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May 30, 2011

Memorial, iirc

Your Humble Blogger made a note of a terrific poem for our Tohu Bohu tradition, but now I can’t locate the note. It’s likely on one of the dead computers around here. Well, and rather than hunting for a replacement poem (and after all, there will be a Memorial Day next year, one hopes) I’ll just direct Gentle Readers to David W. Bright’s New York Times essay called Forgetting Why We Remember. Those who don’t pay for the New York Times can presumably use the Google Search backdoor or wait a couple of days, because (imao) this is worth one of the free slots.

I was particularly struck by the memorial to Union Martyrs and to the freedmen of Charleston placed in a park named for a Confederate General. There’s something, it seems to me, peculiarly American about the way we dissolve history. This dissolution—I mean it in the sense that the history is still there, but without definition or structure, the true American Melting Pot—causes tremendous amounts of trouble and suffering, and it’s the trouble that I’m aware of mostly. The way we can’t wrap our heads around race and class and inheritance, the way we fail to learn from history, our stubborn insistence that our nation and its human inhabitants are outside the recursion of patterns. It’s awful and frustrating.

And yet… there is also something tremendously hopeful about that dissolution of history, for all that is lost and destroyed, for all that isn’t recovered and made whole. I want Memorial Day to be about—well, about remembering the Dead, thinking about the wars and decorating the graves and dedicating ourselves to the great unfinished work. And yet… the politickingand the purchasing and the propane grills, are a part of this hopeful dissolution, the ability we seem to have as a nation to keep from weeping by building—or knocking down, but moving forward, anyway.

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.

November 15, 2010

Democracy, Deficits, Duplicity

Your Humble Blogger is cranky about the New York Times. Specifically about the gimmicky gadget that says You Fix the Budget online.

First of all, I am no deficit hawk; perhaps I should write a whole note about how wrongheaded I find deficit hawkery. That isn’t this note, although Gentle Readers would do well to keep in mind that I am cranky in large part because of the blithe assumption of the NYT that the budget is broken unless costs match revenues exactly, year after year, for the projected future. Had the assumption been that the deficits should be kept to approximately the current percentage of the GDP, or that the projected budgets should have a buffer for unprojected deficit spending at need, or that debt service be kept to a certain percentage of projected revenues—any of that would likely have spurred me to discussion of the wrongheadedness of the details, and I might well have missed the bigger crankiness. But I was cranky about the whole thing, and with everyblogger posting her own solutions, my crankiness has focused on the bigger issue.

Which is this: the whole exercise works in the paradigm that the deficit is not a political problem. You are encouraged to fix the deficit. Fine, you can do it easily. I haven’t seen anybody posting a note throwing up their virtual hands and saying I can’t possibly fix the deficit, it’s too hard! No, it’s easy to make the numbers work. The problem is making the politics work. If you could cross out the budget bits you don’t like and could raise the taxes and cap the spending and otherwise make the little dots go blue, then you could balance the budget—but then we wouldn’t be living in a democracy. Heck, I could just draw a bunch of circles and arrows and declare the budget fine with a deficit of 6.8 gazillion dollars, but that wouldn’t be democracy either. The point—the whole point, for fuck’s sake—is that people disagree on their preferences and priorities, and that we have to bargain and negotiate and compromise, and then we have to win elections with the people who have made those compromises or we have to win elections over the people who have made those compromises, and then do it all again next year because everybody is a year older (or dead) and has new preferences and priorities.

This is most obvious in the easy way we can balance the budget in 2030 by pretty much knocking back Medicare. Health care is the source of two-thirds of the long-term deficit problem., and of pretty much all of the deficit problem that isn’t amenable to raising taxes as a solution. So. All we have to do is decide, now, to get rid of most of the Medicare costs. Simple!

Oh, and then we have to prevent people from voting, in the next twenty years, for legislators who support increasing Medicare. That would be about 80% of the legislators people actually do vote for, by the way, and that’s currently, with most of the baby boomers not yet eligible for its benefits. In twenty years, when the last of the baby boomers would have become eligible for the benefits—and will start to incur massively increasing health care costs regardless of Medicare benefit caps—I would think that getting a Medicare increase through would be, oh, no more difficult than it was the last time—under a Republican-controlled legislature and White House, remember. Particularly as we would be starting from a nearly-balanced budget, so who is going to vote for deficit hawks? Am I right? Or am I not wrong?

There are three possibilities, as I see them. One is that we really could act now to prevent people from having what will be their policy preferences later, through drastically reducing democratic participation. Two would be some sort of plague (or war or pestilence or climate change) that wipes out a goodly chunk of our middle-aged populace with minimal cost for chronic or emergency care. Mass graves: excellent for reducing the deficit. Three would be finding some way to control health care costs while still providing health care, thus making diminished expenditure on the part of the federal government politically palatable.

Oh, there are other possibilities. We could wind up taking most of the money we pay for chronic health care and care for the aging out of private funds. But if the point of deficit hawkery is that we are nationally borrowing from our children’s children, I don’t see the answer being individuals borrowing individually from our children’s children. This is, of course, one of the reasons why deficit hawkery makes no sense to me: nations don’t have children.

But that’s another story. This story, the story the NYT is peddling, is about how there is a fix to a budget that is broken, and the answer is to take it away from that messy old place where people fight for their interests and their policy preferences an priorities and just make the grey dots turn blue. As a Walt Whitman Democrat, that story makes me sick.

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.

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.

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.

December 19, 2007

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

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 26, 2007

Pills and Dirty Books for Everybody!

I’m never sure how news-wise y’all Gentle Readers are. Have you been following the whole business of the Portland (ME) school board, the clinic at the King Middle School, and contraceptives? Short version, the school board is allowing the clinic to prescribe The Pill to middle-school students without specific parental permission. Since middle school is presumably 6th to 9th grades, that means that in theory eleven-year-old girls might get on The Pill without their parents knowing. I wouldn’t blame you, Gentle Reader, for being sick of the whole story, but bear with me.

