October 26, 2016

A Griping List, though

I object to the premise of this OUP blognote purporting to have The ultimate reading list, created by librarians. It isn’t.

What they appear to have done is ask a bunch of people at the UKSG conference (I have no idea what UKSG even stands for) which one book couldn’t you live without? They collated the results and call it the ultimate reading list. (I also dispute the librarians part—whatever the letters stand for, UKSG claims to include librarians, publishers, intermediaries and technology vendors. I do understand that the ultimate reading list, created by intermediaries, would have generated fewer clicks. I, for one, wouldn’t have bothered linking to it in querulous complaint.)

The list is fine. A quarter or so written by women, maybe an eighth not-originally-in-the-English-language, a bunch of children’s books, a bunch of Classics, a bunch of recent novels, a bunch of memoirs. It’s an interesting list as a document of what people at such a conference would tell Oxford University Press that they couldn’t live without. It isn’t a reading list.

I mean, what is a reading list? In some sense, I suppose, it’s just a list of books, so in that sense, it obviously is a reading list. In actual use, a reading list is a list of readings for a course on a particular subject, that the instructor expects the students to complete (or at least fake). More Recently, we use the phrase for a curated list of valuable readings either on a particular topic or for a particular purpose. A reading list of PoC specfic. A reading list for understanding what’s going on in Aleppo. A reading list for QUILTBAG teens, a reading list for climate change deniers, a reading list for the contemporary drama. A summer reading list is about as vague and undefined as such a list can usefully be. What’s I’m on about for my purposes, though, is that it’s a list for other people to read.

That’s not what this is. If I were to be asked Vardibidian, which one book couldn’t you live without? my answers would be personal. Scripture, of course, although if I had to name a single book, it would probably be the Avot, and then we have the question of if I consider the Mishnah to be Scripture. If I had to live without The Curse of Chalion or The Mask of Apollo or The Hobbit or my other comfort books, that would stink. I would have been very unhappy trying to raise a child without Hop on Pop or Where the Wild Things Are. I have the OED at home and use it, although mostly I use the on-line version (since I have access through my employer). My Tanach is the Heinz/JPS, my siddur is Mishkan T’filah. My preferred road map was Rand-McNally, back before the pocket computer took care of all that.

That’s great information for y’all to know about me. It’s interesting information to know about lots of people. It’s not a reading list.

And if, as the blognote says, many participants took the question seriously, it’s an even worse reading list. There’s no point in reading a whole bunch of books because a lot of quite varied individuals each picked one. That doesn’t make a list at all. If twenty people each picked a song, it wouldn’t make a playlist—I’d be surprised if it was a listenable hour of music.

Or perhaps I’m just grouchy.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 2, 2014

Ten Best Bullshit Nonsense Crazy Errors

So, look—any article headlined These Are The 10 Best Places To Live In Connecticut is going to be stupid. If they claim to have developed a statistical analysis that brings up that list of ten, it’s going to be worthless as a statistical analysis. We all know that. The fact that it’s on the website of a real estate brokerage, rather than (f’r’ex) a regional magazine makes only the tiniest bit of difference, really.

And you may think it’s not worth looking at the stupid claims of statistical nonalysis in any detail, and you would probably be right. So let’s do just that, shall we?

OK, so as with all these things, they come up with a bunch of criteria. In this case, seven of them, including things like the crime rate, average commute time and unemployment rates. Oh, and the weather. And ‘quality of life’, which is itself a mishmash of things that they claim are highly correlated in the census data (and some other places), mostly including economic factors but also student-teacher ratio in (I assume) the public schools. Why mash that in with the economic ones? Because of the high correlation. OK, I guess, but—now what do you do with the seven categories, keeping in mind that some of them contain within them multiple kinds of things that are correlated?

The answer is, ignore all that complicated stuff. Just add ’em up and divide by seven. Give the commute time the same weight as the quality of life, which has the same weight as the unemployment rate, which has the same weight as everything else, because evidently making formulas in spreadsheets is difficult.

Oh, and when I say add ’em up and divide by seven what I mean is add up the ranks of the forty-two towns. That is, in each category, rank the towns one to forty-two, and then average the ranks in the four categories. That’s just un—you know, I was going to say unbelievably stupid, but it’s actually believable, completely believable, not difficult at all to believe that somebody would set their table up that way. It’s difficult to believe the number in the end has any value, sure, but the stupidity is totally believable.

Of course, when you do it by ranks like that, the distortion widens the difference between similar towns and not between different towns. Connecticut’s a tiny state, so my guess is that the forty-two towns have essentially indistinguishable weather patterns and air quality, or rather that there’s a group of twenty that are indistinguishable from each other, and another group of twenty that are indistinguishable from each other within that group, and maybe two outliers. But the distinction between New Milford weather and the Danbury weather ten miles downstream means that New Milford gets an 18 and Danbury a 1. Which, since remember, we’re just averaging seven categories, is responsible for 2.43 of the 5.85 in their final scores. And that will be similar in other categories where miniscule differences in real life (the difference between a teacher-student ratio of 13.1-to-one and 13.6-to-one will not be noticeable to a parent or student) must, by the nature of ranking, lead to substantial differences in score.

OK, so there are problems with the metric, is what I’m saying. But here’s the fun part: in the category of tax rank, there is a 41-way-tie for first. All the towns except East Hampton have a ‘1’ in that category. East Hampton has a ‘42’. It is not, bye-the-bye, the actual case that East Hampton has the highest mil rate in the state, and it is not even close to the actual case that all the other towns have identical tax burdens. No, the variation in property taxes from town to town is high enough that people really do choose to live in one town or another based on the current tax rate (and presumably a prediction of stability of some sort, I suppose). If you wanted a real estate agent to advise you on where to live—and you don’t, I’m pretty sure you don’t—one aspect that you might expect the estate agent to know something about is the difference in tax burden on either side of the city line. No? I suppose not.

And yes, I checked: the big deal score they used to come up with the Top Ten List really is the average of the ranks in the sevens, including the column for taxes with the forty-one way tie for first. Accuracy!

So. Why bother making fun of this? When my town hall brags about making this particular Top Ten List, as far as I’m concerned, they’re just embarrassing themselves and me. So there’s that. But also… it’s hard to keep in mind, all the time, that there really is no downside to the real estate company (that’s Movoto, by the way) in doing this sort of thing. They slap this up, send around an email to the towns involved, and get a handful of clicks. Somebody like Your Humble Blogger may gripe about it a bit, but so what? Nobody expects rigor in a Top Ten anything. It’s just for fun, right?

And this is why I keep saying that we need more statistics education and logic education in the high schools, and less trigonometry and geometry. As David S. Bernstein wrote about a different topic altogether This lengthy and meandering tale is ultimately about nothing, but along the way might prove instructive for anyone wondering why so many people walk around with their heads filled with a vast, expanding trove of untrue nonsense. Me too, of course, which is why it's so irritating.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 4, 2013

Hatchet Job: Bully Pulpit

Your Humble Blogger was all cranky about the note over at the OUP blog called Sagan and the modern scientist-prophets, where Lynda Walsh attempts to tie the rhetoric of the modern scientific public intellectual to that of the prophet. I’m not convinced at all, and nothing in her note makes me think that the book is more convincing than the short note. It’s possible, though, that I am misunderstanding what she means by the words prophet and prophecy; they are slippery terms at the best of times. When she says, though:

When the gears of our democracies grind to an impasse, our prophets step forth from the wilderness and remind us who we are, what we really value. With our dilemma cast in this new light, we can at last move off its horns and into civic action.

This was what Jeremiah did for the nation of Judah; this was what the Delphic oracle did for Athens as it faced down Xerxes.

That’s… powerfully unconvincing.

But that’s not really why I am bothering telling you so—people are wrong on the internet all the time, and why focus on that? But Ms. Walsh also happens on one of my recent pet peeves that is totally unconnected to her point when she describes Carl Sagan as “the first public scientist to leverage television as his bully pulpit”. Not because it’s untrue (which it is), but because I have grown to really, really dislike the phrase bully pulpit. And I have three separate levels of analysis to show why you should never use it again!

First of all, of course the bully pulpit is the presidency, so you should never use it the way Ms. Walsh does, to refer simply to a position of wide reach or influence. The story is that Teddy Roosevelt, when accused of an overly preachy rhetorical style, said but I have got such a bully pulpit! Probably made up, of course. But the point is that it refers specifically to the Presidency, and it refers to the idea that the office has a uniquely powerful rhetorical position. And it does: the President is probably the most powerful single speaker in the world, but that doesn’t in the end amount to all that much. The President can’t change very many minds with speechifying. He’s in a terrific position to be the leader of a whole pack of speakers who can combine to have incredible power, but that is exactly what’s obscured by the use of the term bully pulpit, and all the moreso when the term is degraded by applying it to any position other than the presidency.

My second complaint is about the pulpit. There are reasons why we criticize Presidents who sound like preachers, and why we rarely elect preachers to the Presidency. It’s not a pulpit. Or, rather, it’s not supposed to be a pulpit, and it is one, and that’s not preventable but it is problematic, so the use of the term uncritically is problematic.

My third and most serious complaint, though, is about the bully. First of all, we don’t use bully any more in that sense—meaning, as the OED says, either ’admirable’ or ’first-rate’. We don’t use it as a term of affection, either. We don’t say that things are bully for us when they are going well. No, we have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying, because bully means somebody who bullies, and bullying is (broadly speaking) a pattern of coercion and intimidation by threats or violence. Bullying is a constant topic of conversation for parents, teachers and school administrators; it’s a constant topic of newspapers and radio and television; it’s a constant topic on social media. And that topic is incredibly muddled—all of our definitions of bullying have some overlap, but not all that much, when it comes down to it. It’s a mess.

And the thing is, the modern use of bully and the TR use are connected: he considered the pulpit bully because it was metaphorically big, loud, intimidating, overawing, swaggering, bullying. That was a good thing. What kind of a boat was a bully boat? What kind of a car was a bully car? What kind of a boy was a bully boy? The big kind, the kind that could make everyone get out of the way, the kind that scares the little people all around. TR—and I think he’s an underrated President, by the way, made ridiculous in large part by caricature rather than history—as part of the culture of his time, thought of bigness and pushiness and bulliness as inherently positive things. We don’t.

Or, at least, we struggle against it. It’s not easy, actually. I see it in my kids’ schools, and I see it in the university I work at, and it’s not easy. The words matter—not every time, not every word, but in the aggregate, over the generations, the words matter. As the attitudes change, the words change, and as the words change they reinforce the attitudes. We’ve stopped using bully admiringly almost everywhere, but we have one remaining idiom. It’s time to stop that one, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 29, 2013

Convection, radiation, confusion

Here’s one in what I hope will not be an ongoing series of posts wondering what the hell is going on in my Perfect Non-Reader’s science homework. See for reference The Opposite of Read. So. What’s this a picture of?


Yes, it’s a teakettle, an image dear to my heart. But the context I am about to provide you with, Gentle Reader, is that it is an image from a worksheet on heat transfer, and the Perfect non-Reader of this Tohu Bohu was asked to indicate whether it was showing convection or radiation. Within that context, then, what’s the picture showing?

Is it a picture of steam? Because that would make sense, if you figure it backwards: we want a picture of steam, so we’ll show a teakettle. The steam, though, is only a few wavy lines; the center of the picture is the kettle itself. So it’s a picture of the kettle, right?

I was trying to count and assess the heat transfers in this picture. For one, of course, there’s the heating element not shown in the picture which is transferring heat to the ceramic (probably) stovetop we do see. Then the stovetop is transferring heat to the body of the kettle. The kettle is transferring heat to the water we don’t see inside the kettle, and the water is transferring heat within itself (by convection, remember?) (Actually, the kettle is transferring heat within itself, too, and also transferring heat to the lid, which we can see is a separate piece, and I must say I hope it’s not transferring too much heat to its handle because ouch) and presumably to whatever air is in the kettle. Then the water is becoming steam, which isn’t a heat transfer as such and then the steam is rising out of the spout and transferring heat to the air surrounding. And of course we can’t really see it, but all of those things that get hot are heating the air around them (by radiation, unless I am really not helping with the homework) even if they aren’t mixing with them the way the steam is. Am I missing any?

Really, though, in terms of getting points, it’s a question of what the picture is showing, isn’t it? If it’s a picture of a teakettle, then it’s radiation, and if it’s a picture of steam, then it’s convection, right? Or am I totally misunderstanding the science—which is completely plausible, of course, but even then, I think it’s a fair question: what is it a picture of?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 5, 2013

YHB: Threat or menace?

Well, and seriously, Your Humble Blogger is not interested in the Something foolish someone wrote in a column in the Jewish Daily Forward beat. That would have to be a team effort, anyway, a team of particularly patient, strong-stomached men and women, with a sense of the long arc of history. Restricting itself to its own issues, the Interfaith Family Blog can’t quite keep up. Even the Is this פארווערטס article serious or satire? beat would be pretty grueling.

I, however, find myself wanting to point out to Gentle Readers all the column by Yoel Finkelman called Why Intermarriage Poses Threat to Jewish Life—But Gay Marriage Doesn’t. The headline is more Ferverts than Finkelman, I’m guessing, as when the writer says A Jewish same-sex family can provide a boon for the Jewish community, while an interfaith couple presents a threat, or at least a challenge. he… sorta… tempers? Yeah, he tempers the language of threat. He leaves open the possibility, let me say, that an intermarried couple might not pose a threat, which is different than explaining the threat that the intermarried couple poses. Which, of course, he doesn’t do, because we aren’t letting him in on the secret plan, ha ha.

Most of the so-called argument is just the same business of saying that synagogues should exclude interfaith couples until they start bringing their kids up in synagogues—until the people we lock out start doing some work around here, why should we let them in? And there’s also a lovely blithe assumption that the LGBT community would not require much outreach or other serious application to include; they have at least some middle-class suburban domestic values, after all. It’s not like we’d have to include working-class or urban riff-raff in our nice clean shul. No, it’s just those nice gay couples, we don’t have to make any accommodations for them. Jewish same-sex couples with children are low-hanging fruit whilst interfaith couples are just so much work.

Digression: I can’t help it. Hehehehehe he said fruit. End Digression.

But the great part of the article, I have to say, the reason I can’t just let it go the way I ought, is that Mr. Finkelman completely gives up on the moral claim against either interfaith or same-sex marriage. He writes that At one level, same-sex marriage and intermarriage present the same problem. What problem is that? The problem that it’s impossible to justify moral outrage against them; that the only possible justification for excluding them is blind traditionalism. How dare these happy couples present the problem of making it difficult to justify their exclusion on moral grounds! All is not lost, however, as Mr. Finkelman seems to feel that while morally, there is no basis for excluding either kind of couple, we should continue to discriminate against interfaith couples because inclusion in their case while morally correct would just be too damn much work.

Was it not Rabbi Tarfon who said The day is short and the work is great, and the labourers are sluggish, and frankly it’s a bit of a challenge so let’s not bother.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 31, 2013

Many Things

Can I just take a moment and voice my dislike for the many things, but not locution? I have been subjected to it twice recently, once I don’t recall where but once in the headline of the TAPPED article by Paul Waldman and Jaime Fuller: Many Things, But Not a Traitor A search turns up a bunch of other instances—

Sherlock is many things, but not a sociopath. America is many things but not fatalistic. Someone who shoots electrodes out your ear holes is many things but not loveable! Hillary is many things, but not stupid. Kanye is many things, but not someone who reaches for the middle, and I respect that wherever it’s found. Vernon is many things but not a coward. Texans should not be fooled by rhetoric describing this budget as a “good conservative budget.” It is many things, but it certainly is not that. Rustic, yet elegant, the Drummond Single Bathroom Sink Chest is many things, but not boring.

How many things do I want my bathroom vanity to be? Did someone intimate that America was only a few things? How many things is Vernon Dursley, really—more than the median fictional character is, do you think, or fewer? I am willing to believe that a person who shoots electrodes out of my earholes is at least a few things, but what things exactly? Is Sherlock really many things, or is he simply disguised as many things? Isn’t Hillary, really, a single entity, when you get down to it? And Kanye, well, Kanye. Many, many things, Kanye is. So many. He’s, um, a recording artist, and… I guess he owns some restaurants, and has a fashion line. Oh, and he’s a dad, isn’t he? Yeah, he’s a whole bunch of things all right. I’m not sure how any of that is relevant to the reaching-for-the-middle idea.

Really, that’s my complaint: why do we care how many things they all are? It doesn’t add to the persuasive power of the comment, it’s just a meaningless throat-clearer. At best it’s a kind of hedge, so you don’t have to baldly say Hillary isn’t stupid or Bradley Manning isn’t a traitor but can instead imply a balanced attitude. At best, the writer actually says what those things are. In the TAPPED article, we get that in the text:

Manning was many things—you can call him misguided, overzealous, or foolish if you like. But had the court called him a traitor, we would have entered territory we don’t want to visit.

Alas, they failed to use parallelism appropriately, and they can’t bring themselves to actually call the man a zealot or a fool, only to suggest that you might do that for them. It’s weak prose, it what it is.

The only way I can like this is if the writer does want to discuss what the subject is and is not, and then it only really works when you are insulting the thing that the subject is trying to be: Barry Zito is many things—philanthropist, guitarist, surfer, yogi, zen meditator, firearms enthusiast, born-again Christian—but he is no pitcher.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 5, 2013

Look, Behind You!

What do you look like from behind? Right now, in whatever outfit you are wearing?

See, now you’re all nervous and stuff.

For some reason, the last few months, I keep looking at people and thinking that they must not know what they look like from behind. And of course, I don’t myself—oh, more or less, as my outfits are mostly very similar, one to another, and not very close-fitting. But if the back of a particular waistcoat doesn’t match the trousers I have on, I wouldn’t know, and it’s likely no-one would bother telling me (yes, my Best Reader would, if she noticed, but alas my bad habit of tardiness means that I am generally the last one out of the house and often throwing the last of the garments on at that moment, so she has no opportunities to walk behind me until she drops me at my office curb). I am always startled to see how grey I have become back there, and I have worn hats for two or three seasons without knowing how the back part looks.

