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May 25, 2017

Manchester England England, across the Atlantic Sea

The Manchester Arena murders have shaken me up more than I would have expected. I’m not sure why. Or rather, I’m not sure what weights the various reasons have—it is an attack specifically aimed at girls more or less the age of my daughters and nieces; my primary news source is the (formerly-Manchester) Guardian; I am a pathetic Anglophile; I’m having a bit of a bad and stressful month on minor matters; the Giants stink. It’s raining. There’s some sort of clear-eyed objective analysis in which these particular murders are no worse than others, and that analysis is obviously correct, but not for me, or at any rate not yet.

Part of it is—I can’t recall whether I have hocked this particular kettle in this venue before and I haven’t the heart to go looking through my archive—that this is just another instance of the truth that we can’t live with: there is no way to stop people from killing people. With the information and technology available to people, almost anyone who really wants to can find a way to kill ten or twenty strangers, and perhaps injure another another fifty. That will continue to be true as long as we’re living in an even vaguely recognizable world, and I certainly am not wishing for the collapse of civilization to bring about the end of mass murder. Nothing we can reasonably do, and certainly nothing I can imagine us actually doing in the US or Western Europe is going to change it: people who really want to will be able to kill and maim dozens of strangers. Guns, bombs, poison. I mean, there haven’t been so many poison attacks, I suppose we’ve been lucky. Er, lucky is the wrong word, but.

I mean, in truth we are lucky: hardly anyone wants to kill large numbers of strangers. Or at least hardly anyone wants to do that in a sustained way that leads to them actually doing it. Which is great! Because really, the only way that we’re going to have fewer of these attacks is to have fewer people want to do them. And it’s perhaps at least somewhat comforting, eventually, to think how few people do kill dozens of strangers, even though they could.

Part of my despair, though, is that I don’t see how we work toward making that number go down from its already low amount, viewed as a percentage of the populace, to an even smaller number so that we wouldn’t have these attacks happening a few times a year. As they didn’t happen a few times a year back in my youth, at least to my memory. Is that a real description of the world that existed, or an artifact of privilege? Is the difference that these murders are real in my life now, and they were not when they took place in Peru or Colombia or Sri Lanka and were not powerfully described in a language I read, in newspapers I read several times a day? I have no idea, and I don’t know that it matters all that much. In my experience, these things didn’t happen very often before, and now they happen every few months, and that experience is the same whether it accurately reflects the universe or not.

And anyway, the point is: how to we keep people from wanting to murder dozens of strangers? And the answer is: I have no idea.

Most political terrorism (and the Manchester Arena bombing certainly appears to have been political terrorism) happens in a context where a group of people that includes the terrorists feels that they are being occupied by a different group of (perceived) outside oppressors. Often that’s a pretty accurate assessment, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s appropriate for the occupying oppressors to, well, stop with the oppressing and occupying, and sometimes that means fewer acts of terror later—tho’ these things are terribly complicated, of course, and I would hesitate to say that there’s anything useful to be repeated from responses to Haganah or the ANC or the Tamil Tigers. Still: most political terrorism is, well, political, and there are at least potentially political responses that might lessen the power of those urging more terror.

It’s possible that there exists, potentially, a political solution to ISIS-influenced terror in Western Europe and North America. I guess? I mean, I can’t rule out the possibility. I don’t have any sense of what such a political response would be. It’s easy to say ’stop bombing’, and of course it should be at least conceivable that we would stop bombing, or at least stop bombing civilians, or at least stop killing quite so many civilians when we do bomb… it’s worth a try, isn’t it? And yet: I think that the kind of occupation that feeds the grievances that influence a person to want to kill large numbers of total strangers in France or England or Belgium or Germany is as much a kind of cultural occupation as a military one. And I can’t see any way for that to stop.

I don’t really want to get used to there being a horrific incident like this one every few months. I don’t think there’s any practical way to prevent there being a horrific incident like this one every few months. It’s at times like this that my motto seems… unpleasantly accurate.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 6, 2017

Dept. of Truly Terrible Ideas

OK, this makes me really angry: Chicago Mayor Touts New Requirement to Graduate: Proof of a Plan.

Chicago Public School students who want to graduate will have to show proof that they have a plan after high school—such as providing an offer letter for a job or acceptance into college or military service, under a plan expected to be approved next month.

The best-case scenario is that they will not actually hold anyone's diploma, waiving the 'requirement' for any kid that should graduate. The exception listed in Tawnell D. Hobbs' article I linked to above already include “acceptance letters for a job program; a trade or apprenticeship program; or a ‘gap-year' program, which could include travel, volunteer work or research before resuming the academic career.” He also notes that exemptions would be available for undocumented students, or students with criminal records that keep them out of work, or other “life challenges”. In other words, anyone they want to exempt will be exempt, but the teachers, guidance counsellors and principals will have to file a bunch of useless paperwork. If they really exempt everybody from this so-called requirement, then it's just a stupid and inconvenient waste of time and money. That's the best-case scenario.

The other option is that they will realio trulio make the schools pick a handful of troublemakers and refuse to grant them the diploma they earned. Anyone with connections, or money, or helpful family members (willing and able, f'r'ex, to hire a nephew for a month or so) or the ability to muster a fanbase willing to shame the school in public will of course get a waiver. Then, once you have identified the most vulnerable, worst-off, least-privileged kids in Chicago who would at least have earned a high-school diploma, you just flat-out refuse to give it to them. Hey, pregnant teen with father long dead and mother with a criminal record—why bother showing up and finishing the requirements for your diploma? We're not going to give it to you anyway!

And then, on top of everything else, this is going to wind up encouraging a bunch of teenagers who shouldn't be in college to sign up for courses they don't need, won't pass and can't pay for. Yeesh.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 30, 2017

Rally round the flag, boys and girls

I want to write up my experience of yesterday's protest rally at Bradley International Airport, protesting Our Only President's Executive Order banning refugees from Serbia and blocking visitors from several other nations.

I'll begin, I guess, with Friday the 27th, when the Executive Order was signed. That was also International Holocaust Remembrance Day (y'all know this but somehow I feel like I am writing for posterity, or at least for my children's children, should they someday ask where were you?) and I saw the extremely powerful piece on Twitter where someone tweeted out a name from the manifest of the St. Louis and in which Nazi death camp they met their eventual death after being turned away in 1939. Every five minutes, a name went out, all day long. Every one of those people we, as a nation, could have saved, but chose not to. And it was on that day that Our Only President decided to stop taking in refugees.

Saturday, I spent a lovely day with my family, at home. Safely. Reading, on the internet, about the incredibly awful actions of our government, what the Lawfare Blog described as Malevolence Tempered by Incompetence. I have never been so shocked by our Government. And as that shock grew over the course of the day, so too did my pride in the America who came out to oppose the horror being perpetrated in our names—the attorneys, most of all, but the thousands and thousands of people who stood up to be counted and to agitate for change.

Now, I'm a comfortable middle-aged white guy, who likes perhaps more than anything in the world my quiet and comfortable life. I think the last time I went to a protest was in January of 1987, when Evan Mecham rescinded Martin Luther King Day for the State of Arizona. As inspiring as I find it when other people go and march, I don't like crowds and I don't like hassle. Without wanting to speak for her, My Best Reader feels much the same except her dislike of crowds and hassle is more intense than mine. (As a f'r'instance, there was no consideration whatsoever of her attending the Women's March the weekend before.) So when, on Sunday morning, I mentioned that there was a rally at Bradley in the afternoon, she made a face, and I agreed.

Our children were at Hebrew School all morning, which meant that my Best Reader and I had a quiet morning in which to do some household chores, cook sausages and read the internet. And after each of us had our bouts of quiet weeping or rageful quoting from our news sources, at some point my Best Reader looked at me and said: We have to go this afternoon, don't we? And I said: I guess we do.

And we did. We picked the kids up and drove out to Bradley, which (if y'all Gentle Readers are either the Nachgeborenen or Californians or whatnot) is pretty much half an hour from anywhere else. We explained to the kids what we were doing and why, and they seemed on board with it. When we arrived at the airport at 1:30, there was a line of cars to get in to the short-term parking garage that was unlike anything I had seen there on the busiest days—I mean, often I can just pull up and get the ticket, but sometimes there have been two or three or even five cars; yesterday there were perhaps thirty. It all went very smoothly, mind you, although I wouldn't have wanted to be trying to catch a plane in the afternoon. Still, the airport opened its overflow parking, and nearly everyone we saw walking over to the terminal had protest signs. We were all fairly cheerful and polite, and as we entered the terminal we were able to pick out a contingency meeting space for our family which would also be fine for sitting quietly if anyone found the noise and crowd overwhelming. And then we joined the throng.

I have no idea how many people were there. The Hartford Courant reports at least a thousand, but I don't know how they estimated. It was inside, and we were spread along the side of the large baggage-control space on either side of the central escalators, so there wasn't any one spot from which you could see (or hear) everyone. And, of course, there were people still arriving when we left. I would be surprised if there were fewer than a thousand people who were there at some point during the day, but it was big and noisy and crowded, far too much so for me to attempt to find the people I know who the internet told me were also there. It was certainly a lot of people, and the organizer (from CT-CAIR) appeared to be pleased and surprised by the turnout.

We stood behind the blue tensabarrier, holding our signs, as people with enormous cameras (still and video) walked back and forth. We chanted (Tell me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like! and Hey hey ho ho/The muslim ban has got to go) and every now and then somebody would come around and try to talk to the crowd, but it was impossible to hear them. More people arrived every few minutes and stood near the tensabarrier; every now and then someone would ask us to stay behind it and we would let them in and crowd a little more. We nodded and smiled at the people near us, but did not attempt to engage them in conversation; chanting and chatting are not really compatible. And, of course, we were all nice suburban Connecticut folk, so I don't think anyone really felt the need to engage with each other more than politeness required. Our family stayed right by the barrier for a quick exit, which we made, after an hour or so. The event was more than half over by its official advertised schedule at that point, although I have no idea how long it lasted.

It was all very pleasant and suburban and authorized. There was no challenge to it, particularly. Such security people as I saw appeared calm and relaxed. Our Lieutenant Governor appeared and assured us that the Governor supported our efforts. Evidently at some point the state's Attorney General came through (it is an airport, after all) and made an impromptu speech laying out his efforts to challenge the Executive Order in court. Someone handed out copies of the Constitution. If the rally had been at Bushnell Park by the state capitol, or in some other area with insufficient parking and ill-defined boundaries, and if it had been aimed at rather than aligned with our local authorities, it would have been more difficult to decide to go. I like to think we would have gone, but I can't deny that knowing the location was half-an-hour from anywhere and that the whole state was on our side made it all seem more likely to go smoothly and calmly.

My kids seemed to enjoy it: the chanting, the passion, the challenging of authority. I resented having to be there. I'm forty-seven years old. I don't want to go to protest marches. My daughter is fifteen—she should be appalled at things, and be outraged that we, her comfortable middle-aged middle-class parents, accept appalling things as that combination of inevitable and temporary that most appalling things really are. I did not want to be there. I do not want to hold a crude hand-written sign; I want there to be Young Persons who hold crude hand-written signs while I write thousand-word essays tut-tutting about short-sightedness and narrowness. I don't like standing on my feet for a long time; I like sitting in a comfortable chair, reading about protests on the internet. I don't like chanting; I like pretentious and prolix pontification.

Sometime Gentle Reader Benjamin Rosenbaum stormed on Twitter recently saying (among other things):

That resentment pretty much matches how I feel about yesterday's protest. I don't feel proud of having gone; I didn't particularly enjoy it (nor the opposite); I just didn't want to have to go.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 26, 2017

Unconfirmed Suspicion

Just a point about Senator Warren’s vote to confirm Ben Carson—her explanation is risibly inadequate, and Jon Bernstein’s semi-defense is not very persuasive either—surely the risk of a dysfunctional Party is in one that primaries its legislators for being out-of-step on symbolic votes more than a Party whose legislators are, you know, in step on symbolic votes and don’t get primaried.

Still, and as a person who knows nothing whatsoever I feel I can say this aloud where people who perhaps might be expected to know things cannot, the obvious explanation is that Sen. Warren has traded her vote in this case for a Republican vote on (f’r’ex) Betsy DeVos. And part of that deal would be denying the existence of a deal. And it would be an excellent deal! Secretary Carson (ugh) was going to be confirmed by a Republican Senate Caucus that clearly doesn’t give a shit about anything of any kind. In general, Senators can trade symbolic votes for votes that change real outcomes, that’s excellent work.

I don’t mean to suggest that there’s no cost there, or that we shouldn’t be calling her offices to express our displeasure, or that we all just calm down. Don’t be calm! Now is not the time for calm! There will be time for calm someday, this I do believe, deep in my heart, there will be time for calm someday. But that day is not now. In fact, part of what would make such a hypothetical deal work is Sen. Warren taking a huge amount of heat for her end, very publicly. I’m just saying that (a) Elizabeth Warren is smarter than I am, and surely smarter than that Facebook post, that (2) trading votes is a normal part of government functioning, and I would dearly love to believe in the possibility of normal functioning of government right now, and (iii) that normal functioning of government always feels dirty and ugly.

Barney Frank said in his book that the important thing about a political event is that if, after it’s over, everyone feels better about themselves, nothing has been actually accomplished. I don’t agree with that—I believe in the long-term power of inspiration, demonstration and community—but it’s surely true that getting anything accomplished requires at some point some meetings that people would really rather not have had. I’m hoping Sen. Warren has been at some of those this week.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 4, 2017

Eighteen is still three sixes

So. Every now and then Your Humble Blogger looks at seniority in the Senate and asks: how many current Senators would you guess have been serving for two full terms? How many for three? How many for more than three? As (a) we have a shiny new Senate today, and (2) my old APDA buddy is making term-limit noises to what I'm sure will be great acclaim, it seems like a good time to take a peek.

Now. Here's the list.

To answer my question, not about your guesses, which if you have been here a while may be fairly accurate, but about the actual Senate. Those who have served two full terms would have taken office in January 2005, right? There were three Senators who started in 2005 and were sworn in to a third term yesterday. Counting them, there are 30 who have served at least 12 years, meaning that there are 70 who have been serving less than two full terms. This has changed a lot from the first time I looked, eight years ago, when it was 47/53. Four years ago it was 33/67. That's three points and enough to call it a trend—well, I'm joking, but in truth the Senate is now numerically dominated by legislators in their first or second terms.

Going back six years further, there are two Senators who were just sworn in to their fourth term, having started in 1999. Counting them, there are 19 Senators who have served at least three full terms and are still serving, down from 26 in 2009. That's a substantial decrease, but perhaps it doesn't seem like that much of a change, only a handful of people. When you are talking about term limits, though, those 19 are the ones that you are denying their constituents the chance to re-elect. And it's true that the longest-serving Senators have more power than the fresher ones, not only because of the rules of seniority but because after twenty years they are likely to know what the hell they are doing.

And it's the real outliers who are presumably the real issue, the ones who are in their fifth or sixth terms. So let's take a quick look at the top ten:

  1. Pat Leahy: He's the last of the 1974 (post-Watergate) class in the Senate. He was sworn in for his eighth term yesterday. I had been wondering who might be the next real Outlier, and, yeah, it's him.
  2. Orrin Hatch is our other forty-year senator. He's in his seventh term, and I don't think has announced whether he will be running for re-election in 2018. He is chair of the Finance Committee, and is very powerful and influential.
  3. Thad Cochran is also in his seventh term, chair of Appropriations. No idea if he's going to run for re-election in 2020.
  4. Chuck Grassley is chair of Judiciary. He's just started his seventh term.
  5. Mitch McConnell is Majority Leader and the most powerful Senator there is. He is in his sixth term, and I think is likely to retire at the end of it rather than running in 2020. If he makes it that far.
  6. Richard Shelby is chair of Banking. He won his first two terms as a Democrat in 1986 and 1992, then switched in 1994 (I remember this bitterly) and has won four more as a Republican. Starting his sixth term. Could he run for a seventh in 2022 at the age of 88? It's possible.
  7. John McCain is chair of Armed Services, and is starting his sixth term. Yeah.
  8. Dianne Feinstein is the second D on this list (after Leahy) and is ranking member on Judiciary and vice-chair of the select Intelligence committee. She won the special election in 1992, and is in her fourth full term. I kinda doubt she will run for reelection in 2018, but some of y'all are on the ground out there.
  9. Patty Murray was sworn in for her fifth term yesterday. Oh, Patty Murray. I had such high hopes. Not that there's anything particularly wrong with her, but she hasn't been a Senatorial Star.
  10. Jim Inhofe is chair of Environment (shudder) and does not appear to be going into the Cabinet. He won a special election and is in his fourth full term following (22 years altogether).

The next one down is the guy who was elected when Bob Packwood had to resign in 1996, and then tied for twelfth place are the six Senators who are (probably) finishing their fourth terms in 2018, and then the two who just started their fourth terms, and that makes up the 19 I was talking about earlier.

So… looking at the outliers, it's true that Senators McConnell, Hatch, Cochran, McCain, Grassley, Shelby and Inhofe, between the seven of them, wield a truly remarkable amount of power. They do so with the support of their states, of course. A limit on the terms a Senator could serve would come at the substantial cost of not letting the voters pick their preferred legislators, with the proposed benefit of spreading some of that power around a little more widely. My gut feeling is that it isn't worth it, but (oddly enough) I also feel, just as a matter of instinct, that the fewer long-serving Senators there are, the more useful a limitation on terms would be to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of the few outliers. On the other other hand, given what we have actually experienced in legislating these last years, I don't know that the wiliness of veteran senators has actually achieved much.

Quickly, the House: only 191 Representatives (44%) have served more than six years. Go back 12 years and it's 137; go back 18 and it's around 85 (20%). This is roughly the same percentage as have served that long in the Senate, tho' of course the 2-year terms make the whole thing different. As for the very longest-serving, there are 15 that have passed the 30-year mark, including the Chairs of Appropriations, Science Space and Technology, and Energy and Commerce—not the most significant of the committees.

My conclusion, from this time around, is that (a) it is even more the case than it used to be that the three-decade or more legislator is an outlier, rather than the usual, which is more like a single decade; (2) that in the Senate, that still means a concentration of power in those outliers, which may be a Bad Thing, and (iii) Daaaaaaang, John Conyers.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 29, 2016

Historical Perspective, disquieting and hopeful

Your Humble Blogger had intended to write about justice issues. And I probably will. It is dispiriting. As Our Only President-Elect simultaneously gathers his cabinet and whips up tweet-froth in advance of his victory rallies, he seems to be confirming my worst fears. Many of my friends on the left are pinning their hope on recounts (which I’m not against, but with little evidence of tampering they seem unlikely to change the outcome) or some sort of semi-constitutional anti-democratic revolt of faithless electors. As if, in either case, we would just call it a blip and settle in to a new administration without consequences. Don’t get me wrong—a Trump administration would likely be worse than those consequences, but oh my goodness gracious it would be a disaster. Well, anyway.

One thing—a minor thing, of course, but something I could bear thinking about—that has been on my mind that I haven’t already seen lots of people write about is that we are in an unusual situation with a bunch of very close elections in a row. I had written (before the election) about my reluctance to get rid of the Electoral College. I wrote:

I can’t really get worked up about it either way, though. Essentially, if it’s not a close election then the Electoral College and the popular vote will go the same way. If it is a close election, then the Electoral College and the popular vote would be fucked up in different ways.

Well, here we are with a close and fucked-up election. And I wondered—it seems like we’ve been having an awful lot of close presidential elections lately. Yes? And the answer is, kinda. The vote share in four out of the last five elections has been within 5 percent; in two of those the Electoral College winner lost the total vote. The election in 2008 was not particularly close by historical standards; Barack Obama took 7.27% more of the vote than John McCain did. Of the last 49 presidential elections (the ones where we have something like a popular vote total) 23 were closer than that. But the other four were very close, by our historical standards. I compare them to previous five, the first five elections I really remember from 1980-1996, the closest of which was Bill Clinton’s 5% margin over Poppy Bush and the other four of which had margins bigger than that 2008 one (up to the real blowout in 1984 with a victory margin of 18%).

I think my expectations of Presidential elections were formed by those five elections (I retain a dim memory of the much closer 1976 election, but I was seven years old and only the goofiest stuff stuck in my memory) so I expect most elections to have a clear winner and loser, with a lot of space between them. I think of close elections as anomalies, 1960 and 1968 with the Ike re-election blowout of 56, the LBJ re-election blowout of 64 and the Nixon re-election blowout of 72 around them. I don’t expect there to be a series of close elections like that, with four elections in 20 years within five points.

Which is, in fact, historically unusual. The last time we had a real series of close elections was the end of the 19th Century, when there were six consecutive within five points, including two where the candidate with fewer total votes became President. Starting with the disastrous 1876 election, which was pretty much flat-out stolen by Rutherford B. Hayes, there was James Garfield’s completely regional victory in 1880 in which less than two thousand votes separated North from South. Grover Cleveland won the next three votes by miniscule margins, losing the electoral vote in the middle one. And then 1896 William McKinley won by more than 4%, the biggest margin since Ulysses Grant in 1876, and started a new era of politics. So there was a twenty year period of chaos and razor-thin elections followed by something new that was more or less normal until the world blew up twenty years after that.

In other words, it looks to me like we are in a period that people will look back on as the chaotic preparation for something new, something that is just starting out. This is our time to try and shape what that will be, whether it is Trumpism or not. It is a bad time for American democracy, yes, and I worry about that a lot, but doom is not inevitable.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 22, 2016

Time for a Change, but not quite yet.

I said four years ago that I wanted Nancy Pelosi to serve one more term as Minority Leader and then retire from the House. Now it seems some of our Caucus are tired of waiting. I’ll say it again:

I think Nancy Pelosi is a great woman who did a great job as Speaker and as Party Leader. I think it’s great that she kept her position after My Party lost the House, that we didn’t repudiate her or blame her or make her the scapegoat. I would have been thrilled if we had won back the majority and given her the gavel again. Since we didn’t, and since we will eventually need a new Leader for the House Caucus under some or other circumstances, better or worse, I would like to avoid or a sudden and unprepared-for vacancy or a nasty battle to force her out of the chair. What I’d like to see is a nice, slow transition to someone who has a long future to look forward to and plan for.

I am not disappointed, exactly, that Rep. Pelosi did not retire in 2014, but I do think that she should retire in 2018. Not because she has done a bad job, certainly not. But because we will need a new face, as a Party, through no fault of hers. Announcing now that this is her last term gives everyone a chance to plan for 2018. Selecting a new Minority Leader now is not necessary or helpful, and no-one will be better than Nancy Pelosi at using the Democratic Caucus effectively in the first session of the Trump Administration. But we also have to plan for 2020, both in DC and the states, and I think a new legislative leader should be part of that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 17, 2016

PinFic, I suppose

We were chatting with My Perfect Non-Reader about the safety-pin the other night, and I showed her the #kidlitsafetypins stuff. She was charmed—and although we did discuss my ambivalence about the whole safety-pin thing, she immediately began drawing her own fan art of her favorite characters with safety pins. Hermione Granger was first, and I agree with My Perfect Non-Reader that Hermione would not only wear a safety pin but aggressively encourage others to wear them. Then she wanted to draw a bunch of other Potterverse characters wearing safety pins, and I thought… hmmm. Not so much. I love Albus Dumbledore and all, but he certainly doesn’t believe in safety. Minerva McGonagall? Really? With a pin? She does very little about the bullying in the school, for one thing, and for another subtle signals aren’t really her thing. Molly Weasley, yes. I can perhaps imagine that Sybill Trelawny would choose to wear one, but surely that is about the problems with the safety-pin worn as a symbol, and not really appropriate. I’d like to think that Mrs. Figg would wear a pin, but I suspect she would ask Dumbledore first, and I suspect that he would discourage it as taking on an unnecessary risk.

Her second drawing was the Paternoster Gang from Doctor Who, mostly because she likes them. And, well, I can more or less accept that Jenny would want to wear a pin and care for those vulnerable people who come to the door. Vastra, much less so, and Strax is after all Strax. It’s entertaining and perhaps moving to think of the gang making a statement of inclusivity—after all, they represent minorities themselves, in a way—but in point of fact, the idea that someone in danger from being attacked because of their race or gender identity or religion should seek succor from the Paternoster Gang is… I think not entirely true to the characters as depicted in canon. Sarah Jane Smith, yes, would wear a pin, I think, at least in her later (spin-off) years.

So. Who from children’s literature or fandom would actually wear a safety-pin? Who, by their actions in the story, deserve to have Your Humble Blogger moved by their depiction wearing a safety-pin? Charlotte, of course, would weave one into her web where no-one would notice it except those who need to. The Tin Woodman was suggested, and I think that’s an excellent choice from the Oz stories—Glinda or Ozma are sufficiently soft-hearted, but the pin must mean more than a soft heart, and besides, I cannot wrap my head around an absolute monarch wearing a subtle signal of inclusiveness, fairy or no. I think that Frog would probably wear one and Toad would probably not, although they are friends, and perhaps I am too hard on Toad. I have to think that Cordelia Naismith would wear a safety-pin, although it is just as likely that she would simply assume that everyone knew she would intervene. Again, subtle signals not really her thing. The Professora Vorthys, maybe, is the person from the Vorkosiverse I most imagine actually using such a thing in the way I think they are intended. Mr. Tumnus would not dare wear a safety-pin, poor soul, but Mrs. Beaver would, I think, and it's possible that Mr. Beaver would under her compulsion. The Giving Tree would of course create safety pins out of its very marrow, and all for naught. Elrond… well, Rivendell is a safe haven of sorts, but as he doesn’t leave it, I’m not sure there would be any point in him wearing one. Bilbo Baggins, during the years of his retirement to the Shire, yes, I could see that. Surely the Brown family of Paddington Bear fame would not wear safety pins; many of the books draw on their own wonder that they are willing to put up with this Bear. On the other hand, Mr. Gruber, yes, he would wear a safety pin.

It is my belief that Mrs. Hudson would wear a safety-pin and that John Watson would not notice and Sherlock Holmes would not care—I admit that I might have a difficult time defending Mrs. Hudson’s generosity toward minorities of various kinds, but she doesn’t close the door on the Irregulars, either. Jo Bhaer (née March)? Speaking out against intolerance and exclusion, yes. Actually being willing to admit to her school some Muslim or transgender kids without pressuring them to, well, convert? It’s not easy to imagine.

Of course, Jo Bhaer is in and of her time; the costs to admitting Muslims would have been much greater than anything a safety-pin wearer would be likely to bear in our world right now (the future being unknowable). Barrayar has no religious minorities, but the cost to protecting a woman from assault or a crippled child from bullying might well be immediate death. Oz has its own issues, of course. What would it mean to wear a safety pin in other worlds, in other times? Perhaps musing about that may make it more likely that I will figure out what it means (to me, at least) to wear a safety-pin in my own world and time.

I’m interested in your takes, Gentle Readers: which of your favorite fictional characters would wear a safety-pin?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 15, 2016

A brief clarification

So, just in case anyone was unclear where I stand on this: the President-Elect is entitled to name his (or her) own advisers. Whether a person has an official title or not, the President can and should consult with whoever has advice that the President wants.

Also: the choice to officially name Steve Bannon shames the country, and not only disgusts me but heightens my fear for my children. I cannot interpret this as the act of someone who wants anything good for me or my family, or for the America I know.

Choices have consequences. If the President-Elect wants the country to come together, he cannot also choose someone who is in the business of division and bigotry to be his public chief adviser, someone who has supported and is supported by the same people who attack me and my family on-line.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 9, 2016

November 9, 2016

I feel that it’s important to record my feelings today. I do not, however, feel capable of doing so.

I think we are on the verge, this country of mine and the world it so dominates, on the verge of something new. I don’t know what. I can’t guess what. I can imagine that fifty years from now we look back on yesterday’s election as the violent death throes of the white-nationalist patriarchy in the US, a moment when the racist rump stood athwart history saying no before they were run over. I can also imagine that fifty years from now we look back on yesterday’s election as the last gasp of democratic self-government, when because a few hundred thousand people in North Carolina and Pennsylvania didn’t or couldn’t vote, the whole two-century experiment failed.

I don’t know. Neither do you.

In one sense, I think it’s important to point out that we are not, today, a fundamentally different people than we were last week, or that we would have been had those few hundred thousand votes come in. The three hundred million souls that were here are the three hundred million souls that are here. Elections are important, but in a democracy the people are where the power comes from and the people haven’t changed. Had Hillary Clinton won, the racists, anti-Semites, misogynists, xenophobes and homophobes—the whole basket of deplorables—would not have ceased to exist. When Donald Trump won, the liberals and progressives, the fighters for diversity and change, the children and grandchildren of immigrants, the Others, the pantsuits and the folk who felt the Bern—if I can presume to say it, y’all Gentle Readers, did not cease to exist.

On the other hand, it’s very important to point out that because of yesterday’s election the country will change. Aside from the usual stuff (I of course think that the policies and preferences of Hillary Clinton (f’r’ex) will lead to less misery and more comfort than those of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan) there’s the unpredictable outrages that are bound to happen with an ignorant, incompetent and unqualified President. And worse, one who is not bound by Party ties. I hope he won’t be as bad at the job as I imagine, but can imagine him being very bad indeed. And of course the worst will be emboldened, on-line and over the air and on the beat and in the back rooms. I have several nightmare scenarios that I can’t keep out of my head, and many of them seem frighteningly plausible and involve real danger to people I love. The mildest I can expect is that this country once again becomes a place where the most vicious, vile and hateful language gets regularly used against Jews, women, marginalized genders and orientations, people of color, immigrants, foreigners and the impoverished. Workplace rights, access to the courts, funding for education and the arts, well, those are things that are part of our regular discourse and while I believe what I believe very strongly, I also believe very strongly that democratic self-government means that the results of elections, not my own opinions, dictate policies and preferences. I’m afraid that this will be something different.

And…I am not suggesting that we look for silver linings, but one thing that is obvious (again) is that fund-raising does not win elections. Rich candidates can’t buy elections out of their own pockets, either. Advertising doesn’t win elections. A terrific convention doesn’t win an election and a lousy one doesn’t lose one. Endorsements don’t win elections. Even field offices, data superiority and ground games don’t win elections. Ballots cast by voters win elections. That isn’t a reason for optimism that the government we elect will govern well, mind you, and it won’t ease the suffering caused by bad policies or reckless incompetence. It’s just something to think about, going on.

And we will go on. Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus, you know. We will deal with the world because we must. Not because we are strong, or noble, or destined for victory, or perseverant or kind or just, or because we are anything but compelled by the world to deal with it as it is.

I’m hoping that I will find words to write about all this stuff coherently before too long passes. First, though, I want to write some more about Ecclesiastes, because I don’t want to let that fall. And I want to write up the Elvis Costello concert I went to last weekend, because that was awesome and I would enjoy writing it up and perhaps y’all would enjoy reading it, and awesome things are awesome still. And I maybe I will go on some auditions next week, and maybe if I do I will write about those. And then, maybe, I’ll be able to write about it a way forward. Today, we go on without any idea of a way forward. Today, we go on together, giving strength we don't have and drawing strength from each other who have none, either. Today, we go on because we must.

Today, we note that terrifying feeling of being on the verge of something, and the fear that it is something terrible. And the fear that—look, my little family of queers and kikes will probably be safe in our liberal enclave. Probably, at least for a while, although of course things can get worse. It can happen here, too. In case the angel of history casts her eyes on us now, November 9, 2016, as she is being blown backwards in time, as one part of the pile of debris flung up by the ruin of time, let us all make note of how we feel today: I have wept, dear angel, on and off since I woke up this morning. Wept in fear and desolation. Wept for my daughter, wept for my country. Wept in anger and confusion. I don’t like living on the verge of something new, dear angel of history, any more than you like be blown backward through it. The world I was born into has been extraordinarily good to me, better of course than I deserve, and I know that much of my comforts and delights are unearned. I want that wonderful life for my daughter and my son, and for your daughters and sons and for everyone’s. I can still hope that whatever is coming will be good, maybe better than what I have had, but even that hope scares me, much less the likelihood of catastrophe that this election seems to herald.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 19, 2016

This Week's Death and Miraculous Resurrection of Satire

Reading the Zoe Williams article for The Guardian on the most recent death of satire, it occurred to me that our current candidates for president present satirists with almost opposite problems. With Donald Trump, of course, the problem is that there’s too much about the man himself—the Trump persona has been honed over the decades to be outrageous, and then on top of that is his monstrous arrogance, ignorance and incompetence, and then on top of that is his vicious misogyny, racism and xenophobia. Alec Baldwin is funny and mean, and I like that, but any sketch or series of sketches is going to leave out more than it can put in. To do Trump, you have to do all the bizarre physical quirks that are his deliberate persona, and that’s going to distract from the stuff that should be a satirist’s (as opposed to an impressionist’s) target.

With Hillary Clinton, and of course I am a huge admirer of hers and have been for almost twenty-five years so I am not in a good position to judge, the things that you would want to satirize are things that simply aren’t visible: her penchant for secrecy, her distrust of the media and everyone outside her circle of advisors, her poor choice of political advisors, her slow and careful decisions about what policies are safe to support and when—even in a sketch set in a private meeting, those would be difficult to spoof. You can, of course, make fun of her stiffness and her pantsuits and her focus-grouped coif, but that’s not really satire, is it?

It seems to me, though, that a gifted satirist could make something of what it might be like to be a small cog in the Clinton machine—something perhaps along the Alan B’stard lines, although not in the legislature but the White House, or possibly like the Clarke and Dawe Olympic thing without the Olympics. I’m thinking a television show set in the Office for Public Secrets, with our protagonist a hapless clerk fresh out of college who has to manage increasingly bizarre and grandiose schemes to keep secret and/or destroy the records of totally boring things. The antagonist is the last DC Bureau reporter from the last print newspaper in Indiana (or whatever) who also comes up with increasingly bizarre and grandiose (and indeed criminal) schemes to gain access to impossibly bland data. I can’t imagine who would play the young protagonists, but I’m imagining Howard Hesseman as the journalist’s boss (possibly only via Skype) and Gregory Sierra as the long-suffering time-serving flack roped into heading the OPS. His boss, a muckamuck and Friend of Hillary’s, should be a terrifying, ruthless and distant figure who appears on interstitial bits that are mock ninety-second press conferences and perfectly controlled photo ops.

You could do a six-episode series, where each episode the secrets are from a different topic and are dealt with in some manner glancingly appropriate to that topic (but in practice simply ludicrous) so that, oh, let’s call episode one Drones, in which the word comes down that they have to get rid of a transcript of a meeting between HRC, a foreign drone manufacturer and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Our protagonist—let’s go ahead and saddle her with the name Chelsea, shall we?—has to get hold of the drone exec’s laptop and delete the calendar with the meeting schedule, so she gets a meeting by pretending to be, oh, the representative of a Pan-African paramilitary organization. Meanwhile the journalist is using one of those toy helicopters with cameras to follow her around. The laptop, of course, has software that can hack in to and control the drones… in the end, of course, it would turn out that the actual transcript of the meeting is less than a page long and all Hillary does is make a reference to drone use under our previous presidents. Similarly the Foundation episode would have Chelsea chasing after some receipt from a foreign donor, possibly inadvertently kidnapping the foreign minister of Lesotho, while the journalist (hmmm, maybe Walter? Wallter with two lls and it drives him crazy because they keep getting it wrong on the byline?) is pretending to be a surgeon who wants to work at the Maseru Hospital in order to get at the information and winds up having to treat the unconscious body of the recovered civil servant? In Rigged the maguffin is a talking points memo about meeting with the new House members; in Focus the maguffin is a photo of her people trying out a policy change on a focus group; in Staff the maguffin is a disgraced advisor who the White House wants to deny ever having talked to (and who presumably Chelsea inadvertently kills or at least she has to dispose of the body). The last episode of course involves the directive to eliminate any record of their own office and work. I have no idea whether I’d end the thing with (a) everybody dying at the end, with it being uncertain whether the deaths were faked, or (2) Wallter the reporter finally succeeding at getting his hands on a bona fide leak at the moment that his newspaper folds.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 11, 2016

Rome didn't come out in a day, you know

Today has been National Coming Out Day.

I was in college when I first heard about National Coming Out Day. After Twenty Seconds of Research it turns out that was because I was in college when Robert Eichberg and Jean O’Leary came up with the idea. I must have heard about it in 1990, my senior year, although it’s possible that Swarthmore was sufficiently cutting edge to have acknowledged it in 1989 or even 1988. I remember, or think I remember, the first display of the AIDS quilt in DC on October 11, 1987—that is, I remember reading news articles about it and perhaps hearing about it from people who were there.

It’s worth remembering some of that history, or at least, I’m remembering it anyway, whether it’s worth it or not. I’m pretty sure that on October 11, 1987 I didn’t know any openly gay people. There was no such thing as a Gay/Straight Alliance at that time. A fellow came out to me in May 1988, a few months later. It was the end of our first year at Swarthmore and he was still mostly closeted at that point. Another half-dozen people came out to me over the next year or two, including my Best Reader. By our senior year, there was a Coming Out Day that had some significant national media support and a slick logo by famous popular painter Keith Haring.

By our senior year, Keith Haring was dead.

It must have been a terrifying time to be gay. I say must have been; it was. I just mean I didn’t experience that terror myself. In high school, a few years earlier, my classmates were seriously talking about the need for concentration camps for gay men. I am not making that up. It’s no great wonder no-one came out of the closet to me. It wasn’t safe. I don’t mean it wasn’t emotionally safe, or that a teenager risked getting kicked out of his home and his school, although that was true enough and had dangerous consequences. I mean that people could beat up a gay man without risking prosecution. Probably murder would be prosecuted, but conviction wasn’t all that likely. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me, in high school in 1985 or 1986. I may be exaggerating my memories, that’s how memories work, but that’s how it seems to me to have been, and from what I’ve read that’s how it seems to have been from writers who lived through it as well.

The point of having a Coming Out Day, as I remember, was that if a whole bunch of people came out all at once, maybe there would be safety in numbers. Well, and also that if a bunch of us straight folk wore a pin with a Keith Haring logo on it, we could indicate that it was safe to come out to us—even that we would help them stay closeted to their parents or teachers or bosses, if that was necessary. Coming Out was widely viewed as politically and sociologically necessary to combat homophobia, but at the same time dangerous because of that same homophobia that needed combating. Coming Out Day existed because gay or lesbian or bisexual people (or people of any other marginalized gender, orientation or sex) were in the closet for very good reasons and this was a clever way to lower the individual risks somewhat while increasing the communal benefit.

I don’t mean to say that coming out carries no risks these days. There are still people beaten up for being gay; people fired for being lesbian; people killed for being trans, people marginalized and demeaned in a variety of ways including physical violence. All of that still happens, and celebrating that it isn’t normal to beat up gay people anymore shouldn’t entirely eclipse the fact that it still happens. Still: my Perfect Non-Reader distributed posters for the day as an officer of her school’s Gay/Straight Alliance, with the school’s support and quite likely an explicit statement that anyone caught defacing those posters would be punished. When a teenager I love dearly came out as trans this summer, his school principal insisted on meeting with the parents to go over the support structures already in place. The sufficiency of those structures aside, that in itself would have been unimaginable in 1986. The world is a different world—not a safe world, still, not as good a world as we would have it be, but different. And so Coming Out Day means something different to my daughter and her friends, and something different to me.

There’s a generational difference that is both wonderful and deeply alienating. I am seeing it today in the tweets and posts that scroll by in their hundreds. People my age or older seem to be tweeting about acceptance and safety; Young Persons more about pride and power and ridiculing homophobes. Neither is wrong. In fact, if our Young Persons were still experiencing Coming Out Day the way we did in 1990, it would be tragic. We old geezers have the problem of trying to keep up while trying to keep the history from fading completely. At least us geezers who are, you know, still alive.

So. From a middle-aged straight guy to anyone of any age that wants to come out or come out further: whoever you are and whatever your orientation and identity, I support you. And from this new millennium of ours, yaas, kween. And I’ll shut up now.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 23, 2016

Bi Visibility Day (or, Woke's No Joke)

It’s International Celebrate Bisexuality Day, also known as Bi Visibility Day. I usually observe the occasion by joking on Facebook that the reason I haven’t seen a bunch of posts supporting Bisexual folk is just the algorithm hiding them from my timeline. And observing that perhaps one of these years, that joke will be funny.

Your Humble Blogger is a straight guy, but my Best Reader is bisexual and our daughter, the Perfect Non-Reader of this Tohu Bohu, identifies as asexual biromantic and quite rightly claims a share of the day. For me and my Best Reader, after twenty-five years of monogamy, the notion of bisexual invisibility is an old sore spot; we’re used to it (he says, speaking for them both) and while it’s still irritating, it’s the Way Things Are. Our daughter is still outraged by it, and still believes it can change. Expects it to change. Holds the world to her higher standards. On gender issues, our daughter is, as I believe the kids say, woke as fuck.

It’s not easy to stay woke. It’s not easy to live with someone who is woke, frankly, and part of that is the reminder that we have been asleep for so long. I mean, we’re aware of injustice in the world, and we totally support the potential for change, but we’re middle-aged and comfortable in the world as it is. We know how much work change really is, and we are totally in favor of people doing that work, but we also know that people have limited time, energy and money, and they have jobs to go to and lunches to pack and dishes to wash. And while I won’t say we make excuses for injustice, we have a certain sympathy for some of the people who have difficulty adjusting their habits—habits of thought as well as their habits of action. And, of course, we’re dealing (particularly on gender issues) with a standard of comparison that is very different from my P N-R’s; just as an example point, the director of the summer camp she has been attending has been at the forefront of transgender rights within the Reform community, put the future of the camp on the line when he decided that transgender kids would be welcomed (and probably again when he hired trans counselors) and was one of the driving forces behind the URJ adopting a resolution on the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People, all of which seems utterly amazing to me. A director of a Jewish Summer Camp (even a Reform Jewish Summer Camp) allying himself with the trans rights movement! And yet, there were times this year when he made some decisions about the use of pronouns and such things which were wrong, and rather than giving the old man a break, my P N-R was outraged.

So she ought to have been! It’s easy to close our eyes to misbehavior by allies and even by heroes. It’s all too easy to rest on such achievements as we have made, knowing that there is further to go but accepting that we won’t get there today. That’s what lulls us to sleep. We’re right, of course, that we won’t get there today, but in truth if we get there at all it’s because young people get woke and stay woke, and wake the rest of us up, now and then. Hold us to their standard of wokefulness.

So, this year, for Bi Visibility Day, in addition to making the usual jokes and observing how unfunny they are, I’ll try to remember to be outraged. Because it’s still true that bisexual erasure is outrageous, and it’s still true that people like my wife and daughter are excluded from both the queer community and belittled among us straights, and it really, truly doesn’t have to be that way. Keep those eyes open, keep those feet moving, ever forward, never back, and for my Perfect Non-Reader’s sake: stay woke.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 5, 2016

Labor Day

YHB was trying to come up with something to write about Labor Day—I don’t really know enough about the lockout of the Long Island University faculty to express anything except solidarity. Which, you know, Solidarity! But follow that news elsewhere.

So, as I sometimes do, I go to Our Only President and the official remarks of his office. And he made some official remarks you bet.

You have the right to join together, speak up, and win a seat at the table. You have the right to talk to your coworkers about how much you make or how you’d change your workplace, as long as you’re not doing it while you’re supposed to be working. And the law says an employer can’t fire you, demote you, or change your shift because you’re talking to colleagues about advocating for yourselves, whether that’s through a union or through some other means.

History shows that working families can get a fair shot in this country—but only if we are willing to organize and fight for it. So whether you simply talk to your coworkers or supervisors about what matters to you, or take the step of joining a union, the power ultimately rests with you.

These are not good days for labor, for the managed rather than the management, or even for the management rather than the owners. It’s worth remembering that the only tools employees really have are each other. That means not only joining together in unions, but joining together in politics. When Our Only President says an employer can’t fire you for organizing, he means that obviously you can be fired, but our government can penalize that employer and get your job back for you. But those laws can be changed, and even easier than changing them is just neglecting to enforce them. Whoever is President, whoever is in control of Congress (and y’all know, Gentle Readers, that I think that matters a lot) those laws will only be enforced if there is more political pressure to enforce them than to neglect them. The employers have their money and their connections; the workers have each other. Solidarity!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 6, 2016

Funny, innit?

Without wanting to get into the details of Hillary Clinton’s security scandal (short form: nothing criminal, and what we have learned about her character and her penchant for secrecy and coverup is not new, and if that is her greatest flaw, it’s certainly troubling but not, imao, disqualifying against her other assets) I feel moved to respond to what seems to be a large number of people saying if an ordinary Joe did what she did, he’d be in jail. Maybe that’s just my internet, but it seems to me that this response is striking a chord with a lot of people.

And on the face of it, Your Humble Blogger finds that sentiment hilarious. There is no such thing as an ordinary person in that position. No ordinary Joe has to decide what to do about the tremendous paper trail of classified, classifiable, potentially classifiable and “secret” information coming to him every day. Furthermore, any ordinary Joe who served as Secretary of State would in fact get all kinds of privileges and benefits, and yes, Joe’s infractions of his own policies would be treated with tremendous leniency. Surprise! Privilege exists! And people in the Cabinet are treated differently than people who are, you know, not.

The less hilarious part is the strength of the outrage. I don’t think the various threads of it can be disentangled—there is on the one hand a largely positive element of democratic egalitarianism, certainly, but on the other a kind of delusional expectation that somewhere in the nation are potential leaders for whom voters would not have to hold their noses. There’s misogyny in it, too, along with some good-government idealism and some ignorance and some partisan polarization and some reasonably high standards and some self-interested hype and some healthy skepticism and some mistrust and some other stuff, too. Some of it is applying observations about a seriously broken criminal justice system that does very real damage to the lives of the underclass (mostly) to an unusual situation that doesn’t really relate to the general problem. Some of it is applying observations about a seriously skewed capitalist economy that concentrates wealth (and therefore power) into fewer and fewer hands to a situation that doesn’t have much to do with that at all.

As we have been seeing, there is a sizable chunk of the country (and I think of all the countries in the seemingly senescent West) that is in a state of outrage about an unjust, unauthorized and unaccountable elite. It’s not a single political point of view. I’m putting together people who see that elite as a libertine and cosmopolitan culture of decadence and the people who see the elite as a gated community of CxOs and banksters. My point (at the moment) isn’t whether those people have correctly identified the oppressors, or if there are actual oppressors at all, or whether Hillary Clinton is or is not on the side of the oppressors or the oppressed. Those are all good things to think and talk about, but that’s not my point at the moment. My point, really, is just that this instance of a risible reaction to the FBI’s assessment that prosecuting the former Secretary of State would be very unlikely to result in a conviction in court—the sense that this was a break that Hillary Clinton was getting that would not be available to an ordinary working-class former Cabinet Member—is yet another symptom of society that feels… I was going to write on the brink but that seems at the moment unduly optimistic. Over the brink, and falling.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 16, 2016

Forward movement is forward movement, but

My junior Senator, Chris Murphy, staged a very moving demonstration in the United States Senate yesterday, for the purpose of moving forward a legislative agenda to reduce gun violence in this country. I appreciate it, and I think it was politically smart and ethically right, and I am happy that he’s my Senator. I am also bitterly disappointed at how little good it will do.

What I currently understand is that he was able to obtain an agreement that there will be a Senate vote on two items on the agenda: universal background checks (that is, eliminating the exemptions for vendors that don’t currently need to run background checks on purchasers) and what he is describing as closing the terror gap, which means prohibiting a group of people designated as dangerous for specifically terror-related reasons from purchasing firearms. Universal Background Checks will not pass the Senate; the terror-watch list might (in some form). So the one actual legislative change in the short term will reduce gun violence almost not at all, and is very problematic for a variety of reasons. Hurray! It’s like forward movement without actually getting anywhere.

I am not absolutely opposed to a terror-watch list of people prohibited from purchasing firearms, even if some people on the list haven’t actually committed crimes. It is true that such lists are generally racist as institutions, and that’s certainly a Bad Thing. It’s true that our current no-fly list and similar target lists have been handled very badly; there is some reason to believe that folding that list into a no-firearms list would result in the list being handled better, both in putting people’s names on the list and getting them off (when appropriate). It’s also true that law enforcement has to have and ought to have a list of people they are watching, suspects or people with connections to suspects, or even people that really are high-risk. That list will never be perfect; that list will always suffer the biases and prejudices of our society. We can and must work to make it better (and when I say must I am aware that we don’t; it’s a moral imperative rather than a physical necessity) but we will always have a bad, imperfect watch list. The decision of whether the problems with the watch list outweigh the benefits for proscribing a particular thing seem difficult and complicated… except with firearms purchases. Airplane tickets? Jobs of various kinds? Bank accounts? The watch list for those troubles me greatly. Firearms? That seems like an easy call.

And yet, of the thirty thousand people killed with guns in this country every year, how many would that law prevent? Fifty? A hundred?

The legislation to implement universal background checks would do a lot more. It won’t pass, not this time, but it would probably reduce fatalities by, oh, generously, five hundred a year. I don’t really have any reason for that estimate, but it’s a nice big number, a good round number, and it’s about at the outer limit of what I could imagine. Make it even bigger at a rounded 2%, if you like, and you still can’t call it a solution.

What is the solution? How could we bring that thirty thousand down to something that would be more in line with other countries’ rates? Perhaps aim for something like one thousand people shot to death every year—how could we get to that number?

I have no idea.

Look, this isn’t to denigrate what Senator Murphy did, or those of his colleagues in the House and Senate who also made trouble for a good cause. A more effective legislative agenda is a bit closer than it was. For me, that agenda would include making gun-lock technology mandatory for all federal law-enforcement agency purchases (making stolen guns unusable without expensive hacking—yes, the current technology is imperfect and expensive, but creating a market will make them cheaper and better and my goodness that would make a huge difference) as well as removing high-capacity magazines from the market and more resources for local law-enforcement to deal with non-fatal shootings as well as homicides. Also, since most of the gunshot fatalities are suicides, I’d like to vastly increase suicide-prevention and associated treatment, although of course that could well proceed without reference to guns specifically (guns and suicidal depression are an often fatal combination; in my opinion it would be better to have fewer of both). I hope there are other things that smart people who have studied the issue have thought of, too. At any rate, serious discussion of practical measures is closer than it was, and that’s a Good Thing for the long term.

The short term, on the other hand, stays frustrating.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 3, 2016

Sigh. OK, Listen.

I loathe that it seems necessary to say this, but: violence is bad and awful. Throwing stuff at people because of their political beliefs is bad and awful. No-one should do that.

Obviously, it’s a handful of rogues doing it. Most people in my Party, or the other Party, or any or no Party disapprove of political violence. It’s outrageous—and we really ought to assume by default that everyone it outraged by it. Still and all, it happens. And what we can do to make sure that it remains so far outside the norms of political behavior (any behavior, really, as I disapprove of sports-related hooliganism as well) is not to let it rest as an assumption, but to say it. Violence is bad and awful. I don’t accept it. On my side or any other.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 24, 2016

Well, actually it's thirty-one point seven percent, if you don't round up

John Sides has a Monkey Cage post called Democrats are gay, Republicans are rich: Our stereotypes of political parties are amazingly wrong, which is really just a precis of an as-yet unpublished article by Douglas J. Ahler and Gaurav Sood called The Parties in Our Heads: Misperceptions About Party Composition and Their Consequences. (I should say that Matt Yglesias wrote about it over at Vox a month ago, but I don’t generally read his stuff these days.) Mr. Sides starts his note thusly: Here’s a quiz question for you: What percentage of Democrats identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual? Here’s another: What percentage of Republicans make more than $250,000 a year? I’d love to know what numbers Gentle Readers would guess for those two questions, ideally before reading the rest of this note.

My guesses were that 2% of Democrats so identified, and perhaps 10% of Republicans were over that mark. I had very little confidence in my numbers, but that was what I came up with off the top of my head. The actual numbers according to the article tell us that 6.3% of Democrats are LGB (the article sometimes includes T and sometimes not, which is bad and wrong but probably doesn’t shift the numbers much) and that only 2% of Republicans have quarter-million-dollar paychecks. I wouldn’t be altogether surprised if people in general under-stereotype their own party and over-stereotype the other, although the research appears to show that in general people over-stereotype both. Still and all, for my over-stereotyping of the Other Party, considering that (according to the table on p. 46) 90.9% of respondents overestimated the correct answer, and (according to the terrific plots on pp. 47-48, if I’m reading them right) 75% of Republicans estimated the percentage of “rich” Republicans as 20% or more, I think it wasn’t a bad guess.

My main complaint, though, is about the use of averages in both the paper and the Monkey Cage post. Some Gentle Readers will remember how much I loathe the use of averages when you don’t mean to average things, and in particular, I hate attempts to average people. Mr. Sides says “On average, Americans thought that 32 percent of Democrats are gay, lesbian or bisexual.” In the paper’s abstract, Mr. Ahler and Mr. Sood write that “people think that 32% of Democrats are LGBT”. There are graphs and tables that similarly use the average—sometimes with a confidence interval. I find the highlighting of this average number as utterly and completely perplexing. What difference would it make in the study if that number were 30? Or 35? Or 40? What’s important is that they were overestimating, and overestimating by a lot—highlighting the average just gives a totally false sense of confidence that people really put that 32 number down, which of course most of them do not. It also makes that number seem important, which, again, it is not. What is important is that people consistently overestimate the extent to which the Parties are demographically different from each other, and different from the country at large. The 32% average of estimates of LGB Democrats is meaningless, as is the 38% average of estimates of $.25M/yr Republicans. I believe these numbers convey less than thirty-or-more would. That’s why the graphs are so good—here, I’ll reproduce them (this is smashed together from the two graphs).

The plots display the full range of perceptions reported (the thin teal lines), the interquartile range of perceptions (the thick teal section), and the median with a 95% confidence interval (the white band and notch in the middle of the IQR). They also display the population estimate of PR(group|party), depicted as vertical red lines with gray 95% confidence intervals based on sampling error.

Now, I know you can’t use those graphs in an abstract or the lede to a blog post, but that doesn’t mean you should use averages.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 15, 2016

Justice comes rolling up like a mighty stream of something, not sure where that's going, actually.

I saw something recently saying that the tradition of refusing to criticize the recently deceased is, like all good death-traditions, about the living. That decent pause is for our benefit, not for the dead guy. It’s a good idea, this way of thinking goes, to take a moment and think about life, and death, and mortality, as something that links us all, makes us more like each other than all our differences. And implied in that, I think, is the notion that us living folk will have plenty of time to tell the truth about the one who no longer has a chance to talk back, so we can afford some magnanimity.

So. Justice Scalia is dead, and that’s all I’m going to say about Justice Scalia at this point. The rest of this note will be about the Other Party, its leaders and legislators and Presidential candidates, none of whom are at this time entirely dead, so far as I know. Let’s keep that in mind, shall we?

It seems to me, I have to say, that if a Senator from the Other Party cared very strongly about the legal legacy of Antonino Scalia—the limitations of federal regulation over state action and inaction; the narrowing of standing to sue in state and federal courts; the use of affirmative action to redress racial injustice; the ability of localities to legislate community standards of sexual behavior including reproductive health and abortion; the primacy of traditional religious custom; the dangers of collective bargaining and class-action suits; the protection of individual rights from actions intended to provide collective benefit—the right thing to do is to wait for Our Only President to nominate a candidate and then refuse to confirm that candidate on that basis.

That seems like the right thing to do both constitutionally and (crucially in our Madisonian system) electorally. I mean, the whole point of the Madisonian system is that our legislators will worry about re-election (or election to a higher post) and our system should harness that ambition to make the government work. Electoral concerns are not supposed to be lesser than constitutional concerns, they are supposed to support them. They often do, and I don’t really understand why they don’t in this case.

The Senate of course has the perfect right to refuse to confirm any nominee that the President puts forward to them, and in this case it is perfectly reasonable for them to reject any candidate that doesn’t meet their standards. I don’t think anybody has any expectation that Our Only President will nominate anyone who does meet those standards, so I fully expect that the seat will remain empty for a year, even if it completely stymies the Conservative movement’s momentum of judicial victories. Eventually, either the Other Party will win office, thus (legitimately, I’m afraid) getting to further their agenda even further, or they will lose the Senate Majority, and the momentum will go the other way. Democracy wins, in its slow and bizarre way.

The thing I don’t understand is their leaders immediately making public statements that they will not consider any nominee. What is to be gained by that? Opposing all potential nominees seems much more difficult to defend than opposing any one single nominee, who will, after all, be a flawed human with a history vulnerable to traducing. I can only guess that the Senators and other leaders feel themselves more vulnerable to challenges from people who agree with them than those who disagree with them. Challenges from the right based on charges of squishiness and RINO betrayal; attacks on the radio, TV and internet that won’t wait a week or even a day. The accusation, not that the Senator might eventually vote to confirm a Justice unacceptable to Conservatives, but that the Senator might not be sufficiently vitriolic and contemptuous in opposition. I can’t read their minds. I would like to know what they are thinking, but that’s not going to happen. I can only say what makes sense to me.

I’ll end on a positive note, though. I do think that in the end, this will come down to Americans governing themselves. Even at the level of Supreme Court Justices, who are not elected but appointed, and can serve for decades without deferring to anyone—as it should be—these decisions come down, in the end, to ordinary people making ordinary political decisions. People voting. People complaining to their legislators, and supporting or opposing their campaigns. People banding together to march or raise money or hire a lobbyist. People who care about the issue making their voices heard over those indifferent. People in Parties choosing nominees. People writing blogs.

I don’t mean to sound optimistic. I’m not. I think it will take a long time to get to governing ourselves in accordance with policies closer to my preferences and priorities, or to yours. We might move further away from those, not closer. But we’ll do it ourselves, as a country. It might seem like we’re waiting for an aristocracy to choose an aristocrat to wear the funny dress and decide on our lives for us, powerless people at the whim of the rich and connected. But we will, in our millions, vote. And we’ll make changes. Maybe not swift changes, and hell, maybe not good changes. But it will be on us to make them. And as we work through that responsibility, maybe we slowly create a people capable of self-government.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 22, 2016

Slide some oil to me, brother

I saw a fascinating New York Times story about Freeport McMoRan today, one of the benefits of paging through a print newspaper instead of clicking an on-line one. Well, anyway, Freeport is an old copper-mining company, with mines in Arizona and around the world, and with copper prices down a bit from their ridiculous high, they are of course feeling the squeeze. That wouldn’t be so bad for them, though, if they hadn’t, back when oil was a hundred dollars a barrel, bought some companies involved in oil exploration. Now, though, they’re fucked.

A have a vague recollection of having written about oil prices, ten years ago or more, making a point that there were lots of companies who had made detailed business plans that depended on crude oil being in the region of $30/barrel. Not oil companies, mind you, but shipping companies, transportation companies, and even more than that, companies who made things that shipping companies shipped, or used things that had to be shipped… this would have been 2005 or so, I’m thinking, and I would have had a great deal of sympathy for such a company. A company with smart people figuring out price points for its goods or services, figuring out profit margins, costs, personnel needs, capital investments, all that sort of thing, all of which assumed that goods could be shipped at a price that, in terms of the fuel component, was if not stable, at least predictable around a reasonable band of prices, as it had been for a long time. When Hugo Chavez warned that if we invaded Iraq, the price of oil would go up to a hundred dollars a barrel, it was an outrageous threat that was not taken seriously.

Those companies were fucked.

When crude started selling at a hundred dollars a barrel, in 2008 or so, companies started rethinking their plans. And for four or five years, that’s what the price was for crude. Yes, it was volatile, but oil was just expensive, that’s all. And a different set of businesses made plans based on that. In particular, exploration of new sources that required insane levels of capital investment became financially possible, because the eventual payoff would be so high. Now oil is at $30/barrel again, and those companies are fucked.

And you know what? I have no sympathy for them at all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 20, 2016

Dow, dow, dow, down, doo-be-doo-wah

So, the stock market is crashing as I am writing this. The Dow is down 553 points at the moment, a loss of 3.46%; the Nazdaq and S&P indices are down about the same, percentagewise. Big stock-market swings like this sometimes make me face how difficult I find it, conceptually, to understand just how big and how rich my country really is.

On one level, a loss of three-and-a-half percent seems like not very much. If the library that employs me were to lose 3.5% of its shelf space, it wouldn’t involve changing the workflow at all; if my salary were to be cut by 3.5% it would be bad but wouldn’t bankrupt me. A 3.5% cut in a current nest egg for retirement would mean a loss of, um, something larger than 3.5% in a projected retirement fund in twenty years? The on-line calculators seem to show that a reduction of 3.5% in current savings (with no other changes) results in something like a 2% projected reduction in value in 20 years, which seems very wrong to me, mathematically. At any rate, it’s not enough of a change to make the difference between being retiring at 67 or 70.

On the other hand, there are billions of dollars, as I understand it, invested in just the Dow Jones Market Index funds. Forget for a moment the money invested directly in shares of actual companies that actually exist, just take, f’r’ex, the SPDR Dow Jones Industrial Average ETF Trust, which has a market capitalization of $11,000,000,000, and which presumably has lost three hundred and eighty-five million dollars today. That’s, let’s see, something like half-again the entire yearly budget for my town. That’s just the one index fund; there are others, and again, not really counting actual losses to actual companies. Well, sort of counting them, partially, but not really. At any rate, however a person would estimate the quantity, that’s a shit-ton of money lost.

On the other other hand, the money that’s lost isn’t actually money, and isn’t actually lost: it’s a marking system that magnifies momentary changes, and when those changes change again, the money magically reappears. And, of course, the marking system that is sort-of money, by its nature has to decrease in value as it is converted so anything closer to what we think of as money, and the closer it gets to being money, the less it’s worth. So, I dunno. Did the US lose a shit-ton of money today? Are we, as a nation, worth billions of dollars less than we were yesterday?

On the other other other hand, I am aware that stock market crashes sometimes lead to long-lasting economic catastrophe. Sometimes they don’t! But sometimes they do. And there are actual people whose entire assets are invested in some of those actual companies, who will be penniless after a crash. And even after the market recovers (as it always has recovered, so far) there could be companies shuttered, people ruined, the labors of lifetimes wiped out in a day. How many people, do you think, would be really seriously hurt by a market crash of 3.5%? I’m not talking about having to put off trading in the 2015 Lexus for the 2016 one, I’m talking about lost-my-job-and-can’t-pay-the-mortgage hurt, kind of thing. Maybe, oh, one-hundredth of three-and-a-half percent of the country? That would be, what, a hundred thousand people? That’s a shit-ton of people hurt by a day’s trading.

On the other other other other hand, in the hours since I started righting this, the Dow gained 315 points! That’s a gain of two percent! Think of all the wealth created, just today!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 3, 2015

Nothing to say, saying it.

I feel, somehow, as if being a blogger (even a sometime blogger, as I am these days) obligates me to say something about the epidemic of gun violence in this country. Obligates me, I say, because I do believe that silence is death, and the more silence, the more death. So, this post. Even if I don’t have anything to say.

Sigh.

I don’t think I have written about gun control, specifically, in this Tohu Bohu of mine. I have mentioned it in passing, but I don’t think I’ve devoted an essay to it. Largely, you know, because I don’t have anything to say. I’m in favor of gun control legislation. I’m against all the guns. And there are a lot of guns.

A lot. I mean, an enormous number of guns are in private hands in this country right now. Perhaps three hundred million guns, which seems utterly and thoroughly absurd to me, but is the case. And it will continue to be true that there are hundreds of millions of guns around for the next few decades, because even if we were to somehow ban future sales of any and all guns, which we will not do, the guns that exist right now would continue to exist, unless we really do send law enforcement to confiscate the guns from sixty million people, which not only will we not do, but we could not do. We could, I suppose, also legislatively ban any additional ammunition going into private hands, which would reduce the number of operative guns somewhat more quickly, although bullet-smuggling seems easy and cheap to me, certainly more so than gun smuggling, and we have millions of illicit guns, so. We have to treat as a given fact the hundreds of millions of existing guns in our country, and the relative ease with which people will be able to get them.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t change (and enforce) the laws! We could potentially reduce gun violence by, oh, ten percent? Let’s call it ten percent. Saving the lives of three thousand people a year or so. Call it one thousand! Call if five hundred! I would be happy to have the strictest gun control we’ve ever had introduced as legislation in this country to save five hundred lives a year. I think it would be a lot more than that. Maybe—and I’m being optimistic about some knock-on effects involving culture and resources and so forth—maybe by strict gun control legislation we could cut the annual firearm fatalities bill for the next decade from three hundred thousand souls to two hundred thousand. We should do that. We should, at least, try. And for that reason, I’m contacting my representatives to reiterate my support for their for support of such legislation (if you are doing this, do not neglect to contact your state legislators! Most gun legislation is state legislation!) and am happy to see others are doing the same. It’s a Good Thing. But it won’t stop these shootings.

