Monday, May 28, 2007

Issues, Character, and Tuchman’s The March of Folly

With presidential elections, it is often said that character trumps issues. For example, from the 3/11/2007 USA Today:

A new Associated Press-Ipsos poll says 55% of those surveyed consider honesty, integrity and other values of character the most important qualities they look for in a presidential candidate.

Just one-third look first to candidates’ stances on issues; even fewer focus foremost on leadership traits, experience or intelligence.

Whenever I see a “character trumps issues” story, I feel like We the People are taking the easy way out. Compared to understanding the issues, deciding which candidate seems more honest is easy—not necessarily easy to get right, but easy in terms of effort required.

I’ve always assumed that was a bad thing. But having read The March of Folly by historian Barbara Tuchman, I may reconsider. Written in 1984, The March of Folly examines why various rulers and governments throughout history have pursued policies that were obviously counterproductive, not just to historians but to observers in their time.

The short answer is: leaders with bad character—specifically, corruption, misguided ambition driven by ego, and obliviousness to reality when the facts challenged an existing course of action. Near the end of the book, Tuchman says, “Aware of the controlling power of ambition, corruption and emotion, it may be that in the search for wiser government we should look for the test of character first.”

I don’t take this to mean, “ignore the issues.” However, in a modern democracy, most mainstream positions on issues average-out to something workable over time, as one side wins for a while and then the other. Most important to Tuchman is avoiding the occasional but disastrous policy or institution that goes uncorrected despite widely understood flaws and viable alternatives. In her view, the true disasters have historically been, and will continue to be, driven by leadership failures involving character. So when character differences between candidates are significant, she might literally want the best man or woman to win, as opposed to who she agrees with most.

That said, it’s worth noting that Tuchman’s key character flaws involve power’s corrupting and delusional influences. She is less concerned about personal vices or, for that matter, virtues such as heroism demonstrated in war. On this point she probably differs with some percentage of the poll respondents. But even if she gets there for different reasons, Tuchman’s version of “character first” is an interesting way to think about—and perhaps feel better about—what the majority of voters apparently do.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Outstanding in the Field

You may ask, “Why is there a long table and chairs set up in the middle of that field?” The answer is both a story about innovation and an unusual restaurant recommendation.

Jim Denaven was the chef of Gabriella Cafe in Santa Cruz, California. He invited farmers to collaborate with him on special meals at the restaurant, featuring fresh-picked produce straight off the farm. These events were hits.

By Northern California standards, doing restaurant meals with featured farmers was mildly innovative. But then Denaven went a major step further: Having taken farmers to the restaurant, Denaven decided to take the restaurant to the farm.

He created Outstanding in the Field, an event that occurs throughout the summer and fall at various organic farms in the United States and Canada. A group of people get to tour an organic farm, culminating in dinner amid the fields. The food is prepared by a notable chef, using ingredients straight off the farm.

Jacqueline and I attended an Outstanding in the Field event a few years ago at Knoll Farms in Brentwood, California (about 60 miles east of San Francisco). It was fig season, and farmer Rick Knoll took us and a group of perhaps 50 others on a tour of the grounds, picking and eating ripe figs off the trees.

Later, we had dinner on a long table like the one in the picture, albeit shielded from the warm evening wind by parallel rows of fig trees on either side. The chef was from San Francisco’s Fringale. It was a five-course meal, with different wine tastings at each course.

Among other things, the meal included the most explosively flavorful tomatoes I have ever experienced. It was the taste equivalent of super-saturated color.

When the sun was gone, a chain of paper lanterns was the only light source amid the otherwise dark fields, the sky dense with stars.

Just being near where food originates (no, not the grocery store), if even for a short while, dining in/with/amid nature—it was a good thing.

Take a look at this year’s Outstanding in the Field schedule. Perhaps there will be an event near you. But beware, it is not cheap: $150 per person, maybe more.

The apt comparison would be a night out at a very fancy restaurant, where the purpose is to do something special. Outstanding in the Field is less fancy but more special.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The New York Times, Nielsen, and Margin of Error

The April 8, 2007, New York Times had an extraordinary self-indictment of numbers abuse:

Every Monday, a Times ranking of the top 10 prime time broadcast television programs uses a Nielsen rating that indicates how many households watched each show the previous week. On March 26, “60 Minutes” ranked No. 8 with a 9.2 Nielsen rating. (Each rating point represents 1.1 million homes.) With a margin of error of 0.3-rating point...there was no statistically significant difference between the rating of “60 Minutes” and any of the three programs above it in the ranking, or either of the two below it. With no mention of the margin of error, however, Times readers were left to believe the rankings really meant something.

Turns out omitting the margin of error is not new:

Over the past 25 years, only two of the 3,124 archived articles that mentioned Nielsen and “ratings” included a reference to the margin of error.

The piece was by Byron Calame, until recently The Times’ Public Editor. As “readers’ representative,” Calame independently investigated reader questions and complaints. In this case, he contacted Nielsen and questioned Times editors responsible for running the numbers.

The Nielsen spokesperson said the numbers were “estimates,” “should not be construed literally,” and lacked margin of error data due to resource constraints on Nielsen’s side.

Is that a problem? Paraphrasing a Times editor’s response: No one else shows margins of error, so what’s the problem?

Calame asked another editor why The Times did not at least tell readers that Nielsen does not provide the margin of error. The explanation is telling: “If we run a large disclaimer saying, in effect, this company is withholding a critical piece of information, I imagine many readers would simply turn the page.”

Okay, thanks for clarifying the priorities.

Calame’s piece called on The Times to do better, and if nothing else, The Times deserves credit for encouraging this criticism from within.