I was listening to NPR recently, it would have been, yes, it was Talk of the Nation on Monday, and I was getting all infuriated by the discussion of priceless virginity (actually spouted: can your pills mend a broken heart?) and how easy it is to spot those students who lack love and are therefore more likely to be having all that nasty sex. Your Humble Blogger is aware that people really do talk like that, but I am fortunately shielded from most of it. In fact, almost all of that sort of rhetoric I do see is reprinted on various pro-choice blogs for the sole purpose of mocking it, and I tend to discount (as I should, and as should you) the craziness displayed, because the bloggers are cherry-picking the most mockable stuff, so that their blogs won’t be quite so dull as mine. Anyway it’s always a shock to discover in real life that people really are as crazy as my fellow Left Blogovians think they are.

Part of what disturbed me, though, was that I really am ambivalent about making contraceptive pills available to pre-teens. That may just be my squeamishness about pre-teen sexuality, but then, I am squeamish about pre-teen sexuality, and furthermore, I think people should be at least a little squeamish about pre-teen sexuality. Even the ninth-graders, and I think we can assume that there will be at least a few students who will be fifteen by the end of their ninth-grade year, seem very young to be having sex. So if I were told that the middle-school which my Perfect Non-Reader will attend will have a health clinic that may provide prescriptions for contraceptives without my (or my Best Reader’s) specific approval, I would be … I don’t really know, actually. I would be ambivalent, I expect.

What I was eventually able to articulate, through conversation with my Best Reader, was that I can easily imagine a situation where an eleven-year-old girl ought to have a prescription for contraceptives, and that her parents should not be informed, and that in those rare, unfortunate, but conceivable circumstances, I would prefer that the clinicians be allowed to recognize that and act on it.

Digression: This reminds me of my rant about Banned Books Week, which was last week or the week after. I want some books to be banned from the local primary school library, which is the same thing as saying that there are books I don’t want to be in the library. I just want the librarian to make that decision. The librarian knows more than I do about the books and about the students, and more than the other parents do about the books and the students, and we have to either trust the librarian or get a new one we can trust. It’s not about whether any books get banned, or even which books get banned, it’s about who bans them. End Digression.

The problem, as was pointed out by Becks over at Unfogged, is that my ideal world with smart, capable, perceptive, well-paid clinicians spending loads of time getting to know the students closely does not necessarily closely resemble the real world. It might. I’m not sure. It doesn’t always, I know that. I wasn’t personally asked to take a pregnancy test at my college health center, but every single female student in knew who went in for any reason whatsoever was. It’s easy to imagine a smart policy (make contraception available, don’t stock acquisition inappropriate books, discover pregnancies early) degenerating into a dumb policy (put them all on The Pill, ban Harry Potter, make the student with the sprained ankle pee on the stick).

I wouldn’t want contraceptive prescriptions to become routine at the middle school level, particularly the early middle school level. But I wouldn’t want to ban them altogether. If it your town, Gentle Reader, what would you do?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 5, 2007

Waste! Fraud! Abuse!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 28, 2007

Stretching Out or Noodling?

Errol Morris has a blog over at the New York Times, to which he seems to post about once a month. A few days ago, he posted an essay called Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg? (Part One). It's a fascinating piece.

It's also about 7,500 words long. I think it's safe to say that the New York Times doesn't print a lot of 7,500 word essays. Or 5,000 word essays, come to that. The New Affirmative Action, by David Leonhardt, is just about 5,000; it's the big article in the Sunday Magazine. So, maybe one of those articles a week. This is half again the size of that.

Of course, it's not printed. The Times didn't have to carve out a 7,500-word hole to slip it into. Mr. Morris didn't have to decide early in the process how big the thing would be, nor once the total size was negotiated did he have to carve his writing to fit into the hole. No, he seems to have written pretty much what he wanted to write, and the Times could stick it up on the site without affecting any other item at all. No trade-offs. Win-Win. This is new.

Mr. Morris could, five years ago, have written a 7,500-word essay that was part one of three or four such essays and put them on his own blog, or photocopied them and used the copies to raise money for a new movie, or he could have saved them up for a book, or he could have found one o the handful of magazines that specialize in 7,500 word essays. Now, he has another option: a blog, but under a major news organizations banner. And the major news organizations can post 7,500 word essays by major cultural critics. It's all good.

I have to admit, though, that I wonder if the ability to write extended pieces for major outlets in that fashion is an unmitigated good. Mr. Morris, for instance, leaves in bits of interviews which might well have been elided in a format where space was at a premium. Is making Mr. Morris the editor of his own work a good idea? Yes, because he's damn good at editing. But is making, say, Your Humble Blogger the editor of his own work a good idea?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 24, 2007

It's got a good beat, and I could dance to it if I weren't so old.

In the business section of this morning’s Times, Brooks Barnes asks Disney Tolerates a Rap Parody of Its Critters. But Why? The background, for Gentle Readers who, like YHB, don’t really get YouTube and popular culture more generally, is that it’s become common for people to create and distribute videos of popular songs, home-made by editing together animated (usually) footage to make it appear as though Pooh Bear or SpongeBob or Goku is singing a current pop chart. The specific case Mr. Barnes (I had to do TSOR to keep from referring to Mr. Barnes as Ms. Barnes) brings up is of “Crank That (Soulja Boy)”, a nearly eponymous song by Soulja Boy (of whom YHB had never heard) which appears to owe at least some of its tremendous popularity to a series of such mash-ups. The video is easy to find, if you are interested.

Mr. Barnes notes that Disney is notoriously eager to slap suits on anybody using licensed DisneyShit™, but that they have yet to shut down this particular mash-up. He also claims that Nickelodeon considered mash-ups to be fair use, but only quotes the Nickelodeon spokesman saying that ““Our audiences can creatively mash video from our content as much and as often as they like,” which gives permission, rather than claiming that no permission is needed.