I’m not worried about it. Those seem like minor things to me. I’m more worried about my hair sticking up in the front, which of course I can see in the mirror, when I don’t forget to look.

I think the reason it’s been on my mind is this dreadful fashion trend of the mullet skirts—have you been seeing them? Short in the front and long in the back? Boy howdy do they look dopey to me. I mean, kids these days. The first few I saw in the spring were extreme cases, a good eight inches above the knee in the front and shoe-level in the back, and I wanted to tap her on the shoulder and ask if she knew about it—are you aware the back of your skirt doesn’t match the front? I have asked some young women, and some like them and some don’t, but those are the skirts and dresses available in the stores these days, evidently, and that’s how it is. I can’t imagine that if they all knew how they looked from behind they would be so popular, but then presumably they are all seeing each other from behind at various points, so it’s just fashion.

It’s not just the skirts, of course. When I was a teenager, the visible bra strap was an embarrassing accident, and now it isn’t. I am OK with that, I suppose, although I don’t think that the look of the strap has improved as much as it ought to have if it is going to show. But when the back part of the brassiere shows—in those shirts that are open in the back, or the other ones that are mesh or lace in the back—that look really bizarre. I mean, I get that it’s revealing, but the actual clasp part is all bumpy and whatnot, and often there’s a little tag sticking out, and it just ain’t on. And I look at them and think is this a deliberate choice, or do they have no idea what they look like from behind?

Guys, too, suffer from this, although I’m afraid with college age fellows the issue is more likely a stain or torn bit on the back of the tee shirt. The fashion for street-dragging jean bottoms has more or less ended, so I’m not seeing idiots trailed by denim fringe and cigarette butts anymore, thank goodness. Among older men there’s the thing where the necktie peeks out from the collar at the back; I hate that.

And the thing is that most of us now have the technology at home to actually see what we look like from behind before we go out into the wide world. The thing where I set my phone down, walk away, turn around and snap a picture? There’s bound to be an app for that. In fact, I can use video to see if there’s anything that slips or wiggles in an unfortunate manner. My laptop will do it without a specialized app. Do I take the time to do it? I do not. Nor anybody else.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 21, 2013

Run, run, run, run, run run run away

Your Humble Blogger has been playing a lot of Temple Run 2 lately. I don’t actually enjoy it as much as I did Temple Run, but I play it a lot more. Because, I think, it’s harder and the rewards come slower. And I still want those rewards.

A fellow named Tevis Thompson wrote about The Endless Shopper on Grantland about a month ago (I’m a little behindhand on my blogging), and it’s a pretty good article. About Temple Run, anyway—I don’t play the other ones. I particularly took the point that the game is designed to make your scores improve (and your games last longer) whether you get better at the game play or not. You can’t help achieving the early objectives, and even most of the later objectives are simply a matter of continuing to play, rather than doing anything you would not otherwise do. So your multiplier increases, and your scores increase. If you buy anything with the coins you almost can’t help collecting, your gameplay improves—as Mr. Thompson says, even if you never actually got much better and your scores go up some more. You feel like you are improving, but are you?

This became more obvious to me recently, as I have achieved (almost) all the objectives and have purchased (almost) everything there is to purchase. I’ll talk about the exceptions in a bit, but my point at the moment is that there I have stopped improving my game play through upgrades and objectives, and the game has become dull. Of course, I have played the game five hundred times, so perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect it to stay interesting. Still, I have pretty much run myself out of the endless runner.

I find the whole current economy of video games perplexing and disorienting, as it happens. I understand it, but it doesn’t feel right: you can play the game for free, but it takes money to win. That’s not entirely accurate, of course, but the general idea is there.

When it works, for me, in gameplay, it works as part of a multiple-layer MFQ strategy, perhaps with a variety of kinds of victories available. Or in a game with system that compels the player has to balance goals within a run—in a launch game, for instance, you may need to level up by achieving height benchmarks, but gain money by long-distance launches, and also have power-ups valuable for later launches that are more frequently found higher, or lower, or close or further away. In system like that, even if it is well-designed (and some of them are), you could find yourself in need of half-a-dozen launches’ worth of pure money-grubbing, and the ability to save yourself the effort by spending an actual buck or two doesn’t detract from the game. I don’t spend the dollar, but I don’t mind that it’s an option. It doesn’t unbalance the game.

For that to work, though, there has to be a really delicate balance of goals. In Buster Bash, for instance, it doesn’t work at all—it seems like it ought to work, but it doesn’t. In that game, you are essentially trying to hit as many home runs as you can, and hit them as far as you can, while along the way collecting sunflower seeds for hitting targets. The sunflower seeds can be exchanged for equipment that will help you hit the ball farther and more accurately, which of course helps you with both goals as well as helping you replenish your seeds. But I simply can’t collect enough sunflower seeds to trade in for whatever it is will help me bash the ball further. I could buy them, and not for very much money, either, but I am not going to. I’m just going to stop playing.

Fruit Ninja, on the other hand, seems to be two different games: a free one and a paid one. I haven’t played the paid one, so I don’t know how it is, but the free one is pretty much a solid free game. You can in theory pay for stuff, but there isn’t any point to it; there’s nothing to achieve that the starfruit currency will get for you. So when I play (not often) I don’t generally even think about the possibility of paying.

Which is the issue, really. From my perspective, I don’t want to think about the possibility of in-game purchases at all. I’m not going to make any, and the more I have to think about them, the less I am going to enjoy the game. From the game company’s perspective, of course, they want players to think about in-game purchases a lot. And if that makes the game less enjoyable for me, well, I’m not giving them any money, now, am I? That’s a bit harsh—all else being equal, they would rather I enjoy the free game, as my word of mouth (or blog or whatever) is potentially helpful. But the game is for people who make the purchases, and that’s got to be their priority. And I’m never going to be that person.

Where does that leave me? On level 8, with only two objectives left: one million coins, and ten million meters. Another five hundred games to achieve those, I’m thinking, and having said that, it makes me want to find some other game to play.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 26, 2013

Pinning the Tail

Your Humble Blogger didn’t watch the Oscars. I didn’t have a bet on it, and there wasn’t anybody I was particularly rooting for or against, and my Best Reader and I are working our way through the Tenth Doctor episodes. Plus, I’m old. I am not the demographic they are looking for.

This was particularly driven home to me when I heard about the “We Saw Your Boobs” song. Evidently—y’all can correct me on this—as part of a segment that was more-or-less terrible things that Seth MacFarlane ought not do as host of the Oscars (which of course gives him an out) Mr. MacFarlane sang a ditty about all the Oscar-nominated actresses who have appeared topless in movies. It was, in fact, a terrible thing to do, and Mr. McFarlane did it. If you want to read commentary, Amy Davidson’s Seth MacFarlane and the Oscars’ Hostile, Ugly, Sexist Night is a good one, as are Allison Wright’s These Things Are Not Okay and Margaret Lyons’ Why Seth MacFarlane’s Misogyny Matters.

Anyway, I didn’t see the thing. So why am I writing about it? After all, it’s not like I’m going to add anything useful to the commentary that’s out there. Well, except that none of the commentary I have seen mentions that the tune for the song was the we figured it out portion of “Seven and a Half Cents” which (as Mr. MacFarlane knows) is from The Pajama Game, a show in which workplace harassment plays no small part. Worth pointing out, I think. But other than that, why would I write about it?

The answer, Gentle Reader, is that I am not writing about it. I’m writing about Queen Vashti.

The Oscars began on Purim local time, you know. And I was at a purimspiel the night before, hearing the annual travesty of the book of Esther when something occurred to me about Vashti. Purim morning, reading the internet, I learned a midrash about Vashti that I hadn’t known before. And I was kinda sorta thinking about writing those two things up, and I had decided that I wouldn’t bother. And then Seth MacFarlane sang about Scarlett Johansson’s boobs, and… well, I feel I should write about Vashti.

Hm. I don’t know whether non-Jews know about Vashti at all. I know the Esther story comes up a lot in some Fundamentalist circles, but I assume that there’s a good deal of editing involved… anyway, the story starts with King Ahasuerus (gesundheit) at a feast, his heart being merry with wine, asking his chamberlains

(1:11) To bring Vashti the queen before the king with the crown royal, to shew the people and the princes her beauty: for she [was] fair to look on. (1:12) But the queen Vashti refused to come at the king's commandment by [his] chamberlains: therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him.

He seeks advice from the kings and princes:

(1:16 )And Memucan answered before the king and the princes, Vashti the queen hath not done wrong to the king only, but also to all the princes, and to all the people that [are] in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus. (1:17)For [this] deed of the queen shall come abroad unto all women, so that they shall despise their husbands in their eyes, when it shall be reported, The king Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not. (1:18) [Likewise] shall the ladies of Persia and Media say this day unto all the king's princes, which have heard of the deed of the queen. Thus [shall there arise] too much contempt and wrath. (1:19) If it please the king, let there go a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, That Vashti come no more before king Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal estate unto another that is better than she. (1:20) And when the king's decree which he shall make shall be published throughout all his empire, (for it is great,) all the wives shall give to their husbands honour, both to great and small. (1:21) And the saying pleased the king and the princes; and the king did according to the word of Memucan: (1:22) For he sent letters into all the king's provinces, into every province according to the writing thereof, and to every people after their language, that every man should bear rule in his own house, and that [it] should be published according to the language of every people.

So. Vashti is commanded to show her beauty. She refuses and is banished, which leaves a vacancy for Esther to step into, and then the story begins. Vashti disappears from the story and is never heard from again. That’s all we actually know about her from the Scripture.

Of course, that’s not enough, so the everybody elaborates over the ages. First of all, it’s made clear that Vashti was commanded to appear wearing the royal crown and nothing else. In fact—and plausibly enough for Persia at the time—the Queen was being required to dance naked for the King’s royal guests, and possibly more than that. This indicates the licentiousness of the court, of course, although why we need sexual licentiousness to indicate the degeneracy of a court that has wine in golden goblets for 187 days of feasting is an interesting question in itself. Still and all, that’s the command, and it is understood, then, to be demeaning and disrespectful. Yes?

But that’s not enough. Because the Sages of blessed memory don’t like Vashti, and want (unsurprisingly, when you think about it) to set up Esther and her virtue in contrast to Vashti and her (nontextual) vice. But if Vashti is, as the Sages say, a whore, then why did she not come to service the King’s guests? And this is where the thing I had never learned comes into play: because of her tail.

Her tail?

Yes, her tail. Rabbi Josh Waxman of Parshablog writes in How did Vashti grow a tail? about the evidently well-known commentary in Megillah 12B

“Vashti the queen refused”—let us see [why]. She was a whore! For Master said: both of them (Vashti and Achashverosh) intended to sin. If so, for what reason did she not come? Rabbi Rossi bar Chanina said: This teaches that she developed an outbreak of leprosy. In a brayta they teach that (the angel) Gavriel came and fashioned for her a tail.

This tail serves two purposes: first, it brings into the story Divine action that is otherwise quite conspicuously absent throughout. But also, it humiliates Vashti, taking away her sexual power, which is the only power she is allowed by the Sages of blessed memory. That power is viewed wholly negatively, of course, so she receives all the blame of being a whore, and the humiliation of being a freakish failure at it. Frankly, there are times when I’m not very fond of the Sages of blessed memory.

But here’s the point: I just learned about Vashti’s tail this week. I wasn’t taught that as a kid. I was taught that Vashti was proud and haughty, but not that she was a whore with a tail. And my kids? My kids are being taught that Vashti is a role model. A secondary heroine of the story. The purimspiel every year at Temple Beth Bolshoi gives her a whole song to express how her self-respect demands that she leave the King and his contemptible demands. My kids are being taught that the proper response to Show us your boobs is not shame but self-respect, along with contempt for the jerks who demand it. I was struck, during that purimspiel, but how much our reactions to Vashti change along with the world. How much Vashti changes. How much I have changed.

Now, I still have to admit: I like boobies. I am extremely susceptible thereto. As Mr. MacFarlane brings out, even in serious movies a flash of boobies will focus my degenerate mind on the flesh rather than the substance. I watched the first episode of Game of Thrones the other night and found it unpleasant mostly because it successfully caught me in its nasty voyeuristic boobie games. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean it was bad filmmaking, or that the actresses are worthy of contempt. Given the cultural context, exposure as vulnerability can be tremendously effective.

Furthermore, in situations where the flashing of boobies is entirely voluntary and fun, I’m all for it. I don’t think changing our views to disallow Vashti the flaunting of her boobies (or her shoulders) is a solution at all. The point is that it’s Vashti’s choice. She should never feel compelled to strip at her husband’s command, even when her husband is the king. She should strip when she wants to strip, and gain whatever benefits accrue to herself, whether that is the acclaim of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences or the Super Bowl halftime show or just a fun night at home with the sweetie.

And—remember Memucan the Prince of Persia? His point was that we tend to pattern ourselves after the rich and famous. And we do. When the host of the Oscars makes dismissive boobie jokes about actresses, that's a pattern for us to match. When Ahasuerus demands that his wife show her beauty to his buddies, that's a pattern for us to match. We shouldn't do it as much as we do, but we do. And (as the estimable E.J. Graff writes in Social Climate Change) to raise our children (and ourselves) healthily, we need to swim in unpoisoned cultural water, and that ain't easy.

It means, among other things, giving Vashti her own song in the purimspiel. It means, among other things, saying that Seth MacFarlane is, like the Sages of blessed memory, trying to pin tails on women that do not have them. It means, among other things, telling actors—men and women—that they can reveal themselves and their bodies in their work as they choose, with our respect.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 12, 2012

The Double Switch

Can someone explain to me about the double switch?

In baseball. The double-switch in baseball. When the manager changes pitchers and simultaneously changes a defensive position, so that the new pitcher comes in to a different spot in the batting order, and the new defender comes in to the batting order where the pitcher was. The idea of it, as far as I can tell, is that the manager wants to replace a pitcher is up next (or next inning) with a relief pitcher who he expects to want to keep in to pitch the following inning, and wants to avoid pinch-hitting for him. Given the way the game is currently played, it seems to me this should be rare.

  • It takes a starter out of the game. Sure, sometimes, you want this. In the last inning of a close game, or a game that has become close, you may want to get your aging shortstop out and your slick-fielding light-hitting young shortstop in. Of course, if that’s the switch, you are guaranteeing that the slick-fielding light-hitting young shortstop will be up next inning (in what was the pitcher’s spot), so there’s that. It kinda defeats the purpose. If you are going to be bunting with the guy anyway, why not just let the pitcher bat?
  • If there’s a rally the next half-inning, of course, the pitcher’s spot may come up anyway. If it does, there will probably be men on, and there’ll be another pinch-hitter gone as well as the pitcher you wanted to keep in. You could figure out some odds, based on the OBP of the batters, how many batters would be needed, and on the pitcher you think they will be facing, so you would have some sort of if the chances of the new pitcher’s spot coming up are more than X formulation, but it wouldn’t be very accurate. My feeling, though, is that the double-switch is pulled in anticipation (or at least hope) of some offensive production.
  • Most teams have umpty-’leven relief pitchers now, anyway, and no actual mop-up man. As far as I can tell, most of those guys are capable of pitching against a few batters two days in a row, or three days out of five, or whatever. Managers don’t seem all that concerned about saving the bullpen anymore. That’s not a bad thing (although The Book on how to use relief pitchers is seriously sub-optimal) but it does mean that it shouldn’t be that much of a problem to just bring in your guy, get your out, and then pinch hit for him in the next inning and bring in someone else.
  • Most of all, it burns a bench player for little reason. When the new pitcher’s spot comes around, you are going to pinch-hit for him, and you have one fewer choice on the bench to do it with, because you put the one guy in already. If you only have five guys on the bench, and one of them is your emergency catcher, it seems like that’s a resource you want to conserve.

Let’s take an example, shall we? You yank the pitcher and do a double-switch. In your half of the inning, it’ll be your 6-7-8 hitters, so you pull your cleanup hitter and put your pitcher in the 4 slot, and the back-up guy in your 9-slot. The next inning, you go through an extra batter—success!—so following your relief pitcher getting another three outs, you start with your 1-2-3 guys. But your 1-2-3 guys can hit (hypothetical), so the pitcher’s spot comes up with men on base, and you need to pinch-hit. Which you do. You now have one position player and two pitchers out of the game. At the end of the inning, though, you will need to put another pitcher in, so you now have two position players and two pitchers out of the game. You may have some choice about who is coming out, now, depending on what positions your pinch-hitter can play, but either way, you have gone through two position players and two pitchers by the end of the inning.

If, on the other hand, you had not pulled your cleanup hitter, but instead kept your relief pitcher in the 9-slot, you would have had to pinch-hit in the bottom of the inning, and then put your new relief pitcher in the 9-slot again. Now, in your next time at bat, when the 4-slot comes up and you have men on base, guess what? You have your clean-up hitter hitting cleanup. Amazing! At the end of that inning, you have burned through two pitchers and one position player. Your second relief pitcher has pitched a full inning, but is able to keep pitching if you want him to.

So if you have a mop-up guy that you want to have in for more than one inning, it seems like the double-switch is the wrong way to go about it. And in general, with the way rosters are set up and the way relief pitchers are used, I would think that it would be better to use up an extra relief pitcher than an extra position player. Right?

The reason I am asking here is that Bruce Bochy, manager of my San Francisco Giants, loves the double switch. He seems to be disappointed if he ever has to pull the pitcher without pulling another player as well. Yesterday, Tim Lincecum was getting shelled, and had to be pulled in the third inning, and he switched out the clean-up hitter. Eight batters later, he had to pinch-hit in the 4-slot. In the fifth, he switched back to put the pitcher in the 9-spot. In the seventh inning, that spot came up and he pinch-hit; at the end of that inning, he left the pinch-hitter in to put the pitcher in the 2-slot, which made no sense to me at all, as the 2-slot was coming up the next inning, and when it did, he pinch-hit, of course. He pinch-hit with the last guy on the bench, our starting catcher who had been given the day off because he had been diagnosed with shingles. We were down by eight runs, at that point, and it was the eighth inning. Had we somehow scored a bunch of runs in that inning, we could easily have been in the position of having to have a relief pitcher bat in the ninth with the tying run on base.