It won’t stop.

There has to be something else, too. Better mental health policy? Well, that’s a Good Thing in itself, but I don’t think it will stop the mass shootings, or the rest of the firearm violence in this country. A non-adversarial health care system? Yes, a Good Thing, might help. A working criminal justice system? Functioning law enforcement? Might do some good, yes. Those things are not much more politically viable than the whole confiscating-guns thing (although the logistics aren’t necessarily prohibitive, I suppose) but they are worth working for, too. Something else, something I haven’t thought of, perhaps nobody has mentioned yet? That one could work.

Not quite three years ago, Colin McEnroe wrote a column in the wake of a different such event, similar really only in that the firing of bullets into bodies produced death in quantity. And he wrote:

For just a little while, we have no choice. Children and teachers were massacred just a few miles from where you’re sitting. We have to do something.

So what comes next? Some gun control laws? Maybe some new attention to mental illness. Something in the schools. I’m all in favor. I really am. I’m all in favor of doing something before we go back to sleep.

I, too, am in favor.

If there’s an elixir, some potion we can drink, it’s almost certainly love. Right? Love is the only possible bright sparkling rope bridge we can clutch as we stutter-step through the dark universe.

What a joke. Our only good piece of equipment is love, the thing we fail at so often. We’ve been talking all week about weapons, but our only sure-fire weapon against chaos and nothingness is love.

Do you keep it oiled and cleaned? Is it right close at hand, so you can grab it and brandish it? Are you packing it right now?

My instinct today is that what we are fighting, with our brandished love, is not chaos but despair. We need hope. Local, global, national, sectional, factional, fractional, fictional. We need hope.

So that’s why I am posting, even though I don’t think it will have any practical effect. Maybe we will find that other thing in public policy. Maybe we will, in fact, get used to living with this constant violence until we have to get used to living with something worse. But not saying anything, that feels like despair.

Even if I don’t actually have anything to say.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 16, 2015

13th November, Paris

Once upon a time—well, twenty-five years ago or so—there were a few hundred people who thought they were in a state of war with the United States of America. They labored under this delusion largely unnoticed by the populace of the country, although they were kept under surveillance by the superpower’s intelligence community, somewhat grudgingly. Very few Americans had ever heard of their enemy in this supposed war, though, and frankly not many more could have pointed on a map to the country in which they based their operations. Well, “operations”. They managed, over a period of years, to carry out a few terrorist attacks, murder a few dozen Americans and inconvenience a few hundred more. They had a ready source of money and a few powerful people who, without evidently taking the bastards seriously, were willing to give some support to this delusion. It wasn’t a war. The idea would have been absurd.

Then, on the eleventh of September 2001, this handful of people managed to hijack four airplanes, and managed, mostly through blind luck, to kill not a few hundred people but a few thousand. Still, of course, this was one ten-thousandth of a percent of the population; they were scarcely a threat to the average American. The murders were real, and terrible, and they sparked a terrible revenge, as well they might. The destruction of the deluded but murderous conspiracy was drawn out over more than a decade, but its ability to commit large-scale destruction was wiped out almost immediately.

I’m skipping a lot in this story, of course. On purpose. I’m ignoring our national madness, the other countries we invaded, the… well, I’m ignoring a lot of stuff. Giving a completely wrong impression of the history. Still and all: there were a handful of madmen (mostly men) who laboured under the delusion that they were at war with the United States of America, successfully conspired to mass murder, and were wiped out without ever having posed any sort of threat to the vast majority of Americans in their daily lives.

Now, here’s the thing. Daesh, or whatever you want to call them, is slaughtering people in the thousands upon thousands, causing millions—millions— to flee from their homes to face danger and poverty in faraway lands rather than stay in their homes under Daesh rule. They are a real, terrifying danger in the world. You could argue for a couple of other forces (Putin’s Russia is terrifying; China has the power to be terrifying at any moment, even if it is comparitively quiescent of late, central Africa is… I have no idea what the hell is going on in central Africa these days) but Daesh is one of the most powerful forces for destruction, death and horror in the world today.

And they, also, think of themselves as being at war with the United States, as well as with the European Union. And in the heart of Europe, in Paris, a city of two and a quarter million people, they managed to slaughter a total of perhaps a hundred and fifty people. Terrible, horrible slaughter, but of, again, they killed half of a hundredth of a percent of the population of the capital city; one out of every half-million or so in the country.

I don’t mean to criticize anyone who is heartbroken over this terrible slaughter; I have been crying about it myself. In fact, that’s what I am getting around to talking about, in a minute. I’m saying that logically, leaving aside the emotion of it all, viewed as a practical and logical analysis, the attacks on the thirteenth of November showed the impotence of Daesh, not their power. If this is their war, they are not winning it; the idea is almost as ludicrous as the idea of Al-Qaeda being at war with the United States. This attack left 99.99% of Parisians physically unharmed, and did no damage whatsoever to their infrastructure, military power, or ability to defend themselves. From this point of view it was, in a word, pathetic.

Having said that…

I am having a very hard time emotionally reconciling myself to this analysis. I am torn up over this one. I am (as best as I can tell) more distraught now than I was after the World Trade Center was destroyed. Well, and I think after the World Trade Center, I was a lot less emotional about it than most people—I had a two-month-old infant to care for, which meant that I didn’t spend much time watching the footage, and besides, my source of joy was so much closer than the source of grief. Plus, I suppose, I had read quite a few articles about terrorism over the previous few years, and was perhaps more aware than most people how much less severe the destruction was than the experts were warning about. And while I have always dreamed of Manhattan (more so, I think, than Paris) the World Trade Center isn’t the part of Manhattan I cared deeply about. Or perhaps I was just young and insensitive.

Or, maybe, it’s that the slaughter in 1991 seemed to have a sort of insane point to it: the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were targets that I could imagine such a group aiming for. Like shooting Archduke Ferdinand. It wouldn’t solve anything, and it was delusional to think it would, and it wouldn’t be remotely justified even if it would solve anything, but… somehow it made a kind of non-rational sense. And, at least, I could identify in my mind similar targets, which could in theory be defended.

The attacks in Paris were just carnage.

They didn’t destroy the Arc de Triomphe, or the Arche de la Fraternité, or even the Flame of Liberty. Or the Louvre. Or the statue of the Defense of Paris. Or the Eiffel Tower. Perhaps they couldn’t figure out how; perhaps those places are well-defended against a half-dozen men with explosive belts. They didn’t shoot up the Comedie Francaise or the Palais Garnier or even the Moulin Rouge. They didn’t target the military, or the politicians, or the financial elite. They slaughtered people who were out at a restaurant or a concert or a ballgame. Just carnage.

I think perhaps that’s what really got to me about it. It’s just carnage. It’s not something we can defend against. Oh, we can do a bunch of stuff, we have been doing a bunch of stuff, but it will always be possible to get some explosives and some firearms in the hands of half-a-dozen zealots who can wreak havoc at a restaurant or a concert or a ballgame. If the government somehow locks down Paris, then they can go to any small town and slaughter a hundred people, if carnage is their goal.

Will carnage be their goal? As we destroy Daesh in Syria (and we will, for values of destroy at the very least including wiping out their ability to control significant amounts of territory) carnage may well become their strategy. Arthur Goldhammer, in The American Prospect, points out that the Algerian playbook, as he put it, eventually meant abandoning strategic or even symbolic targets and just slaughtering people.

I don’t know. I hope this sort of thing doesn’t become a common occurrence in Europe, or in America. Or anywhere, for that matter. And yet, if it does… I feel compelled to point out, if only to myself, that the senseless and vile slaughter of a couple of hundred people is not, viewed analytically, a war. To claim it is a war is to dignify a delusion. To make political and social and legislative decisions as if it were a war is to succumb to delusion ourselves.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 18, 2015

Today we are all Mother Emanuel

Many, many years ago, I read an article about terrorism making the case that what terrorist organizations had in common, most clearly, was a sense that they were living under foreign occupation of some kind.

The article may well have been written before the destruction of the World Trade Center, by the way, although certainly after the first attack on it in 1993. I think, perhaps maybe, it was in the course materials for Samantha Power at the Kennedy School of Government (I was employed in the office that handled those materials) or maybe it was later than that, I don’t know. It was many years ago, and I haven’t read any recent research, so it may not be true at all. But it seemed to me one of those kinds of pieces of information that I wouldn’t have thought of, but once I did, makes a lot of sense, and colors everything I think about afterward.

Of course, some groups really do live under foreign occupation and some groups who claim they do clearly do not. And some have evidence on either side. The American Indian Movement, the Shining Path, the Irish Republican Army, the Tamil Tigers, the Palestine Liberation Organization, ETA, Aum Shinrikyo. Some of these claims are more crazy than others. The Green Mountain Boys. The Maccabees. Al Qaeda’s claim to be living under foreign occupation was tenuous—ok, crazy—but they made the claim and people followed them.

That’s the thing that is getting to me, today, reading about the terrorist attack on Mother Emanuel. While I don’t really know anything about anything—I want to emphasize that most of what I think I know is wrong, most of what anyone thinks they know today is wrong—it appears that the attacker is part of a loose organization of people who think themselves under foreign occupation. These are white English-speaking Americans, mostly men, who think their government is not legitimate, thinks that there exists an un-American cabal tyrannizing the country, thinks that they are under threat from a power they cannot fight through politics.

This is crazy.

Now, if you said to me that the New Black Panthers believed that non-white people were living under threat from a power they cannot fight through politics, that the police were picking them off not only with impunity but with the active encouragement of the government, and that furthermore they were being denied representation and suffrage (in part through spurious felony charges and near-compulsory “plea bargains”) then… that would still not be a good reason for terrorist attacks. Which may be why the New Black Panthers don’t shoot white people in churches and shopping malls. But at least the claim of occupation would make sense to me as an interpretation of actual events in the universe I perceive.

The white resentment claim? Wow, no.

When I say that there is an organization of such people, by the way, I am not making the claim that they are actually organized, that they give and follow orders or make communal decisions. That would be less frightening. No, by organization I just mean that they share some rhetoric, some channels of communication, some leaders, some images, some symbols, some goals. That’s what we generally mean when we talk about terrorist organizations; it’s much the same when we talk about organized religion. So, yeah, terrorist organization.

And what could we do about it? How do we counter a rhetorical claim that white men are living under occupation in this country, when the claim has no basis in fact? Do we counter it with facts? With mockery? With argument? How do we weaken the hold that rhetoric has on people like Dylann Roof?

I don’t know.

All I can think of, today, at this moment, is to rededicate myself to celebrating the differences within our national brotherhood and sisterhood. To joyfully declaring that we are, Americans all, different one to another, and that is what makes our nation interesting and fun. To observe Juneteenth tomorrow not only with peace and love but with acknowledgement that all our Americans are Americans all, that the more we include the bigger we are. That there are no foreigners here.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 1, 2015

Hotels, not Bakeries

So, the thing about Indiana’s terrible RFRA is that it’s terrible and bad. But the thing about the conversation about it, is that it has been about food, and that seems to be not the best possible way to talk about it. I know there’s a lawsuit somewhere about a bakery being sued for not making cakes for same-sex weddings, and there’s a pizza joint that won’t cater same-sex weddings, and so we talk about food.

I like food. I like weddings. It’s all good. But wouldn’t it be more illustrative to talk about hotels?

I mean, for one thing, the homophobic hotelier who does business with a same-sex couple is actually facilitating the sin itself. Cake is, I’m told, ancillary to the sin, but getting a room is proverbial. If you believe that "religious freedom" exempts a business owner from doing business with someone who is gay, or from encouraging or condoning homosexuality generally, it seems to me that it follows that such a business should be able to deny a motel room key to a gay couple just off the freeway, or to refuse the whole block of rooms for the guests of two brides. So the question is: should that be allowed?

I mean, for Your Humble Blogger, the answer is obviously no: a hotel should rent rooms to people regardless of sexual orientation, race, skin color, birth condition or religion. If the hotelier can’t square that with her conscience, she can get out of the business. That’s my opinion. It’s obvious to me. Presumably, the writers of the Indiana version of the RFRA disagree, at least as regards sexual orientation.

Of course, sexual orientation is not a protected class federally, nor in the state of Indiana. So when Mr. and Mr. Smith pull off the freeway in Indiana to look for a motel, they can be shut out because the desk clerk considers their fully legal marriage to have the wrong number of penes, and this has been true for some time. It’s true in a lot of places in this country. The RFRA doesn’t actually alter that, although by passing it, it makes it much more likely that a lawsuit brought by the Smiths against the Motel One-Penis Marriage and its desk clerk would be immediately dismissed. My home state, things are different. Yay New England! Massachusetts, the Lieutenant-Governor will be officiating at the wedding of the State Senate President and his groom, and if you have not been paying attention, that L-G is representing the Other Party. So, yay New England! But not Indiana. Or Michigan. Or Pennsylvania. Or twenty-odd other states. The state law in Indiana may or may not be held to overrule local ordinances, which will make some difference in knowing if there are freeway exits that can be taken with confidence, although there will still be plenty of hotels in South Bend that don’t care how many penes your marriage has. Just keep awake ’til you get there, right?

But why do I want us to talk about hotels instead of cakes and pizza?

For one thing, I think the wedding cake thing naturally lends itself to sympathy toward the baker. I believe that a baker of wedding cakes should make cakes for all and sundry, and I am happy with the government regulating that, but I understand that for Ms. Martinez and her fiancée to go to the Very Devout One Penis Per Marriage Bakery to order their three-tiered sodomy-and-butter-cream cake can be seen as a provocation, of sorts. Not so much the hotel business, for which I think people have less sympathy to begin with. For another, the Brides Martinez can go to South Bend or another local oasis of diversity for the cake, and everyone knows there are plenty of those; for the hotel, the location is pretty much where it’s at.

And then, this country has a long and storied history of bigots refusing hotel space to non-whites and to interracial couples. Stories about ballplayers not being able to stay with their teams, bandmembers not being able to stay with the band. Sleeping on the bus. The stories about car crashes that happened because an unapproved family had miles to go before they could safely and legally sleep. We know about those. We’ve had that conversation. (We’ve had the lunch-counter conversation, too, yes—if it were about cake, it would have been less sympathetic.) Making those Smith fellows cross the state line to get a room seems ugly in a familiar way, and one that rhetorically does much better for my side of the argument than theirs.

And then, I dunno, isn’t there a well-known story from Scripture about people being turned away by an innkeeper?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 24, 2015

Five Years

Five years ago yesterday I wrote this:

There’s an awful lot of work left to be done with [the Affordable Care Act], … successively, from year to year. The main thing is that there will now be a perennial battle about how we fulfill with the national responsibility to ensure (or insure) access to health care, or how well we fulfill it, rather than if we fulfill it, or if that responsibility exists at all. But, like early childhood education, the perennial battle may be answered with cheaply and shoddily, which ain’t much of a legacy. So, yes, a big fucking deal, but the deal ain’t done.

Look, here's the thing, and I'll repeat it from a bunch of other sources because it bears repeating: the crazy Supreme Court case King v Burwell ought to be a terrific opportunity for the Other Party to achieve policy goals. To the extent that there is anything to fix at all (and there's an argument, certainly, that this particular text is not actually problematic at all) the federal subsidies for people who can't afford health care in states where the mandated exchanges are managed by the federal government rather than the state could be explicitly approved with a single sentence. The text of the law could be unambiguously put in line with what everyone who voted for it thought it meant. It could be done in an hour.

And the Other Party could, legitimately, hold that process up for some sort of policy concession. We'll make this ridiculous case go away, they could say, and at the same time we'll fix some language in Glass-Steagall to make that clearer as well. Or we'll reduce such-and-such reporting requirements to yearly. Or even we'll exempt another small class of employers from the mandate. Something that Our Only President could sign, even if he would prefer not to. They could legislate.

This would be the normal way for large legislation to work: in the years after the big legislation, a handful of minor problems are fixed, and along with that there are new changes introduced that reflect the new balance of power in the House and Senate. This is a way in which the preferences of voters and activists, as expressed in elections, influences what the government actually does. Incrementally. It's not the only way, but it's one of the ways that democracy works.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 19, 2015

King, the man and the day

I find myself torn, this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, between wanting to write about the Reverend Doctor King and wanting to write about other people. It drives me crazy that people collapse the movement into one man—a man who would be the first to talk about the other great and little men and women who contributed to the Civil Rights movement in this country. It was predictable that the creation of a national holiday to remember one leader would be the excuse for forgetting all the others. And we do the memory of Dr. King a disservice if we get through the day without talking about Ralph Abernathy, Victoria Gray Adams, Ella Baker, Julian Bond, Ruby Bridges, Septima Clark, Medgar Evers, Bernice Fisher, Cookie Gilchrist, Jesse Jackson, Kivie Kaplan, Jacob Lawrence, Stanley Levison, John Lewis, Mae Mallory, Thurgood Marshall, James Meredith, Diane Nash, Rosa Parks, James Peck, A. Philip Randolph, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Paul Robeson, Bayard Rustin, Michael Schwerner, Fred Shuttlesworth, Leon Sullivan, Harry Wachtel, Wyatt Tee Walker, Roy Wilkins, Harris Wofford, Louis Tompkins Wright, or Malcom X. Just to throw a few names out there. Choose your own. There are thousands. Millions.

On the other hand, it would be doing the memory of Dr. King a disservice not to talk about the man himself. And one of the things that I have been seeing—that Left Blogovia has been drawing attention to over the last few years—is the way the actual Martin Luther King, Jr. is being replaced by an anodyne, inoffensive pablum version; a version that prefers mean repose to uncomfortable truth, and that tells us that we, black or white, rich or poor, liberal or conservative, straight or gay, we have no urgent need to fight injustice today, in our lives, in our communities, in our nation. The real Martin Luther King—the imperfect one, the one with actual thoughts, actual goals, actual errors, actual achievements, actual insights, actual alliances, and actual biases—is there to look at.

My own bugaboo, of course, is about labor. There is no question what the real Martin Luther King thought about unions and the labor movement:

In answer to your first question, I strongly believe that the fight for Civil Rights is an integral part of the over-all battle for social justice in the United States. By its very nature, this movement for the human dignity of eighteen million Negroes raises problems and demands solutions which involve every American who is concerned with freedom and decency. And then, the very success of our cause depends upon our ability to fashion a gigantic and integrated alliance of the progressive social forces in the United States. Indeed, the very fact that we stand for “integration,” for a society in which the Negro will have complete political, economic and social equality, commits us to fight for a whole series of measures which go beyond the specific issue of segregation.

For example, it is no accident that the forces of race hatred in the South are also the partisans of reaction on every other issue. The American labor movement has discovered this when it tries to organize workers or when it faces the fact that “Right-to-Work” laws are a favorite instrument of the leaders of the White Citizen Councils and the Klan. In the South itself, then, the broader implications of our struggle for Civil Rights are there for everyone to see-and are made most obvious by the supporters of discrimination themselves. As integration develops, the Negro will more and more face the social and political dimensions of the race issue. As a Southern citizen, he will discover an identity of interest with all those who champion decent conditions for all workers, adequate housing and medicine for the entire population, and so on.

Then, there is the political aspect of our fight. It is obvious to us that a political majority for Civil Rights will also be a majority in favor of many other social reforms. Those who already support our cause-the unions, the liberals, the more progressive farmers-represent a cross section of the great American majority. When this coalition becomes politically effective in its battle against minority rule and reaction, it will act on Civil Rights and on the many other problems confronting the American people, Negro and white.

That's from a 1959 written interview in Challenge magazine, which was the organ of the Young People's Socialist League.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 9, 2014

Hobby Lobby Lobby get your adverse here

So, here's the thing: I found myself, in the wake of the Hobby Lobby case, much more inclined to blog about what my side was getting wrong than about the decision itself. Perhaps that's understandable—I was actually seeing lots of things, both in Left Blogovia and on Facebook, that wildly overstated or just plain misstated the case. That irritates me. In particular the case was not about anybody banning anybody from using anything, and using the word in headlines and tweets and gifs and so forth is only going to convince the other side that we are untrustworthy. Bad enough what it actually is, is what I'm saying. On the other hand, it seems very wrong to react to political misfortune by criticizing my allies, rather than my foes. So, you know, I didn't.

Your Humble Blogger found it difficult to write about the case itself, though. I am doing so, obviously. Or at least I'll get there eventually, but it may take me a minute to sneak up on it through the thicket of other cases and a few general statements about the Supreme Court, Law and the Real World.

I'll start off talking a bit about the Planned Parenthood case. In this one, the Court said that the Massachusetts law that created a buffer zone around an abortion clinic violated the rights of people who wished to protest at the clinic's door. It seemed to me that this was a perfectly reasonable case, in which my own opinion was different from that of the majority. It was a case of competing rights and interests, and I certainly understand—and find compelling—the idea that people should be able to protest and picket against private groups and even individuals. On the other hand, Massachusetts has tried to accommodate Operation Rescue and their ilk, and has a legitimate state interest in preventing the violent acts that surrounded the clinic protests. In addition, the rights of the individual women seeking care need to be protected. The State has to seek a balance, and the Court is there, in large part, to tell the State when it has overreached that balance.

Now, I don't think it did. I think that the Court, regrettably, ignored the real world. Blindfolded Justice and all. To me, the most compelling thing is that the people harmed (and make no mistake, there is actual harm involved) by overturning the law are for the most part in a category that tends to be underrepresented in ordinary politics and have less opportunity for redress, in the ordinary scheme of things. Of course, that's my judgment, but I am willing to stand by it. However you look at it, though, it seems like the Court essentially said: we're sticking with the Freedom of Speech principle and let the real world take care of itself.

I think the same thing, more or less, was going on in the campaign finance case. There's a principle here, about Freedom of Speech and what restrictions can be placed on it under what conditions, and the Court essentially made a principled decision that will have real-world consequences that are totally unrelated to that principled decision. The world I perceive, at any rate, is not the world of Blindfolded Justice in this instance. Without removing that blindfold, it's hard (I think) to counter the argument on principle.

And again—the Michigan affirmative-action case is somewhat different, but I feel underneath, the same tension is there between a laudable principle (color-blind application of state processes) that is much easier to cling to whilst blindfolded from reality. In reality, strictly ignoring race ignores far too much, and does actual harm—again—to people who have less opportunity to redress it through political means.

Now, as far as I'm concerned, one of the great innovations of the Warren Court was to take off the blindfold and look at the real harm done to real people by court cases that were defensible on principle in the abstract. On the other hand, it's possible for the Court to go too far in that direction. We don't, ultimately, want the Court to disregard the Constitution and the Congress in order to redress all the injustice in the world. We want balance. We want judiciousness. We want fairness. We want both principle and empathy. And that's extraordinarily difficult, it really is. So in a lot of cases, in most cases actually, even when I think the Court has it wrong, I see what the difficulty is, and I get it. After all, easy obvious cases rarely come up to the Supreme Court level.

And here's where I come back around to the topic of conversation, because unlike all of those other cases, where I understand that the competing problems interact in ways that just aren't going to be resolvable to everybody's satisfaction, Hobby Lobby just seems completely fucked-up. I mean, they are balancing on the one hand actual harm coupled with overturning the duly elected legislators and on the other hand petulant fuckery coupled with insane theories of corporate impunity. I don't get it at all.

Which is why, I suppose, my instinct was to engage with people who agreed with me but in my opinion were wrong about the details or the language. The other side of this one… I just don't get it at all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 29, 2014

Not Alone

Your Humble Blogger happened to read the opening paragraph of Jennifer Steinhauer’s article White House to Press Colleges to Do More to Combat Rape in the New York Times this morning:

Reacting to a series of highly publicized rapes on college campuses, the White House on Monday released guidelines that increase the pressure on universities to more aggressively combat sexual assaults on campus.

Over at Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams refers to “a series of high profile cases” in How the White House can fight the college rape epidemic. Better would be something like reacting to a series of highly-publicized leaks of previously covered-up or ignored rapes or following a series of failed cover-up attempts at prestigious schools.

Nick Anderson in the Washington Post, however, gets it closer to right:

The Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault, which President Obama formed in January, is spotlighting an issue that has gained widespread notice in the past few years because of allegations of sexual violence at prestigious schools such as Amherst College in Massachusetts and Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

Probably even better would be finally gained widespread notice in the last few years despite every attempt by authorities to keep this sort of thing quiet.

Sexual assault is common on our campuses. Let me repeat that, because the newspapers and websites don’t seem to be saying it: Rape is common. Every week, every state, big campuses and small, public and private, there are young women and men attacked, and we let it happen.

The new government website that created the “news” under the headlines is called Not Alone, referencing Our Only President’s speech back in January:

My hope and intention is, is that every college president who has not personally been thinking about this is going to hear about this report and is going to go out and figure out who is in charge on their campus of responding properly, and what are the best practices, and are we doing everything that we should be doing. And if you’re not doing that right now, I want the students at the school to ask the president what he is doing or she is doing. And perhaps most important, we need to keep saying to anyone out there who has ever been assaulted, you are not alone. You will never be alone. We have your back. I’ve got your back.

And, you know, that’s all great and stuff, and well-done O.O.P., but I’m afraid when I look at the name of that site, I’m just thinking that those people who have been assaulted are not alone because there are so fucking many of them. Thousands and thousands of them, assaulted at my campus, at my alma mater, at yours, the one your sister went to, the one your daughter goes to, the one down the road. It’s not a series of rapes, it’s that rape on campus is the norm.

And even worse than that…we have all been permitting it, participating in rape culture. Telling women that it isn’t really rape, or that they shouldn’t ruin a young man’s future, or that it was all a misunderstanding. Or pretending that it isn’t happening, certainly not here on this campus. Or that rape is rare, something done by extraordinarily evil men who are nothing like the guys in class or in the dorm or in our club. Those newspapers are contributing to rape culture, even as they are undoubtedly congratulating themselves (as YHB is whilst typing this note) on fighting it.

In fact, what I will have to tell my daughter, as she goes off to college in a few years, is that—it’s true, you are not alone, you will never be alone.

You are surrounded.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 31, 2013

Happy Hallowed Thing

An odd thing—a fellow who is Not From These Parts came by the desk yesterday in the library that employs me and asked When is Hallowe’en, anyway? It turned out that he was confused because he had seen kids trick-or-treating last weekend. Which, of course, he had; the town merchants organization set up trick-or-treating for Saturday morning. Heck, I took my children trick-or-treating two weeks ago at the Ren Faire, which had its Hallowe’en on the last weekend it was open, whatever the calendar said. And actual Hallowe’en is tonight, and then there will be more parties over the weekend, because college campus is why.

And I was thinking, that must be confusing for someone who comes to America perhaps never having heard of the holiday, finds out that it’s the last day of October, the cross-quarter day and part of the observance of All Souls on November 1, and then, and then, people are wandering around in costumes the week before.

Is it strange to have a holiday celebrated when it’s convenient? I don’t mean the Columbus Day thing, when the actual holiday is moved to a convenient Monday, but where everyone agrees that the holiday is on Thursday but we’re going to actually hold the traditional celebrations on Saturday. It seems strange to me. And also totally normal. It seemed totally normal until somebody found it strange, and then it seemed totally strange.

I don’t, by the way, mean the season stuff, where people listen to Christmas Carols for the whole Advent period, or longer. That’s perfectly normal: there’s stuff that you do during the preparation for a holiday, some of which you still do on the holiday itself. Decorations go up early, or not, depending on the tastes of the household. The stories are told, or the books are read, or the songs are sung, or the foods are eaten, all to get you in the mood. That’s part of any holiday, I would think. But there’s a part of the holiday that is observed on the holiday itself and only on that holiday, which is the meaning of the day. Or if your household has to compromise on that, it’s because of some logistical unpleasantness that requires the Thanksgiving Dinner to be eaten on Friday, or the presents to actually be exchanged on the 27th. But that’s a household thing, and the source of either tension or jokes (or more likely both) rather than an organized event by the town.

There are lots of reasons for early trick-or-treating, I know. It’s a great idea. I support it. Awesome! Early trick-or-treating! Whoo hoo!

I’m just saying… if you were from Turkey or Nepal or Bolivia… and you were trying to acculturate yourself to this very, very strange holiday… ah, never mind. Snickers!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 15, 2013

Lists in the Wiki Age

I know the purpose of these lists is to troll for arguments, but seriously, Business Insider? The Most Famous Book Set In Every State and the Arizona book is The Bean Trees? Amazon Best Sellers Rank 105,267? Worldcat shows 4,443 libraries holding it… that’s not bad, actually. My immediate reaction was that Waiting to Exhale was much, much more famous, but Worldcat only as that at 3,600 libraries and Amazon ranks it at 144,034. On the other hand, Waiting to Exhale was a bestseller and had a number one movie; I’m inclined to call that one for Terry McMillan.

Except that there’s The Andromeda Strain. Bestseller, movie, miniseries. And, I think, more instantly recognizable than either. And a higher Amazon rank. So I think that about wraps it up.

The thing is that I got The Andromeda Strain from a Wikipedia list of Novels Set in Arizona; I had forgotten that the town wiped out by the satellite crash is in Arizona. Much of the action is in Nevada (or in outer space), but the whole set-up is in the Grand Canyon state, so it should count if The Bean Trees does.

And here’s the thing about Wikipedia—I figured they would have such a list, and they do. It’s not comprehensive, but the most well-known books will be on it, and that’s what Business Insider was going for in the first place. Which makes their list not only wrong, but trivially wrong, almost uninterestingly wrong. It’s like a lmgty situation, isn’t it? The most well-known novel set in Arizona? Why bother coming up with stuff, it’s on Wikipedia.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 8, 2013

Unmaking the GRADE

There’s a blog post that’s been making the rounds the last few days—I’ve been seeing links to the cross-post at the Washington Post Answer Sheet blog, but it was originally a post called Testing Madness over at the incredibly well-named Yinzercation blog. The bulk of the note is a description written by an anonymous middle-school teacher of the putting her students through the GRADE™ test. Well, it’s an assessment, really, but from the students’ point of view, I’m sure it smells like a test. It’s quite a powerful description, and well worth reading.

The thing is, though, that I think the anonymous teacher is conflating a few different problems with GRADE™ package and our educational systems. I wanted to try to tease them out a bit. Before I break them down, though, I want to emphasize that (1) I have no idea if this teacher is accurately describing the test as it is written and designed to be administered, or even if this teacher exists at all rather than being an invention of Yinzerblog’s Jessie B. Ramey, and (b) I have no personal knowledge of this specific test or of other of Pearson’s recent assessment packages, and my knowledge of current standardized tests and assessments is based on news-reading and PTO meetings. So I’m talking out my ass, here, is what I’m saying, I’m not hardly an expert. Still, I have a blog, right?

One problem is that the test isn’t very well-made. Again, I don’t know if it is really as bad as she makes it seem, but I do know that it’s really hard to make good tests. Multiple-choice tests are tricky, making sure that one and only one answer is correct—and multiple-choice tests that assess language skills or other essentially murky skills and knowledge bases are profoundly tricky. Still, the existence of a crap test doesn’t argue against the use of good tests. You could argue that it’s effectively impossible to make good tests—that if Pearson, with all its resources for writing, editing, proofing and double-checking, makes crap tests, then making good tests is bound to be so expensive that no-one could afford to give them. Alternately, it could be that this is just what Pearson does, and the lesson is just to avoid Pearson products whenever possible. It’s not conclusive.

Another problem is that the tests are culturally biased. The anonymous teacher talks about idiomatic expressions as well as her city-kids’ unfamiliarity with cars and oil changes and the word bureau. Again, I have no knowledge of the test itself, but the history of standardized tests has pretty much been that of constant shock at discovering cultural bias. In one way, that’s connected to the first problem—if the way the test is crap is cultural bias, then the problem is a crap test. I think, though, that there’s a structural problem there that’s more than just the difficulty of making good tests. The problem is that standardized tests have to be standardized, and children are pretty fundamentally nonstandard. If we manage to take out all the references to suburban life and then take out all the references to urban life, take out the middle-class and the lower-class and the upper-class connotations, the assumptions of the immigrant and the assumptions of the native-born… take out all the regionalisms, the climate issues, the assumptions of ability or disability, religion, gender, ethnicity… if you take out any question that could benefit one kid over another kid, well, I would hope you’ll have the arithmetic left, but not much more.

This is a fundamentally irreducible problem with standardized tests: the way our nonstandard students arrive at them. In fact, this is a fundamentally irreducible problem with tests. A teacher—in a classroom with some countable number of students—can hope to mitigate the problem, or at least to account for it. The larger the units being tested, the bigger the problem grows. A district-wide test? A state-wide test? A national test? My assumption is that the line after which the test is too big, too standard to be useful is somewhere smaller than the line where Pearson can make a profit.

There’s a third problem, though, that I hadn’t really thought about until it came up in that post. If you use baseline tests at the beginning of the year,—first of all, you have to use baseline tests, right? A test at the beginning of the year and another at the end. It eats up twice as much time as only doing one test, of course, but you get at least twice as much information. So you use baseline tests. But any good baseline test, or even any moderately competent baseline test given at the beginning of the year is going to show that a bunch of the students don’t know anything that they, you know, haven’t learned yet. Ms. Ramey and the anonymous teacher attribute the negative effects of the test—students feeling “stupid,” frustrated, and ready to give up on learning—to the test being a crap test, but in fact a well-designed, well-executed baseline test at the beginning of the year will be beyond most of the students’ ability, and will presumably make the students feel stupid and frustrated.

A really good teacher, with enough time and few enough students, will presumably be able to mitigate some of the problem—with the right preparation, a community of self-confident learners (as the anonymous writer describes it her goal to create) could find a baseline test to be a sniff of the treats in store, a glimpse of the mountain they can scale, a glint of the gold at the end of the proverbial. That would be great! Nearly as great as not doing it in the first place!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 11, 2013

Why not Hartford?

Your Humble Blogger has said nice things about David S. Bernstein before—he has known me since the day I was born, and he is also a terrific journalist of Massachusetts politics, and so on and so forth. He has been a contributor to WGBH for a few months now, mostly talking about the mayoral election coming up in Boston. That election is a Big Deal—it matters who is Mayor of Boston, matters a lot, not only to the people who live and work in Boston Proper, but to people who live and work in the suburbs, or drive through Boston now and then, or fly in or out of Logan or ride in or out of North or South stations. Mr. Bernstein is moderating a mayoral debate tonight, by the way. He has been covering that race quite extensively.

Two weeks from now there will be an election for the Boston City Council, too. That Council is institutionally weak, but is important to the city nonetheless and perennially underreported (as most city councils are, I think). And there’s a sort of irony that this particular cycle was likely to be both unusually open and interesting and draw even less attention than usual—the mayoral election drew four of the thirteen City Council incumbents as well as the local press. There are five people running for the open seat in District Eight and eight for the vacated District Five seat (that can’t be right, can it?) along with nineteen people running for the four at-large seats, two of which will be open. In addition, most of the returning District Councilors have a challenger or two or three.

In all, there are forty-eight people running for the Boston City Council. And David S. Bernstein and the Boston Magazine website decided to interview all of them. He has done forty-six, so far. I don’t know if there will be two more added or if the last two have declined, which would be a shame, I think. Still, forty-six interviews with candidates for the city council. Do you live in Boston? Before you vote on September 24th, (unless you’re in Roxbury) you can read an interview with each candidate on your ballot. That’s a tremendous service.

It’s also interesting to read the whole thing. I haven’t lived in Boston for ten years, and I’m familiar with only a few of the candidates and really only a few of the current issues. Reading all the interviews has reminded me of a bunch of things about the city, and informed me of a bunch of changes, and let me in on a bunch of things I never knew. Yes, there are some platitudes and speechspeak, if you will, but there are also a lot of details about neighborhoods, communities, frustrations and desires. It’s a fascinating collection.

There’s a mix of policy questions, character questions and fluff (my favorite, to incumbent Matt O’Malley You have, in the past, expressed support for the idea of bringing the Olympic Games to Boston. I’m curious: are you insane?) David Bernstein’s knowledge of the Boston political scene let him ask Martin Keogh I know you worked for former city councilor Peggy Davis-Mullen. Was she a major influence on your approach to politics and policy? He could ask Josh Zakim I’m curious whether there are any innovative approaches you’ve seen in the programs you’ve funded [through the Zakim fund], that might be applicable to the city’s approach to problems? He could talk to Patrice Gattozzi about Hyde Park Main Streets and to Francisco White about MassVOTE and to Seamus Whelan about the Massachusetts Nurses Association and to Michelle Wu about food trucks. That’s a policy question, by the way, as Ms. Wu worked in City Hall on permits for them. In total, it’s a fascinating document of a moment of a big city, and it’s the sort of thing that can be done with the web’s evasion of the old limits on production and delivery put together with old-school opinion journalism.

Or, at any rate, it’s the sort of thing that can be done in Boston. My response, as it often is when I read really good local political reporting from elsewhere, is to wish that we had something like that for Hartford. It’s the capital city! Surely we could have a David Bernstein of our own! I blame the Courant!

Only… the thing is, Boston is a Big City. It really is. It’s a huge, wealthy, interesting city. If Boston Magazine can convince advertisers that they have created a site that everyone interested in Boston politics will check every day, they have a very desirable chunk of demographic. In Hartford, I’m thinking not so much. Oh, they would sell ads, but to local restaurants and dating sites. In Boston, they can sell ads to Mazda. I’m just saying. It’s a different thing entirely.

I don’t really know how resource-intensive it would be to have a Hartford version of David Bernstein on your payroll. Maybe it’s something that Hartford actually can’t afford. Or Indianapolis. Or Lincoln. Or Raleigh or Richmond or Baton Rouge. And that would suck, wouldn’t it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 12, 2013

mark of Cain

From the Richmond (KY) Climax, 12 August 1913, via of course the Chronicling America page.

The dispatches bring the information that Caleb Powers is disgusted with the way he has been snubbed and shunned at Washington and is anxious to have his Congressional term over. The surprise of it is that the creature has feeling enough left to realize that he wears the mark of Cain on his brow and that all honest men abhor him.

However anxious Rep. Powers may have been to end what at the time was his second term, he stood for and won re-election in 1914 and 1916. The Climax was clearly a Democratic paper; Caleb Powers was a Republican, of course. Oh, and the Governor that Caleb Powers was convicted of having assassinated was a Democrat.

Yes, assassinated. Did any of you know this story? I didn’t. Kentucky, 1899 gubernatorial election, chaos, massive fraud, a Democrat running as a third-party spoiler candidate, a bunch of ballots thrown out by a party-line vote of the Assembly, and then the Governor-elect (more or less, depending on who you ask) was shot while walking to the Capitol to be sworn in, the shots being fired from the State Building, probably from the office of the Secretary of State, one Caleb Powers. Who, by the way, was not in Frankfurt at the time, but was convicted three times, with the convictions vacated by the appeals court each time, followed by a fourth trial, a hung jury, a pardon and then four terms in Congress.

The assassinated Governor, by the way, had himself once killed a man in what was either a duel or a street fight, depending on who you ask—when two armed men meet in the street and shoot at each other, well, that jury came back self-defense, so that’s all right. No mark of Cain for him.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 26, 2013

May Have Found a Lost Mine

I have been seeing some very cool digital archive stuff lately. The Library of Congress and the NEH have a lovely one called Chronicling America with a gazillion newspaper pages, but the awesome thing is the 100 Years Ago Today widget. Here’s an article from the Mohave County Miner, alas reprinted from a week earlier, but still pretty awesome.

May Have Found a Lost Mine

The following is from the Lordsburg, N M Liberal

Reports come in from the river that Wm. Wright has found the gold mine that is known to be secreted somewhere in that country. Some years ago Lige Conner and Oscar Hunter were riding with a mining man who was looking at the country, and under his direction broke off many samples which were thrown in a sack and packed back. He was stopping at the Wright place, and when he left he did not take the samples with him. The samples were by the side of the door and Mrs. Wright got tired seeing them around and told Conner to take them away. In picking them up he found that one of them was alive with gold. He went back over the trail hunting for the place where he had broken this off, but was never able to find it. Lige Conner found a piece of float at the mouth of a canyon that had twenty dollars worth of gold in it, but could never find the ledge it came from. A number of years ago a party of Coloradoans came in there with an old Mexican who claimed that when he was a boy he worked there, and gold was taken out and shipped to Mexico on mule back; that the Indians got bad so the shaft was covered up with cedar logs and the logs were covered with waste from the dump. They hunted a long time taking their starting point the red rock, from which the settlement is named. The old Mexican said that there was a cedar stump marked with a cross with the dates 112 above and below 8; that if he could find the stump it would lead to the mine, but they could not find the stump. Some years afterward B B Ownby found the stump, which was a sycamore instead of a cedar, but it had the cross and dates. He did not have the secret, but he hunted long and far for the old mine and has not found it yet. Now it is reported that Wm Wright, who has been prospecting in that country for a long time, has found a gold ledge that is about three feet wide which contains lots of gold, though it is rather pocket. If he has found the source of all the gold that has been found as float he has the big thing. If he has not it is still there for the hunter.

Alas, I have not found any further information on William Wright, Elijah Conner or Mr. Ownby; for all we know they may be dancing still.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 9, 2013

An idea and a question

So. The thing about this Oregon Pay-It-Forward business is that it seems like one of those ideas whose major flaw is that it doesn’t work.

The idea, in its basic form, is that instead of charging up-front tuition, the public universities in Oregon would contract with students for a tithe—the numbers being bruited about are 3% for 25 years, but that’s just to give people an opportunity to use the word bruited. Some percentage of the income for some number of years post graduation, anyway.

Is it a good idea? Well, it’s seems progressive, on the face of it—it takes from the alumni based on the ability to pay, after all. And the wealthy would pay the biggest share. On the other hand, I don’t really see why you wouldn’t just institute a progressive state income tax and heavily subsidize tuition, as used to be the case a generation ago. On the other other hand, if it really is politically impossible to raise the money through a properly progressive tax, isn’t this better than having the current untenable situation where students graduate with hundreds of thousands of dollars in federally guaranteed, non-dischargeable debt?

So many, many problems, though. I mean first of all, they have to come up with the money to keep the places running during the first four years while the first cohorts eat the state out of house and proverbial without paying anything up front, and then the money to keep the places running while the first cohorts take crappy jobs and live in crappy apartments with their books in milk crates. If the students aren’t investing up-front, the state will be investing hugely up-front, and that money comes from…bonds? Whatever it is, it seems absolutely prohibitive to me, way more so than just raising state revenues to bring down tuition would be.

And then all the myriad problems of collecting the money, and how that would work, and how that would affect alumni relations—can you imagine calling a really wealthy alum in her 20th reunion year, and saying I know you have paid us a quarter of a million dollars over the last five years and it looks like you’re having a great year this year with an income of five million dollars—so in addition to the hundred and fifty thousand you are contractually obligated to pay us, how about endowing a new dorm?

And there’s the conceptual problem that the AFT has been on about—this concretizes the idea that the State University System is not a Good Thing for the State but only a Good Thing for the Students, and even then only insofar as it makes them money in the long run. If people who don’t attend the public university don’t have to pay anything at all toward its upkeep, then I’m not sure how public they will remain.

Anyway. All of this is prompting me to ask a question that has been on my mind for a while: I have a vague recollection that when I graduated college in 1991, the Mendoza Line for salary was $25,000 a year. That is, if you were a new-minted college grad making less than $25K, it was because you for whatever reason were taking a crappy job—you were taking your pay in experience or contacts, or you were working in the arts or the so-called non-profit world in order to do good with your life, or some such thing. I don’t have records of conversations from that time, so I don’t really know if that’s accurate. Do any of you Gentle Readers remember? Was it actually $20K? I’m asking because I’m curious if that number has kept up with inflation—I think I know the current Mendoza Line, more or less, but maybe I’m remembering the nineties wrong.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 4, 2013

America! And Egypt!

So, there’s been a coup in Egypt. That’s a big fucking deal.

And I was thinking about this yesterday: Mohamed Morsi was the duly elected President, but elections doesn’t mean democracy. Yes, he was elected, and while the election was not free and fair by our standards, it does appear that he was, you know, elected by the populace within our understanding of the word. And there isn’t a mechanism, in the Egyptian constitution that was suspended yesterday, to force early elections to replace (or potentially replace) an unpopular President. To my way of thinking, that means he retains the legitimacy of the popular support that gave him the office. Does that mean that last week he was in some significant sense the head of a democratic government? No. But it does mean that if he isn’t—and by that time he pretty much wasn’t—then there simply isn’t one.

Essam al-Haddad, the national security advisor (until July 2, I’m guessing) posted a note on Facebook (via the Foreign Policy Passport blog, by the way, in case that thing disappears or you just don’t like FB) in which he defends Mr. Morsi and voices outrage that people are trying to oust him in a coup. He writes

Many have seen fit in these last months to lecture us on how democracy is more than just the ballot box. That may indeed be true. But what is definitely true is that there is no democracy without the ballot box.

And he has a point: there is no democracy without the ballot box. The new government of Egypt, whatever it will be, will not be a legitimate democratic government. But surely, this whole sad and frustrating history is overwhelming proof that democracy is more than just the ballot box, and that Morsi’s ballot-box only democracy was not in any way sufficient.

We can list some of the things that are necessary, in addition to that ballot box: a functioning independent judiciary is probably the first one; a constitution that withstands change is another; a body of representatives that actually represents some largish chunk of people outside the government; a popular cultural belief in the value of democracy. Probably dozens of others. I don’t think it’s possible to list everything necessary for a democracy to function, but there are a ton of things we can list, and Egypt seems to be a case that could have been designed to highlight the absence of them all. A functional economy; a widespread cultural respect for human rights (in the Western sense of the term, anyway); an independent and free-ish press.

The ballot box looks small and weak compared with all that stuff, doesn’t it? And yet it is, and yes I’m going to quote Walt Whitman again, our powerfulest scene and show. And it has been that—more powerful than armies and floods and religious fads—because of all the work we have done in between elections. The hard work of democracy, as I always say, is what happens the day after the election. And the day before, and all the other days. The Fourth of July, too.

So, Happy Independence Day, Gentle Readers! Those of you who are Americans, anyway—think of how lucky it is to be in one of those few places that all that work is being done all the time. Is it perfect? No, it’s far, far far from perfect. Isn’t that lucky, too? Because it looks like we have work to do as well.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 12, 2013

All Together Now

Back a while ago, I was reading a story in the local paper about Shocking Numbers Of Kindergarten, First Grade Suspensions and thought I should write about it. I didn’t. Later that day, I wound up in a FB conversation with an old friend—very, very smart fellow, mostly in the science-and-money smarts—who claimed that Americans were less free than they had been. I pointed out that this was only conceivably true for values of American that don’t include women, Jews, people of African descent, people with physical disabilities, people with mental illnesses, etc, etc, etc. He then clarified that he was troubled by a diminishing respect for freedom of speech, as evidenced by both restrictive speech codes in colleges and restrictive speech norms in businesses, as well as that first grade boys are getting suspended from school for pointing their fingers in a gun shape and saying “bang”.

And it struck me, you see, that I really think that these things are intimately connected. Well, the parts that aren’t nonsense are intimately connected—the idea that speech norms are more restrictive now than at some particular point in the past, rather than restricting different things, is just blind ignorant. And part of that blind ignorance is the assumption that American means a particular kind of American, with particular mainstream views, or perhaps views close to one particular edge of the stream. A hundred years ago, you might be kicked out of college for expressing views that were not racist or sexist. Fifty years ago, you might be fired from work for expressing views that were not homophobic. Twenty-five years ago, when I was in an unusually liberal college, you would be shunned and possibly expelled (or informally made to understand you ought not return) for expressing racist views. Now, I expect, you could be shunned or expelled from many places for expressing homophobic views. The change in these things is connected to the expansion for what it means to be American.

I don’t mean to say that it has been uniform progress—it’s much, much more complicated than that. But on the whole, in a general sense, the arc of American-ness has gone out and down, towards including more people and different people. (Not altogether off this topic is Jon Bernstein on the changing national self-image) And it’s not actually easy to remember that, always—in much the same way that when you tour historic houses, it’s not easy to remember that there were more servants than owners. So if you think about the history of schools in America, you can look past that arc of American-ness and miss how much of America was not present in the schools of previous generations. The black kids, of course. The rural kids, the immigrant kids. The troubled kids. The crippled kids. The dumb kids. As we thought of them then. Kids that would have been in a “home” are now in schools, mostly; a lot of kids that might have died are now in schools, mostly.

So just as a fellow might very well say Americans and be thinking of, well, straight white men, or even straight white affluent well-educated men—or might be comparing (straight white well-educated male affluent) Americans of fifty years ago to (gloriously diverse) Americans today, a fellow might be comparing a classroom full of kids from a Golden Age to a classroom full of kids now, not realizing that there were an awful lot of kids that weren’t in that Golden Age classroom at all. You have to compare today’s classroom to yesterday’s classroom-field-orphanage-street-factory-hospital-cemetery.

We are now coming close, finally in this generation, to fulfilling our theoretical commitment to universal education (within our borders). But as in so many areas we haven’t really thought about what it costs to actually do it. And education is really expensive. And a classroom of kids that speak different languages, have different disabilities and abilities, have different gender roles and expectations, different class roles and expectations, different cultural roles and expectations… see, that’s really, really expensive. And there will be failures. Not just because education doesn’t work, which is very true. Also, though, is that we’re attempting something really difficult, gloriously difficult, amazingly magnificently Americanly difficult. We’re attempting something worthy of us as a nation: educating everybody, together.

I’m just saying: it might help if we remember now and then that it’s a lot harder than putting a man on the moon.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 10, 2013

Potty-mouthed Philosophy

So. I don’t know if any of y’all are following or even care in the slightest about the Colin McGinn Incident. Essentially, Professor McGinn has resigned from his position at the University of Miami after being more or less given an ultimatum: resignation or public investigation of allegations of sexual harassment. The harassment publicly alleged consists of wink-wink smut in email; there are always hints that there are Much Worse Things just waiting to come out, but nobody is at present saying what they are, or if they even exist.

Your Humble Blogger is attempting, by the way, to frame this conversation in a way that doesn’t depend on how incredibly creepy Professor McGinn appears to be. That appearance is subjective and based on very limited information—things look very bad from my angle, but there exist other angles. So I’m hoping by explicitly stating how terrible it looks, and by being as careful as possible in my framing, I can avoid claiming to know things I actually do not.

So. One of the emails in question contains, or is reported to contain, Professor McGinn telling his research assistant he was thinking about her during his recent “hand-job”. Professor McGinn posted a recent note claiming to refute the appearance that this email constituted sexual harassment, or at least claiming to “take care of certain false allegations”. In it, he… well, he… I’ll just quote a bit:

What kind of hand job leaves you cleaner than before? A manicure, of course. Why does this joke work? Because of the tension between the conventional idiomatic sense of “hand job” (a certain type of sex act) and its semantic or compositional meaning (in which it is synonymous with “job done by or to the hand”). When you think about it virtually all jobs are “hand jobs” in the second semantic sense: for all human work is manual work—not just carpentry and brick laying but also cookery and calligraphy. Indeed, without the hand human culture and human economies would not exist. So really “hand jobs” are very respectable and vital to human flourishing. We are a “hand jobs” species. (Are you now becoming desensitized to the specifically sexual meaning of “hand jobs”? Remember that heart surgeons are giving you a “hand job” when they operate on you; similarly for masseurs and even tax accountants.)

Now, does this not show a fundamental failure of understanding how language works? There’s a word (or two-word phrase, depending on how you count things like words in the English language) that has one and only one common meaning. Claiming that there is a semantic meaning that nobody ever uses or has used, and that the so-called semantic meaning trumps the actual meaning is, well, it’s a lot like what a joke philosophy professor would say, possibly in Alan Bennett’s voice (are you using the word ‘yes’ in the affirmative sense?) rather than an actual sensible statement.

It should, by the way, astonish y’all as it astonished me that Prof. McGinn’s refutation really is that he was indulging in crude […] humor with an employee. That’s it. He claims that he didn’t tell her he had a hand-job, but that he made a joke about having a hand-job. I guess that’s not quite true—he also claims that the two are totally different things, as if making crude jokes to an employee was not actionable. And… that’s it. That’s his refutation. In fact, he doesn’t even say that much, positing it as a hypothetical; he really only says that someone might have been reported as telling his employee that he had a hand-job, when in fact that person might have used a sort of double-entendre (A woman walks into a bar and asks for a double entendre, so the bartender gave her one) which, by the way, would have been incredibly witty, according to the distinguished professor of philosophy. Such wit, as far as I can tell, would have been called out as inappropriate on the internet message board I read for fans of my favorite sports team.

To get back to my question, though: do any of you care to defend the understanding of language and communication displayed here? Or is it possible that a supervisor using the word “hand job” to his employee could not be understood as a reference to a sex act, either directly or through obvious and direct implication?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Big Fucking Data

Here’s my reaction to the whole NSA thing: like a lot of people on the left, I kinda figured this was happening anyway. I kinda figured that the PATRIOT Act was written specifically to allow this sort of thing (whether the particular actions violated the statute or not, it allowed them to do this sort of thing) and reauthorized and modified to allow this sort of thing, all with widespread public support. So when it got leaked that this sort of thing is actually happening and people expressed outrage, well, my instinct is to say why weren’t you outraged ten years ago? Or five years ago?

Of course, many of the people who are outraged now were, in fact, outraged over the initial PATRIOT Act and its revisions and extensions, so there’s that. And there’s the other thing, which is that being right late is one hell of a lot better than being wrong; my irritation about people only being outraged now is, pretty much, dickishness. Far better to be irritated at people who were so utterly ineffective at explaining what was outrageous about the PATRIOT Act in the first place—people, that is, including YHB—that it’s only now that people get it.

Anyway. this is interesting, as is this, as is a bunch of other stuff out there, including My Gracious Host’s father’s FBI file for some insight into our law-enforcement snoopishness. And it was Atrios who pointed out that this is largely a scam, that the incentives are all for NSA to pour ever-increasing quantities of pelf into the pockets of Booz Allen Hamilton and their colleagues for ever-increasing snoopage into our lives.

And, if you follow the Madisonian system, the counter-incentive is provided only in… well, outrage. Yours, mine.

By the way, the absolute best and most productive path for that outrage is to contact the campaign of a legislative hopeful and demand a policy statement that agrees with your priorities. So if any of y’all happen to live in a place with, f’r’ex, a special election for the US Senate coming up within a few weeks, now would be an excellent time to indicate to your preferred candidate or candidates that you are outraged.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 30, 2013

Everything is Stories, you know

Your Humble Blogger feels somehow that it would be a good idea to write about Michelle Bachmann’s announcement that she will not seek re-election to Congress. I don’t know what to say, though, really. She’s an interesting figure, having been among the most prominent faces of the dog-wagging tail for a few years. But, really, what do more information do you need to know? She’s retiring; there will be a new Representative from her district. That’s pretty much it. I have read half-a-dozen columns.

What it brings to mind, for me, is how attuned I am to political news, and how much I tune out every other kind of news. I mean, that’s the news of the day, for me: Michelle Bachmann won’t seek re-election. I saw the headlines about the Disneyland dry ice incident; I didn’t bother to read the articles. I don’t know what’s going on with Amanda Bynes or Justin Bieber—I know who Justin Bieber is, at any rate, but my eyes tend to pixilate even the headlines of such articles. I would not have known about the baby rescued from the sewer had my co-workers not been discussing it for two days.

And see, that’s the thing—I would not make the argument there’s anything inherently more interesting and useful about the news that Rep. Bachmann won’t seek re-election than the baby-in-the-sewer story. They are both, largely, fueled by a grisly rubbernecking (and the press mania about both smells misogynistic to me, without, you know, actually knowing about the press mania on the other one) and horrific schadenfreude. Neither have much chance of affecting my life personally. The particularly special thing about Rep. Bachmann was of course her post-policy credentials, the way she turned failing to pass or even influence legislation into a badge of honor. So it’s not like her presence in or absence from the legislature is going to change the law, just the stories. Any claim I could make to be interested in those stories because they are Important and Affect People’s Lives is… well, arguable.

On the other hand, the Toronto Mayor story? That’s something everybody can agree is fun to watch, right?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 16, 2013

The News, Sporting

Here’s the thing I like about the Grauniad: when they run the story headlined BBC Radio 4 rapped over ‘cox sackers’ on-air comment, they feel very comfortable actually detailing the complaint:

The trust’s editorial complaints unit agreed, saying the phrase was “not articulated clearly enough and could easily have been misheard for the offensive word ‘cocksuckers’ by the majority of the audience”.

It said it was “highly likely to have been misheard by a significant part of the audience as ‘cocksuckers’”, many of whom might have been children because it was broadcast at 4.15pm when parents were doing the school run.

It is difficult to imagine the New York Times being able to report on the story at all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 8, 2013

GLAAD all over

Last week the Atlantic posted an article by James Kirchik called How GLAAD Won the Culture War and Lost Its Reason to Exist. Mr. Kerchik, a gay conservative, uses the recent award that GLAAD gave to Bill Clinton as a spark for a note about GLAAD being a partisan liberal organization rather than a gay-rights organization. His larger claim is that, as the headline says, gays have decisively conquered … the media and therefore GLAAD should fold up its tent and go home. That argument is well addressed by Gabriel Arana’s response Why We Still Need GLAAD (and frankly a glance at the nominees for TV and film counters the argument rather effectively) , but there is certainly a question about the purpose of GLAAD giving a major award to Bill Clinton.

This in fact was discussed quite a bit in Queer Blogovia, where feelings about the Big Dog are decidedly mixed. Yes, he was about as good an LGBT ally as you could imagine having been elected president in 1992. That’s a condition, though, that meant he was a disappointment in many, many ways. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was a compromise that it’s possible he could have improved on, although it’s not exactly clear how much. DOMA is a worse case—whatever might or might not have been passed, his explicit personal opposition to marriage equality defined the limits of the compromise. It’s fair for Mr. Kirchik to wonder how GLAAD demands so little of elected officials.

On the other hand, it’s fair to discuss the accomplishments. Particularly, as President, Mr. Clinton nominated many LGBT people to posts within the administration and in the judiciary. I remember the James Hormel and Roberta Achtenberg nomination fights, but there are a lot more that I don’t remember. Deborah Batts, for instance. Elaine Kaplan, who is now Acting Director of the OPM. John Berry, who was the last Director of the OPM. Fred Hochberg, who is now head of the Export-Import Bank. Sean Patrick Maloney, who is now the US Representative from NY 18th. And a dozen more, most of whom became lobbyists and consultants—and I feel disappointed that they did, but hey, that’s equality for you: without somebody having appointed some LGBT folk back in the twentieth century, they would not have had the chance to cash in come the twenty-first.

Still and all: is this award-worthiness?

The reason I’m writing about it, though, is that GLAAD is giving its Corporate Leader award to a major entertainment company that I have a particular interest in: The San Francisco Giants. What have they done to deserve it? Well, the press release talks about holding fundraising (mostly for HIV/AIDS) at a couple of games a year, and the It Gets Better video, and Matt Cain’s NoH8 photo. And… that’s pretty much it.

That’s award-worthy?

I mean, I’m proud of my Gigantes and all, but that’s… kinda… sparse.

But here’s the thing: they are a major-league sports team, and they are, however tepidly, an LGBT ally. That is award-worthy in 2013. It was award-worthy in 1994. They have for twenty years consistently been just a tiny bit better than all the other teams—not just the baseball teams but the football teams and the basketball teams. Even (until recently) the hockey teams. And while it’s frustrating to hand out an award to something that’s just a bit better than the others—not good, just a bit better—that’s what GLAAD is really for, isn’t it? Giving an award to Fried Green Tomatoes and Frankie and Johnny, because they are just a bit better than the other ones?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 19, 2013

The Nineteenth of April

My mother always raises the flag on April 19th. Not on the third Monday in April, mind you, but on the nineteenth. She also feels that ice hockey was better before they used the curved sticks. There is something wonderfully Bostonian about my mother that probably does have something to do with growing up in Newton and taking the streetcar to see Braves games. In another world, she might have become one of Francis Dahl’s umbrella-carrying ladies in bombazine. Come to think of it, she still might.

My own childhood experience of Patriots Day, growing up in the desert, was restricted then to the flag and the awareness of the anniversary of the Shot Heard ’Round the World. I identified with the little guy, with the hat over his eyes.

My first Patriots Day in Boston was in 1995, I think, and my last (so far) was in 2003. My recollection is that I went to the ballgame twice, possibly three times. At least one of those was with David S. Bernstein, walking over from my Fenway apartment and meeting him in the street by the vendor. They stopped the game and showed the finish on the big screen, and we all cheered—we weren’t cheering for anybody, you understand, just… well, just cheering. Cheering for the Marathon, for the existence of it, for the existence of people crazy enough to run home from Hopkinton. Nobody knew the names of anybody who might win, you know. Except that German woman, we knew her name. Can’t remember it now, of course. The people we knew—and most years, we knew somebody who was running, or somebody who had a cousin who was running or something—were hoping to come in at four hours or so. Or just to finish, honestly.

That’s the thing that always moved me about the Marathon. There were, oh, I’ll call it three races. I tell a lie, it’s four races, as the wheelchair athletes go first. Then the elite runners, the ones that are trying to win; those are over by 2:30 or so. Then the next group, the ones who are trying to finish within four hours, or within four and a half, or within the top half of finishers, or whatever their goals are. Runners with tremendous ability, almost unthinkable tenacity and drive—and no chance to beat the professionals. I know a few of those people, and they are amazing.

But it’s the fourth and final race that I really liked, the one for the people who are just trying to finish. The stragglers, six or seven hours after the start, when the cheering crowd has thinned out to a handful. Those people are just going to finish the damned marathon, they are—nobody but them cares whether they do or not, and they know that, and they're going to finish it anyway. There’s something so wonderfully pointless about it, and marvelously ridiculous, and movingly meaningless. What’s the big deal about 26.2 miles? Isn’t twenty miles an achievement? But it’s not just going 26.2 miles on foot, it’s the third Monday in April, and it’s the Boston Marathon. So I would usually take a little time, usually as I passed through Kenmore Square after work (when I went to work on Patriots Day (observed) that is) anyway, and cheer for those stragglers, who were still at that point in the day running faster than I could sustain for a mile.

And it’s those visions in my head that have been making me weep today. Not the images of the maimed, which I have mostly been able to avoid, both through my eyes and in my imagination, but the stragglers being stopped at the twenty-fourth mile. And also those descriptions of people just walking through the town. Not even on past Patriots Days, just people enjoying that neighborhood of Boston. Picnicking in Copley Plaza. Taking the bad-weather route through the Westin to the Pru. The Old South Church on the corner that isn’t the one-if-by-land church. Coming out of the BPL into horizontal sleet.

There was an image that went around Facebook, a drawing of the four Boston major league mascots (including an improbable cartoon Green Monster) saying You fucked with the wrong city. It seemed like the wrong response to me—would it have been smarter to fuck with Indianapolis? Would Melbourne have exhibited any less unity or courage? Would the people of Warsaw fail to provide support and succor in their hours of need? No, whoever it was did not fuck with the wrong city, except in the sense that all cities are wrong cities in which to murder and maim. And yet… and yet, and yet, they didn’t just fuck with Boston, they fucked with Boston on Patriots Day.

They fucked with my city, is what they did.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 7, 2013

Banging on this teakettle again.

So. Attorney General Holder has answered Senator Paul’s question. Here’s a link:

It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question: “Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?” The answer to that question is no.