So, is this mash-up fair use? I wouldn’t want to argue it in front of a judge. The four tests for fair use are (1) life is suffering, (ii) suffering is caused by desire, (c) suffering and desire end when enlightenment occurs, and (Γ) there is a path to enlightenment. Wait, no, I’ll start again.

The four tests for fair use are the purpose, the nature, the quantity, and the effect of the use. In a mash-up, the purpose is quite clearly to entertain, not to educate, critique or describe. Fail. The nature of the work sampled is commercial; in the case of The Heffalump Movie, rather disgustingly so. Fail. The quantity is minuscule; the video is less than four minutes, and most of it is a few clips repeated a bunch of times, so I suspect that there is maybe a minute and a half of footage out of a 68-minute movie. Pass. The effect of the use ... well, Disney’s Attorneybots could get up and argue that by associating their child-friendly cartoon characters with a rather sweet-looking but undeniably dark-skinned teenage popstar, the defendants were debasing those characters and making them less attractive in the marketplace. The defendants attorneys (or Attorneybots, should there be a big old defense fund) could argue that Disney’s Attorneybot were talking out of their synthetic asses, and that there was no possible way that anyone who was thinking about buying such a hunk of shit as The Heffalump Movie would be dissuaded by the availability of a four-minute video with a trifle of the footage. Then the judge would have to decide.

So. Two obvious fails, one pass, and one judge’s-whim out of four. Not really a very good score.

Nor could the mash-up artist plausibly claim that he was parodying Heffalump. He could, possibly, swing a claim that he was parodying Souljah Boy by associating his repetitive dance track with some even more obviously crappy, commercial and scare-quotable “art”. I wouldn’t buy it, but I ain’t a judge (or an attorneybot or even an attorney, I should mention).

No, this is clearly a derivative work of art, making use of previous works, possibly enhancing them through the complicated web of reference we use to knit our frames to experience life through, but rather explicitly prohibited by our current law. Ahem: “Only the owner of copyright in a work has the right to prepare, or to authorize someone else to create, a new version of that work.”

That law may suck, but it sure is the law. It would be nice if the New York Times reporter who specializes in this stuff knew it, and explained it, and further mentioned that if the result of that law was ridiculous to everybody concerned that there exists a process of legislation to change it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 17, 2007

Constitution Day, all week, try the veal, it's made from slaughtered baby cows brutally confined in two-foot-wide crates.

Your Humble Blogger went to the White House website to find out what Our Only President’s proclamation on Constitution Day would be like. It took me a while to find it, as it was folded into Citizenship Day and Constitution Week (a whole week!). The proclamation reads as follows:

On Constitution Day and Citizenship Day and during Constitution Week, we celebrate the anniversary of our Nation's Constitution and honor the Framers who created the landmark document that continues to guide our Nation.

In the summer of 1787, delegates convened in Philadelphia to create "a more perfect Union" and craft the document that is the foundation of our country. With great diligence, they worked to develop a framework that would balance authority and inherent freedoms, Federal interests and State powers, individual rights and national unity. On September 17th of the same year, the delegates signed the Constitution of the United States.

Today, every American shares in this legacy of liberty, and we are grateful for the courage, conviction, and sacrifice of all those who have helped preserve and uphold the principles of a free society. As we remember the enduring importance of the Constitution, we also recognize our responsibility as citizens to respect and defend the values of our founding and participate in the unfolding story of freedom.

In celebration of the signing of the Constitution and in recognition of the Americans who strive to uphold the duties and responsibilities of citizenship, the Congress, by joint resolution of February 29, 1952 (36 U.S.C. 106, as amended), designated September 17 as "Constitution Day and Citizenship Day," and by joint resolution of August 2, 1956 (36 U.S.C. 108, as amended), requested that the President proclaim the week beginning September 17 and ending September 23 of each year as "Constitution Week."

NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim September 17, 2007, as Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, and September 17 through September 23, 2007, as Constitution Week. I encourage Federal, State, and local officials, as well as leaders of civic, social, and educational organizations, to conduct ceremonies and programs that celebrate our Constitution and reaffirm our rights and responsibilities as citizens of our great Nation.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twenty-first day of August, in the year of our Lord two thousand seven, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-second.

GEORGE W. BUSH

It will come as no surprise to Gentle Readers that I looked this up for the sole purpose of criticizing its inadequacies, and indeed it is profoundly inadequate, not just as writing but as a representation of the place of the Constitution in the US culture and government. As a constrast, please look at Our Previous President’s proclamation from his seventh year in office.

So.

I was distracted, however, from my task, because I went to the Press Briefings and saw that the top entry was Press Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on the President's Speech. Yes, that’s right, this is an anonymous press briefing. Two Senior Administration Officials, identified only as Senior Administration Officials, gave a fucking press conference with full anonymity, and the press evidently showed up, took notes, and reported it, all anonymous like.

From a combined wire services story in my Hartford Courant headlined Bush Redefines the Goal: “"He obviously wants to get our position in Iraq to a point where it's in a good place for the next president to come in," said a senior administration official who, like others, asked not to be named when discussing the president's thinking.”

From the Washington Post’s Sridhar Pappu, The New Phrase Of the Iraq War: Bush's 'Return On Success': “Even before President Bush took to the airwaves Thursday evening, one of those mysterious unnamed "senior administration officials" explained the principle in a news briefing: "The more we succeed, the more troops we can bring home from Iraq. The president calls this policy 'return on success,' and that will be a major emphasis of the speech."” Very mysterious. They were standing in the James S. Brady briefing room, and were introduced by Tony Snow. Well, not introduced, because he didn’t say their fucking names, so I suppose they were mysterious indeed.

At least Bryan Bender wrote in the Boston Globe (Bush to cut 20,000 troops), “The officials, who briefed reporters earlier in the day on the condition of anonymity...” Similarly, from David S. Cloud in the New York Times, (Number of Soldiers to Be Left in Iraq Remains Unclear): “"It’s not a fixed number, because things change over time," said a senior administration official, briefing reporters before the speech on the condition of anonymity.” I think the fact that it was a briefing was, I don’t know, important? Although I still think it should be made clear that it was an official anonymous briefing, and that it was the White House that made the request for anonymity.