That was an absurd situation, in an absurd game. We didn’t lose that one because of the double-switch, and really, at the time of the first double-switch we had a win expectancy of 3%, so it seems silly to complain about managerial moves at that point. But Mr. Bochy uses the double switch a lot, and while I do get the sense that other managers don’t use it quite that much, it seems to me that it happens far more than it should.

Or, at least as likely, I am missing something. Am I missing something?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 17, 2012

Worse than that

It’s not Your Humble Blogger’s job to complain about David Brooks. I haven’t come up with a justification for the existence of this Tohu Bohu, but whatever it is, complaining about David Brooks is not it.

Digression: I met David Brooks once, if by met you include directed to the elevator, and if by directed to the elevator you actually mean was standing nearby when a co-worker directed to the elevator. Is there a word for that? I suppose something like I saw David Brooks once in real life, although that might imply that I had attended a talk or something. I think I would use something like I saw him on the street, although it was not, in fact, in the street, but it does give the right idea, I think, of the nature of the contact. End Digression.

If it were my job to complain about David Brooks, my work would never be complete, but on the other hand I would probably have to read his stuff and what’s worse, watch and listen to the man. Yich.

I did, however, read yesterday’s column on The Jeremy Lin Problem, for which I blame Charlie Pierce. I don’t blame Mr. Pierce for the column, I mean, but for drawing my attention to it. I found it hard to believe that Mr. Pierce had pulled actual quotes from an actual column, and I went to check, and the thing was worse than that. I know, I know, the answer to how bad was David Brooks’ column this time is almost always worse than that, but still. Boggles the mind.

You see, Mr. Brooks has written a column about the anomaly (as he puts it) of the religious person in professional sports. Not that he is claiming that most professional athletes are irreligious. No, when he says it’s an anomaly, he means that he feels that the religious life is fundamentally incompatible with professional sports. Why? An excellent question. You might, for instance, think that the hours of training, practice and travel would prevent attention to the study, contemplation and good deeds that mark the religious life. Nah, that’s not it. Or that the temptations of the athlete—money, groupies, gambling, swearing, Sabbath-breaking—would harden a person’s soul. Nah, that’s not it, either. No, it’s that The moral ethos of sport is in tension with the moral ethos of faith, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim.

Another Digression: Do you think he made a deliberate choice to diss Hindus and Sikhs? I understand the desire for triples, and you don’t really want make a huge list with Buddhism, the Confucian thing, Neopaganism, Shinto, Santeria, Jainism, whatever, but come on. If you are talking about the moral ethos of faith and want to abstract it from the particular faith of any actual individual persons, then (a) you are almost certainly wrong about whatever you are saying, and (2) you can’t start listing faiths and then stop without giving the impression that you think you have made a complete list. This whole Jewish, Christian and Muslim thing (which seems to have replaced the Judeo-Christian thing) is insulting to, well, everybody. End Digression.

Mr. Brooks claims that The religious ethos is about redemption, self-abnegation and surrender to God and contrasts that with the sports ethos of victory and supremacy. The primary virtue of the athlete is courage; the primary virtue of religion is humility. Now, I know less than nothing about the ethos of professional sports. And, frankly, I don’t care that much. I love baseball, I am hugely, hugely excited that pitchers and catchers will be reporting this weekend for Spring Training, and I really want to see if Buster Posey is in shape. But I am not terribly interested in his internal struggle to reconcile his religious life and his professional life. Well, I am more interested to know about Buster Posey’s internal struggle than about David Brooks’ internal struggle, or Jack Welch’s, or Dean Kamen’s. Actually, Dean Kamen’s internal struggle might be interesting, if he has, in fact, experienced such a struggle. Anyway.

The real reason I am writing about this is that Mr. Brooks takes it as a given that his view of religion is the view of religion, and that view of religion puts pride first. Well, putting pride first rang a bell for YHB—if it didn’t ring a bell for you, Gentle Reader, it’s because I haven’t been talking enough about Judith Shklar and her essay Putting Cruelty First, as well as the rest of the book of Ordinary Vices. Ms. Shklar draws a distinction between those for whom cruelty is the worst of all evils and those that see cruelty as a sin, but see the worst of all sins as pride. Then the question is whether the first of virtues is humility (as the opposite of pride) or valour (as the opposite of cruelty). Mr. Brooks calls it courage, because Mr. Brooks is an idiot.

Now, I disagree with Judith Shklar’s statement that putting cruelty first does place one unalterably outside the sphere of revealed religion, although I am not entirely sure what she means by revealed in this context. Cruelty is, of necessity, an action of this world against a creature of this world. One cannot be cruel to the Divine, she implies, and that’s where I think she goes wrong. Those traditions that emphasize the Creator in the Created , those (which I think include mainstream Christianity) which emphasize the Divine spark in us all, those which look to the Divine within animals and people, those traditions should see cruelty as an act against the Divine. As do many Jewish writers. Not a majority, but quite a few. Enough for me to be convinced that there isn’t a divide between religion/pride on one side and secular/cruelty on the other. Of course, I think that I do put cruelty first, and I think that I do remain in the sphere of revealed religion, so naturally I think there’s an overlap there.

Still, the distinction she makes is incredibly valuable, and it’s a distinction that has guided a great deal of my thinking over the last several years. It’s worth thinking about whether you put your priority on preventing and ameliorating cruelty, or whether you put your priority on preventing and punishing pride. That priority comes out in all kinds of ways, in policy preferences and in domestic life, in the workplace and the career, in art and music and theater and so on and so forth. It’s a Big Deal. And it’s much more of a big deal to explore the repercussions of those choices than to say that humility is somehow the central ethos of religion. Even if you entirely agree with Ms. Shklar, it is to say that pride is the sin from which the other sins derive, that pride is rejecting the Divine Will for your own will. To go from there to a claim that self-abnegation is the central teaching of religion-in-general is, well, Brooksian in the extreme.

This whole column, though, reads to YHB as if David Brooks read the old Jeremy Lin interview, and connected it with a dim memory of an essay he once read about something to do with humility and religion on the one hand and liberals and valour on the other. Since he couldn’t remember much about it, he just put professional athletes (who are probably liberals, being elite and urban and so on, right) on the other side. Maybe it was an essay by the Rav? Maybe he has an intern to look through his collection find it, or at least pull a couple of irrelevant quotes to use. OK, that’s an essay. Oh, wait, does he have to know anything about Jeremy Lin? Or professional sports? Or any sports? Or religion? Or humility?

No? Whew.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 16, 2012

Oh, no, it's Tetrisweeper!

So. The problem with Tetrisweeper, which I am not linking to because it’s terribly addictive and bad, is that Tetris and Minesweeper are totally different kinds of games.

Minesweeper: one false move and you’re dead. Which, you know, is in keeping with the whole Devil-Bunny-needs-a-ham backstory of the game. If you click on a bomb, the game is over. There’s one solution—finding all the bombs—and you either find it or you don’t. There’s a time element, too, in that you are attempting to solve the layout as quickly as possible, and you can keep track of your best times, but really, it’s a win or lose game. And it’s quick enough that if you lose, you haven’t lost much. It’s different from actual landmines in that way. In the video game, it’s click-click-click-click-lose. Click-click-click-click-click-click-lose. Click-lose. Click-click-click-click-click-click-click-click-click-click-click-click-win! That’s how the game is designed, and that’s how it works.

Tetris, on the other hand, once you get fairly good at it, is a long game where you can recover from a few mistakes. In fact, the definition of being good at Tetris might as well be that you can recover from a few mistakes. And that you spend a lot of time playing low enough down on the board that mistakes aren’t instantly fatal. To the extent that there is strategy in Tetris (and I claim there is), it deals mostly with (a) setting yourself up so that you will have so many good places to put the pieces that you won’t make mistakes, and (2) setting yourself up so that if you do drop a piece in the wrong place you can recover from it. Of course, eventually you will lose because of a mistake, but it won’t always happen immediately upon making the mistake. Usually it will be a succession of mistakes. One mistake makes another mistake worse. So it’s tap-tap-tap-tap-mistake-tap-tap-tap-tap-fixed-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-mistake-tap-tap-tap-tap-fixed-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-mistake-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-mistake-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-mistake-tap-tap-mistake-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-mistake-tap-mistake-lose.

So. This difference of recoverability is connected, of course, to the fact that in Tetris, the point of the game is not to win—you can’t win—but to postpone losing. In Minesweeper, the point is to win as quickly as possible; in Tetris, the point is to lose as slowly as possible. There are plenty of good game of both kinds, and Tetris is among the best at the postpone-the-loss kinds of games (such as Bejeweled, and Collapse, and so on and so forth). Minesweeper is, well, a perfectly good game of the other kind.

So the problem with Tetrisweeper, then, is that being half Minesweeper, one wrong move and you’re dead. But being half Tetris, you cannot win. You are postponing the end of the game as long as possible, but that end is a sudden end brought about by a single click. Doing well for a while does not give you breathing space, as it does in Tetris and similar games. Your game will end with a (game-ending) mistake. And you are always, for however long you postpone the inevitable, just one click away from the Game Over screen. This, I think, makes for an unpleasantly and unnecessarily tense game without the satisfaction of doing well at either.

Alas, I cannot stop playing it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 30, 2012

Politi-fun! Politi-fancy! Politi-flame!

Your Humble Blogger has been meaning to write something about this Politifact business. For those Gentle Readers who don't frequent Left Blogovia or scour the web for political misinformation, Politifact is a web site set up by the Tampa Bay Times to grade the truthfulness of politicians and pundits. Left Blogovia has been hating on them recently because (first) they chose as their Big Lie of 2011 the claim in a DNCC ad (and elsewhere) that Republicans voted to end Medicare, and (B) they graded Our Only President's SotU claim that In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than 3 million jobs first as half-true and then as mostly-true.

First, there's this: Politifact's ratings stink.

There is, however, some useful or at least informative stuff in the articles that accompany the ratings. If you were to read the article about the SotU claim, for instance, you would find the information that “During that 22-month period, the number of jobs grew by almost 3.16 million”. Sure, if you just look at the meter, you would think that the statement was only mostly-true, but if you read the article, you would find out the actual number. So that's all right, Gentle Reader.

And furthermore, they did the exact same thing when they fact-checked Mitt Romney's ad about Rick Perry's record as Governor of Texas—he said that there were a million Texans out of work, that the unemployment rate was the highest in twenty years, and that unemployment doubled, and they called it half-true, despite all three of those statements being entirely accurate. Again, if you read the article, they will tell you that the ad is accurate; if you don't, you won't find that information out.

So I don't think that the problem is entirely a structural bias against Democrats. That argument is somewhat persuasive—in order to maintain an image of non-partisan disinterest, they avoid having a massive imbalance of lies on their site, and since there actually is a massive imbalance of lies, they are compelled to make up lies on the other side of the scale. There may be some of that, and I do think that they probably were concerned that giving the Big Lie to a liar from the Other Party for the nth consecutive year would have been awkward. But I think the structural bias is actually to keep the truth-o-meter needle away from the bright green. After all, if politicians largely tell the truth, there's no need for Politifact. If you go looking for lies and you are willing to include half-truths, omissions, exaggerations and ungrounded implications, you will find them. And you will convince yourself, and possibly others, that you are doing a great service, because there are so many to find. So having decided that any politician taking credit for anything that happened while he was in office is telling a half-truth, they can happily post that truth-o-meter over and over again—and the actual data is in the article, so they are conveying all the right information. Right?

The question, then, is what possible service Politifact is engaged in. I mean, their page simply states that they “help you find the truth in politics”, as if that was obviously sufficient. You want to find the truth in politics, don't you? So Politifact is here to help.

Only—why is it important that people know the truth in politics? Is it, for instance, that people need a certain amount of accurate information to be free and self-governing? Is it that people mean less if the elected officials do not do what they promised as candidates? Is it that power cannot be checked if its use is secret? What's actually going on?

I believe that the Politifact project was started as an attempt to shame politicians into telling fewer lies. That's my guess; I don't know for sure. The project creates negative consequences for lying, which should mean that politicians will only tell lies if the gain is greater than the loss, and the higher you can make the loss, the fewer lies. I think that's the idea, and it's not a stupid idea in the first place. I don't think it works for a variety of reasons (mostly that politicians can delegate the outright lies to surrogates in the media who actually reach a lot more people than the politicians do) but as an idea, it makes sense.

I'm not sure they see, though, that having an expansive view of lying, which is exactly what is going on with their truth-o-meter, works directly against that purpose. If your meter only comes up orange when I give a completely accurate statistical statement, then why would I bother? I'm not going to get a green anyway, and frankly everybody around me is constantly getting oranges and reds and flamey-wameys without experiencing any real retribution, so seriously, what do I care if your truth-o-meter will call my statement half-true or mostly-true? I mean, Mitch Daniels got flamey-wameys for saying that nearly half of all persons under 30 in this country didn't go to work last Tuesday, when the statement was completely accurate, if utterly irrelevant. Of course, you would know that it was accurate if you skipped the truth-o-meter and read the article. So that's all right.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 25, 2011

More Snarky Descriptivism

Your Humble Blogger has written before about being a snarky descriptivist; in general, I grew up a stickler (essentially an assertionist, except that my assertions were backed by such authorities as Edwin Newman, William Safire and my mother) but have been eschewing prescriptivism since my early twenties. The stickler lies close to the surface, though; an actual error in language use (or punctuation or so on) often provokes gleeful scorn on my part before by better angel reminds me (of Lex Hartmania if nothing else).

Still, the point of being a descriptivist is this: the language people actually speak (and write and text) trumps the rules in books (and web sites). This means that if I screw up the language people actually speak, I is wrong, or at least wrong for my context (which is a complicated issue indeed, but somehow intuitively gettable). It also means that awareness of audience is of primary importance, which I think is an excellent rule for communication anyway. If you are writing to a stodgy person, stodge away. If you are writing for a hep person, put some hep in your step. If you are writing for a niche audience, make sure to put in lots of identifiers that your readers are in the Inner Ring, and if you are writing for a wide audience, make sure to avoid obscurity. If, as Maimonides says, the Divine speaks to us (through Scripture) in the language of humans, how much more so do we speak to each other in the language of humans, not the language of rulebooks.

That said, this has been bugging me for several days now. Quisling is just not a verb. It just isn’t. It’s not. You cannot quisle someone. You cannot be quisled. I mean, it’s wrong to be a quisling, much more seriously wrong, but it’s wrong to say that someone is in the act of quisling someone else. I don’t care who used it or is using it or how often, it’s just wrong.

Frankly, if you absolutely had to verb the thing, I would prefer keeping the ing: He decided to quisling his start-up partners and retire; The CEO was quislinged by the CFO; The board members were all quislinging as hard as they could. Those are all terrible, yes, but less slate-scratchingly terrible than their ing-less counterparts.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 20, 2011

I think the penguins are supposed to be white.

I just want to say that I think it’s possible that people would find it helpful, in gaining insight into the whole diversity issue, to watch a video of an animated peacock in a land of animated penguins. I am not dismissing it out of hand.

On the face of it, though—doesn’t it sound fundamentally designed to confirm the prejudice of us privileged that the issue is not, at heart, a serious one? And that we don’t need to take it seriously?

Again: it’s possible that animation, animals and allegory are more effective than a more realistic treatment could be. Gentle Readers know I am not much for realism or naturalism, either. Rhetoric and teaching could use a little less of that sort of thing, probably. I might not start with diversity training, though.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 2, 2011

The Old Perfessor, I mean, ranting crazy man

May I just for a moment or two rant about how much I hate the word professional?

I don’t hate it universally and in every context. The distinction between professional and amateur athletes, for instance, is worth making, even if the borderline is, shall I say, a bit fraught. It remains a useful word in that context, or in other contexts where it clarifies the distinction between the fellow who wah-wahs a trombone for the amusement of his family and friends, and the fellow who supports himself on his embouchure. Which isn’t easy, I am aware. No, it’s really professionalism that drives me up the wall, and in that context, what is professional and what ain’t, among people who are all really working for a living.

The whole idea of the professions, from the beginning, is one that we Americans should have rejected with revulsion. The professions (and there are only four: the law, the church, the military and medicine) are those things that the sons of gentlemen can do to make a living without shaming their families. Trade, obviously, is Right Out. Being a landlord isn’t Trade, of course, so long as the land belonged to your great-grandfather, nor is it Trade to invest the capital in a Limited Company for import and export. Nor, of course, is the sale of natural resources Trade. No, if you aren’t at a shop, you can still dine with Society, if Society finds your blood sufficiently aged. In America, however, we are a democratic society of levelers, and are notorious for failing to make the all-important social distinction between grubby tradesmen who run import-export companies and gentlemen who wisely invest their capital, in import-export companies run by grubby tradesmen. Also, Jews.

But instead of rejecting the idea of the professions with the mockery and scorn it deserves, we used our democratic leveling for evil, first simply calling a bunch of things professions that aren’t, and then by just using profession, professional and professionalism to widely describe… well, to describe almost anything. At its best, the norms of the workplace, I suppose, which of course vary not just from field to field but from place to place. At its worst, the bad norms of the workplace, the whims of the supervisors and the power of the employer over the employed, and the prejudices, stigmas and strictures of the society the employers keep. If an employer just doesn’t feel that an receptionist is sufficiently professional at the desk, is it because she’s fat? has dark skin? gray hair? is confined to a wheelchair? Nothing actionable, of course, nothing that would stand up in a court of law, certainly not discrimination based on any of those protected categories. If a veteran with PTSD is insufficiently professional to heft boxes for a delivery company, it’s not because of his medical condition, or his scars, or anything of that kind—it’s just about professionalism. Not that the situation is always that dire… but I’m sure that supervisors often don’t actually know exactly why an employee appears unprofessional, and supervisors are swimming in the same water as everyone else, right?