But what about reconnaissance drones? Does the President have the authority to grab the little x-box controller and plow a reconnaissance drone right into some bastard’s chest? Is that totally out of line? No?

What about an M1A1 flamethrower? Can we strap that mother right onto the President’s back and open up hell on some suspected terrorist-abetter without benefit of trial? I know, a pole-axe: does the President have the authority to fuck-up an American with a poleaxe on American soil? I mean, an American not engaged in combat—until the President goes all proverbial on his backside. Then the fucker’d be in combat, you betcha. In slow motion.

No, no weaponized drones for that purpose. OK, how about this one: an XM25 grenade launcher. That is just one constitutional-looking semi-automatic airburst system, ain’t it? Whaddya think? Does the President have the authority to use one of those on Americans at home? Think of the justice. Think of the message we would send. Surely, if being the city on the hill, the last bastion of freedom and the beacon of democracy means anything, it means that the duly elected President—Our Only President to coin a phrase—can just pull the fucking trigger on a grenade launcher whenever he feels the need.

What the hell is it with drones? Why on earth would anyone feel the need to ask that question, and why in the name of fuck did it take so long to answer?

Here’s a hint: if it’s not legal with one weapon, it’s not legal with a different weapon. If it’s not legal to shoot someone with a pistol, it’s not legal to strap the pistol to a toy helicopter and then fly it over their house and shoot the guy from twenty feet in the air. And if we can order extra-judicial killings with impunity, then the President can just walk up behind someone and garrotte him. Or attach the ends of the garrotte to two toy helicopters and order someone to work the wii. Either way, OK? The issue is not drones. The issue is not drones. The issue is not drones.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 9, 2013

Switcheroo

I’m curious about y’all’s reaction to Switcheroo. Hana Pesut took photos of six couples. Each couple, after the first photo—snapshot, I would say, nothing terribly special about the pictures—then switched clothes and posed for another picture. Of course, I’m thinking about this in connection to As You Like It, but it’s also just interesting.

My initial reaction was that all the men look absolutely terrible in women’s clothes. And, pretty much, all the women look fairly good in men’s clothes. I would say in the initial picture, most of the men look pretty good, and most of the women look slightly better—I’m a straight guy, though, so I’m curious whether those of you that find men in general attractive think that these fellows are in that attractive set.

Digression: I have estimated that I find around 80% of women attractive. Of women between twenty and sixty, let’s say. That’s not a scientific sample, really just a sense that, you know, most women, four out of five or so, I find physically attractive. It’s quite rare that I see a man I find attractive. I think less than one in ten, probably, maybe less. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if I spent a whole day without seeing a man I find attractive, including pictures or video. End Digression.

Anyway, what’s clear to my eyes is that every one of the men looks much, much worse in drag than they do in their own clothes. And I would say that, oh, four out of the six look as good in drag or better than they do in their own clothes. Now, by in drag I mean in these pictures, where they are wearing their spouse’s clothes, which don’t fit them at all. In fact the one man who looks something close to all right in drag is the one who is more or less the same height as his wife (or whatever—they are described as couples, so I’ll use those terms), so that’s probably a good deal of it. I don’t know, for the pictures, whether they altered the clothes to get the fellows into them at all. Just slit the shirts up the back? And the shoes, what did they do there? Anyway, those fellows with a little shopping and grooming could all look much better in drag than they do in these photos. But still: they look awful.

And the women… don’t. Is this because they suit my conditioned expectations? The men’s outfits are pretty much pants-and-buttoned-shirt, a couple wearing neckties. A woman wearing pants and a buttoned shirt? I see that all the time. A tie? Well, not every day, but it’s standard waitress uniform at some local restaurants. It’s certainly not disorienting or offputting. A man in a skirt? I see a few, now and then, but it’s uncommon enough to be a surprise each time. And I hardly ever find it attractive—in fact, I suppose, I find drag attractive only when it’s actually deceptive and I believe it’s a woman. In my perception, it’s not man-in-drag, then.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 7, 2013

Eight Days a Week (or five)

Look…I know that the actual demand for Saturday mail delivery is quite low, and the cost is quite high. Even for YHB, with better mail than most of you, I can very reasonably wait until Monday for my mail deliveries. Furthermore, having spent Saturdays at work for five years, it kinda stinks, and while it’s better than not having a job, still, it’s nicer to have the two weekend days off. And, as my old Dad would say, it’s good for The Jews.

So. Fine. The new delivery schedule is probably, sure, whatever. A good idea. The right thing to do.

But—and I can’t say this strongly enough—what the hell is wrong with us that we can’t deliver mail six days a week? I mean, Jesus fuck, people, we’re the richest country in the world, our goddamned streets are paved with fucking ruby-titanium-platinum zebra stripes, at least in the nice neighborhoods. Mrs. Carter and her husband bought their daughter a diamond-enfuckingcrusted Barbie, and they won’t be even the big dicks at the Dolby Fucking Theatre on the twenty-fourth. Oh, and some stupid fuckers paid NBC two hundred and fifty fucking million fucking dollars to run their goddamned ads during the Super Bowl. That’s the ads—there was eleven billion dollars in total consumer spending connected to the sonofabitch, and ten billion dollars in gambling. Ten billion dollars in bets on one game! Because fuck yeah this is the United Fucking States of USfuckingA, and we could deliver mail twenty times a day, you’re fucking right we could.

Hell, three thousand fucking goddamned DOGS are going to Madison Square Garden next week, where their owners can buy a thousand dollar ice-cream fucking sundae to console them for not winning a little purple and gold motherfucking rosette.

We have thousand dollar coffee pots, because fuck yeah this is the United Fucking States of USfuckingA, and if we don’t have hundred-thousand-dollar stoves, yet, maybe there’ll be one on the enormous fucking yacht that just docked in West Palm Fucking Beach.

You know what? There’s a trend for fucking alumni tours that offer ultimate in service, comfort and convenience for less than a hundred grand, not counting hookers and blow. Why? Because fuck yeah this is the United Fucking States of USfuckingA, that’s why.

So I don’t care if going to five-day delivery is actually sensible from a cost-benefit standpoint. It smells like giving up to me.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 5, 2013

Wrong, wrong, wrong

I was going to write about Beyonce—how the attacks from Right Blogovia seem to have caused the denizens of Left Blogovia to rise to her defense, despite her celebrity persona being, one would think, very troubling and problematic from a feminist perspective. Because, you know, celebrities are interesting. And problematic. And because of our society and culture, women who are celebrities—women who craft or have crafted a celebrity persona—are always interesting and problematic.

And then I saw that Michael Isikoff and NBC news had announced that they had obtained a Justice Department memo [that] reveals legal case for drone strikes on Americans. By legal, I should point out that they mean grossly and obscenely illegal. Nothing in there is surprising; everything is shocking.

Look—I make no bones about my support for Our Only President. He’s quite likely the best in my lifetime, and far better than anyone had a right to expect. This is the policy area where he most utterly departs from my own view—in my mind where he most utterly departs from moral sense. And where, I believe, he departs from Our Party’s basic ideas.

Actually, I think the past two Administrations have departed from their Party’s basic ideas on this matter. The Other Party believes, I would have said strongly, in the tremendous value of US Citizenship, in the exceptional nature of America and Americans, and in treating Citizens with distinction and preference, along with liberty and anti-tyranny and all that. And my Party believes, I would have said strongly, in open trials, in legal representation and the civil rights of the accused, and in, you know, not dropping bombs and shit. And having said that, I also think that this policy, this obscenely illegal and wrong policy, is in fact supported by a majority of the people, probably quite a large majority.

How does that happen? How does something like this—and I should be clear, we’re talking about murdering US citizens based entirely on the President’s approval—become widely popular while being so obviously counter to each Party’s ideas? How is the restraint that Parties bring to bear on other issues so totally loosened on this one? Those questions are rhetorical: I know how it happens. So do you. Our Congress, decades ago, ceded the War Power to the Executive because it wanted nothing to do with restraining our baser natures in this area. And we, culturally, allowed our baser natures to prevail. We cheer for the deaths of our enemies, and we mock anyone who insists that there is another way. A better way. Or at least… if there isn’t a better way, that the lack of a better way is a reason for sadness and regret.

So. I’m happy to see Left Blogovia is largely taking a moment to criticize Our Only President on this. I don’t want people to think that we out here support this policy. The way the policy goes away (maybe someday) is if it is not supported, not by us, not by the Other Party, not by our elected Representatives (and by the way, if you have an open seat and an upcoming primary, say f’r’ex for a special election for the US Senate, this is exactly the sort of thing where pressure before the primary pays off after the general), not at all. It shouldn’t be a tribal thing, though.

Beyonce? That should be a tribal thing, the instinct to defend whoever the other side is attacking. Right. Awesome. Plenty of time to criticize Mrs. Carter next week, when the other side has forgotten about it. But murder? I think murder is different.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 15, 2013

I doubt the redoubt

The Citadel has been turning up in the news lately—no, not that one, the IIIArms one, the modern fortress town that a gun company is hoping to build in the mountains of Idaho. There was an article about it in the Idaho Statesman a month ago, and since then it has shown up in TPM, The Atlantic and Reason, which latter oddly points to a Daily Mail article. Big readers of the Daily Mail over at Reason, are they?

Anyway, yes, there’s a small gun company that is planning to put its profits into building a company town in the “American Redoubt”, a Town Without Liberals, a community for like-minded Patriots to live free or die, and To be removed and protected from peril…in the event of a national economic implosion. I hope they’ll be printing their own company scrip!

My initial reaction, other than scorn and derision, was that the perplexity I often feel that the delusional do not pursue their delusions more logically. I mean, if you think, delusionally of course, that the Government is going to be coming to take your guns, then a fortress town is scarcely a safe place to be. A Government that has started in with the house-to-house gun confiscation that they fear is not going to respond to an armed encampment by shrugging and letting it go. They’re going to bomb the fuck out of it. I mean, seriously: what we have learned from Ruby Ridge, Koresh and CSA is that… they didn’t have high enough walls? You know, the whole paranoid fantasy is based—has to be based—on the idea that the federal government will become far more tyrannical and violent than it currently is, or even that they imagine that it is in their paranoid fantasies. So those future tyrants and their jackbooted etcetera will be, presumably, more inclined to make the situation end worse and with a higher body count.

Well, and it turns out that the Citadelians are not actually preparing for the One World Government to take away their guns (but not their Freedom!) (Well, except by imprisoning or killing them, obviously) but instead preparing for a grid-down, economic collapse scenario, according to their FAQ. (A more frequently asked question, by the way, is probably are you mad? followed in frequency by this is a joke, right?) They say that The Citadel is not designed to withstand any direct .Mil or .Gov attack, so that’s all right. They’re just preparing for the Electromagnetic Pulse and subsequent collapse of the financial, engineering and commercial infrastructure. Go to it, lads! Have fun storming the castle!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 14, 2013

Lew and Loomis

Erik Loomis, over at Lawyers, Guns and Money, is probably the figure in Left Blogovia whose actual policy preferences are closest to mine. His labor-first instincts seem to me exactly correct. His writing I sometimes like and sometimes don’t—his Labor History posts are excellent, but his shorter posts are sometimes clunky and unpersuasive. And, sadly, his political analysis is for shit.

Which is what struck me, really, about his note this morning on Why Jack Lew’s Labor Views Matter. He is (in my arrogant one) completely correct that it matters if the Secretary of the Treasury is unsympathetic to labor, collective bargaining and the lives of workers. He is furthermore correct that it should be a big deal within the Party if any prominent person has—or even is accused of having—a union-busting background.

One of the commentators (the perhaps ironically nommed witless chum) said The left needs to treat people like this the way Republicans treat people who have sane views on abortion. It’s not nice or fair, but it’s how to run a political party. And my response was—YES! That would be awesome! Also, ponies!

Realistically, it seems to me the most that can be hoped for is that during the confirmation hearing, Senator Sanders or Senator Frank or the ghost of Senator Kennedy would ask pointed questions about it, and that Secretary-Nominate Lew would be compelled to mouth platitudes about support for collective bargaining, the labor movement and the working man. And then be nominated. It wouldn’t change anything at all about the nominee or the running of the Treasury, really, but it would make me feel better.

Which is, of course, a vitally important role of our Party.

More thoroughly, I want anybody in my Party, at any level, to be aware that if he tells a union (or a union-backed organizing unit) to go screw, it’s going to cause trouble down the road. Just as the Other Party and the pro-life organizations, as the witless chum remarks, or several other groups within the various Parties. And one of the ways people know which groups have that power is to look at who gets an apology. Does Chuck Hagel have to apologize for homophobic comments? Yes, so we know that the LGBTetc community is (finally) powerful enough to contend with. Does labor get an apology from Jack Lew?

So. Mr. Loomis is completely correct to demand such an apology. The question is whether he will get it… this is where the blogs that claim (rhetorically) to do analysis get into trouble: an analysis would state that demanding an apology isn’t a good use of the (extremely) limited resources of the labor movement; if Jack Lew were to defend his union-busting and refuse to apologize, he would still be confirmed and that would be bad; remembering that everything is a trade-off, Mr. Lew’s positives in the position probably outweigh his negatives for workers. Most important, before you can demand an apology, you have to build up the outrage in the community. You have to actually have that political power before you can use it, and the way to get that political power is through…

Well, in part, it’s through things like demanding an apology from Jack Lew. It’s through making sure everybody knows when a union-buster gets a pass from the administration. That’s not all there is to it, but it is an important part of the rhetoric. So when Mr. Loomis calls for progressives to hold the president accountable in appointments, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he thinks the President will actually have to account to progressives. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that he thinks that progressives should actually be working on this specific issue this time. But if he doesn’t shout about it—doesn’t make it clear that this is the sort of thing that we should be shouting about, well, then, nobody will care, and we’ll never get anywhere.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 10, 2013

Clap-Clap,clap-clap what the fuck?

Your Humble Blogger follows three sports: Baseball, College Hockey, and International Cricket. That’s enough for me and plenty. Because I follow those sports obsessively and bring them up in conversations with people who aren’t fans of those sports, I sometimes give the impression that I enjoy sports more generally. Or, for those aware of my pathetic anglophilia, that I enjoy sport more generally. This is not so—I never watch basketball, football (American or World) or racing (foot, car or dog—and I haven’t put a bet on a horse in decades, either), nor do I follow the Olympics or other events. Baseball (the Giants, of course, and whoever they are playing), College Hockey (the Boston University Terriers and their Hockey East rivals—although I am probably switching allegiance to the UConn Huskies when they join Hockey East next year) and Cricket (England’s national team and other ICC full members) I know something about; other sports, however popular, do not tend to invade my consciousness. Not that there’s anything, you know, morally or intellectually inferior about those other sports.

Except, you know, that I can’t imagine—I mean it, really have trouble imagining an incident with a section of baseball fans chanting racist abuse at a player coming a week after players walked off the field in response to racist abuse in the stands.

Really. I know there’s a lot of racism in this country. I know there’s a lot of racism in baseball fans. I know there’s a lot of racism in—just as a f’r’ex from my own personal experience—the seats along the right field line of Fenway Park. But monkey chants? Over and over again? After headlines about cancelling games because of it? No, it would not happen. It just wouldn’t.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 4, 2013

The Top of the Top

So. Does anybody know why there’s an airport and a mall in Bangkok at the top of instagram’s most-popular locations for 2012? I’ve seen a few news stories and blog posts that laughingly point out that those locations beat out Disneyland, the Eiffel Tower and the Phone Booth, but I haven’t seen anything that actually explains it. It’s not the busiest airport in the world (according to Wikipedia, it’s sixteenth, behind Amsterdam, Hong Kong and Dubai. According to something called zocialink, there are a huge hundred and fifty thousand Thai users of instagram—wait, what? Only 150,000? Hm. On a different page at their site, they say 427,000. Still, that’s not a lot, compared to, say, Indonesia or even Holland. Although the zocialinc site shows only one hundred and eighty-one Indonesian instragrammers… you might not want to believe anything that site has to say, now that I think about it.

You know, if it had been the airport in Beijing at the top of the list, I would not have been particularly surprised. If it had been anywhere in Tokyo, I wouldn’t have been surprised at all. Jakarta, I would have been surprised, but then said oh, that makes sense. But Bangkok? And if Bangkok is the big site for instagram, why aren’t there other Thai sites in the top ten?

You know what I think? I think the list is crap.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 26, 2012

The Bitter Elixir of Love

So much that YHB just doesn’t feel like writing about.

The thing about the massacre in Newtown is that I don’t have anything to say about it, and haven’t had anything to say about it, and yet feel that I should say something about it.

Fortunately, Colin McEnroe—who is generally better at wild humor rather than impassioned pleading—wrote something worth repeating:

If there’s an elixir, some potion we can drink, it’s almost certainly love. Right? Love is the only possible bright sparkling rope bridge we can clutch as we stutter-step through the dark universe.

What a joke. Our only good piece of equipment is love, the thing we fail at so often. We’ve been talking all week about weapons, but our only sure-fire weapon against chaos and nothingness is love.

Do you keep it oiled and cleaned? Is it right close at hand, so you can grab it and brandish it? Are you packing it right now?

Happy Boxing Day, Gentle Readers all. Keep your love close at hand.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 14, 2012

Going, going, still going, continuing to go, not yet having completed the going process

OK, some quick points about the foofaraw over the 2012 secession movement. For those Gentle Readers who are correctly avoiding the whole silly business, almost a hundred thousand people petitioned the government to allow Texas to secede! Thirty thousand for Louisiana! Twenty-five thousand for Tennessee! Another Twenty-five thousand for Alabama! The South is on the verge of open rebellion!

Except, no.

There are twenty-five million people living in Texas. If a hundred thousand really did want to secede—and the signatories on the petition are not all residents of Texas, according to their signatures—that would be four-tenths of one percent of the population of the state. Not really a wide-spread grass-roots movement, rippling the very fabric of the constitution itself. More like a bunch of crackpots. Even of the four-and-a-half million Texans who voted for Mitt Romney, a hundred thousand is a drop in the proverbial.

And besides. There are, in this wide great country of ours, a lot of people who on occasion have been known to drink alcoholic beverages until they reach a state almost indistinguishable from inebriation. And then go on the internet. And click stuff. If a bunch of people have clicked something crazy, it’s just barely possible that alcohol was involved. No?

Not only that, but there are, on the internet, a group of people who are not necessarily crazy, as such, but who really enjoy freaking other people out. Often these people are called trolls. Common troll behavior includes adopting argumentative stances that are not mere unpopular but utterly untenable. Such as, oh, secesh. Good old secesh. You know who was against secession? Hitler.

Look at it this way: ninety-eight percent of Texans who voted for Mitt Romney—ninety-eight percent of Texas Republicans—wouldn’t click on this thing. I wouldn’t call it a movement.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 13, 2012

Eight Years On

I happened for no good reason to come across this note of mine from November 2, 2004 and realized that I made a Ted Cruz joke there. It’s about how much the guy in this picture reminded me of (now Senator-elect) Cruz. Not the beardie guy, the other one.

That’s why you come to this Tohu Bohu, right?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 26, 2012

Value added or subtracted

Your Humble Blogger, I’m afraid, can do nothing with the story that Mitt Romney vouched for low price on Staples stock that traded 10 times higher a year later other than give it to the redoubtable but hopefully not inimitable Clarke and Dawes.

BRIAN:      Thank you for tuning in; we’re here today with John Bainstable to talk about stock valuation.

JOHN:     Thank you, Brian.

BRIAN:     Thank you for coming. Now, you work in this field of stock valuation.

JOHN:     Stock valuation, yes.

BRIAN:     Can you briefly tell us what it is?

JOHN:     What stock valuation is?

BRIAN:     Yes, what it is you do?

JOHN:     Of course.

BRIAN:     Yes?

JOHN:     Absolutely, Brian. When we engage in stock valuation, what we are doing, in essence, is assigning a value to some stock.

BRIAN:     To the company?

JOHN:     No, Brian, no, I’m not some sort of mystical oracle that can tell you the value of a company.

BRIAN:     But—

JOHN:     No, I’m assigning a value to the stock.

BRIAN:     The stock.

JOHN:     That’s correct, Brian.

BRIAN:     Which are shares in a particular company.

JOHN:     I’m sorry?

BRIAN:     The stock that you are valuing—

JOHN:     Yes, the stock that I am valuing—

BRIAN:     —is stock, generally speaking, I suppose, in a particular company? It’s a particular company’s stock?

JOHN:     You’ve lost me.

BRIAN:     Well, John, perhaps a hypothetical example would help.

JOHN:     A hypothetical example, yes.

BRIAN:     Say I’m the founder of a company.

JOHN:     You’re the founder of a company.

BRIAN:     Thank you, and I come to you for a stock valuation. What is your first question?

JOHN:     My first question?

BRIAN:     Yes, what is the first thing you need to know.

JOHN:     Well, my first question is what’s going to happen to the stock? Is it going to be leveraged for a loan, or put into a trust fund, or, or is it being traded for some other company’s stock?

BRIAN:     You don’t ask, first, what business the company is in? I was thinking of an office-supply retailer—

JOHN:     Let’s not get dragged down into personalities, Brian. We’ve got to make an objective, scientific, accurate stock valuation, and the first question is, who is going to wind up with the stock?

BRIAN:     Well, John, it’s, it’s actually part of a divorce settlement.

JOHN:     A divorce?

BRIAN:     A divorce settlement.

JOHN:     A divorce settlement. Well, well, well. That’s a pretty problem, Brian. If you’ve got, say, a million—

BRIAN:     A million shares?

JOHN:     A million shares, and she’s getting half, well, we need to put a value on that stock, don’t we?

BRIAN:     Yes.

JOHN:     I mean, we need to know what that stock is worth!

BRIAN:     That’s right.

JOHN:     We’ve got to do a stock valuation.

BRIAN:     And how would you do that?

JOHN:     Well, do you like her?

BRIAN:     What?

JOHN:     Your wife, Brian, that you’re divorcing, any chance there?

BRIAN:     No.

JOHN:     No?

BRIAN:     No. Definitely not.

JOHN:     I’m sorry to hear that, Brian.

BRIAN:     I’ll get over it, John.

JOHN:     So we don’t want to value it too high, because then she’ll think you’re still a very rich man and she’ll ask for more. But if we put it too low, she’ll think she’s not getting enough and ask for more. So, let’s say, oh— a messy divorce?

BRIAN:     Well.

JOHN:     You’ll want a confidentiality agreement then.

BRIAN:     Absolutely.

JOHN:     All right, then, half a million shares, with a confidentiality agreement, I would value that stock at two dollars and twenty-five cents a share.

BRIAN:     Two twenty-five? The stock should be valued at two twenty-five?

JOHN:     That is my professional valuation, yes.

BRIAN:     And that would be a fair price?

JOHN:     A what?

BRIAN:     A fair price for the stock?

JOHN:     I’m not following you, Brian. You’ve lost me again.

BRIAN:     That somebody buying the stock at two dollars and twenty-five cents—

JOHN:     Hold on, there, Brian, we’re not talking about buying the stock are we?

BRIAN:     But if the company were to sell the stock—

JOHN:     Sell it! He needs to talk to a ruddy stockbroker, he does.

BRIAN:     Sell it to investors.

JOHN:     Oh, investors. That’s an entirely different process, Brian. We were talking about a divorce, not a show for investors.

BRIAN:     It’s a different process?

JOHN:     An entirely different process, Brian. Unless your ex-wife is the investor.

BRIAN:     No.

JOHN:     Are you the investor, Brian?

BRIAN:     No.

JOHN:     Or are you the investor under another name?

BRIAN:     What?

JOHN:     A holding company, a trust fund, a retirement account, anything like that?

BRIAN:     No, actual investors.

JOHN:     Not your second wife?

BRIAN:     No.

JOHN:     Well, then, a much higher valuation is in order, Brian, along the order of, I would say, at a conservative estimate, nineteen dollars.

BRIAN:     Nineteen?

JOHN:     Twenty.

BRIAN:     Twenty-one?

JOHN:     Twenty-two and a half.

BRIAN:     Done. Thank you for coming, John.

JOHN:     It’s been a pleasure.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 15, 2012

Rings no bells

When the Nobel Committee announced the winner of the Prize for Peace did anybody else think of this?

No? Just me, then? Right.

Anyway, as long as we’re here, it’s worth looking at the wonderful internal rhymes. Let’s be free with them
And share the BBC with them
is lovely, isn’t it? There’s another (post-war) version with the line Let’s sweetly sympathize again/And help the scum to rise again, which is magnificent. This, I think, is the set of lyrics for this pre-VE recording. One can of course criticize the politics (tho’ being bitter about being bombed seems totally understandable, whoever is doing the bombing) but the rhythms and rhymes are beyond category. And bye-the-bye, when thinking about verbal elegance, notice how many of the words here are short, common monosyllables; one needn’t employ obscurities to sound erudite and urbane.

Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans,
When our victory is ultimately won.
It was just those nasty Nazis who persuaded them to fight
And their Beethoven and Bach are really far worse than their bite

Let’s be meek to them
And turn the other cheek to them
And try to bring out their latent sense of fun.
Let’s give them full air parity,
And treat the rats with charity,
But don’t let’s be beastly to the Hun!

We must be kind
And with an open mind,
We must endeavour to find a way
To let the Germans know
That when the war is over,
They are not the ones who have to pay.

We must be sweet
And tactful and discreet,
And when they’ve suffered defeat,
We mustn’t let
Them feel upset,
Or ever get the feeling
That we’re cross with them or hate them.
Our future policy must be to reinstate them.

Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans,
When we’ve definitely got them on the run
Let us treat them very kindly,
As we would a valued friend.
We might send them out some bishops,
As a form of lease and lend.

Let’s be sweet to them
And day by day repeat to them
That sterilization simply isn’t done.
Let’s help the dirty swine again
to occupy the Rhine again
But don’t let’s be beastly to the Hun.

We must be just
And win their love and trust
And in addition we must be wise
And ask the conquered lands
To join our hands to aid them
That would be a wonderful surprise

For many years
They’ve been in floods of tears
Because the poor little dears
Have been so wronged
And only longed
To cheat the world
Defeat the world
And beat the world to blazes
This is the moment when we ought to sing their praises

Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans.
For you can’t deprive a gangster of his gun!
Though they’ve been a little naughty
To the Czechs and Poles and Dutch,
I don’t suppose those countries
Really minded very much.

Let’s be free with them
And share the BBC with them.
We mustn’t prevent them basking in the sun!
Let’s soften their defeat again,
And build their blasted fleet again,
But don’t let’s be beastly to the Hun!

Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans
When the age of peace and plenty has begun
We must send them steel and oil and coal and everything they need
For their peaceable intentions can be always guaranteed.
Let’s employ with them a sort of ‘strength through joy’ with them,
They’re better than us at honest manly fun.
Let’s let them feel they’re swell again and bomb us all to hell again,
But don’t let’s be beastly to the Hun.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 11, 2012

I Am Inhabited

I realized, after using the word crazy in my previous post, that it was World Mental Health Day. Which event may reveal me to be even more insensitive than I previously knew.

I have talked here, I think, about how I used to conceive of the human body as a machine. Specifically a car: you put in the right fuel, you take care of the various moving parts, and it goes and gets you where you want to go. Sometimes bits of it break and have to be fixed. If you smash it too badly, you can’t fix it. And all of that is true, more or less, but it turns out it’s not a terribly useful way to think about the human body. It also, by the way, leads to internalizing a mind/body split that I have come to find very unhelpful and inaccurate—the body is not a device for carrying some you around, but is at the least a part of who you are.

I went from the car concept to a chemical plant concept. While there still needs to be fuel in and waste out, and lots of infrastructure with moving parts that still can break, the important part, really, is getting the chemical balance right—the right balance of chemical intake produces the right chemicals, which are intake for the next chemical chain. Vitamins and sugars and proteins and whatnot are converted to sugars and blood and fat and muscle and whatnot, and the conversion process is calibrated differently for different people. So if you think about it as one of those puzzler videogames where you have to combine things to make the colors match up in order to level up, every time you play there’s a different mechanism for converting one color to another.

I came across something recently, though, that pointed out that a better metaphor is to think of the human body as an ecosystem. Well, as a rain forest. I am inhabited—we are all inhabited, science tells us, by organisms of a startling variety and quantity. These organisms interact with each other and with the infrastructure in unending combinations. They also interact with the organisms in other nearby ecosystems—every ecosystem contains smaller ones and is contained by larger ones, just a tree can be viewed as an ecosystem, a forest, a range of forests, a continent… the decimation of bats in one ecosystem is felt in the bug population of the ecosystem next door, and the butterflies in my belly cause your hair to fall out which increases my stress levels which interferes with my immune system which allows the reintroduction of wolves into my cerebrum.

Or something. Metaphors and analogies are just ways of thinking about things, you know, they aren’t intended to have one-to-one correspondence. The point is that everything is connected to everything, and that’s true of the inhabitants of your body and the inhabitants of other people’s (and animals’) bodies, as well as all the internal and external infrastructure.

And that, as least as I read it, we are starting to realize that mental health is not something distinct from physical health, that having a lousy digestion and having black depression are not as different as all that, and that having PTSD and having stomach cancer are not as different as all that. They’re not the same, you understand. They aren’t the same. But they aren’t as different as we all thought. They are all manifestations of fuckups in the system—and there are always fuckups in the system.

That, I think, is the lesson of the ecosystem metaphor—the system struggles to an equilibrium, and then something disruptive happens. A fire or a virus or a cancer or a glacier or a bad touch or a parasite or an epidemic or a car crash or insomnia or depression or arthritis or hunger. Something happens. And maybe nothing much happens, or maybe all hell breaks loose. And if all hell breaks loose, maybe there’s total breakdown and the system dies, or maybe a new equilibrium is reached. Until the next disruption.

The fact that everything is connected to everything means that it’s not possible to isolate the problem, that a butterfly in Shanghai can cause a proverbial in whatsit. It also means that there are potentially a million new equilibrium points, and a million paths to them. It’s a hopeful thing, to me. And a scary one, because many of those equilibrium points kinda suck. But a hopeful thing, too, innit?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 10, 2012

A quote for all occasions, or at least a lot of them.

There’s this scene in the movie Carrington that has stuck with me. If you haven’t seen it—and I know you haven’t, which is too bad, because for all its flaws, it’s worth seeing—Jonathan Pryce plays Lytton Strachey, mostly during and after the Great War, and deals in some measure with Mr. Strachey’s opposition to that war. He attempts to be classified as a Conscientious Objector, but is instead invalided on medical grounds. It’s implied that his outrageous persona is in developed in part as a performance to get the C.O. classification, but which he grows comfortable in for its own sake. At any rate, there he is, Bloomsburygrouping around at home while the war is going on and on and on. He knits socks for the boys, and (my recollection of this may be enhanced by the years since I saw it) the knitting is a provocation against martial masculinity while simultaneously being a sincere attempt to provide comfort to the young men who (not incidentally) he finds so attractive.

Anyway. He and Dora Carrington are, as I remember it, strolling through the a copse or something and come across a garden party. I don’t have any sense of the details. I remember, possibly inaccurately, the two of them, in the shadow of the trees, and the Bright Young Things in the sun, chattering and eating and running, giggling and shrieking and dancing. And Jonathan Pryce does this moue inside the preposterous but historically accurate beard, and pronounces: “Thousands of boys are dying every day to preserve this. D’y’know?” And then, slowly and with great precision: “God damn, confound, blast and fuck the upper classes.”

I have found the video! I don’t know how long it will be up, but try watching from about 5:00 to 5:30 or so.

Anyway, I was reminded of that today for some reason.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 2, 2012

Two brothers and

It has been mentioned before in this Tohu Bohu that the relationship between YHB and the blogging brothers Bernstein is old and close. About maximally old, from my point of view, and comparably close. What I’m getting at is that many of the various forces that influenced the blogging brothers Bernstein as they were growing up also influenced YHB, probably in similar ways. Which is not to say we agree on everything, but that our disagreements are often informed by a similar background of theoretical assumptions, and proceed from largely similar principles, diverging at our higher education and life experiences, and even more so by the professional training the blogging brothers Bernstein have had in their fields.

Which, by the way, is why it’s so frustrating that the Boston Phoenix didn’t jump on the opportunity to make a regular feature of the blogging brothers Bernstein last summer, when their views on the Other Party’s nomination process would have worked particularly well. The next cycle, in which Our Party will lack an incumbent, will be interesting, but my experience is that it’s more difficult to separate analysis from activism when discussing one’s own Party. Ah, well.

What does happen, now and then, is that for one reason or another they speak to each other through their blogs. They both recently spoke about the founder’s visions of democracy, and although they aren’t technically responses to each other, they are speaking to the same point, and are thus very interesting (in my proverbial) to read in each other’s light. And being such an old and close and so on, I thought I would chime on in.

On Wednesday, Jonathan Bernstein, pixel-stained wretch for the Washington Post as well as Salon and Slate and The New Republic and other virtual street corners, blogged about When Madisonian Democracy Breaks Down over at his Plain Blog about Politics. He talks about the ways in which the Constitution sets up minority veto points. “Madison, as I see it, considers majority tyranny the worst enemy of democracy,” he says, with some caveats, and our system prevents majority tyranny by empowering impassioned minorities to thwart the majority will, particularly when the majority is only weak-willed on an issue. The post goes on to discuss, well, when the system breaks down, but what I wanted to bring out is the way he talks about the initial Constitutional set-up as an experiment in making democracy stable by (often) thwarting majority rule.

Then David Bernstein, broadcast personality and hashtag superstar for the Boston Phoenix, wrote about Pols, Parades, & Pets, essentially defending his fondness for pictures of politicians with their pets. He admits to bringing the full disdain most of the time, but he celebrates the goofy stuff (parades and pets and playlists uswusf) pretty much unironically. Part of that is that he’s a goof, sure, but part of it, he explains, is that all this stuff symbolizes the surprising historical fact that not only did our Founders set up a national government with some popular sovereignty, but that we have increased that popular sovereignty again and again since the founding.

The downside of this progression has been that our government, rather than being insulated from, is largely guided by the whims and passions of the poorly educated, self-interested, short-sighted, easily swayed, self-contradicting, prejudiced, unsophisticated general populace. … What do we get in return that makes it worth the nonsense? We get the knowledge that it’s truly our government, our country, in a way that you just can’t have without meaningful popular sovereignty.

In other words, while you could see politicians’ appearances at parades and little league games and so forth as pandering to the masses, the great part is that they are pandering to the masses. Because we are the masses. That’s us. Not only is there no democracy without the masses, the whole point of democracy is that it is the masses. And candidates are forced to show (or fake) their commitment to popular sovereignty by putting pictures of themselves with their pets on his tumblr.

I should, however, point out that it’s possible that the Blogging Bernstein Brothers are just goofy about stuff like that anyway. I think it’s telling that I can’t remember which of them proposed that the best campaign finance reform would be to allow unlimited donations, but any donations over a certain amount ($10K or so) would be required to take the form of one of those giant novelty checks, and that the candidate would have to be photographed accepting it from the donor and shaking hands, with all the balloons and confetti in the background. Whether it’s a good idea or not, my point is that either of them could plausibly have come up with the idea, which may mean that they both like goofy Americana as a matter of taste. OK, that was probably a digression.

Anyway, one of the interesting things about these two posts was the way that Jonathan Bernstein, political scientist (he has a master’s degree! in political science!), is interested in institutions and incentives, whereas David Bernstein, Journalist (he also plays a journalist on teevee!), is more interested in individuals and the public. However, neither of them when facing a question of this kind ask themselves as a matter of course What did Rashi say?

Not that Rashi talked about the American Constitution. But they also didn’t ask themselves What did Spinoza say? What did Santayana say? More important, what would Whitman say?

For Walt Whitman, of course, the point of all of it is to make a democratic people. I have, I think, referred to it as a journey from isolation to participation, but for Walt Whitman, it’s more than that. It’s a journey from isolation to embrace. The government may be corrupt, the successful men may be grasping or rude, the nation may even be ripped in two by war, but if democracy is progressing toward making every man a brother, it is working.

And here’s where things get tough, because I do not believe in progress the way Walt Whitman did. I view history as one damned thing after another, rather than as a grand arc rising toward Paradise. For every cultural movement, there is a contemporary contrary movement; the pendulum does not so much swing back and forth as follow a drunkard’s walk with Heinsenbergian uncertainty (so you can’t both know what is going on and where the trend is going) while speeding up and slowing down like a penguin in a videogame. So while I am certainly with Walt Whitman on the purpose of democracy being the creation of a democratic people, I do not see it as a march towards success so much as the constant push for incremental achievements and against the inevitable retreats.

Looking at Madison and participation and breakdown—I think it’s very hard, right now, for us to embrace politicians. And it’s very hard to embrace each other, across Party lines or even into the indifference gap between them. As a f’r’instance, I came across a FB thread the other day in which somebody described being in some acquaintance’s house, having a lovely chat, and then upon seeing the bookshelves stocked with the works of the conservative marketplace, suddenly felt threatened and unwelcome. Which, considering that many those works call me and my friends everything from morons and dupes to traitors and fascists, right in the titles, is understandable. I myself have no such similar titles (and my perspective is that titles in the liberal marketplace tend to insult individuals on the Right rather than more the more general populace, but of course that’s my perspective; anyway I’m a library guy for read-once books of political insult) but I could well imagine that some acquaintances, when I describe myself as an old lefty, think themselves rejected with hostility, whether I show it in my manner or not.

So. To me, the problems are not primarily institutional but social. The worst enemy of democracy, viewed as the effort by a democratic people to create a democratic people, is the effort by a democratic people to create an authoritarian people, or an isolated people, or just the lack of effort to create anything. The symbolic democratization of politicians with pets is not a likely solution (a nice thing, though, sure) to these efforts, or to the lack of effort. The solution may in fact be Walt Whitman’s solution: a great national literature. I don’t think a tumblr is the great national literature Walt Whitman is still looking for, either. It probably will be a webwhatsit (the web, the web, the web, Walt Whitman needs the internet as much as it needs him, singing the avatar digital, the great democratic isolating enervating embrace of the web, who will sing the stickiness of it now) but probably not greatnationalliterature.tumblr.com.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 23, 2012

A lot of money

So here’s what I don’t understand about the Facebook IPO (Well, here’s the part that I don’t understand that I actually care about slightly, unlike the part where some rich people get richer and others inexplicably don’t): what’s it all for?

As I understand it, the point in a capitalist system of having markets in stock and shares is to raise capital. If my widget factory needs upgrading, I need capital to upgrade it, and while sure it would have been nice if I had set aside a portion of the revenue every year into a capital account for that purpose, that would have meant less money for me to spend on stuff, and that didn’t happen. So now I need capital. One option is borrowing from the moneylenders, repaying it later with interest, and then not being in debt any more and keeping the added revenues from the upgraded widget factory for myself. Or putting then into the capital account, I suppose. So: moneylenders is one option, if they will lend. There is risk there, though, as if I can’t pay back, I lose everything.

Second option is taking on a partner who has some capital lying around, a capitalist who is looking to invest, and that’s awesome, because any risk gets shared with the investor. The drawback is that my new partner gets a share of the profits. Also, I have to find one.

So instead of finding one partner, I find a bunch of partners and sell each of them shares, as many as they want and can afford. This would be insanely complicated if we didn’t have a mechanism for doing it, so we made a market exactly for this sort of thing. Hurrah! So if I need a million dollars, I can sell half a million shares at two dollars each, and keep half a million shares for myself, and I’m done.

Of course, all my new partners may want to share in the profits, too, but (a) there’s a mechanism for that, and (2) it’s evidently possible to train all those shareholders to only care about the profit from selling, not from holding. So the only downside is that at any moment my million partners are crazy people who have no interest in the long-term, haven’t been my partners for long, don’t know anything about widgets, and could not conceivably care less. It’s win-win!

But seriously—the market makes some sense to me as a way to gather together a thousand tributary streams of money into a mighty river of capital. And if that river runs dry, the widget factory doesn’t get upgraded: I do understand that. I am a socialist, and I view capital with extreme suspicion, but I do understand that it serves a purpose. Like fire, capital is a dangerous but necessary servant, and a catastrophic master. So is a machete. Don’t want to live in a world without machetes, but I want to make sure they stay where they’re put.

What is the widget factory upgrade that Facebook needs those billions of dollars for? The exact numbers aren’t clear, but if the total value of the stock is fluctuating around one hundred billion dollars, given that they spent some billions of dollars setting it up and that the people who owned shares of Facebook last year still presumably own half of it without putting more money in, that’s still, well, unless I am making some fundamental mistake, what happened in the last week is tens of billions of dollars being transferred from investors to Facebook, in exchange for the stock. Right? Thirty, forty billions? What is the plan for that money? What could Facebook possibly require thirty billion dollars in capital for? I mean, that’s a hell of a server farm.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 21, 2012

Close but no cigar

Linda McMahon is running for Connecticut’s open Senate seat. Don’t laugh, she may win. She looks good to win the Other Party’s nomination, anyway.

But this isn’t going to be a note about how the Other Party seems to choose their nominees for elective office by searching for the candidate with the worst background by conventional criteria. In fact, it’s not really a note about Ms. McMahon at all. It’s about the local newspaper, and an article called The Lean Years: Filling In Outlines Of Linda McMahon’s Oft-Cited Bankruptcy, and two things that seem to be missing from the story.

First of all, the story itself is a good one, and a good use of the local paper. Ms. McMahon has talked about having those lean years, and the article reports on what happened, and when. Oh, another thing missing from the article is an extended quote from the stump speech, to establish the context in which Ms. McMahon puts the experience. Or at least a link from the on-line version of the article to a video. Well, anyway, it’s true that she does talk about the experience, and while it’s not absolutely true that anyone who would bother to read the Courant would already have heard such talk, it’s fairly likely. And if we accept that she does talk about it, it’s helpful to have the numbers, dates, major creditors and circumstances reported.

The second major missing thing in the story (after the stump speech quote) is the inflation numbers. The McMahons bought a house in 1974, taking out a mortgage of $120,000; the bank eventually foreclosed and that appears to have precipitated the bankruptcy filing, so that’s really the big number: $120,000 in 1974. My reaction was that it much have been a pretty big house; I don’t have a sense of inflation off the top of my head, but I think of the early/mid 1970s as a time when houses were only five figures. I plugged the number into the BLS inflation calculator and in 2012 dollars that’s $560,044.62. A half-million dollar house is a lot of house.

Why is this important? Well, if you are going to tell the story at all, it’s a story about what kind of life Ms. McMahon has led, and what kind of person she is. It turns out that the scale is important: she and her husband were ambitious people. They thought on a grand scale. They didn’t take a small risks for a small reward; they bought an enormous house (the article does say that it was eleven rooms) on an enormous mortgage. They lost on that one. A few years later, after discharging the bankruptcy, they bought a plot of land and built a house that they sold for $160,000 in 1978; again the newspaper doesn’t give you the 2012 dollars: $564,625.77. That one turned out well.

Does that story tell you anything about Ms. McMahon’s character? Her likely priorities in a seat in the United States Senate? Well, it might, a little. As much as the story she tells does, anyway.

But the third big missing thing is how this experience has shaped her policy preferences. There were major bipartisan bankruptcy bills in 2001 and 2005, which our Senators at the time split on (I think, with Chris Dodd opposed and Joe Lieberman supporting both of them). Does she think they were good bills? Does she think the law was better in 1976, when she was protected by it? Does Linda McMahon think that the now-reduced borrower protections should be maintained or increased, or does she think we need to protect lenders more?

There isn’t really anything in the article to remind readers that the subject of the article is running for the United States Senate, which is a legislative body that (among other things) sets the level of bankruptcy protection for people who take the kinds of risks that the McMahons took in 1974. The story of her past is relevant to her character, and that’s worth reporting on, but it’s also relevant to her current position on legislation, and that’s worth reporting on, too. As Mark Schmitt says, it’s not what the candidates say about the issues, it’s what the issues say about the candidates, but what they say about the candidates should be related to how they will act as legislators.

Your Humble Blogger isn’t altogether down on newspapers, and part of that is this: of everybody, they are in the best position to let us know things like this while at the same time tying the story back in to the policy. They can keep in mind the point of the exercise, and have the training, the procedures, and the space to make a habit of it: here’s the story about the candidate, and here’s the related policy, and here’s what the candidate says about the policy, and the way they connect. The candidates will do that when they want to, of course, but that’s not enough. The TV news can’t do more than tell the story. The long-form radio news (on public radio) has its own issues, and haven’t (to my ears) managed the story-telling part well. The pundits are hopeless. The blogs (some of them) are good at the policy part but bad at the reporting part, and only a few of them can get interviews to get the connecting quotes.

I don’t like the Courant. I want to like the local paper, but they just aren’t a very good newspaper, and that’s frustrating. So I should put as much emphasis, I suppose, on the fact that this is almost a really worthwhile contribution to the campaign on the fact that it fails very badly at the point of the exercise. But things like that are a habit—like accuracy and disinterest and clarity, including the connection to policy is something they can have processes in place to support or, well, or not.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 12, 2012

That dweam wivvin a dweam

I know many Gentle Readers follow the marriage equality doings with some avidity; if you are one of them and haven’t seen it, it’s worth reading Edmund White’s CiF note over at the Grauniad.

I remember (he says, feeling old) the stuff he talks about, when he says Originally I was opposed to gay assimilation and targeted gay marriage as just another effort on the part of gays to resemble their straight neighbours. There was certainly a sense, in San Francisco in 1992, that marriage was the problem, not the solution. And, to some extent at any rate, it was a legitimate tribal thing: the push for marriage equality was from some conservative types who seemed a lot like the types who accused the more flamboyant queens of flaunting it. There was a ton of exclusionary shit going on, and there were people dying (I remember standing on the corner of Mission and Castro and thinking: half) and besides, there was no way marriage equality would happen anyway. So when Mr. White says he has evolved as well, in fact, so have I. Not that I was part of the excluded flaunters (I’m not even homosexual, to be frank) but that I sided with the flaunters in the tribal split against Andrew Sullivan and his ilk. Who were, as it turns out, correct—the push for marriage equality (and military equality) led to broader acceptance of homosexuality (and to a lesser extent, broader acceptance of bisexuality and transgender) even as it successfully gained many legal rights for many people. So there’s that.

But it’s Mr. White’s final statement I found really moving: I’ve started looking at him in a different way, knowing that we’ll soon be legally joined together; marriage is such a powerful symbol, it’s bound to affect even such reluctant grooms as us.

Marriage as an institution has some problems. OK, it has a lot of problems. There’s the patriarchy, for one thing. There’s fucked-up-ness about sex. There’s some financial shit, including bizarre insurance-related incentives. There are ways in which the institution of marriage works against communitarianism, particularly in child-rearing. There’s a crazy, destructive and rapacious wedding industry. There are the stories girls are told and tell themselves about the purpose of their lives being marriage, or even being a wedding. There are people who get trapped in loveless or even violent marriages, and the institution includes hindrances to escaping them. So, yes, there are problems.

And yet. Even acknowledging the problems, marriage is a strange and wondrous thing. The deliberate joining of people together to make an irrevocable family (for whatever value of irrevocable you wish to discuss). The sheer ontological status of it. Two people making one… marriage.

Perhaps it’s that my own marriage has been so good; direct experience of a thing does tend to trump institutional analysis. Or perhaps it’s just age, bringing me around to a tempered appreciation of an institution despite its flaws. After all, I had direct experience of my parents’ successful marriage (in its sixth decade now) long before I traduced the institution as a twenty-something bachelor, back in the San Francisco Nineties abovementioned. Or maybe it’s a tribal thing again, only as a married, suburban homeowner with two children and a lawn mower, I’m in the other tribe. I don’t think that’s it altogether—if you are flaunting it, keep flaunting it, you’re still heroes—but sure, that could be part of it, too. Or, maybe, it’s just that marriage really is that powerful, both as a symbol and as an actual thing.

I’m just saying. It makes me happy that Edmund White is able to marry his partner, and that the marriage means something, even to him.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 4, 2012

A Cranky Day for Our Democracy

I happened to notice a note by Jamelle Bouie over at Tapped called A Sad Day for Our Democracy which links to a Washington Post article pointing out that voter registration was down between 2008 and 2010, and the decrease seemed to be particularly among Latino and African-American citizens. Of course, registration tends to be down for midterms, and registration tends to be down during economic slumps, but states have gone from paving the way to putting up obstacles, and that makes a difference, too.

I bring this up because my own municipality has, in the interest of efficiency and costs, wiped out more than half of our polling places. We went from twenty to nine, just last month. Not, you understand, as some sort of plot by the Other Party to reduce voter turnout. Purely because of costs. Decreased turnout will be a surprise. I know I plan on being surprised, myself, and I expect the Mayor and the Town Council will be surprised as well.

For some reason, I am particularly bitter about the decreased polling places in this country over the last couple of decades—it has not been the case, as I understand it, that public transportation has dramatically improved during that time, or that those with jobs work shorter hours, or that any of the other issues with accessibility have changed. On the other hand, the logistical difficulty of securely combining votes from twenty polling places has dramatically decreased during that time. On the other other hand, I do admit that the cost of the machines for counting votes has increased, but this is mostly true in places that use the wrong machines. The optical scanner ones should be (might not be, but should be) cheap.

Look, it makes sense to be much more upset about the vicious anti-voting measures supported by the Other Party in the name of opposing a fraud epidemic that is itself a fraud. This just happens to be one of my hobby horses. And they snuck it up on me. So keep an eye out in your town, if you can, so they don’t sneak it past you, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 26, 2012

Sorry, No Useful Ideas Here

Your Humble Blogger feels it in him to do some actual blogging, that is, off-the-cuff response to provocation. The provocation is the notorious WP op-ed column Do college professors work hard enough? by David Levy, to which Mr. Round strenuously objects. It’s a work of crap.

The problem, of course, is a serious one: the cost of attending a college without tuition remission or a non-loan grant of some kind has grown, relative to median income, to the point where our national dream of (nearly) any kid having an opportunity to graduate college with a chance at a good life in a respected profession is laughable. It may have always been laughable—certainly, it was always laughable in the aggregate—but its risibility is now difficult to ignore. We want, I think, to keep that as a national dream. I have no idea how we pay for it.

As Dean Dad points out, part of the way we pay for it is by subsidizing it at the levels we used to—part of what’s going on is that tuition has gone up as a percentage of revenue in a lot of institutions, including private ones. Part of it is that health care costs have gone up a lot, as is true everywhere, and that’s a problem we have to deal with everywhere, not just at colleges. Part of it is probably administration creep, despite Dean Dad’s denial.

I’m wondering, though, and I have no idea—I know that community colleges and other commuter colleges have also suffered tuition hikes, and that therefore the competition-by-student-villages of a couple of decades ago isn’t pushing their costs. But at the institution that employs me, it sure seems as if the costs of maintaining the campus have been increasing hugely. The new buildings need tremendous care, the aging buildings need tremendous care, the energy costs have presumably skyrocketed (think of all the classrooms to heat along with the dorms, and I’m guessing that people are less tolerant of hot or cold rooms than they were thirty years ago), the maintenance on all the food courts (that probably haven’t paid for themselves the way they were supposed to) and other amenities, etc, etc. And there’s some multipliers in there—the health care costs go up for the maintenance workers, too. And then there’s IT; I wonder how much per-student the IT budget has gone up in the last thirty years. For at least some of the new student villages, IT is an essential part of maintenance. The laundry in the dorms at the institution that employs me, for instance, is networked to a central database that counts the money they are spending by swiping an ID. The locks on the dorm doors are card-swipe as well, although I think the room doors still have metal keys.

The thing is—YHB doesn’t have an answer to any of this. I mean, yes, returning state support to twentieth-century levels. Start with that. But the rest of it? Dunno. I know David Levy’s plan won’t work. I suspect it wasn’t meant to. But it would be good to find something that does work.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 18, 2012

An anniversary worth celebrating

Today is the 90th anniversary of the first bat mitzvah in America. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, of the Reconstructionist movement, brought his eldest daughter Judith (the musicologist, in later life) forward to read—not from the sefer Torah, not even standing on the bimah—from Scripture and say the blessings, and to mark her coming of age. It wasn’t anything like a bar mitzvah, really, but it was something.

In my synagogue, which I call Temple Beth Bolshoi, there is no difference between the preparation the boys and the girls make for their ritual ceremonies. My daughter has seen women read from the scroll at least as often as she has seen men. She has known women rabbis since she was a toddler. She has sat through donation appeals from female synagogue presidents. She has worn a kippah. She has led prayers from bimah. And, the Divine willing, she will be bat mitzvah in two and a half years. We know what parshah she will be reading already. And she will be reading it from the scroll. We will wrap her in a tallis. And none of it will seem strange to her, I think; none of it will be a victory over reactionary forces, which she is only dimly aware still exist.

I remember, from my childhood, my grandfather (who was, I believe at that time or possibly a tad later, president of his congregation) telling me that if a woman touched the Torah scroll, it was defiled—that a man who was unwashed, or ignorant, or even a criminal could touch the scroll without defiling it, but that the best and most pious of women could not touch it. He laughed about it, twinkling in the way he used to do at the absurdity of life. He accepted the rule as one of the absurd rules of the world, like the more obscure rules of kashrut or the limitations on what can be carried in what manner on Shabbat within what limits. Ridiculous, yes, but unchangeably so. Well, change came.

It’s a source of wonder to me. My sister fought about the limits on her bat mitzvah. She was not allowed to read from the scroll itself (if I remember correctly), but she did have her ceremony on Saturday, and she read the haftorah portion from the bimah, just as the boys did the week before and the week after. And she learned something from the experience about the limits of her rights as a woman, what it means to fight for equality, who stood with her and who stood against her and who stood aside. My daughter won’t learn any of that, because our enormous synagogue has no-one at all who will stand against her. I am, of course, thrilled by that. And she will have, I’m afraid, plenty of time to learn the other lessons. The lesson she learned, as we sat in the room for the first meeting of 2014 b’nai mitzvah and their parents, was that she is welcome with the other girls and boys, that she is valued with the other girls and boys, and that she is honored with the other girls and boys.

She is more excited about her bat mitzvah than Judith Kaplan was for hers. That’s magnificent, isn’t it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 8, 2012

Sex and Lies

This isn’t a post for International Women’s Day. Perhaps it ought to be, but it isn’t.

The thing is that I have been wanting to rant, really rant, about the whole business with Rush Limbaugh traducing Sandra Fluke. I am frustrated, though, because the incident is so awful that it’s difficult for me to talk about it coherently. See, on the one hand, I think it’s very important to say that Mr. Limbaugh is not only horrible, vicious and vile, but he either doesn’t know what he’s talking about at all, or he is outright lying about the testimony she was prepared to present but did not (pdf) as well as the testimony she did present (pdf). It would be disrespectful to Ms. Fluke, and to the women who are affected, to allow Mr. Limbaugh’s prurient misrepresentation to obscure the point that the Pill is used to treat a variety of conditions in addition to acting as contraception, and that refusing to cover the Pill, the Church and its associated institutions are refusing to cover those conditions, which is negligent and bad and wrong. Offering to cover health care but not cover Stein-Levinthal syndrome or endometriosis is not acceptable, and is well within the range of government regulation.

So. Sandra Fluke was giving valuable, useful testimony about those medical conditions, and Rush Limbaugh called her a prostitute and lied about the subject of the testimony. In its entirety. And I think it’s important, in ranting about what happened, to emphasize both the extent of the untruthfulness and the original testimony itself, because, as I say, allowing that testimony to be obliterated by the Rush Limbaugh part of it is letting Ms. Fluke down.

On the other hand, I also feel as if defending Ms. Fluke’s actual testimony is also letting down those people who want their health insurance coverage to include the Pill because they want to have sex but not get pregnant. I saw on a social networking site somebody who said that whatever you think of the language Rush Limbaugh used, it’s outrageous for somebody to want to have taxpayers pay for her sex life.

I want taxpayers to pay for contraception for college students.

Now, I’ll go off course again for a moment and state that of course Ms. Fluke wasn’t talking about taxpayers (vaddevah dat means) subsidizing anybody’s prescription for the Pill, but about the regulatory power that has been used to carve out an exemption for the Church’s responsibility to pay for the Pill where they are already paying for other medicines. The link between insurance coverage from a private insurer and taxpayer funding could perhaps be made, due to money’s fungible nature and the massive grants, exemptions and tax breaks we have legislated for the Catholic Church, but it’s a distant link at best. Actually, it’s a lie. But again—I think it’s important to point out that it’s a lie, but it’s taking me away from a point that I really think is important, which is this:

I want taxpayers to pay for contraception for college students.

Or, at least, I would be happy for somebody else to do it, but if the choice is between making the students pay for it or having the government pay for it, I think the government paying for it is a better choice. Mostly because the cost to the government and society of students choosing not to pay for the contraception is higher than the contraception would be. Mostly, I want contraception to be available to college students, and am willing to pay taxes toward that end.

Just as a note: when I was an undergraduate, in the dorm where I lived for four years, baskets of condoms were kept in the restrooms. The Health Center, of course, had a basket of condoms, but the RAs, either as a matter of policy or on their own initiative, gathered some to be available without going outside the dorm. I think that these condoms were effectively paid for through the operating budget of tuition and donations and so on, but what I am saying is that I would support a federal grant to make that universal: in every dorm around the country, there should be condoms available without going outside.

What’s more, I think it’s probably a good idea for most people who are in that 18-22 range and on a college campus to have sex. Safe sex, of course. It’s up to the people in question, of course; I wouldn’t consider mandating it at all. What I’m saying is that people who have safe sex while in college probably don’t regret it afterward. I don’t know the numbers, but I suspect that most people who choose to have safe sex while in high school don’t regret it afterward. I certainly don’t. I may be leaning too heavily on my own experience and that of those people who have shared their stories with me—it’s a self-selecting group, and it’s quite likely that (a) people are more likely to share pleasant stories of teenage sex than unpleasant ones, and (2) people of my socio-economic status are more likely to have pleasant stories of teenage sex than people of different backgrounds.

Still, it’s my idea that sex is fun and interesting, and when you get out into the world, there aren’t a lot of good, safe opportunities for screwing around. Or, at least, that’s true for many people, and probably more true for people who have less sexual experience when they get out into the world—I would guess you have to be fairly determined to take advantage of those opportunities, and unless you have taken advantage of the more plentiful opportunities college life affords you, I don’t know how you would know that you wanted to make the effort. Furthermore, I think most people will ultimately be working toward a long-term monogamous sexual relationship—you can certainly argue whether people ought to do so, but I think that for the next few generations most people will do so—and that those long-term monogamous sexual relationships will be healthier, better, more fun-filled and interesting ones if the people in them have done some experimenting beforehand.

There’s a scene in Easy A (which has very interesting points to raise about sex and teenagers, in addition to being a generally entertaining film) where the lead character’s mother says that when she was a teenager, everybody called her a slut because she slept with a lot of people. Like a lot of the movie, it’s presenting fundamentally contradictory views of sex, because (I infer) people in our culture have fundamentally contradictory views of sex. But watching that movie, as I did, in the same week as this Sandra Fluke controversy, brought out the point to me that I think people should have a bunch of sex in their late teenage years, and not be called sluts or skanks or whores. Not all people should, but many people, and probably most people. And that free access to contraception in a variety of forms should be a part of that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 1, 2012

Presented without (much) comment

So. Do Gentle Readers think that it’s at all possible that there is a connection between this story and this story?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

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,
-Vardibidian.

February 14, 2012

More bad words, for fuck's sake

Happy Arizona Centennial, everybody! Yes, it has been one hundred years since Arizona was admitted to statehood, and I do think that it’s too late for second thoughts. I know that the Grand Canyon State is not up there with the big boys in terms of entertaining crime and mismanagement, but it does fairly well for a young ’un. I mean, how many states have actually sold the state capitol building and leased it back? That takes more than corruption, that takes imagination.

To celebrate the Centennial, then, here’s SB1467 introduced to the Arizona State Senate, a short and sweet bill to illustrate exactly why we need to elect professional legislators to do our legislating rather than leaving it to the guy with the sandwich board. I can’t help it, I am going to include the full text that is proposed to be made the law of the Southwest:

Be it enacted by the Legislature of the State of Arizona:
Section 1. Title 15, chapter 1, article 1, Arizona Revised Statutes, is amended by adding section 15-108, to read:

A. If a person who provides classroom instruction in a public school engages in speech or conduct that would violate the standards adopted by the federal communications commission concerning obscenity, indecency and profanity if that speech or conduct were broadcast on television or radio:
         1. For the first occurrence, the school shall suspend the person, at a minimum, for one week of employment, and the person shall not receive any compensation for the duration of the suspension. This paragraph does not prohibit a school after the first occurrence from suspending the person for a longer duration or terminating the employment of that person.
         2. For the second occurrence, the school shall suspend the person, at a minimum, for two weeks of employment, and the person shall not receive any compensation for the duration of the suspension. This paragraph does not prohibit a school after the second occurrence from suspending the person for a longer duration or terminating the employment of that person.
         3. For the third occurrence, the school shall terminate the employment of the person. This paragraph does not prohibit a school after the first or second occurrence from terminating the employment of that person.

B. For the purposes of this section, "public school" means a public preschool program, a public elementary school, a public junior high school, a public middle school, a public high school, a public vocational education program, a public community college or a public university in this state.

Charlie Pierce pointed out (linking Angus Johnston over at Student Activism, who got it first) that the schmuck who put this together has included in the text all speech or conduct, not just in-classroom conduct. A schoolteacher must be suspended without pay for saying fuck in the privacy of his own home; a schoolteacher must be suspended without pay for engaging in carnal knowledge of her spouse; a schoolteacher must be suspended without pay for urinating. All of those things would violate FCC standards if they were filmed and broadcast; all of those things and much, much more would be grounds for termination if repeated. Yes, this law makes bowel movements, in the bathroom, at home, an offence that is not open to discussion but has a mandatory minimum sentence. Three shits and you’re out.

This is because the law was written by morons whose contempt for legislation doesn’t extend to understanding what it is and how it works. Of course, even if it were written properly, it specifically includes the university system; a law school professor in a course on communications law could not show anything that had been judged a violation. A theater prof would have to elide the David Mamet scripts; a Chaucer prof would have to use a bowdlerized text (a very heavily bowdlerized text); an Art History teacher would have to pixilate the slides. This may be what the legislative lunatics actually want, but it’s plain crazy.

And then, leaving aside how badly written and conceived this law is, the whole existence of the thing must be due to some imbecile somewhere believing that in the absence of the law, currently, on our planet, grade school teachers who wave their dicks at the students cannot be fired. That there are kindergarten teachers with four-letter words on the curriculum and that the administration has sweet fuck-all to do about it. That M.I.A. has deposed the AFT.

Now, Your Humble Blogger went to public school in Arizona, and while I think I have mostly recovered from it, the trauma was not due to the indecencies and obscenities of my teachers.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 10, 2012

Extremely Stupid and Incredibly Dim

You know, there is something about this incredibly stupid political foofaraw that I haven’t seen. The foofaraw in question, of course, is the uproar about the regulation that health care insurance cover contraception; the stupidity is that the Other Party seems to think that the birth control pill is unpopular in America. They are mistaken. I imagine it is another example of the insularity of a small tent; perhaps in certain circles it is gauche to speak up in support of planning parenthood, perhaps in certain circles Margaret Sanger is not a great American hero, perhaps in certain circles Our Bodies Ourselves is still counter-culture. And if you never get outside those circles, well, you’re a moron. I’m sorry. But if you never get outside those circles, it must be easy to forget that most of us want access to the Pill. Most of us want every adult woman who wants to be on the Pill to be on the Pill. The idea of anyone putting barriers between women and birth control is bizarrely old-fashioned to us, to anyone outside those circles. Old-fashioned, nasty-minded, and a little bit crazy.