Oh, yes.

Happy Constitution Day. Americans all, rejoice.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 11, 2007

When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again

Your Humble Blogger was surprised to read in the Hartford Courant this morning that General Petraeus had been Changing The Debate:

WASHINGTON - The report and proposed troop drawdown Gen. David H. Petraeus offered Monday opened a new phase in the fractious Washington debate over the future of the U.S. venture in Iraq.

From now on, the argument will no longer be about whether to withdraw U.S. troops, but about how many to pull out and how quickly. And the change could cause Republicans and Democrats in Washington to recalibrate their positions.

-from a combined wire services report.

That’s not the impression I had from what I had been reading. In the New York Times, for instance, Michael Gordon wrote Petraeus Sees Bigger Role in Protecting Iraqi Civilians: “...in his testimony on Monday, General Petraeus ... proposed an American presence that would not only be longer and larger than many Democrats have advocated but would also provide for a greater American combat role in protecting the Iraqi population.”

It seems to me that the public argument has not been about whether to withdraw US troops. Our Only President has been adamant that the troops will return. The question continues to be under what conditions will they come home. Our Only President has said that they will come home when the job is done, that is, when Iraq is secure and democratic, an ally in the Globar War on Terror, and a friend to US interests in Persia. Note: this is not sarcasm, this is actual United States foreign policy. Bill Richardson, on the other hand, wants the troops to come home as soon as they safely can.

Again, the question is what conditions need to be fulfilled before the troops leave Iraq. Both Governor Richardson (as one f’r’ex, there are many others who agree with him) and Our Only President have been pretty clear what those conditions are, even if the details are murky and would have to be judged on the fly. I don’t think Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or even John Edwards have been so clear. A question that comes to mind is what events would change the proposed timetable? For OOP, it would be (and has been) events on the ground in Iraq pertaining to the secure-democratic-ally-friend stuff. For Gov. Richardson, it would be events pertaining to the safe evacuation of our military men and women. For Hillary Clinton, it would be ... what? An attack on our bases? Some sort of political breakthrough? I don’t really know.

I acknowledge that the easy positions to work with are (a) leave ASAP and (2) stay until pigs fly. Policy ideas with more factors are more difficult to explain and more difficult to implement, but are not (sorry Occam) necessarily less likely to be correct. But I’d like to know what they are, at least.

I know that General Petreaus is not—absolutely not, certainly not, fundamentally not—supposed to set conditions for withdrawing. His job is to assess whether particular sets of conditions have been fulfilled, are being fulfilled, or are capable of being fulfilled. How expensive they would be to fulfill, in blood and time and treasure. He’s essentially told us that OOP’s conditions will not be fulfilled by a hundred thousand troops working for another year. That’s all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 10, 2007

There's a there there, but where?

Here’s a couple of paragraphs from Free-Market Mischief in Hot Spots of Disaster, by Patricia Cohen in this morning’s New York Times. It’s about The Shock Doctrine, a book by Naomi Klein, or about Naomi Klein, or about the short film The Shock Doctrine that serves as a sort of extended trailer for the book, and that played at the Venice and Toronto film festivals. Actually, the article is a bit of a mess. Here are a couple of paragraphs:

“The Take,” her 2004 documentary about a workers’ cooperative in Argentina produced with her husband, Avi Lewis, was being filmed when Carlos Sa�l Menem, the former president who had presided over that county’s economic collapse, unsuccessfully attempted a dramatic comeback. Argentina was where Ms. Klein began to formulate her argument in “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,” being released in the United States on Sept. 18.

“I felt it emotionally before I understood it factually,” Ms. Klein said during a recent visit to New York from her home in Canada. It was “blindingly obvious” to everyone there, she said, that there was a “connection between violence, the military coup and these economic policies that people didn’t want.”

In that second paragraph—the word there refers to what? New York, where Ms. Klein was visiting? No. Her home in Canada? Perhaps. Argentina, where she began to formulate her argument? I think so.

Now, I do believe that it’s OK, grammatically, for a pronoun to refer back to the previous sentence—

Digression: Y’all who know these things, tell me: what do we call the word there in the sentence It was “blindingly obvious” to everyone there? It’s an adjective, yes? I mean, a modifier? It modifies the word everyone, right? Only it’s a pronoun, too, in the sense that it takes the place of a noun, that is (for argument’s sake) Argentina. Or, rather, it takes the place of a modifying phrase, say, in Argentina, because you certainly couldn’t say It was “blindingly obvious” to everyone Argentina. So it takes the place of a prepositional phrase that modifies the indefinite pronoun everywhere. So in the way that a pronoun is a word standing for a noun (or noun phrase), is there a pronadjective that stands for an adjectival phrase? Or a promodifier? Or is it just an ordinary adjective? My dictionary does not allow it to be an adjective in that manner. Is it somehow a shorthand adverb—It was “blindingly obvious” to everyone [who was] there—to a verb that we would have to invent? And how do you indicate, as a part of speech, that it requires an antecedent? Seriously, wattzupp w’datt? End Digression.

—or even the previous paragraph. But if you are going to leave the antecedent in the previous paragraph, do not insert a plausible alternate antecedent earlier in the second paragraph. Do not insert two such plausible alternates. Particularly avoid doing so if you are just introducing irrelevant information. I know Ms. Cohen is oh-so-cleverly slipping in two bits of information (where the interview took place, and where the subject resides) without having to clunkily write whole sentences about them. But there are much better places for the residence info (whole paragraphs about Ms. Klein’s Canadian history, f’r’ex), and the circumstances of the interview turn out to play no particular role in the article.