I am ranting about this now, as it happens, because the edict came down that people in the circulation department must not eat at their desks because it doesn’t look professional. I’m not ranting about the rule—it’s a perfectly reasonable rule, like the rule about eating whilst in costume, and for much the same reason. Of course, we allow food and drink in the stacks, so protecting books from crumbs is clearly secondary to the comfort of our patrons, but on the other hand, there is a lounge provided for the comfort of us on the staff, so it’s a reasonable trade-off. No, the rule qua rule is one I support (and am even willing to follow, so long as my tea is exempted). But when the explanation is that it is unprofessional, I see red.

My employer made the choice to hire part-time workers without specialized degrees, and that’s a fine choice from my point of view, but it is very specifically an unprofessional choice. They aren’t paying us what they would pay a professional, they aren’t giving us the benefits that they would give a professional, and they aren’t treating us with the kind of respect that might be implied by thinking we were professional. No, they don’t mean to imply that professionalism might include any responsibility on their part. No, it is entirely our responsibility to be as professional as possible by doing whatever we are told and not complaining. That’s the true professional relationship, isn’t it?

Look—I know this was just an off-hand comment from a perfectly good boss. It’s not worth ranting over. It’s just one of those things that people say. The thing is that I have heard that sort of thing a lot of times from a lot of bosses, not all of them perfectly good bosses. And I do really think that this rhetoric of professionalism gets applied to wage slaves and exploited workers, and that it is harmful to them, and to the social norms between employers and employees, and to the whole power relationships of employment that I think are seriously out of balance in this country. I know that ranting about the rhetoric of well-meaning bosses isn’t going to fix the problem. I suspect that even changing the rhetoric of well-meaning bosses wouldn’t do much change the balance. But oh, it makes me mad.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

June 21, 2011

Dreaming of Midsummer

Well. It’s Midsummer Day, the longest day and the shortest night.

This Tohu Bohu does not seem to have developed any traditions for the Summer Solstice. Hm. Bonfire time!

Or, I suppose, I could use this space for an annual rant about how completely wrongheaded it is to describe Midsummer Day as the quote-unquote First Day of Summer, or to use the Equinoxes to delineate the beginning, rather than the middle of their seasons. I have been told several times that today is the Official Start of Summer; those unfortunate persons were unable to direct me to the Office that made it such. Nor did Your Humble Blogger brighten their days, which are quite bright enough already, considering.

No, it’s all downhill from here, or uphill, anyway. Around again.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 4, 2011

Learning and Peaking

So. Your Humble Blogger got a brief look at Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. The thing that struck me was that—wait, I’ll go back a bit.

Stephen Sondheim has written something like twenty shows, depending on how you count. Hundreds of songs. Some of them are among the best things ever written for the theater. He is responsible for at least two major shifts in conceptualizing the musical theater in America: first with the plotless character study Company and then with the semi-operatic Sweeney Todd. Amazing, amazing stuff. Last year there was a whole series of concerts and events to celebrate the man, tied in to his eightieth birthday—New York Philharmonic at the Lincoln Center, the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall, Roundabout at Studio 54, New York City Center, the Kennedy Center, BBC Proms. A Broadway theater was named after him. He is the Great Man of the American Musical Theeyater.

And yet, it has been more than 20 years since a new show of his opened to any significant acclaim. Oh, there are people who liked Assassins and Passion and even Bounce, but the general feeling is that he peaked in 1984, and that everything after about half an hour into the second act of Sunday in the Park with George is forgettable and irrelevant, or if it is relevant, it is relevant only because it was written by the guy who also wrote Gypsy and Follies and all those great shows. When I hear the man is working on a new show, my feeling is that it will be interesting, but I doubt it will be good. I don’t expect the older Stephen Sondheim to be able to write a great show.

Which means that when I read the anecdotes, grumbles and analysis in Finishing the Hat, I’m reading the opinions of the older Stephen Sondheim, the one who I don’t expect to write a great show. And when he opines about what makes a lyric good or bad, and what is disappointing about “I Feel Pretty” or “Comedy Tonight”, is that the insights of the genius, having had time to think, or is it the insights of guy who wrote Bounce?

Which led me to a general question, about how it is possible to know less about a topic over time, even as you learn more about it. I don’t just mean that Mr. Sondheim lost his touch in some way, that (like Duke Ellington) for some reason he just lost the ability to write great songs. I would liken that to an athlete who loses his touch, is a trifle slower, recovers a little less easily, gets a little less hangtime. That doesn’t mean he knows less about the game. There are plenty of athletes who become analysts, managers, scouts, coaches, whatever, who go on learning about the game after they can no longer execute that knowledge at the top level. No, I don’t think that (f’r’ex) Duane Kuiper knows less about the game than he did when he was playing. But… will he peak? Will the opinions and analyses of Duane Kuiper in 2030 be worth less than those he gave in 2010?

The canonical example, of course, is Joe Morgan, although one does have to wonder whether he ever really had the ability to analyze, as opposed to play, the game. I don’t know. Perhaps Stephen Sondheim never really had the ability to analyze, as opposed to write, lyrics. It seems unlikely—part of the job, it seems to me, is to analyze the stuff you are writing to see if it works. Mr. Sondheim probably has more well-known cut songs (that is, songs that were cut before opening, that became well-known amongst theater aficionados despite not appearing in the show or on the cast album, and in some cases despite never being recorded by anybody at all) than anyone in the century or so of the art form. One of the joys of Finishing the Hat is reading the words to all those cut songs, as well as reading some of the earlier versions of the songs that wound up in the shows, photocopies of typewritten pages with handwritten ideas over crossed-out rejections. And, of course, lyric-writing is such a cerebral activity and he is such a cerebral lyricist that I just assume that he’s a terrific analyst.

And yet, when he writes about Irving Berlin, or W.S. Gilbert, or Lorenz Hart, or Noel Coward, or about the young Stephen Sondheim, he utterly, utterly misses it. If I were giving advice to a songwriter, anyone who might write a song in any genre, it would be to spend some time thinking about the songs, but give this book a miss. I mean, unless you are a fan, which you ought to be. In which case, obviously, dig in.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 13, 2011

Making a case

So. Libraries, of course, are different, one to another, which makes working in them interesting and fun. One difference that I have experienced, myself, is in the special displays.

There’s the open display. The librarians (or clerks or interns) have come up with a good-sized list from the collection, pulled about half from the shelves to arrange attractively on a table or two, and are hoping to catch the eye of the patron, encourage the patron to flip through the books and choose one or two to borrow. If you have done it right, after a day or two, the table is looking a trifle sparse, and you supplement from the rest of the list, continuing to do so for the duration of the display, possibly a month. The idea here is to move product, to put it crassly; get the patrons to take stuff out that they would not otherwise look at twice.

The closed display has a different purpose: it is showing off the collection. A case with books by local authors, or at an education institution, by the faculty. Or a display of some valuable old editions, or some books with pretty illustrations, or the original two dozen volumes donated by the founder. If the library is also an archive, the displays may be of letters and photographs, manuscripts and memorabilia. The point is not to encourage people to take these things out. Even when the stuff in the case is ordinarily circulating, for the duration of the display, we want the books to stay in the case. If a patron takes one out, the display is incomplete.

So, from a circulation point of view, we want the books in a closed display to show up in the catalogue as unavailable, and we want the books in an open display to show up as available but not in their usual place on the shelf. Very simple. Both kinds of displays are good—I have spent many happy hours peering into cases at Mugar, Lamont and the BPL. And I have picked up books off displays in the Mission Branch and the Williamsburg Library that I would never have found on the shelf. So I am good with displays. I want to emphasize that I like library displays, and that I am not, by nature, a gripy person.

But it does make me cross that we have, to commemorate and celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the library that employs me, just taken two dozen of the best books about the Civil Rights Movement in our collection, marked them unavailable for borrowing and locked them in a case where nobody can read them.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 9, 2010

Grrrrrrrr. Also, Gr.

Your Humble Blogger has used this Tohu Bohu before as a recipient for whinging about training sessions, and y’all were wicked sympathetic. So let me just vent for a moment…

See… see… I’m just saying. If a training session is moved on the day before it is scheduled to take place, and if the training session is specifically for part-time workers who may not have been around the day before, and if the new location is in a basement computer lab… would it kill the people in charge to put a fucking sign on the door that says Training Session? I mean, just so some of us know we’ve come to the right place at last? Or even to write something like Training on the whiteboard at the front of the room, so if we do poke our heads in, we have some signal that this is where the training will be?

And—see, I know this is utterly unreasonable, but I really prefer it when the people doing the training introduce themselves at the beginning of the session, so we know who the fuck they are. It’s not that I want to be their best friend forever, but it is just barely possible that I will have a relevant question later, isn’t it?

And finally, and I would like to say that this last bit is in no way the fault of the poor saps who were saddled with training us, if an organization switches its part-time employees to a timeclock system where we must clock in at the beginning of our shifts and clock out at the end of them, doesn’t it seem like a bad idea to have, every pay period, a process that the employee must go through after clocking out? Perhaps I’m just cranky, but seems to me that after I have clocked out, I’m not getting paid, and if I’m not getting paid, then I ain’t working. I mean, it’s only a couple of minutes—unless there’s something hinky going on, in which case of course it’s more than a couple of minutes, and of course for those of us that are locking up at the end of the day, we can’t start to shut down the computer until after we’ve clocked out so that’s another couple of minutes. And, frankly, my preference on those days would have been to shut down the computer before doing the last walk-around, turning off lights, that sort of thing. But that’s just a preference: if my Employer wants to make it a policy that I do it in the other order and shut down the computer in the dark, that’s their right and I can’t imagine it ending badly in any way at all. But leaving that aside, just as a software design issue, shouldn’t clocking out be the end of the workday?

Really finally, one more thing: if YHB is coming back from a training session this cranky (and YHB is actually a pretty cheerful guy, tho’ you might not know it from this Tohu Bohu, and certainly some other recently-trained co-employees are crankier even than YHB) then something has gone very, very wrong with the process. This will not translate into us being perfectly trained and using the software in the most ideal of all possible ways. Not good for those people who will be dealing with us in the end, and who, presumably, are designing the training sessions in the first place.

Whew. I feel better now. Thanks for listening.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 22, 2010

Hold me back, take away my library card.

So here is where I need your help, Gentle Readers.

I finally watched Avatar on DVD on our little screen at home, but it’s too late for you to do anything about that. I went up to wash it off me in the tub, and naturally in picking a Bathtub Book, I went for the original novel. Which, as I have said, is one of my favorites. And I’m enjoying it, and I’m thinking that’s the way you do it. I mean, sure, have your main character boink the chief’s daughter and become a fighter of legendary skill, and sure, have him control the largest possible exotic beasties in a way makes him the foreordained of legend, but you don’t stop there! You have him become the freaking Messiah, the Mahdl’T, the Lasagna Alamode, the Kumquat Haagendasz, He who can prepare many dishes so they are all ready at once, the Shortnin’Bread of the Way and the Rightful Duke of the Planet, and ultimately the Padedbrah Emperor of the Known Universe And Its Suburbs.

So, anyway, I’m digging on this book, and at this moment I am writing to you, Gentle Readers, I am digging on it enough to want to read the next one in the series.

Which is where you come in. Because I have only the dimmest of memories of Doon, Meshuggeneh, and those memories are not what you would call positive. But I am tempted, for the first time in a score of years, and it turns out my library has the thing.


Stop me.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

June 21, 2010

Not only uninterested, but actively avoiding interest

Can I just rant for a minute? Would that be OK? You don’t even have to really listen, just nod and smile and think of something else.

Your Humble Blogger really hates the use of the word disinterested to mean unconcerned or apathetic. That is, it bugs me when people use the word where YHB would use the word uninterested; there is a distinction between them that gets right on my stickler nerve.

This is particularly bad for me because the Youngest Member has been once again keen on listening to They Might Be Giants: Here Come the ABCs!, and one of my favorite songs from that set is E Eats Everything, which contains the line “ D is just disinterested/In anything you’ve got”. Gets right up my proverbial, it does, and prevents me from thoroughly enjoying a terrific song. Then I noticed the word (used correctly by my lights) in the bit I typed in from The Dresser, which reminded me that Lowell Weicker had called my State’s Governor disinterested in a speech I read about in a Hartford Courant article.

Digression: I think I actually read the longer on-line version of this story, but in both cases, the headline is that Former Gov. calls Current Gov. “disinterested”, but the body of the text does not include any such quote from the former Gov. This seems very, very strange to me. Does it seem strange to you? I was eventually able to find some video in which Mr. Weicker refers to “Republican Governors who are either corrupt or disinterested”, which given the meaning of the word as YHB uses it, should pretty much cover everybody, right? But yes, I think it is clear that he is referring to the only Governor Connecticut has at the moment, and that he means she is apathetic or unconcerned, rather than free of conflict. Still, it seems very strange to me to put the word in the headline and not include any aspect of the context in the body of the story at all. End Digression.

Now, I haven’t looked up the history of the word, and I suspect that the distinction for which I am a stickler for is something made up in the Stickler Period of grammar, possibly by William Strunk himself, or by Henry Fowler, or perhaps Stephen Fry. I have had to give up my mockery or literally, when presented with the evidence that (a) it is doing the same job as really, and (2) the use of literally as an intensifier is hundreds of years old, and therefore has more right to exist than I have right to deny it. I suspect that the use of disinterested to mean uninterested is hundreds of years old as well, and no doubt there are plenty of examples that would, if I considered them carefully, persuade me that my carping on disinterested is inconsistent and wrong. I don’t want to be thus persuaded. I want to keep getting angry about this one.

This isn’t like begs the question, where I continue to maintain that the use of the phrase to mean provoke the question, as it most commonly is used now, is just wrong, and I am willing to argue it out. No, this is one where I am unwilling to argue it out, because I would lose, and I don’t want to lose. So I generally keep my mouth shut about it.

Does this seem unreasonable? As a former stickler turned descriptivist, I often feel that I am missing the righteous anger of the peevologist. There is something rather magnificent about being shocked by the slovenly habits of so-called educated people these days.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

June 16, 2010

Provincialism's nondescript head

It’s like this: Your Humble Blogger just doesn’t care about soccer.

The reason I am bothering telling you so is that it seems that Glenn Beck, Jonah Goldberg and their ilk actively dislike soccer and are badmouthing the World Cup. I don’t want to be associated with them and their xenophobic sneering. I just have way too much sports on my plate to invest the necessary effort into watching and getting enjoyment out of soccer.

I have a vague sense that soccer is one of the games with a fairly low investment-to-enjoyment ratio; most people in the world seem to be able to watch it and argue about it very easily, while drunk off their proverbials. So I imagine that a few hours of reading and then watching and then reading about what I have just watched would pay off with a lot of enjoyment very quickly. On the other hand, my Giants are winning ballgames (no, really) and there’s the England ODI series against Australia coming up (the Ashes start again in November). And baseball and cricket are spectator sports that require not only a massive initial investment but substantial regular maintenance. Who is hurt, who is up and who is down, who is just starting to get on a roll, who has just had his weakness exposed and will be a flash in the pan. Hardly any point in following the games if you haven’t been paying attention. OK, that’s not true, but I find that the attention paid in between games (or matches) makes the games (or matches) much much more enjoyable (or frustrating), so I put in my time there.

And enjoy putting in that time. I suspect I would enjoy putting in that time with footie, if I once got started. Of course, that would be more entertaining if I had a friend or a bunch of friends who had already made that investment and were footy fans. Which would be more likely if they were foreign. Or if they had friends and family who were foreign. All of which is to say that I do think that in this country Liberals, on the whole, are more likely to enjoy this World Cup than Conservatives—more likely to have friends who already like different sports than they do, more likely to live in cities near footy fans (and places to watch the matches together with other people), more likely to value the novelty of picking up a new spectator sport, or more likely to have picked up footy in childhood or somewhere along the way. And like any sport, fans are likely to look down on people who don’t get it, and people who don’t get it are likely to resent that.

So while I tend to agree with SEK that Mssrs Goldberg and Beck hate soccer and are racist (tho’ I think this is xenophobia rather than racism as such, not that they are unconnected), I think it’s actually quite understandable that they are viewing the whole World Cup as some sort of Liberal Bad Thing. And what with the sense that the opposing political camps have that (a) pissing off the other side is a Good Thing in itself even when it doesn’t further any political or policy aims, but just makes heads explode all over Other Blogovia, and (2) everything the other side does is done out of a petty and small-minded desire to make heads explode all over Our Blogovia, rather than out of either actual political or policy aims or just personal taste and inclination, it can scarcely surprise anybody that Glenn Beck thinks that the liberals are trying to force the World Cup down his throat out of nasty liberalism, rather than because anybody in this country is actually excited about the biggest sports event in the world.

As for me, my tendency is to assume that nobody cares if I am watching the World Cup or not, and I don’t really care if anybody else is watching it or avoiding it, either. I just can’t be arsed.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

June 8, 2010

Fiction or Journalism?

Y’all have probably already seen the Christopher Beam note over at Slate called The Only Politics Article You’ll Ever Have To Read: What if political scientists covered the news? I think it is intended to be a joke, but I’m not sure; all I know about Christopher Beam is that he is Alex Beam’s kid, which I think makes him the Christopher Buckley of, er, something. Journalism? No, not journalism. Something, anyway.

The point, if you haven’t read it and aren’t inclined to click through, is that all the stuff that political journalists write about is considered by political scientists to be meaningless crap.

At the same time, Obama’s job approval rating fell to 48 percent. This isn’t really news, though. Studies have shown that the biggest factor in a president’s rating is economic performance. Connecting the minute blip in the polls with Obama’s reluctance to emote or alleged failure to send enough boom to the Gulf is, frankly, absurd.

The thing is, while it’s phrased in a lighthearted way, it’s pretty much correct, and journalists not including the stuff that he so jocularly is either tremendously ignorant or tremendously dishonest—I should say, I rather expect that it’s self-delusion, rather than deliberate deception. There are a lot of incentives for journalists (and even more so pundits and analysts) to stay in denial about the ways in which so much stuff that is easy to report and fun to read has nothing to do with the actual processes of government.