And that has all been covered pretty well, it seems to me, in Left Blogovia and the newspapers. What I haven’t seen (and to be clear I haven’t searched for it) is an estimate of just how many people will now be covered. How many people does the Catholic Church employ in its various secular organizations? How many people work at Boston College and Fordham and Merrimack and Villanova and Iona and Gonzaga and Seton Hall and Creighton and Albertus Magnus and Chestnut Hill and Holy Cross and John Carroll and Marquette and Loyola (and Loyola Marymount) and Mercyhurst and DePaul and St. John’s and St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s and St. Norbert’s and St. Anselm’s and St. Xavier’s and St. Scholastica’s and St. Edward’s and St. Martin’s and St. Elizabeth’s and St. Vincent’s and St. Michael’s and St. Clara’s and St. Francis’ses and St. Thomas’ses and St. Louis’ses? How many people work at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and St. Francis’ses Hospital and St. Joseph’s Hospital and St. Agnes’ses Hospital and St. Francis’s Hospital and Good Samaritan Hospital and Divine Providence Hospital and Caritas Christi and Our Lady of Mercy Medical Center and Mercy Hospital and Marian Cancer Center—and Parkway Lab and Imaging and Redding Surgery Center and the Family Birth Center at Woodland Healthcare and Desert Ridge Outpatient Surgery and Mt. Sinai Hospital and Johnson Memorial and Garvey Manor and Kingston Hospital and Seton Health and Axess Ultrasound and Dubuis Hospital? I would guess that it’s millions of people—I have no idea, but I’m guessing millions of people are employed at workplaces that are affiliated with the Catholic Church. Is that true? I would like to know. I haven’t seen the numbers.

Again, I feel I should make it clear: Hooray for the Catholic Church’s investment in education and health! It’s a fantastic thing, a terrific thing, and I’m very, very glad that they include those things (along with feeding the hungry) in their mission. Yay! Well done, Catholics. I consider the millions of people you employ (if I am correct) to be an honor roll. It doesn’t let you off the hook for providing adequate medical coverage for those people.

Do you know what I would consider a reasonable compromise, under the circumstances? I have two possibilities that make perfect sense to me. The first is that the federal government institutes a single-payer system with adequate family-planning and reproductive care for everybody in the country. That would let the Church off the hook; it would not be directly paying for anybody’s contraceptives or prophylactics. The Other Party should agree to that right away.

The other compromise would be that the Federal Government would offer to simply take over the management of all those hospitals and universities, as well as any other institutions that the Church does not feel can provide adequate coverage for its employees. Just have them all nationalized, lock and stock, grounds and goodwill, and a grateful nation won’t force you to think about birth control any more.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Two Articles, a million problems

Your Humble Blogger had connected an article by Michael Bérubé (Bérubé) on attending the New Faculty Majority summit and a note by Erik Loomis on a WPA for History over at LGM, but without actually coming up with anything useful to say. Certainly there seems to be an excess labor supply of rigorously trained social scientists and humanities scholars, thus the dire employment situation. On the other hand, there seems to be a huge demand for adjunct and contingency faculty, thus the dire workplace conditions, pay and benefits for those people. According to Prof. Bérubé, Adjunct, contingent faculty members now make up over 1 million of the 1.5 million people teaching in American colleges and universities; the article that Erik Loomis responds to (A WPA for History: Occupy the American Historical Association, by Jesse Lemisch, and a fun read it is) talks about a jobs crisis, even a depression. It seems to me that there is something odd about this.

I’m not sure exactly what, though. The problems—most people teaching college courses do not earn a decent living at it, and most (or at least many) people who have completed the training to earn a decent living teaching college courses can’t—seem to be somewhat reciprocal, but I don’t think they really are. For one thing, I think the two groups are not the same—there’s some overlap, surely, but I don’t know how much. If they were the same, then I would imagine the demand for teaching could be made to match the supply somehow. If they are not, then any solution of one will tend to exacerbate the other.

However, I did want to talk a little bit about the idea of a new Federal Writers’ Project, which of course YHB loves. But… the great thing about a Federal Writers’ Project is that (a) we temporarily employ a bunch of people, and (2) at the end of the day, we have a series of volumes that ably illustrate our national way of life. So. I’m for it. I’m for it as part of a massive new WPA that repairs the bridges and railways and ports, and I’m for it as a separate employment-for-academics program. Am I for it? Yes. I am for it.

On the other hand…are the unemployed and underemployed Ph.D. historians (and art historians and sociologists and anthropologists and scholars of comparative literature, religion, modern language, philosophy, rhetoric, or political science) really likely to produce a series of volumes that ably illustrate our national way of life? Are they trained to do so? Is that sort of work currently valued within the academy? A Federal Writers’ Project that produces monographs based on dissertations is hardly illustrating our national way of life; paying a fresh humanities Ph.D. to do anything else is hardly improving her career opportunities. Except, one supposes, as a member of that force of contingents and adjuncts, what Michael Bérubé calls los precarious. If it’s a problem that the majority of college instructors are untenured and (under current conditions) untenurable, then the addition of thousands of new untenurable Ph.D.s seems like it would exacerbate that problem enormously.

I don’t know what to do about it. It would help if the public universities of our nation were to be funded more generously—and if that funding went to increasing the percentage of instructors who are full-time employees with benefits and (at least reasonable) job security (if not actual tenure)—and if the tenure-decision process weren’t utterly insane—and if the funding were reliable—and if the process of preparing scholars for teaching posts didn’t largely unfit them for teaching, much less any other work—and if the production and distribution of a series of volumes ably illustrating our national way of life were produced through our universities rather than outside it—and if everything weren’t so damned expensive. Barring that, it does seem to me that the university concept is utterly and obviously unsustainable, and has been utterly and obviously unsustainable for centuries.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 27, 2012

Science! Sorta!

Your Humble Blogger caught a few minutes of an On Point episode the other day, and heard a Scientist! in the context of an evolutionary sense of disgust say, and this is a direct quote, [A]ll of our emotions are there to protect us and keep us alive. I reacted strongly against this, and it occurs to me that I don’t have any actual background or knowledge to base that reaction. So I’m going to put this up to my Gentle Readers to explain this shit too me.

Here’s the thing: as I understand natural selection, it absolutely depends on the fundamental idea that people, and all animals, are different one to another. That is, because of sexual reproduction (yay! Good Idea, Divine Creator!) every generation is slightly different from the previous generation, and every individual is different from every other individual, even when those individuals have the same genetic parents, because the genes combine differently in different offspring. Almost all those differences are tiny and insignificant—an eyebrow a touch bushier, a tail a trifle straighter, a slightly different arrangement of phosphorescence. Sometimes the difference is a touch significant, because the offspring is taller or shorter, slower or faster, paler or darker, has better eyesight or sense of smell, differentiates colors better or has worse directional hearing. In fact, again because of sexual reproduction and gene mixing, and because mammals (f’r’ex) are really, really complicated animals, offspring are going to be different from their generation in a myriad of ways, although most of those differences will be tiny, subtle or even undetectable. Over time, though, those changes (mutations, really, although we usually use that word to talk about Big Changes) can make a difference. So (again, as I understand it), those incremental mutations that are helpful for keeping that individual alive to reproduce will be more likely to be passed on, and those incremental mutations that hinder are less likely. Am I right so far?

Thus, in a zillion generations, giraffes develop long necks and mottled camouflage; because the millions and millions of giraffes that had slightly shorter necks and slightly less effective camouflage had slightly fewer offspring than their longer-necked invisible buddies, and those offspring were likely to make with their surviving cousins rather than with lion’s lunch, so further mixing etcetera etcetera. Right? But it does not mean, as I understand it, that two twenty-foot giraffes can’t pass along their genetic whatnot to a giraffe that’s only a sixteen-footer, or that the sixteen-footer won’t reproduce as well (particularly if it’s a strong sixteen feet, or has some other positive trait, such as keen hearing, above-average eyesight, razor-sharp teeth, or laser farts). It does mean that the sixteen-footer with two twenty-foot parents is likelier to have an eighteen-foot offspring than a fourteen-foot offspring, thus in some sense righting the heritage, but another sixteen-footer isn’t out of the question, either. Probably the laser thing will be a recessive, too.

I guess I have two points, at this stage. First is that every individual will have differences and mutations, and that some of those mutations will be positive and some negative, and that one individual negative mutation isn’t necessarily enough to kick an individual out of the genetic ladder, even if it isn’t likely to breed true. The second is that the two giraffes are not going to generate a cow. An albino giraffe, sure. But not a cow. There’s a range of viable possibilities, and we can put some limits around them, but those limits will be fuzzy and every individual that reproduces will by virtue of its differences from every other individual that has ever reproduced change those limits a tiny bit.

I guess that’s my first tell-me-is-this-wrong question: those limits are expanded by individual differentiation through sexual reproduction, but contracted by gene-mixing back to cousins as much as by really terrible mutations being unable to reproduce (possibly because of that whole lion’s lunch thing). Right? Or not right?

Because if I’ve got that much right, and I’ll proceed as if I do, the question for evolutionary psychology (and I’m also proceeding as if evolutionary psychology has some rational, emprical, scientific basis) is whether emotional differentiation, person to person, is in that contracting bit or the expanding bit. Hm, I’ve gone off my metaphor, I suppose—the question is to what extent humans, as a species, are circumscribed in their emotional differentiation by the gene-mixing with our multi-cousins. I haven’t seen persuasive data that, over the last five hundred generations or so, the preponderance of people with substantial emotional differences from their parents have been unable to reproduce. I would say instead that emotional range is orthogonal to reproduction of the genes , so that gene-mixing would be the thing tending to narrow that range in the nth generation offspring.

So the description that our emotions are there to protect us and keep us alive seems to me to be utterly wrong—at most you could say that our emotions tend to be compatible with keeping us alive, and that the dead hand of genetics is restricting our emotions from gross experimentation. Even that I’m somewhat skeptical of. But then, as I say, I have never studied any of this stuff properly, and the little I think I know I probably amalgamated from popularizations and fiction. So I know I have a lot of stuff wrong, I just don’t know what…

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 20, 2012

News, news, news

So. There are two connected stories about the Other Party and the News, which I find really interesting, and a tad disturbing. The first is the Public Policy Polling 3rd Annual TV News Trust Poll, which shows that on the whole, people who describe themselves as liberal, do not trust Fox News (surprise!) but do trust the news arms of ABC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, NBC and PBS. Also, people who describe themselves as conservative do trust Fox News but do not trust the news arms of ABC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, NBC or PBS.

I’d like to spend a little more time on that to make it clear: Most Conservatives (not all, it’s important to remember, but most, and more than three-quarters of those who describe themselves as Very Conservative) state that Fox News is the only trustworthy television news source, and that they do not trust any of the other major television news sources. Most Liberals (again, far from all, and with somewhat less obvious of a split along the very/somewhat Liberal like) state that most television news sources are just fine, and that the only really untrustworthy source is Fox. In other words, distrust of Fox is a liberal Shibboleth, but distrust of everything else is a conservative Shibboleth.

This means that Conservatives can lump together everybody non-Fox into a big liberal-media group of Bad Guys. We who call ourselves liberals have individual likes and dislikes amongst the corporate and public media (while rejecting all the Fox reporters, analysts and commentators together), which means that we do get a slightly wider spectrum of newslike information. Of course, the study was restricted to television news; it’s possible that Conservatives state that they trust any of half-a-dozen newspapers or radio networks or that Liberals distrust some substantial number similarly. I suspect that many if not most Conservatives trust only those outlets that describe themselves as Conservative, though, and that many if not most Liberals distrust only those outlets that are described as Conservative by other Conservatives. No data on that, at the moment, but it’s a guess.

The other news that I put with this is that, as the Guarniad puts it, Newt Gingrich launches tirade over marriage at South Carolina debate. The tirade was at ABC for airing his ex-wife’s story, and at CNN for starting the debate with that story, and then said “ I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.”. Tremendous cheers. The studio audience loved it, and I expect the real audience of people who might vote in that Party’s primary in South Carolina loved it, and I expect the real real audience of people who might contribute to his campaign, purchase his books, book him on radio shows, and (most important of all) rent his mailing lists loved it too. And they loved it, because of that stuff I said up there: they don’t trust anybody except Fox, the Conservative radio hosts, and the Conservative web sites. And they view everyone outside that circle as being motivated by the desire to destroy Conservatives. And it really is a Shibboleth, a test of the tribe.

Now, from my point of view, the difference is huge, and to the detriment of the Other Party—it’s a strength to have a variety of viewpoints available, and more so to have within our circle a variety of people who get there news from a variety of sources. In fact, my instinct is to look at the survey results and the incident at the debate and see a reinforcement of that idea. If you mistrust all those people, and you think they are all out to get you, then you are probably, well, crazy. But look at it from the other side: people who trust all those sources agree to call Fox News untrustworthy. Isn’t that suspect? It isn’t just the people who trust MSNBC, or the PBS watchers, but all of them. Isn’t the fact that the liberals have six channels that they find acceptable evidence that all those channels are acting in concert? And then when ABC attacks Newt Gingrich, CNN piles on; isn’t that evidence as well? Isn’t the fact that almost seventy million voted for Barack Obama in 2008&3#8212;almost all people who watched any of those six channels—evidence that those six channels are incredibly dangerous?

I’m joking, of course, but I’m only sort-of joking. But the point in the Other Party, you have a very wide array of targets from which to choose. The correct response to any media figure that isn’t on Fox is contemptuous attack, which of course is Newt Gingrich’s strength. And from my point of view, it’s a strength of our party in the general election. Which will be any minute now, right?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 15, 2012

Which Side Are We On?

Gentle Readers will probably already have heard about the Great Girl Scout Cookie Boycott of 2012. Not the one where a bunch of troops in Ohio have decided not to bother raising money to go to camps that the state council has sold, but the one where an sex-negative group called group called Honest Girl Scouts is pressuring the Girl Scouts to eliminate sex education and break off with WAGGGS, the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, who are (according to this group) associated somehow with International Planned Parenthood, who also engage in sex education. So, as far as I can tell, the HGS group’s primary concern is that some teachers, leaders and other responsible adults might educate other people’s children about sexuality.

My Perfect Non-Reader is a Girl Scout; she sells cookies. It’s possible that somebody will not only refuse to purchase her cookies (as many people do, of course) but tell her that it is because of the boycott. It seemed like a good idea, then, to prepare her for such a conversation.

Which began with the immediate news cause—evidently this HGS group has been calling for a Girl Scout Cookie boycott for some time, but they are getting a lot of attention right now due (I think) to their video in which a girl in Girl Scout regalia calls for the boycott because of the inclusion of a transgender kid (in an entirely different troop in a different state). This business of transgender inclusion has been a bit of a hobbyhorse of the Right for a while (Fox pushed the news back in October as did The National Review and The Washington Post in November and The Daily News in December among other places). So we had to start by talking about the idea of a kid being transgender, and explaining in brief what that might be like, and discussing whether she felt her troop would include a transgender kid who identified as a girl, and whether they ought to. My daughter immediately came to the conclusion that it would be wrong to exclude the kid, but wasn’t absolutely sure what her troop would do, or even how she would feel about it herself, if it actually happened. But she was shocked that anyone would call for a boycott, to punish all the troops across the country for what one troop did, whether it was the right thing or not. In fact, she couldn’t understand at all why somebody in California would want somebody in Connecticut to refuse to buy cookies because of something somebody did in Ohio.

Which, I’m afraid, led me to explain a bit about tribalism. Because the thing is, really, that whether the Girl Scouts are providing sex education or not, whether they are forcing girls to hang around with cross-dressers (which of course they are not), whatever actually goes on in the actual meetings, the Girl Scouts are a liberal organization, on my side of the tribal line. Because they are Girl Scouts. And Girl Guides. I suppose it would be possible for an international organization of girls, led by women without any man at the top of the heirarchy, to be on the other side of that tribal line, but it would be difficult and would need to be deliberate. The Girls Scouts are not that group.

Not that they are wild-eyed leftist bomb-throwers, or man-hating separatists, or radicals of any stripe, but they naturally and admirably emphasize the ability of women to succeed on their own terms, and that in itself puts them in my tribe. They emphasize inclusion over exclusion, they value egalitarianism and community, they teach girls to run businesses and be kind, to reach their potential and help people, to be prepared and do a good turn daily. Doesn’t that sound like they are the kind of people who would educate children about sex?

And, to be fair, at least a little bit, I do understand that parents are upset that any organization might bring their kids across that tribal line. I know plenty of people who have crossed the tribal line themselves, and have awkward relationships with their parents on the far side. I don’t want that for my family. I worry, honestly, about the Zionists at my daughter’s Hebrew School, some of whom have associated themselves with people who have associates in the other tribe. I worried about the Girl Scouts, at the beginning, mostly because (like a lot of people, I expect) I get the Girl Scouts mixed up a bit with the Boy Scouts, who are on the other side of that line, alas.

Anyway, as YHB was explaining this, My Perfect Non-Reader interrupted to say Wait a minute, this is about politics!. I had to say that it was kinda about politics. It certainly isn’t not about politics.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 14, 2011

An Incident, and a response

Your Humble Blogger is a fan of the Boston University Terriers (Men’s Hockey); it’s my winter sport. I am not an obsessive fan, but I follow their fortunes, and enjoy reading about the wins and losses. Enjoy the wins more, of course. It was distressing, then to read about Corey Trivino, who was not only the Terriers leading goal-scorer but the leading goal scorer for the Hockey East conference, being kicked off the team. For (allegedly) drunkenly assaulting his RA.

Let me begin this note by saying that I am glad that the Terrier’s legendary coach Jack Parker kicked Mr. Trivino off the team immediately. Coach Parker does have some history of soft discipline, of playing the NCAA sports game of looking the other way while his boys escape the consequences of actions (or inactions) that non-athletes would never get away with. On the other hand, he did sit his senior goalie earlier this season for cutting class—true, he was going to rest the young man for a game anyway at some point, but he publicly stated that Kieran Millan was being benched for skipping class, which may have done some good. And yes, when Coach Parker was called, at one in the morning on Monday, he first called an attorney so that Mr. Trivino would have the representation that we are all entitled to, then spoke to the young man’s parents, and then spoke to the man himself and let him know that he was off the team. All of those things seem to be to be correct and admirable actions on the part of a college coach, in a context where it is far from clear that he would be punished for doing nothing.

Because, let’s be clear: top-level college sports in this country are a cesspool of misbehavior, abuse and assault. Let’s be clear: colleges in this country are a cesspool of misbehavior, abuse and assault. They probably always have been—certainly it has been more the rule than the exception—and they are now. And athletes, particularly star athletes one Division One teams, athletes who have expectations of professional careers (Mr. Trivino was drafted by the Islanders), athletes have reason to think that they can get away with pretty nearly anything. They are treated as if they are above the norms of society, at least, and most of the campus rules and probably some of the law. Sometimes the coaches encourage that (perhaps as a misguided attempt to foster the aggressive pride that comes out in competition) and sometimes they ignore it, but far too infrequently do they combat it.

But I am troubled by this interview. To explain, I want to tell the story, and I need to emphasize that these are allegations, and that I don’t know the truth of the matter. But here’s the story: a 21-year-old college senior (6’1”, 185 lbs) is asked by his (female) RA to quiet down. He follower her back to room, shoves the door open, gropes her and kisses her. She tells him to go, and he does, but he returns, and again pushes his way into the room and tries to kiss her. She persuades him to leave, but he returns again, and this time refuses to leave. Eventually, when the RA calls the Resident Director, he does flee, and eventually is arrested by the BUPD. In short: he drunkenly assaults his RA three times, eventually forcing his way into her room and onto her bed.

Coach Parker says that he kicks the man off his team for an alcohol-related incident. He said that he had warned Mr. Trivino that he would be kicked off the team if he had another alcohol-related incident. He had another alcohol-related incident and he was kicked off the team. Coach Parker said that it was an alcohol problem, and that he had asked the player to get treatment for the alcohol problem.

Here’s what Coach Parker did not say.

This allegation is extremely serious, and I am very concerned. Sexual assault is a very serious crime. Too often these stories are laughed off or shrugged off, or never even told to anyone. While of course the judicial system is the appropriate place to try this particular case, I want to make clear to everyone that we do not tolerate sexual assault at our dorms or at our university. I am speaking for the university here—and for better or for worse, I am a prominent face of this university—when I say that we work very hard to make an environment where every student, male or female, is safe. Every accusation of sexual assault must be taken seriously and investigated fully, and I support the police department in this investigation and in any such investigation. I will be talking to all my players—again—about this issue, and making damned sure that every single one of them is aware that no means no, whether you are drunk or sober. And yet sexual assault of exactly the kind alleged here takes place in our country every week. We will be redoubling our efforts to raise awareness and do whatever it takes to make our campus safe for everyone.

I don’t know what Coach Parker actually thinks, of course. I don’t know if he agrees with the stuff I just typed, which seem to me close to unarguable. Maybe he would be appalled by my suspicion that he thinks this was not a big deal, that it’s just a drunken kid doing what drunken kids do, and that the problems here are alcohol and breaking the team rules. Maybe he is just reluctant to say anything that makes it sound as if he believes the allegation, while his erstwhile player still faces trial. Maybe it’s not even reluctance; maybe he is grudgingly following the advice of university counsel, whether it’s good legal advice or not. It seems, though, as if he isn’t worried about that RA at all. And I am worried about her, and about the next victim.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 1, 2011

Fifty percent off the top, and another fifty off the bottom.

Your Humble Blogger has a question: for a sporting event, what percentage of ticket money do you think should go to the players on the field (or court or grid or rink or pitch or whatever)? For a symphony, what percentage seems reasonable for the musicians? For a rock concert? A play? A dance performance? An opera? At what level do you start to feel that you are being ripped off, or that the performers are being exploited, or just that somebody is taking too big a cut somewhere?

The answer for me is that I have no idea, and of course that it’s got to be different at different places. Ownership or management has a lot of overhead (the building, advertising, security, backstage/support, etc, etc), and I have no way of knowing what any of those costs are to begin with, let alone relative to the cost of tickets. But at a gut level, I would like to think of something like two-thirds going to the performers. Just as a sense that what I am going to see is the performance (whether it’s an artistic performance or an athletic performance), and that everything else should be feeding in to that. I would be willing to include the writer/composer in the group of performers, certainly, for works that are paying royalties, of course. And I would include in the two-thirds various expenditures on top of salaries that go to the performers: the weight room for the athletes, for instance, is a benefit, as is a health care plan and a pension and so on and so forth. Would I count the pay of the medical care professional in attendance in that two-thirds? Actually, I’m told that in professional dance companies it’s not unusual for a member of the chorus to also be the medical care attendant, getting a bonus rather than a second salary.

Actually, of course, in the two instances where Your Humble Blogger was paid as an actor, I have no idea what the take of the theater was or what the total spent on the performers was. For all the other shows, they were clearly labeled as volunteer community productions, so ticket buyers knew that going in. It makes a difference, there. But for a professional performance, or a professional sports match?

I am bringing it up, of course, because of the end of the NBA Lockout, with the athletes agreeing to reduce their collective take to half. That seems very low to me. But I have been seeing other arts-labor stories recently, at the Philadelphia Orchestra and at MOCA as well.

And, of course, there’s the larger issue in general, where a person might wonder what percentage of the money he spends on, for instance, an mp3 player or a book or a steak go to the people who make the thing—but the question of what we mean by making a thing is really complicated for most things. It’s somewhat less so for a performance of Mahler’s First, or when the Knicks play the Sixers, or at least that’s how it seems to me.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 29, 2011

Not a parable

What would you do first if you won the lottery? Would the first thing be hire an attorney to form a limited trust?

So, y’all have heard about the asset managers winning one hundred million dollars in states’ lottery money by now. The theme of the story is probably that the rich get richer—these guys pocket something close to $35M each (twenty-two and a half million euros) (today), which Mark Spencer at the Courant describes as considerably more assets to manage. Which is true, although depending on how high up they are in their Greenwich Asset Management firm, they may well be handling accounts in the hundreds of millions of dollars. And depending on how old they are, they may well have expectations of taking home six or seven mil a year over a five-year peak earning period anyway. The extra $35,000,000 will make their total considerably more, but possibly in the way that an extra $350,000 would give me considerably more assets to manage.

Which would be nice, by the way.

The thing that’s interesting to me, though, is the way in which these three fellows reactions were very different from mine, or probably from yours. One of them buys the ticket; I don’t know and can’t guess what arrangements they had about potential winnings. I have been in workplaces where one person took the kitty and bought a string of tickets, with the expectations of sharing any winnings among that week’s contributors. This may have been something like that, or something different altogether, but whatever it was, the three of them are in some sense sharing the ticket. And it comes up a big winner. So what do they do?

They do smart things. They get a lawyer. They make a trust. They minimize their tax liabilities. They probably make security arrangements. And then they claim the ticket. And even then, they don’t talk to the press; they defer everything to their attorney.

I don’t know if there has been a quantitative study, but the anecdotes are that many big-money lottery winners not only fail to get happy but often wind up broke. The fact is that handling money is a skill, possibly a talent and a skill, and our lives in the 99% do not train us in it. I have said (probably here, possibly too often) that it’s one of the institutional problems of inequality—if you need to trust somebody with your investments, and you are in that upper class, you can use your dad’s guy, or your father-in-law’s guy, or your Princeton room-mate’s guy, or your Princeton room-mate, if that’s what he is doing these days. Not that all those people turn out to be honest, but a lot of them are as honest as they need to be to keep their clients. Movie stars, pop musicians and other lottery winners do not necessarily have guys they can go to, and we hear about them being ripped off with such frequency that it’s no longer a surprise. It’s not that the system is rigged against them, it’s that the system is rigged against everyone, and well-connected people have ways around that as they have ways around everything else.

This is the story of the wealth managers winning the lottery, a story of the one percent. Now, as it happens I do not think that the government has any obvious role in eliminating that difference as it pertains to lottery winnings (other than leaving the numbers racket to organized crime, as would be my preference), but the story is culturally instructive about what we have taken to calling the one percent, what F. Scott Fitzgerald simply called the very rich. They are not like you and me, he said. Not (as Ernest Hemingway quipped) just because they have more money, and not because as Mr. Fitzgerald retorted) they possess too much too young. Because the world they live in is not our world, the connections they have are not our connections, and the resources they have are not our resources. Their instincts, then, are not our instincts, and their results are not our results. There is a difference between the one percent and the ninety-nine percent, and we would do well, as a society, to remember that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 15, 2011

Get that shield out of your mouth right now!

Your Humble Blogger would have been much better at chess if there were berserkers in the sets.

OK, that’s not actually true. Unless the berserker did some sort of berserk board randomization thing that prevented people who were actually good at chess from implementing strategies. That was always my problem—opponents with strategies. Maybe berserkers would have helped with that. If they just moved on the columns and rows, though, not so much.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 11, 2011

What didn't happen

This terrible Penn State cover-up has been on my mind again, and I found myself thinking—I don’t mean to say that this is some new insight or anything, but the idea of it preyed on me, and it’s this: if Mike McQueary found Jerry Sandusky in the back of the gym repeatedly punching a ten-year-old boy in the stomach, I suspect the Mr. McQueary would have intervened immediately, and the school would have fully cooperated in the ensuing assault charges. It’s an exercise in imagination, but it’s easier to imagine than what actually happened. In fact, if Jerry Sandusky had been witnessed in 1998 slapping kids in the face with his open palm (or whatever seems to correspond to the naked grinding that he admitted to at the time) the reason for his dismissal would have been made public. I can’t prove it, of course, but that’s my gut instinct, and there have been several well-publicized cases involving coaches whacking kids.

Everybody—well, not everybody, obviously, but pretty nearly everybody, and close enough to everybody that disagreement is shamed into silence—feels that raping a kid up the ass is much, much worse than punching him repeatedly in the stomach. I suspect that the reason a person like Mr. Sandusky is able to get away with it for so long is because his violence is considered so much worse. I remember a line in a play saying that there has never been a taboo against committing incest and child abuse, just a very powerful taboo against talking about it. This is overstated (it was a play, after all), but it’s the kind of overstated thing that sticks in the mind and is actually fairly helpful in understanding the thing that it overstates. The taboo against talking about child rape, the stigma of being accused of child rape is so great, that it may prevent people from making such accusations even when presented with the evidence.

Had Joe Paterno fired a close associate for beating up a ten-year-old kid, he would have been a hero. If he fired a close associate for raping a ten-year-old kid, he might have been tainted himself. Maybe that’s overstating it, too, but maybe it isn’t.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 10, 2011

This was also true of the Joe without shoes.

I find, to my surprise, that I have something to say about Joe Paterno.

Not, I admit, that YHB is likely to add anything to the best thing written on the topic, which is clearly the title of John Scalzi’s note over at his Whatever. Not the note, which was superfluous, really, after the title, but the title pretty much sums it up.

But since everybody is writing about it, I find myself reading a lot about it, and as I say, I find myself with a thing to add to all of it.

What started me, I suppose, was really a Robert Kuttner note called Blame Where It’s Not Due, over at TAPped, which I found troubling enough to go and find the WSJ editorial it is talking about. The text doesn’t appear to be available on-line, so I can’t really make the case, and that isn’t really what I wanted to write about anyway, but I feel that Mr. Kuttner is misreading the article. I don’t think (as Mr. Kuttner does) that the WSJ intends to blame the media for the end of Mr. Paterno’s career—it sneers a bit at media moralizing, sure, but it is pretty clear that Mr. Paterno is paying for that lapse in judgment, and the tone, I infer, is that it is just that he do so.

No, the problem I have with the WSJ editorial is that they screw up their legitimate point, that is, that Mr. Paterno’s legacy is now both the cover-up of child abuse and the achievement of decades of winning football, and in addition the various aspects of his good works at Penn State and in State College, which were many. Had he not covered up the child abuse and by doing so almost certainly enabled more child abuse, the legacy would have been overwhelmingly positive (not entirely, but overwhelmingly), but he did, and so it isn’t. And that is, as the WSJ points out is an occasion for sadness. A legitimate point, as I say, and the thing that they screw up is that they leave it at that, as if this occasion for sadness can teach us nothing about the world. Or, that it can teach us only the wrong thing—they close their note with the regret that people may learn “that no one who achieves prominence in public life can be honorable”.

The lesson, it seems to Your Humble Blogger, is that people are rarely entirely good, and that we need to be able to still celebrate the achievements of flawed people. Or even bad people, people who have overwhelmingly done damage to the world rather than good—even there, we need to be able to acknowledge that the good in them exists alongside the evil and always has. We should be able to say: Joe Paterno did these good things, and these bad things, had these aspirations and met them and fell short of them, and so on and so forth, and all those things are still true.

It’s hard to remember that about people. People are capable of great good and great evil, of banality and wit and kindness and small-mindedness, and you don’t ever get to the end of anybody. Do you know anybody really great, any person whose essential kindness, thoughtfulness and compassion has always impressed you? Is that person capable of evil? You bet your ass he is. Does that mean that your friend isn’t kind and thoughtful and compassionate? No, that’s nonsense; she is what she is. All of it. So are you. So am I. All of what we are. Joe Paterno is still the man he was last week, still the man he was a decade ago when he failed to follow up on an accusation of rape, still the man who donated a zillion dollars to help educate not only his players but his fans, still an obsessive winner, still a staple of the NCAA culture of exploitation, excitement, character-building, greed and triumph. Still capable of surprising everyone, as everyone is.

You know, someone on NPR during all this (and I don’t know who or when) said that there has never been a university so identified with one person, never been a combination of institution and individual like Penn State and Joe Paterno. And I thought to myself: that’s a problem, right there.

And although I was thinking that it was a problem because he was a football coach, in fact I think it was just a problem because he was a person. The lesson, I think, that the WSJ and Mr. Kuttner and Mr. Scalzi and poor Joe Posnanski and Jacky Parker and Cardinal Bernard Law and Joe Paterno himself and all of us should be taking away from all of this is that we are all heroes with feet of clay, and that we need to remember that while we are lauding the laudable and while we are reprehending the reprehensible. Nobody should be above the law, nobody should be above society’s norms, and nobody should be assumed to be flawless. We shouldn’t trust that the people at the top are without stain and seeing their stains shouldn’t blind us to their greatness. We shouldn’t pretend that they are entirely honorable and then entirely dishonor them if their shortcomings prevent us from keeping up the pretense. We should treat them like people, which includes not letting them cover up for each other, and also includes firing them when they fail us, but which also includes appreciating their achievements even while they fail us. Not easy, but—aren’t we people, too?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 9, 2011

Round on the ends and Hi in the middle

Your Humble Blogger wanted to note something about the Ohio results. Y’all probably know that the Ohio voters overturned an appallingly awful anti-union measure passed by the legislature, and also passed a goofy state constitutional amendment outlawing mandated participation in a healthcare system, essentially presented as seceding from Obamacare. This has led people to notes like Not so Rosy in Ohio? over at TPM and You’re Not the Boss of Ohio, Man over at John Scalzi’s Whatever. Neither of which are bad posts, I should point out.

Gentle Readers know by now that I stubbornly dislike (and fear) legislation by election; I want elected legislators doing the legislating, and citizens booting out the bad ones at their displeasure. Yesterday’s election (and particularly the election news) was a good example of what I dislike: all the fuss was about these ballot questions, amendments and referendum lines, most of which were poorly written chunks of shit even when they are intended to promote policies I disagree with. The citizens of Ohio want to protect the rights of their public employees to bargain as collectives? Why the hell did they vote for Republicans, then? Are all those Republican legislators whose bill was overturned going to resign, or are they going to be booted out at the next election… or more likely are they going to continue in the confidence of their constituents, that is, the confidence to do anything except legislate. It’s a hell of a way to run a railroad, and a terrible way to make a democratic society to be free and self-governing. On the other hand, at least the unions won. This time.

As for the notes above and the others like them I saw, I’m not convinced that Ohio supports unions and hates the Affordable Care Act. I suspect that the difference between Issue 2 and Issue 3 is that there was a nationally organized effort to support Issue 2, and that wasn’t one to oppose Issue 3. Lots of money and lots of GOTV and lots of individual persuasion happened there, and then there was that whole Wisconsin thing that nobody really wanted to have happen all over again, and on the whole Issue 2 was on everybody’s mind, as far as I can tell. Issue 3, not so much.

Would it have been a better night for our society, or for progressive ideals, if the insurance companies (who stand to benefit greatly from the individual mandate, of course) had spent a bazillion dollars getting everybody worked up about Issue 3? I’m not saying it would have failed—at the end of the day, they count the ballots, not the dollars, or Issue 2 would have had a different ending. But a lot of money can get people worked up, for sure.

Well, well. I don’t know. I am relieved that the state won’t be able to completely screw over its employees, I know that. I would have been dreadfully disappointed had the law not been overturned. I’m just… it’s a terrible analogy, but do you remember when Woody Allen was accused of abusing Mia Farrow’s children, and he was not convicted (I don’t remember the details, whether there were charges that were dismissed, or if it never got to the charges part, or what) and he was asked how he felt about winning, he said something like what winning? I didn’t win anything, they tried to kill me and I escaped. I don’t remember the exact quote, but his point was that he was still worse off than he was before the whole thing started. Which, if he hadn’t done anything wrong (and remember that my point isn’t about Woody Allen) was powerfully true; he was dragged through the mud, spent a zillion dollars that could have been spent somewhere else, had this awfulness the focus of his life for months, and all he got at the end of it was that it was almost much, much worse.

And that’s how I feel about the good news.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 27, 2011

Ugh, but not ugh everywhere.

Your Humble Blogger notes that the Oakland OWS/99% rally clashed with police (quoting from the headline there) in a series of terrible, violent skirmishes. Charlie Pierce makes a national connection in Occupy Oakland and the Militarization of America's Police, and he certainly has a point, but I think it's important to think about it locally. The trend to militarization is nationwide, but not every city is an Oakland.

Here's the thing: The Bay Area has a long history of the police and the citizenry viewing each other with hostility. There are times of rapprochement, of course, and things are different not only city to city but neighborhood to neighborhood, but in a general way, the police are not viewed as being there to protect the interests of the residents, and the residents appear to be viewed by the police not only as potential criminals but as some sort of unarrested perpetrators, under suspicion and only temporarily allowed to walk free. Do I exaggerate? I do, but not by all that much, and there are probably some neighborhoods that it's every bit as bad. I know this has been true in parts of Greater Boston, in parts of the District of Columbia, in parts of Los Angeles, in parts of some other cities—but it isn't true of everywhere, doesn't seem to be true of Hartford (oddly enough), or of Albany, or of Austin. I could be wrong about those, sure—I was going to put Atlanta as one of my As when somebody told me different. And, of course, where the police and the residents get along pretty well, it's largely due to a deliberate policy on the part of the elected city officers and the police officers. The community policing effort was successful-ish, in places, as were some other efforts (actually including zero-tolerance in some places, I understand, tho' YHB remains skeptical about that).

Anyway, here's (as I say) the thing: whenever there is a large protest on hand in a city where the police feel themselves surrounded by hostility, they prepare themselves for a riot. They need to—there were bound to be people at the rally who resented and feared the police (possibly different police, it not always being easy to remind yourself in the heat of the moment of the bureaucratic divisions in law enforcement), and even a half-dozen angry people can tip a rally into a riot. Of course, another thing that can tip a rally into a riot is a hostile police force turning up with their riot gear looking for one. You know? I blame the police, of course, for their actions, but I also feel sympathy for them, both for the officers making decisions this week and for the cops on the ground, who know they are in the middle of something not easily controllable.

The only reason I'm bothering telling you so is that bit about deliberate policy I was talking about above. Reconciliation in the Bay Area is a long way off, but in your city or metropolitan area now is the time to support politicians and community leaders who are working toward it. Now is always the time, of course, but as a counterweight to that trend of militarization that Mr. Pierce is on about, now is especially the time. You'll have to figure out what that means in your town—encouraging good practices already in place or reining in bad ones that are entrenched, investigating bad apples or developing contacts, supporting youth leagues or just smiling and shaking hands and introducing yourself. I'm not saying it's easy, or that any one technique is the right one for your town. And believe it or not, there are places worse than Oakland. But most of us don't live in them, and don't have to let our towns get like that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 14, 2011

I blame Murdoch

You know, YHB is pretty cynical about business. I mean, my expectation is that businesses will cut corners to make money, and will tell only as much of the truth as they feel they need to, and largely consider both legal and ethical considerations as obsolete rituals to be nodded to rather than ruled by. I’m occasionally shocked but rarely surprised by routine misbehavior by businessmen in the course of their duties.

I do have to say, though, that this WSJ Europe stuff is a hoot. In essence, the WSJ European edition barely sells any copies, but claims a big circulation to advertisers and auditors. They do the trick of selling at a discount to university students, but with a special twist: they sell to corporate sponsors of future-leader seminars, then pay off the sponsors with (a) free advertising, and (2) favorable stories in the news section. This second one is causing the bulk of the scandal, of course, since it breaks the Chinese Wall between advertising and editorial, which nobody believes in except journalists, anyway. Oh, and then also paying off the sponsors with phony invoices through third parties, which is a whole different fraud. That’s three distinct kinds of fraud: the rigged news stories, the phony invoices, and the inflated circulation.

Here’s the thing that I love: Andrew Langhoff, who is head of WSJE, got himself into a position where not only were forty percent of his sales phony, but 16% of his sales were in the hands of one company. Who were paying him bupkes, by the way: forty grand a year. But that company could (and eventually did) say to him, we’re going to to cut your circulation by a sixth unless you make us happy. What was Mr. Langhoff going to do then? He was going to have positive stories planted in the paper—he did that. Then they still weren’t satisfied so he had to do the phony invoice stuff. I don’t know what the next step would have been—planting nasty stories about competitors? Maybe they already did that, too.

I know that sometimes a company can’t help but let another company take up a big chunk of its business (Wal-Mart couldn’t do what they do without it), but this is the Wall Street Journal, for crying out loud. How stupid are they? And for forty grand? I don’t know how much advertising money they stood to lose, but it must have been a bundle. Which of course means that the advertisers paying that bundle must be pretty pissed off around now. Of course, it’s possible that the total money was bupkes, too, and that it’s just that Mr. Langhoff felt that he would be far more likely to lose his job for a 16% circulation drop-off than for multiple frauds. He may have been right, at that. But what about next year? There is no possible way that anybody could have looked at any of this and thought it could last.

But the thing that is really beautiful about all of this is that the Wall Street Journal is the paper that reports on how business is done. Right? If anybody knows how business is done, it’s these guys, and this is how business is done. Not only dishonest but stupid, and doomed to failure and ignominy, and the only hope that somehow all the plates will keep spinning on the poles for long enough for the top guys to get out clean and let somebody else take the crash. That’s not the Wall Street players, that’s the Wall Street Journal.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 22, 2011

Not really about politics at all

So. A couple of weeks ago, I read a piece over at TAPPED in which Patrick Caldwell called for Some Sunshine for Presidential Nominations. In it, he writes that national polls mean nothing at this point in the election cycle—it’s all about how the candidates will perform in the early primary states. This is almost entirely backwards: national polls at this point in the election cycle mean a great deal, and have as large an influence over how the candidates perform in the early primary states as anything else does. If Tim Pawlenty or Hayley Barbour were polling at 25% now, the race would look very different.

But here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure that in, say, 1995, I thought that it was all about how the candidates performed in the early primary states. In 2011, not only think that the national polls have meant a great deal, it seems utterly obvious to me that they have meant a great deal. At some point, I changed my mind. When did that happen? Who persuaded me? Was it logic, or was it authority—Perhaps what seems to me obvious at the moment is not really a result of me observing and analyzing evidence as of me truckling to a new conventional wisdom.

Not, you know, that I think I’m wrong. I have looked at the evidence, or at least at some of the evidence, and it looks persuasive. This is also true about, oh, whether won-loss records or ERA are useful to predict a pitcher’s future. I’m pretty sure I have got hold of the right end of those sticks now, and that I had hold of the wrong end of them when I was younger. This knowledge, however, leads me to think that there may well be other ideas I am currently wrong-sticking, and I don’t know what those are.

These are, by the way, models of the empirical world, and as such are presumably subject to verification—and always were. This is a different sort of thing than my having at one point preferred Bartok to Bach. That is clearly wrong and bad thinking, and I’m over it now, but it’s a different kind of thing altogether. I am willing to defend, say, my preference for baseball and hockey over basketball and football (either football), but those are preferences, and while I have reasons for them that are grounded in models of the empirical world, that’s a different kind of thing than believing that, say, Christopher Columbus had to convince people that the world was round. Or believing in Newtonian physics. Those things are wrong, verifiably wrong.

It seems to YHB, though, that this is the double-think that is required for living in the world of rationality—you have to hold observances and conclusions both fiercely and conditionally. It's a wonderfully difficult human thing, isn't it? You have to fully buy in to the conclusions reached by the evidence, and then, when new evidence comes to light, be willing to fully ditch the now-discredited view. You have to believe in Aristotelian physics until Newton, and then you have to believe in Newton until Einstein, and then you have to believe in Einstein—and keep believing in Einstein, and fighting for it, and acting on it, and all of that, always being prepared to completely abandon it as soon as (and not before!) there is evidence that it is wrong, too.

Which it might be.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 15, 2011

News of the day (a couple of days ago)

Pedro Segarra won the Democratic Primary for Hartford’s Mayoralty this week, pretty much guaranteeing him re-election in November. Take a look at the story in the Courant: Segarra Wins Democratic Mayoral Primary. Seriously, scan through that article by the Courant’s Jenna Carlesso, because what I am writing about is what isn’t in that article. It’s in his official bio and it’s in his campaign site bio—it’s not a secret, it’s just not newsworthy.

Mayor Segarra is gay. And it’s not newsworthy.

In fact, I believe that Pedro Segarra is the first large-city mayor who is in a legal same-sex marriage.

Digression: the phrasing there is terrible, but it’s an awkward sort of record. The colloquial way to phrase it is that Mayor Segarra is the first legally gay-married big-city mayor, but I frankly dislike the gay-married colloquialism. I first typed that Mayor Segarra was the first big-city mayor to be married to a man, but of course that isn’t true, and then rephrased it that he was the first big-city mayor to be a man married to a man, although as far as I know there are no big-city mayors who are women married to women and I wanted to include such marriages and mayors in the category (as they should be). Then I typed that Mayor Segarra was the first big-city mayor to be married to his own sex, which is far worse than what I actually went with up there. Hmph. Suggestions for improving the wording gratefully appreciated, but I guess I need to give up and use gay-married. End Digression.

Anyway, Mayor Segarra advanced to the Mayor’s office last summer, he was already the first openly gay Mayor in the city’s history and one of only a few gay big-city Mayors in the country. The next day, he married his boyfriend, and made history—except that nobody noticed or cared. OK, that’s not true, but it’s surprisingly close to being true. The Mayor of Hartford married his long-term boyfriend, and it wasn’t a scandal, or a controversy, or anything like that. Out here in the suburb, almost a mile from the borderline, I barely noticed. Of course, it was a trifle overshadowed by the previous Mayor being convicted on felony counts, but still, there were articles about the new guy, and I don’t remember anybody making a fuss about him being gay, or about him getting married.

And when you are talking about society and culture, I think there’s a difference between being Mayor and being elected Mayor; there was somewhat of a history of women being appointed to elective office before they were elected to it, which was revealing about the world they were in. Similarly, it was possible (and I suppose still technically is possible) that our city would stand for a gay appointed Mayor in an emergency, but that given an election, would just happen to choose somebody straight. Didn’t happen.

I don’t read the Advocate any more, and I am well out of touch on a lot of gay rights issues. I think I get a lot of the headlines and the most talked-about stories through my network of friends, but of course I don’t know what I am missing, by the nature of it. So I’ll ask GR’s: is Mayor Segarra a gay hero? An icon of political success? If not, why not? Isn’t it newsworthy that all of this isn’t newsworthy?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 30, 2011

It's full of stupid!

Any Gentle Readers that are out and about in Left Blogovia probably have seen this elsewhere, but Howard Schultz (CEO of Starbucks) is getting lots of press for his pledge to stop making political donations until folks in our Government “strike a bipartisan, balanced long-term debt deal that addresses both entitlements and revenues”. He’s got a bunch of other rich people to sign on as well (according to this news story that is certainly not just a reprinted press release.

Can I ask—on a scale from one to stupid, how stupid is that?

I mean, politically stupid, not public-relations stupid, because it’s public relations clever, in a way. It’s got just the right bullshit level to look good without having any annoying substance—if Mr. Schultz wants to give money, he can just funnel it through a PAC. Or through a relative. Or, frankly, he can just give the money—on the off-chance that some enterprising reporter does remember three months afterward and check, Mr. Schultz could come up with some plausible reason, and it’s not like anyone will care. So, if we assume that it’s all bullshit for PR, then it isn’t stupid at all.

But if we take it at face value—and you know I do want people to criticize the face value of PR stunts, to hold the stunter to a higher standard—it’s dumber than anything Otto from A Fish Called Wanda would come up with. He wants a bipartisan, balanced long-term debt deal that addresses both entitlements and revenues, which is stupid in itself. I mean, first of all, I think it’s dumb to get worked up over a long-term debt deal in the first place, both because I don’t think there’s a long-term debt problem (as distinct from a health care financing problem) and because any long-term deal will be blown up the moment that somebody wants to either spend money (war! climate change refugees! stimulus!) or cut taxes. Secondly, if you want a particular policy outcome (such as “addressing” entitlements and revenues), you presumably want it whether it is bipartisan or not—it’s always nice if it’s bipartisan, but as an necessary condition for an ultimatum, it makes no sense. Thirdly, the idea that you would push your preferred policy position by refusing to support candidates who also support that position before the election is an amazing wonder of senselessness, a kind of juggernaut of nonsense, nonsense not on stilts but on a jetpack made of jello. Ultimate nonsense.

This is in addition to the obvious fact that one Party—my Party—has been publicly supporting legislation that addresses entitlements, revenues and the debt. It’s lousy legislation from my point of view, but it seems to be exactly what Mr. Schultz is demanding—or if it isn’t, he certainly isn’t saying in what way it isn’t. The other Party, of course, is blocking that legislation, and rejects the idea that it’s good policy. You see, the two Parties represent groups with different policy agendas. Really, they do. And Mr. Schultz seems to agree with one Party, and—gasp!—not with the other! Which makes it unsurprising that in the past he has contributed to one Party, and—gasp!—not to the other.

Which means that he is really pledging … think about it… that’s right, he is pledging not to give money to the Party with a policy he supports unless the Other Party changes its mind. He’s saying to John Boehner something like Unless you support policy that you think is lousy, I will stop giving to your opponents, and encourage other people to stop giving, too. This may not be particularly persuasive. It may be particularly stupid. After all, if the withholding of donations has any effect at all (which it probably won’t), it would be to get some people of the Other Party elected, thus making his preferred policy outcome even less likely.

Left Blogovia is het up about that part, the part where this fellow seems to be ignorant of what the two Parties are actually doing on this topic that he is focused on. And, of course, the part where he is actively doing damage to our Party, which makes us a bit cross, you know. So there’s that. But it’s not just that part that’s stupid, it’s that his policy preference is dumb, in broad outline and in detail, and he puts a rider on that preference that is both irrelevant and wrongheaded, and then his method for getting that policy into place is unbelievably dimwitted and counterproductive, and would be unbelievably dimwitted and counterproductive even if he wasn’t on top of all of this fundamentally wrong about what our legislators are actually doing.

That’s the beauty of it. It’s stupid on so many levels, viewed from so many angles, a kind of quaquaversal stupidity. And yet, terrific PR. Well done, Howard Schultz!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 11, 2011

Rally, riot, recall

So, Your Humble Blogger didn’t write about the Wisconsin recall elections, mostly because my thinking is just clear enough to know how muddled it is. In short, I am against recall elections, against setting up a system that makes them easy or even, under ordinary circumstances, possible. I am in favor of some sort of system for removing elected officials during their term should they be found guilty of malfeasance or egregious dereliction of duty (for instance, my town councilor who moved overseas and hoped to fulfill his duties by skype), but I don’t think that popular election serves that purpose well, and of course most of the time a recall election is simply seen as a do-over for an election outcome that has made people grumbly.

In Tuesday’s vote, for instance, two people were removed from office not for any scandal of any kind but for voting with their Party, under whose banner they were elected in the first place. Yes, the circumstances were extraordinary, and I suppose extraordinary measures were called for, but it’s easy to claim extraordinary circumstances when it’s the policy outcome that is really objectionable. It’s a muddle, you know?

Another thing that I am muddled about is the riots in England. I’m anti-riot generally, just as I am anti-recall generally. Gentle Readers may be saying everyone is anti-riot, but of course if the people who are rioting are anti-riot, they are surely making an exception. And I have several friends who are generally pro-riot, who have argued rather well that a populace willing to riot when unhappy keeps the government on its proverbial. There is something to that, certainly, and on the other hand there’s this guy.

But the point is that of course everyone in a riot thinks that they are in extraordinary circumstances, and that extraordinary measures are called for. And I have no idea whether they are right or wrong in any specific case—but I have no idea whether I would be right or wrong in any specific case, myself. I have no scheme in mind for when a riot might have salutary effects, and when it’s just burning down warehouses. Easier to tell twenty years after, but even then, when it’s not much help, it’s hard to gauge.

I’m putting these two together—recalls and riots—despite their being utterly different things, because it strikes me that they are responses to similar situations. Or, rather, that they are symptoms of similar problems. In both cases, they seem to be responses to extraordinary failures of government as well as extraordinary failures of societal norms. In Wisconsin, of course, it was the shutdown of the parliamentary system—not only the attack on collective bargaining rights, which was the policy issue in question, but the breakdown that led to a walkout from the state legislature. In England, the proximate cause is a police shooting, but there are clearly neighborhoods for which the police and the government are viewed (probably correctly) as existed not to protect the neighborhood and its residents but to protect society from the neighborhood and its residents. If the police come in to your neighborhood to shoot people, to beat them up and frame them, and the Government is abandoning the social contract, then ordinary politics is not going to be very attractive.

But what comes to my mind is … how many of us, here in the United States, view the police as protecting us, rather than protecting other people from us? How many people view the Government as part of the social contract? How many people look at the Government (however they see it and however they think of it) and see themselves? How many see the police that way?

And for as many people as don’t see themselves in the system, what new norms are they thinking will make that happen? Fires? Recalls? Tea Parties? The Tea Party impulse—the original one, where they pitched the tea in the river rather than pay the duties on it to a government they felt excluded from, as well as the rallies where people shouted about the tyranny of bailouts—is that a different impulse, really? I’m not saying that it’s all equivalent, you understand. There’s a difference between a rally, a recall and a riot, and there is still a large difference between a good policy and a bad one. What I think I’m observing is an undercurrent of alienation that sees itself not as the ordinary alienation of living in the world, but as an extraordinary circumstance that requires extraordinary measures, that requires setting aside the rules and norms that we want to govern ourselves with in ordinary times.

I don’t know. All times are extraordinary, of course, and all times are ordinary, and the rules and norms ought always to be in question and ought never to be put aside lightly. It’s always the millennium, isn’t it? And the world never ends. It feels like it should balance, and it feels out of balance.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 4, 2011

The Way Things Are

I know I just linked to David S. Bernstein a couple of days ago, but his note on Zide-Stepping Disclosure? is excellent. It is based on research by Michael Isikoff for a story called Firm gives $1 million to pro-Romney group, then dissolves about, well, about a company that was formed in March, donated One Meeeelion Dollars! to Mitt Romney’s Restore Our Future super-PoliticalActionCommittee and then dissolved in July. Nobody knows, or needs to report, where that company got the bucks; nobody made the donation, but the money is there anyway.

Oh, and by the way, Mr. Bernstein points out that they gave a million bucks by the end of June, and may well have given another million on July 1; the PAC doesn’t need to report that until October. By which time Your Humble Blogger, at any rate, will have forgotten about the whole thing.

You see, it would never, not ever, have occurred to me to form a company and dissolve it three months later, it having completed its purpose. But of course Mitt Romney’s friends in venture capital think that way—as a friend of mine pointed out, they probably do this sort of thing to make a million dollars all the time, so when it came time to spend a million dollars, the idea was not new.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 3, 2011

Or a queue, really, whichever is funnier

So. One of the things about following any on-line community for long enough is the joy of finding out that you appreciate the in-jokes. Or if not in-jokes specifically, the little turns of phrase or signifiers of inside-the-ring-ness, the things that people outside the group might understand. Then, of course, comes the temptation to use those bits of phrase elsewhere, mostly of course because they are ever so amusing, but as it happens they are badges of acceptance in the Ring and, you know, one doesn’t wish to brag, but…

I mention this because I found the following quite funny:

“My breakfasts for the past three Saturdays: fry up; cold pizza which I stupidly reheated and ate soggy; leftover spaghetti bolognaise,” says Dan Lucas. "So good." An orderly one, ladies, an orderly one.

This is, of course, from the OBO or over-by-over coverage of the epic Test Match series in which England is thrashing India and making themselves Head Boy in the Test Cricket world. It’s from day three of the Second Test, in fact, and the man at the controls is Rob Smyth. The email he is reprinting is in response to a conversation begun when Mr. Smyth observed that breakfast may be in a general way the most important proverbial of the whatnot, sometimes the second Test can be the highlight of the etc etc. Much breakfast talk that day, I can tell you.

The orderly one, if it isn’t obvious, and honestly I rather hope it isn’t, is the orderly line that the ladies are forming for their opportunities at romance with the ill-breakfasted such-a-catch Mr. Lucas. An expression of affectionate contempt, if you will. Or contemptuous affection. Very manly. It’s the regular phrase used amongst OBOers to tag on to the end of some poor sap’s half-bragging admission of slovenliness, poor eating habits or taste in music. It’s a thing that the British are particularly good at, of course, the implication by opposites, or heavy irony—although Woody Allen, in his younger, funnier days was good at exactly that joke, bragging about his obviously mythical romantic conquests which were comic because of his comically inept and unsexy persona, which persona he did not reference in the words at all. Well, maybe sometimes, but mostly it was in the tone.

Anyway, my point (and sometimes, Gentle Reader, I do have a point) is that it’s such good shorthand for guy-ness. You’re not dragging me to some chick-flick, I’m gonna see the Transformers again. No shoving, ladies, keep in line. I don’t like needy, clingy women. Everyone will have a turn, ladies, if everyone is polite.Preventing babies from being born is not medicine. Let’s have an orderly one, ladies, an orderly one.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 1, 2011

Crazy? They called me crazy. But I proved it!

Insanity.

OK, here’s the thing. Our legislature accidentally set up an economic time-bomb, years and years ago, and while that seems like a Bad Thing, this time bomb had a big snooze button that kept it from going off. Oh, and all they would have to do is pull the plug on it and it would stop. But pulling the plug would have meant bending over and showing the American people their asses, so they just kept hitting the snooze button, and everything was OK.

Now, I make it seem like our representatives in Congress are idiots, but in fact this is just one of those artifacts of a representative democracy. Not a great thing, sure, but the cost of it was just hitting the snooze button every now and then, and there was always plenty of warning, and the snooze button thing provided an opportunity for harmless political grandstanding, so that’s all right. So on it went for a few decades, hitting the snooze button and going on with our lives.

As for the economic time-bomb, I should state that I think that economists, particularly in macroeconomics, are quite like the famous six blind men of Hindustan (to learning much inclined), who prate about an elephant that they have never seen. That said, all six of them were of the opinion that it would be bad to let the time bomb go off. This was not a matter of controversy. Yes, people would now and then object to hitting the snooze button, largely as a protest against the way we kept packing more explosives behind the detonator, but these objections were, as I say, political grandstanding. One of the amazing flexibilities of our system is the way it lets our representatives take turns voting against things that they want to have passed. And everybody wanted to have the Snooze Button Pressing Act passed. Because, as I say, all six of the blind economists could at least agree on that.

Well. Then there were the elections of 2010. Remember those? Our Party lost a bunch of seats, and lost a majority of the House, lost the Speaker’s gavel, lost lost lost.

I should at this time acknowledge a couple of brothers making good points: Jon Bernstein reiterates his point that the policy disaster (from a liberal point of view) we are currently experiencing is a direct result of the electoral disaster of November 2010. We should not have allowed ourselves to forget that elections have policy results—while I don’t actually think that’s the whole point of democracy, it’s usually considered a feature, not a bug. At any rate, the election happened, and this is one of the results, and not the last one, either. Meanwhile, Jon’s brother David Bernstein, in conversation, made something clear I hadn’t really thought of in quite that way, that is worth passing along to those of you in deep blue districts like YHB’s. You know those people who the Other Party nominates in hopeless districts like ours? Crazy people who nobody takes seriously, who get nominated because nobody is paying attention—the people who have some crackpot theory that animates them (in Mass 8, back when Joe Kennedy was the Rep, it was a fellow who was convinced that time-sharing jobs would solve all the world’s problems) (in some of the Other Party’s safe districts, Our Party used to wind up with a follower of Lyndon Larouche; that’s how safe districts work) and get a sufficiently large bee in their proverbial that they decide to run for office. Well, there are at least a couple of dozen of those in the House of Representatives right now. These are people who don’t actually understand political grandstanding, and that it is different from, for instance, governing. Think of Jack E. Robinson, Bay Staters. About 5% of the House, or maybe more, are Jack E. Robinson-level politicians. Whew.

Anyway, there’s this economic time-bomb, see, and it came time to hit the snooze button again, only this time (a) every member of the Other Party seems to believe, probably correctly, that they are thisclose to losing a primary to Jack E. Robinson, and (2) the Jack E. Robinson caucus disagrees with the blind Hindustani economists (who are, at least, to learning much inclined, unlinke the Jack E. Robinson caucus) about the whole bomb-is-bad thing. Excellent. Elections have results.

So, the solution, and you may believe this or not, but you should really try, is that we agree to press the snooze button on the time bomb only if we agree to build another time bomb. The idea (and at this point the details are not settled, but the outlines seem to be secure) is that we will hit the snooze button a couple more times, and then we will have massive spending cuts that nobody wants (OK, for each individual cut there are lots of people, voters even, who want them, but the whole purpose of this deal is that no Senator would ever vote for these cuts and survive reelection) unless the Congress agrees to some other, unspecified deal by the deadline. In other words, another time bomb.

Digression: People have taken the Question of the Day to be, as Greg Sargent puts it, Did the president surrender, or did he do the best he could? I have been attempting to write an essay trying to define the potentials of rhetoric in this sort of situation. I don’t think that any particular speech act or lack thereof (including negotiation) would have changed this deal very much, and in that sense the rhetoric is irrelevant to the short-term outcome. On the other hand, we have a moment where people are paying attention to legislating, and those come around only once or twice a year, which means that these are rare opportunities to shift long-term thinking. And I do think that a President can shift long-term thinking, can make or popularize phrases and ideas that people rely on over time. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to tell if that is happening—it was obvious that Ronald Reagan, for instance, was taking advantage of a moment to shift the mental framework of a substantial wedge of the country, but it wasn’t obvious that, f’r’ex, Our Previous President was not. I don’t think that Our Only President is really communicating effectively, and the substance of what he is communicating doesn’t seem to be very liberal, but again, it’s hard to tell when you are in the middle of it. Still, I admit that I am disappointed, deeply disappointed, in Our Only President over the last few months, I don’t think that he could have improved The Deal much, or even made much of a difference in the next set of elections—but in ten years, we might well have looked back on his presidency as a shifting point in the conversation, and I don’t think we will. I’m not sure, mind you, but I don’t think so. End Digression.

I’m not saying this is a Bad Deal—I mean, it’s bad policy, clearly, and it is very bad for a lot of people, but as a deal it may well be about as good a result of those 2010 elections as is reasonable to imagine. But the idea that we are responding to this time bomb by deliberately setting up another time bomb… it’s insanity.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 30, 2011

One Night Only

So, there’s Your Humble Blogger reading about Sociosexuality from Argentina to Zimbabwe, via a bunch of links from one place to another to another, and I came across a quirk of English that I wanted to check with y’all.

Here’s the thing: what exactly is a one-night stand?

One of the phrasings of the survey (not in the paper itself, but in discussion of its results and methodology) asked how many one-night stands have you had, and YHB was unable to respond. Yes, partly because I am old, and my memory has gone, and I can no longer be sure whether the dim memory-like things in my skull are actual memories of things that happened in college or if that was actually something that happened to Andrew McCarthy and Jacqueline Bisset. But also because I discovered I am not sure what a one-night stand is.

Well, at least, I know something of it—if two people meet for the first time and have sex that night (or afternoon or whatever) and then part, never to meet again, that is clearly a one-night stand. That’s the canonical example, the no-question-about-it one-night stand. Fine. But the actual article (linked above) asks in its survey “With how many different partners have you had sex on one and only one occasion?” This got paraphrased, or translated I suppose, as how many one-night-stands. And these seem to be overlapping but different categories. What about sex with a hooker? I would never, in conversation, refer to that as a one-night-stand. And I know that many such incidents are not unrepeated combinations of participants, but surely many are. To me, the one-night-stand can’t be an entirely commercial matter.

On the other side, I wouldn’t have used the phrase to describe any of the myriad ways in which people with an ongoing social relationship have once-and-only-once: the room-mate’s girlfriend, the stockboy, the one-time-at-band-camp, any of those great and not always aprocryphal stories that abound in pornographic literature. And I’m not sure that other people would not include those in the category, or at least some of those. The drunken-party story, for instance, seems to fit the one-night-stand category, but what about the office-Xmas-party story? I don’t know.

In fact, I have become convinced that I don’t really know what a one-night stand is. Do any of you?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 28, 2011

Wobbly, Whitman, Whatever

An interesting article and conversation on Organizing on Wobbly Ground: Learning from ‘Solidarity Unionism at Starbucks’, which is in turn based on an essay by Daniel Gross called Solidarity Unionism at Starbucks. The point of all this stuff is that the IWW is attempting to help Starbucks employees without forming bargaining units.

While nobody thinks that bargaining units are the final point of success, in a general way they are viewed by Big Labor as a necessary early step, to the point where resources devoted to workplaces that do not have bargaining units are narrowly devoted to gaining recognition as a bargaining unit. This is a gross overstatement, of course, but certainly the emphasis is on organizing workplaces that are not so, and then on negotiating for the workplaces that are. And there is good reason for that—a legal bargaining unit is a powerful force for helping workers. But it isn’t the only powerful force for helping workers.

There have been attempts over the last couple of decades to create non-bargaining-unit organizations of workers of various kinds, often claimed to be on the guild model, to (f’r’ex) provide health insurance groups for temporary workers and so on. This is in the line from Cesar Chavez and the funeral insurance that he offered when he could not offer much else material, and it’s a very good line to be in. Alas, I don’t think there have been very many successes, certainly not on a large scale. I like the idea that the IWW is trying some things in their métier, at the very least to accompany what the AFL-CIO and SEIU are doing in theirs.