I am picking on Ms. Cohen for no particular reason. It is tempting to try to tie this particular poor choice, and the fact that nobody caught it or changed it, into a grander critique of newspapery in general, but in fact no good newspaper procedure or policy will ever eliminate such sentences. I really am just ranting, because—well, it’s a blog, you know?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 23, 2007

Two strategies

You know, I hate to apologize for the Democratic Party, particularly when I think they did the wrong thing. But you know what I might do if I were Harry Reid and I were really clever? I might publicly withdraw the “deadlines” from a bill that had no chance of becoming law or being enforced if it did become law, and pass something with some “benchmarks” that had enforcement clauses, making them essentially serve the same purpose as timetables but without dates. Then I’d watch Our Only President veto it (as he has pledged to do) and say Look! What the fuck does that crazy motherfucker want?

I’m not saying that’s what he is going to do, but I will say that Harry Reid is smarter than I am. And he knows, better that I do, that the “timetables” they have withdrawn would not have brought our boys and girls home by 2008. So I’m waiting.

Of course, I don’t think that the strategy I outlined, which is essentially a risk-averse strategy for trapping Our Only President into ever larger mistakes and ever lower popularity, is the right one for my Party at this time. No, the mistakes are big enough, and the popularity is low enough, it’s time to shit or get off the pot. Introduce a resolution to repeal the Authorization of Force, stating that whereas the Only President We’ve Got has lost the confidence of the American People, and whereas he cannot be trusted to do a perfectly simple thing like kill Osama Bin-Laden, the Congress of these United States, duly assembled, authorizes him only to use such force as is necessary to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq as safely and quickly as possible. And I’d make every damn’ Republican vote to filibuster it, and I’d put their photographs on a big poster that says “These Silly People Still Have Confidence in George W. Bush”.

Sure, there are risks. And frankly, even if my crazy strategy worked, it wouldn’t end the war. But I think it would get us another handful of congressman in 2008, and maybe another handful of Electors, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 16, 2007

Also, Thomson is evil

A quick note, Gentle Readers, pointing out a column in this morning’s New York Times by Michael Kinsley called We Try Harder (but What’s the Point?) that details some of the 17 (or 18, depending on how you count) times Avis has been sold or reorganized since its founding in 1946. It’s a lovely window into corporate capitalism. Mr. Kinsley ends by quoting the Wall Street Journal, itself a target for diving into the M&A swamp: “If a buyout or acquisition deal doesn’t materialize for Avis, stock and bond investors will have to focus on the fundamentals of its car-rental business.” Avis is not in the car-rental business. It’s in the M&A business. As are we all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 6, 2007

Convince your allies first, and if they are your enemies, too, then you win!

Your Humble Blogger has been more or less following the argle-bargle about newspapers and their book review sections, and the petition, and all. It was very odd when it became (from the blogosphere’s point of view) a kerfuffle about how the National Book Critics Circle hates bloggers. Or something. You can read Colleen Mondor about it all, if you want to, or you can read about it in the New York Times.

The thing that YHB finds interesting about it all is that as a rhetorical strategy, the NBCC should have known better than to badmouth the bookosphere. Even if it’s true that somehow the proliferation of bookblogs and Amazon reviews are leading newspapers to consider gutting their book review sections, and that seems totally bizarre, but even if it’s true, the source of the problem is not necessarily helpful in finding a solution. The solution, the NBCC has figured, is to put pressure on the newspapers. But who will exert that pressure?

Somehow, they failed to figure out that the group in the best position to organize and carry out a pressure campaign are the bookbloggers. First of all, these are people who care about books, who like to read reviews, and who (at least some of them) fantasize about being paid actual money to review books. A gang of bloggers who went whole hog behind a pressure campaign could ... well, ask Dan Rather. No, seriously, it could only have helped. Even if they were the problem in the first place. And, really, I suspect that almost all the residents of Book Blogovia think that it’s great that people are paid money to write reviews, that editors assign and edit reviews, and that newspapers publish them. If they supplanted newspaper reviews, they did so inadvertently, and would love to give them a hand up.

There’s something deeper in all of this, though, and it’s a cultural shift that is interesting and (to me) a bit scary. And that’s the fact that a lot of things that used to be done in major cities simply because there was a cultural consensus that cities, to be major cities, had to have them, are now losing a great deal of support. There was, I think, a sense to that be a decent city, you had to have an opera house, a couple of rival newspapers, some theaters, a symphony, a concert hall for popular concerts, a baseball team, a park (and some smaller parks), some public art (particularly statuary), a library, a museum, etc, etc, etc. Not that people in the city were supposed to enjoy all that stuff. It was supposed to be there. There was cultural pressure to have it, and then there was cultural pressure to live up to it. To go to the museum, to the opera, to the ball game, to read the newspaper, to vote, etc, etc, etc. Most people probably didn’t do most of that stuff, but lots of people did lots of it, and the result was that that stuff was there for the people who wanted it.

Now, I think that a city like Atlanta or Hartford or Albany or Iowa City doesn’t have that inferiority-complex, or that aspiration to become Athens. That sense that they should want to aspire to be Athens. They should have an opera house if there are enough people who like opera to support it, and if opera brings in revenue for the town, and if it doesn’t, then it’s a good thing they don’t have an opera house draining the town’s resources. The newspapers don’t have to have book reviewers on staff, because (in part) they aren’t trying to live up to an image of what proper newspapers are like. It turns out that book reviewers are expensive, and although it may not be exactly sustainable to make a profit by continuing to cut costs faster than revenues are dropping, still, in the short term, profits are being made. The argument that a newspaper without a weekly book review section simply isn’t a proper newspaper has no power.

And the thing is, it was all bullshit anyway. I mean, of course it was easier to push the homogenous sense of What a City Should Be when everybody who mattered in the city was white, affluent, and Protestant. That whole image of what a city should be, going back to the European cities that informed the image, and back to the images of the great cities of antiquity, were all based on economies of oppression and slavery. I am aware of that. I know, furthermore, that when we expanded the expectations out to classes that had not previously been obliged to meet them, we didn’t (as a culture, as a society) expand the resources to meet those expectations. And I know that the resources that would allow those expectations to be fair are hijjus expensive. I know all that.