While I’m at it, I wanted to ask Gentle Readers if their estimate was more or less the same as mine: in this 2010 election cycle, counting both primaries and the general election, what percentage of the eligible voters in this country will go and vote against an incumbent they had previously voted for in a previous election for that office? I mean any office, anywhere on any of the ballots in this cycle?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 21, 2010

Still squinting toward 2012

Gentle Readers will probably have seen the unveiled mascots for the 2012 Olympics in London. Yes, they are horrendous. Perhaps you have even watched the Sekrit Origin Video.

All I have to say is: Don't say Your Humble Blogger didn't warn you.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 4, 2010

Behind you! It's a friend request!

OK, here’s a hypothetical situation. Imagine a situation where a supervisor and a supervisee at some place of employment happen to both be members of one of these new-fangled on-line social networks. For the sake of this hypothesis, let’s use Facebook, although there are a bunch of them with differences that might make or might not change the situation. Anyway, let’s say Facebook.

Now, again for our hypothetical situation, let’s imagine a moderately friendly or collegial relationship—not the meeting-for-drinks and I-like-those-shoes relationship, not a speak-when-spoken-to and where’s-that-report relationship, but the how-are-your-kids and I-saw-a-movie-you-would-like relationship. A friendly workplace, a friendly relationship, but a workplace and a supervisor-supervisee.

Now, the supervisee facebook-friends the supervisor. The supervisor approves the network arrangement. I want to avoid specifying gender at this time, so let’s call the supervisor Jean and the supervisee KK.

It seems to me that by approving that friend request, the Jean may have brought that on-line environment into the workplace environment within the meaning of the law. I don’t know of any case law on the topic (nor would I, as I am not an attorney or anything like one), but I think that the spirit of the law may well include the on-line off-hours realm if Jean has granted that access.

Now, I’m not sure how this all works. There is clearly a legal distinction between (f’r’ex) Jean leaving girlie magazines on an office desk and Jean leaving girlie magazines in the trunk of a car. But what about girlie magazines left on the dashboard of Jean’s car, parked in the supervisor’s parking space right by the entrance, where KK and the rest of the crew can’t help but see it when they come in? That seems more or less analogous to discovering that your supervisor is a fan of girlie magazines when you log in to look at your notes. And what if Jean gets a bunch of crude and hostile comments on the FB wall, just chock full of racial and sexual nastiness? Let’s say that Jean posts a status update that is at least moderately innocuous: Jean is feeling a little down. Jean’s FB friends (who may be Jean’s actual friends or not—KK has no way of knowing) can write all sorts of things about feeling up or going down, and KK will see those. Yes, the software does allow KK to hide all of Jean’s stuff entirely, but by the time KK has decided that there’s a pattern there rather than one or two errant comments, the damage has been done. KK will never look at Jean the same way again.

I suspect that the real likelihood of a lawsuit would involve Jean’s friends mocking religion and religious people on Jean’s wall, in a case were Jean is aware that KK is a church-goer. I think that the law is being narrowed by cases, rather than expanded, at this point, so I would guess that KK would lose such a case if it came to a judge, and would almost certainly (I am guessing) lose unless Jean were personally to write nasty comments on the wall after issuing the invitation. So the hypothetical I am envisioning, with KK doing the friending and Jean merely providing the wall for other comments seems like a loser before a judge. But I’m not actually that interested in the outcome of the case. The law was written before on-line social networking existed, and if it doesn’t cover the issue, that’s not altogether surprising.

No, I’ve got hold of the hostile-workplace language and the legal question as one end of the tangle. The whole thing is strange to me—the interaction of on-line social networking, the collapse of formality and acquaintanceship, the changing concept of privacy, the whole workplace thing, all of that. My middle age and our cultural adolescence. It seems to me that there’s a conflict, or at least a potential conflict, between an increasing sense that employees should be free from unwanted social pressures of various kinds within the workplace and an increasing sense that the workplace should be informal and personal, rather than formal and businesslike. Compartmentalization used to be considered a Good Thing, and that extended to sexual harassment of the secretaries. Now, we seem to have eschewed compartmentalization (Facebook particularly seems to find it threatening to its business model), but does that extend to more sexual harassment? We seem to have eschewed sexual harassment along with race-baiting and other forms of workplace hostility, but does that extend to maintaining impersonal compartmentalization?

I mean—look, it’s obvious to me that Facebook should not be used for both professional and personal connections. And yet, it is used for both professional and personal connections, and because of that there is pressure on individuals to use it for that. And it’s not just Facebook, although the combination of Facebook’s market share and aggressive anti-privacy norms make it the biggest elephant in the proverbial. What I’m saying, there’s a world of new tricks out there, and sometimes I feel like a very old dog indeed.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 7, 2010

Yes, great fries! What! No, fries! French fries!

So, here’s what I was thinking. You know those big chain restaurants? Like Applebee’s and 99 and Cracker Barrel and like that? There are lots of them; I don’t know them all, but I have eaten in quite a few of them over the years. Big, big businesses. And there is lots of money there being invested in making lots and lots of money. We all know that. And there are a bunch of stupid things—famously the waiters and waitresses wearing half-a-dozen of those dumb pins—that come down from corporate and make no sense but are at least in some way connected with making more money. Right?

You have to figure that these chains have all put a lot of money into all those aspects of making a particular franchise or unit successful. The goofy faux-memorabilia on the walls with reproductions of concert posters or rustic butter-churn-paddles or whatnot. Those aren’t entirely random; there’s thought put into it, and more than thought, there’s market research put into that. And of course the menu, not only the food but the menu itself, and the distance between the tables and the percentage of chairs to booths and all that. Right?

This is what I’m thinking. These places aren’t leaving much up to the franchisee or manager. There are commandments from corporate, and those commandments are bottom-line decisions, very cynical manipulations of the customer base to get the right people to come for the right length of time and return with the right frequency. All planned out. You can feel it, when you walk into one of them, particularly if you walk into one a thousand miles or so from the last place you walked into one a few weeks previously.

And I’m thinking, one of the things is that each of those chains must have done the research to find out the exact range of decibels to play the music. Loud enough to create an impression of conviviality, but not so loud to drown out conversation or give people headaches. Loud enough to provide a background that keeps other people’s conversations out of your consciousness, but not so loud that you hear other people shouting to each other over it. My guess (and I am not an acoustician, although I have met one, so that counts for something) is that they came up with something louder than you would expect, something like a range of 83-84 decibels everywhere in the restaurants. And corporate looked at that info and said no, let’s double that.

Note the loss of hearing.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 20, 2009

No Book Report

I know I’m a curmudgeon, and an old one, to boot, but—how is it possible that my local public library does not own a copy of The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) at any of its three branches? And is it really out of print? How is that remotely acceptable?

I have placed a request through InterLibrary Loan. But I am Not Happy.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 18, 2009

Judging a Cover by its, well

Your Humble Blogger happened to look this morning at the cover of my Perfect Non-Reader’s school agenda. This is a spiral-bound day-planner in which homework assignments and special events are written; it travels to school and back every day and must be signed by a parent (or guardian, I suppose) each day. They are half-customized for the school; there is a window in the cover that exposes the page with the school’s name, but the content is generic and the days do not match our district’s calendar exactly. I had noticed that the cover was some sort of Academy of Great People thing, but I hadn’t actually looked at it to identify the people.

The cover is on-line, so follow along at home, Gentle Reader. I would like to know who you find easy to identify, who you were able to get after a minute or two of thinking, and how many you just give up on. [That link is a bit hinky, due to some cookie-juggling, I believe. If it didn’t take you to the right picture, try again—the second time was the charm on two different computers.]

There are nineteen people on the cover. Thirteen men and six women. I was able to quickly identify eight of the thirteen men. Of the five I could not identify, two were mostly covered by a sticker, so you could call it eight out of eleven or 73%, based on the breakfast table persual. Or you could take into account that after looking at the image on-line, I am convinced I would not have been able to identify either Cesar Chavez (who appears to be carrying an iBook) or Sir John A. MacDonald, had they not been so covered. I also, after some discussion with my Best Reader, made a guess at Wolfgang Mozart which turned out to be correct. Of the remaining two, I pretty much fail at cultural literacy for not knowing who Terry Fox was (my Best Reader knew who he was but couldn’t remember his name), and no amount of consultation identified Alexander Graham Bell (or the object he was holding). So I’ll call that missing four out of the thirteen; around a 70% success rate.

Of the six women, however, I was only able to identify two immediately. And those were Mother Teresa and Diana, the late Princess of Wales. My Perfect Non-Reader know Helen Keller (because her eyes were closed, which signified blindness); that passed me by. My Best Reader and I both suspected that the African-American in the back was Maya Angelou, but neither of us was willing to put down a wager on it. As for the slender Rosa Parks or the grinning Anne Frank, well, perhaps I should have recognized them, but they certainly don’t look enough like my idea of them to ring the proverbial.

And it’s not quite a digression, but—Princess Diana? Seriously? If we absolutely must have a British Royal, how about Victoria? I’d rather have Mrs. Pankhurst, of course, I do understand that they can’t customize the covers for crazy people who believe in, you know, feminism, and we’re supposed to recognize Maya Angelou and like it. No Sojourner Truth, no Margaret Sanger, no Emma Goldman. I get that. I don’t like it, but I get it. Also, no Joan of Arc, no Sarah Bernhardt, no Florence Nightingale, no Molly Pitcher, no Queen Liliuokalani, no Sally Ride, no Golda Meir, no Barbara Jordan, no Madame Walker, no Billie Jean King, no Babe Didrikson Zaharias, no Marie Curie, no Mary Travers (rest in peace), no Mary Cassatt. No. Plenty of room for Dodgers, but only six women, and one of those is a fucking princess.

But what I was really wondering was whether that percentage gap—I recognized half the women and something better than two-thirds of the men—is due to my own cultural illiteracy (GIS tells me that the image is taken from recent covers of her Diary; the cover of mine must not have had that image) or due to crappy artistry. And if it is crappy artistry, is this an illustration (pardon the pun) of the institutional problems with the patriarchy: because our generation doesn’t internalize those images when we are kids, even our quality control on crappy notebook covers is slanted against women? Despite the whole thing being a deliberate attempt at celebrating diversity and whatnot. It’s an illustration anyway in its clumsy choices (although an argument could certainly be made that the choices of beardies are clumsy, and there’s that inexplicable Dodger business, but still, on the whole, Newton-Einstein-King-Lincoln-Gandhi-Shakespeare, you know?) but what I want to know is whether the illustration is an illustration, or whether that’s just YHB.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 3, 2009

For fuck's sake!

Your Humble Blogger spent a good few minutes trying to articulate how offensive I found this shit, but if I keep screaming those obscenities at the computer screen, I'm bound to wake up my little halfie kids.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 11, 2009

Grrrrrrr. Also, Feh.

Blogging will be short this week, as (a) there are lovely real-life things going on at home, (2) my library director has gone crazy at work, and (iii) there isn’t really a third opportunity for YHB to write for this Tohu Bohu.

I will, however, report that I have survived another evil webinar. While I suppose that there is some comfort in knowing that it is not just some sort of blind stupidity on the part of circ here that prevents us from writing useful and accurate reports, it would be nice if the thing that prevents us were not simply that the report-writing module does not work properly. Gr.

Also, when I was complaining about web training the other day? I forgot to mention that high-pitched giggling is not good trait in an on-line trainer.

But here’s the thing: once a month, in order to do the billing, we here in circ need a sheet of paper for each patron that is being billed, which should have on it all outstanding fines for overdue books, and the titles, bar code numbers and call numbers of those books, as well as the amount of the fines and certain information about the patron. In our old system, which I won’t name, although it does have the same name as a series of heliosphere probes, in order to get this information, we printed out a list of items, and then printed out individual sheets for each patron, and then hand-wrote the call numbers because there was no way to create a report that would give us what we wanted. Well, and actually, it was that creating such a report would have been incredibly laborious and annoying, more so (believe it or not) than doing it the way I’ve described.

Well, that was crazy. And it was, I’m afraid, typical of the report-writing problem in our old system.

Now, however, we have left that software behind, and we have a new, new, new ILS. My hopes for this were high, but my particular hope for convenient and easy report-writing were high. That would make our lives ever so much easier.

In our shiny new system, we cannot actually get a list of items that require billing. Well, not an accurate list.

Does that seem like a flaw?

Because to me, it seems problematic.

But leaving aside the accuracy of the list, there’s this: we cannot create a report that has both book titles and the name of the person who has them out. The two pieces of information—patron name and item title—cannot appear in the same report. They just can’t. We can get the book’s ISBN number, should it have one, on the report with the Patron name, but not the title. Or the call number, for all of that.

And the thing that really, really astonishes me is that ours was the third session by our webinar host, and the first time that issue had come up.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 11, 2009

"both of them second-generation Parisians"

If you do a Google search for "both of them second-generation Parisians", what do you think you’ll find? No, that doesn’t count, you already clicked. You have seen that it’s about Claude Monet. But who wrote that phrase? Because, frankly, it’s an odd phrase, tossing in seemingly irrelevant information in awkward English, and there are 1,650 instances of it on the Web, according to Google (which is notoriously untruthful about large numbers, true, but has 66 instances and Yahoo has 2,420 instances, so whatever the actual number at any given moment, it’s a lot). Somebody must have written it first, but who?

At the moment, the bottom link on the first page is to the Wikipedia entry. If you were heading down the list, poking around, the second link would tell you that the biographical information is from Wikipedia. But the other four out of the top five wouldn’t mention Wikipedia, and one of them has an author and copyright notice listed. And the sixth result, higher on the list than Wikipedia, is from something called the Cambridge Encyclopedia, on the site of Maybe Wikipedia took the phrase from the Cambridge Encyclopedia, and some of the other pages copied it from one or the other. Or maybe the originator is António Dulcídio S. Pinto Coelho, who is listed as the author on TheGlobalArt.

Well, do you have a guess? My instinct was that Wikipedia, as it often does, incorporated the text from some old encyclopedia or other. Or, rather, that somebody at some point entered a bunch of stuff from some old encyclopedia or other, and it stuck around in Wikipedia through revisions. That’s what it smelled like, anyway. I’ve seen that a lot with entries lifting chunks of text from the first edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica.

This was wrong. I don’t know if there’s any easy way to find out for any given Wikipedia entry when a particular stretch of text first entered it, but hunting through the history showed that on the third of November, 2006, the words of them were entered into the text, so that it read “Monet was born to Adolphe and Louise-Justine Monet, both of them second-generation Parisians…”. A few weeks earlier, on the 18th of September, that information was taken from a sentence at the end of the paragraph (“His mother was a singer, both parents were second-generation Parisians”) to be inserted in that clause in the first sentence. That sentence entered the entry on the 24th of March of that year; it seems to be the first appearance of the information.

So, going back and looking forward. In March, somebody adds a bunch of stuff to the Wikipedia article, much of which is awkwardly written. There are repeated revisions. In one of them, the piece of information is moved from one sentence to another; later, that sentence is revised again by somebody else. That could account for the awkwardness of it; the editor is trying to avoid losing a piece of information that was in the text, but has no real idea of its relevance and therefore of its appropriate placement. To be fair, neither do I. And then the version with “both of them second-generation Parisians” gets into dozens or perhaps hundreds of sites, some of them appearing on first glance to be original and/or authoritative, some of them not so much.

No real point, here, just thought it was an interesting thing.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 1, 2009


So, there are people who read this blog who understand business and publishing and the business of publishing much better than I do, but… does this note by Evan Schnittman on Why Ebooks Must Fail really make the claim that print publishing is utterly unsustainable and that therefore electronic publishing will destroy it, and that that would be a bad thing?

I know Mr. Schnittman is the head of Global Business Development for OUP, and so he clearly knows much more about the business of publishing than I do—I know so very little, after all—but his argument makes no sense to me at all. Essentially, he's saying that the combination of uncontrolled author advances and an utterly ludicrous norm for advance sales and returns is sustainable only where there is a source for short-term cash flow, and that Ebooks (vaddevah dat means) do not provide such a source.

Again, if I understand correctly, the short-term cash includes a chunk of money that is going to disappear (because of returns); it exists more than nominally, and isn't quite borrowing, but it does come with an obligation to pay back a large but undetermined chunk of it. So I am perplexed by the idea that there is no way to restructure publishing to do without it. I am also perplexed by his insistence that it is more expensive to make Ebooks than paper books; he asserts that the added cost of editing digital stuff, and the necessity of maintaining and servicing interactive digital books, would be greater than the cost of printing and shipping. On the other hand, I have no idea how to estimate those costs (on either side). And my assertion that the bulk of Ebooks will not require extensive maintenance and interaction but will just be books on bytes is not based on any knowledge whatsoever. So I'm willing to accept that he is correct about his estimation of the comparative costs.

Still. He compares advances on trade publishing to professional sports free agency; this means he either (a) doesn't understand sports business at all, (2) doesn't understand the publishing business at all, or (iii) is deliberately misrepresenting the publishing business. And then, having described a business plan that is crazily unsustainable—that even he describes as a Ponzi scheme—he is worried that Ebooks will destroy it. You know what? Even if (implausibly) your Ponzi scheme is sustainable in the absence of Ebooks (but with rising manufacturing and shipping costs and the consolidation of retailers), I fail to see why Ebooks being the straw that breaks that proverbial should concern either us or the big publishers themselves. I mean, if Ebooks breaks the system and everything goes bust, then we start again with a model that doesn't have either crippling advances or fraudulent pre-shipping. Right?

And further: it could be that given the specific factors in the upcoming discontinuity (and there is always an upcoming discontinuity) it will simply not be possible for trade publishing to make available edited books, either on paper or on bits, at a price point that people will be willing to pay. Things change. It used to be that a household in the second quintile of income in this country could afford a domestic servant but could not afford to eat grapes year-round. That has changed; labor got more expensive (well, domestic labor), and shipping and distribution and refrigeration got much, much cheaper. And it's possible that the rising popularity of Ebooks will set off the chain that ends with books being five grand a whack. If so, I have to tell you that based on this note, Mr. Schnittman will not be one of the people I have a lot of sympathy for.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 22, 2008

Blinking red, then green, then solid green, and then blinking green again, and then...