But this all brought something else to mind for me. Mr. Loomis writes that One of the real weaknesses of the modern labor movement is a lack of emphasis on educating workers about their own workplace, how unions fit into a larger economic and social justice world, and building workplace democracy. I think that this is very true, and a very serious problem. Y’all know about the labor death spiral: declining political power has led to anti-worker policies and appointments, which has led to declining membership (and declining resources), which has led to declining political power, etc, etc. In order to counter that, what we need (it seems to me) is political power that is union friendly that is not union derived, that is, we need allies. Like-minded people who see that helping Labor is helping the economy and the society, that worker-friendly policies are people-friendly policies, and that if you want people-friendly policies, you need worker-friendly policies.

Or, even more: we need Walt Whitman Democrats. We need people who see that the point of democracy is democracy, that the goal of this nation is still to create a self-governing people. If (as the saying goes) people get the government they deserve, we must aim at raising people who deserve to govern themselves, who see themselves in each other and sing themselves in each other—who participate in politics the way they participate in society: joyously, passionately and lovingly. And fiercely. And widely.

Americans should be a people who are outraged if they are excluded from participating in the governance of the workplace, or of their town, or of their cable network. Our stereotype was of meddlers and muddlers, our brashness and immaturity part of a cultural unwillingness to accept limitations of any kind. We can regain that.

I was thinking, the other day, as I was reading some unfunny British satire, that really if you took the pessimistic crap from 70s specfic that extrapolated from the Establishment to a dystopian future—I guess I mean that if you took the articles currently in the news about working conditions in this country, about political participation, about the jobs and the economy, about the destruction of public services and public goods and public places… well, if you took those back to 1974 and claimed them as specfic, they wouldn’t make sense. It wouldn’t make sense that we would have such a massive, passive class of people all doing fairly well as far as creature comforts go, living in some comfort but with little or no chance of improving their status, all on the ragged edge of bankruptcy or disaster, and without great interest in improving their lot. It’s such a middling thing—hunger and need certainly exist but are not widespread, considering, and there is a kind of mild and distant dissatisfaction that leaks out through the culture. If it were much worse, one can’t help thinking, there would at least be the passionate engagement of desperation. If it were much better, there would be—well, what there was in the specfic, loneliness and conformism in consumerist splendor, humanity getting soft (like the travelers in WALL-E, you know, a mid-seventies film if there ever was one). Instead it is… what it is.

One of the commenters at LGM said that Interest in the Wobblies is strictly romantic. Your Humble Blogger does have a sentimental interest in the Wobblies—surely the great thing would be if everybody did? The thing the IWW did in many ways better than the more successful unions was evoke that sentimental interest, to sway people’s hearts, to make people feel that working for the future was a calling of humanity. If the engagement is romantic, it is at least engagement. It is taking on the mantle of participation, and maybe that is the first necessary condition, even before the bargaining unit, in improving the lives of workers, and of all of us.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 23, 2011

King Canute, know what I mean?

So. The New York State Senate is, once again, about to decide whether to join its neighbor up here to the north in allowing marriages to include either more or fewer than one penis. Come on in, kids, the water is fine.

Now, while I have been enjoying, in an odd way, the suspense and tension built up by the New York Senate and its rules and quirks, I am of the opinion that if they don’t manage to pass this thing today, they will pass it in a couple of years. We’re too close, and they are too famous. They can’t lag behind for very long. Not that my confidence in eventual civil rights should comfort or dissuade couples resident in New York at this time. Justice delayed is proverbial, after all, and it’s easy for me, legally married in a Civil Rights state, to be sanguine. Still, purely as a matter of prediction: if it doesn’t happen today, it will happen by the end of 2013.

Which leads me to wonder about the New York State Senators who oppose the right to marriage. Do they see what I see? Are they convinced that the best they can manage is to delay this thing for another couple of years, and is that enough for them. Are they standing athwart history, knowing that they will be a bump under the steamroller? Or do they believe that the pendulum is about to swing back, that if they can hold this off for another couple of years, that the pressure will ease up, and the next delay will be easier, and then the next, and then they will kill it altogether? Are those politicians, representing for the most part districts full of so-called conservatives, thinking they just need to represent the backward interest of the rubes for another term, give everyone a sop, and then get out and up? Or are they seeing themselves as the Spartans at the Gates? Is staving off defeat an end in itself? Is it like the old saying about taxes, that income deferred for a year need never be taxed?

I have no idea, and I doubt the people in question have a very clear idea, either. Nor is any of this a good reason for a legislator to change sides and support a bill—the fact that it’s good policy would be the main thing, and if you think it’s a policy disaster, the rest of it will be colored by that opinion. Still.

I’m not sure I ever remember feeling this way about a bill the Other Party was putting over Our Party’s objections. I’m sure I have, but the feeling has faded and been forgotten. What would it have been? Some so-called Welfare Reform? Some terrible anti-labor law? Selling off mineral and logging rights of public lands? Well, and there must have been something, and tho’ I don’t remember it, I’m sure it must have been terrible for me, and if I had been able to, I would have stood athwart the trend of the time, myself.

What I’m leading up to, here, really, is that I will be out performing my show this evening and will miss the news. I hope it’s good.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 22, 2011

A Crowdsourcing Story, and ruminations thereon

I don’t know if Gentle Readers saw the recent story over the last couple of days on the New York Times photography blog (and the photography blog at Der Spiegel) about the photo album with blank provenance and World War II photos. The Times and Der Spiegel posted a bunch of images and asked readers to come up with the photographer and circumstances. And they did: a few hours after the posts went on-line, a doctoral student wrote in to identify the photographer, a man named Franz Krieger. Crowdsourcing! Complete! Very cool, right?

Only… it seems that the Mr. Krieger is fairly well-known among people who study this sort of thing. And there are people who study this sort of thing. At the University of Vienna, there’s Samanta Benito-Sanchez, for instance, who has written about press photographers between the wars. That came up with a quick search of Google Scholar. I didn’t come up with Peter Kramml of the Stadtarchive in Salzburg, who wrote the book on Herr Krieger, but that would not have been necessary. An email to ten or twenty people who study propaganda photography of WWII would clearly have turned up people who read Mr. Kramml’s whether Mr. Kramml was on the list or not. That list could have been gathered in half an hour or so from Google Scholar, the websites of prominent universities, a list of recent dissertations or dissertations in progress, or an index of abstracts. Or the editors of prominent journals could be contacted, East European Quarterly or News Photographer, with a question about who was studying that material, and the list gathered that way. As a reference question, it might well have taken more than three hours, but then of course it took a good deal more than three hours to set up the whole posting-on-the-blogs dealio, as well.

So, here’s the thing: the New York Times could have done some easy research to get contacts, reached those people, got further contacts, and then found out the answer to their question. But it was probably easier to do it the way they did it: post the info and then wade through the comments, following up on the first thing that sounded real. It was easier to ask everybody, assuming that everybody includes experts with actual knowledge, than it was to just ask the people with the actual knowledge. That is what we mean by crowdsourcing.

Now, in point of fact, the NYT was not primarily interested in an answer to their question; they were interested in eyeballs on the page, fulfilling the basic mission of journalism as defined by award-winning journalist and pundit David S. Bernstein as “ filling the area between ads with something marginally preferable to blank space” (see Media, Academia, & Politics, a remarkable and provocative essay that didn’t actually manage to provoke YHB to write anything). The Times got my attention by telling the story the way they told it, presenting the information in the way they did. I don’t ordinarily read their photography blog (or Der Spiegel’s), but I read this one, and even linked to it on this Tohu Bohu. So, well done them, and it would be wrong to see this as purely a reference question.

On the other hand, this technique is of course extremely common. On the baseball sites I frequent, and on some other sites I have been to that have large commenting communities, folk ask reference questions all the time, and get answers, too. And good ones, with citations and links and book recommendations and so on and so forth. It does work. On the other hand, so does the other way, where you find out who is likely to know and restrict your questioning to those people. The internet makes that much easier, too, of course, and frankly being able to email (or tweet or text) some Professor of Photographic History at Universitat Vien and get a next-day response is as crazily miraculous as the crowdsourcing that actually occurred.

So, I guess I’m wondering how Gentle Readers feel about all this, both as people who are quite likely to be looking up information on somewhat obscure topics and as people who are likely to come across blast questions of that kind. Does it annoy you to be included in crowdsourcing? Does it amuse you? Do you do it yourself, or do you lack membership in a large and heterogeneous enough group to make it work, or are you otherwise hesitant for any other reasons? For those who have experience guiding research (and I must admit I’m thinking here about Catherine and Nao particularly, and others who work in libraries, but teachers and advisors as well), do you find this sort of thing cool? Or scary?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 1, 2011

baby steps for Giants, or Together We're Less Lame

Your Humble Blogger wrote at some length about the It Gets Better project, back in October when it was in the news. Since that time, it seemed as if the trend was for straight grown-ups to tell gay teens that it gets better, which is true, but somehow if Dan Savage as a successful person is somewhat alienating for the putative gay teen-on-the-brink, how much more would Barack Obama, as a straight successful person, seem to have irrelevant experience. So I admit to a trifle of resentment—while, of course, it’s far worse in my opinion for prominent and successful people to not participate. Sorry, everyone. It’s a no-win situation, and you can only make it better by making it better.

I bring all this up because my Giants have recorded an It Gets Better video. And I’m thinking (a) seriously, what’s with Sergio Romo’s facial hair, and (2) is someone coming out? No, nobody’s coming out.

Digression: As I’m listening to the game yesterday, I think I hear Jon Miller say that our rookie, Brandon Crawford, was dating college pitcher Gerrit Cole, who is projected to be a top pick in the next week’s amateur draft. And Jon Miller and Dave Fleming are chatting about it quite casually, to the point that I thought that they must have planned out how to deal with his coming-out in advance, wanting to let the listeners know that it wasn’t really a big deal, after all. It turns out, of course, that it’s Amy Crawford, Brandon’s sister, who is dating young Mr. Cole. Still no out professional ballplayers. End Digression.

Anyway, I am proud of my Giants, who have become the first professional sports team to lend its official imprimatur to an It Gets Better video. Really. The first. Eight months, has it been, or nine? Seriously, that’s the first? Well, it’s Ess Eff, and we’re the World Champions. Maybe everybody was just being courteous and waiting for us to go first.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 4, 2011

The Death

I have been thinking about the way we killed Osama bin Laden.

When I say we, I mean we nationally, of course. Nothing I personally did had any effect on that, unless my votes and the margin of victory provided for my Party had some sort of effect, which, frankly, I can’t imagine. What could Senator Blumenthal have had to do with this raid? Anyway, despite my not being personally involved, I am nationally responsible, as are most if not all of the Gentle Readers of this Tohu Bohu, so it bears thinking about.

First of all, of course, I have no sympathy for the dead man or for those who mourn him, frankly. Just no emotional pull there, I’m afraid. He mad possible a lot of bad, bad things, and his supporters supported those things, and if they are grieving at this time, and I’m sure they are, it doesn’t make me sad in the slightest.

I’m not sure I have any emotional response to the killing at all, really. Which seems odd. I’m not elated, I don’t feel closure or triumph or relief. Well, to some extent relief, I suppose, although mostly (if I’m interpreting my own feelings correctly, which is always chancy) relief that the story is over—not relief at the end of danger but relief at the end of the irritation that we are still hunting for him and not finding him.

I think that sense that the story has changed is the big positive, here. For a long time, the story has been that Osama bin Laden murdered three thousand Americans and escaped. America for all its might and its spy satellites and its enhanced interrogation techniques could not find Public Enemy Number One. Now the story is that when America bends its will, we can be delayed but never stopped.

This is nonsense too, of course. We haven’t found Whitey Bulger. We haven’t even found Victor Manuel Gerena, a Machetero involved in the White Eagle robbery (which I have never heard of, despite living not far from its location), and he has been a fugitive for twenty-seven years—and is a member of an accredited terrorist organization that (a) has a history of murdering American servicemen and civilians, and (2) seems it ought to have extremely limited resources for hiding fugitives. We are stopped fairly frequently, and could well have been stopped by the old lunatic just clutching his chest and keeling over six years ago. Still, it’s a good story this way.

And I can’t help contrasting this to Saddam Hussein—when our boys caught Saddam Hussein, he was evidently hiding out in a bunker without running water, he had been totally cut off and such loyalists as remained were of no help to him nor he to them. Now, it was always possible that he would return a few years later and form the spearhead for a revolt of ex-Baathists, so it’s clearly a Good Thing that he was caught, but it wasn’t in any way a blow to the operation of the resistance.

Osama bin Laden, on the other hand, was living in a house he had built for his comfort and security in a major urban area. Although he evidently didn’t have phone and internet access, he clearly wasn’t lacking for communication channels (as evidence the “courier” we hear so much about). And I’ve never been very clear about the extent to which the fellow was some sort of operational chief anyway. Clearly he was the head fund-raiser and was a sort of inspirational figure for recruitment and for goals and means, though, and I can’t imagine that he had much difficulty acting in that capacity from his suburban safe house. To the extent that Al Quaida was ever a substantial threat to the US, it was evidently still a threat, still with substantial resources and communication capabilities. Saddam Hussein in a gilded palace with an army at his command was a potent force; Saddam in a hidey-hole with a pistol was not. Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad was a potent force, it seems to me.

And here’s where I find myself bewildered and perplexed: up until the news of his death, I assumed that Osama bin Laden was no longer a potent force. I actually would have given something like twelve-to-seven against his being alive. In my imagination, if Osama bin Laden were alive at all, he was in a situation not unlike Saddam Hussein’s when we caught him: cut off, uncomfortable, degraded. This appears not to have been true in the slightest. Presumably this was well-known amongst his supporters. That must have been very good for him and for fund-raising and recruitment for anti-American terrorism generally, and it’s a relief to know that we put an end to it, even if I didn’t have anything to be relieved from, not having known it until it was over.

I am rambling. The thing is, I don’t really have anything other than rambling. I am concerned that my country appears to be involved in assassination, but then I’m not sure it is assassination, properly speaking, and to the extent that war seems to be only sort-of a metaphor for what was going on then a military assault on the leadership is not altogether an assassination. On the other hand, does this set a precedent? That would be extremely troubling. On the other other hand, that precedent has already been set, and it doesn’t shock me that a Most Wanted was killed rather than captured—Mr. Gerena’s buddy from the White Eagle robbery, Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, went down pretty much the same way, and he was an United States citizen on American soil. And we have been sending drones to blow up buildings in civilian neighborhoods to reach "high value" targets for years in this war-like-thing. So if the death doesn’t bother me as a death, and it doesn’t worry me as a precedent, why does it niggle at me? I think it must be that stuff I was rambling about. Or perhaps it’s just that after spending almost twenty years living with a boogey-man, even if it was somebody else’s boogey-man for the most part, it leaves a hole when he goes?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 28, 2011

Pump and Poke

Evidently, according to lots of people on the internet who don’t cite any sources, cars in the US average about a thousand miles a month. I was wondering about this because a fellow on the radio was saying that people were really hurting because of prices going up at the grocery store and at the pump, and I was thinking—those aren’t really comparable, are they? I mean, when we have price inflation at the grocery store, and I know these things are very volatile, it’s easy for the basket that cost $150 last month to cost $180 this month, and that’s a pretty big difference. For a family of four, I can easily imagine the grocery (and paper goods and whatnot) bill going up over a hundred dollars in a month, and that could very easily be a hundred bucks a family doesn’t have. When you sit down to make a budget, you try to leave a little slack, but a hundred bucks is a lot of money.

By contrast, I was thinking, this huge jump in gas prices is adding only a little bit of money to the total fuel bill. I mean, yes, it’s annoying to pay more than $20 to fill the car, but it was already costing nearly $20, and I don’t fill the car every day. I would be surprised if I’m exceeding my normal gas budget by more than, oh, five dollars for the month. Five dollars at a dollar a gallon increase would cover two hundred miles; that’s probably a bit low, but not very much. Let’s see, thirty days, something in the general area of ten miles a day, that’s 300 miles, at forty mpg that’s $7.50, let’s call it $10. Ten dollars a month just isn’t feeling the pain for me. Yes, lots of people don’t have an extra ten, but when we are talking about what’s driving uncertainty in the economy, ten bucks a month seems like a tiny thing.

But then, our household has one car. Everybody’s workplaces, schools, grocery stores, libraries, entertainment and normal errands are within five miles of the house. And as you saw in the calculations, we get 40 miles to a gallon of gas. That seems not to be typical.

So. If that thousand miles a month is not only the average but in the normal range (which isn’t necessarily so, but it’s what I’ve got), and if we figure on—what—twenty miles to the gallon? That’s 50 gallons of gas a month, or $50 bucks. And if most households have two cars, which does seem to be the case, that’s $100 a month, which I just said was a lot of money. Hm.

The question, then, is whether it’s possible for those people who are now being hit with $100 extra grocery money and $100 extra gas money this month to change their patterns to save money. I have the impression that for a lot of people (not everyone, and not the poorest) it is possible to put in some time and labor and save money on groceries—roasting a whole chicken, f’r’ex, and having two or three meals off the meat and the soup. But if a family have set up their lives with two cars (and 1,000 miles a month on each), can they just decide to carpool or telecommute? I mean, yes, over time you can decide to live in a particular place (often at a different added cost) or work at a particular place (perhaps giving up possible income) or drive a high-mileage vehicle, and I’m all in favor of people thinking about that when they are deciding how to set up their lives, but if your April expenses are $200 more than your March expenses, how much can you change before May?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 8, 2011

Thirty Years

Your Humble Blogger happened to spot the Flowing Data chart Who spends the most years in retirement? If you don’t bother clicking through for the pretty-pretty, Nathan Yau has just subtracted average retirement age from average life expectancy for thirty-odd developed countries. It turns out that, for instance, Italian women can expect to retire before sixty and live into their mid eighties; Mr. Yau calls it 26 years of retirement. On the other hand, in Iceland men work until 65 and don’t live much longer than their mid seventies; 10 years of retirement by Mr. Yau’s chart. This is not a very good way of actually predicting retirement years, of course—life expectancy doesn’t actually work like that, and taking averages from averages is always a disaster—but I think it does get to a cultural sense of what the silver years might be like.

It struck me because over the last few years I had often said that we seemed to be moving toward a cultural norm that people would spend a third of their life in retirement. I think that’s not actually true, but then I was always overstating it. Still: if you work until sixty and live until ninety, that’s a third of your life in retirement. In you work until 65 and live until 98, that’s a third of your life. Do I really expect to live until 98? Personally? I have no idea—but when HR does retirement planning seminars they sure as hell aren’t telling people to plan for ten years of retirement. Now, of course, that’s (a) an entirely proper risk-averse strategy that emphasizes the drastic problem of being elderly and having no assets or income at all, and (2) because the entire thing is pretty much a scam, so the more money they can suck out of me the better for them, right? But I think they are building a sort of cultural expectation of thirty years of retirement. Or perhaps that’s entirely a white-collar thing, as anywhere I have worked long enough to get that talk has been a white-collar establishment.

If the reality is the ten years that shows up on Mr. Yau’s chart, I think that’s probably closer to the expectation that I think (I think) was more common before the Boomers started aging. I mean, the sort of cultural expectation that if you are lucky, you won’t die with your boots on but spend a few years tending the garden and pestering your wife (because I’m going back to a cultural expectation that work and retirement is about men), playing golf and writing that book, maybe getting a little extra money being the neighborhood handyman or selling newspapers, all for a few golden years before grabbing your chest and keeling over. That was retirement. Now, well, I think it’s a different set of ideas, at least for the white-collar folk. I think there are a lot of people who expect, in some sense, thirty years of retirement, whether they are looking forward to it or fear it.

I don’t mean this in any rational expectations way, you know. I don’t mean that we have gauged the probabilities, or even that this cultural idea exists independently of other contradictory ideas. When I was a teenager, you know, I definitely had a sense that the world would be destroyed by nuclear war before I had a chance to grow up and get married and have children. But if you asked me if I would die young, I’m pretty sure I would have said no. The first scenario would really have required me to die you, but that part of it didn’t occur to me. I think that a lot of people probably have a sense that the world will be destroyed by climate change, financial meltdown, oil peak, sharia law, the Rapture, or any of another million things—I really do think that there is a post-millennial sense of impermanency in this country, based on popular movies and television shows—but also think that they will be retired from sixty-seven to ninety. Those are incompatible, but so what? I hold lots of incompatible cultural ideas.

It does worry me, though, at least a little, that this particular belief, the one about thirty years of retirement, is sitting behind some of our current political craziness, and is doing some serious harm to it. I think that if (as I surmise) the current generational boom grow up with a sense that thirty years of retirement is normal, they will naturally have a sense that a ten year retirement is a rip-off, and they will shape their political and professional expectations—and disappointments—to match.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 25, 2011

One Hundred Years of, of, what's the opposite of Solitude?

I don’t know if it moves the meter forward, but I’ll link to Stanley Fish writing that We’re All Badgers Now. I find Mr. Fish to be irritating, almost all the time; he may not be the biggest jerk to write opinion for the New York Times, but he’s up against some stiff competition.

My general irritation with Mr. Fish is actually why I’m linking to his note, as I want to give him credit for belatedly realizing that his experience of the employer-employee relationship is not typical, and that in gauging the helpfulness of a union for his group of employees, he should consider the protection of his colleagues who lack the protection of fame and prestige.

Digression: Of course, even in this column he claims that the question asked in tenure and hiring meetings is always “Who is the smartest?”, which strikes me as a stunningly unfathomable thing for a person in academia to say. It’s not so. Nobody I know thinks it is so. Claiming that it is so does not buttress his argument (which is couldn’t, not being so) but makes him look like a fool or a liar, thus presumably detracting from his argument. The only possible positive I can imagine is that someone might somehow think that even someone who believes that about tenure still finds union protections advisable, so how much more so would anyone who understands what is actually going on. Still: the man’s a jerk.

The broader point that Mr. Fish makes is surprisingly also perceptive: the assault on unions, specifically on public employees unions, is particularly damaging because unions are the only thing that protects employees against employers. This is generally true, and more obviously true when employment is so scarce. When the boss can say that it’s his way or the highway, only unions can demand that (for instance) the fire doors be left unlocked, or the mines receive safety inspections, or that everyone who disagrees with the boss politically be fired. The unions are it.

Now, I hope that some Gentle Readers are saying to themselves—what do you mean, it’s the unions who protect workers? Doesn’t the law protect workers? Doesn’t the government protect workers? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration? The Department of Labor? The National Labor Relations Board?

The answer is, yes, the law protects workers, and the government protects workers under the law—if the unions have enough power to make that happen. When they don’t, the law changes, or the agencies are underfunded, or the laws remain unenforced, fines remain unpaid, inspectors are laid off, citations are toothless, and the employer finds it cheaper and easier to do whatever he or she wants, and trust to his own impunity.

We live in a democracy, and more than that we live in a Madisonian system of representation. That means we, as citizens, join together with other like-minded citizens in a variety of groups, factions and parties to put influence on our government to act in particular ways. The smaller the groups, the weaker the influence, the less the government acts. I’m not complaining about this, mind you—the various entities within the governments will respond to something, and groups of citizens gathered together to achieve political ends are a pretty good answer to that question. And as it happens, the political power for employees is in union. Their power in the workplace and their power in the government go together; without some political power, their workplace power would and does diminish rapidly.

There are, in theory, other ways for workers to organize for political power as workers. In practice, they don’t work. In practice, as unions have declined, the political impetus to protect workers has also declined. And workplace safety has suffered, and political and social intimidation has grown. Whether unions are great things (and I think they are), there simply is no other defense.

That’s why we are all Badgers. Mr. Fish sees it, at long last; I hope you see it, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 23, 2011

Current Events that are difficult to alphabetize in English

So. Libya.

For the record, Your Humble Blogger thinks that there must have been a better option than all this bombing stuff. On the other hand, I’m not terribly angry with Our Only President, who was, alas, not really in a good position to be the brakeman on the French train. I mean, yes, he could have stopped this crazy pseudo-invasion, but stopping it would have created a lot of problems for him and for the UN and NATO and Egypt and all, and I find the go-along arguments pretty persuasive, as long as I don’t think about it too hard. And if it works—and I have no idea whether it’s a longshot or a can of corn—if it works, there are lots of benefits. Probably.

Having said that, I am very troubled by the idea that civil wars in sovereign nations around the world are an opportunity for overt interference by the West. I don’t mean to be naïve or whatnot—civil wars in sovereign nations around the world have always been opportunities for covert or indirect interference by anybody who could manage it. But there’s a difference, it seems to me, between that sort of thing and, oh, jets bombing depots and taking out tanks. The covert stuff was limited by its covertosity; you could run some guns, but you couldn’t land tanks on the beaches. This is different.

In addition, there is this nightmare scenario I have mentioned before, a very, very scant chance that if much of the world gets the idea that the US and its satellites are picking off the leaders of Islamic nations one-by-one, that some well-funded charismatic leader will actually get a real pan-Islamic movement together specifically as a bulwark against American Aggression. Again: I don’t think this is likely at all, for a variety of reasons I have gone into before. But it would be disastrous for the US, if it did happen, and almost certainly disastrous for everybody else, particularly North Africa, the Middle East, Persia, South Asia, Central Africa, Southern Europe, whatever Turkey is, and, um, that’s getting less particular, isn’t it? Anyway, bad. And I am hearing that the anti-Quaddafi feeling is pretty darned global, and that nobody nowhere thinks that America is a bad guy for removing Mubarek (which we didn’t do, and nobody regrets). So this year’s model isn’t an obvious fund-raiser for the Saladin I’m imagining. Right?

All of which is to say, I’m kinda hoping the Colonel’s head explodes, and we can tiptoe out of Libya very quickly and quietly, while making faces behind the backs of the French.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 22, 2011

I've got a bad feeling about this.

Just as a question, is anybody but YHB expecting a catastrophically violent Purim event this year?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 25, 2011

but nobody does anything about it

Your Humble Blogger feels certain there was something to write about that wasn’t the snow.

The snow! Oh, my lordy lord, the snow.

We only had an inch or two this morning, you know. On top of the forty-three inches since January started, and the fourteen-and-a-fifth inches in December. And when I say we had an inch or two on top of the forty-three inches, what I actually mean is that the new snow fell on top of the places where we piled the old snow, which hasn’t melted. There are at least two places where our snow mound is over 60 inches; the ridge along the driveway and sidewalk is all well over three feet.

But enough about the snow. There was something else I was thinking about, wasn’t there?

We didn’t have much snow here last year. I know Gentle Readers in Greater Philly, particularly, got socked, and the DC area, got a lot more than usual. All those storms got to the eastern seaboard area and then just stopped, dumping snow and snow and snow down by the city of brotherly proverbial, and either never appeared in the Nutmeg state or wheezed a geriatric dusting over us before dying. Ah, the winter of 2009-2010; when it wasn’t worth fixing the zipper on my boots.

But enough about the snow. Were y’all aware that it’s only three weeks until pitchers and catchers report? It’s hard to believe that, I know, when we’re wading through the snow, and supposed to get another eight to twelve inches tomorrow mixed with fucking sleet just for kicks. At least our roof has held up so far; at work it’s nothing but horror stories about roofs and pipes. And complaining about our children not getting any schooling. Not that any of us are really worried about losing the educational content of the school day, we’re all just sick of our kids. And they are sick of us, too; sure, they want a snow day, as long as the weather is nice enough to take advantage of it.

Sorry. I know, I know, enough about the snow. Y’all don’t want to hear about it any more than I do. Let’s see… there’s the State of the Union Address tonight, that should start at nine; it’s not supposed to start snowing until much later, although wunderground says there could be snow showers up until midnight, and then a break until the new storm coming in around 10. And then it goes: Chance of snow, chance of snow, snow, ice pellets, snow, snow, snow, chance of snow. Ice pellets? Are they fucking kidding me? Ice pellets? The National Weather Service doesn’t say anything about ice pellets. Heavy snow, yes, it says heavy snow. Would I rather have ice pellets at this point than more snow? No. No, I would not rather have ice pellets. I would rather have a fucking heat wave.

But enough about the snow. Did you know that it’s Burns Day? Probably over by now, in Edinburgh, with everybody legless on good auld lang syne, and singing the immortal words

The wintry west extends his blast,
And hail and rain does blaw;
Or the stormy north sends driving forth
The blinding sleet and snaw:
Wild-tumbling brown, the burn comes down,
And roars frae bank to brae:
While bird and beast in covert rest,
And pass the heartless day.

Ah, fuck it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 14, 2011

The Jim Affair

Your Humble Blogger has been meaning to write about the Jim controversy. I want to get it right, though, as I think many if not most Gentle Readers disagree with me about it.

The issue, of course, is that Alan Gribben in The NewSouth Edition of Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn takes liberties with the original text, most controversially removing the word nigger from the book entirely. This has been described as the downfall of western civilization.

I am not outraged.

I mostly line up with Colin McEnroe on this one, although I would put my emphasis somewhat differently.

Do you know the story about James Michener, who when a visitor to his house would commiserate that such-and-such a film version had ruined one of his books, would pull a shocked face, leap up and run to the bookshelf and grab a copy of the book in question, flip through it frantically, and then slump in relief that it had not, in fact, been ruined. It was all still there. Huck Finn is all still there.

In wordier, earlier language: If the endeavour to improve the picture or the statue should be unsuccessful, the beauty of the original would be destroyed, and the injury be irreparable. In such a case let the artist refrain from using the chisel or the pencil: but with the works of the poet no such danger occurs, and the critic need not be afraid of employing his pen; for the original will continue unimpaired, although his own labours should immediately be consigned to oblivion. That is from the preface to the Family Shakespeare; Thomas Bowdler’s edition of Shakespeare without the naughty bits. My own experience of the Bard was greatly enhanced because of the tradition of Bowdlerising the works for youth; I happily compared my school’s texts with my parents’ copies, looking for the dirty bits to pass along to my classmates. I remember being outraged to discover that one of my high school classes was using a version cut for length, after examining an omitted passage and being unable to put any interpretation on it that was, you know, a bit rude.

I can’t say that my parents encouraged me to find the dick jokes, tho’ now I come to think of it, my mother it was who pointed out the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon. But my parents did have a complete set, without which I would certainly never have enjoyed the televised series as much as I did. And without which I wouldn’t have enjoyed reading the Bowdlerised versions I got in class. So, my first thought is that anyone who is down on the NewSouth Huck should go out and get another version, or at least download one, right away before their kids get hold of the expurgated version, the one without the gannet.

Digression: I had never seen this version, with the brilliant Graham Chapman manning the counter. It’s amazing how much less funny it is to remove the eagle from Olsen’s Standard Book of American Birds. Also, it’s less funny when the customer is a woman, even if it’s Connie Booth. End Digression.

That joke, of course, is funny not because all expurgations are outrageous, but because it’s outrageous to take the gannet out of a birding book. They can’t print a special version of British Birds for gannet-haters. The question is whether it makes sense to print a special version of Huck Finn for people who don’t like that word. I think it does.

There’s a long history of Bowdlerisation. There are, believe it or not, books of Bible Stories that leave the Rape of Dinah entirely out. The editors of those books don’t necessarily want people to remain ignorant of Dinah throughout their lives. I want my children to have the full text available, and I want them to know that there is something that they are missing, but I don’t necessarily want to teach them about Dinah until I know they aren’t going to be fixated on it.

Everything is a trade-off, isn’t it? You balance what you get and what you lose. Mr. Gribben says that “a succession of firsthand experiences” led him to believe that the existence of an Bowdlerised (or Gribbenated) Huck Finn would lead to more people, rather than fewer, reading the original text. Teachers who haven’t been assigning the book may choose to assign it, if they know that the discussion of the book won’t be entirely derailed by discussion of the word nigger. Or Injun, for that matter. And he is the expert. Like most of the people who are commenting on the topic, I haven’t talked to anybody who has assigned, or who has refrained from assigning, the original text to a class. Mr. Gribben has, which doesn’t make him the final word, but does give him some sort of expertise that is worth respect.

I want to add to the James Michener story and the Thomas Bowdler quote a quote specifically about this book. It comes from the introduction, which every single person who reads the NewSouth Edition will have in their hands, and which explains the emendations. And in that introduction, Mr. Gribben points out that “literally dozens of other editions are available for those readers who prefer Twain’s original phrasing”. He even suggests people read the handwritten manuscript. Some people seem to believe that Mr. Gribben doesn’t want anyone to read the word nigger in Huck Finn; that seems to be entirely and completely false, and indeed a slander (or libel) on Mr. Gribben.

The question, it seems to me, is not so much whether the NewSouth edition is right, but whether it is necessary. I wouldn’t buy it for our house—I would get one of the dozens of other editions Mr. Gribben brings up. If my Perfect Non-Reader were assigned the book, I would make sure she had access to our original text. If the local teachers consulted me, I would advise against assigning the NewSouth edition, and possibly against assigning the book at all. But then, I’m not terribly fond of the book, and never was, even when I went through my Mark Twain phase. I think my daughter, and most other kids, would vastly prefer to read about a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, although a highly edited version of that might be even better…

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 9, 2011

A point of agreement?

Here’s the thing: estimate the odds, Gentle Reader, that Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck or Sharron Angle or Michael Savage or even Jan Brewer will react to the news by taking responsibility, in their minds, for the violence?

No, they will think that this guy was a raving lunatic, no follower of theirs, inspired not by the voices on the airwaves as by his own breakdown.

And they will be correct.

Well, about the rhetoric, they will be correct. Not so much their support for flooding the country with weapons, but that is a different (and much more important) story. Well, and their lack of support for subsidising mental health programs for adolescents. Also true. But the rhetoric? There are millions upon millions of people who hear and use the metaphors of violence and war applied to politics who don’t shoot their federal judges and Representatives, or little girls for that matter. This guy was not a Tea Party fanatic, he was a nut.

Having said that…surely, surely there must in their minds be something saying that continuing to use the metaphors of hunting and rebellion applied to electoral politics—the sights, the "taking out" talk, the references to tyranny and the Second Amendment—would be in very poor taste?

I know they are metaphors. I know that they are talking of arming themselves with knowledge to fight elections. Sure. But the metaphors are terrible, terrible metaphors, and while anyone can certainly them at their discretion, choosing them has always been vulgar, crass and unworthy. This, by the way, applies to everyone; I joked in bad taste about the death of Dick Cheney, but I knew it was in bad taste. Had I been running for office, or standing in front of a microphone, or working at the library counter, I would not have done so. Come to think of it, I wasn’t entirely comfortable when a boss told me the one about Dan Quayle. Hm, was it a boss? It would have been in 1989; might have been a summer job. Anyway, the point is that the rhetoric is bad rhetoric whether it bears responsibility for the bloodshed or not. Which is a difficult question, and not one that I think prominent conservative and Tea Party figures will solve to their own guilt.

But it doesn’t require that to resolve not to do it anymore. Is Sarah Palin clean of the blood? Fine, but she still shouldn’t do that gunsight stuff any more. Surely, surely that we can all agree on.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 6, 2011

I can do the butch voice, too!

OK, a couple of things. About this week’s goofy news story about the homeless fellow with a deep voice, who is (according to the story) being lifted out of poverty because the video of his voice went viral.

First, it’s nice and all. I mean, it’s not like I think the world would be a better place if he were still obscure and impoverished. OK? More power to you, Mr. Williams.

But B, there are thousands and thousands of homeless people who don’t happen to have unusual voices, and there aren’t jobs for them, are there? Is this really our country? We are lifting one guy—one guy—out of poverty because he does a good imitation of old-time radio announcers? The hell?

And also, can I just say? There are thousands of voice actors in this country. Thousands of them. Good ones. I know some of them. Their voices are every bit as good as Mr. Williams’ voice, and they have experience in the field, they know what they are doing. I don’t really blame the Cav’s PR guy for latching on to a fortuitous combination of famous and cheap, but seriously—if I were a voice actor, I would be so angry I would stamp my foot into the ground until it stuck and then tear myself in two.

OK, probably not quite that angry. But pretty angry. I mean, the reason I never tried professional voice work myself (having had some encouragement from people who clearly thought I had the face for it) was that there is a substantial initial investment. Not just the demo reel, which even in this digital age has to be professionally put together for anybody to bother listening to it, but (as I have been told and believe) the classes that provide the necessary networking coupons are not cheap, in money or time. And if you do go through all of that, you have to compete with everybody else who goes through all of that. And, evidently, with a homeless guy in a viral video.

Again: there is no sense in which making these opportunities available to Mr. Williams is bad. He should have the opportunity to exploit his gift. Voice actors aren’t somehow entitled to jobs narrating videos for the Cavs at the expense of impoverished amateurs. But I’m astonished, anyway, that people don’t hear this story and think what the hell kind of fucked-up world are we living in, anyway?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 19, 2010

Unexpectedly Personal, or it does get better

My initial reaction to the rather breathtaking endeavor known as It Gets Better was, well, complicated. Dan Savage is a very successful person on his own terms, and as such he makes a great role model, but that in itself makes it (to my thinking) difficult to see his video having the desired effect.

That is, if you are a gay teenager at the point of suicide—you are depressed and brutalized, you have internalized the bullying and verbal abuse and the contempt of your classmates, family, congregation, community to the point of picking up a gun or a bottle or a rope—if you are at that point, the reaction to Mr. Savage’s video would be that sure, it gets better for Dan Savage, but not for me. You may be able to see how other people could survive the hell you are going through, and see how it got better, but that only emphasizes your own weakness—and how little you deserve to survive to see it get better. Dan Savage is just somebody else that you have let down.

Not that I mean to disparage Mr. Savage, who is Doing the Right Thing, whether I expect it to actually work. And I have my own reasons for expecting a thing like that not to work.

Would it surprise any Gentle Reader to know that YHB had a column in his high school paper? Senior year, 1986-1987, I was Your Humble Columnist for the Ram Page, the newspaper of the Horrible High School Rams. I wrote about whatever struck my fancy, mostly politics (ooh, a seventeen-year-old socialist in a right-wing town, I must have been so popular) but also odds and ends of whatever came to mind. For my last column that Spring, I wrote about my suicide attempt a couple of years previous, and told my classmates that it gets better. I think I wrote it in those words, but of course my memory of that column is colored by current events; I don’t have the actual column to hand. It kicked up a tiny fuss—I think of it now as having in a sense come out, although I don’t think it was a secret before that. But I suppose it was the first time somebody had written about it in the school paper, and it was considered important and brave by the sorts of high school teachers who bother to read that sort of thing. In point of fact, I had already been accepted into college (this was it getting better) and had one foot out the door, well, a foot, a leg, an arm and shoulder, my head and most of my torso out the door by the time it was printed, so there wasn’t much bravery involved. But I did write it, because I did experience it: I felt hopeless and wanted to end it, and then, not two years later, I felt great. And teen suicide was not uncommon, you know, even back in the eighties, even for straight people, and I wanted to make sure (in my very young conception of sure-making, because sure-making is one of those things about youth) that everybody knew that it gets better.

Three months later, when I was in a dorm at Swarthmore, I heard that a young woman I knew, quite popular (I remember her as being her class president, although that is also likely a corrupt memory—I don’t even remember her name, for crying out loud) and pretty and good grades and all, killed herself the week before starting her senior year at my high school.

Of course, she had read my column, and she still died. So my reaction to Mr. Savage’s note is, well, that kids will still die.

But here’s the thing—it turns out that Mr. Savage’s note and the notes of other celebrities are just the sparks. The thing about the It Gets Better project is that there are hundreds of such videos. Hundreds. of. Videos. There’s a sixty-year-old gym teacher and there’s a baby butch in a college dorm and there’s the mayor of somewhere and there’s the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and there’s some middle-aged guy from Canada with dorky glasses and there’s a cheerful woman and her sullen wife, and there’s probably an unemployed construction worker who just got dumped by his boyfriend and he is telling you it got better. And if it gets better for him, maybe it will get better for you.

Except that really, kids will still die. I still think that if you are at the point of suicide, even this overwhelming breadth of experience is not likely to pull you through. I mean, I do like to think of some poor sap clutching the bottle of analgesics with which he plans to make his final exit, but he got a link to one of the videos and he got caught up in going from video to video, hundreds of them, until he falls asleep in front of the screen, the bottle still unopened, and in the morning, things look different (and they do tend to look different in mornings, even while he dreads getting on that bus). But I don’t, I’m afraid, believe that a lot of people at that point are getting links to those videos sent to them. Or, if they saw those videos, that they are going to lift the depression.

And yet.

I do think that somewhere somebody is seeing those videos who has not yet got to that point, who perhaps is only starting to be ostracized, or has not yet been beaten up, somewhere somebody who had a supporting community in high school but lacks one in college, some nine-year-old who finds herself doubting that the boy talk that is going around fourth grade is for her, somewhere some kid will see this stuff before it all starts. And when the bullying and teasing starts, there is the chance that somebody, somewhere will recognize that this is just the same old shit that gets worse and then gets better, and not ever get to be the person these videos are ostensibly aimed at. Which would be even better.

And, as another benefit, there’s the possibility that some heterosexual kid will see these things and not join in when the bullying starts, that some jock somewhere will see some jock somewhere saying that he was almost driven to suicide before it got better and will have second or third thoughts, that maybe somewhere somebody will be left alone on the school bus because, well, it doesn’t seem funny anymore.

Like a lot of persuasion, this sort of thing only seems to be aimed at its declared audience—and, perhaps, its declared audience is the audience least likely to be persuaded. That’s always hard for me to remember. Even harder is the idea—which I have to tell you never even occurred to me until today, twenty-odd years later, and makes the whole incident easier to hold in my memory—that even though that poor kid wasn’t saved by a column I wrote in a high school newspaper, it’s possible that somebody else was, and that by the nature of things I never heard about it. Some kid who read the thing at fourteen maybe hit the bottom at nineteen and had, in the back of his head, some thing that he read somewhere that somebody had hit bottom and then found that it gets better. You never know.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 30, 2010

The Pension Fund Was Just Sitting There

Gentle Readers who care about library stuff have probably seen this or are deliberately ignoring it after half-a-dozen people sent it, but not all y’all are so much library people, so I may as well rant to you about the NYT article Anger as a Private Company Takes Over Libraries. If you don’t want to click through, essentially there is a company that is working as a hatchet man for cities who want to fire their union librarians (and other library workers). The city has made promises to these people, and doesn’t want to fulfill them, so they hand over the library to this company (Library Systems & Services), then the private company reneges on its promises, then (this is the best part), the city can get control of the library back in three or five years, without all that pension stuff hanging over them. It’s a win-win situation! Except for the workers, of course, who lose.

And integrity, if that matters.

Look, I don’t want to get all whatsit, here, but let’s be clear: lots of times, in lots of places, in lots of the country, management has made deals that say: I’ll give you this much money now, and this much money when you retire. The people who have done the work took the jobs on that understanding: we get this much now, and this much when we retire. Then, when unemployment is high and management thinks they can get away with it, they break that promise.

There’s no real difference here between what the cities are doing to their library workers and a homeowner who agrees to pay a housepainter half up front and half when the painting is done, and when the house is freshly painted, tells the housepainter to fuck off. Oh, there is a difference legally, but not morally.

This isn’t really about libraries. Oh, the David Streitfield of the New York Times seems to think it’s about libraries, but it isn’t. For grocery store workers, poor saps, Shaw’s and the A&P just pulled out of Connecticut, their storefronts being taken over by PriceRight and the Big Y. Union workers getting fired, and even if the new workplace gets organized, everybody has lost their seniority. Their pensions are disrupted, and for some of them, their pensions will just disappear. Yes, it was a promise made as a condition of employment, but nobody says they have to keep that promise.

This isn’t about libraries. It’s about the fundamental relationship of employer to employee, and what is in place to protect the employee from getting squeezed. The answer? Well, the answer for the last hundred years or so has been unions, but this is a smooth move around that. And, frankly, the moves don’t need to be smooth. There’s next to no enforcement of the labor laws, when the actions are in violation, and (as with the case here) there’s often a way to break the promise that doesn’t break the law.

If you have a job working for someone, you can get screwed. You may think your boss would never screw you, but (a) lots of people have been wrong about that before, and (2) your boss may not always have any choice in the matter, or you may walk in to work tomorrow and discover your boss won’t be your boss anymore.

If you have employees, and are not planning to screw them—this is bad for you, too, as when the industry norm is screwing the employees, fulfilling your promises is an added cost that will come out of your pocket. Your competitors aren’t paying that. You may find yourself making the choice between screwing your workers or going under—or selling out to the guys who will screw your workers.

If you have employees and are planning to screw them—then this is bad for you because, frankly, it is bad for people to behave badly. It’s bad for your self. And it will ultimately be bad for you to live in a world with cutthroat and dishonest social norms.

And if you are self-employed, a freelancer, a contractor, any of that stuff—well, almost anything will be bad for you, won’t it? But you should still be outraged, because when you are on your own, you shouldn’t really be on your own. There should be something on your side, whether it’s the law or some institutional protection or just a belief that people shouldn’t break promises.

Why is YHB ranting about this now? Well, other than that the article just came out this week, there’s this: if we don’t rant about this now, when there unemployment is up and jobs are scarce, when employees are at their most vulnerable, we aren’t going to remember to rant about it later, when the shoe is on the other proverbial. And employers will make more promises to pay later.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 27, 2010

Grrrrrr, if you know what I mean

Gentle Readers everywhere have been wondering what’s getting on YHB’s nerves today? The answer: stories about Ken Mehlman that imply that he just somehow happened to be head of the RNC and campaign manager for Our Previous President, as if he were sitting quietly with a good book when a delegation of otter-ninjas broke in to his flat and presented him with a certificate of Party Leadership. As if Mr. Mehlman had no way of knowing the history of his Party, or their platform, or the people he was working with.

Gabriel Arana, over at TAPped, in an otherwise perfectly good post called You Don’t Have to be Gay to Do the Right Thing, says that Mr. Mehlman “stood by idly” whilst his Party did a bunch of bad stuff. No, I suspect he didn’t. I mean, I don’t know all that much about how Party Politics works on a day-to-day basis, but somehow I doubt that they put people in charge of the re-election campaign for idle bystanding.

Marc Ambinder, in the story that appears to have broken the news, says that Mr. Mehlman’s time in that inner circle coincided with some seriously anti-gay-rights political shenanigans. Yes, Mr. Ambinder is actually just saying that the two things happened at the same time, but the implication is that it was all just a coincidence, that there was no connection between them other than that. This is preposterous. Ken Mehlman worked very hard to get where he was; he implemented the anti-gay-rights strategy, formed Political Action Committees, raised money, arranged rallies, approved speaker lists, glad-handed, shmoozed and spun. Not coinciding with the Party’s choices but putting those choices into practice.

Mr. Mehlman was not just some guy. He was a Big Deal. There were ten or twenty people more important and influential in his party (two of them were the President and Vice-President of the United States, so there was that) but he had got into the Inner Ring, not by accident but by design, and any language that implies otherwise is misleading.

Now, it also seems to me that Mr. Mehlman has had a very real change of viewpoint since 2005. I could be wrong, but I infer from what I saw that (a) previous to 2010 or so, Mr. Mehlman did not identify himself to himself as a gay man, and (2) that was at least in part connected with his thinking, at the time, that it was a Bad Thing to be a gay man. It is not altogether unheard of for somebody, yes, even a grown-up, to experience same-sex attraction for years, and even to have same-sex sex or even to have a long-term same-sex romantic attachment, while believing those two things. Sometimes such a person will finally reach a conclusion that (a) he is a gay man, and (2) that’s OK. I think that’s what happened. I could be wrong, but I think that’s what happened.

If I’m right about that, much of the policy that he was pushing in those years lined up with his thinking on the topics. There was no great hypocrisy involved, no reason for him to resign in protest or stand up to his fellows on principle. He was just wrong. And actively wrong, pursuing that course with purpose and passion and all that proverbial, not standing by or coincident with it, but part of the group that was pursuing it with him.And if I’m wrong about it, and he was opposed to it as a policy for a variety of reasons, well, he was still pursuing that policy actively, not standing by or coincident with it.

None of that is meant to criticize Mr. Mehlman for coming out at this time, or to claim that it would have been easy for him to come out beforehand, or really even to criticize him for taking those years to identify himself to himself or to anyone else as a homosexual man. I have never lived in the closet myself (being straight has that effect, in the world we live in), and while it’s clear that the more people eschew the closet, the better it is for the world, that doesn’t require that everyone make the decision the same way. No, I’m just saying: during those years, he was not a bystander to events but an actor. Give him credit and blame for that. And if he now regrets those actions, give him credit or blame for that regret, and what he does with it.

There were plenty of innocent bystanders hurt by the Administration from 2001-2008, and by the legislation imposed in those years by the national movement that calls itself Conservative. Ken Mehlman was not one of those innocent bystanders. That’s just not what happened.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 26, 2010

O Brave New World that has such scandals in it

Not that I care about Tiger Woods or his sex life, but I was reading Joe Posnanski’s blog (because I care about Mr. Posnanski, even if I don’t care about Tiger Woods) and he was discussing the idea that in a pre-TMZ world, Mr. Woods might still be winning golf tournaments—he compares Prince Hal and Tiger, Prince Hal not being the fifth Henry to be King of England but Hal Sutton, who evidently was a brilliant young golfer who succumbed to the Wild Life. Mr. Posnanski’s point was that Ms. Sutton’s Wild Life in the mid-eighties was not reported, or reported only in the vaguest terms, while Tiger Woods had a ton of quite specific reports starting with the National Enquirer story back around Thanksgiving.

My first reaction—I have two, so far, and for all I know will have a third before I finish writing my second, but this was my first—is that if, as certainly seems to be the case, the affairs of Mr. Woods are, at this early-twenty-first century moment, the subject of newspaper and web reporting and public speculation, whereas Babe Ruth, John Kennedy and Mickey Mantle were just sort of vaguely known to be cocksmen, without having newspapers print interviews with anyone they slept with, then surely Mr. Woods knows that. I mean, he is part of that cultural shift as much as I am, right? So if the norms have changed, then he knows it as much as I do—more, presumably, as he is younger than I am.

The point here is that, in some way, I tend to give a bit of a break to Bill Clinton and Baby Boomer men who grew up in a world where rich and powerful men got to sleep with their secretaries as one of the perks. Not a total break, because, after all, a secretary is not a toy, but a tiny bit of one. They are fully responsible for their actions, yes, and also they have had to deal with shifting norms about fidelity, privacy and consent. But for the last ten years or more, since before Mr. Woods won his first professional tournament, it has been clear that (a) not only tabloids but broadsheet newspapers will report on prominent and powerful people having affairs, and infidelity can cause career-shaking scandal. I would probably put it back to 1992, which is before Mr. Woods graduated high school, but even if the shift of norms happened after Mr. Woods lost his virginity, by the time he was rich and powerful and promiscuous, it was clear that even rich and powerful men could be exposed and punished for promiscuity (women, of course, operated under different norms back in the fifties, and although I don’t know that a newspaper would have printed a story about a female public figure who slept with a dozen different men, such a woman would certainly not have felt safe from exposure) (and, equally of course, the norms about same-sex screwing were also different, whether with many partners or just one; imagine if a dozen men, including prostitutes and porn stars, were claiming to have had sex with Mr. Woods).

Anyway, that was my first reaction, that if in one sense Mr. Woods gets a different and harsher treatment than Mr. Sutton or Mr. Mantle or H.G. Wells, it’s not like this should be a surprise to him, as if he had been sleeping around in the 1930s and got suddenly time-shifted. Note to any Gentle Readers on the verge of riches and fame: your sexual life may well be public news; conduct yourself accordingly. Mr. Woods did not.

My second reaction, though, is that—damn, Tiger Woods had clearly been fucking around for ten years without anybody publishing it, why wouldn’t he think he could keep getting away with it. Maybe the story is not that in the TMZ era the Tiger Woods story gets plastered over the news and results in a divorce and quite possibly a wrecked career, but that even in the TMZ era, Tiger Woods could have sex with prostitutes and porn stars without anybody knowing about it for years and years and years. Mr. Posnanski has written about this before, as has Charlie Pierce—how it was pretty obvious to a bunch of sportswriters that Mr. Woods was a skirt-chaser, and that it was also pretty obvious to them that anybody who wrote that in a story would never get an interview with Mr. Woods again, which would not be good for the old career.

Which is exactly the norm that existed for Mickey Mantle. Well, that was part of it, and there were strings that could be pulled at the editorial level, which probably still exist, and more strings at the publisher/corporate level, which probably still exist, too. The difference in the TMZ era is that TMZ and Deadspin and a bunch of other sites don’t need to ever interview anyone again, and also don’t have editors and publishers, really, which limits the power of the powerful. Except that the reason they don’t need to interview anyone again is that they never have interviewed anyone. They don’t know the stuff that the sportswriters know. They didn’t know that Tiger Woods was living the Wild Life, so they didn’t put it on the web. Which makes a difference in thinking about the TMZ era.

I guess that’s the second reaction, and I haven’t had a third one yet. Except that I think there is still, probably, a substantially influential social norm that rich and powerful men get to sleep with a lot of different women, and that this variety of sexual partners is part of what it means to be rich and powerful, and that it is also a social norm that such men are to be vilified for doing so, if we find out about it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 20, 2010

Twenty-Four Percent

Your Humble Blogger did not want to write anything about this, but look: the fact that twenty-four percent of survey respondents told Time that they personally believe Our Only President is a Muslim does not, in fact, mean that twenty-four percent of the people in this country actually do believe that Our Only President is a Muslim. It doesn’t even mean that twenty-four percent of the people who responded to the poll actually believe that Our Only President is a Muslim. The obvious question is: what percentage of the country are the sort of people who, when asked by a major mainstream newsmagazine, would claim to believe that Our Only President is a Muslim in order to score some sort of political points, even though they know he is not a Muslim by any reasonable definition? I would guess at least ten percent, quite likely fifteen.

Another way of looking at it: imagine you, Gentle Reader, are being surveyed over the telephone (y’all remember telephones, right?) and the sequence of questions goes something like this:

  1. Thinking about various ontological groups, overall, would you say that you have a very favorable view of the following groups, a somewhat favorable view, or a somewhat unfavorable or very unfavorable view of the following religions? Humans. Sharks. Cyborgs. Robots. Lobsters.
  2. Turning to the cyborg conspiracy, would you say that cyborgs are more likely than other groups to encourage violence against humans, less likely, or about the same as most other groups?
  3. Do you personally know any Americans who are cyborgs?
  4. In general, would you say that most cyborgs in the United States are patriotic Americans who believe in American values, or not?
  5. Do you think that a cyborg should be allowed to run for President of the United States? What about Vice-President?
  6. Do you personally believe that Dick Cheney is a Cyborg or a Human?

I’m just saying. 24% may be a little low for that one.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 20, 2010

A Ludicrous Kerfuffle, and then some

Surprisingly, Your Humble Blogger has something to say about this whole ludicrous kerfuffle about a Mosque in Lower Manhattan. The response of Left Blogovia is on the whole to be amused that there is a kerfuffle at all, which of course the Other Party contributes to (as with Sarah Palin Calls On ‘Peaceful Muslims' To ‘Refudiate' Ground Zero Mosque). And, of course, it is useful to point out that when the leaders of that Party attack the idea of a Mosque in Lower Manhattan, they are doing so out of a combination of their own bigotry, racism and xenophobia and a kind of contemptuous assumption of bigotry, racism and xenophobia on the part of their base.

Still, I do have something to say about it. Dangerous, probably.

First of all, let me say that of course if I have no problem with there being a mosque in the area of the old World Trade Center, or for that matter in whatever gets built where the George W. Bush Memorial Hole now is (Note: YHB has not been to the site lately; I understand it is substantially less hole and more girders and scaffolding, which I suppose isn’t bad after only nine years). While I don’t actually subscribe to the message-to-the-terrorist philosophy, I must say that responding to the attacks by putting a mosque in when we rebuild would be about as nasty a message as one could send.

I mean, the point, and I would think it would come across pretty clearly, is (a) anyone who wants to do real damage to this country is going to have to do a hell of a lot better than that, and (2) any people who wants a place to practice religion unmolested by the authorities would do better to come here to the US rather than submitting themselves to Al Qaeda. I mean—you want a mosque, you can have a mosque. You want to kill people, then we will fuck you up.

Having said that, I have sympathy with the folk who have an immediate negative reaction to the idea of a mosque in the old World Trade Center block. Yes, there is no proposal for such a thing, but people are being told that there is such a proposal, and it is that fictional proposal that people are reacting to. I don’t have sympathy here for anyone claiming to do policy analysis, as those people should find out what they are talking about, but people who are told the news by a co-worker or uncle, or who hear it on the radio while they are getting a haircut, or who see a headline on a newsbox as they walk by, they are responding to the thing that isn’t happening, the mosque at Ground Zero.

Now, why do I have some sympathy for those people and their negative reaction? Wouldn’t it be better if everybody responded that of course the people putting up a mosque have nothing to do with the damage to their city (whether they are New Yorkers or not, NYC is our city as Americans, I think) and wouldn’t a mosque be a nice addition to the neighborhood? Well, probably, yes, it would be better. But the fact remains that there was a bunch of damage done and a bunch of people killed, and the madmen who did it claimed to do it in the name of Islam, and so the name of Islam will be, for a lot of people, connected with the deed. Is this fair? No. Is it just? No. But it is understandable.

To track myself aside for a moment: I do not know that the madmen who actually carried out the attacks made any such claims themselves; I know that the link between the madmen who carried out the attack and the claims made by other people who knew them is strong but not beyond question. If one were to be rigorous about this, and it’s a good exercise now and then to be rigorous, the gaps in between things tend to look pretty big. Which is not to say that the general outline is wrong. And of course the more one tries to be rigorous about, well, anything, really, the less likely one is to be really upset by the idea of a mosque in Lower Manhattan. Or, perhaps, by anything, really. So let’s stick to the general outline, here.

So. There’s a Yiddish expression a shanda fer de goyim, a shame or disgrace in front of the nations. The cultural touchstone is that a Jew can never disgrace only himself, but rather makes all Jews look bad in the eyes of non-Jews. I don’t know what phrase African-Americans use for the concept, but there’s a connected phrase credit to his people that touches the reverse of that idea. Now, if you read a lot of stuff about Jews in America today, you will come across quite a few arguments that our focus on a shanda fer de goyim is counterproductive, unhealthy, provincial. Sure. But it is also a practical response to human pattern-matching tendencies. People associate people with people. We mentally divide up into groups, we label, we stereotype, we assume.

So, when a group of Moslem men do a despicable thing, it is natural to draw the association between their act and their religion. The association goes two ways, so we wind up associating back the religion to the act, and so passing by a mosque, I have sympathy for those whose minds go something like mosque-Islam-Al-Qaeda-Attacks on the World Trade Center and then trigger that emotional response that so many people had on that day. Perhaps the whole point of the project, of course, is to provide some alternate context, so that people’s minds go something like mosque-minaret-spire-Chris Speier-Wendell Kim-news about Wendell Kim being diagnosed with Alzeimer’s-Worry about aging parents-etc, etc, etc. And that’s an admirable goal, and I support it. But it is a goal of the project because it hasn’t been achieved yet; it is a goal precisely because people do have the first response. So mocking people who have the first response seems to me to miss the whole point, to support the project without really understanding the need for it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 13, 2010

It's fun to stay at the Y

YHB notices that The YMCA Unveils New Brand Strategy; the organization will now officially refer to itself as “The Y”. Your Humble Blogger will keep all his initials.

There wasn’t anything in that news release to indicate what the letters they are eliding stand for. They simply say that the nonprofit will be called “the Y” to align with how people most commonly refer to the organization, so they are not claiming to disassociate themselves with the exclusively Christian moniker they are jettisoning, but of course they don’t use the name anymore, and neither in that release nor in the About Us page do they use the C-word at all. They aren’t, you know, hiding it—it’s in the mission statement in little grey letters below all the navigational stuff in the footer on every page, after all. But if you page through the history section and search for that C-word, you will get the impression that it belongs safely in the past.

The first two people YHB asked just now, by the way, could not off the top of their heads remember what the MCA stood for, nor yet the Y, either. When I was a lad, I was very self-conscious about wearing anything with the letters on them, as it seemed to me to imply that, as a member of a Young Men’s Christian Association, I was a Christian myself. Which, of course, I wasn’t. Not that I was a member of the local YMCA, of course, but I did some athletics there, possibly swim lessons, that sort of thing. My brother was in a basketball league there, and the T-shirt never seemed to bother him.

And, of course, no reason why it would—people would only infer that C part if they associated the letter with the word, which, you know, nobody does. Except me. And, I’m guessing a bunch of other touchy Jews. Because part of being a minority is worrying about that sort of thing.

And I will add that the national Y organization is only catching up to the best-known Y, which dropped the MHA years ago.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 9, 2010

Another step, ever forward

I feel I should write about the very exciting DOMA decision, but I don’t have anything really to say. I have the impression, from the little I’ve read, that the decision is unlikely to stand at the Supreme Court level, but one never knows, do one?

I will say this: when we talked about it with the Perfect Non-Reader (who is almost nine, now, believe it or not), I was utterly thrilled to be able to say that in our state, like in Massachusetts and a handful of other states, two adults who want to get married and can show that they understand what marriage is and what the responsibilities are can do so. And have her show that (a) she understood what the issue was, and (2) that she not only agreed that we should let people marry each other, but was essentially unable to see arguments for restricting marriage.

I know that even if this does stand, it’s yet another tiny step away from institutionalized bigotry, hatred and discrimination. But each tiny step is a step. I remember (from back before Andrew Sullivan was a blogger) when there was a big discussion about where to push gay rights—twenty years ago anyone who wasn’t perceived as straight was subject to discrimination in employment, in the military, in medical care, in law enforcement, in family law (not just marriage but adoption, divorce, visitation rights, all of that), in education—heck, the Castro Sweep was in 1989. I don’t really remember where I came down on the issue, but I vaguely and possibly inaccurately remember thinking that the people who wanted to divert attention from the military ban or AIDS funding to the right to marry were utterly mad. There were limited resources, after all, a finite number of attorneys and fund-raisers, and helping people in the here and now was more important than some pie-in-the-sky idea that we would make marriage equal.

Well, and I (again vaguely and possibly inaccurately) remember there was a big cultural divide between people who wanted to celebrate the queerness, if you will, of non-heterosexuals, and people who wanted to celebrate the normality. People who wanted to emphasize the difference, and people who wanted to emphasize the similarities. Or, perhaps, people who wanted to attack the normative notions of sex and family, and people who wanted to expand those notions to include more people. I was younger, then, and hornier; I thought the Castro Street Fair with its nudity, S/M and fetish gear, and general kink was just the best thing ever. But I also thought it was great that when I worked as a temp at a bank, my boss and co-worker were gay; one was a button-down executive type in a long-term domestic partnership and one was a moustachioed flamboyant queen with a new story every week. They got along fine, and I got along fine with them. The cultural divide wasn’t actually that big.

And the resource argument wasn’t all that, either. We have made tremendous progress on all those fronts. Not everything, not everywhere, and not all the way (alas), but many, many more non-straights have many, many more protections (legal but also social and cultural) in many, many more aspects of their lives. It’s not enough—but like I say about America, it’s not supposed to ever be enough, it’s about always working toward liberty and equality, not about getting to some magical there where we don’t have to work anymore.

So. One more step. And even when this is overturned, and I do think at least the Gill case will be, even the fact that this one federal judge issued this opinion to be overturned is another step. So. Well done, Judge Tauro.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 23, 2010

Unpardonable or unacceptable?

Your Humble Blogger doesn’t really care which general is in charge of our adventure in Afghanistan. I mean, given that we don’t have the option of fictional super-generals from the future. I scarcely imagine myself knowledgeable enough to know which of the real generals will have what affect on what strategies, etc, etc, but I could probably write a decent post on the strengths of Admiral Akbar versus General Mandella versus Lieutenant Rico.

Point of Fact! Your Humble Blogger could not actually write a decent post on that topic.