And yet, they are my expectations, it’s my culture. There are parts of it that suck, sure, but I want there to be a weekly book review section in the newspaper that I take every day. I want there to be an opera house in town, and I want the newspaper to pay somebody to write good, knowledgeable reviews of the operas they stage, and I do not want to read those reviews or see those operas. I just want them to be there.

And I think that the people who share that desire, the people who should be on the side of the book critics, are not on the side of the book critics, because the book critics are acting like a bunch of jerks. Which is too bad, really.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 28, 2007

I don't get it

So, according to the Press of Atlantic City, the AP, and the New York Times, Governor Jon Corzine of New Jersey will pay his own medical costs stemming from a car accident. Gov. Corzine is, of course, immensely rich, and as governor is covered under state insurance.

None of the stories I have seen have indicated whether the state employees are covered under a private insurance plan, such as Blue Cross or AmeriHealth or Cigna or Oxford, all of whom are linked from the state’s insurance page, or whether the state self-insures its employees. If the state insures its employees with a private insurer, and has been paying premiums for Gov. Corzine, then surely his decision to pay his own way does not save the state any money at all, but saves the insurance company hundreds of thousands of dollars that they are obliged, legally and morally, to pay. If the state self-insures, then the question is what sort of plan Gov. Corzine had chosen. If he chose an HMO plan, then again the maintenance organization has been accepting money, month by month, against the chance that the Governor would need care, and it should not cost the state any money (other than deductibles, for which the employee is usually on the hook) now. So the only way that the state would be on the hook for his medical care costs would be if (a) they self-insured, and (2) the Governor chose a “traditional plan” (as it’s called in their state health benefits summary program description (pdf link)).

Perhaps that’s the case. Perhaps the state has a fund, collected from itself (that is, transferred from various departments), from which it pays out insurance claims, and that fund would be depleted somewhat by the hundreds of thousands of dollars Gov. Corzine’s care requires. If that’s the case—and the news reports aren’t telling me that’s the case—then New Jersey has a very bad health care plan for its employees, and the news is not that its wealthy Governor is helping out, but that its wealthy Governor has not fixed it.

[a bit later]Well, I clicked around, and I was able to find out that the “traditional plan” is managed by Blue Cross, so the above paragraph is no longer operative. But, in fact, when Gov. Corzine is paying his expenses out of pocket, the benefit goes to Blue Cross, not to the State of New Jersey. Or to an HMO, if that’s who’s been getting the premiums.

Of course, indirectly, you might argue that any claim on the insurance increases the total cost to the state. But that’s what the insurance company is for. The insurance company is not supposed to simply be a holding company that passes all the costs of a given year back to the insured. It’s supposed to insure the insured against the possibility that they will need more money than they put in. Again, if Blue Cross (or, indeed, any HMO that he might have signed up with, since we don’t know) is going to take a car crash as a reason to up everybody’s premiums, then New Jersey has a very bad health care plan for its employees, and the Governor is responsible.

So what the hell is he doing?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 26, 2007

there's the topic, and then there's the discussion about the topic, and then there's the discussion about how important the topic is, and then there's-where was I?

A lot of attention yesterday given to a project called ED in ’08 which has as its goal “to ensure that the nation engages in a rigorous debate and to make education a top priority in the 2008 presidential election.” I’m ambivalent. I’m for the rigorous debate business, although of course it’s unclear to me whether they want debate or actual policies. That is, I suspect that they want certain policies implemented, and they are encouraging debate insofar as it is a good path toward getting those policies implemented. The relevant question here is this: Would EDin’08 prefer that all the candidates agree on policy matters, or would it prefer that they disagree, provide reasons for their disagreement, and spend rhetorical capital on persuading people to their differing policy positions?

But perhaps they really do want debate, because after all the Presidency of the United States is a job that only very distantly concerns education policy. Oh, there’s a Department of Education, sure, and the President can choose to send legislation to the Congress that uses the funding lever to pry up local policies, but really, the President has fuck-all to do with schools.

Back when I was in a congressional district with an open seat and a wide-open primary race, I attended a debate amongst eight or twelve candidates, who spent a long time talking about local educational concerns. After a while of this, one candidate was called on to speak and said “You know, the federal budget covers about 1% of local education. I’d double that to 2%, myself, but that’s still not very much. The federal budget covers (some huge percentage) of our affordable housing costs, though, and I’d like to talk more about that...” I liked the guy.

We have a tendency to mix up the fact that people care about education—and we should—with the fact that we care about a particular election—those of us who do—to get the sense that any particular election should be about education. Sometimes a particular candidate has something serious to say, as Our Only President did with his plan to vastly increase the funding and reach of the federal government. If somebody wants to reverse that, or extend it, then fine, that becomes part of the Presidential Debate. But the list of things over which the President has substantial authority and on which the candidates have differing prescriptions is very large and includes the situation in Iraq and its neighbors; larger foreign policy questions including the Middle East, Russia, China and South Asia; trade, particularly connected to issues of climate change, human rights and jobs; labor, domestic and international; energy, both conservation and investment; climate change, both prevention and amelioration of effects; law enforcement, both domestically and internationally; privacy, human rights and habeas corpus; appointments to the judiciary and the executive; and I’m sure half-a-dozen things that I’m not thinking of at the moment. Transportation issues. There is no shortage of real issues that have something substantial to do with how the candidates would govern as President. However important education is, if the candidates don’t have substantially differing views, then there seems no need to inject it into the debate.