I know, I know. But seriously, when I am on hold with my internet service provider because they are not, for the moment, providing me with internet service, the recording telling me that many of my problems can be solved easily by going to their website just makes me much angrier than I like to be. And it’s not wrong. Frankly, since the only problem was that I couldn’t get to the web, if I did go to their website, I would be in like Flynn. Alas, I could not.

In truth, since the problem is intermittent (and intermittent problems are the worst from their end, since when it’s not happening there is no trail of broken bones and blood to lead them to what is happening, when it is happening, which it isn’t) I might be able to visit their website at a moment when the problem is intermitting, but I hadn’t, and now their recording is just rubbing it in. Of course, now that I’m back on-line, I’m staying the hell away from their rotten site. Phooey.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 14, 2008

May Def, Milestone Day, morris dance, mean distance, mister disaster, million dollar, must die

All right, so there’s this movie that opens today called Definitely, Maybe that had one of the worst trailers I have ever seen in my life. I mean, fairly frequently, my Best Reader or I will respond to a trailer by naming the amount of money we would need to be paid to sit through the full movie, but this was … priceless. I felt as if I had already sat through the whole movie by the end of the trailer.

The plot, which was extensively detailed in the trailer, is that there’s the fellow, and his daughter, and she’s all precocious and cute and all, and is starting to ask uncomfortable questions about sex and love. So to distract her, he tells her the story of how he met her mother. Only—this is the clever part—instead of actually telling that story, he will tell her three stories, about three women that he met, obscuring their identities, and she will have to guess which one is her mother. Doesn’t that seem as natural as all get out?

The mother, bye-the-bye, isn’t dead. Why would you think she was dead? No, the family is just undergoing a brutal and bitter divorce. Ha, ha. What fun! Nothing like a little family law to make a rom-com sparkle.

Anyway, within the movie are three romantic stories, with three different actresses playing names-have-been-changed-to-protect-the-people-who-will-undoubtedly​-have-to-give​-depositions-in-the-visitation​-rights-matter-and-I-hope-to-Betsy​-that-they’ve-lawyered-up, and neither the audience nor the girl knows which woman will be the True Love (until the papers are served).

So, fine. It’s not the worst movie ever made. The worst movie ever made may well be Kate and Leopold. The thing that makes the whole idea of this flick tolerable is the obvious plot twist that at the end, all three of the women are her mother, that people grow and change, that he fell in love with her all over again and over again and over again, very sweet, Happy Arizona Statehood Day.

Only none of the reviews I’ve skimmed appear to hint that there is a plot twist at all. So either they are being very discreet or the film-makers have missed the only possible point to the movie. And the thing is that I have no easy way of telling which is the case without actually seeing the movie, which as I say is not to be contemplated. So, if some Gentle Reader wants to take one for the team, all I’m saying is, better you than me.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 1, 2008

Another short quiz, this time about democracy

Your Humble Blogger happened to hear a brief interview with Ralph Nader this morning on the radio. I'll get over it, like I'll get over the rest of my illness, but while it lasts, it sure is painful. It's not just that he seems to have never quite figured out that falsely telling people that there was no real difference between the ways Al Gore and George W. Bush would act as president might have some sort of detrimental effect on the country. It's not even the obnoxious way he complains (falsely) every four years about how state laws make it difficult for independent candidates for President to appear on the ballot in all the states, without putting any of his considerable muscle behind, oh, actually changing those laws through a democratic representative system. It's the way he seems, even now, to take the electoral rejection of candidates he supports as a sign that the system is broken rather than an actual lack of support for those candidates and their policies. Or at least those policies as they were represented by those candidates.

So, once again, here's a little quiz for Mr. Nader, and for everyone else who is or would like to be a citizen of these United States:

If you could appoint one person, living or dead, to be the President of the United States, would you:

  • immediately take office yourself, claiming a mandate to reform a degraded system

  • enthrone the Messiah, to carry out the work of the Lord

  • decline, with thanks, explaining that it is preferable to hold free and fair elections, and to abide by their outcomes

Once again, give yourself ten points for every aleph, five for every beta, and twenty points for just showing up. Don't show your work, and keep your ballots secret. You do need to do the damn work though, and for extra credit, create a democratic society, capable of self-governing in all its many senses.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 31, 2008

The little O-shaped pasta in a tasty tomato sauce that kids love

Gentle Readers will be aware that Your Humble Blogger is a former stickler. That does not, however, prevent me from noticing actual errors when I see them, particularly when printed and distributed in a manner that really ought to require not just proof-reading but actual copy editing.

Take, for example, the microwave instructions printed on a can of SpaghettiOs. I reproduce it here in its entirety:

Microwave: Microwave ovens vary. Time given is approximate. Heat, covered in medium microwaveable bowl on HIGH 1½ to 2 minutes. Careful, leave in microwave 1 minute, then stir.

It seems to Your Humble Blogger that the use of careful is a grammatical error. But I’m not exactly sure what kind of error. It seems to me that it is standing in for Be careful, which is the sort of thing that English allows sometimes, although in that case it shouldn’t be conjoined with a comma to the rest of the sentence. The error is clearly not simply substituting the adjective form for the adverb; they don’t mean that we should carefully leave [the bowl] in the microwave.

See, the thing about errors of grammar is that it should be possible to re-write the sentence in such a way that that the grammar is correct and the sense is correct, too. And I know what the sense is, but I can’t seem to make a better sentence. Leave in microwave 1 minute, then carefully remove cover and stir seems to be all right, but wordy (and the space is limited). There’s probably room for Being careful, leave in microwave… which (a) still sounds wrong, although it seems to diagram properly, and (2) implies that you could grammatically take out the being, which gets us back where we started.

How would you, Gentle Reader, correct the SpaghettiOs can? Because Your Humble Blogger’s ability to enjoy SpaghettiOs is already limited enough (although it is at least something I can contemplate swallowing with equanimity, and represents a change from chicken soup—a change for the worse, certainly, but imagine how good the chicken soup will taste next meal) without being irritated by issues of grammar and wording.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 27, 2008

fathers and husbands, in a house that is white

I am fond of Garry Wills. I don’t always agree with him (heck, I don’t always agree with me) but I think his writing is generally informative, insightful and entertaining. So I found his op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times not just frustrating but infuriating.

Mr. Wills writes that Two Presidents Are Worse Than One, essentially saying that it would be a disaster to have a co-president, and that should Senator Clinton win the White House, Our Previous President, as the spouse of the President would be in effect a Co-President, unelected, unimpeachable and uncontrollable. I do understand that this is a new situation, but it isn’t that new. Mr. Wills gives the bad example of Our Only President and his vice-president; giving the vice-president so much power he sees as detrimental to our constitutional government.

It seems odd, in that context, not to bring up the fact that Our Only President does have someone in his immediate family who held the office. You know, his father. Why is it OK to have an elected President whose father is an ex-president, and would therefore (potentially) act as a sort of unelected, unimpeachable and uncontrollable co-president? Surely a father has as much influence as a wife? Or a husband?

I’m trying to see this column as anything other than pathetically chauvinist. I’m not succeeding. I think he sees Senator Clinton as particularly susceptible to influence; nothing about her other than gender stereotypes seems to bear this out. I think he sees a husband as particularly influential; much more so than a father, or a mentor, or a close friend. I think that, also, is more evidenced by stereotype than fact. The idea that we would have a co-Presidency seems odd to me, too, although of course there’s no question that Bill Clinton has the potential of being as influential and attention-getting as, say, Karl Rove or Eleanor Roosevelt. And of course it is in some sense regrettable that Senator Clinton, her candidacy and her (putative) presidency may be overshadowed by one of the towering political figures of our generation. And it is in another sense regrettable that the former President is caught up in electoral politics again. On the other hand, it was regrettable that Our Only President rode his family into political office, and that his father rode his family into political office; once in office, though, they were their own men (not to say women), for whatever that was worth.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 15, 2007

A galaxy of flavor, only not so much

So here’s a question I’ve been meaning to ask for more than a week now: Are Milky Way bars much worse than they used to be? Because I used to like them, when I was a teenager, and now they are nasty. I may well have been nasty myself as a teenager. It’s hard to be sure.

It seems to me there are three explanations: 1) the bars are crappier now than they were, because the company is using cheaper ingredients, more filler and nastier preservatives; b) my tastes have changed, in that I eat a lot less milk chocolate than I did, and I eat dark chocolate now when I eat chocolate, so the absence of echt chocolate flavor in a Milky Ways bar is more noticeable to me that in was; iii) I have developed everything-was-better-when-I-was-a-kid disease. It’s likely all three of these, but I’m curious how much to weight the three.

My Best Reader suggests an entirely different explanation: It was actually Three Musketeers bars that I liked, not Milky Ways bars at all. This seems likely, actually. Although, mmmm… caramel. So. Also, I haven’t had a Three Musketeers bar recently. There don’t seem to be any in my Perfect Non-Reader’s Hallowe’en stash, either.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 12, 2007

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

Your Humble Blogger’s first Christmas Tree sighting of 2007 was on the ninth of November. Yes, it was in a commercial establishment, but a grocery store, not a gift store or such. Oh, it was one of the big grocery stores that also has wrapping paper and some decorations, but those have been on the shelves for weeks.

I was thinking. I’ve never chatted with anyone who expressed pleasure at the early- or even mid-November signs of the season. Everybody gripes. There are people who like to see the lights and garlands starting the day after Thanksgiving, and there are people who grumble at the whole thing (I am one, some years), but the pre-Advent Christmasification seems to be a source of universal gripe. I suspect that the employees of the store griped about putting it up, and gripe about looking at it, and I suspect the manager griped about it, too, and possibly the regional manager griped about sending out the memo on November first. But they did it.

I do know that there must be people who really are happy about it. I just haven’t ever talked to one about it. This is likely because I don’t have a very wide range of acquaintance, so let me know if you think it’s wrong. Still, I see the griping in print, and there are lots of pop-cultural references to griping on this topic, and I haven’t seen any positive portrayals of early-Xmasers, although, again, I’m not really hep to that particular jive.

Anyway, the aspect that I’ve been chewing on since that grocery store trip last Friday is that the free market system appears to have set up a competition where there is no particular drawback to being early, and at least the possibility of a substantial drawback to being late (compared to your competitors). It’s possible that somebody will buy lights or wrapping paper at the grocer’s after being reminded by the tree that the Season is upon us. It’s plausible. It’s even likely. And I’m sure as hell not going to take my business elsewhere because of the tree, nobody is. I mean, even if I wanted to, what am I going to do, find the grocery stores that don’t put up early Xmas decorations? Scout ’em all out until I find it? Pay the extra to shop at my local glatt kosher grocery? No. And YHB even has a local glatt kosher grocery, but if I wanted to shop there, I would already be doing it, and I’m not going to change my mind because of the Tannenbaum Express.

No, the best thing for my grocer to do is make all his customers grumble and gripe. It’s an odd thing.

Anyway, I was wondering if it’s possible to, simply by an act of will, decide to enjoy the pre-Veteran’s day Christmas decorations. Just to say to myself boychick, says I, I am informal with myself because I’ve known myself since I was like that, boychick, there’s grumble and there’s glee. Choose glee. And do it. Because they are pretty, you know, whatever else they are.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 1, 2007

secondhand quote, on Second Avenue, secondhand quote

I haven’t read The Economist’s new survey of religion in public life, but Joshua Keating over at FP Passport in a preview (The Economist admits that God is not dead) quotes them as saying:

Islam has always left less room for the secular. Unlike Jesus, Muhammad was a ruler, warrior and lawmaker. Islam, which means submission, teaches that the primary unit of society is the umma, the brotherhood of believers, and it provides a system of laws, sharia, for people to live by.

Now, I know that there are both geopolitical and marketing reasons to compare the two religions, but my immediate thought was that Moses was a ruler, warrior and lawmaker. As was Saul, to some extent, and David. And there are Christian saints who are rulers, warriors and lawmakers, and they are venerated more or less on the same level as Moses, Saul and David. I don’t know enough about Islam to speak definitively, but my impression is that Muhammad within Islam is about on a par with Moses within Judaism, that is, holy, righteous, important, and not part of the Divine, at least not in the sense that Jesus is part of the Trinity.

Furthermore, Judaism teaches that the primary unit of society is the people Israel, and it provides a system of laws, mitzvot, for people to live by. I think you could argue that Christianity teaches that the primary unit of society is Christendom, and that it provides a system of laws to live by; I’m guessing that there are plenty of church fathers to quote on those issues.

I’m not saying that there are no differences between the three religions (or any others). I’m saying that the quote that Mr. Keating pulled is such an egregious simplification that it is entirely useless. And I hate that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 29, 2007

Ted Rall, ignorant idiot

So, Your Humble Blogger does not usually make the mistake of taking Ted Rall seriously. In fact, I don’t usually make the mistake of taking Ted Rall at all. My local newspaper doesn’t print his stuff, and I certainly am not going around seeking it out.

Today, however, for some reason I cannot explain, the Hartford Courant chose to publish the cartoon for October 25th, along with a paragraph from his blog, which reads as follows:

Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut unwittingly exposed the Democrats' Big Lie on Iraq: that they need support from Republicans to stop the war. In fact, any senator can place a "hold" on any piece of legislation. They can even do it anonymously if they're afraid of the political ramifications of their action! So, the next time you hear on TV that the Democrats "need" 60 votes in the Senate to override Bush's threatened veto, don't believe it. And write to the network to demand an immediate correction.

In the Hartford Courant, the 60 was changed to 67, as of course in our actual political system, it requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate (and the House) to override a veto. They did not, however, correct the idea that there is no difference between passing a law and not passing a law.

Passing a law requires a majority, and due to the somewhat strange state of the norms currently in place in the Senate, really requires a supermajority of 60 in the Senate. If the President vetoes a bill, it goes back and requires two-thirds. One Senator cannot pass a law.

Not passing a law in theory requires a majority as well. However, due to the aforementioned norms, a large minority of 40 in the Senate can block a law. A minority of 34 can block a law if they work with the President. There is also the previously little-known Senatorial “hold” where one Senator can, essentially, ask the Senate Leadership to keep a bill from coming to a vote.

There are actually lots of ways a well-placed minority of Senators can keep a bill from getting to a vote. The previous Senate Leadership of Republicans made no bones about the fact that a bill would only get to the floor if it had a majority of Republicans supporting it; a bill supported by all the Democrats and a handful of Republicans was dead. Outside the leadership of the full Senate, a committee member can manage the schedule to keep a bill out of commission, and a majority of the members of the committee can kill a bill even if the bill has the support of a majority of the full Senate. There are always consequences, though; a Senator can be reassigned or removed from committee chairmanship if he is intractable, and a Majority Leader who prevents popular legislation from being passed runs a risk of not being the leader anymore, and his party not being in the Majority.

Now, as to the hold. I am not an expert on this, but I have read about it, and my understanding is that it’s what we at this Tohu Bohu call a reciprocal norm. And as with these norms, they work only if they within a particular context. Let’s say, for instance, that your brother-in-law asks you to help him out with a household task of some kind, say, painting the garage. You may well feel obliged to help; I would. And then, if I need a hand with, say, schlepping that old sofa to the dump, I might ask him for help. It’s reciprocal. Now, if my brother-in-law asks me to burn down the house across the street, I won’t do that. Nor would he ask me, not only because he knows I won’t do it, but because he knows that asking me would pretty much end our relationship, and I wouldn’t help him paint the garage next time.

Senators do not block major bills. One Senator cannot block one of the thirteen appropriations bills. If he tries, his leadership will tell him to get stuffed. Which is, essentially, what happened with Sen. Dodd and FISA. He put a block on it, and Harry Reid took it off again. Now, by doing that, Sen. Dodd drew attention to the bill (and to himself), and then by threatening to filibuster, he drew more attention to it, and even got some support from other Senators, and he’s managed to slow down the whole process to the point where he might just manage to kill the thing after all. The point that Sen. Dodd has embarrassed Sen. Reid (and Speaker Pelosi) by highlighting that they could be doing much more to oppose Our Only President would be valid; the point that “a single Senator can stop any bill” is not. And as for writing to the network to demand correction, well, that’s just embarrassing, isn’t it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 25, 2007

Pundit Makes Blogger Cranky, film at eleven

So, what exactly is with George F. Will? I mean, I’ve never completely bought into the idea that he is the sane, clever, honest, reasonable Republican. I’m pretty sure I read an article twenty years ago where he argued against the secret ballot. And I don’t read his stuff regularly, so the odds are good that he was always like this, and I never noticed. The Hartford Courant reprints his stuff, now and then, so I have been reading it, now and then, and the man is (a) insane, and (2) dishonest.

Take, for example, The Unforgotten Man, which pushes the claim that under the now-vetoed S-CHIP extension, “states could extend eligibility to households earning $61,950… How can people above the median income be eligible for a program serving lower-income people?” This is the standard Republican talking point for S-CHIP. It’s dishonest.

At least he does use the word could, which is nearly honest. S-CHIP does not make people earning sixty grand a year eligible for federal funding, nor does it mandate that the states make such people eligible for federal funding. Nor does it allow any individual state to choose to make such people eligible for federal funding. Nor does it even allow the states to decide to make such people eligible to receive state funding through the same S-CHIP programs that take federal funding for poor people. No, what it does is it allows a state that wants to make include people up to three times the poverty line to apply to the federal government for permission to do so. Our Only President would, presumably, deny such a request, if it were made. Our Next President, whoever she may be, would likely deny such a request, too. If it were made.