I do see that having a fellow in charge of our number-one military adventure who gets drunk with his buddies on a bus and forgets that there is a fucking reporter sitting next to them is problematic. My personal hope is that we hear next week that General McChrystal is in rehab for alcoholism; that would help me make a personally satisfying story out of the whole craziness.

On the other hand, I am inclined to disagree with Joshua Micah Marshall when he writes in some More Thoughts On McChrystal that “ A commanding general’s open disagreement with the president is unacceptable. But mockery of the president […] is unpardonable.

Isn’t this exactly backwards? Surely drunken mockery of the boss is very near to the heart of our country’s values, as is civilian control over the military. While I agree that open mockery can’t be accepted, this was not intentionally open. It was a mistake, and the sort of mistake that a leader of an international group of this importance cannot make with impunity, but it was not the considered and sober action of a man at his best. And while I do understand that things in the military have to be, well, martial, I do not want to have our boys and girls in uniform thinking that it is un-American to make fun of Our Only President’s big ears, or to wittily replace Our Only Vice-President’s family name with “bite me” (I bet Oscar Wilde wishes he had thought of that), or in general to privately have fun at the expense of superior officers or civilian oversight. And getting in trouble for it, sure, but that seems to YHB to be absolutely pardonable trouble.

What would be unpardonable, it seems to me, is the usurpation of civilian power by either refusing to comply with lawful directives or using the rhetorical power of the uniform and the position to lean on the civilian government to change policy. Mockery is one thing. Mockery doesn’t change the power structure, it only makes it easier to be where you happen to be in it. Changing the power structure, though, is something very deep, and when we have allowed that to happen, it has been a very Bad Thing for this country.

The idiotic thing here is that after the story became public, Our Only President had only the options of (a) firing the sonofabitch, or (2) not firing him. Not firing him was by far the worse of the options, for a variety of reasons, both for the military and for Our Only President’s political and policy goals. Firing him was a lousy option, but probably the best one he had. And from Our Only President’s point of view, putting him in that position may be unpardonable in itself.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

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,
-Vardibidian.

June 19, 2010

Juneteenth, 2010

It has been five years since Your Humble Blogger remembered to mark Juneteenth. This is a serious oversight—Juneteenth should be a national observance, a celebration and remembrance, not only because by all rights there ought to be a national observance of the end of slavery and the eventual conclusion that our government should do the right thing, but because without somebody reminding me (an average white guy in southern New England) I am liable to forget. One of the privileges of privilege is the luxury to forget, right? And one of the responsibilities of privilege is the refusal to forget. Let’s work on that, shall we?

Of course, in the five years since I last thought to write about Juneteenth, things have changed a bit. There’s a black President, for one thing. Who, as far as I can tell, has not yet released a Juneteenth statement this year.

I am tempted to make a connection, you know, between a delayed Presidential proclamation and the whole story of Juneteenth, the delay of a year and a half between the law and the fact. Can anyone now imagine what it was like to learn that you are free, legally free, and that you have been for a year and a half without anyone telling you? Without recourse to the courts, to the authorities, even to the library to see if the rumors were true? And then, well, then. Freedom, and injustice, and justice, and all manner of things. But fundamentally, wholly different after that day. Not the day the thing was signed two years earlier. Not the day it became law. The day the federal troops got there to enforce it.

That’s my thought for this Juneteenth, the distance between the thought and the deed. How important it is to celebrate the beginnings of action, affirmative action, to right the wrongs. Oh, I know it wasn’t the beginning of action, but the point is that it wasn’t the end of action, either. We have to work at this stuff, right?

And not forget it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 25, 2010

Who will pay?

If YHB were a better blogger, you know, this post would be full of links. First of all, I would link to the radio show I was listening to (a week ago, perhaps? If I were a better blogger, I would have written this that day), and then to the fellow who was on it, and then to other people making similar statements, so that it was clear that there was something to be on about. But I can’t remember who was interviewing who, on what show, and frankly I can’t be bothered to search for other people saying similar things. So you should take this with a grain of salt—perhaps I imagined the whole thing.

But I’m pretty sure that a legislator from my Party, a member of the U.S. House, I think, was asked about raising the liability of oil companies when they poison the world. And this person, this legislator, said that we do want to raise that limit, so that any company that was proposing to do offshore deep drilling would have to set aside an enormous sum of money to clean up any damage they caused. And the interviewer, who I am pretty sure was a NPR or APM anchor at one of their top news shows, asked this legislator whether that was worth the rise in gas prices at the pump, because of course the costs would eventually be passed on to the consumer.

And the fellow just muffed it. Just utterly muffed it. Said that he hoped the added safety incentive would mean that there wouldn’t be more spills, so that would be all right. And it seems to me that is a terrible, terrible answer.

But I’m not sure if my immediate answer was the right one. That is, I know it’s logically right, but I don’t know if it’s persuasive. Mine went something like this:

The clean-up is going to happen. We aren’t just going to wade in crude. So the money is going to be spent. What I’m asking is who is going to spend it. Now, you are right that if the oil companies spend the money, then that is ultimately going to come out of the price of gas. But if they don’t spend the money, and we spend it ourselves, through the government, then that money is going to come out of your taxes. The money isn’t going to be magically created, just because we want to spend it; it is going to come from somewhere. You will pay at the pump, or you will pay in your withholding, or if the money isn’t spent and we don’t clean it up, then we are really going to pay.

I mean, the basic truth of the matter is that if you can’t pay for it, you shouldn’t do it, and that is true about drilling as well as everything else. And if that means nobody can afford to do it, then nobody can afford to do it, and it shouldn’t be done. I’m always amazed by the feeling that companies have a right to do business even if they cannot possibly pay for themselves, and that when the government demands that a company pays for its own debts, it is the government that is running the company out of business.

But what struck me about the whole thing was that the interviewer seemed to be working under the assumption that either the public would pay at the pump or they wouldn’t pay at all, and the legislator seemed to let that go. And that’s a problem for my Party, not just for this piece of legislation, but for the ongoing purpose of the Party. And in this case, it was my Party, acting in accordance with its principles, that was against paying for a solution through taxation, and for private industry taking care of it. And the fellow just let that opportunity pass. Gr.

Unless, of course, I’m misremembering the whole thing. But I’m still cranky about it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 20, 2010

Richard Blumenthal, Al Gore, and Your Humble Blogger

Your Humble Blogger has been both busy and unproductive lately, which is never a winning combination. As a result, I have got very far behind my intentions for this Tohu Bohu, not just on the Book Reports (which is really getting out of hand) but on notes of more topical or wide-ranging interest that I mean to talk about. With the Book Report, although I may have forgotten what I intended to say by the time I get around to logging them, they aren’t really topical notes, and can wait. With news items and political commentary, if I don’t get around to noting them within a week or so, I may as well not bother, as y’all will have moved on. Ah, well.

And, of course, sometimes the story has moved on. I might have written a note just after reading the NYT article about Richard Blumenthal and his military service, and that note would have been very different from the note I would write today. Am writing. Hope to finish. Anyway.

Any of y’all Gentle Readers in the Nutmeg State, that is, those who will have to make up their minds to support Mr. Blumenthal or not in his Senatorial campaign, should probably be reading Colin McEnroe’s blog (even if y’all don’t like his radio show, which I don’t much either, alas). Mr. McEnroe appears to be very well-connected within the state government and what remains of the crew who report on it; he also is a bit crazy, which gives him the opportunity to call things as he sees them. It’s a great combination for a blogger.

Anyway, for those who haven’t been paying attention, Richard Blumenthal has been Attorney General of our State for twenty years, during which time it was quite difficult to get a photograph of state leaders without Mr. Blumenthal in it. You know? A terrific AG, and terrific at getting in the news, and all. So, when Chris Dodd moved to Iowa, and we needed a new Senator, Mr. Blumenthal decided to be that Senator, and the deal was pretty much over at that point. Only the other day, the Times reported that Mr. Blumenthal had been claiming that he served in Vietnam, when in fact he did not.

It turns out that it’s more complicated than that. What seems to have been happening, over a period of years, is that Mr. Blumenthal found a formula for saying things that were not false but which gave a false impression. He was in the Marine Corps Reserve from 1970-1975, stateside and part-time, and only joined after his deferments ran out; this not a dishonorable record, but it is not serving in Vietnam. However, it is, technically, serving during Vietnam, it is being in uniform when the soldiers were coming back from Vietnam, and saying those two things are accurate but without the context misleading. Of course, it depends on who you are speaking to. If your audience knows your actual record, and you say you wore the uniform when ‘we’ returned from Vietnam, they will know that you are referring to the attitudes that civilians had toward all veterans at that time, or at least the attitudes that many veterans seem to have been convinced that civilians had (the actual story is much much much more complicated than that)(of course). But if you don’t know the actual record, the audience may well draw a different conclusion.

This is fairly common. It’s not lying, but it can certainly be deceiving, and the speaker should be on the hook for it. It’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for me in a Senatorial candidate, but it needs to be taken into consideration. The habit of saying things that are true in the sense that they are not false, but that lead listeners to believe things that are false—well, that’s not a good thing. And the thing is—if you are running for elective office, you are going to have to say a lot of the things you say not just once but many, many times, and unless you have tremendous discipline, you are going to wind up straying from your usual formulation. If you do have that discipline, of course, the press will call you robotic, so that doesn’t necessarily help. But if you stray from your careful choice of words and say we instead of they or even in some cases just switch the order of your clauses, you can wind up saying something that is outright false. And get caught doing it.

All of this reminds me very strongly of Al Gore. You all probably know both the first and second versions of Al Gore and the internet. The first was that Al Gore laughably claimed to have invented the Internet, as one of a string of bizarre lies. The second was that the media made up the story that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet, as one of a string of bizarre stories they made up about Al Gore’s ‘lies’, none of which were true. The second version is not true either, of course; it was more complicated than that. Mr. Gore certainly never claimed to have invented the internet, true. What he did was take credit for the creation of the internet. While you could argue that he deserves some small portion of credit (he supported federal funding for the project at an early stage), the phrasing was designed to be technically not false while giving the impression that he deserved much more credit than he actually did. And, in fact, there were a string of such phrasings; he was in the habit of using language in that way (including some recent examples that I can’t bring to mind). This is not uncommon among politicians—not just seekers of elective office, but corporate politicians, academic politicians and jockeys of all heirarchies. One difference, though, is that most people don’t have to keep making their claims in speeches, town halls and interviews over a period of months or years, many of which are recorded and searchable.

I hope that Mr. Blumenthal learns something from this experience more than that the New York Times is out to get him. I hope that he understands that he is responsible not only for the technical truth or verifiability of his statements, but for their connotations. That as a Senator, he will carry responsibility not only for what he implies but for what people infer. No, he can’t control it. Neither is he free of responsibility for it, and he should watch what he says accordingly.

I should, when I have time and energy, connect this to the fad for so-called fact-checking, which I hope y’all are taking with a grain of salt. But that will have to wait. For now, really, I’m just observing that when Left Blogovia first condemned Mr. Blumenthal for dishonesty and is now condemning the Times for, well, dishonesty, the truth is it’s more complicated than that. But in interest ways, right?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 14, 2010

Anonymous, the movie

Today’s Shakespeare News is that Roland Emmerich—yes, Roland Emmerich—is directing a movie about the man who wrote all those plays. No, not William Shakespeare. That would be too easy.

See, here’s the thing: it’s not like I care very much who wrote the plays. I tend to think it was William Shakespeare, because, you know, he said he did, and there is no evidence whatsoever that he didn’t in the contemporary record. But I don’t care very much, and if it turned out that it was someone else, well, it doesn’t change the text at all, so that’s OK. But really, the reason why I tend to think that William Shakespeare wrote the plays is because almost everybody who writes trying to persuade people that it was someone else is a dickish snob.

I don’t mean that it’s impossible to believe that W.S. was a front without being a dickish snob. It’s certainly possible. And I suppose it’s even possible to care about it enough to try to talk people out of their belief in the Stratford fellow without being a dickish snob. I haven’t seen it happen, though.

And I have to say that I don’t expect it to. Part of that is simply that I find it a bit dickish just to keep hocking about the whole thing, trying to persuade me that I am Wrong Wrong Wrong; I try to keep an open mind about things, but I do get defensive when attacked. And a lot of the writing on the topic that I have read (or skimmed, or began and given up on, more likely) seems like an attack on the deluded fools who are so simple to believe that William Shakespeare—a nothing from nowhere, practically a peasant—wrote those plays. And more than that, an attack on the poor deluded fools who believe that they enjoy the plays without grasping the True Key of Understanding. In all honesty, if it isn’t possible to enjoy them properly without knowing who wrote them, then the pseudonymity of authorship implies to me that they plays aren’t very good, and that we shouldn’t care about them at all. But of course lots of people have enjoyed the plays just fine whilst believing they were written by William Shakespeare, going back to their first productions when presumably the whole audiences were taken in (except the Queen, of course, and other select aristos).

That’s the snobbish part, of course. Not just that there’s the classic snobbery of locating all positive attributes in the hereditary aristocracy, although that is very prominent in Anti-Stratfordists. But there’s another kind of snobbishness, the inner-ring delight in having Special Knowledge, being among the elect who are In On It. They transfer that delight to an inner ring in Elizabeth’s court, duping the groundlings who didn’t get all the political undertones. That’s pretty dickish, too. I do get the inner-ring temptation, of course, and it’s a powerful one, but the right thing to do is resist it, not promote it.

Mr. Emmerich’s movie appears to be based on a recent book by Charles Beauclerk. Mr. Beauclerk is (unless there’s something that doesn’t show up in the family tree) a descendant of Edward DeVere, the current favorite in the Shakestakes; since he argues that his ancestor was not only the greatest playwright in the English language but an illegitimate son of Elizabeth I, which would make him an heir to the Tudor line, and quite possibly a Pretender to the Crown. When his father dies, of course; his father Duke of St. Albans and head of the Royal Stuart Society (which lists among its aims opposing republicanism). And, according to Wikipedia, Charles Beauclerk was banned for life from the Palace of Westminster for misbehaving in the House of Lords.

I should add—Mr. Beauclerk recently came to speak at an event held by my employer, and by all accounts didn’t, you know, do anything to get himself banned. I saw the man briefly as he walked through the library; he seemed a bit like a dickish snob, but then, so does YHB, probably. And while I am spending time mocking Mr. Beauclerk, he didn’t have anything to do with the 1998 Godzilla movie, so there’s that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 10, 2010

Elena Kagan nominated, blogger blog

I should probably note down here in this Tohu Bohu my response to the nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. I’m not thrilled. I don’t find it an exciting nomination. I am convinced that she is, pretty much, a moderate Democrat: I suspect she will almost always vote in line with our Party. To be more accurate, I think that her votes will almost always be compatible with what is now the mainstream of our Party. I am hoping that our Party will move substantially to the left over the next thirty years, and that therefore the Democratic-mainstream-from-2040 will look back on her as a disappointment.

Specifically, I think she lines up with Our Only President on matters of Executive Power, National Security, and Secrecy. I don’t. But then, I didn’t win election to the Presidency and he did, so he gets to pick and I don’t. That’s how it works. Again, I’m kind of hoping that in thirty years, our Party will look back on our support of the (so-called) Patriot Act, of the torture of terror suspects, of secret and extraordinary rendition, of widespread domestic spying, and of the whole apparatus of the War on Terror with something not unlike the horror we feel on looking back on our support of Jim Crow. I’ll be, in my lazy bloggish way, working toward that. But we’re not there now.

Further, and I know this is small comfort, I’m not entirely convinced that Solicitor General Kagan will support much further statism than we saw under Our Previous President and his secretive cabal of crooks and incompetents. Which was bad, don’t get me wrong, and the idea of supporting a nominee who draws the line there leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But better such a nominee than one who draws it, well, wherever the Executive asks her to at any point. And, of course, that may turn out to be the case—any new nominee is always a risk. So anyone who is opposing this nomination on the grounds that we cannot afford that particular risk at this point: go to it and good luck to you. But I think there’s reason to hope, even on that front. And, of course, on almost any other front, I expect her to vote right along with Justice Sotomayor.

And one more thing: I am pleased that this will crack the appellate-judge hold. I wound up ranting about this to my Best Reader: what I think we are really going to need on the Supreme Court over the next three decades is somebody who has experience legislating, somebody with years in committees and subcommittees and caucuses. I’m thinking some State Assembly Speaker, if we can find one not hopelessly corrupt. Because I’m thinking that over the next thirty years or so, we are going to have a bunch of cases come up involving climate change legislation, state and local, takings and regulations and conflicts and property rights and—here’s what I’m getting at—legislation that is written specifically to get around Constitutional limitations on legislative power. And I do not believe that anyone currently on the Court knows what it’s like to draft those laws. That seems like a drawback to me.

Solicitor General Kagan has worked for the Senate Judiciary Committee, which may turn out to be useful, but that’s not the key thing. To my mind the key thing is that it isn’t, practically, possible right now to nominate and get confirmed anyone who has held elective office with one Party or the other. Yes, there was a lot of talk about nominating Mario Cuomo at one point, or Bruce Babbitt at one point, or John Ashcroft at one point. But that was talk, which is proverbially proverbial. Right? If Elena Kagan is confirmed, and is (as she will be) a perfectly reasonable Justice, infuriating some people and pleasing others and so on but doing so within the usual bounds, that does open things up a bit.

Oh, and when we start listing our questions for the hearings (which will probably be in late July, I’m told), can we ask her to comment on Pirke Avot chapter four, verses nine and ten? Does anyone know where she goes to shul?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 6, 2010

Dow(n) and up

Your Humble Blogger has for years been amused, and on occasion exasperated, by the news reporting that the stock market has gone up or down because of some particular news. The stock market, of course, is an agglomeration of millions of individual transactions; it speaks with one voice only because that makes it easier to understand the story of what happened. And to a certain extent, it is very reasonable to think that a close observer of the market could interpret the agglomeration of voices, the trends, the statistics, to come up with an issue that was driving enough of those choices to be a helpful analysis. But at the end of the day, to say that the Market was Down on worries about inflation, or that the new numbers on consumer confidence had driven the Market Up, well I’m not saying those things are absolutely incorrect, I’m just saying they aren’t facts. They are analysis, and should be identified that way, so when you listen to the news, you aren’t lulled into thinking that they are reporting facts.

I was reminded of this, as y’all have probably guessed, by today’s roller-coaster ride, which I of course found out about only after it was all over. But I was able to see headlines that said that the Dow had plunged 9% on fears about the Greek debt situation. And then headlines that said that some schmuck at Citigroup had typed in a b instead of a m and sold a thousand times more thousands of thousands of shares of something or other than he meant to. Which, not doubt, he did because of his fears about the Greek debt situation. Or her fears. It’s a stereotype, I know; lots of women have gambling addictions.

And, you know, that Citigroup story may be false, utterly false, a rumor with no basis in fact whatsoever. And Greece really does have a debt crisis, so there’s that.

My point, if I really need one, is that (a) that habit of reporting, or rather “reporting” is an obvious embarrassment to the financial press and I am bemused by its continuing practice, and (2) hee hee, somebody’s typo cost Citigroup a million bucks. Oh, also? Corporate capitalism is some fucked-up shit. But I think I’ve said that before.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 2, 2010

The Story of What Happened

I have mentioned this before—I have such a narrow and idiosyncratic news intake that I really have very little idea what sense other people get of ongoing news stories. Well, it’s not all that idiosyncratic, I suppose. Fairly typical for a liberal. I listen to a bit of NPR pretty nearly every day, although I don’t listen to the whole of any show these days. I go to the New York Times website every morning; I read the Arts section quite carefully, and I click on the occasional news story. I have several political news junkie blogs on my aggregator, in addition to the TPM site, which does some reporting along with pointing to news in other sources. All the blogs are from Left Blogovia, so there is a certain amount of what you might call epistemic closure.

Have y’all been following the epistemic closure talk? It’s kinda fun. Essentially, there is an argument about the extent to which various parts of the conservative movement (however defined) are cutting themselves off from news sources outside the conservative movement (however defined), and the extent to which that matters in various endeavors. And, of course, similar questions arise around my Party and its allies. It’s not a symmetrical problem, of course, as (f’r’ex) liberals tend to think that the New York Times reporting is not liberal at all, but they read it anyway. I get the sense that many people with substantial influence in my Party read the Wall Street Journal, and feel that it is run to be a conservative paper, although generally within the bounds of journalistic practice. More important, I want the people of influence in my Party to read the WSJ, and also to read books and articles by people of influence in the other Party. I don’t want to do much of that myself, though.

Also, another minor point about that is the observation I saw somewhere that plenty of people who vote with my Party listen to sports talk radio, and that many of the hosts of those programs listen to the likes of Michael Savage. While the shows are not, in the main, political, there is a certain amount of bleed-through, particularly on cultural issues. There are those who feel that WEEI was, in relation to the whole Martha Coakley business, straw, camel and so on. It’s unusual that the sports guys take a position on an election so obviously, but there is contact, if you follow me. I remember being amazed, in my San Francisco days, to hear some guys on KNBR react to the news of the Giants players participating in a charity fashion show with five solid minutes of outrageously homophobic nastiness. I mean, San Francisco. But there it is.

But my point is not that I am confined by epistemic closure to the point of misunderstanding the political and policy situation in the country. My point is that I have just enough news intake to know what the news is, but not to erase my fundamental cultural illiteracy. There are a lot of times when I know what happened, but I don’t know the story of what happened. Or, rather, I don’t know whether my story of what happened matches what very many other people know. And often, then, I find myself listening to NPR or reading a newspaper article and thinking is that what people think is the story? and being utterly perplexed, without actually knowing whether that really is a popular story, or whether it’s just something I have happened to hear.

The thing that brought this to my mind recently was the whole Goldman Sachs/SEC/Congress business, particularly listening to bits of Marketplace. Somehow, the story seemed to be about how bits of Goldman Sachs had made a passel o’ dough off the housing collapse. And they clearly had; they are in the money-making business. And while there is an appropriate social stigma attached to profiting off foreclosures, it isn’t illegal, or even surprising.

And the thing is—I had understood the story to be about one group within Goldman Sachs putting together an investment package that was designed to fail, and then selling it to investors without telling them it was designed to fail. You know, fraud. The news stories didn’t seem to be talking about the profits as being profits specifically from the fraudulent investment packages. They just seemed to be about Goldman Sachs making money.

Was it just Marketplace? Was the story of what happened about Goldman Sachs selling worthless securities or about their profit in the nation’s loss? I have to admit I didn’t read the Times articles, because, you know, a trifle dull. I saw a few things, in the Gaurniad and a couple of other places, that led me to think that Marketplace was telling the coalescing story of what happened, but then, perhaps my story of what happened was the result of too much TPM.

Do y’all get this feeling? Is this part of that epistemic closure? Is it a defense against it, or a symptom of it? I don’t just mean about Goldman Sachs, I mean about, oh, mine disasters and celebrity scandals, policy proposals and oil slicks, international relations and sports upsets and and school violence. It’s hard to have conversations about what happened if the conversers have different stories about what happened.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 28, 2010

Grew up in Arizona, left, ain't going back

I know it won't really make any difference, but perhaps it will become a meme, and then there is just the slightest chance it will make a difference. George F. Will, in the Washington Post column A law Arizona can live with, just two paragraphs after pointing out that 30% of Arizona's residents are Hispanics (and therefore fairly likely subject to a law enforcement officer's reasonable demand for proof of legal residency in the US), says this shit.

Arizonans should not be judged disdainfully and from a distance by people whose closest contacts with Hispanics are with fine men and women who trim their lawns and put plates in front of them at restaurants, not with illegal immigrants passing through their back yards at 3 a.m.

My closest contacts with Hispanics this year are with my daughter's classmates and their parents and families, with college professors and custodial workers and campus cops, with a children's librarian, with a handful of Facebook Friends and, depending on how you count them, two of the very dearest little girls to me in the whole world, to whom I am an honorary uncle. In the past, my closest contacts with Hispanics were with women I dated, teachers and professors I learned from (including Angela DelaCruz, my earliest great teacher), my teammates and rivals in high school Speech and Debate competitions and college APDA (one of whom, now that I think about it, needs to be asked about this law as soon as possible) (by the way? Beat him like a gong. It was kind of a running joke), and my editor on the high school newspaper.

And I trim my own lawn, asshole.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 9, 2010

Who was that person who inquired as to the identity of the previous speaker?

The first time I remember associating the phrase who dat with New Orleans specifically was at a Dirty Dozen Brass Band concert at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. There was a fellow at the table near the front who was decked out—I think I can safely say that decked out is the correct term—in black and purple and gold, and had a black parasol with purple and gold fringe and the words WHO DAT! in shiny gold letters on, if I am not adding to the memory of it, each of the eight panels. This parasol was opened and bobbed about when the gentleman was moved to particular funkiness; this happened several times over the course of the evening. I thought of him as the who dat man, and clearly he was a transplanted N’Awlins fellow who was taking the appearance of the D12BB as inspiration to celebrate his home town, and transport himself in spirit to that place.

This was in 1993 or so, sometime in the early nineties, anyway, and as I understand it the who dat chant had not yet become specifically associated with the NFL franchise there. I hadn’t heard the chant as a chant, but I had heard the two-word phrase in other contexts. For one thing, when Chris Frantz led the Tom Tom Club in “Genius of Love” in the 1984 Talking Heads movie Stop Making Sense he cries out in his best Funky White Boy voice who dat, who dat/now who dat tryin’ to be bad, you mutha’. It’s plausible that I had heard the catchphrase in college sometime, either in my Jazz History course or in any stuff I read that touched on images of African-Americans in the broader American culture. I never took a proper course on the stuff, you understand, but it was one of those things, in college in those years, where people talked about the Signifying Monkey, and the representations of Other-ness. That’s when I became aware of some of the minstrelsy tropes, so it wouldn’t surprise me if who dat came up, but I don’t remember it specifically. And if it did, I didn’t associate it specifically with the Crescent City. Later, in the 90s, the New Jump fad had the Royal Crown Revue recording “Who Dat”, but again, not a New Orleans band in my mind. And during that period there was some increased general talk about minstrelsy in the general population, with the brilliantly disturbing Spike Lee movie Bamboozled making use of the nobody here but us chickens catchphrase, but not, to the best of my recollection, the who dat. Also in 1997 or 1998 or so was the Chris Rock Vanity Fair cover and some theater work I don’t really recall the details of dealing with the relics of minstrelsy in our culture. Again, I don’t remember if who dat came to my attention in any of that or not, and if it did, I wouldn’t have associated it with New Orleans or with the Saints.

Here’s the point I’m trying to get at: the who dat catchphrase was only vaguely familiar to me at all, throughout the 80s and 90s, and to the extent is was familiar to me, it was as a leftover bit from minstrelsy and vaudeville, hanging on through swing music and jazz generally. And I would have put it very much in the category of things white people should avoid saying.

Now, I’m not criticizing the fans of the Saints for having taken up the catchphrase as a chant. This is one of those examples of phrases that lose their power through overuse, or rather through taking on so much association in their current overused form that the remaining offensiveness very likely is swamped. I have not heard from anybody, anywhere that has taken offense by the adoption of who dat by the Saints and the fans thereof. I think it’s great that people aren’t offended by it. And, as was mentioned to me as I started talking about the whole issue, race is different in N’Awlins. And I am scarcely an expert in any of this stuff. I’m just saying—are any of y’all Gentle Readers made just a little uncomfortable by it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 27, 2010

When is the properest time to give?

Your Humble Blogger was listening to NPR this morning, driving around taking people places, when Morning Edition finished up with a series of stories about the current situation in Haiti, culminating in a rather wonderful story about a fellow there who owns a restaurant which somehow made it through the earthquake with a fully working kitchen. And a pantry and fridge and all full of ingredients, and nobody around who was going to buy his food. So he cooked it anyway, rather than let it go bad, and gave the finished meals away. And then other restaurateurs started coming over with their food, because their kitchens were fucked, and then, well, you know. Soup kitchen. Rather a sweet story, really. And they followed it up with a quick if you want to contribute, NPR has some links on-line kind of thing.

And then cut back to the local station’s pledge break.

Which was, you know, awkward for a minute or two. Because, let’s face it, NPR is a terrific cause and all, but they do broadcasting and not feeding the hungry. Now, it’s true that if we didn’t have the broadcasting, we wouldn’t know about the hungry, and wouldn’t donate to that. And it’s possible to give to both! Still, no denying it sounded a bit tacky.

Which tackiness made me finally decide to come out and say it: I not posting links to Haiti charities because I think the habit of giving donations in the wake of disasters is a human failing and I feel bad encouraging it. But before you rush forward through the Intertubes and beat upon me with your fisticuffs and open palms, let me explain.

I am in favor of donating to charities. I don’t do enough of it, myself, partially because I am lazy and greedy, and partially because our household has been arranged at a kind of precarious point, financially, and I am unwilling to make the kinds of changes that would give us substantially more disposable income. I mention this because I am very aware that (a) I am in no position to preach out of personal ethos which does make a difference persuasively, and (2) I don’t want GRs to think that I am criticizing them or want them to change their ways. That’s not my point at all. Have you given to one of the Haiti charities? Terrific. Good on you. Seriously. People could use your help. Go to it.

From a logos perspective, though, it seems utterly obvious that it would be better if people, in general, looked at their household budgets on, say, a quarterly basis, and tithed or otherwise contributed to their charities of choice based not on the need but on their ability. Because, you know, there is always going to be need. And if you have money, now, to give to food aid to Haiti, logically you probably had money six months ago to give to those same charities, which would have helped them become ready to help quickly after disaster strikes, rather than having to do a million man-hours of accounting work in the wake of an earthquake or flood. And if you did not have the money when you sat down to look at your household budget, you probably don’t really have the money now: we don’t do our best decision-making when babies need to be rescued from rubble.

Except it turns out we do make our best decisions when babies need to be rescued from rubble. We don’t look at our budgets, most of us, decide how much we can afford, and give just a little more than that. We know that preparedness is all, but we don’t give money for preparedness. We all know that the money is more useful before the earthquake, and we all know that there will be another earthquake or a flood or a fire or a famine and that Doctors without Borders and the UN World Food Programme and Mazon and all the rest will be raising money after it happens. And we will wait and give them money after it happens. Because we are humans. It is kairos, the right time and circumstances for persuasion, and more powerful, in a lot of ways, than ethos, and much more than logos.

And, you know, it’s not like I really would be any happier if people were coolly calculating their budgets, and then when the earthquake hits, saying they gave at the office. What I really want, actually, is for people to get into the habit of giving without the spark of a disaster. In the absence of habit, I’m OK with taxation. But habit would be better.

I heard a sermon once (I think it was Jeffrey Summit) in which the speaker talked about trying to inculcate the habit of donating to a food charity every time he had a really good meal. That the celebration of the meal, the enjoyment of it, would not feel complete unless the checkbook came out. The waiter gets twenty percent, the charity gets twenty percent.

I’m just saying. If the disaster in Haiti makes you want to help, and you have some money to give, give it. But there will be another one somewhere next year, or later this year even. And wouldn’t you rather give on a happy occasion—a good meal, a good movie, an Opening Night, the end of the semester, a season premiere, a Super Bowl win? And then next time, when you are faced with the unavoidable pictures of the horrors, you can think Oh, right, MSF, I gave to them every time somebody I knew had a baby, this year there was Kaia and Irene and little Theo, that was seventy-five bucks. Those kids are so cute! and then you are thinking about cute babies, and happiness is everywhere.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 5, 2010

A straight apikoros, so, you know, no dog in that kettle.

My Gracious Host points us to a page that Shmuel (sometime Gentle Reader here) put together some great links on a panel on Being Gay in the Modern Orthodox World that was held at Yeshiva University. Y’all know I have little patience with the whole idea of the Modern Orthodox—I feel that much of halacha is as destructive as much of the Temple ritual, and am glad I can be Jewish without participating in either. I should probably write much more about this in general, at some point, but for the moment, I’ll just acknowledge that I do not feel myself constrained by the law against seed-spilling or the law against anal sex. Or the one against shellfish. Mmm, shellfish.

Anyway, I read a transcript posted by a student at YU, and I found it fascinating, moving and provocative. And I wound up reading more posts by that student, who is clearly conflicted about the issue (not about the halacha, which is fairly clear in the middle notwithstanding a good deal of disagreement about how wide the hedge around it should be), and then read a bunch of comments, which was of course a terrible, terrible mistake.

It occurs to me that if I am going to talk about this at all, I should talk just a bit about the Law as it applies here, and not just make an off-hand parenthetical comment. I am not an expert in this, and I want to emphasize that I am not particularly observant as a matter of practice nor as a matter of theory do I follow the sages or the modern Rabbis and their applications. I am very much outside the fold. That will be important to keep in mind. Still, I know a bit about the Law and the traditions, and if any of y’all know more, it would be helpful for me to have any correction or clarification, and if y’all know less, then keep reading.

Here’s the core: Leviticus 18:22 says something like You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. The most liberal interpretation of this within mainstream Jewish Orthodox thought is an absolute prohibition on male-male penile-anal penetration to ejaculation. That is like eating scallops wrapped in bacon. It may be wonderful, but it is a violation of the Law, and there is no way around that. The question is what else is a violation. This is in part an interpretation of the verse itself, and in part an interpretation of the hedge around the Law (which we have discussed before here). So, taking for instance the act of one male pleasuring another by anal penetration with a dildo or vibrator: is this sufficiently different from the proscribed act to be allowed? Probably not. With a tongue? Hm. What about fellatio? Or a hand job? My understanding is that almost all mainstream traditional rabbis consider all those acts to be forbidden, either directly by the verse or by the implication of the verse.

Now, when we are talking about the hedge, there are a couple of things that come into play. First, there’s a categorization of laws (both prohibitions and obligations) into things that make sense and things that are arbitrary. That is, the obligation to honor your father and mother makes sense, and therefore we are obliged not only to honor our biological father and mother, but an adoptive father and mother, and a stepfather or stepmother, or even by extension a teacher, mentor or elder. The prohibition against shellfish, however, is arbitrary, so although we must not eat crab meat, we can eat surimi (assuming it has been prepared properly). We may not be able to taste the difference (how would we, lacking the experience), but there is a difference, and we have avoided the infraction. So when deciding where the hedge is, that’s an important factor: is the prohibition against anal sex a sensible one or an arbitrary one? Unsurprisingly, opinions differ.

The other major factor in determining how big a hedge should be is temptation: if (going back to our topic for a moment) a gay couple are getting tremendous pleasure from their hands, mouths, cocks, asses and vibrators in all the variations they can think of except penile-anal penetration, will they be tempted to violate the prohibition, in a moment of frenzied passion? If so, it is generally considered admirable to avoid that situation (although of course there are stories of rabbis deliberately sleeping in the same bed as beautiful young women and conquering their yetzer ra, and although some commentary does criticize that behavior, the rabbis in question are not considered to have violated the Law and the majority strain of the tradition approves of them, as witness the inclusion of the stories). If the temptation is considered to be great and widespread, the hedge is not considered to be a matter of individual judgement, rather the rabbi can state where the hedge should be. If it’s a matter of leading others off the path, that is, where a person can without infringing the Law themselves lead others into a situation where they will infringe the law, either unknowingly or through overwhelming temptation, there is no question: it is forbidden, even if under other circumstances it might be allowed.

Furthermore (should I have skipped all this?) there is the matter of tradition: if there is a tradition prohibiting a particular thing as part of a hedge around the existing Law, the inheritors of that tradition are bound by it, unless positively released by an authority. The most common example of this is the difference in Passover observance between Ashkenazic Jews and Sephardim: the Sephardim eat rice (among other kitniyot) and the Ashkenazim do not. However, a Jew of an Ashkenazic family cannot simply declare herself a Sephard for the duration of Passover. She is bound by the minhag, the tradition.

Digression: I really shouldn’t add anything else to this note, but I don’t think I’ve ever made the point in this Tohu Bohu that in the case of a Sephard marrying an Ashkenaz, the new household should adopt the minhag of the woman, not the man. This is in part because the woman is assumed to be in charge of the house and particularly the kitchen, so it makes sense to use the traditional recipes that she would know rather than making her learn her mother-in-law’s recipes. It’s also for the same reason that our bloodlines are maternal: we know who the mother is. End Digression.

So where were we? Oh, yes. Orthodox Judaism generally has found that the prohibition against gay sex is sensible, and that tradition has made a very big hedge, and that anyway all that sex stuff is icky, and the hedge against straight sex (which is a mitzvah, after all) is about a mile high and six miles deep, so there. For a man to have a boyfriend, to hold hands and snuggle in the evening, to exchange loving words and looks, is all banned. Forget teabagging, they ban waltzing. Not a surprise, but it’s worth keeping in mind that they could make different decisions about the law. They are bound to keep the prohibitions in the Torah itself, yes, but they have some latitude to make the very broad interpretation of that prohibition much, much, much narrower without giving up that prohibition (the way that I feel free to do).

Good Gumby, this is a long note, and I haven’t got to the point of it, yet. Are y’all still with me? Because I did have a point, this time, and I’m getting to it soon. Well, soonish. Y’all know I tend to do the breaking-down-into-categories thing to think about topics, so that’s what came most clearly to mind, because some of the discussion I saw was so utterly confused about some things I find very distinct. So it seems to me that the Modern Orthodox community must decide how to treat:

A) Gay and lesbian people who grew up in the fold, and have decided as adults to leave the tradition, in part (at least) because it does not allow them to marry their loves and have sex with them. This might be fairly easy, as it is a kind of mutual expulsion, although of course that expulsion is heartbreaking for divided families and friends, and can lead people away from the path of righteousness altogether.

2) Gay and lesbian adults who are, like the panelists appear to be (to me, at any rate), passionate about staying in the fold and concerned with acting according to the Law, but who are certain of their orientation. This is very difficult. Very, very difficult. I tend to think that this panel and the discussion leading to it and from it will help people come up with some ways of thinking about it that are helpful. I do understand that many Rabbis will have a lot of trouble accepting that these people are good observant Jews that are perfectly naturally attracted to members of the same sex. The law may make it difficult on these people, but that isn’t their fault, and they should be treated with care and joy. As a side note, if anybody happens on this that could use the info, or could usefully pass it along, The Gay and Lesbian Yeshiva Day School Alumni Association seems to be a good source of information and links for people in this category.

γ) Young adults who are trying to figure out their sexual identity, preferences and orientation, being guided by the community and the Law. This seems less difficult to me, but it does require a kind of forthrightness about the existence of sexual passions of various kinds, which seems (from what I understand) to be present in the Law and the rabbinic discussion of the Law, but most often missing from conversations with actual children. At any rate, these young people should be able to know where the Law is clear and where it is not, what their obligations are and are not. Most important, they should all know that same-sex attraction is a natural thing, much like shrimp or roast pork, and that while a Jew may be prohibited from acting on it (or at least in acting on it in particular ways, depending on which authorities you follow), there is nothing disgusting about it.

iv) Kids who are ‘different’ and fail to act in exact accordance with gender expectations. The panelists tell stories that would be shocking if they weren’t so terribly, terribly common. I would have thought there would be a consensus of commentators and scholars that these kids have violated no aspect of the Law, and the behavior of the schools, camps, shuls, and families to them is a violation of the kind specifically stated (again and again, in Pirke Avot, by sages who agree on little else) to be outrages against the Divine and the Law, inconsistent with righteousness.

That’s what struck me most—these panelists were describing their histories with specific focus on the harm that they took before they identified themselves as gay frum Jews. Many of the responses (almost all the ones I happened to see) reacted to the question of how to treat gay frum Jews. Well, fine, that’s an issue. But it’s turning away from the harm that was done to those people, and that turning away is another harm, and is absolutely and unquestionably a violation of the ethics that we’ve been reading here at this Tohu Bohu.

Now, I took some grief, myself, as a child, for being different. I have been called effeminate (I have been called a great big poncy ponce, in fact, but not recently), and when I was a kid, I was hurt by the scorn of others on that topic as well as on others. But I wasn’t told, at the age of ten, that I was evil. The idea that anybody could react to this

the next day my parents were called in to Rabbi Monk’s office. And he takes off a book from the shelf by a rabbi who happens to be my father’s great-uncle and he says ‘there’s no natural desire for homosexuality. It must be that it’s only rebellion against God and it only happens after you’ve explored every other taivah’ and then he looked at me. I was TEN. Only ten! And it made sense to everyone in the room. Except me. And I was kicked out of camp.

by criticizing the man who tells the story is an outrage against Judaism’s ethical principles. Remember, the ten-year-old boy who is accused not just of an abomination but of every abomination has not been taking it up the ass. He has not even been holding hands. He said, when asked, that he liked boys. This is not a violation of halacha. And accusing him like that is.

And it is a violation whether the ostracized kid grows up to be frum and gay, or (like me) a straight man who likes showtunes and fancy clothes. You have no way of knowing which is which.

And, of course, it is a violation of ethics even if the kid grows up to eat scallops and bacon, take it up the ass, and charge interest on loans. No excuses. You don’t treat people that way.

Which is why it is so great for the panelists to come to Yeshiva University and say they were treated that way, and for YU, however reluctantly, to invite them.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 27, 2009

Unpredictable

I do understand that from a security point of view, you do want use measures [that] are designed to be unpredictable to thwart plots. I get that. And it isn’t altogether Secretary Napolitano’s fault, but…

Look, the Transportation Safety Authority are known, really, for three things. One, wasting people’s time. Two, stealing stuff. And three, making shit up and claiming that it’s federal law. A statement that we are going to have new security measures and we are not going to tell people what they are is going to give assholes in TSA employ (and I have no doubt that they are the minority, but they are a big enough minority that a lot of people have met one) latitude to be bigger assholes yet.

And again, I know that for practical reasons of security, you don’t want to publicize every time that a TSA employee thwarts somebody would otherwise have done real harm. And I’m sure there have been some of those, right? But what we know about, the story that has become The Story in our culture at the moment, is of people getting through TSA with bombs in their earholes and being thwarted only by the aggressive suspicions and prompt violence of untrained civilian passengers. And that’s a Bad Thing—not the actual thwarting, well done there, yes, but the idea that I think a lot of us are getting that buying an airplane ticket is a kind of special posse come-and-git-us warrant, and that the actual people who do the real work (and the thieving, yes) are just a useless hassle.

So, Secretary Napolitano, I’m not really with you on this one. Sorry.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 17, 2009

Carols and Lessons and Lessons and Carols

Your Humble Blogger had seen one of the news articles about the grumpy CofE Bishop complaining about Christmas Carols, and thought that actually, he had an excellent point. I think in particular the bit about how certain carols give an idea of the infancy or childhood of Jesus that is both an invention (in the sense that it is not in the Gospels) and an unfortunate invention. I particularly liked the line about how pretending, in “Away in a Manger”, that the Baby Jesus did not cry seems to imply that crying is somehow sinful. Now, I’ve never really understood Christian Messiah-hood, or Jewish Messiah-hood for that matter, but I think that any conception of Jesus that denies his infant tears comes awfully close to heresy, yes?

Furthermore, I think it is important what the carols say, and what they imply, and what they teach. Children sing these things before they understand the words, but they also sing them after they understand the words. And the Victorian context of some of the popular carols that the Rt. Rev. Nick Baines mentions in the article is not a healthy one, not one that we are generally happy to be using for childhood indoctrination and whatnot. And I think people should generally be aware of what language they are using to tell their children the Greatest Story Ever Told, particularly as their children are, in fact, being told that this is the Greatest Story Ever Told, even better than the one about the bacon tree, and that this is What the World Is Really Like.

Ah, well. I see now from The Right Reverend’s Blog that he considers himself ill-used by the press who slotted him in for the annual barmy bishop story. Ah, well. I must say the Bish seems like a very interesting fellow, and I wonder if his book is any good—not really for me, if you know what I mean, but I imagine it would make a charming giftie for certain Gentle Readers.

I do wonder, not knowing anything at all, what religious carols American Christians know the words to. “Silent Night”, I’m sure. “Gd Rest Ye, Jerry Mendlebaum”, at least the first verse. “Hark the Herald-Tribune”, again the first verse and perhaps the third. A couple of verses of “Joy to the World”, and maybe Good King Wenceslas looking out on his feets uneven (when the snoo lay round about) (snoo? What’s snoo?) and then the one that you hum up to where you go Glo-o-o-o-o-oh-o-o-o-o-oh-o-o-o-o-oh-ria (G-L-O-R-I-A!) and that’s about it, yes? Or am I wrong.

Because what the Bish is talking about is groups of parents and children singing “Once in Royal David’s City” at the conclusion of the pageant, and perhaps that does happen in England, but perhaps it doesn’t here. I certainly wouldn’t know.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 30, 2009

Board, Board, Board

What are the ten best board games?

The Gaurniad’s list is actually called ten of the best, so one might think that they are just claiming that these are among the best. However, the caption is a reference to six of the best or more generally n+k of the best, a reference to corporal punishment, or more broadly to whipping, the sort of wink at hipness and oh-how-comfortable-we-are-with-the-idea-of-B/D-sex that I rather like about the newspaper, even while being aware of how intolerably bourgie it all is. Sigh. Anyway, Anna Tims claims that these are, in fact, the ten best, in the caption to the first, so that’s all right.

Here’s the list, for those of you who can’t be arsed to click through: Backgammon, Pictionary, Cluedo (what we here call Clue), Settlers of Catan, Diplomacy, Alhambra, Mouse Trap!, Othello, Acquire and Scrabble.

First of all, Pictionary is not a good board game. I know you can purchase an edition with a board, but seriously. Not. So that’s out.

Second, I haven’t played Alhambra, so it’s off the list. No, I don’t care. Whatever other criteria there are (influence? popularity? education? long-term playability? The ability to implement House Rules for the MFQ?), one criterion must be that YHB has played it, otherwise what’s the point of having the list at all?

Third, I’m taking Diplomacy off the list. I just am.

Now. We have two dice-around-the-board games, neither of which is Parcheesi. My inclination is to replace Backgammon with Trouble, which is Parcheesi, only with a Pop-O-Matic, so that takes care of both the inclusion of a Parcheesi-like game and the inclusion of a game with some sort of magnificent-in-the-abstract-but-unfortunate-in-reality mechanism. It’s not as good a game as Sorry (the game of sweet rewengi), but it is Pop-O-Matic, and Sorry, alas, is not.

About filling the Diplomacy spot, then. The obvious choice is Risk. The problem with Risk as a board game specifically is that the movement of pieces on the board is the main flaw in the game. It’s a better game on the computer than on a table, and that seems to me to knock a game off the list. Perhaps that’s harsh, but I think I’m going to leave Risk off the list even if that’s harsh. Which leaves us without a war-and-strategy kind of game, so I’m going with Chess. Sometimes the easy answer is the right one.

And the Pictionary parlor-game-with-a-board spot goes to Cranium. Not a hard choice.

The last empty spot is going to APBA, on my list. APBA, for those who don’t know, is a table top baseball game (the letters theoretically stand for American Professional Baseball Association), and I can’t really defend the choice of APBA over Strat-O-Matic or Pursue the Pennant or any of the other tabletop baseball games, except that I like APBA better and still have the boards. And I think the list really needs to have one simulation game; some folk will choose a railroad game, but they will be wrong.

Before I finish my list, I’m just going to consider: Othello or Blokus? Well, Othello, I guess, although I might go a different way tomorrow. Mouse Trap! or The Game of Life? Life, clearly. Is there any way to put Sequence or Mancala on the list? No, not really.

I think that’s my list: Trouble, Cranium, Clue, Settlers of Catan, Chess, APBA, The Game of Life, Othello, Acquire and Scrabble.

Yours?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 27, 2009

The five Ws: Who, What, Why bother, What again, and, um, does CW start with a W?

Some of y’all may know that one of my two Senators (and I only have two, which seems a little sparse, doesn’t it?) is an asshole.

That’s not my point. Although, you know, it is unbelievably frustrating to know that—do you remember, Gentle Reader, back a few years ago, when YHB was talking about the potential outcomes of the 2006 election? I dismissed the idea that my Party would continue to give committee assignments to somebody who ran against their elected candidate in the general election. And I certainly didn’t imagine that my Party would continue to give committee assignments—and seniority—to someone who endorsed the other Party’s presidential candidate, campaigned for that candidate and against Our Only President, and appeared at rallies in support of the other Party’s other candidates against our Party’s other candidates. That is just ridiculous, that my Party would do that, and particularly ridiculous that they would give him lots of power considering what an asshole he is.

Well, now it seems that Sen. Asshole is seriously threatening to join the other Party in filibustering Health Care Finance Reform. Not just voting against it—we don’t have the Party discipline in this country to make a vote against a major bill like that hugely surprising (and it might be a Good Thing that we don’t have that discipline, or it might not; there are arguments either way). But filibustering? That’s just shit behavior.

But I didn’t really want to waste space in this Tohu Bohu cursing my Senator. I mean, seriously, shit behavior, but you knew that already, right? Particularly since, as everybody has been pointing out across Left Blogovia, his stated objections to the Bill are utter nonsense on the face of them.

No, what I wanted to point out was an article in the morning Times called Democrats Divided Over Reid Proposal for Public Option. To begin with that: I think divided implies that there is a fairly even division. Not necessarily 29-29, mind you, but 40-18 or so. If it’s more like 50-8, then you want something closer to Democrats Not United or even Democrats Fail to Come Together. But fine, divided technically could mean 55-3 or even 57-1, although I don’t think you really want your headline writer to just be technically not incorrect, rather than conveying accurate info. But perhaps that’s just me; I’m a blogger, and my headlines convey nonsense, as much as possible, so maybe I’ve misunderstood newspaper headline writing, which I haven’t done since twelfth grade.

And I can’t altogether blame the writers, David M. Hersenhorn and Robert Pear, for the headline, because there are headline writers, after all. But they did begin the article thusly: “Senate Democrats voiced deep disagreements on Tuesday over the idea of a government-run health insurance plan…” One might expect a story starting thusly to go on to answer certain important questions provoked therein, questions like How many Senate Democrats? (for those who are following the story, that is important) and Which Senate Democrats? and even Why? or at least How did they voice that disagreement? Shall we see?

The first Senator mentioned is Sen. Reid, of course, who is not quoted in support of his bill, but who can be presumed to support it, albeit diffidently. Then we go to Sen. Snowe, of course, who is not a Senate Democrat at all, and who opposes the bill, just for reference sake. The next up is Sen. Baucus, who is quoted as saying that he doesn’t know if enough other Senators will support the bill. The Senator from Montana did announce his support for the bill, by the way, but that was not mentioned in the story. Still, there is certainly no claim here that he “voiced deep disagreements on Tuesday over the idea of a government-run health insurance plan”. Then we are off to Sen. Dodd, who supports the bill, and Rep. Hoyer, who isn’t in the Senate but supports a similar bill in the House.

Now we’re about halfway through the article, and it starts to get interesting:

But even as Mr. Reid spoke, some members of his caucus, surrounded by reporters in the hallways outside the Senate chamber, were expressing deep skepticism, if not outright opposition, to a government-run plan.

Oho, now, this sounds like what we were talking about up at the beginning. So. Who were they, and what were they saying?

Never mind. They don’t tell us. They mention five Senators who have not yet announced their support of the bill, but they don’t say whether they were those expressing skepticism in the hallways. No, our next quote is from… oh, guess. Come on, guess. I’ll narrow it down: it’s not a Senate Democrat. No, actually, it isn’t the asshole from Connecticut, it’s Sen. McConnell, leader of the Republicans in the upper house, and it seems that he does not support the bill, right, right. Then back and around to some procedure, back to Sen. Snowe, on to the asshole aforementioned, who is not a Senate Democrat but is a member of the caucus, and so I assume was engaging in hallway expression.

And then we get to Sen. Nelson, who said that—are you ready—he could not make a commitment on the bill without reading it. Does that count as voicing “deep disagreements … over the idea of a government-run health insurance plan”? What about Sen. Bayh who the Times says welcomed the proposal? Or Senators Kerry, Rockefeller and Stabenow, who are described as enthusiastically supporting it? Or Sen. Kirk, who predicts its passage?

No. In the article there is not one single instance of a Senate Democrat voicing disagreement with the public option. There is not one single instance of a Senate Democrat stating that he will not vote for the bill. Not one. It is true that my Senator is an asshole, and it is true that he can fuck us all on this, but it is not true that he is a Democrat, and even if you count him in the caucus (which makes the lead sentence technically inaccurate and misleading, but kinda sorta truthy in a way) that is one.

I’ll add—I am willing to believe that some of the Senators did, in fact, talk about their disagreement with the whole idea of a government-run health plan. But if they did, I didn’t hear about it from this article. I mean, seriously, I would like to know: How many Democrats are opposed to this bill? Which Democrats are against this bill? Because that is important information, and I don’t have it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 21, 2009

The L Word

I learn from Bill Donohue in the Washington Post that not only am I one of a vast network of Secular Saboteurs, but I am a sexual libertine as well.

Libertine! If only I could be louche, but I will settle for libertinism.

I believe that Mr. Donohue’s post was actually printed in the Post; I haven’t seen a printed copy of that newspaper for a few years, myself, and they don’t indicate a page number on that link, but I don’t suppose it matters, really. The point is that it’s about sexual libertines, who (according to Mr. Donohue) run the world (but don’t procreate—breeders evidently are doin’ it wrong), motivated most of all by a pathological hatred of Christianity.

No, stop laughing. You depraved saboteurs and your shoes—well, us depraved saboteurs, anyway—may think it’s all about the flesh, but it’s really about the Spirit. We are termites, libertine termites, and, um, that’s a bad thing, you see, because, on the whole, it’s better to have repressed termites, or just termites with very low libidos. Right? On the other hand, religious conservatives are like rabbits, who presumably have high libidos, or at least short gestational periods, and don’t walk their dogs, because rabbits walking dogs would be against Scripture, like multiculturalism and scrubbing. Scrubbing, very bad. Also bathing. Cleanliness, evidently, is metaphorically quite far from the Divine.

OK, just for fun, here’s us, according to the column: nihilists, saboteurs, libertines, malcontents, elements, radicals, anarchists, menaces, students, Yaleys (now that’s a low blow), secularists, activists, blasphemers, artists, masters, charlatans, zealots, and termites. We scrub, we club, we tear, we annihilate, we wage war, we attack, we pervert, we hate, we shudder, we seize, we politicize, we denigrate, we insult, we bash, we harbor, we bash, we lie, we ban, we punish, we are flagrantly insubordinate, we walk dogs and bathe and (this is the great part) we are losing the culture war. Which you can tell by the way we are in charge of everything (seriously, “the gay activists are in charge” of the Democratic Party) and still “In the fight over gay marriage, the scorecard is 30-0”. He doesn’t say which way, though.

Yeah, see, that’s the thing. We are too busy being sexual libertines to get gay marriage legalized in Vermont, Iowa, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and somewhere else, can’t think of it, begins with a C. It’ll come to me. Sorry, too busy to look it up. Libertinism really takes it out of a fellow.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 20, 2009

Threescore and seven years ago.

Your Humble Blogger, for reasons that are not terribly interesting, happened to read FDR’s 21st Fireside Chat yesterday. It was broadcast on April 28, 1942; it begins “It is nearly five months since we were attacked at Pearl Harbor.” The war in the Pacific is not going well, and of course we have not yet invaded Europe. I read it in the Modern History Sourcebook version, but the Miller Center at UVA has the actual audio, for those who prefer it that way.

Digression: I know that Winston Churchill, after speaking to Parliament, had an actor read the speeches over the radio, rather than wasting time reading them all over again. So the voice that won the war, the voice that kept the English from surrender, was not actually Mr. Churchill’s voice. Although of course it was an imitation of his voice, a dramatization, of sorts, of the voice that did give those speeches a few hours previously. But as far as I understand, Franklin Roosevelt recorded those fireside chats himself. I’m not sure, but that’s what I think. I’m not looking into it too deeply. End Digression.

The speech has three major parts: the first is an update on the state of the war overseas, and the last is a trio of individual war stories. The middle is an announcement of a remarkable economic program. Prize ceilings, wage freezes, rent control, tax increases, rationing. The wordcraft of the speech is a combination of formality and bluntness that seems very, very old, from the 2009 perspective. He addresses people directly, saying that everyone will be affected. About sixteen minutes in:

Are you a business man, or do you own stock in a business corporation? Well, your profits are going to be cut down to a reasonably low level by taxation. Your income will be subject to higher taxes. Indeed in these days, when every available dollar should go to the war effort, I do not think that any American citizen should have a net income in excess of $25,000 per year after payment of taxes.

Are you a retailer or a wholesaler or a manufacturer or a farmer or a landlord? Ceilings are being placed on the prices at which you can sell your goods or rent your property.

Do you work for wages? You will have to forego higher wages for your particular job for the duration of the war.

That salary cap, by the way, is more or less $350,000 in 2009 money, according to a couple of inflation calculator sites. And the Dow Jones Index was at 92.92; it had fallen pretty sharply over the last few months, and was about to start climbing again. Because of this chat? In spite of it?

As a coincidence, of sorts, because this kind of info does come up fairly frequently on my left-socialist aggregator, yesterday’s Flowing Data note featured representations of CEO Compensation as the results of GOOD’s contest. And, you know, twenty or thirty times that cap. Or a hundred times. You know. Different times. After all, FDR was dealing with both a war and a financial crisis.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 16, 2009

It's all about the Benjamins

One of the very odd things about the Free Market is that people who ostensibly believe in the Free Market have so much difficulty following through with that belief when they don’t like the results. I mean, yes, that’s not all that difficult to understand, people being people; lots of us who ostensibly believe in Democracy find it difficult to support the election of terrible people by an electorate that appears (to us smart people) to be dupes, ignoramuses and frivollers. But the thing about Free Market ideology is that it is so rigorous and cold that it seems to compel consistency. Or so it seems to me. I haven’t believed in the Free Market since I was nine.

But people seem to be all whatsit about the story that Rush Limbaugh [was] dropped from bid for St. Louis Rams. Now, I don’t give two shits about the St. Louis Rams, or about the NFL generally. Nor do I think that Rush Limbaugh is lacking for investment opportunities. I wouldn’t have been broken up about Mr. Limbaugh buying a stake in an NFL team, or even a MLB team, if it came to that. I think it’s despicable for Mr. Limbaugh to make his living in a part of the entertainment industry that encourages hatred and resentment, but then, that’s the free market for you. He made a lot of money at it, and now he has the money to invest.

Now, here’s the thing: the various people involved in the system have their own market interests. The guy who is selling the team, the guy who is putting together the cartel to buy the team, the owners of the other teams who have to be in business with any NFL owners, the employees. And it seemed like enough of those people thought that Mr. Limbaugh would be bad for the bottom line (or any other line) that they decided they didn’t want his money. That’s the free market for you.

A fair number of prominent Conservatives, people who have talked about the free market in the past as providing solutions to such problems as health care, education and the environment, seem to think that in this case, they should be outraged. Outraged? By an entertainment industry making a decision about their future profits? Yes, they may be wrong, they may be letting their bias blind themselves to their interests, but surely the whole point of the free market, if you believe in it, is that they will pay for that in the end? So let ’em. Right? It’s their money.

I mean, I don’t believe in the free market, myself. It was John Kenneth Galbreath, I think, who committed several chapters of a book I read to the idea that a fool and his money are just as often rewarded as parted. If it were up to me, I’d completely nationalize health care, and outlaw privately-owned hospitals altogether. At least see how that worked. I don’t have any problem with imposing regulations from outside the system to prevent the market from coming to conclusions I don’t like. I mean, there are practical problems with particular regulations, but I don’t have any ideological problem with some sort of step-in to prevent a trust (such as the NFL or the lending industry or the health insurance companies) blackballing people they don’t like. Although, I must say, the entertainment industry does seem like a place you could let have a little more free rein on the theory that the prejudices of the owners are more likely to accurately reflect the prejudices of the viewing public, and that efforts to combat those would just lead to a show that nobody wanted to watch. I’m not absolutely convinced (I would expect that the owners, being owners, are likely to be part of an elite that has its own separate prejudices and biases), but there’s an argument there.

What I don’t see is an argument that says that somebody putting together an investment group is obliged to include somebody who he thinks would have an adverse affect on the profitability of that investment. You can argue that the fellow is wrong—but again, surely the point of believing in the free market is that the money guy already has the highest possible incentive for making the correct judgment. If you think that the money guy has not done the requisite research, or that he has been duped by clever but dishonest demogogues, or that he has caved to social pressure, well, then, you don’t believe in the free market, do you?

Now that we’re in agreement about that, let me tell you about some other things I learned about when I was nine years old…

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 9, 2009

No Bells at All

But here’s the thing. People are rightly skeptical. I understand that. But really, when you think about it, particularly if you think about it in the context of the history of the Prize, it makes a lot of sense.

Generally, I don’t think a lot about Alfred Nobel and his history. Yes, I am vaguely aware that he established the prizes in his name out of a sort of guilt from making so much money in the scientific furtherance of weapons technology. But sometimes it helps to think about the specifics. So here are a few details of Alfred Nobel’s life and times, to give you an background in which to truly appreciate this choice.

Immanuel Nobel, his father, was in the torpedo business, but went bankrupt after making over the St. Petersburg Explosives Company factory into a tailor shop. The initial success of exploding pants encouraged him in the disastrous investment, and after the attempt to mine the harbor at Brisk (in what is now Belarus) with motion-sensitive projectile spats failed utterly, the Nobel family fortune was in ruins. Young Alfred was forced into indentured servitude with Boston silversmith Ephraim Laphroag; at the tender age of thirty-eight, his hand was permanently disfigured in an industrial accident involving molten cheese. This was to scar him for life.

His obsession with success in his father’s field, however, was not dimmed. He turned his energy into a new torpedo factory, and soon had the largest ammunitions works in Nepal. To this day the Asian Basketball Association team based in Kathmandu is called the Torpedoes. Mr. Nobel’s success was based on technological innovation, rather than the aggressive consolidation of resources and distribution channels exploited by rivals such as Murray Kellogg, Adolphus Brown and Prithva Taramindiadan Root. The Nobels of Nepal were safe to use, easy to deploy, and would not explode under any circumstances. This last advance involved a the addition of an ingredient called purell, or Greek Fire, the chemical makeup of which was known only to Alfred Nobel himself, and one or two of his drinking buddies. When his competitors banded together to hire a mercenary army to steal the technique, he tore up and swallowed the only copy of the instructions, as well as tearing up and swallowing the only copy of a four-act tragedy he had written about the disappearance of Judge Crater. The mercenaries, enraged, frustrated and bored, burned down the factory with him in it; his hand was permanently disfigured in the fire. This was to scar him for life.

Escaping through an underground railway (narrow gauge), he made his way by boat to Burkina Faso, where he gathered enough investment capital to try again. He had his greatest inspiration while setting out from the La Paz harbor: he would clone a vast army of soldiers from the DNA of a single mercenary, the fiercest fighter of them all. This required a long-term investment to find the ideal source of the genetic code. First, he purchased an island in international waters off the coast of Luxembourg. Then, he simultaneously built an elaborate underground laboratory complex and established an international ring of narcotics and prostitution. Finally, he organized a martial arts competition featuring the fiercest and most vicious outlaws, fugitives and desperadoes. Tragically, all of the competitors turned out to be undercover law enforcement agents. Instead of a wretched hive of scum and villainy, he wound up with a highly trained cadre of legally sanctioned killers from governments across the globe. His mercenary army was decimated, and he himself was killed in the ensuing fire, in which his hand was permanently disfigured. This was to scar him for life.

The sudden death of Alfred Nobel at the entrance to his underground lair set off a sequence of automated events that had been intended to reanimate his corpse. The combined efforts of the world’s greatest undercover officers, martial artists and codebreakers were bent on stopping the sequence before it reached critical mass. In the end, MI-8 agent Harris Tweed gave his life in a daring and visually exciting fashion by eating the entire island, permanently disfiguring his hand and preventing his escape. However, the unstable protomatter (or Greek Fire) at the heart of the experiment created an self-cloning superpowered evil monster that became known as Code W, from the Esperanto word waysmeer, meaning underground.