On the other hand, the quadrennial choosing is one of our opportunities to address policy issues on a national level. The advantage of “making education a top priority in the 2008 election” is that it may be the best chance of making education policy a national topic of conversation. And if you think that there is a national problem with our education systems, and if you think that it admits of a federal solution, or at least that federal action is a necessary part of that solution, this is your shot. You can’t really (or can you?) address the issue nationally in 435 Congressional races and thirty-odd Senatorial races. You go to war with the national conversation you have, not the national conversation you want.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 27, 2007

Scatter ye your links upon the waters

Clearly, Your Humble Blogger will never again have the opportunity to devote a period of sustained concentration to thinking, or for that matter to typing. I am just about able to bookmark the odd thing of interest, to indicate to myself the possibility of perhaps thinking about it, and then perhaps, if I thought any particularly thinky thoughts, writing about it. Sadly, this will not happen. So, just in case some Gentle Reader would like to think my thinky thoughts for me, here are some of the things I have considered thinking about recently...

  • Mark Schmitt had a long piece in Democracy called Mismatching Funds. Let’s be clear—I didn’t even finish reading this one.
  • Among the zillion potentially-interesting things brought to my attention by the Foreign Policy blog was this note on the demographics of the Middle East (and China), pointing out that a majority of men are still single by the time they reach 30. I think I would have had something to say about demographics and numbers, possibly in conjunction with the article I didn’t bookmark about how there were more unmarried women than married women in America, and how that was so clearly a totally different thing.
  • A note by Matthew Yglesias about Teams mentions that Senator Clinton has essentially retained the more interventionist elements of President Clinton’s foreign policy team, but Barack Obama has some of the “less militaristic ones”. This reminded me that I don’t think I have mentioned Your Massive Election Central Guide To 2008 Prez Campaign Staffs. They claim that they will be updating it regularly, but ... not so much, lately. Well, they’ve been busy. Anyway, the list is mostly baffling at this point, because I haven’t done the important step of finding out who the hell everybody is. But when I keep hocking about how important it is to know who the candidates advisors will be? These people probably won’t be in the inner circle of policy advisors, but they very likely have worked for the people who will be.
  • Just in case it comes up:
    Heut' kommt der Franz zu mir
    Freut sich die Lies.
    Ob er aber über Oberammergau
    Oder aber über Unterammergau
    Oder aber überhaupt nicht kommt
    Ist nicht gewiss
  • I came across The Wikipedia Game, and it sounds moderately entertaining, and besides, a useful introduction to the idea of hypertext. I may well be attempting to introduce a gentleman who is entirely unfamiliar with computers to the World Wide Web soon, and I am looking for tips and tricks. The problem will be (I think) the basic paradigm, which I learned so long ago I don’t remember not knowing it.
  • It is far too late to purchase things from the auction of Angels Star Collection of Film & TV Costumes, but I draw your attention to a truly unfortunate waistcoat. Nice sporran, though. On a philosophical note, discovering that many of the Doctor Who outfits were used for promotions only, rather than in the filming of episodes, radically decreased my interest in them. Why? I mean, the costumes were made by Angels, who made the used-in-filming costumes. They were made for the actors, and worn by them. They are real costumes, vaddevah dat means. But not real enough, somehow.
  • Those persons interested in the conversations recently about anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and about Judaism and Zionism, and all that, may well be nearly as fascinated as I was by the Foreward and Introduction to a 2005 web publication of Steve Cohen’s 1985 booklet That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Anti-Semitic. The host and publisher, Engage, decided to republish the thing, and then found out that, to quote from Jane Ashworth’s introduction, “he turned out an Introduction with which I hardly agree on any point.” They published it anyway.
  • The Republicans are part of an Internationalist movement? Who knew? (answer: Wikipedia, of course, and Mark Liberman over at the Language Log)
  • No link, but the question was brought up at Purim time: To what extent is Mordechai a model for the Diaspora Jew? To what extent is Persia under Ahasueros a model for what the Diaspora should be? Should a good Jew have knelt to Haman, rather than setting off a genocidal rampage? Should a good Jew have avoided Haman, rather than confronting him at the gate with a refusal to kneel?
  • George Lardner Jr. writes in the New York Times about the presidential pardon in A High Price for Freedom. He makes some good points, and lays out some interesting parts of the history, but he concludes by saying “No matter what one thinks of the folks in the White House, it seems clear that they have been put in a bind by the Supreme Court’s bad precedents.” Er, no. They have been put in a bind by breaking the law. True, the Supreme Court isn’t all that helpful, here, but they did not put Our Only President in a bind. As unofficial communications advisor to the next Democratic Administration, may I suggest the following memo go out to all staff to be appointed?
    As has been seen in recent years, the POTUS can be embarrassed by requests for pardons, and the decision whether or not to pardon a staff member has no good outcome. Therefore, in order to facilitate the advancement of our agenda, to govern effectively, and to serve our President and our Country, the White House requests that all employees follow the fucking laws, you cocksuckers!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 12, 2007

There's the written law, and the oral law, and then there's a bunch of crazy shit

I see that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is under fire for, well, egregiously violating the law, the Constitution as well as the norms of our democratic republic. Some people even seem to think he should resign.

I would be happy to hear that Mr. Gonzales (Esq.) had resigned in disgrace, or had in fact felt any sort of disgrace at all. Having asked where the outrage was a month ago, I think I should acknowledge that the outrage, it is all around. Still, I think it’s important to point out that like the felon Scooter Libby, Mr. Gonzales is being blamed for carrying out the illegal, immoral and unethical directives of his superiors. And while, yes, he should have refused to carry out such directives, and yes, it’s good to see him take some political heat for carrying out directives he should not have carried out, there is still the matter of the White House itself, wherefrom the whole thing originated.

John Dean refused to put a bomb in the Brookings Institution when Richard Nixon and Chuck Colson wanted to do that. The plan to just break in and steal stuff was also not actually carried out. I don’t give Mr. Dean all that much credit for that; the idea was crazy, the President was crazy, and evidently he gave a lot of crazy illegal orders that nobody carried out. Well, at least President Ford healed the country from that.

