Bottom Line Nation" series on the growing influence of private equity firms in daily public life.
The business of driving ambulances and operating fire brigades represents just one facet of a profound shift on Wall Street and Main Street alike, a New York Times investigation has found. Since the 2008 financial crisis, private equity firms, the “corporate raiders” of an earlier era, have increasingly taken over a wide array of civic and financial services that are central to American life.
Today, people interact with private equity when they dial 911, pay their mortgage, play a round of golf or turn on the kitchen tap for a glass of water.
Private equity put a unique stamp on these businesses. Unlike other for-profit companies, which often have years of experience making a product or offering a service, private equity is primarily skilled in making money. And in many of these businesses, The Times found, private equity firms applied a sophisticated moneymaking playbook: a mix of cost cuts, price increases, lobbying and litigation.
In emergency care and firefighting, this approach creates a fundamental tension: the push to turn a profit while caring for people in their most vulnerable moments.
This is nothing new, of course. The US has a... colorful history with private fire departments, for example. Still, the effects of turning vital public services over to private firms driven by a profit motive are worth remembering when we hear certain people extolling the virtues of deregulation and privatization as a panacea against the evils of "inefficiency".