Filled with regret (and protomatter), Mr. Nobel gave up his heretofore relentless quest for better and more deadly weaponry, and devoted himself to cultivating peacetime uses of technology. He wrote a posthumous will leaving the bulk of his vast wealth to a funding in perpetuity a series of Prizes, to be given to scientists, researchers, technicians and villains who had achieved or seemed to be on the track of achieving what he himself could not: an international award. In that testament, he placed the greatest emphasis on the technical awards, to be given in four categories: physiomolecular monotony (popularly known as the Donatello Award), auditory and tendential rigidity (the Fields Medal), tertial hypostacy (or Greek Fire) and semi-transparent jejunosity (the Laurel Crown). These made up what he called “the core hope for the newborn century”.

Ironically, it was a fifth prize that became the most well-known and influential. This waysmeer prize was awarded annually to the person judged to have done the most in containing, combating or alleviating the continued threat from the Code W project. This was always a controversial choice, particularly following the Great Demarcation of Prague, when the Nobel Committee voted to suspend the award altogether, or to just give it to Henry Kissinger. Later, it was discovered that the majority of the Committee members had in fact been killed and replaced with W-clones, setting off a worldwide panic. In recent years, then, not only have the committee members been subject to genetic tests, but genetic material has been harvested from each nominated candidate. Every batch of nominees is discovered to have several W-Clones disguised in their ranks; the announcement of the recipient is always preceded by a spate of high-profile disappearances and sudden deaths.

This year, however, the committee had only one nominee, which might seem suspicious on the face of it. However, deep research and surreptitious gene coding proved the committee right. The scourge of waysmeer is still potent, but it begins to look like we may have cracked it. And it’s at that moment, on the cusp, if you will, of another era, perhaps a permanently post-W era, that the committee has joined to award the Nobel Prize for Not Being W to Barack Obama.

And can you blame them?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

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,
-Vardibidian.

July 29, 2009

England, eh? There will al-fucking-ways be one, innit?

Your Humble Blogger was going to use this article about Tory leader David Cameron using a line about twitter that I think originated with Stephen Fry (or perhaps Germaine Greer) to talk about Conservatives and profanity in this country. But then I remembered that Our Only President won a motherfucking Grammy for his recording his motherfucking book, thus making him one of the very few American Presidents to have the honor of having thousands of citizens use their mobile phones alert them to messages with the Presidential “Sorry-ass motherfucker”.

So, I’m left with this: according to a spokesman for the Conservative leader, “twat was not a swearword under radio guidelines” in the UK?! I mean, interrobang? Or, as they might have said back in FJM days, Fuck the heck?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 25, 2009

The Obligatory Mark Sanford Post

Well. It seems obligatory to write something about Gov. Sanford and his Argentine Trail. For those of y’all who don’t follow the news, Mark Sanford disappeared from South Carolina after entering a taxi on west 45th Street. He was discovered fifty years later playing right wing for Spain in the Confederations Cup. He claimed to have no memory of any events after parachuting out of a 727 over Cowlitz County, but had a suspicious tendency to curse in German when clipping his toenails.

When he returned home after the long absence, his wife took him back and the notoriety began to die down. Three years, later, however, he sued to recover money his father had left him, and the real Mark Sanford dramatically arrived during the trial, stumping in on a wooden leg. The story became famous, and Jon Amiel made it into a movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch; the filming of that movie was so contentious that Jon Amiel himself disappeared for fifteen days, later discovered playing striker for Spain in the Confederations Cup.

Meanwhile, the real Mark Stanford went on a tour of Civil War battlegrounds, where he joined up with a team reenacting the Battle of Tierra Blanca. Battlefield medics discovered that he had mysterious healing powers, and working with DNA samples, made the claim that his wooden leg was a part of the True Cross. Propelled by the media clamor, Mr. Stanford easily won the Republican nomination for Governor of South Carolina, and was certified the winner despite reports of voting irregularities. Barnwell, Bamberg and Allendale counties reported a combined total of 17,328,525 votes for Gov. Stanford, against only 34 votes for the Democratic Nominee, John Lansing. Mr. Lansing was expected to appeal the decision, but he dropped entirely out of contact for over three quarters of an hour before being discovered playing wingback for Spain in the Confederations Cup.

Any questions?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 16, 2009

Current Events, in hindsight

So. Your Humble Blogger hasn’t been writing much about the world and its wife; not because it hasn’t been interesting, nor even because I haven’t had much to say (no fear), but because I haven’t felt like putting my words down in pixels and up on the web. Then there’s this thing that happens, when the thing that I had been saying (either in conversation or in my head) is utterly validated by what happens, and I think that I ought to have written it up. But by then, of course, it’s too late. Your Humble Blogger is capable of lots of lameness, but not (I hope) of the unutterable lameness of saying, after the event, that you were right before the event. Well, not often.

Fortunately, when it comes to the election in Iran and its aftermath, Your Humble Blogger was completely wrong. So I can go ahead and write about what I thought, and how wrong I was, without being too much of a jerk. And with any luck, some Gentle Reader will have some ideas about being less wrong about that or other issues in the future, and some other GR will feel better about how wrong he was, too.

My habit, as a lot of y’all have figured out by now, is to look at what the likely outcomes are and what they seem to mean. I had figured the likely outcomes as being something like this:

  • Mr. Mousavi wins, and is directed by Supreme Leader Khameni away from any significant influence over foreign policy. Not that President Ahmadinejad appears to have had any really significant influence over foreign policy, but it seemed to me that Mr. Mousavi would be kept more under the proverbial thumb. On the other hand, from the US point of view, it would be much easier for Our Only President to domestically sell a sane(ish) foreign policy if Mr. Ahmadinejad were replaced with Mr. Mousavi, even assuming the change did not bring with it any new policy positions worth mentioning.
  • Mr. Ahmadinejad wins, and things are more or less unchanged, except of course that the passage of time is a change and makes a difference, as the argument that it’ll be years before we have to worry at all about the Iranian nuclear program will be less powerful as years pass. Also, Mr. Ahmadinejad winning could lead to giving him some actual influence, although I couldn’t really see Supreme Leader Khameni actually yielding much. From my point of view, it wouldn’t make much difference, except that it would presumably lead to more outrageous and offensive statements my President Ahmadinejad, which I could live without.
  • Supreme Leader Khameni would rig the election somehow, leading to Mr. Ahmadinejad retaining his position, but more obviously dependent on the Supreme Leader, with less opportunity for his particular brand of loose-cannon populism. This would probably be a slight improvement from the US point of view, or at least from my particular point of view, as it would somewhat decrease public mad anti-Semitism, and might make negotiations, should we choose to engage in them, a little easier, as we would not have to waste a lot of time either placating the irrelevant President or placating domestic interests who would naturally be offended by the way we placate the mad President.

In other words, I didn’t really see any way that Supreme Leader Khameni or his secretive cabal of hagiarchs and toadies was going to let something like an election for President significantly erode his power over the Iranian government, short of an actual Civil War, which would require some substantial chunk of the armed forces to side with the Other Guys. I didn’t see Mr. Mousavi leading the country into a civil war, and although I knew less than nothing about the actual country, it didn’t seem at all likely that if he did, he would have any part of the Army with him.

In the event, however, there are far more possibilities than I had imagined. Joshua Micah Marshall over at Talking Points Memo wonders if the tide is turning against the Supreme Leader. Robert Farley over at Lawyers Guns and Money writes a typically history-and-military focused note about Tank Man and Tank Commander, pointing out the tremendous importance of decision-making by individuals in the government forces, and the difficulty of predicting those decisions. And FP Passport has had some provocative posts by their stable; as usual, I find the writers seem to be very knowledgeable, while having utterly different assumptions and instincts than mine, which makes the blog interesting to me. And the sense that I’m getting is that there is a chance, a growing chance, that in a year or so, there will no unelected Supreme Leader who has veto power over almost every aspect of the Iranian government. That is, that there will be some secular official in the government who has limited but real power to defy the Supreme Leader and remain in power.

If that turns out to be true, it is the end of the hagiarchy. And if that’s true, it seems likely to be a Very Good Thing for an awful lot of people. Although, I will point out, I’m often wrong about stuff like this: see the above.

And one more thing, before I drop the subject: That think about Mr. Mousavi leading the country into a civil war? Doesn’t that seem like a Bad Thing? I mean, I’m being all humble about predictions today, with good reason, but if, say, Tehran and environs declares for Mr. Mousavi against the Supreme Leader, and gets a large chunk of secular-sympathizing military units on their side together with a three or four air bases, etc, etc… or have I read too much military specfic?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 12, 2009

Loving Day

Just a quick reminder that today is Loving Day, the forty-second anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that declared that the states could not enact laws preventing people from marrying “solely on the basis of racial classifications”. That was forty-two years ago.

It’s hard not to read the decision

Marriage is one of the "basic civil rights of man," fundamental to our very existence and survival. Skinner v. Oklahoma, 316 U.S. 535, 541 (1942). See also Maynard v. Hill, 125 U.S. 190 (1888). To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.

and not think about the current debate over the restriction on marriage between two men or two women, but I think it’s an error to take Loving Day primarily as a milestone in a widening definition of marriage. Interracial marriage in America has its own history, and is worth celebrating on its own.

I am often surprised by how quickly our social mores have changed. In 1958, the Lovings had to leave Virginia to marry in DC. At that time, the courts could write about racial integrity, blood corruption and mongrelization. These phrases are now relegated to historical studies and crazy people. Admittedly, far too often crazy people with guns, but still widely recognized as crazy. Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court of the State of Virginia could unblushingly rant like that in a decision; ten years later, judges blushed a bit to rant like that, and the Supreme Court of the United States made it clear that such talk was beyond our social norms.

I was born in 1969, two years after that first Loving Day. I grew up in a culture that still viewed interracial marriage as … difficult, but that dictated that people did not rant about racial integrity and mongrelization. Certainly not in public, not if you wanted to be taken seriously as a responsible citizen. I never picked up those particular viruses at all; I picked up plenty of other racial stereotypes, harmful in a variety of ways, but not the one where I might get creeped out by the idea of interracial love (or sex, or marriage). I didn’t even directly experience that other people were creeped out by it; I knew that it happened, in other places, that a couple would be harassed at their high school or while walking through the mall, but I never saw it. Of course, I did experience the unspoken part, where it just happened that people dated within their racial groups.

Although, you know, that was complicated in the Great Southwest: one of my best friends had a Puerto Rican mother and a European-America father (of German/Nordic descent, I believe, although he wasn’t around and (being teenagers) we never talked about our families outside the immediate household), and I certainly never thought of her as mixed-race. She was White and Hispanic, and could be expected to date other White people and Mestizos. Chicanos were distinct from that group, being darker-skinned, largely Spanish-speaking and considered lower class; they would be expected to date other Chicanos. Apache would of course date other Apache, and Navajo Navajo. This was considered to be the natural attraction of like for like, rather than the enforcement of a social norm, because we were stupid. On the other hand, there were several couples who crossed those various lines (well, some of them; I certainly don’t remember any crossing of the res lines) and the main social problem that they had (of which I was aware, anyway) was their parents. Which was a big deal, of course, but along the same lines as religious differences (when Mormons date Catholics, expect parental disapproval that would shame a Galitzianer) rather than being, er, “solely on the basis of racial classifications”. Of course, in that area as with some others in this country, religious classifications and racial classifications line up with a good deal of similarity. Class differences as well. Not a coincidence.

But I digress.

What I was after, in that ramble, was to illustrate how the world I grew up in, halfway between Loving and today, seemed to be halfway between Hell and Heaven, halfway between Bull Connor and Barack Obama, as it were. And things continued to improve, although more slowly than I would have expected. Yes, we elected a President of the United States whose parents before Loving would not have been able to live together in Virginia as a married couple. On the other hand, the image of interracial marriage, romance or (especially) sex is still incendiary enough to be the subject of films and novels and erotica and political ads.

All of which is to say, it’s worth taking a bit of time this Loving Day to think about Loving, where we are on the road away from States Rights to Civil Rights.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 1, 2009

The Hunt is up, the hunt is up, and it is well nigh May

The most viewed story on the Guarniad’s site just now is about the Couple caught having sex on Queen’s lawn in Windsor.

My reaction was that they were a day early, but this morning dawned damp and grey in Hartford, last weekend’s sun gone gone gone, and I thought, make hay while the sun shines, right?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 27, 2009

Also, let's get rid of prestige. Agreed?

Mark Taylor of Columbia University takes to the New York Times Op-Ed this morning to ask for the End [of] the University as We Know It. His description of graduate education as “the Detroit of higher learning” is clever but provokes YHB to wonder if graduate education is the outdated auto industry providing unpopular products that devastate the economy and the environment, what is undergraduate education? The financial industry? Producing products that nobody can understand, but we’re all convinced we can’t do without, somehow? Well, anyway. Our graduate system is in crisis and has been for decades, which seems a lot like our auto industry, in that it becomes a trifle difficult to tell what exactly we mean by crisis.

But my point isn’t to mock Mr. Taylor, although can I just say that if the “dirty secret” of higher education is that it’s supported by underpaid graduate students and adjuncts, then, er, (looks around, gestures, dropping voice to a whisper) somebody already leaked it. I mean, seriously. How many readers of the New York Times can be shocked this morning to learn that higher education is supported by underpaid graduate students and adjuncts? You think it’s just Larry Summers? Seriously, Mr. Taylor reveals that

In other words, young people enroll in graduate programs, work hard for subsistence pay and assume huge debt burdens, all because of the illusory promise of faculty appointments. But their economical presence, coupled with the intransigence of tenure, ensures that there will always be too many candidates for too few openings.

Surprise, consternation and alarm! Now everybody will know!

OK, more seriously, Mr. Taylor presents six short-term steps to “make higher learning more agile, adaptive and imaginative” or perhaps “rigorously regulated and completely restructured”:

  1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. Get rid of hierarchical divisions in favor of webs or networks. Instead of the survey, wide, narrow, narrow, narrowest path to a doctorate (which many of y’all know is a vast oversimplification, but still recognizable), the path to a doctorate will wind through different disciplines and end up with the candidate at the center of a web of influences.

    This is a terrific idea. It’s also a lot of work for the candidates and their advisors. Although, I suppose, there will be many fewer candidates. So there’s that.

  2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. Mr. Taylor suggests that these temporary programs, centered around such ideas as “Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water. ” would be designed for seven years’ duration. Again, I think this is a fantastic idea, and I would love to see a group of colleges attempt it. His example of a Water program, involving religious, cultural, technical, political and economic aspects, would I think lead to magnificent studies and, potentially, a group of students who not only knew a lot about Water, but had a sense of a way to tackle complex issues.

    Of course, the logistics are… formidable. I have never been on a curriculum committee myself; my understanding from those who have does not lead me to believe that having most of the school either in the first two or last two years of that process would be feasible without substantially changing the workload of the faculty. Also, the challenges of recruiting an undergraduate student body seem severe. If I were to advise a student to go to a college that had an absolutely monstrously good program on, say, Narrative, but which program was going to expire two years into that undergraduate’s time there, to be replaced by something that might be even better but, then, perhaps not, well, I’m just saying. A big challenge. Including how I would know that the Narrative program was that good when it had only been running five years.

    Also, can you imagine the fights over office space?

  3. Increase collaboration among institutions. His example of German at one institution and French at another seems a weak example of a terrific idea. It’s easier for me to imagine an advanced seminar with two professors and eight students from four institutions, able to not only meet via vidphone but study together, collaborate on seminar papers, pass notes, and develop jargon. Intro courses seem (to me) to require more group-in-a-classroom stuff, but then, I’m almost forty. But really, the technical and logistical challenges to this one seem smaller to me than the first suggestions. The problem with the webinars I’ve attended have been that they have been one-offs with very weak levels of commitment. Well, and some weak preparation and fundamental ignorance of principles of change management, but that’s not the fault of the format. Nor, really, is the format responsible for the awfulness of the word webinar.

  4. Transform the traditional dissertation. Whoo hoo! Let’s do it! Can I just ask whether there is anybody left that thinks the traditional dissertation as it’s been implemented in the last two or three decades is either traditional or sustainable? Or helpful, or useful, or has any significant positives that aren’t either (a) outweighed by the negatives by a factor of silly-to-one or (2) positives only in the context of a seriously broken economic structure of higher education?

    On the other hand, it still goes on. I mean, seriously, it does. No, really.

  5. Expand the range of professional options for graduate students. This is an odd one. I’m not sure how this would work, or how it would fit in with the other suggestions. Perhaps this is because he’s a religion prof, and people who get Masters or Doctorates in Religious Studies all do so intending to go into academia. This is largely true, I think, of doctoral candidates in the humanities, although I think not so much of Master’s students, and much, much, much less outside the humanities. And getting a Master’s Degree in Water Studies, it seems to me, doesn’t do much to expand the range of professional options, as opposed to getting a degree in Electrical Engineering, say, or my current favorite, the M-SOB, the Master of Science in Organizational Behavior. It is true that, as he says, a really good set of programs such as he is imagining would help individuals trained in them cope with a constantly changing set of circumstances, and would likely decrease the number of people who find themselves with a set of obsolete skills—but would an employer really pay a premium for that long-term benefit over the perceived short-term benefit of the status quo?

    There is a multiple-level perception problem going on, and perceptions form reality. Let me put it like this: Employers perceive a particular specialized degree as either preparing you to do a particular job (university professor, Human Resources manager, software architect, sportscaster) or (and this is important) dispreparing you for that job. A Ph.D. in Art History is at a disadvantage in looking for a job teaching Art History to high school students, or for that matter, in writing PR copy for a bank. This is not true for all high schools and banks, of course, so the other problem is that there is a perception that a specialized degree will be a disadvantage for any job other than the one you are being funneled into. So students want the program to excel in that funneling, or at least there is a perception that students want programs to excel in that funneling, and so Universities try to create that perception… Universities aren’t going to be able to implement a series of changes and expand the range of professional options for graduate students. It would take a social revolution.

  6. Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. I hate that Mr. Taylor combined these two, and that he put mandatory retirement first, as if the primary problem with tenure was the difficulty of firing old farts. I haven’t seen that at all; in fact, the primary benefit I’ve seen to tenure is the difficulty of firing old farts. The primary problem I’ve seen with tenure is that a University, faced with making two tenure decisions, each of which is unfathomably expensive (or at least is perceived to be that way by the decision-makers, and I think with good reason), have set up systems for search and tenure committees that are just awful, and lead to all kinds of terrible things for universities—including that secret dependence on underpaid graduate students and adjuncts. Oh, and the tenure system has wound up with a culture that makes the sacrifices of those graduate students and even adjuncts seem to make sense, with the golden potential of being in the Inner Ring dangled in front of them.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I think tenure is a terrific thing, but that the tenure review is so awful that it overwhelms the positives of tenure. On the other hand, tenure is largely a protection against Bad Things we don’t see, and like the tiger-repellent rock, it’s a bit difficult to know how bad the Bad Things would be if we got rid of it. Cost-benefit and so on. I can see the damage the tenure system is doing, and I know that the protections are largely against things that are relatively rare (compared to the damage of the tenure system), but then, they are relatively rare because of the tenure system. So, you know. Right now, I think that replacing the tenure system with seven-year contracts sounds great. Fifteen years after the change, I might be furious.

So, a lot of very interesting stuff in there. But a lot of stuff that would be incredibly difficult and expensive to actually do. Mostly, I’m happy that somebody is suggesting this stuff, to get it kicked around.

Oh, and—wouldn’t it have been way, way, way more persuasive if the Op-Ed had come from a collaboration of profs in different departments and institutions?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 16, 2009

Krug, Whelan, Heather

Your Humble Blogger notes that Judith Krug has died. This being National Library Week, I'll take the opportunity to further discuss my feelings about the Banned Book week that Ms. Krug helped to found. A few years ago I wrote about Banned Books week, saying among other things that “I think the ALA is being misleading if not outright dishonest in pretending that it is defending ‘banned books’.” My point being that it is much, much more complicated than that, and that my preference is that the ALA defend what it really is defending, the authority of the librarian to make choices for the library. Which is what I support. And, further, I support the librarian's choice to make a wide range of books available, with a lenient eye to offensive language, sexually explicit material, and positive depictions of GLBT stuff, political dissent and other good things. Within reason, depending on the library at issue; elementary school librarians should be making different decisions than university librarians. But it should be the librarian who makes the decision, and if the community doesn't like it, they should fire that librarian.

Now, to backtrack a bit. I do find Banned Books week problematic and somewhat misleading. But I support the ALA in pushing back against the pressure that a lot of librarians feel to use somebody else's judgment rather than their own. I found much of Debra Lau Whelan's article A Dirty Little Secret: Self-Censorship in the School Library Journal fascinating on that topic. It's a mistake to think that librarians (or anybody else) can consult their own judgment entirely, able to clearly identify and reject any pressure from any community. What the ALA is doing with its Banned Books week is to exert a little counter-pressure of their own. A librarian belongs to a community of librarians (likely enough) as well as a neighborhood and school, and there's no reason for the good guys to act as if only the bad guys are allowed to push.

What Banned Books week does, as a media ploy, is provide a context in which the individual librarian can make a better decision. And to provide a context in which a librarian knows that he will get legal support as well as community support if a decision is challenged. Those are very important things. When Ms. Krug fought for Banned Books Week, it was within the context of legal battles and public-opinion battles not only for the right of librarians to make their own decisions about their own libraries, but to increase the allowable books all around. I support that cause. I suspect my fondness for libraries (and library work) comes in part from the work that Ms. Krug did in identifying libraries as safe places for the mainstream to get bigger.

You see, when I said a couple of years ago that Heather Has Two Mommies is a long way from the shore of the mainstream (if a bit to the side of the center), I should have acknowledged that it is in the mainstream because libraries fought to widen that stream, and Ms. Krug, may she rest in peace, was a large part of that fight. I still have my problems with Banned Books Week, but in practice, it has been a positive thing.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

The Future of Newspapers Past

So, Gentle Readers probably are aware that Your Humble Blogger is keen on newspapers and the news. I consider myself one of the minor victims of the collapse of the newspaper, as I have finally given up my daily paper, in response to my hometown newspaper having its content cut so drastically that it wasn’t worth the money. I think that’s how a lot of us newspaper-lovers feel about it from the outside (although I could just be projecting my feelings onto everybody else, the way I sometimes do), that we would like to pay for and read a good newspaper, but we have become the victims of the newspaper bosses who stole the newspaper we like and replaced it with a few pages of wire stories and hastily-rewritten press releases. We know we’re not the real victims. We know that the reporters are the real victims. But that doesn’t make us feel any better. But it does mean that when we face The Future of Newspapers, we feel like we’re not so much preparing to lose the newspaper as we have already lost it.

The whole thing looks very different from the reporter’s point of view, as far as I can tell. There’s an interesting note on Newspapers and Stories, by Tommy Tomlinson over at The Future of Newspapers (which is hosted by the great Joe Posnanski). Mr. Tomlinson talks about writing a story about the Board of Zoning Appeals in Augusta, and how, without a newspaper paying somebody to cover the Board of Zoning Appeals, that story would never have been told. Mr. Posnanski tells a story in his intro about covering the big high school football game, from a different angle. And they are, between them, very persuasive about the stuff that won’t get written if you don’t have an industry paying people full-time to write it. Excellent.

The problem is that both of the stories are from more than twenty years ago. It’s true that if the newspapers go under, nobody will cover the Board of Zoning Appeals, but it’s also true that nobody has been covering the Board of Zoning Appeals for a long time. It’s not clear to me, honestly, that the Board of Zoning Appeals story he talks about is really part of what a citizenry needs to be free and self-governing (to reference Andy Cline), nor is it obvious to me that those are stories that will draw in the customer so that you can include the stories that we need to be free and self-governing, but I could well be wrong about all of that.

Speaking of Mr. Cline, he pointed me to an interesting post that Jay Rosen made over at the MediaShift Idea Lab, in which he asks How Many Homegrown News Stories Are in Your Daily Paper? I keep meaning to tally up my Courant, but of course I no longer have a paper copy at my kitchen table. The point is to find out whether, in some objective sense, there really is a lot of stuff that newspapers are doing now—not twenty years ago, but now—that would be missed.

I’m finding it to be an interesting question of persuasion, as one camp of us newspaper readers are comparing the actual daily to our romanticized idea of the newspaper’s glorious history, and finding we prefer the internet, while another camp (including more actual reporters, as far as I can tell) are comparing their somewhat-less-romanticized idea of the newspaper’s glorious history to the internet, and finding they prefer the actual daily. We’re not talking past each other, but we sure aren’t seeing the same universe.

And while I’m at it, Colin McEnroe over at the Hartford Courant tells us about My Newsthing, his own idea, which involves a physical outlet where food is sold, citizens could talk to journalists and listen or participate in interviews (podcasts, I’m thinking), and there would be art exhibits and concerts right there on the grounds. I think this is brilliant, and could conceivably break even at a level that would pay for some of those full-time journalists we were talking about. There are problems with the business model, but there are problems with the newspaper business model, as well, right? And I think that rather than comparing the golden age of newspaper to either the internet or this morning’s Courant, he’s imagining something else entirely, which is probably a better place to start.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 13, 2009

We extort and pilfer, we filch and sack, maraud and embezzle and even highjack.

So. A few days ago, Annie Lowrey over at FP Passport approvingly passed along the suggestion that people should Stop calling them pirates. Matt Yglesias over at ThinkProgress responded by suggesting Let’s Call Pirates “Pirates”. My reaction was much the same as Mr. Yglesias’ses’es, mostly because, as Robert Farley over at Lawyers, Guns and Money put it, We Have Different Words Because They Refer to Different Concepts. Ms. Lowrey among others suggested calling them maritime terrorists, but there is no sense in which the Aden Coast Pirates are engaging in terrorism: they seem to have no political goals, and are largely trying to work the money/violence ratio as large as they can.

On the other hand, I do see that there is a cultural problem with connecting the current problem of piracy with Long John Silver, Captain Jack Sparrow and the Horrendous Hullabaloo. Yes, I do see that actual piracy was a lot more like what is going on in near Somalia and a lot less like singing with catlike tread upon our prey we steal. It’s also true that knights were the jackbooted thugs propping up the aristocracy, and that they killed more peasants than dragons. And while I do eventually want my Perfect Non-Reader to understand the reality, I don’t think it’s a good idea to try to stamp out her desire to play knights or pirates or samurai, or princesses for that matter. I can almost (but not quite) imagine my grandchildren playing terrorists, the way that my parents played cowboys and indians; a moderately innocent naughty thrill that indicates the absence of actual threat.

Still, at the moment, calling the pirates terrorists is not a good way to encourage sensible thinking about them, and very much not a good way to encourage sensible policy about them. So. I was trying to come up with a good term that sufficiently indicated what they were doing, and I was failing. There is a bit of a difference between the piracy there and the Piracy of old, which is that while (as I understand it) the pirates of old were essentially highway robbers on boats. Grab whatever loot you can, and if there happens to be somebody worth ransoming, then hold for ransom, but the business plan is cash-based, not extortion based. Or, rather, most of the extortion comes when you point the pistol and say Stand and deliver! These pirates are doing something more like kidnapping. Well, and they are doing kidnapping, too, but the ransoms are for the cargos and the boats, more than for the people.

So, here’s my question: is there a word for the specific kind of extortion where you take an object, rather than a person, and hold it for ransom? I mean a word (or phrase) that differentiates that kind of extortion from kidnapping or from robbery more generally. Blackmail can run on similar lines, only there doesn’t have to be an object, necessarily, and if there is one, the object has to (for the common cultural understanding of the term) reveal an unsavory secret about the victim. I can’t think of a term for it. It’s a common enough crime that there ought to be one. I believe that there were instances in Sherlock Holmes stories. In modern times, the typical extortion is (in my reading) where a government official holds your goods in customs until you bribe him, which perhaps should have its own term of art, as well, but is slightly different in connotation than this.

Leave aside the boats for a moment. If somebody steals your latop at gunpoint, and then offers to give it back if you give him $500, is there a word for that?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 3, 2009

That shit is getting high

Gentle Readers would have been disappointed if I didn't mention this, right?

Swearing in the Guardian, 1998-2008

As Mr. Hume points out, the Guarniad has been keeping the bastards down, fuck is up, but their cock line is essentially flat.

And I think that's all that needs to be said about that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 27, 2009

Bonus entry!

It may or may not surprise Gentle Readers to know that I have a note here, in the bottom of my draft-Tohu-Bohu-notes file, about retention bonuses, corporate performance, and the relationship of employer to employee. It may or may not surprise the specific Gentle Reader who asked me to write about the issue to know that I am still carrying around the note on my little flash drive. Particularly since I’ve been carrying it around for months.

The spur to beginning the note was not the AIG bonuses, nor the rest of the outcry over million-dollar bonuses to CXOs and other muckamucks. No, it was a Gentle Reader having been told during the year that there was a retention bonus for those employees at his workplace who managed to somehow avoid getting laid off before the thirty-first of December, Two Thousand and Eight. He would receive 4% of her annual salary as a contribution to her 401K. He was still employed on that date, and his 401K did not get that contribution, nor did the retirement accounts of his co-workers. As the company teetered toward Tweeterdom, it decided to keep what money it had, and not dispense it to people like my Gentle Reader, who, after all, were just employees.

Digression: I say his, but actually her name is Peter Emmanual Purwinis. Still, in the interests of anonymity, I’m not going to disclose that, nor her address (which is 15233 Mahatma Gandhi Place, Wichita KS 67667), nor the publishing company that employs him (Gale McGill Putnam Brothers and Howe), nor the account number of his 401K. On the other hand, I will tell you his shoe size, favorite hockey team, and criminal record. I mean, fair’s fair. End Digression.

Where was I? Oh, right, retention bonuses. My response, when I heard about this ever so many weeks ago, was that this is what comes of weak unions. Not that my Gentle Reader would have been in a union; he is a manager, not only by classification-to-keep-people-out-of-the-bargaining-unit but by actual responsibility. I believe, however, that in organized workplaces, where stuff like bonuses are written into contracts with unions who have the power to enforce them, the employer will get used to fulfilling responsibilities and will therefore be less likely to screw middle management than ownership in a non-unionized workplace. Also, I believe that in societies that are heavily unionized, ownership is less likely to screw middle management. I’ve never seen any data on that. So it may be a complete fabrication based on my romanticization of unions. But I’m sticking to it.

Now, legally, there are all kinds of things going on. My Gentle Reader did not have a contract to point to with a clause that says 4% on 12/31/08. There was a promise, with maybe a handout that wasn’t signed by anybody. Not that a verbal agreement isn’t enforceable, but legal enforceability isn’t the issue. Demanding the bonus in court is not going to be cost-effective. No, the issue is that the company feels perfectly entitled to simply walk away from a promise. It’s a cultural issue, a mindset.

So. People are probably drawing lines between this sort of retention bonus and AIG and similar financial-industry big money bonuses. I think it’s a good idea to draw those lines, although of course those bonuses, even when they are retention bonuses, are structured in an entirely different manner, mostly as a way to shovel money to people whilst minimizing tax liability. The point, though, is that there was an agreement made to pay a bonus under certain conditions, and the employee fulfilled those conditions, and the company did not feel it could walk away from that promise.

Why not?

Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the fact that while fulfilling the condition of the bonus, the employees engaged in fraud (possibly without violating laws) and broke the company and pissed in the corners. I know that’s a big thing to leave aside. But let’s leave it aside. In fact, the ownership of AIG was in big trouble financially, but felt it couldn’t walk away from its promises. The ownership of the unnamed publishing company that employs my Gentle Reader felt it could.

The difference is what, exactly? Yes, the amount of money makes a difference. Yes, I suppose there could be a difference in how replaceable the employees are deemed to be. Yes, there is a class thing going on. And yes, AIG found a pot of gold at the end of the proverbial, whilst Gale McGill Putnam Brothers and Howe found a crock of shit. Is that what’s going on?

I don’t know. I really don’t. I don’t know what’s going on with the whole employer-employee relationship in our culture at the moment. I really don’t.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 20, 2009

AHistorical Look at the Lending Industry

So. I haven’t written much about our financial craziness, because honestly I know nothing about finance or economics, and there are lots of people who do know something about finance and economics who are writing about it, and even more people who (like myself) know nothing about finance or economics writing about it. So it’s not like we are in some sort of rumination crunch, where I could supply some sort of demand for, well, whatever this note is turning out to be.

I was thinking, though, the other day, as a person who doesn’t know much about finance, about the recent history of the lending industry. I mean, there were the M&A eighties, where companies borrowed chunks of money the size of moons to buy other companies, and then turn those companies into cash to pay off the loans, and the mergers people made money and the lending industry presumably made a lot of money, and it was good for everybody, or at least for everybody who had a lot of money. And then there were the go-go nineties, when money trading really seemed to take off, and companies borrowed chunks of money the size of moons in order to borrow chunks of money the size of planets, and then turn that money into yen or yuan or something and then pay the money back and everybody made a lot of money. Or something.

It was also in the nineties that it became every patriotic citizen’s sacred and noble duty to send hundreds of dollars every month to a stockbroker, who would, in return, send out every three months some papers with the story of what happened to the money, and how the money was doing, and how it was learning to swim and shoot a bow and arrow, and was eating healthy food and getting lots of fresh air and exercise and growing big and strong, and had lots of money friends, but was still a bit lonely, so if you could just send some more money then there would be enough to make full teams for the big touch football tournament. These stories were rigorously fact-checked by some people who used to work for the Weekly World News; there was some controversy over whether the 2001 Progressive Edge Portfolio fund was eligible for the 2003 Nebula award, because although it wasn’t mailed to investors until 3Q02, it had actually been written in 1997. The good news, though, was that in the 90s we had a Democratic President, who working with the Republicans in the Congress, instituted regulations that compelled stockbroker (upon receipt of form 27B-6) to allow the investor to see a portion of their money, usually its left pinkie finger, which arrived all wrapped up in cotton wool in a little box with a dollar sign crossed with a dagger.

Nobody noticed at the time that there was the potential for, you know, somebody not entirely honest to, sort of, in a sense, bring down the entire global financial structure. I mean, other than that thing where Nick Leeson destroyed Barclays Bank. And that thing in Orange County with Robert Citron. And Toshihide Iguchi at Daiwa Bank. No, the 90s were an innocent age.

Now, in this decade, lending institutions got the brilliant idea of lending money to each other, which meant that rather than dealing with paltry planet-sized chunks of chump change, we were talking about tribillimillisillions of dollars, which were all perfectly safe because they were rated AAA by Nick Leeson, Robert Citron and Toshihide Iguchi. Or something. There was a reason, though, why you could pass money through institutions like vaccine through a pigeon and come up smelling like roses. I’m sure there was. Oh, and profit.

But look, here’s the thing. The lending industry serves a very useful purpose in any system, but particularly in a capitalist system; it was Jack Kemp, after all (or perhaps Stephen Fry) who said that capitalism without capital was just another ism. But one of the things that a lending industry is bound to do, over time, is gather money to itself. And influence. And use that money and influence to (a) gather more money and influence, and (2) ward off the Nosy Parkers at law enforcement agencies who want to do stupid anti-market things like enforce the law. This is a natural and predictable path, right? And it seems to me that there’s just not going to be a lending industry that is stable over more than a few generations, right?

I mean, if you restrict your lending industry to people who are disenfranchised in other ways, like freedmen or Jews, then you presumably are defended somewhat against their power and influence, but you have the instability built in that every couple of decades you’ll just take all their money away and probably kill them, which isn’t inherently stabilizing. There must be a better way.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 5, 2009

Mumbai and Lahore, and pulling up stumps

After talking about terrorism, cricket and the subcontinent (well, that’s not quite what I was talking about, but it was in there), I feel I should say something about Tuesday’s atrocity.

Er, something. Not sure what.

As I understand it, the context is this: nobody wants to go play cricket in Pakistan. Now, nobody wants to go play cricket in Zimbabwe, either, but then Zimbabwe is a failed state, and Pakistan is…very large. As I understand it, the number of people in Pakistan who know more about Cricket than I know about baseball is approximately one point eight three gazillion. And nobody will play there. Not India, fine. We understand that. Actually, before Mumbai, India was scheduled to play in Pakistan, and that was a Big Deal, but after, not so much. Not India, not England, not the West Indies, not Zimbabwe, not the Lastfarthing County Girls Eleven.

Well, until Sri Lanka took a chance. I mean, things are bad in Sri Lanka, too. So perhaps they thought it was worth a shot. And, you know, if you’re Sri Lanka, there’s some point in showing people not to be too worried about touring areas with a history of terrorism and governmental failure.

And also, just to point this out, the host for the 2011 Cricket World Cup is, essentially, the Subcontinent: matches were to be played in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and, yes, Pakistan. And if that was actually going to, you know, happen, then perhaps it would be a good idea to test it out a bit, see what happens.

And what happened, happened. Fortunately, due to incompetence and chance, the grenade under the bus didn’t explode, and none of the Sri Lankan cricketers died. So there’s that. Could have been worse. But it was very bad.

And that’s it. I mean, that’s the context, as I understand it, and now we will see what we’ll see. I mean, there’s a possibility that an attack on cricket will be seen as crossing some sort of moral line and that particular terrorist organizations seen as responsible, or even organizations viewed as using terrorism, will lose popular support, and this will all redound to the benefit of an actual working state governing all of Pakistan. Not likely, just on the face of it, but possible. That will take a lot of doing to make that the Story of What Happened. More directly, the Story of What Happened is that Tuesday was the day that Pakistani people recognized that they were living in something awfully close to a failed state, and— what do you do if you realize that you are living in something awfully close to a failed state, and your government can’t protect your cricketers?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 26, 2009

At the Book Depository, with the cars and the mortgages

I’ve been fond of Ammon Shea’s occasional notes for the OUP blog; he seems to be a fun and interesting guy, and I am looking forward to eventually reading his book. Today’s note, though, seemed to be worth publicly disagreeing with.

The note is Is A Book In The Library Worth Two in the Offsite Storage Facility? He’s largely talking about how much he likes browsing, and sure, I like browsing the shelves myself. When he writes of the sense that even if he doesn’t find anything particularly interesting (and he usually does, of course, having the admirable ability to be interested in things) he will have had the pleasure of browsing, I nodded my head and thought Yes.

Digression: I know there’s the LOL abbreviation for the response of laughing out loud when reading something, now used to describe general amusement. That’s a disappointment to me, because I think the experience of actually laughing out loud when reading something is an experience worth having its own name. Now, of course, people say LOL just to mean a thing is funnyish, which, fine, language, but I liked the idea that the term described the experience rather than the text. I would also like a term for when you are reading something and nod your head, despite there being nobody to see you do it. It’s not quite the same thing—part of the LOL thing is that you risk having to explain the joke to co-workers or other bystanders, while the experience I’m thinking of is solitary (or if performed in public, not really noticeable the way laughing out loud is), but there’s a similar sense of response-but-not-communication that ties the two of them. End Digression.

Despite that head-nodding moment, what Mr. Shea is leading up to is that he thinks it would be Better if libraries were set up to allow him to browse everything to his heart’s content. He says he’s “not particularly interested in having a debate with a horde of tetchy librarians about what is the best way for them to perform an admittedly difficult job, but…” he objects to the use of off-site storage and paging. He concludes the note, “I cannot help but to find it strange that making a physical object inaccessible is now seen as a sign of progress.”

Now, of course, I would be shocked more than a handful of librarians in the world view off-site storage as a sign of progress rather than as a regrettable necessity, or at least a reasonably cost-efficient solution to a problem that admits of few attractive solutions. The reason I felt compelled to type out this cranky response is that Mr. Shea falls into a trap that turns up a lot, and this particular example is (I think) a good one. The general case is that Person X likes Object Y or Activity Y, and thinks that things should be arranged so that Person X has regular, affordable access to it. I first started thinking about this as a general category in response to the specifics of intellectual property rights and sampling: an otherwise persuasive writer wound up making the case that because it would be prohibitively expensive for hip-hop artists to track down copyright holders and pay fees, there should be (blah blah blah), that would allow us to have good music. The blah blah blah part was actually not a bad idea in many ways, but the argument was really that the economy should arrange itself so I can afford music I like. My response was that I like monumental sculpture, but I don’t expect granite or glass or craftsmanship or design to be cheap enough for me to have some in my back yard.

Sometimes, of course, there is a Public Good that gets put into play. If it turns out that (as I think will quickly happen and has probably already happened) it isn’t economically feasible for a commercial airline to make a profit while safely transporting passengers at a price they are willing to pay, it may be to the Public Good to rearrange the economy. We’d have to look at the benefit to the public in having travel for the people who can’t afford to charter their planes, etc, etc. Maybe it’s worth it, maybe it isn’t. I think it’s clearly in the Public Interest to have a Lending Industry, even (barring an enormous change in our culture and economy) a profitable Lending Industry; I think we’ve accepted that it’s worth it to us to spend some money to make sure that there is a Lending Industry (although, of course, there are differences of opinion about how much money, and how to go about it, and how to minimize the support whilst maximizing the Public Good). Is that true of the Airline Industry?

We’ve largely decided that Opera, f’r’ex, and Symphonic Music, and the conservation and display of Visual Art, and some other aspects of Cultcha are Public Goods that require subsidy, even as there is massive disagreement about whether that subsidy should be through the government or private philanthropy (or, more realistically, the proportions of the two). And although there are different ways of looking at the issue, in point of fact, nobody really thinks that it’s possible to run an Opera or a Symphony or a Museum on the money you charge for admission. Not with our current economy, labor costs, energy costs, etc. Not going to happen. Nor do we fund Higher Education with the cost of admission. Nor, of course, the libraries associated with those institutions of Higher Education. Are the Universities a Public Good worth subsidizing? Again, we’ve largely decided yes, they are, and the argument is over how to subsidize them. What about libraries? Again, yes, absolutely.

But what about browsing? I totally agree with Mr. Shea about the joys of browsing and specifically the joys of browsing through old books and periodicals. And, clearly, there’s no possible way for unsubsidized browsing to work: nobody is going to make a profit selling tickets to an enormous room of old periodicals. I’m not saying you’d have no customers. I’m saying if you took the cost for a year and divided it by the gate number, you’d get a very large number, and if you set the ticket price at that number, you wouldn’t get even half of the gate you started with, so you would have to set the ticket price even higher, pricing out more of your customer base, and pretty soon you’ve discovered that it’s easier to sell burgers.

So is browsing more like a symphony or more like my fondness for monumental sculpture? I have a pretty expansive view of the Public Good (and a pretty narrow view of the costs of tapping the Public Purse), and I love to browse among old books, but I can’t see it. I just can’t. That’s getting into the category of foot massage and bowling leagues. They are good things, and I personally would benefit from massive subsidies, and furthermore there are indirect benefits and increased productivity and so on, but seriously, I don’t see it.

And (to bring this all back to one of The Topics of our society at the moment) I think it’s a good idea to have those conversations, about (a) what things, in a capitalist system, it’s possible to provide at a profit, and (2) what things that do not fall into that category we want to subsidize anyway, and (iii) how much we’re willing to pay for them. And, you know, there are things that can be run at a profit (say, energy plants and prisons) that we may prefer to subsidize so they are run for a greater Public Good than capitalism will. But that’s a different conversation. The one I’m on about acknowledges that browsing, or automobile ownership, or opera attendance, or collecting momumental sculpture may not be economically feasible on its own. And perhaps admits that we won’t choose to subsidize everything we like. And move on from there.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 14, 2009

Say the magic word, win ten thousand dollars

There’s been a lot of foofaraw about the proposal at Texas A&M to give a whopping ten thousand dollar bonus to the prof with the best evals. OK, that’s not exactly the proposal, but it’s really close to the proposal, and that’s the version that the foofaraw is about, as sparked by Scott Jaschik’s Inside Higher Ed note Faculty Pay ‘by Applause Meter’. In Left Blogovia, a lot of the conversation was actually sparked by Ezra sayin’ sumpin’ stupid, so a lot of that isn’t even about the thing that isn’t exactly the proposal at Texas A&M. But that’s all right.

For YHB, though, in conversation with my Best Reader, what was worth picking at was the idea of what a place like Texas A&M could do if they wanted to give a ten thousand dollar bonus each year to one teacher as a spur to excel at teaching. Let’s leave aside whether such a bonus is a good use of resources (it isn’t), and whether it would spur weak teachers to improve their teaching (it wouldn’t) or average teachers to improve their teaching (it wouldn’t), or good teachers to improve their teaching (it… might). Figure that, f’r’ex, Tex McBigBux has left a bequest for an annual ten thousand dollar teaching prize, and that the institution just has to decide how to administer it.

First of all, I think the prize committee should consist of the five previous winners. Accepting the prize entails agreeing to be on the committee for five years (except in the case of incapacity, death, or denial of tenure) and concomitant disqualification for the prize for a period of five years. I’m arguing that the people most able to judge good teacher are the best teachers, but there are other benefits to removing past winners from the pool, as well as to making the voting committee entirely faculty-based. The actual running of the committee, of course, should be done by one of the little old ladies (of any sex) who should be running the departments anyway; the little old ladies will be the first gatekeepers.

The first official narrowing, though, would be by nomination; only people nominated by their department chairs or colleagues would be considered. There should be some prestige, I imagine, in having a winner in your department, and although a particularly politics-plagued department would have fewer nominees and thus fewer winners, well, sucks to them. Nominations should be made via a moderately complicated form, which would allow the little old ladies to disqualify people at will, thus narrowing it down even further.

Then we go to the evaluations. Evaluations do suck, but they can be informative, particularly if you look at them in detail, rather than aggregating numbers. If necessary, every year someone from the stats department can come in and explain to the new committee member that a faculty member should not get a ten thousand dollar bonus because he paid some thug fifty bucks to keep the one student who hates him out of class on evaluation day.

Based on the nominees and evaluations, then, we come up with a slate of finalists, possibly five, maybe three, conceivably as many as seven, depending on how much work the committee wants to put in. Each finalist will get both an in-class visit from a committee member and an interview outside of class. In addition, for each finalist, some alumni will be contacted who took two classes with the instructor two years previously. Two years may not be the right time; there’s a balance needed between the perspective of time and the cost of disqualifying all faculty who have been at the institution less than n years. The alumni will each, in addition to filling out a survey similar to the one current students are given, have the opportunity to write a short essay arguing in favor or against the particular faculty member winning the prize. The alumni will be chosen by the Registrar’s Office, who know who took what from whom, the Alumni Office, who know who can be contacted where, and the little old ladies, who know everything.

The alum input should be weighted the heaviest of all the factors. In part, of course, that’s just a good way to sucker more money out of alums generally, but also it should emphasize to faculty and students that education is not for the end of the semester. The analogy that immediately came to my mind is that asking students to evaluate their instructors on the last day of classes is like asking passengers to evaluate airlines just before descent and landing. Most of the stuff people will eventually complain about is already there, and much of the stuff people will eventually compliment on is already there. But you don’t have your luggage, and you only have a pretty good guess than you’ll be on time, and really, the whole point of the trip—getting you there—hasn’t happened yet and maybe never will. In a lot of ways, it’s a lousy analogy, but it’s a blog, you know. Without the analogy, if you want to know if a professor is good, you need longitudinal studies, not snapshots of particular semesters.

What’s the point of all this blather about the correct way to run a program that isn’t going to be run that way, doesn’t actually exist, and would be a bad program even if it were run the way I mandate? The point is this: finding out whether teaching is going on—much less education—is time-consuming, difficult, complicated, error-plagued and laborious. Anytime anybody talks about holding teachers accountable for teaching at colleges or elementary schools, hold on to your wallet.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 15, 2008

giftedness, enrichment, outlierosity

So. A month ago or so, Your Humble Blogger went to a Parent Information Session at the Perfect Non-Reader’s primary school, to learn about Enrichment for the Something School Student Community. I went in believing that enrichment was the new term for tracking or gifted programs, essentially, what the bright kids get that the other kids don’t. Well, actually, I went in believing that enrichment was what happened to the bad kids and why the school garden grew such large tomatoes. But more seriously, I thought we were talking about the Bright Kids. To some extent, I was disabused of this notion: the administration of Something School (a Magnet School of Math, Science and Technology for grades K-5) uses the term to mean stuff some kids get that others don’t, whether the kids that get it are bright or backward. It includes not only the advanced reading and math stuff, but band and chorus, ESL stuff (that isn’t called ESL these days, of course), remedial math and reading, Lego robotics, creative film-making, and, em, lots of other stuff. Art, too.

I think I approve of that conception, that having an unusual facility for arithmetic is not unlike being behind your class in arithmetic; both kids need special care to prevent them from (1) ruining class for everybody by demanding more than their share of the teacher’s attention, and (ii) deciding that this arithmetic stuff is for the birds, and spending most of the next ten years strenuously avoiding it. Although, you know, if the parents who have come to your session don’t understand what it’s about? Communication problem. And it’s a problem you need to fix not just for the people in the room, but (more importantly) for the people who might have come if they knew what the thing was about.

That leads me to my own problem, which is that I go to these meetings and respond to them as a sort of connoisseur of public speaking and a meeting critic. The woman from the district used transparencies and an overhead projector! What the hell? Is this 1974? I would be much better off responding as a parent, but somehow that other role creeps in.

What was on those transparencies, you ask? An excellent question, even if I had to ask it myself. One of them had the Venn Diagram you can see here, to which the proper response is not hee, hee, a Venn Diagram, but what is the philosophy behind a program that would show us this thing? The thing, for those who would rather have it in words, is that giftedness is shown to lie at the intersection of Above Average Ability, Creativity, and Task Commitment. It is only those who gain entry into all three rings that lie in the black hole of Giftedness.

Wow, says I to myself, you’re not gifted, after all! Yes, it turns out that the point of the overhead (and of the handout, as well) is that the old idea of giftedness was wrong, and that True Giftedness was much rarer. They handed out two quotes on that topic from prominent researchers on education (that I had never heard of, but that’s scarcely news). The first is from Henry Passow who evidently wrote that

that which educators and psychologists recognize as giftedness in children is really potential giftedness, which denotes promise rather than fulfillment and probabilities rather than certainties about future accomplishments. How high these probabilities are in any given case depends on the match between a child’s budding talents and the kinds of nurturance provided.

See, we thought that gifted kids were gifted, but really they are only potentially gifted, and we can’t tell which ones are Truly Gifted until we see the future accomplishments. This idea is carried out in the second quote, by Abraham Tannenbaum:

In order for a child to become truly gifted, five factors have to interweave most elegantly: 1) superior general intellect, 2) distinctive special aptitudes, 3) a supportive array of non-intellective factors, 4) a challenging and facilitative environment, and 5) the smile of good fortune at crucial periods of life.

Again, it is impossible to distinguish the Truly Gifted from the Also-Ran until that crucial period of life, whatever it may be.

Now, this seems to me profoundly wrong in two ways. First and least important, it screws up the entire metaphor of giftedness. I mean, if you give me twenty dollars, and buy losing lottery tickets with it, did I not get a true gift? In fact the whole point of the metaphor of the gift was that, having (perhaps inexplicably) received (from the Divine, but that part usually is left unsaid) unusual intellectual facility, it is up to the individual what use to make of the gift, or whether to waste it entirely. But nobody likes to waste gifts. Do y’all know the economist’s puzzle about how people who, given the opportunity to buy a (f’r’ex) playoff ticket for a hundred dollars, will not do it, thus indicating that they would rather have a hundred dollars than a ticket, but if they are given a ticket, and the next day somebody offers them a hundred bucks for the ticket— well, people are different one to another, but an awful lot of people wouldn’t sell it. Because it’s a gift.

So if we decide that we can’t allow that children are realio trulio gifted whether they achieve exceptional success in life or not, then the child to pisses away his gift is only pissing away a potential gift. The motivational aspect of the metaphor disappears, and it’s replaced with something much less appealing (who wants to be potentially gifted) and much less powerful.

But as annoyed as YHB is with the loss of the metaphor of giftedness, the underlying problem gets even further up my nose. Both of the quotes, as well as the Venn Diagram, come from an attitude that says that education is valuable because it makes great achievement possible. Or it maximizes the probability of achievement, if you like that better.

No, no, no! We don’t provide special education for people who have extraordinary facility with symbols or music or drawing because they may someday be superphysicists or rockstars or animators of blockbuster movies. We do it because they may someday be happy. They may lead interesting lives, bless ’em. They may contribute to their communities in a variety of ways, whether good fortune smiles on them or not. It’s nice when that happens, particularly with the physicists, but that’s not why we do it. And if it is why we do it, then it’s a spectacular failure, an unimaginable waste of resources.

And then I read an extract from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which talks about the Outliers in much the same way as Mssrs Passow and Tannenbaum. Essentially, if we want to have brilliant (f’r’ex) violinists, we need to identify those kids with talent by the time they are five, and give them the opportunity to play ten thousand hours on the violin by the time they are twenty-five. If they do it, they will probably be brilliant violinists.

Oh, I have so many problems with Mr. Gladwell’s methods. He’s a fascinating writer, but he comes up with some wonderful item—ten thousand hours—and he can’t view it skeptically, and he finds so many connections and reflections of it that he doesn’t even bother to convince us that the thing is right in the first place. But those things are appealing, and it’s appealing to think about those Outliers and how to make more of them. Because I do want more Outliers. I want the superphysicists and the rockstars and the animators, and the writers and the doctors and so on. And it is tempting to set up our educational system to maximize Outliers, both in quantity and quality. Given infinite resources, and tremendous wisdom in the allocation of those resources so that we somehow wouldn’t work to the detriment of others when we do maximize Outliers, it sounds great. But given our real world, or anything remotely like it, setting up an educational system to maximize Outliers is a grave mistake. And even with those infinite resources, I would still object to the idea that the purpose of the thing is to get the records and movies and aircars. And we don’t find out whether somebody was a truly gifted outlier by looking back and seeing that they succeeded. We shouldn’t have a biggish group of gifted and a small inner circle of truly gifted. That’s the wrong way to look at it.

Why do we provide enrichment? On one level, we just do it so they won’t cause trouble in the classroom. But on another, we do it because we want to teach each child to his appropriate abilities and background. Quick kids are one problem, slow kids are another, and medium kids are their own problem, too. We should enrich the lives of children through education, because that’s what education is, whether they go on to be ditch-diggers, doctors or dramaturges.

Which is what the school is actually doing. I was all upset by the woman from the district, with her transparencies and her Venn Diagram and her handouts. But when it came to finding out what was going on in the actual classrooms (and the gym and the library and so on), I was happy. And that was done with a computer projector with edited video and all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 23, 2008

Completely Mad

In the Guarniad on Monday, a reporter Angelique Chrisafis has a lengthy article about her interview with Max Mosley. The headline writer unfortunately gave it the title Feel my pain, but perhaps that’s only the on-line headline. Anyway.

Mr. Mosley is famous for being the son of Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford, British Fascists and Nazi sympathizers. He is also famous for being the head of FIA, the organization for car racing in Europe. And now he’s also famous for being into S&M.

I don’t particularly want to talk about the details of the case. I have very little sympathy for either the Mosleys or the Fascist Mitford Sisters; I have to say when Adolf Hitler is a guest at your parents wedding, you do just have to put up with some shit about it for the rest of your life. And Mr. Mosley in this interview is clearly self-serving and not entirely honest.

But what really shocked me was the way in which it was a grown-up conversation about a sexual kink. It’s clearly written as if most people don’t have that kink, and I suspect it is a minority of people who do have that particular kink, although of course there’s not really any way to know. But other than the sense of foreignness of the kink, the article startlingly lacks either moral outrage or prurient nudgery. Mr. Mosley is quite straightforward about the fact that he is into S&M, and that it’s a kink. “As soon as you stand back from it, it’s completely mad”, he says, but of course, that’s true of a lot of things. Sex in general. The idea of French kissing, for instance, is completely mad, until you’ve done it. Also fellatio. And lots of other stuff.

And there are other things that people enjoy that appear completely mad, as soon as you stand back from it. Baseball, for one, either as a spectator or an athlete. The Sims. Editing Wikipedia. Round singing. Religion.

I don’t mean to suggest that these activities are morally or ethically equal. But the ability to look at something you like to do and realize that other people not only may not want to do it but find it ridiculous, and then still be able to enjoy doing it…

Well, there’s something I quite like about that. Perhaps it’s the science fiction conventions in my teenage years. Perhaps it’s being in a religious minority. But I started reading the article expecting to loathe Mr. Mosley, and found myself just a trifle moved.

This is the part where I say that I can’t imagine an American daily newspaper printing anything like that, and of course I can’t, but I don’t know that there’s some deep cultural superiority across the pond that accounts for it. I can certainly imagine any number of American weekly newspapers printing such an article, for one thing. Ah, well. I suppose I didn’t wind up having a point after all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 17, 2008

Build them up with bricks and stones

I don’t remember where William Goldman writes about easy money at the brick factory, but it has stuck in my mind ever since. Essentially, the story is that one summer during college (I’m doing this from memory, so assume that it’s actually winter break during high school or some such), William Goldman decides that instead of working as a caddy or a grocery bagger for crap pay, he will work down at the brick factory and make really good money. He’s young, he’s strong, he’s broke. And he goes over to the industrial part of town and gets the job, with the factory boss warning him that if he doesn’t finish the day, he doesn’t get any pay at all. And the guys at the factory are nice, and they show him the ropes, and none of the class/education stuff he had worried about seems to be an issue at all. And he starts work.

And it’s hard work, but he’s done yard work and all that before, and he pretty quickly gets into a rhythm, and soon he’s wondering why all his high school buddies don’t come on down and get the easy money at the brick factory. And he breaks for lunch, stretches, sits down and eats, and when it’s time to get up, he can’t. He struggles up to his spot in the line, and bends over to pick up the first load and it feels like somebody hit him across the spine with a lead pipe.

And as he stumbles to the office to give up (without any pay at all), the other workers stop what they’re doing and chant easy money at the brick factory, easy money at the brick factory.

This is a lesson that Mr. Goldman says he always remembers. Whatever shit a Hollywood producer is making him eat, it’s not easy money at the brick factory. My own summers doing factory work were not so laborious, although as a result of them I still categorize jobs into (1) sitting down or standing up, and (b) air-conditioned or not. Jobs where you sit in an air-conditioned room? That’s easy money.

In fact, I suspect that I repeat (at least in my head) the quote easy money at the brick factory more than I repeat any other William Goldman quote, although my response to the meme would have to be she does not get eaten by the sharks [eels] at this time, and I probably say that out loud more than the brick factory. I imagine I will tell the brick factory story to my Perfect Non-Reader at some point, and again to the Youngest Member. Probably several times, in fact.

By which time I hope there will once more be easy money at the brick factory. Because not so much at the moment.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 14, 2008

Repeating what I said

More fuss about ACORN and voter registration drives in the news. I just want to quote my own good self:

Overvoting is not as big a deal as undervoting, and our Party will stand up for citizens who want to vote. Their Party is more worried about false voting because democracy just smells bad to them, and they want to keep it as clean as possible. We don’t think that democracy smells bad. We want people to vote. We love participation. We want to register as many voters as we can, and we want all those people to actually vote, and if that means that we have to take some resources off the voter-fraud beat, then that’s fine.

See, we in Left Blogovia are, or present ourselves as being, on the Left. I hope that means something. I hope it means that Walt Whitman would blog on our side, not on theirs. What I think that Mr. Whitman would say, what I am saying here, and what I would like us all to say is that we want every single person who has citizenship in our country to come and vote in our elections and make all the voices heard. If one—one—voter has been turned away from a polling place by the Party opposite then shame on them, shame on our nation, shame on our Constitution and our democracy. And if they want to be the Party of turning away voters, if they want to be the Party of not counting ballots, if they want to be the Party that spends our national resources on preventing ballots rather than encouraging them, if they want to be the Party that faints at the stench of democracy, then we should stick it down their fucking throats.

With civility.

Do you want to know, Gentle Reader, why I am a Democrat and not a Republican? Do you want to tell some brother-in-law, some neighbor, some co-worker or cousin or carpool buddy, the difference between the two parties? Let it be this.


I know, I know, how incredibly arrogant to blockquote myself. But it’s how it is, isn’t it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 10, 2008

wealth of whatsits

Your Humble Blogger tried to write another note about our financial crisis, and once again gave up partway through. This time, I was trying to explain my feeling that much of the “wealth” in this country never really existed, because of financial funny business. That is, if a thing—a Pedro Martinez rookie card, a house, a stock portfolio— is worth whatever some schmuck is willing to pay for it, and people are willing to pay much more than they can afford, and banks (and other lending institutions) are willing to prop up those prices not based on some agreement about the value of the object purchased but based on what some schmuck is willing to pay them for the debt, then the notion of wealth and value gets untethered from, well, from itself.

Now, that’s not such a problem, really. I mean, it is and it isn’t. It is, because we’ve essentially hooked our economy basket to a big hot-air balloon and launched ourselves over the cliff. The discovery that there’s nothing in the balloon but air is one thing, but if we can’t keep that air hot, we’re in for a bumpy ride.

On the other hand, the sudden discovery that the houses that were sold for $500,000 aren’t worth half a million dollars, and were never actually worth half a million dollars in the sense that the person who bought the house didn’t have half a million dollars and couldn’t have borrowed the money to buy it if the banks hadn’t been bugnuts crazy, well, the house is still there, the roof still keeps the rain off your head, the deck is still sunny and the windows are still double-glazed. There’s a sense of wealth that doesn’t have much to do with money, and that stuff is mostly still around.

I found Paul Krugman’s mention of Two Kinds of Problem convincing. The problem that I care about the most—people losing their houses, their jobs, and their health insurance, their social security, if you don’t mind my calling it that—is bad, but not the sort of thing we have to address over the weekend. In fact, it’s probably not a good idea to address that sort of thing with any fundamental policy changes four weeks before an election. On the other hand, the financial crisis, which indirectly affects all that stuff I actually care about, is the sort of thing that we really do risk chaos if we lose our moment, and that moment may be this weekend. Or last weekend.

There’s another problem, which is how the fuck did we let ourselves get into this mess, but sadly, answering that doesn’t get us much closer to getting us out of it. I’ll just say that there was a nice little NPR story this morning about Bank-to-Bank loans, and all I could think of was that in corporate capitalism, the fact that the whole system is dependent on short-term loans of billions of dollars from one bank to another is considered a feature.

Corporate capitalism is some fucked-up shit, ain’t it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Connecticut third!

According to the Hartford Courant, High Court Grants Gay Marriage Rights in Connecticut. The news is fresh, so the details (for instance, starting when) will have to wait until I read the Official Ruling.

Just wanted to share the news.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 26, 2008

Jump! Jump, motherfuckers, jump!

Your Humble Blogger has spent a good deal of time this week working on a blog note about the credit crisis. What I wanted to do was—wait, let me paste this in:

So. Let’s start with finding out what the actual effects [of the crisis on individuals] are. Then, for each major effect, let’s look at (1) why that constitutes a governmental problem, rather than a problem for individuals to address, (ii) how the proposed bailout would help avert or ameliorate the problem, and (c) what other possibilities might address the problem, and then perhaps a comparison of the costs and benefits of those possible solutions.


Well, that note just kept getting longer and longer, and less and less useful, and less and less accurate (because YHB knows almost nothing about macroeconomics and the details of the situation). There are lots and lots of possibilities for dealing with the problems, and each potential course of action has a variety of predictable consequences and of course an infinite variety of unpredictable ones. Almost everything the US government could do at this point will (a) have a lot of bad consequences, and (2) benefit a lot of people who have been dishonest and greedy, and besides (iii) won’t work. So I am not posting the whole note, but I will pass along the one thing I have learned from the exercise.

Corporate Capitalism is some fucked-up shit.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 22, 2008

Why they call them Republicans

Shorter Verbatim William Kristol in this morning's New York Times, an op-ed called A Fine Mess:

What are cherished principles for but to be violated in emergencies?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 6, 2008

Education for Leisure, leisure for what?

Just seen in the Guarniad: when the examination board in England had a poem by Carol Ann Duffy removed from the standardized tests because of its violent imagery, Ms. Duffy viciously and with malice aforethought wrote a poem about it.

The poem is called Mrs. Schofield’s GCSE. The GSCE is the General Certificate of Secondary Education. Pat Schofield is an invigilator, which is an awesome word, and is what we might call an external examiner. Or a tester. I prefer invigilator. The Invigilator. Well, never mind. Ms. Schofield was the person whose complaints about the earlier poem caused the ruckus in the first place.