And it might be, because a state may well decide that it is worth including more people for public health reasons, or because the peculiarities of that state recommend it. Frankly, I would guess that at most one or two states would be willing to cough up for S-CHIP x3 in the near future. Now, if you want to make the case that the S-CHIP law would be better with a lower limit on possible future approvals, that would be one thing. But Mr. Will is not doing so. He’s claiming that S-CHIP is not “a program serving lower-income people”, because some people who are not poor are eligible for it. Now, I’ve mentioned before that such an argument seems mean-spirited to me. But what he’s really claiming is that S-CHIP is not serving lower-income people because middle-income people may someday perhaps become eligible for it. That’s not just mean-spirited, that’s lying.

This is in a column which asserts that “the people currently preening about their compassion should have some for the English language.” By compassion for the English language, he means (he says) that people should say what they mean. He does not. In the same column, he rails against John Edwards for telling a rally in Iowa that the federal system was rigged against them. The system isn’t rigged against, them, says Mr. Will, because they receive more in federal assistance more than they send in revenue. Well, first of all, most of the assistance is not cash but the estimated benefits from various trade policies and tariffs, so it’s not a useful comparison. But fine, I’m willing to believe that Iowa is one of the states that gets back more than it puts in; there should be about 25 of those, more or less, and it makes sense that Iowa is one of them. In that sense, Mr. Will is right that the federal system is not rigged against the state of Iowa. But Mr. Edwards was not speaking to the state of Iowa. Mr. Edwards is speaking at a union hall (UAW Local 74 in Ottumwa, if Mr. Will is quoting from Eric Pooley’s Time Magazine article John Edwards Bets the Farm, which seems likely, although Mr. Edwards has used the rigged against you line more than once). Is it possible that by you, Mr. Edwards was speaking to the actual people in the actual room with him? Perhaps more likely than that he was referring to the entire state of Iowa? Here’s the quote, as Mr. Pooley provides it: “We need to take the power out of the hands of these insiders that are rigging the system against you. And I'm telling you they are rigging it. You want to know why you don't have universal health care? Drug companies, insurance companies and their lobbyists in Washington, that's why. We will never change America until we have a President who's willing to stand up to those people and take 'em on!” How, exactly, is this in contradiction to the fact (if it is a fact) that Iowa benefits from our crazy ethanol policies to the extent that it is a net gainer vis the feds? It doesn’t. And Mr. Will can say it does, but I’m not impressed with his compassion for the English language or anything else.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 5, 2007

Waste! Fraud! Abuse!

One thing that occurs to me about this S-CHIP business is the extent to which the Republican leadership appears to be mean-spirited. This isn’t anything new; it certainly goes back to Ronald Wilson Reagan and his attitudes towards welfare. The rhetorical pose (which seems to coincide pretty well with their policy positions) is vituperative outrage that someone, somewhere is getting some sort of benefit that they don’t deserve. In the case of S-CHIP, there are essentially two drawbacks to the program: the possibility of future generosity, and the possibility of non-poor children moving from employer-based to government-subsidized health care.

The first is particularly nasty, to me. The legislative package allows the federal government (I believe the executive, but I am not an expert on this stuff) to approve state expenditures to move the eligibility line up beyond twice-the-poverty-line to thrice-the-poverty-line or even (potentially) four-times-the-poverty-line. Now, for this to kick in, the state in question would have to be willing to supply large quantities of its own money to fund it, and then get approval from the federal government (which of course would not be forthcoming under the current administration) to mix the existing federal dollars in this larger state pot. Realistically, this is not going to happen between this authorization and the next; the bill could be signed without there being a chance of undue generosity before the next chance to veto or kill the bill. But it is being presented as a valid reason to veto.

This, bye-the-bye, is the $80,000 figure that gets bandied about. The bill that Our Only President vetoed does not provide funding for families with $80 large a year, but it does not explicitly deny funding to such families, and theoretical circumstances exist that would result in funding going to such families, and we can’t possibly take that chance, now, can we?

The second is less theoretical. Under, f’r’ex, a Husky plan with all the S-CHIP funding they want, my family would be eligible (I believe that our children will be eligible under the partial funding that Our Only President may be willing to sign). There may be some premiums. Our family would have to decide whether our current, employer-based health plan is better than the Husky plan. It isn’t absolutely clear to me that it would be better, but it isn’t absolutely clear to me that it would be worse. At any rate, some families will take it up. Now, that seems to me to be a Good Thing, with lots of potential benefits. For one thing, I can afford to go to an employer that chooses not to offer health insurance for dependents, or one that offers a better plan than I could get through Husky. It opens up options for the employer and the employee, both. And, if a lot of people do dive into the Husky pool, the Husky negotiators grow ever huskier, and the state saves some money there. And then there’s the public health benefits (and the state saves some money there), and the benefit to our fine local insurance industry (which benefits the state’s coffers, too, I suppose).

I’m a liberal, of course, so I do see that a conservative, particularly a small-government type, would have a different view of the benefits of having lots of non-poor children in the government health care pool. But surely, that’s the point of the legislation, the benefits and costs thereof, and they could be discussed as a policy measure.

Rhetorically, though, it seems to me that the Republican leadership is saying that people will weasel their way into health insurance on the taxpayer dime. Not unlike the famous welfare queen, who weaseled her way into a Cadillac on the taxpayer dime.

My own attitude is that if a particular policy can do a great deal of good to people who need help, while simultaneously providing benefits to some felons and weasels, well, on the whole, it’s worth it. The famous waste, fraud and abuse should be kept to manageable levels, but they are a cost of doing business. We can look at the ten kids we help, and overlook the one rich cheat, and one of the nice things about being the richest nation in the history of history itself is that we can afford it. You see, it’s a liberal way of thinking, that we can be liberal with our money. Get it? Liberal? Oh, never mind.

The opposite of liberality is of course stinginess, meanness, penuriousness, pinchpenny miserliness, not to say misery. I am not saying that Conservatism is by nature mean, because I don’t think it is. I am saying that the Republican leadership is mean, and the Republican leadership of the last generation has been mean, and they have tried to make us a mean nation. I’m surprised how well it worked. But then, they have not really had much rhetorical opposition to that aspect of their positions, have they?

I follow Alfred P. Doolittle here. For those who are unfamiliar with Mr. Doolittle, the most original moral thinker of his day, he placed emphasis not on the deserving poor, but the undeserving poor. “I don’t need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don’t eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more.” Our friends with the large R in front of their addresses would rather see every man, woman and child of the deserving poor starve and be buried in potter’s fields than see Mr. Doolittle get an undeserving drink. I would rather see Mr. Doolittle lying peacefully under the table every night on the public tab than see one poor child die because he couldn’t get to a doctor in good time.

I put it to my countrymen: which side are you on?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 24, 2007

a Talent for rhetoric, at today's prices

I haven’t finished reading Gordon Brown’s conference speech—for those unfamiliar with the current structures of British politics, this is somewhat akin to our Presidential candidates acceptance speeches at their party conventions, except it isn’t necessarily connected with an upcoming election, which isn’t necessarily happening—but this caught my eye:

My father was a minister of the church, and his favourite story was the parable of the talents because he believed—and I do too—that each and everyone of us has a talent and each and everyone of us should be able to use that talent.

First of all, a talent in this context is a sack of gold, a biggish sack, more or less “your weight in gold”. I, for one, do not have such a sack. OK, fine.

But—his favorite story was the Parable of the Talents? Heathens, read:

Mat 25:14     For [the kingdom of heaven is] as a man travelling into a far country, [who] called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods.

Mat 25:15     And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey.

Mat 25:16     Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made [them] other five talents.

Mat 25:17     And likewise he that [had received] two, he also gained other two.

Mat 25:18     But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord's money.

Mat 25:19     After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them.

Mat 25:20     And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more.

Mat 25:21     His lord said unto him, Well done, [thou] good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.

Mat 25:22     He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them.

Mat 25:23     His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.

Mat 25:24     Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed:

Mat 25:25     And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, [there] thou hast [that is] thine.

Mat 25:26     His lord answered and said unto him, [Thou] wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed:

Mat 25:27     Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and [then] at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.

Mat 25:28     Take therefore the talent from him, and give [it] unto him which hath ten talents.

Mat 25:29     For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.

Mat 25:30     And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Now, Your Humble Blogger finds this parable disturbing and frightening. The good and faithful servant risks his master’s money, probably in violation of the law, although it isn’t absolutely clear. The master, on the other hand, is in direct and obvious violation of the law, demanding his usury. The wicked and slothful servant returns the masters entire investment, in fulfillment of the terms of the contract as he understood them, reminds the master of the injunction against collecting interest on loans, and is not only fired but cast into the outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth already.

And yet, this story is not easy to interpret as a condemnation of the hard man who reaps where other people sow. There’s certainly no punishment for his behavior. Is this story from the same Jesus who overturned the tables of the money-changers? Not that I understand that very well, either.

The Parable of the Talent follows the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, where prudence is rewarded (as is a certain selfishness, but the foolish virgins certainly were able to purchase lamp oil, they just didn’t bother; still, I can’t help thinking that if the other five were not just wise but kind, the story would have a very different ending, and the foolish five wouldn’t be virgins the next day, either). There’s no real transition from one to the other in Matthew; they both seem to be in response to the previous chapter’s emphasis on being constantly prepared for the endtime. On the other hand, the parables in 25 do not rely on the arrival of the authority figure being a surprise. Nor when (immediately following) the King divides the sheep from the goats is the surprise based on when the Messiah comes, but on the unexpected nature of his least-of-these Messiah-nessositiagization. I do like the end of Matthew 25 and the way it turns our messianic expectations upside-down—is that why the upside-down parables lead up to it?

Because, frankly, imagine you didn’t know the Scripture (or all you knew was that the leader of the Labour party cited the story with particular approval), and you were told the beginning: A rich man goes on a journey and divides up his capital among three of his managers: he gave one of them half, one of them a third, and the last one only a sixth. There is no way, no way in a hundred years that you could guess the end, whether you thought it was told by the Son of Man or Milton Friedman or Howard Zinn.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 9, 2007

Not the municipality in which YHB is resident, fortunately

Your Humble Blogger is attempting to re-enter the workforce. Well, and there it is. It’s a revenue thing. Anyway, having applied for a position at a nearby public library, I was invited to attend a test for applicants for that position. Not an interview, you understand, a test. Hm, I thought. Perhaps this is one of those government-jargon things, where the municipality requires that anyone employed by it has passed a “test”, and that therefore the interviews are called tests, so as to fulfill a badly-written law.

No, it was a test. There were twenty of us in a room filling in multiple-choice bubbles. This was one of (I believe) three such groups. And all of this was for a part-time job. It seems to me that the municipality in question must have decided that every applicant would be given a standard test for municipal employees, and that only after the test had been taken and graded would the employer be able to choose who to interview. It’s all fair and aboveboard. And, of course, they purchased a test from some company, which presumably charges them for every test they grade. Also, they take four to six weeks to grade the tests.

Evidently there is some sort of “Secure Test” provision in the copyright law, which according to the introduction to the test I took, makes it a copyright infringement for me to repeat any of the questions on the test, even in paraphrase. This seems preposterous to me, but then there are many, many things about copyright law that seem preposterous to me. The paper they made us sign indicated that if we were to leave the test and write down any of the questions, it would be an illegal copyright infringement just as it would be an infringement to listen to a song on the radio and write it down. I’m not sure what they meant by writing it down—the lyrics? the melody? the chord changes? the title?—but I’m absolutely sure that whatever it means it would not by itself constitute an infringement. On the other hand, who knows what a judge will say?

So I would like to make it clear that I did not write down the questions, nor are any of the questions I may use as examples actually on the test. Clear? Yes? Good? Excellent.

We watched a video, where public employees dealt with the public and each other in various capacities. A problem would arise, and we would be given four choices of potential responses, from which to choose the best one. As for instance,

A barefoot patron wants to be served, despite the sign indicating the office’s policy no shirt, no shoes, no service. Would you (A) turn the patron away, telling him that there are no exceptions to the policy, (B) shout “HEY RUBE, were you born in a BARN?” as loud as you can, (C) offer to lend the patron your shoes, or (D) kneecap the fucker.

It turns out, surprisingly that kneecap the fucker is often the preferred alternative. Again:

Your co-worker returns from her lunch break stinking of whiskey. She appears to be fully capable of doing her job, but she is giggling quite a lot. Would you (A) tell your supervisor that your co-worker is off her ass again, falsely claiming that it’s the third time that week, (B) ask your co-worker if she is free for lunch tomorrow, (C) draw your co-worker’s inebriation to the attention of the patrons, for a laugh, or (D) kneecap the fucker?

I suspect that the actual value of the test lies primarily in removing from consideration the bottom half or so of applicants, those who can’t or won’t properly fill out the forms. Certainly the actual answers to the questions would tell you very little about what kind of an employee the applicant would make.

A patron indicates to you that he knows people who could have you killed. Would you (A) expedite his request, (B) secretly tape the conversation and then blackmail the patron into killing your co-worker instead, (C) play dumb, or (D) kneecap the fucker?

Honestly, once kneecap the fucker occurs to you, it’s hard to keep from laughing out loud at the video test.

A co-worker claims that the supervisor gave him a raise of a grand a month on the condition that he kicks half of it back to her. Would you (A) go to the supervisor and demand the same deal, (B) ask your co-worker how much half a grand is, (C) start demanding baksheesh from all the patrons, or (D) kneecap the fucker?

I want you all, Gentle Readers, to keep in mind when next you interact with a municipal employee, that every effort has been made to choose only the best from a large crop of extremely impressive applicants.

Your co-workers say that the new supervisor is a cold, inhuman bitch, but you think she’s kinda hot. Would you (A) pretend that you agree with your co-workers in an attempt to get along, (B) ask your supervisor out, (C) send your supervisor and your co-workers pornographic pictures from a spoofed email, or (D) kneecap the fucker.

Somehow, I don’t think I’m going to be working for these people.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 7, 2007

Hatchet Job

Having said nice things about the Internet recently, Your Humble Blogger feels compelled to take the old hatchet to it today. Actually, it’s not the Internet, as such, that is the focus of my ire. It’s the people who believe in the Internet. Particularly, the people who believe that Politics is now About the Internet.

Zack Exley has written an essay called Will Obama put on the makeup? full of unsolicited advice for one presidential candidate, but the advice is meant to be generalizable to all candidates for all offices. He says that he’s “had a chance to make this pitch to many candidates and politicians over the last several years”, and evidently took that chance. So Mr. Exley isn’t talking about Sen. Obama; he’s talking about the Way the World Is Now. And he’s wrong.

His main point is an analogy between the Internet now and television in 1960. If y’all don’t know the story, it’s a fundamental how-the-world-works story for modern politics, so it’s helpful to know it. In 1960, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy had a television debate, and because then Vice-President Nixon refused to wear makeup, he came off very badly. People who listened over the radio thought that the veep had won the debate (vaddevah dat means), but the larger television audience thought that the young Senator won it (again, vaddevah dat means), and that was the difference in the election. This story is no less powerful for being essentially false; Senator Kennedy squeaked through in a very close election for more reasons than his comfort with television, and besides, it was certainly close enough that the less television-friendly candidate might well have been elected.

Mr. Exley insists that “For the Internet in politics, it’s 1960 again.” Or, of course, it’s 1956. Or 1952. You know, years where television existed, but failed to make any significant difference in the election. How does he know that it’s 1960, rather than 1952? He’s very experienced with the internet, true, but that’s exactly why he is in the worst position to judge. I’m sure that loads of television people, including Adlai Stevenson’s (and Richard Nixon’s) teevee advisers in 1952, told him that this was like FDR and radio, that the first candidate to “get it” would win in a landslide. And, of course, Mr. Exley himself was telling people that the Internet was It in 2004, and quite likely in 2000, as well. He was wrong.

By the way, in 1952, Richard Nixon went on television to tell the country that he wasn’t a crook, and that Pat Nixon wore a respectable Republican cloth coat, and that his family was going to keep Checkers, the dog. People who watched on television thought he was a crook, but the far larger audience who listened over the radio supported him. That, too, is a story with layers of falsehood, but it’s just as instructive as the 1960 one, I think.

Gentle Readers, it’s possible—just—that 2008 will be The Year That The Internet Was More Important Than Previously, that we have reached some sort of tipping point where most voters will use the internet to make up their minds about the candidates. I doubt it, myself. I could be wrong. My point is that we won’t know until we are wrong. We will know that the internet is king when someone who ought to have won if it weren’t for the internet loses. Nobody wants to be that candidate, but nobody wants to be Gov. Dean, either.

Remember Gov. Dean, when he was a candidate? He was the proof that Everything had Changed. Unlike all the other times when non-voters were going to realio trulio vote, his non-voters were going to realio trulio vote. Except they didn’t. Because everything hadn’t changed, and even though he ran a very nice campaign on the internet, he didn’t do so hot when it came to all that old-fashioned stuff, like convincing people who actually vote to vote for him, rather than a different guy. Yes, there were lots of other reasons for that. My point is that Gov. Dean was always a longshot, and the claim was that his campaign would overcome that because of the power of the internet, and it just wasn’t powerful enough. Sure, and this year, it’s more powerful than it was. That doesn’t mean it’s powerful enough.

Finally, I’ll point out that Mr. Exley seems to want Sen. Obama to run a campaign focused almost entirely on the Internet as a medium. I know, he doesn’t say that he needs to stop doing the old-fashioned retail politics and going to potlucks with union guys and street-corner rallies. He just wants Sen. Obama to take the time and energy he had put into campaigning the old way and put it into campaigning the new way. Yes, Mr. Exley seems to think it would just be the fund-raising t&e, but he’s also suggesting a public-relations ploy that would take all the focus off every other issue, style or coalition, and put it plumb spang on the Internet. Maybe that is a good idea. But it certainly isn’t what John F. Kennedy did with television in 1960, and thank the Lord for that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 13, 2005


Your Humble Blogger finally saw De-Lovely. If y’all had forgotten, or more likely never heard, about De-Lovely, it was last year’s Cole Porter bio-pic, the one with Kevin Kline, the one that was trashed for using a variety of theatrical techniques. I was terribly excited about it when it came out. I’m a huge fan of Cole Porter’s songs, I’m a huge fan of Kevin Kline’s acting (and singing), and I am a fairly big fan of the sort of theatrical techniques that the reviews seemed to dislike. I was also interested to see how the movie would handle Mr. Porter’s bisexuality; the idea that the topic is controversial was absurd, but it’s a matter of some interest to me personally.