I haven’t read that poem, which is called “Education for Leisure” and is (from analyses available on-line) a first-person narrative of a profoundly disturbed person who, faced with another day of unemployment and general worthlessness, and without any other way to fill up his day, begins by killing the household animals and then takes a knife to go out into the streets. The poem’s main figure shrugs at the first killing (of a fly), connecting it vaguely to King Lear (IV,i Gloucester: As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods/They kill us for their sport) which he had studied in school; one of the points of studying such a poem in school seems to be to bring up the entire concept of education, of why we study Shakespeare at all, or Ms. Duffy for that matter.

Our current poet’s current poem is also about Shakespeare and education. It consists entirely of questions, as it might be an exam. The first seven are short-answer questions, to make sure that the pupil has in fact read the plays, or at least the Cliff Notes. That seventh—To whom did dying Caesar say Et tu?—is followed by an open-ended eigth: and why? The ninth is also open ended, and a bit disturbing, but although one could apply it more widely, it could be taken as narrowly asking about the quote from a Shakespeare play and its meaning. The tenth, then, starting in the tenth line and extending to the thirteenth, the longest question in the poem, ends with a full stop rather than a question mark, and begins with a command: Explain. The line to be explained is not Shakespeare’s, though, but is the poet’s own metaphor for poetry itself. Then, without transition, we are in King Lear; the quote is given and followed by the eleventh and last exam question, to identify who said them.

It is the King who says it to Cordelia, in the very first scene, when he is giving is own and very nonstandard test to his daughters: “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?/That we our largest bounty may extend/Where nature doth with merit challenge.” The first two pupils give pat answers, telling the examiner what is needed to get the certificate. The last, Cordelia, finds she cannot speak. “What can you say,”asks her father, and she says “Nothing.” He repeats the word, and she does as well, and then the invigilator king says the line that Ms. Duffy puts near the end of her poem: Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.

I generally dislike exams. I was good at them; I was a Goneril rather than a Cordelia. I could tell the invigilator what was necessary for a grade. It seemed pointless, though, other than that grade, and it still seems largely so. I’ve come to accept that of the ways for teachers to determine whether the students have mastery of their subjects, it is moderately efficient in a cost-benefit sort of way; it only somewhat works, but it’s comparatively quick and easy, and the better ways are prohibitively difficult and time-consuming. The test is a tool, and a clumsy one at that, for measuring the thing that’s important, which is the mastery.

Or, perhaps, not. Perhaps the test and the reward and punishment that follow on it are the tools for getting the students to master the subject, not the tools for measuring whether they have. Perhaps when Cordelia was a child and her not-yet-old father held her to his embrace and said I love you, daughter, she should have replied, Is this going to be on the test?

We are, of course, educated for leisure all our lives. We are trained for it, poorly or well, by whatever we do and see, whatever we read and hear. On those occasions when we get leisure, we make of it what we can. That’s the test. When the children are in bed for the evening, or when you have a lunch break. We face a series of Sunday afternoon tests, one a week, for the rest of our lives. There is a pop quiz when the waiter has taken your order and you look at your spouse across the table and silence falls. And there’s the long, dark teatime of the soul, which is self-graded. And the tests prepare you for more tests, too, just like in school. You can develop techniques and study habits for your life. A truly general certificate.

I can’t get too excited about removing “Education for Leisure” from the curriculum, perhaps because I haven’t read the poem. I do get upset about removing education for leisure from the curriculum, because I do have some of that, and I think it’s important.

Oh, and you know where I said up there that “Mrs. Schofield’s GCSE consists entirely of questions”? That’s not technically true. After the eleventh question is a sentence that is, perhaps, permission, or a command, or a ritual utterance, or even a prediction. You may begin. Or, perhaps, it is a question after all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 24, 2008

Predictability, ideology, diplomacy

A note by Blake Hounshell over at the Foreign Policy blog Passport praises Biden’s refreshing lack of ideology. Mr. Hounshell reflects the scare-quotes “realism” that seems to have become dominant again in sane foreign policy discussions, presumably as a result of two terms of an administration (largely backed by the Legislature) which pushed an insane, unreal foreign policy.

It does seem a bit odd to me to have that (again, scare-quoted) “realism” adopted so enthusiastically by FP, a journal that has in the past prided itself on being the place where foreign policy ideology gets argued out. Well, no, that’s Foreign Affairs, but I get the two confused, sometimes.

But what I started wondering was whether, really, you want a person in the executive who impresses analysts with his ability to surprise them by coming to different conclusions than they expect. I understand that cases are different, one to another, and someone setting or even influencing policy should be looking at actual facts, rather than at preconceived narratives. I get that when you do that, you are not always going to come to the conclusion you expect to reach, much less the one other people expect you to reach. And I understand, as well, that when we are talking about policy, it’s often better to support a policy that has some chance of working (or for that matter, of being executed) than to support a policy that meshes with your big picture of American interests and global whatnot.

On the other hand, there’s some benefit to having a well-thought-out ideology that includes a set of aims (and the priorities thereof) and a set of preferred methods (and the priorities thereof); when the actual cases arrive, you have some way to process the aforementioned facts. And if you have thought out those aims and those methods, then there’s a good chance other people will be able to predict what conclusions you will reach.

And that’s a good thing. For our own people, for the leaders of other nations, for everybody. Except foreign policy analysts.

Well, and I mean, if the policy is good. I’d rather have somebody with good judgment and little ideology than somebody with bad ideology and worse judgment. And I think Sen. Biden, taken one thing and another, has the makings of an excellent Vice-President, and (the Divine forbid) a reasonably good President. But not, perhaps, predictable enough for my tastes.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 14, 2008

Cock-up in the Caucasus

Your Humble Blogger isn’t some sort of Caucasus maven, but it does seem to me that the NPR people are doing a bad job of explaining this war between Georgia and Russia. Anyway, since the Georgians opened up a can of epic fail on the residents of their own nation, and the Russians (who seem to have had much more advance notice than the Americans) beat the crap out of them and sent them crying home to mother, there seem to me to be only a few really distinct outcomes.

  • The formerly Georgian regions will become part of Russia proper, allowing Russia to essentially annex them by a referendum held during Russian occupation. Not a good outcome.

  • The formerly Georgian regions will become nominally independent entities, with Russia providing all the infrastructure, enforcement and security. They will be satellite countries (or autonomous state-like things) totally under the control of Moscow. Not a good outcome.

  • The formerly Georgian regions will be some sort of demilitarized zone, with international peacekeeping forces providing structure, enforcement and security, technically within fictional Georgian borders but with no Georgian law enforcement, infrastructure or security forces. Presumably, there would be an autonomous government-like thing that will be unable to make any foreign policy decision, borrow money or manage trade over the borders. Not a good outcome.

  • The entire nation of Georgia will become a vassal state, with Russian forces moving unimpeded and a theoretically autonomous government that has its foreign and domestic policies dictated by Russia. Not a good outcome.

I think that’s it. There’s no plausible path back to the bad situation that they had before Georgia invaded itself, because there is no way that Georgian forces are going back into South Ossetia or Abkhazia, and there isn’t any plausible way that anybody else is going to commit enough forces to keep Russia out of those areas. It’s just possible that NATO (f’r’ex) will commit defensive forces to keep Russia out of Tblisi, but a push forward? Not so much. Oh, I should probably add the last plausible outcome, although I don’t really like to think about it:

  • NATO goes to war with Russia. Not a good outcome at all.

Two points come to mind immediately, or at least to YHB’s mind. First is that this was a notable and remarkable failure for Georgia. Yes, Russia is bad and should not have been, you know, arming the separatists all along, and shouldn’t have sent forces into the heart of Georgia, and shouldn’t have provided cover for Ossetians killing civilians and running amok. Yeah, yeah. Russia bad. But whether Georgia is sympathetic or not, the fact remains that they sent in troops to lay siege to a city within their own borders, were immediately repelled, left their armor on the field and are now in substantial danger of losing their independence. They have had to sign an agreement that gives the Russian not only unlimited power within South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but also the right to bring their tanks out of those regions and patrol the previously uncontested parts of their country. That’s just embarrassing.

Now, the U.S. has had a strong relationship with Georgia. Our Only President has spoken up for Georgia many times, has visited Georgia and met with President Saakashvili several times. Sen. McCain has a personal relationship with the President of Georgia, a close working relationship with Georgia’s lobbyist state, and he has visited Georgia many, many times. What the hell were they doing? I don’t mean that I blame Our Only President for Georgia’s failure. President Saakashvili is a big boy, and Georgia is (or was) an independent nation, and they get to claim responsibility for their own catastrophic failures. But if Sen. McCain is some sort of foreign policy genius, and he has a long and close relationship with the most outstanding pants-crapper of the last five years, well, how does that work exactly?

The other thing that came to mind is that for me, and I suspect for almost all of us who grew up in these United States, we forget that there are lots of places in the world that are not functionally parts of nations. They are within the internationally recognized borders, but the notional national government doesn’t send in the tax collectors, or if they do send them in, the tax collectors don’t come back. Perhaps because of our federal system, and perhaps because we really do have a strong government that isn’t on the verge of collapse, even a few houses anywhere in this country holding out against the revenooers constitutes a major news story, and is recognizable by name (Ruby Ridge, Waco) for a long time after.

Before the invasions last week, Georgia’s internationally recognized borders were largely fictional. The two regions called breakaway republics were largely outside the control of the supposedly sovereign government. That happens a lot. There are parts of Pakistan where the government doesn’t govern. Parts of India. Parts of many African countries, and a few South American ones and some Asian ones, too. For a decade or so, there was a province of Mexico that was governed by a guy in a ski mask. The Russians didn’t so much collect taxes in Chechnya for a while. And so on. China doesn’t send tax collectors into Taiwan, but the internationally recognized borders include it.

The thing is, we tend to think that the map is the territory. And the map doesn’t have blank spaces. It’s either in this country or it’s in that one. It’s either in Georgia or Russia, right? Depending on which side of that line it’s on. But the map isn’t the territory. It’s just the map.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 24, 2008

The Big Story

Once in a while, a politician will say something dumb. Are you with me so far? Once in a while, the dumb thing will become news and take over the airwaves and column-inches to a really horrifying extent. We’ve got an example of it this morning, and I think it’s worth us all taking a look at it and talking about the phenomenon.

Let’s start with the dumb thing. Here’s Hillary Clinton, in response to a question about whether she should drop out of the race now, rather than waiting until the primaries are over in June:

Between my opponent and his camp, and some in the media, there has been this urgency to end this. And, you know, historically that makes no sense. So I find it a bit of a mystery. [interviewer: you don’t buy the party unity argument?] I don’t, because, again, I’ve been around long enough. My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. You know, I just, I don’t understand it. There’s lots of speculation about why it is, but [interviewer: what’s your speculation?] You know, I don’t know. I find it curious.

…and just so you have a good sense of the inflection, go and watch the video and then come back. Oh, hell, let me try to embed the bastard thing.


This made the front page of the Hartford Courant, made the above-the-fold part of the New York Times on the web (and I think made the front page of the print below the fold, but I’m not sure about that), made the Guardian, and of course made all the blogs and web sites, too. Sam Boyd, over at TAPped, in a note called Oh No She Didn’t says “Hillary Clinton suggests, elliptically at the very least, that she’s staying the presidential race in case Barack Obama is assassinated.” Hunh? But yes, that’s how it seems to be playing. Katharine Q. Seelye, in the New York Times article, says that “the comments touched on one of the most sensitive aspects of the current presidential campaign—concern for Mr. Obama’s safety.”

I’ll try to be brief here with my analysis of the actual statement, since I don’t think the actual statement is terribly important. It’s obvious to me that Senator Clinton was invoking a historical argument to say that it is perfectly fine to have a nomination contested until June, because it has been so contested in the past without problems. And we remember about June, because it was June when Robert Kennedy was killed, which we remember. This is unpersuasive as an argument because (a) the calendar, news media, and cultural context is very different than it was in 1992 and even more different than it was in 1968, (2) 1968 was a disastrous year for the Party, even before the assassination, and (iii) the nomination fight in 1992 was essentially over after New Hampshire, when the Comeback Kid took second and was assumed to romp on Super Tuesday in his home South, which he did, and that took care of Paul Tsongas. You could make an argument that, independent of anything else, June is plenty of time to pick a nominee for an August convention, much less a November election, but the historical stuff is irrelevant to that. Or you could make the opposite sort of argument, from uniqueness, that there has never been an election so close, where two candidates had so many pledged delegates, and where both were still winning primaries so far into the calendar, and that for that reason we should savor it and see it through, rather than rushing to stop it. But nobody who wants the Senator to withdraw now, or who wanted her to withdraw after the Texas primary, will be convinced by a historical argument, nor should they be.

OK. Fine, it was a bad argument, and like the arguments about which states count and which methods for counting the total number of votes cast count, and most of the other arguments about how she could realio trulio be the nominee, is both unpersuasive and a trifle embarrassing. In my opinion, the stuff that implies that pale-skinned voters should be the deciding factor in our Party’s nomination is more offensive than the reference to a historical event, but evidently that’s just me. This one is the big news. Why?

I think it’s because the dominant narrative—the story of what happens, rather than what happens—has become Senator Clinton’s desperate struggle to stay afloat. In this story, she is lashing out, trying anything, no longer caring who gets hurt, grasping at the lowest-probability straws. The thing about this story is that it ends with her utter destruction. Not just her losing the nomination, mind you, but abandonment by all her political friends and allies, and the total loss of power over others and control over herself. I’m not saying that will actually happen, mind you, just that it’s the way the story goes, and that if that’s the story that we are telling ourselves nationally, that’s the story we will see. Fortunately, there is always the chance that in a couple of years we will be telling ourselves an entirely different story. A couple of months, even. We’re easy that way.

The other narrative that I think is making this whole thing click is the Camelot story. Handsome young man goes to Washington, bringing fresh energy, new hope and a generational change, and They kill him. That story, combined with the deeper but vaguer fear of racial violence, leads us to be very sensitive to the idea that Barack Obama is peculiarly vulnerable to assassination. Honestly, I think there’s something to that, in that I know there are a lot of violent racists in this country, but then I think that there are a lot of violent misogynists in this country, and Hillary Clinton has been vilified for more than fifteen years. A disturbed young fellow in his early twenties may not remember a world without people saying on the radio that Hillary Clinton was a murderess. Of course, I am astonished that there haven’t been close calls with Our Only President himself. He is mildly disliked by a lot of people, but he is actively hated by quite a few as well, some of whom have never accepted his legitimacy in office, and some of whom fear that, having disregarded many provisions of the Constitution, he will not leave office in January 2009. I am pleased that nobody, domestic or foreign, has made serious attempts to murder the man, but I am surprised. Particularly since there were two or three attempts on the life of Our Previous President, some sort of foreign conspiracy to take the life of the President Before That, the One Before That was actually shot, and in fact most of the Presidents of my lifetime have had attempts on their life, from Squeaky Fromme to the guy who tried to hijack an airplane.

Anyway, I think a lot of us have a real and only somewhat irrational fear that Barack Obama will be assassinated. And, of course, a Kennedy has been in the news recently; that’s presumably part of why Senator Clinton had it in mind and repeated the comment (which she has evidently made more than once). I think it’s not altogether shocking that our pattern-matching brains put the two together.

The problem is that I want my journalism to be smarter than that. I want my newspaper editors and yes, even my bloggers to be aware of the temptation to go along with the narratives, and to resist it as much as they can. It’ll still happen, of course, but maybe it’ll be less annoying in between times. At least for me. What do you think, Gentle Readers? Are you seeing a different set of narratives? In what context does the placement of this story on the front page make sense to you?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 23, 2008

It's Schoolhouse Rocky, a chip off the block of your favorite Schoolhouse, Schoolhouse Rock!

With apologize to the great Dave Frishberg:

I’m just a bill
Yes, I’m only a bill
And if they vote for me on Capitol Hill
Well, then I’m off to the White House
Where I’ll wait in a line
With a lot of other bills
For the president to sign
And if he signs me, then I’ll be a law.
How I hope and pray that he will,
But today I am still just a bill.

Boy: You mean even if the whole Congress says you should be a law, the president can still say no?

Bill: Yes, that’s called a veto. If the President vetoes me, I have to go back to Congress and they vote on me again, and by that time you’re so old...

Boy: Say, Bill, you look a little different now than you did back on the Hill.

Bill: I do?

Boy: Yeah, you’re a lot shorter!

Bill: Ah, shit. I told them not to stuff all that corn in me. Now my seams popped, a whole title fell out, and I don’t even pass constitutional muster.

But how I hope and I pray that I will,
But today I am still just a bill.

Congressman: There was a clerical error, Bill! Now you have to go back to the Hill and start over!

Bill: Oh no!!!

Congressman: Don’t worry, Bill, we’ve got a veto-proof supermajority. Now hold still while I cram some more corn up your ass.

Boy: Look over there, somebody’s cheating at football!

Bill: Owwwwww!


Well, I suppose I should apologize to Gentle Readers, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Yearning for answers

So. I haven’t read any of the details about the state versus the Yearners for Zion, so I will state up front that my half-formed views are probably wrong. But I think there’s stuff in there that’s interesting about our attitudes toward the state, the courts, individuals and communities. So I’ll ramble a bit, and y’all can come back with more well-informed shit. Like we do.

The thing I find most interesting is that the state clearly thought that the cult-community-compound was far too icky a place to be allowed to bring up children. Icky, icky, icky. That’s not wrong. But the state appeared to think that ickiness absolves the state of its constitutional and statutory obligations. The court disagreed, and so do I.

Look, I’m told that the children, particularly the girls, were being brainwashed and intimidated for the purposes of sexual, economic and domestic exploitation. That’s a bad thing. If there are laws on the books about it, we need to examine their application, and if there aren’t, we need to consider some. But real carefully. Because I don’t think that the exploitation is why the state took the kids away, really. Icky, icky, icky. Strange customs, strange clothes, strange hair.

What about young hasidic women in those towns in upstate New York? Lots of people find those towns icky. Not quite icky enough for the state to intervene, at least not in New York. What about polyandrous households whose icky hair is bald-old-hippies-with-ponytails? Should they get to raise kids? Who gets to decide that?

Hard cases make bad laws, everybody knows that, and one of the reasons that’s true is that people like me say things like if there aren’t laws on the books about this, we need to consider some. It’s a balancing problem: we do need to consider laws about parents brainwashing, intimidating and exploiting children, but we also need to consider the application of those laws against the icky. I look at these situations and am baffled. What mechanisms could be sufficient to protect differences in child-raising and also protect children? How could we have laws that are broad enough to apply to everybody (and the glory of our system is that laws do apply to everybody), but that aren’t so vague as to leave the actual enforcement open to discrimination, which history tells us most often benefits the privileged and burdens the weak?

One answer, possibly the best answer, is that the courts watch the watchmen. Better than that, the legislators make the laws, the cops enforce them, and the courts judge them: each group can effectively veto the previous one’s actions. I like that. On the whole, it works, or at least it fails less spectacularly than most other structures. But the results sure are inconsistent.

That’s what I’m taking away from the story at the moment. There are injustices all over, and we should strain to catch them, slow them, reverse them, all while trying just as hard to avoid committing new ones. We’re trying to walk between the raindrops, and the thing is that it never completely works, and it gets the just and the unjust a little wet. But maybe it’s the best we’ve got.

Maybe, in other words, sending those poor saps home to their families, while awful and dangerous, is less awful and dangerous than the alternatives.

At least alongside fighting the cultural battle, the one that makes our children think that exploitation is ickier than strange hair.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 1, 2008

May Day, May Day

So, it is once again Loyalty Day, which we’ve discussed before here. This year’s proclamation seems particularly bad, but then, he’s been busy. After all, today is also Law Day, which involves the rule of law somehow, and for which the proclamation invokes the Magna Carta, without ever mentioning the idea that all men should be held equal under the law, without regard to wealth, family or office. That’s got to be a tricky one for Our Only President and his secretive cabal of crooks and incompetents.

And then it’s also the National Day of Prayer, also known as the National Day of Spitting on James Madison’s Grave. There’s been a bit of a controversy because the National Day of Prayer Task Force are a bunch of jerks. You see, if you want to apply to be a coordinator for the NDPTF, you have to fill out an application that asks for a Statement of Belief, as follows:

I believe that the Holy Bible is the inerrant Word of The Living God. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the only One by which I can obtain salvation and have an ongoing relationship with God. I believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, his virgin birth, his sinless life, his miracles, the atoning work of his shed blood, his resurrection and ascension, his intercession and his coming return to power and glory. I believe that those who follow Jesus are family and there should be unity among all who claim his name.
I agree that these statements are true in my life. Yes/No


Here’s the thing about that: this is an independent organization of Christians who want to do their Christian thing, and that’s fine. I mean, it isn’t fine, because you know, some people think that people being different one to another makes the world interesting and fun, and some people think that people being different one to another makes the world scary and dangerous, and that second group causes a lot of trouble. But fine. Because part of what makes the world interesting and fun, you know, is that people are different one to another, and they are different from Your Humble Blogger.

And here’s the Official Policy Statement, from just above that other bit:

The National Day of Prayer Task Force was a creation of the National Prayer Committee for the expressed purpose of organizing and promoting prayer observances conforming to a Judeo-Christian system of values. People with other theological and philosophical views are, of course, free to organize and participate in activities that are consistent with their own beliefs. This diversity is what Congress intended when it designated the Day of Prayer, not that every faith and creed would be homogenized, but that all who sought to pray for this nation would be encouraged to do so in any way deemed appropriate. It is that broad invitation to the American people that led, in our case, to the creation of the Task Force and the Judeo-Christian principles on which it is based.


Now, other than my complete rejection of the term Judeo-Christian, which I think doesn’t mean very much—replace it with evangelical Christian, which I think is more honest, and I’m very nearly in agreement with it. This group is doing its thing, and other groups are doing their thing, and it’s all good; YHB thinks the whole idea of a National Day of Prayer is stupid, unconstitutional and offensive, but since we have one, the idea that different groups should observe it in different ways is a positive, not a negative.

The problem is that the Task Force (and ugh, that’s a hostile name for their group, isn’t it? I mean, let’s go and meet with the Task Force, or perhaps we’ll just wait quietly in the ditch until the Task Force passes by) does not seem to actually encourage that broad invitation. There isn’t a long list of links on their page to Muslim or Hindu or Native American organizations promoting their Day of Prayer festivities. There isn’t a joint appearance to publicize the event in its heterogenic glory. There isn’t an exchange of courtesies with other organizations. They aren’t obliged to do any of that. But they don’t, and it’s because they don’t, really, want other groups to participate. And again, that’s their thing. It just seems a little creepy. If that is the group that is most associated with the National Day of Prayer across the country, then I feel even more strongly that we should get out of that business, because endorsing the National Day of Prayer isn’t just endorsing prayer, which is bad enough, but also endorsing the Task Force, which is just awful. And predictable, which is one of the reasons having an established religion is a bad idea to begin with.

To get back to Our Only President, though, it looks to me as if he thought that Law, Liberty and Prayer were enough for one day, and utterly failed to proclaim International Workers Day, or say anything about Morris Dancing, strawberries and Maypoles. Or to proclaim, that hurray, hurray, it’s the first of May, and the Congress, by Public Law 000-000, as amended, has called on our Nation to reaffirm the role of nature in our society by recognizing that outdoor fucking begins today.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 29, 2008

Actually, it's a dream

Your Humble Blogger has been intending, since the interesting chat that my mention of inflation the other day went all happy, to write more generally about money and inflation. Money, as I’ve mentioned before, is a kind of mass hallucination. A wonderful one; our civilization depends on our ability to all pretend to believe that money exists and is valuable. Not just the little pieces of paper that, as Douglas Adams pointed out, aren’t generally the ones who are unhappy, but the whole deal. When my employer directly deposits my pay into my bank account, nothing at all moves or changes hands; there is a tally that changes at my employer’s bank, and a tally that changes at my bank. But that’s enough, because everybody thinks that it’s enough. Aren’t humans amazing?

Anyway, because money does not, in any significant sense, exist, and its value is a mass hallucination, the concepts of inflation and deflation and so on are essentially psychological ones. Which is fine, and in fact a good thing. You see, the easiest way to pretend to believe that money exists and has value is to actually believe that money exists and has value, and as everybody else is also acting as if money exists and has value, that’s fairly easy to do. And if everybody acts as if money has more or less the same value, it’s even easier. But they don’t, not quite, or not really. If you’ve ever been in a poker game with six people with completely different affluence levels, you have experienced something like this. A ten-dollar buy-in for a graduate student is the whole discretionary income for the week; a ten-dollar buy-in for an insurance broker is a tip. The game doesn’t work, until and unless everybody starts treating the chips as having the same value, the mental switch flips and then little plastic discs are valuable, because we treat them as valuable.

But all that wasn’t my point. My point was this: on April 25, the Hartford Courant printed a graph titled Gas Pains: The Worst Ever (pdf), which shows thirty years of gas prices. The top line, the yellow one, is labeled price adjusted for inflation; the bottom line, the red one, is labeled actual price. Actual price? In what sense? The occasion for the graph is that the inflation-adjusted price of gasoline at the pump has just surpassed the inflation-adjusted price in 1981, after being quite low for fifteen years or so. If the red line is the actual price, then who cares?

But it isn’t. You could label that red line the nominal price, or the unadjusted price, or some other phrase that indicates what you are talking about. Because there is no sense in which that red line indicates anything actual.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 28, 2008

Oi!

This morning an article in the Guardian about Martin Baum’s new modern-Shakespeare parody To Be or Not to Be, Innit, which looks absolutely dreadful (but then, I don’t speak chav), reminded me of The Skinhead Hamlet, so I looked it up on-line and found the full-text, as you can do, and was reminded of how brilliant it is:

ACT II SCENE I
A corridor in the castle.
Enter HAMLET reading. Enter POLONIUS.
POLONIUS: Oi! You!
HAMLET: Fuck off, grandad!
(Exit POLONIUS. Enter ROSENCRANZ and GUILDENSTERN.)
ROS & GUILD: Oi! Oi! Mucca!
HAMLET: Fuck off, the pair of you!

…and so on.

And it occurs to me that I had no idea who wrote the thing. It was in the Faber Book of Parodies, which I had picked up at a library, when I was competing in huminterp in high school and looking for material, but for some reason, my coach didn’t think it was a good choice. I haven’t seen a copy of the Faber Book of Parodies for years; I looked for it recently, wondering if I would appreciate a larger percentage of the book, now that I am more widely read.

Anyway, the places I found the full text on-line didn’t have the author, but Wikipedia lets me know that it was none other than Richard Curtis, of Blackadder, Vicar of Dibley and Four Weddings and a Funeral fame. That’s the problem with the internet, you learn something new every day.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 21, 2008

Blowing up the balloon

George F. Will, in What The Fed's Job Isn't, suggests “Congress could pass a law saying: No company benefiting from a substantial federal subvention (which would now include Morgan) may pay any executive more than the highest pay of a federal civil servant ($124,010). That would dampen Wall Street's enthusiasm for measures that socialize losses while keeping profits private.” I suspect he thinks that's a joke.

More seriously, he says that the Fed's job is purely and simply to keep inflation down. I am afraid that it might be true.

I've been saying, for a week or so now, that I think we're in for an extended period of high inflation. If I'm right, and there's no reason to think I am, the value of the dollar (domestically) would be down by about third in five or eight years. In the short term, the race between a gallon of gas and a gallon of milk will tilt to the milk side for a while. That sort of thing.

As long as wages keep up with that inflation, it doesn't seem so bad to me. Mr. Will is terrified that that a “ surge of inflation might mean the end of the world as we have known it.” That might be true. The world as we have known it always ends. But one of the structural problems in America is that we have a substantial amount of dollar debt: families do, businesses do, states do, the nation does. Deflating the value of that debt would be a Good Thing, if we could get away with it. Yes, it would hurt in a variety of ways, and I'm concerned that the tax crazies would go bugnuts about raising taxes 7% annually, even if the value of the taxes remained essentially constant. If we couldn't raise taxes, particularly local taxes, to cover the inflation, we could be in deep shit. But aren't we in deep shit now?

Of course, by the end of my imagined inflationary period we will be dealing with the effects of the climate change, which I don't even pretend to predict (Asian Bird Flu saves North American Economy! Cubs win!), so there's little point in worrying about the debt issue. But then, I've never really worried about the debt issue, much.

Except that our nation seems to be fundamentally neurotic about inflation, as if what this country really needed was a good five-cent cigar. If wage inflation keeps pace with price inflation, the losers are the people with capital. Now, I've got nothing against capital—I've often wished I had some myself—but I've got to think that if, as Mr. Will reports, the middle-class (vaddevah dat means) debt-to-income ratio is now 141 percent, then who's voting for capital?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 8, 2008

Never Gonna Give Up 450 ppm

I suspect that not every Gentle Reader is reading the fishkettle het’troph, which is OK, because, you know, not for everyone. Not for YHB, even. I mean—you know the idea of the Apollonian/Dionysian divide? And how this Tohu Bohu, for all its tohu-bohitude, is on this side? And way, over there, way on the other side, that tiny far-off speck of a spot of a thing… well, that’s a guy who claims that he once met a mighty wanderer who claimed that he once saw the fishkettle het’troph from the top of a mountain, after many years travel, and fasting, and then eating some fruit that had kinda half-fermented.

But I was reading it anyway, the way I do, through these rather attractive 3-D field glasses, and a voice! spoke! and said CO2 in the air should be stabilized at 350 ppm and it’s perilous to exceed 450 ppm in the interim. And I thought to myself, you know, buddy (I call myself buddy, ’cos I’ve known myself since I was in school), that’s the sort of thing that I would expect to read over here on the A-side. Why doesn’t that line, just that one line, get repeated over here. Over and over again. Everywhere over here.

It’d be like rickrolling, only (a) funnier, and (2) a binder full of trousers.

How’s that, batacuda?

Oh, and a bumper sticker idea: CO2≤350ppm: it’s just just a good idea, it’s the law of the jungle.

Because, you know, it’s a good idea to slash, but that’s a fucking number, right?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 28, 2008

Risibility and Relativity

Gentle Readers who listen to really good NPR stations will find Charlotte Green’s voice familiar, although they might not have heard it quite like this.

This is the sort of news that gets into me all slantwise. I come away from it not thinking How unprofessional Charlotte Green was at that moment but hunh, I’d expect that sort of thing to happen all the time, imagine how professional you’d have to be for how long for this to be news.

Similarly, the news from the New England Genealogical Society about how all the Presidential Candidates are distantly related to famous people reminded me how great it is that for all the political dynasties, political participation at the top level really isn’t restricted to the Forty Families. John McCain has only one great-great-great-great-grandparent in common with Laura Bush, and none with Our Only President, and that doesn’t disqualify him from office. Even the incredibly well-connected and dynastic Hillary Clinton shares no great-great-grandparents with recent presidents, nor great-great-great-great-grandparents, either. She does have one great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparent in common with Camilla Parker-Bowles. Barack Obama is more closely connected with our countries powerful, being connected to nearly everybody through one or another great-great-great-great-great-great—look, isn’t it obvious that there’s no Debrett’s here?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 26, 2008

Support for support (for supporting the supporters)

So. Here in the Nutmeg state, we have Civil Unions for those couples who are just too fabulous to allow to marry. YHB wrote about this a while ago, in reference to State Rep. Bye's moving speech in the Connecticut House. Rep. Bye talked about the difference between being married and being in a civil union, based on her own experience with both.

Now, according to the Hartford Courant's story Same-Sex Couple Blocked By H & R, by Mark Pazniokas, it seems that a couple in Guilford attempted to use H&R Block's on-line tax filing service and got the message We don't support Connecticut Civil Union returns.

Support, you know, in the computer sense. Not politically.

I've talked about what I perceive as two kinds of bigotry, what I might describe as the vicious kind and the negligent kind. I think this is a nice illustration of how the negligent kind does actual damage, and why it's not enough to stop at driving the vicious kind out of the public sphere. Clearly, somebody brought up to H&R Block the problem of Connecticut civil unions, who can file jointly on the state level but must file separately with the IRS (and must in addition file another federal form dealing with the discrepancy). Someone high up in the business presumably said something like How much is it going to cost to accommodate that? Really? Ah, screw it. They can come into an office if they want to. This decision was handed down to a programmer with a tin ear (or possibly a nasty sense of humor), who came up with the error message. And nobody thought about it any more.

Except, you know, the gay people. Who don't count.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 4, 2008

Dee and Dee

I suppose every blogger has to, upon learning of the demise of Gary Gygax, post a reminiscence of happy days spent rolling 2d8. I have no such.

Oh, I played a couple of games, but I never enjoyed them, much. I liked the role playing aspect, but I didn’t like the mechanics, and the mechanics were what Gary Gygax (and Dave Arneson) actually contributed.

I wonder, sometimes, to what extent Dungeons & Dragons just happened to hit a moment, or rather a succession of moments, appropriate for the game first becoming a nerd commonality, then a mainstream byword for nerdocity, then a part of mainstream culture. Or to what extent the mechanism, the imposed structure and the vocabulary that they codified were in themselves responsible for creating those moments. There were always other role-playing games; none of them became the name for that type of play. Why D&D?

There were so many dice. They were cheap, but then you had to keep them in a little velvety sack with a drawstring so you wouldn’t suddenly discover you were missing a four-sided die and be unable to do some sort of thing. There were so many books, and they were big, and fairly expensive. It’s true you didn’t have to buy them, but it wasn’t actually easy to run a game without them (I’m told). And the game play, with charts and turns and figuring out who went when, and mapping as you went, or not mapping and having to deal with not having a map, and keeping track of so much crap, all on pieces of paper. Role playing doesn’t require any of that. D&D does. But role playing games, although they did have some currency, particularly those host-a-murder evenings that I quite liked, didn’t become a huge deal, and D&D did.

Now, there are computers, and it’s all much easier and nicer, and the people who liked the combat can find games that feature the combat, and the people who liked the story-telling can find games that feature the story-telling, and the people who liked mapping can find games that feature the mapping, and the computer keeps track of it all. Not that people can’t enjoy the dice and paper, but for people who couldn’t enjoy the game because of the dice and paper, there are options.

I suspect that there will be a lot of stuff written this week that gives Mr. Gygax credit for people pretending that they kill dragons. That’s just silly. My Perfect Non-Reader pretends she kills dragons (or that she is a dragon, or that she’s a half-dragon half-knight with a magic hat) because dragon slaying is an important part of our cultural heritage. D&D exploited that, it didn’t invent it. On the other hand, people playing games with complex rules and nearly infinite options, pretending to kill dragons, that’s the D&D thing, and there’s a lot of it about.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

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,
-Vardibidian.

January 22, 2008

Had his start been fifteen minutes longer, he would not have required a presidential pardon

In one of those too-good-to-be-true stories about Our Only President that Jacob Weisberg seems to come up with, it seems that OOP likes to direct people's attention to a painting by W.H.D. Koerner called A Charge to Keep. He brought the painting with him from Texas and hung it in the Oval Office; he tells people about its inspiring story and its connection to the Methodist hymn of that name. His campaign autobiography is also called A Charge to Keep. It’s an awful painting, but that’s not the gotcha here.

The gotcha is that Mr. Koerner originally painted the thing as an illustration of a horse thief, and it originally appeared in the Saturday Evening Post accompanying “The Slipper Tongue” with the caption Had His Start Been Fifteen Minutes Longer He Would Not Have Been Caught.

As was fairly common, the image was used again to illustrate a different story. This time, the caption read Bandits Move About From Town to Town, Pillaging Whatever They Can Find.

Third time is the charm, and evidently the third time the image illustrated a story, it picked up the title A Charge to Keep.

Now, to be fair: It is not a sign of stupidity or ignorance or incompetence to believe the title and background story of a painting when that title and background story are, in fact, accurate if not the original title or background story. Nor is it appalling for a person to invest a work of art with meaning unconnected to the intention of its originator, or to draw inspiration from that new meaning.

You know what’s appalling? Moving about from town to town, pillaging whatever they can find.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 19, 2007

electability, excellence, Edwards?

So, Your Humble Blogger was listening to John Edwards on NPR, and James Hattori asked flat out whether he was the most electable candidate. Then, after he said he was, he was essentially asked if electable was a code meaning white man. The Senator remained unperturbed, and stated (reasonably well) that he felt that his life and his history were what made him the most electable: small town, rural, son and grandson of mill workers, elected by a red state, etc, etc. And it bugged me, and I kept thinking (in the spirit of the stairs) what he might have said, and might say the next umpty-’leven times he is asked the same thing. I came up with this:

First of all, let’s take care of that right now. A few years ago, people were saying that there was no way, no way on Gd’s green earth that a black man could be elected president. And now, well, if Barack Obama is the candidate, I do think it’s possible that he will win in November. And if he did win, I think he would make a fine President. And a few years ago, people were saying that there was no way, no way at all, that a woman could be elected president—heck, it’s not that long since people were saying that a woman couldn’t do the job! And if Hilary Clinton is the candidate, I do think that it’s possible for her to win in November. And if she did win, I think she would make a fine president. So let’s let that be the end of that, nobody should say anymore that there’s anybody who can’t become president because they’re the wrong color or the wrong gender or the wrong religion. Not in America. Not anymore.

Now, that’s all true. But it’s also true that you asked who was the most electable. The most. And there’s only one most. And I think it’s me. The polls will tell you it’s me. But don’t look at the polls. My history will tell you it’s me. My life will tell you it’s me. And most important, the people will tell you it’s me. You walk around Iowa, you walk around New Hampshire, and you ask them who is the best Democrat to fight the insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies who are holding our health care system hostage, who’s the best to fight for a fair and honest tax system that doesn’t penalize the middle class to benefit the wealthy, who’s the best to fight for our future and the future of working men and women, so that we can give our children a better life, just like our parents did for us—you ask them and they will tell you John Edwards is the best fighter we’ve got.

That’s why I’m going to win in November. That’s why I’m the best candidate.

It’s not a great answer, but it (I think) acknowledges that there are issues there, insinuates (I think correctly) that although either Sen. Obama or Sen. Clinton could win, that he will have a bit of an easier time than they will, and turns the question back to his rhetorical strength. It also should gently wrongfoot the reporter for bringing the issue up in the first place, although of course the candidate may not want to do that at all. And I know that Mr. Edwards does not (this cycle) like to say that the other candidates are fine candidates, but I think he’s now at the point where he can reach back to the positive vibes he had last time around.

The thing that I dislike about my answer is that it repeats the word electable, which I think is a word John Kerry’s running mate should try to avoid. But I wanted to point out that he was asked the question directly—maybe he should just say You asked me who is the best candidate, and there’s only one best, completely (misleadingly?) paraphrasing the question. I don’t know. I do know that if I were John Edwards, I would not want people to be talking about my electability, but I would want people talking about what a good candidate I am. There may not be a difference in meaning, but there’s a huge one in connotation.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

That's what Youth Culture is, these days

Your Humble Blogger does not wear T-Shirts, but I would totally buy a T-Shirt with the slogan Blackwater Shot Our Dog. I know plenty of people who would wear it. Although, you know, my is funnier. Or include the source: New York Times: Blackwater Shot Our Dog in the headline font they use. Maybe on the back, it could say w00f.

Anyway, Your Humble Blogger is unlikely to write anything very long and clever in the next, oh, let’s just say through the end of the year. I’m sick, and I’m tired, and I’m distracted, and I’m traveling, and I’m cranky. So. Expect a barrage of Short Takes, and feel free to use the comments to talk about whatever is interesting these days to people who are interested in things. Smoke ’em if you got ’em, just don’t shoot the dog.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

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,
-Vardibidian.

Who will buy my free advice?

OK, and Your Humble Blogger has not recently indulged himself in giving worthless advice to future presidents, but here is a nice bit to be distilled, kept in a bottle, and opened when the time is right.

First of all, keep in mind that your party may lose the Senate at the midterm. That’s assuming you have the Senate for the first two years, in which case make use of it to get things passed. But assume that for the second half of your (first) term, the opposition party will be in control of oversight and subpoenas and hearings and all the mechanisms of troublemaking. Also, assume that the opposition party will be controlled by crazy, vicious, partisan bastards facing primary challenges from even crazier, more vicious, more partisan bastards, and that screwing you over is the best thing they can do for their careers. It might not happen, but you plan for contingencies.

OK, now assume that your attorney general will have to resign, while the opposition party is in control of the Senate. You don’t have to assume that he will be forced out in disgrace. He could be hit by a bus. He could be shot by a crazy person. He could be directly assumed to heaven by a golden chariot. You’d still have to get a new one confirmed.

Now, the advice. When you are deciding on policies, if at any point you are considering embarking on a policy that—let’s call it policy A—a policy that will, if the Senate finds out about it, come up in a hearing with confirmation hinging on the question Is policy A legal?, then reject that policy. If the nominee is put in a position where he has to either state that policy A is legal and be rejected, or state that it is illegal and expose you and your staff to prosecution, then you have made a serious error. If any newspaper prints that “Fear of opening the door to criminal or civil liability for [policy A], whether in an American court or in courts overseas, appeared to loom large” in the confirmation process, then you have made a serious error.

This is independent of Policy A being a bad and useless policy, which Our Only President’s policies are. This is also independent of the actual legality or illegality of the matter. Your Humble Blogger was struck by the Schroedinger’s Cat sense in the New York Times that waterboarding is neither legal nor illegal yet, that the President was not liable, nor was he free from liability, whilst the nominee dithers. And, of course, that is how the legal system works; actions are legal or illegal when they have been found by a court to be in violation of a law, and before then they are not anything. Which does let anybody off the hook. No, the point is that having your buddy tell you that Policy A really is legal, if you look at it right does not mean that it’s legal. And the real point is that when you become President of the United States of America, you should hold yourself to a standard of can those bastards nail me for this, because they will.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 31, 2007

responsibility without antecedent

You know, if the broadcast media, particularly the news services, were genuinely economic liberals, some debate moderator or Sunday show panelist would start saying things like this:

What does fiscal responsibility mean? I keep hearing you say it, and the other candidates, it comes up a lot, but I don’t actually know what it means. Do you just mean debt reduction, and avoiding deficit spending? Is there somebody else the government is fiscally responsible for, or responsible to? Does having a weak dollar have something to do with fiscal responsibility? Does unemployment? There are an incredible number of foreclosures and bankruptcies; is it fiscally responsible to help those people, or to help the creditors, or neither? I’m asking, Senator (Mayor, Congressman, Governor, Mr. President), because I really have no idea what you or anybody else means by fiscal responsibility, and I’m hoping you can tell me.

And whoever that would be, Bizarro Mr. Russert, or Bizarro Mr. Lehrer, or Bizarro Ms. Clift, or Bizarro Ms. Roberts, would ask it again and again, until we either knew what people meant when they said it, or they stopped giving fiscal responsibility as an excuse to pass only the stuff they wanted to pass.

I’m not, by the way, completely against the idea that we should keep deficit spending down, particularly in good economic times, and I certainly think we should have some long-term economic plans (or, rather, long-sighted economic thinking, since plans are not useful long-term unless they have enough flexibility in them to no longer be plans), and I think the government should be responsible, fiscally and morally and bureaucratically and ethically and pragmatically and rhetorically. But it’s become far too easy to say that a candidate, a policy or a program is or is not fiscally responsible, without that phrase meaning anything at all. Education bonds, for instance, are fiscally responsible because of the long-term benefits that outweigh the costs. Or they aren’t, because bonds mean debt, and debt isn’t responsible.

Oh, there are plenty of words and phrases like that (security, diplomacy, leadership, terrorism, sacrifice, special interest, reform), but even in my fantasy world with socialist news anchors, there are limits.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 30, 2007

and I mees you most of all, mah darleeng, when ...

Your Humble Blogger has been writing a lot more hatchet jobs than puff pieces lately, huh? Well, I was actually thinking about writing a hatchet job about my local NPR station, because I’m not satisfied with their weekday lineup. Yes, All Things Considered, and yes, Morning Edition, but the two local shows are very weak and I don’t like Talk of the Nation anymore. So I was thinking about grousing for a note, when the station caused me to Learn Something Interesting, which is kinda cool, ain’t it?

This comes from putting together two things, one of which was a news item by Nancy Cohen called New study links fall colors with soil nutrients, which makes the point that trees in crappy soil need to drain all that last drop of sweet, sweet chlorophyll from their leaves before shutting down for the winter, which makes (through chemical processes I fundamentally don’t understand) the leaves redder, yellower, oranger, brighter, vibranter than the crappy autumn leaves you get in places with good soil.

Now, I put that together with some stuff I heard in an episode of Where We Live, Connecticut's changing forests, with John Dankosky's guests Don Smith and Les Mehrhoff. One of the ways that Connecticut’s forests have changed is that, well, three hundred years ago, the whole state was forested, because hardly anybody lived here, and the people who lived here weren’t farmers. As more people moved here and farmed, more of the land was cleared. Eventually, most of the state was farmland, with (comparatively) hardly any trees.

The problem is that Connecticut’s soil is crappy. Oh, how crappy it is. Seriously. I know, I grew up in the desert, and couldn’t tell arable land from a hole in the ground, except for the hole, obviously, but even I can tell that the clay, sand and rock in the soil around here makes for crap farmland. And, in fact, the moment the dark satanic mills started employing people, the farms were abandoned and went to forest. Now, the state is mostly forest again, although with different trees.

As I understand it, the trees around the state now are mostly trees that are good at getting that last drop of sweet, sweet chlorophyll from their leaves before shutting down for the winder, trees that won the fight for scarce resources, trees that look really, really great in October.

Now, follow the economics. First, we cut down the pine trees, make houses and furniture out of the wood, and live off the (crap) farmland. Then we abandon the farmland, and live off the mills, while we let the maples take over what used to be farmland. Then, we close the mills and open B&Bs and antique shops and live off the tourists who want to see the maples turn colors. It’s all connected. Now, if it turns out that abandoned mills become the best places to make matter transport devices or that old maples are the secret to living with climate change, we’ll be getting somewhere.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

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,
-Vardibidian.

October 28, 2007

Advocacy does matter, doesn't it?

Your Humble Blogger discovers (via an AP story) an article by Richard Lazarus called Advocacy Matters Before and Within the Supreme Court: Transforming the Court By Transforming the Bar. The article is a hundred pages long, as is often the case with Law Review articles, and I certainly haven’t even skimmed very much of it. But the point is (as you would imagine) in the abstract, and even in the first sentence of the abstract: During the past two decades, the Supreme Court has witnessed the emergence of an elite private sector group of attorneys who are dominating advocacy before the Court to an extent not witnessed since the early nineteenth century.

Essentially, for much of the twentieth century, it appears to have been common for a case that reached to Supreme Court to be argued by the attorneys who had argued it at the previous level. Now, though, it is far more common for the people handling such a case to hire attorneys who are sort of Supreme Court specialists. And they are good at what they do: “The Court grants the petitions filed by the expert members of the Bar at a significantly higher rate and they also prevail on the merits more frequently.” Which means you would be silly not to hire one of them. Pretty much no matter what it costs.

And, to no-ones particular surprise, this is a group of white men. Many of them have been in the Solicitor General’s office, where they acquired the expertise. Although of course they are in theory available to any group with the money to hire them, they generally work for corporate clients. That’s how it goes.

Reading about this, Your Humble Blogger couldn’t help thinking about a recent(ish) conversation about lobbyists. If you recall, I don’t mind the existence of lobbyists, and generally feel that they do a valuable service. But, over more or less the same period, there’s been an emergence of an elite private sector group of lobbyists who dominate advocacy in Congress. My impression (which may be mistaken) is that for a generation or so before the eighties, if a group needed full-time lobbying, it hired lobbyists. And if it needed part-time lobbying, it would fly its head or advocate to DC to do it. Joe Lobbyist would be on the payroll of the Machinists Union, or the Sierra Club, or the Small Business Association. Since then, it has become much more common for Joe Lobbyist to be on the payroll of Lobbyist, Sleazebag, Goodman, Whore, incorporated. He may be representing the Machinists, but he’s working for himself. The K Street Project accelerated that to the point where the Machinists were told flat out that if they wanted their lobbyist to have a chance of talking to a legislator, that lobbyist would be on the payroll of LSGW,inc or one of half-a-dozen other similar firms.

Now, I’m not against specialization. I understand why and how an attorney with vast Supreme Court experience would have an edge, would know his audience and how to reach them. From that angle, there’s nothing wrong with it. From the other angle, though… it’s an awful lot of power in a few hands. Mr. Lazarus makes the case that the pro-business nature of the courts has been in part because this elite group of advocates is advocating largely for businesses. No, that’s not the only thing going on, but it’s an edge. And gets a little disconcerting when the rule is that anybody, rich or poor, can buy justice, as long as they can afford it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 26, 2007

Crazy people don't actually win at poker

So. Your Humble Blogger doesn’t usually read Washington Post editorials, because, well, because I don’t, OK? There are lots of things I don’t read! I can’t read everything, can I?

Ahem. I’ll start again.

Your Humble Blogger doesn’t usually read Washington Post editorials, but when Matthew Yglesias over at the Atlantic mocked today’s lead editorial, I thought I should look into it. The Post was editorializing in favor of the new sanctions on certain Iranian banks, individuals and military agencies, and Mr. Yglesias was mocking them for saying that aggressive sanctions made war less likely, and the lack of aggressive sanctions make war more likely. I wanted to look into what the Post actually said, because I am in favor of the use of sanctions targeted at individuals, banks and small institutions, rather than the national sanctions that were more prevalent in the past generation. So I was willing to defend the Post from excess mockery.

It turns out, though, that the Post’s editorial, A Boost for Diplomacy, is, in fact, very stupid, and not very honest. The claim that Iran has “used proxies to wage war against U.S. troops in Iraq” is misleading; there is scant evidence that any of the groups could reasonably be called proxies for the Iranian government (or any of the sanctioned banks). Later, the Post describes the sanctions as “restrained when set against the Revolutionary Guard's escalating campaign to kill Americans in Iraq by supplying sophisticated bombs, rockets and training to allied Shiite militias.” Questions: Who says the campaign is escalating? Who says that the Shiite militias are primarily killing Americans? Who says that the reason the Revolutionary Guard is allied with the militias is to kill Americans? Is that in the actual news article? Answer: No.

The main thing that strikes me as stupid, though, is the sense the Post seems to have that the US has been effectively supporting the UN, Europe and the IAEA in their diplomatic efforts. This is false. Our support has been weak, ineffective and vacillating on the Iranian issue in specific, and we have absolutely devastated their effectiveness generally. Now, the Post complains that they are too weak, and we should go it alone. Right, right.

The thing is that they are at least dimly correct that the sanctions, if they work, may well avoid military conflict. There is some reason to hope that they will work, even if Our Only President and his secretive cabal of crooks and incompetents seem to have been working nineteen to the dozen to create the worst possible circumstances to try them. As for the idea that those who oppose the sanctions make war more likely, it does, again, make a sort of dim sense. If this is our primary diplomatic effort, refraining from engaging in it means not engaging in diplomacy at all, and given that we have drawn a line in the proverbial, well, it’s a syllogism, isn’t it?

Which is one reason why having a good President is not just a good idea, it’s really important. I remember before the invasion, when some of us foolishly thought that the ultimatum was in some sense real, Tony Blair pointing out that the whole point of the ultimatum would be ruined if we said in advance that we weren’t going to invade. He was right. Our enemies (and our allies, and everyone else) should be convinced that we are willing to use the military when it makes sense to use the military, that we are willing to make concessions when it makes sense to make concessions, that we are willing to use the carrot when it is good for us to use the carrot. Then they can adjust their behavior accordingly, so that good things happen, and bad things don’t.

If you are playing poker with me, it’s in my interest to be able to use my betting to make you fold, to make you stay, to make you raise. If you think I’m a rational person, I can manipulate you. But if you think I’m bugnuts, completely unaware of the value of the hands, and only dimly aware of any norms at all, then I can’t bluff you. Eventually, if you’re forced to keep playing with me, you’ll just ignore my betting entirely.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

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,
-Vardibidian.

October 19, 2007

No more golfing, no more cats

Your Humble Blogger is saddened by the news that Alan Coren has died. I have a fondness for Alan Coren, mostly born of a handful of hilarious essays in Golfing for Cats. The interview with a bitter, alcoholic middle-aged Pooh Bear was stunning. There was a marvelous bit about disguising airports against terrorists that was probably funnier back then. There was a very nasty and hilarious 1984 joke. The Times obituary, as one would expect, is both perfect and bizarre. “He was the most reliable of contributors. He always filed early and wrote to the length required.” Wouldn’t you like to have that in your obituary?

Sadly, Mr. Coren also delighted in the use of comic dialect, and not always successfully. In fact, often painfully. Comic dialect is a touchy thing to begin with (nohmeen? nohm’sayn?) and always runs the risk of losing the reader entirely. I never made it more than a page or two into the Idi Amin book or the Miss Lillian Carter book. Still, I don’t demand that everything a writer puts out is wonderful. A decent percentage. And if you write as much as Mr. Coren did, a decent percentage of wonderful might well mean a lot of crap. Sadly, Mr. Coren not writing any more crap means no more good stuff, as well.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 19, 2007

If he's for it, I'm agin it, and veesie versie

Your Humble Blogger doesn’t know anything about the people behind this, but I was pleased to see Shut It Down October 17, 2007 linking anti-war activism to the labor movement (or what’s left of it). I started musing about how Labor took a very long time to line up against the Vietnam War, and eventually did so only partially, reluctantly and mildly. In large part, I’m told, this was because Labor didn’t want to be on the same side as those disgusting hippies. And, in fact, Labor became socially conservative and the Teamsters supported Ronald Reagan, etc, etc, and the left and Labor went their separate ways.

And I was wondering to what extent the people who still support the invasion and continued occupation do so because it pisses off the liberals.

Now, when I mentioned this to my Best Reader, she was understandably offended that I would accuse people of supporting a war, with its attendant blood and loss, just to piss off the liberals. And she was right. Nobody really supports our overseas adventure just to make me eat my liver. That would be crazy.

On the other hand...

YHB has spent a while on this Tohu Bohu hocking about heuristics, about the ways in which philosophy helps us make decisions about our lives. The world is too complicated (says I) to try to think out every decision you make. You need rules and patterns to help you through the day. On the other hand, your rules and patterns are not as complicated as the world, and will often be wrong. That’s OK—you can survive being wrong, now and then. But you will do better (says I, again) if you put some work into your rules and patterns, and put some effort into understanding how rules and patterns work, and most important, if you remember that they are just rules and patterns, and not the immense complicated universe itself. Right? Got it? Let’s move on.

In politics, one of the ways to make life easy for yourself is to identify a set of principles and policy applications of those principles that you like, and a set of those you dislike, and then to find a political Party that overlaps with the good ones pretty well and avoids the bad ones pretty well. Then you just pull on the big lever with a D on it. Or an L. Now, you will be wrong sometimes, but most of the time, you will have voted for the person more in tune with your principles and policies.

But there are always new circumstances, and always new policy applications of your principles to those new circumstances, and the Party has to do that, and isn’t it better if you help it? Because, after all, the more your Party agrees with you, the more you will agree with it, and the fewer times you will pull a lever for a candidate that turns out not to share your principles and policies—or, worse, the less time you will have to invest in finding out if it would be a mistake to pull the lever for your Party’s candidate. Etcetera, etcetera, it goes on and on. You know my thinking about all this stuff, right?

But here’s another thing: there is a group of people who I now can trust to be consistently wrong on principle and policy matters. If Our Only President and his cabal of incompetents and crooks thinks that a military strike on Iran or privatizing Social Security or wiretapping without warrants or even the passage of a particular immigration bill would be a good idea, I can oppose it purely on reputation, and by Gd I will be right so often that I may as well save the time I might otherwise spend thinking and play another round of Jellybattle. And isn’t that what a heuristic is all about?

The supporters of Our Only President call this Bush Derangement Syndrome, but of course it doesn’t seem remotely deranged to me. How could it?

But surely, then, there are people who can use Your Humble Blogger as a measure of wrongheadedness. Or they can use the Democratic Party, or Michael Moore, or Ted Kennedy. These are my opposites, and if they want to use us the way I use Our Only President and his cabal of incompetents and crooks, well, far be it from me to dissuade them.

In the same way, a Teamster might well look at a 1969 hippie and say that the hippie supports the use of mind-altering drugs, promiscuous sex, long rock songs with heavily layered sounds and lots of keyboard, long hair on men, casual violations of the law, disrespect for the older generation, rejection of capitalism, rejection of religion, rejection of cultural norms, and a contempt for him and his family, and think if these guys are against the war, then the war must be better than it looks. Which goes to show that these patterns can’t really be relied on—when it comes to something important like war or salvation or pizza toppings, you have to view the results of your heuristic with suspicion.

And, by the way, if you are going to rely on a bad-example-rule, it’s probably a good idea to find out what your opposite actually does think and espouse. The people who I suggested were still supporting the war to piss off the liberals may (if they exist at all, and I suspect they do) have an image of The Liberal who supports, oh, the use of mind-altering drugs, promiscuous sex, long rock songs with heavily layered sounds and lots of keyboard, long hair on men, casual violations of the law, disrespect for the older generation, rejection of capitalism, rejection of religion, rejection of cultural norms, and a contempt for them and their families. Most of us have gone right off keyboards. Heck, only a handful of us have really rejected capitalism, more’s the pity.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 18, 2007

In ten years, YHB is most likely to be doing laundry

Your Humble Blogger reads over at Matthew Yglesias’sses Atlantic.com blog about the Bizarre Poll Result of the Day. Evidently, it seems, according to Mark Penn, there was a poll of 600 California young-uns, 16-22, calling them on their mobile phones, no less, and amongst the questions asked was What do you think you will most likely be doing in ten years? Open-ended, not multiple-choice.

Again according to Mark Penn (Mr. Yglesias quotes from the new book Microtrends), more than two-thirds gave some sort of working-related response. 12 percent said they would be raising a family, 12 percent said they would still be in college. One percent said they would be in the military in ten years. One percent said they would be snipers.

Snipers?

What do you conclude from this, Gentle Readers?

If it were a news item, all timely-like, rather than in a book and therefore probably more than three years old, I would assume that there was some comic video making the rounds where some smart-ass responded to some similar question with sniper, and it had become a minor catchphrase. Without that, I would figure they’d got six from the same high school, and that somebody had made that joke in class, and the six poll respondents had heard it. Or that they had six buddies, which would mean that their list was rotten. Or that one of the people making the actual calls was pulling a fast one. All interesting, plausible theories.

What would not be a plausible theory is that one out of every hundred young Californians actually, reallio trulio expects to become a sniper. And that we have suddenly tapped into some deep cultural trend, here.

Well, and you could presumably read into the response some sort of cultural whatnot by virtue of six people thinking it was funny or clever to say sniper, rather than telling the pollster they wanted to be clowns, wharf bums or jewel thieves. I would be skeptical about having tapped a cultural geyser on that one, though, unless you could actually trace the gag back to an SNL skit or some such thing with wider influence. Could be one school, could be one town.

Mark Penn, evidently, buys that the new, the now generation really has snipery ambitions. Mr. Penn is being paid oogobs of money by the Hillary Clinton for President campaign for his expertise in analyzing polling data. But to be fair, he probably didn’t actually write the book.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 3, 2007

Tower warders, Under orders, Gallant pikemen, valiant sworders!

Your Humble Blogger would like to congratulate Moira Cameron for becoming a Member of the Sovereign's Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary.

I didn’t know that to become a Beefeater, a person must have at least 22 years exemplary military service. It’s not surprising, then, that only now are enough women becoming eligible for that particular glass wall to be broken. If you happen to be in London, Gentle Reader, stop by the Tower for me and wish Ms. Cameron (Warder Cameron? Warrant Officer Cameron? Yeoman Cameron?) good luck for me.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 30, 2007

In the Hollywood remake, it's a moose and a cow

Your Humble Blogger can't help pointing to a story of a Jumbo romance. It seems that a wild bull elephant in musth broke into a travelling circus and fled with four beautiful and well-trained lady elephants. Three of the strays returned to the circus, but when the handlers attempted to collect Savitri, "she looped her trunk around the bull's leg and 'he protectively shielded her like in a Bollywood blockbuster,'" according to Kalimudddin Sheikh.

There were no details on how long the elephant dance sequence ran, but I'm guessing two minutes of the pas de deux before the monkeys, sunbirds and jackals joined them for the full five-minute reprise, followed by the binturongs in their colorful costumes. I don't know—hapa, have you seen this one?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 27, 2007

Stay off of Germaine Greer's lawn, you crazy kids, you!

Last winter, Your Humble Blogger sort of defended Germaine Greer, well, not so much defended as failed-to-join-in-mockery-of, on the occasion of her being awarded a Golden Bull for blathering about art and the unsynthesised manifold. In today’s Guarniad, however, Ms. Greer informs us that Cuddly toys are ugly monstrosities. Here, I feel I must join in the mockery.

Not only are stuffies ugly, but “soft toys appear ... uniform; besides billions of bears, none of which look anything like real bears, we have dolphins, elephants, turtles, even sea lions and giraffes, all of which look more like one another than they do like the creatures whose names they bear.” Yes, yes. And, in fact, later in the column she is offended by four children, “one with a rather grubby duck, another with a purple hippo, one with a hairy green something that defied identification, and one with a glaring pink rabbit in an electric-blue cardigan.” Uniform indeed. And the worst part is, that, um, I think the worst part was that when Ms. Greer was eavesdropping, the children failed to entertain her with sufficiently intellectual prattling. Or the stuffies so failed. Anyway, it was bad. And it was on the ferry back from France, so there you are.

Now, Gentle Readers, if you were to write an article including the words “decoying children away from demanding relationships with humans by providing them with undemanding animal fetish objects”, how would you begin it? I mean, to make the whole thing perfect, and as annoying as possible?

Full points to whoever answered the following: “When I was a little girl, there was a war on, so there were no cuddly toys.”

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 13, 2007

Also, it's a teaching moment for the Perfect Non-Reader, if I could figure out how

As a public service to any Gentle Readers who are unfortunate enough to be in a position of responding to people who want to shift attention from what Don Imus said to what Al Sharpton once said, what Chris Rock once said, what 50-Cent once said, etc, etc, here are some suggestions of rejoinders.

  • You are quite correct. I think CBS and NBC should fire them from their daily radio shows, as well.
  • Fuck you, asshole. See, it’s a joke! Plus, your cousin Joe once called your sister a bitch, so you can’t get upset when I call you an asshole. Right? Asshole.
  • What the hell are you talking about? I was talking about Don Imus. What the hell are you talking about?
  • You know, you are the first person I’ve ever heard criticize any rappers for vicious misogynist lyrics. Other than these, of course [pulling out a sheaf of printouts of speeches, interviews and op-eds by Maya Angelou, Julian Bond, Carol Mosely Braun, John Conyers, Bill Cosby, Marian Wright Edelman, Mike Espy, Louis Farrakhan, Chaka Fattah, Harold Ford Jr., Jendayi Frazer, Dick Gregory, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Gwen Ifill, Jesse Jackson, Robert E. Johnson, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Vernon Jordan, Alan Keyes, Carolyn Kilpatrick, Mel King, Barbara Lee, Spike Lee, Walter E. Massey, Kendrick Brett Meek, Kweisi Mfume, Juanita Millender-McDonald, Gwen Moore, Toni Morrison, Ray Nagin, Barack Obama, Colin Powell, Charlie Rangel, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Al Sharpton, Tavis Smiley, Anna Deavere Smith, H. Patrick Swygert, Beverly Daniel Tatum, Alice Walker, Maxine Waters, Diane Edith Watson, J.C. Watts, Montel Williams, and Andrew Young]. [Caution: do not attempt to strike your conversational partner with the sheaf of printouts, as injury may result].
  • Considering that Don Imus has had disproportionate success by virtue of being a straight white guy making fun of dark-skinned people, women, homosexuals, latinos, Irishmen and cripples, perhaps it’s reasonable that he be disproportionately punished for being a straight white guy. I mean, if he is taking the heat, it’s because he set up his microphone in the kitchen, yes?
  • Fuck you, asshole. No, it’s not a joke. You’re an asshole.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.


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