So it’s too bad that the movie stunk so much.

When I talk about the theatrical techniques, I’m talking about the sort of thing I think would work much better on stage, and I’m not sure why that would be. The basic frame is that Mr. Porter, at the moment of his dying, is greeted by ... Death? The Lord? Gabriel? ... a faintly ominous but courteous and not overtly threatening director/producer, who takes Old Cole (if you will) into a theater where he is beginning rehearsals (or something) for, well, for the movie we’re watching. Old Cole complains, suggests, and acts! as he watches various scenes from his life played out, sometimes naturalistically and sometimes in one or another non-naturalistic style. It’s not always easy to tell what’s what.

The bio-pic part begins with young Mr. Porter meeting his wife-to-be at a party in Paris. This is terribly confusing. There’s no way to know when it is, other than how people are dressed. Kevin Kline is middle-aged, with enough makeup to make him plausibly youngish, but we can’t really tell how old he is, and besides, we don’t know when he was born. Then he and his buddy (who are playing the piano and singing) go into “Well, Did You Evah”, and the audience/partygoers respond as in a musical, joining in on the chorus in practiced harmonies and taking solos in turn. Actually, he meets Linda Thomas in 1918, when he’s twenty-seven or so, and he doesn’t write “Well, Did You Evah” until 1939. If you don’t know anything about Mr. Porter, you won’t know that, but also won’t know whether Mr. Porter is, at that stage, a professional songwriter, a well-known amateur songwriter, or just a fellow who has written a few songs. In fact, he was a well-known amateur songwriter, which is a difficult thing to imagine, but there it is.

The thing that’s really confusing is that although there are elements of a musical (everybody immediately knows the words and has lovely voices, and when they sing, they sing in harmony, as if they’ve been rehearsing for weeks) but also elements of the movie-with-music (the characters are at the instruments, and have a reason to be singing rather than the song being a mode of expression). In the next number, again Mr. Porter plays the piano and sings (anachronistically) to Ms. Thomas (Ms. Porter to be), but this time when he gets up from the piano to dance, there is still piano music. On the other hand, the dancing belongs to the movie-with-music genre; it’s a goofy guy dancing in a park, out-of-the-ordinary behaviour. It’s difficult to settle into the movie, because it’s hard to tell what kind of movie it is. The devices don’t seem to have any real logic to them, or even any compelling sort of illogic. They just happen, and sometimes they work and more often they don’t.

Similarly, the use of recognizable performers (Elvis Costello sings at one party, Robbie Williams at another, Alanis Morrisette appears as an ingénue, etc, etc) doesn’t work, partly because they aren’t terribly good or interesting renditions, but partially because they were out of place without there being much point to the out-of-place-ness. Was it a comment on how influential Mr. Porter’s music remains? Was it a comment on how we in the audience bring our own cultural frames to the story and to the music? Was it a cynical grab for publicity? I dunno. I would have been satisfied with the last, by the way, had it been handled with skill and grace.

In the end, then, there were a lot of Film! touches that failed to dazzle me, which leaves me with the characters, plot and acting. The plot was haphazard; they (I assume deliberately) chose to tell the story as if the audience all knew it already, and didn’t force it into a narrative. Which is too bad for me, but there it is. The characters were, well, Cole Porter was the genius-who-can’t-really-love sort of character, and Linda Porter was the wife-who-needs-love character. I found his promiscuity annoying, and I found her passive-aggressive reaction annoying, where she tells him that it’s fine but then sulks. There wasn’t much made of the fact that he sleeps with men, particularly, other than that it opens him up to blackmail. I mean, he was in the little secret society of gay theater people, but he was in that because he was in the theater, anyway, and nothing was made of what it is like to be in that society. Certainly there was no sense that he disliked any aspect of it. And other than Mr. and Ms. Porter, there were no other characters worth mentioning. The men were pretty but faceless, the buddies were buddy-like, the stooges were stooge-like. Not even entertainingly written—I was particularly disappointed in Monty Woolley, who they barely bothered to write at all. As for the acting, well, and it was good. Kevin Kline, particularly, was likeable in an unlikable part, wearing old-guy makeup and being all wistful an stuff. Ashley Judd was also good, although she had much less to do.

The frustrating thing is that it might have been really good. The idea of having Old Cole make a musical about Cole Porter, using his own music, and having an interfering Director/Producer battle him for creative control, well, I think that’s actually a good idea. Lee Blessing could really do something with that. I might have Old Cole want to tell the ‘true story’ and the Director just want butts-in-seats. Or make Mr. Woolley the Director, maybe, wanting the show to be about homosexuality, while Old Cole wants to keep the closet door closed. Something. Anyway, allow the major characters, particularly Ms. Porter, to comment on their roles and how they want to play them, and what they want to sing. It could be really good. It would only work on stage, I think, although that may be my own bias.

And, of course, it might stink. I mean, somebody thought this movie was the way to go, and it sure sounded good to me. Ah, well. There’s always another movie.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

September 16, 2005


I hope y’all Gentle Readers are aware that Your Humble Blogger yields to no one in admiration for the Constitution of the United States, a magnificent and profound advance in governmental philosophy and practice, and a blueprint that has proven, over two hundred and seventeen—almost two hundred and eighteen, now—years to be the backbone of an astonishingly long reign of peace, prosperity and stability. Well, and I do actually yield to those people who give it the status of Scripture, who feel that it was not just Divinely Inspired but Revealed. That bit of rhetorical hyberbole aside, I feel that an education in this country at any levels must, to be really good and helpful and proper and whatnot, include an explanation of the Constitution, in proper context for whatever level the student is at.

Let me say that again, before I get into the griping which Gentle Readers know, just know is waiting behind the puff-piece introduction: The Constitution is almost unimaginably marvelous, worthy of study, central to the extraordinary success the United States has had, and an important part of an American education. Furthermore, we should celebrate the Constitution as an American achievement—and it is in many ways a uniquely American achievement. Over the last ten years or so, my admiration for the Constitution has grown immensely, as we have seen the House and the Senate play out their appropriate roles, the Executive, the Legislative and the Judicial branches tug out their prerogatives, and the dead hand of James Madison keeping everything under control. Can anyone imagine what the rise of the Right in this country would have looked like if we had a system like Italy’s or Israel’s or even Britain’s? Can you imagine what Grover Norquist would have been able to do? Oh, Lord, thank you for James Madison, and thank you for the Constitution. OK? So you know where I’m coming from.

And yet, somehow, it doesn’t make me happy at all to discover this morning (thank you, Best Reader) that the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2005 (118 Stat. 2809, 3344-45 (Section 111)) as implemented by the Department of Education (see the Federal Register, 70(99), p. 29727) reads, in Division J: Other Matters, Title 1: Miscellaneous Provisions and Offsets, Section 111, part (b): Each educational institution that receives Federal funds for a fiscal year shall hold an educational program on the United States Constitution on September 17 of such year for the students served by the educational institution. The implementation allows that in years where September 17 falls on Saturday or Sunday, the institutions may hold such programs on the week before or after.

In other words, in order to celebrate the U.S. Constitition, our federal legislature demands that local schools alter their schedules.

Now, I am not arguing that such a law is unconstitutional. I happen to agree with decided doctrine which essentially agrees that once an institution that would not ordinarily fall under federal regulation accepts federal dollars it also accepts a certain amount of federal regulation. The question is not whether such a law should be overturned by the courts. My question is whether the law is a good idea.

Er, no.

I think it would be swell if schools celebrated our Constitution, and Constitution Day is as good a time as any to organize such a celebration. Heck, I would be pleased as proverbial if Left Blogovia decided to celebrate the Constitution tomorrow with a Favorite Five Constitutional Provisions meme. You hear? Atrios? Amanda? Matt? Josh? But there’s a difference between thinking something is a good idea and thinking that mandating that thing is a good idea. We can celebrate our Constitution, we can celebrate our Constitution in schools and libraries (is a public library included in “educational institutions” under the meaning of the act? What about a museum? What about a worker training program?), we can arrange a day to all celebrate it together, and that’s great. But what the hell is it doing in the law?

You know, I suspect if legislators spent more time thinking about the Constitution, studying it, you know, getting a sense of the thing and their place in it, we’d have less of this crap. Or maybe not. It’s hard to tell. A fellow might get frustrated by local schools failing at civic education, and try to mandate it. You can pass laws, but you can’t make civic education happen. And I don’t know who introduced this stupidity, and I don’t care if it was a Democrat or a Republican. Even if it was Senator Byrd (and it wouldn’t surprise me if it was, honestly), I hold that whoever it was should be mocked, publicly, for a thousand years. We could make the Public Mocking of the Stupid Legislator part of our Constitution Day festivities. Maybe we should.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

May 26, 2005

Card, playing, right?

So, Gentle Reader, I’m sure that you have already decided that you have better things to do than to worry about that essay everybody keeps blogging, where Orson Scott Card debunks the Force. Or something. His conclusion appears to be that “it might not be such a good thing if the Star Wars films become the first movies to lead to a real-world religion.” Ohhhhhh-kay. Let’s put that to a vote, shall we? Everyone who agrees with that, go out through that door, and everyone who thinks it would be just swell for the Star Wars films to lead to a real-world religion go through this door over here, and wait in the padded room until the nice man in the white coat comes with lunch.

No, really, what he’s examining is why people call themselves Jedi. That is, he notes that some people have filled in “Jedi” on census reports and, according to Mr. Card, consider the Force their personal savior. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh-kay. I’m putting the over-under at, oh, let’s be generous, twenty. Everybody who thinks that there are fewer than twenty people in the world who realio trulio think of themselves as Jedi and consider the Force as their personal savior, go out through that door, and everybody who thinks there are more than twenty such people go through this door over here, and wait in the padded room until the nice man in the white coat comes with dinner.

Well, now, I think that’s the end of that issue, yes? Oh, no, I forgot, I was going to mock Mr. Card a trifle more. You see, Mr. Card refutes the Force, or its followers, or whatever the fuck he’s talking about, with lots of references to RatS. So, now, Gentle Readers, what to you figure is a fair over-under for number of people who relio-trulio think of themselves as Jedi, and came to do so only after watching RatS, but before Mr. Card’s column on or around the 21st of the month? Let’s see, think think think ... would one be too high? Is it possible that somebody might seriously think that more than one person seriously adopted the Jedi faith due to its portrayal in EpiThree? No, it isn’t possible. No, I can’t really imagine that Mr. Card thinks that, either.

So, um, what was he thinking, exactly?

April 3, 2005

We Do Not Stock Oxymorons

It seems as if Your Humble Blogger has yet to write a Puff Piece on A.Word.a.Day, Anu Garg’s tremendously entertaining service where he emails you, well, a word a day. Unlike some other seemingly similar services I’ve tried, Mr. Garg often chooses words that even my Gentle Readers will be unfamiliar with, and which are interesting in themselves. I have learned, on a few occasions, that I have been using a word incorrectly, and on many more, I have found that there is a word for something that I had always thought no single word described. For instance, where I have always used avuncular to refer to the particular affection an uncle shows his nieces and nephews, I had never heard materteral, which means much the same only referring to an aunt. I can now say that, for instance, a certain ex-boss looked out for the people in her employ with a materteral eye, not quite maternal, and certainly not grandmotherly. True, I’d have to explain what it means, but only once or twice, right?

As I say, it’s too bad I haven’t written a Puff Piece, because I’m all cranky about one of the daily notes, and as it’s so much easier to write hatchet jobs than puff pieces, here we are. Or perhaps it much easier to refrain from writing the puff pieces. Anyway.

This week’s began very nicely with three “words about wordplay”: antanaclasis, paralipsis, and antiphrasis. All of these are great and useful words, and describe quite specifically certain rhetorical figures that come up far more frequently than the words that describe them. So far, so good. Then came Thursday, and Thursday’s word was oxymoron.

Oxymoron has been a pet peeve of mine as far back as I can recall. Mr. Garg’s definition is typical: A figure of speech in which two contradictory terms appear together for emphasis, for example, “deafening silence”. For comparison, the American Heritage fourth edition’s is quite similar: A rhetorical figure in which incongruous or contradictory terms are combined, as in a deafening silence and a mournful optimist. I’ll go ahead and quote from ooo is for oxymoron, from Jed’s late lamented column:

An oxymoron is what columnist Herb Caen used to call a "self-cancelling phrase"—a phrase which is internally contradictory. An oxymoron usually consists of two words which appear to be opposite in meaning. Often the apparent contradiction is simply due to the words in the phrase having other meanings than the intended ones. For instance, the phrase "even odds" makes perfect sense in its intended meaning, but it's often cited as an oxymoron because other meanings of "even" and "odd" are opposites of each other.

What Jed gets at here that the other two definitions miss is that the words in the phrase appear to contradict each other, but do not. The appearance of contradiction is the rhetorical trick. An oxymoron is not a phrase that actually does contradict itself, but one that appears to. So “deafening silence” is an oxymoron, because we ordinarily think of deafening as being more or less a synonym for loud, and in that sense it would contradict silence. In this case of course, either (more rarely) we are talking literally, as the total absence of sound (or silence) has the effect of somehow deafening someone (through atrophy?), or (more likely) we are using deafening to mean something like having the same social effect as a really loud noise, such as a person screaming abuse. As the common use of metaphor is to compare a thing to a thing that it is unlike, these phrases are very common. Jumbo shrimp is commonly called an oxymoron; Jumbo, was, of course, P.T. Barnum’s prize elephant and thus things that are elephantine, er, large are often called jumbo, whereas shrimp are quite small, and thus things that are small are often called shrimpy or shrimps. But shrimp is not used here to (metaphorically) mean small, just to mean (literally) shrimp. But jumbo prawn is not considered an oxymoron, nor does jumbo eggs, and eggs aren’t much larger than shrimp, because one metaphor is common and another isn’t.

Probably about two-thirds of the phrases that show up on lists such as Jed’s or the one from are derived this way. In dry wine, dry is a less-commonly-used meaning, derived from metaphor. In Plastic glasses, glass is a commonly-used Schenectady, but the point is the same. In taped live or recorded live, live means neither live nor the metaphorical live nor yet the extended metaphor live, but the common descriptor derived from that metaphor, live, which makes it no contradiction at all. But those aren’t very interesting, other than to notice how words have a variety of different uses, and they aren’t responsible for them all at once. Anyway, it’s OK to call those oxymorons, technically, although most of them really they are sub-oxymorons, accidental juxtapositions due to the migration of words, having little rhetorical effect.

I would reserve the word, ideally, for the deliberate use of apparently contradictory words to either emphasize (deafening silence) or make a joke, or just draw attention to the words themselves. If I describe a particular celebrity as scandalously nice, or a novel as sublimely bad, I am using the rhetorical trick of an oxymoron, and I may be using it effectively, too. If a name a song Freezing Fire, I’m using an attention-getting rhetorical trick, and perhaps effectively, too. And if Milton (in Paradise Lost) says

Yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe
it’s pretty damned effective. And the point, you know, of these things having names is that they are, potentially, effective tricks, and knowing about them, being able to differentiate one from another and spot them in the wild can help you either become an effective speaker/writer, or build up immunity to effective writers and speakers.

Now, there’s a third category of things often called oxymorons. These are joke oxymorons, phrases which contain no inherent contradiction, either actual or metaphoric, but which are called oxymorons as a joke. As Jed wrote, “to say that "California culture" is an oxymoron is to say that there is no culture in California, or that all Californians are uncultured.” In other words, the phrase California culture can only be called an oxymoron in jest or in insult. Similarly, it’s a fairly good, if tired, joke to claim that military intelligence is an oxymoron. It isn’t. If it was, the joke wouldn’t be funny. No, it isn’t funny anyway, but there it is. It could be funny. It’s theoretically funny. Similarly, if you call the phrase Christian Science an oxymoron, you are making a weak joke, or weakly insulting Christians, or scientists, or members of TCCS or something. What you are not doing is actually claiming that Christian Science is an oxymoron. And that’s fine. Until someone tries to tell you what an oxymoron is by using a joke oxymoron.

The AWAD definition was fine (if incomplete), but here’s the example, from an article called “The Family That Cheats Together”, by Karen D'Souza in the Mar 25, 2005 San Jose Mercury News: “A man for whom the term 'business ethics' is not just a polite oxymoron...” I understand that Ms. D’Souza was, herself, making a joke, and although I would have been gritting my teeth whilst reading it, I would have eventually let it go. I would not, not ever, have used it as an example. American Rhetoric, an otherwise terrific resource chooses as its example a line from a movie: “Safe sex -- now there's an oxymoron. That's like 'tactical Nuke' or 'adult male'.” Hahaha. Yes, I actually think it’s funny (funny-once) to call adult male an oxymoron. See, it’s a joke. It’s not an example. It’s not an example, people! It’s just not! It may be funny to say that if you look up choke in the dictionary you’ll see the 2004 Yankees team picture. It would not be funny for the dictionary to place that picture there. Well, it would be funny, but it wouldn’t be responsible.

Most of the time I see an example of oxymoron, it’s one of those joke ones. On occasion, it’s one of the accidental ones, such as jumbo shrimp or home office. Is it asking too much to use the Milton? Then how about Tennyson’s “His honor rooted in dishonor stood / And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true” (from Lancelot and Elaine)? John Donne’s “O miserable abundance / O beggarly riches”? Edmund Spenser’s “painful pleasure turns to pleasing pain”? Or Shakespeare’s “fearful bravery” (“thinking by this face / To fasten in our thoughts that they have courage”)? John F. Kennedy’s “peaceful revolution of hope”?

Well, and now that I’ve ranted for a ludicrous amount of time, I see that Wikipedia’s entry actually is rather good. So that’s all right. And even Richard Lederer after his usual blather eventually admits that it is a legitimate literary technique, although as usual he prefers mockery to explication. But I’m not just whistling in the wind, here.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,