Look, this story about the US Attorneys is not, to my mind, about Mr. Gonzales (Esq.), although he is certainly to blame for his own actions in the matter. It’s about two things: first of all, what appears to be a fairly pervasive sense across the country that the law enforcement system and other Executive departments are fair game for political hay-making of the most despicable kind, and second, a White House that has no respect whatsoever for policies, procedures and norms. I suppose it’s not terribly surprising, given our political culture over the last thirty years or so, that some administration would come into power that holds all our bureaucracy in contempt, not because it is slow, or inefficient, or recalcitrant, but because it is a bureaucracy. Perhaps I shouldn’t be shocked. And perhaps in an increasingly authoritarian culture, it is inevitable that our Constitution and its accumulated norms would decay.

I am shocked, though. I am regularly shocked, really just about daily, by the way that this administration seems to subscribe to the idea that it can do whatever the hell it wants, and furthermore that the American system is that whoever is in the White House at the moment can do whatever the hell they want.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 7, 2007

well, and where is it written that life is fair?

So. Scooter Libby is guilty. Hurray. I mean, he broke the law, and I am happy that he has been convicted for breaking the law. I hope the conviction stands, I hope he is sentenced to a year in prison, and I hope he serves it.

That said, I admit that I feel a bit of sympathy for the man. I mean, all the criminal acts the man undertook were either (a) at the specific instructions of the Vice-President of the United States, (2) with the knowledge and tacit consent of the Vice-President of the United States, or (iii) undertaken with good reason to believe that they were what the Vice-President of the United States wanted him to do, even if the VPotUS was not specifically aware of them. This doesn’t in any way excuse the crimes, but it does seem a bit unfair that he is prosecuted, convicted and (I hope) sentenced and (I hope) punished, while the aforementioned Vice-President of the United States is not.

Particularly at the beginning, where the VPotUS and architect of our national security program tells his Chief of Staff that it is in the interests of national security to leak a bit of classified information. I mean, yes, he oughtn’t have done it, but Our Only President had in fact granted his Vice-President substantial authority over classifying and declassifying state secrets. There’s a sense in which the difference between declassifying and leaking a piece of information is procedural. It’s a wrong sense, that fundamentally misinterprets the purpose and necessity of state secrets in the first place, but fine.

Later, though, when the leak has finally seeped through into the public awareness and now people are hunting for the leakers, Mr. Libby lied, perjured himself and obstructed justice.

Digression: why is perjury reflexive? You can’t perjure someone else, can you? But the verb seems to need a direct object (if that’s the right terminology), and there’s only one possible. It seems odd, though. End Digression

I assume that Mr. Libby was instructed to so obstruct, and he ought to have refused, and when he didn’t, he took on responsibility for the crime. Not sole responsibility, though. Even if Our Only Vice-President didn’t specifically instruct Mr. Libby to lie, he certainly knew that Mr. Libby was lying, and failed to correct that. And he is the Vice-President. That’s in addition to all the stuff we guessed and now know about the way the White House and the OVP work, in violation of any conceivable moral or ethical principle. I’m just talking about the crimes.

Let me repeat: I am happy that Mr. Libby has been convicted. I hope he gets sent up the proverbial, and frankly, the longer he is yarded the better. It won’t seem any more fair if he gets away with it, too. But it sure seems like there’s somebody missing from the dock.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 31, 2007

boy, this one got out of hand, didn't it?

So. This could get ugly.

There has been a bit of a hoo-hah recently around Left Blogovia about anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, with a couple of prominent Jewish bloggers (Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein, to be specific, and why not, specificity is good) expressing that they felt they were being accused of either anti-Semitism itself or of aiding anti-Semitism by (a) expressing that it might not always be in the self-interest of the United States to fully support Israel and its policies, and (2) there seemed to be a largish faction of Israeli and American Jews who are espousing an insane policy of either the US or Israel attacking Iran. I will point out that as far as I know, neither Mr. Yglesias or Mr. Klein are in fact anti-Zionist, in that (again, as far as I know) neither of them has said that they feel that the entire Zionist project was a mistake, or that the Zionist project needs to be abandoned.

Your Humble Blogger feels that the entire Zionist project was a mistake, and would like the Zionist project to be abandoned, if that could happen without too much violence. I don’t see how it could be safely abandoned, but I think that the safe abandonment of the Zionist project could be a useful new project for the world’s Jews.

I read in this morning’s New York Times that Essay Linking Liberal Jews and Anti-Semitism Sparks a Furor, in which article Patricia Cohen, very likely Jewish herself although she does not appear in the article, discusses the response to an essay published by the American Jewish Committee. Ms. Cohen indicates that the AJC is featuring the essay on its site, but I had to do a search to find the thing; in fact, if the New York Times hadn’t had a direct link, I doubt I would have read the thing at all.

The essay is "Progressive" Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism, and it’s by Alvin H. Rosenfeld, and it seems awfully stupid to spark a furor. Well, stupid is unnecessarily harsh. It seems willfully obtuse, how about that? It begins by detailing the exterminationist anti-Semitism that does in fact exist in much of the world, and shows that many of the traditional images of Jews as poisoners, conspirators and assassins have been adapted into a movement that uses Zionism as a threat to whip up support for vile, crazy leaders. All this is, as far as I can tell, true. Nor is it surprising.

It was surprising to me to read Mr. Rosenfeld claiming that “... most Jews probably thought [the Holocaust] would prevent public manifestations of anti-Semitism from ever appearing again”. I don’t know most Jews. I would be shocked if any Jews I actually know—real ones—thought that anti-Semitism was over and done. In fact, the Jews that have most fervently supported the Zionist project in conversations with me did so, in large measure, because they felt that only that Zionist project could protect the Jewish remnant from another outbreak of exterminationist anti-Zionism. So, in case Mr. Rosenfeld or any other Zionist Jew reads this and wants to know what I think, I’ll make it clear: I think there is anti-Semitism in the world, that it will again take political form in exterminationist policies, and that Zionism will neither prevent that nor protect us from it. The most likely protection, I think, is full participation in the liberal democratic project.

Mr. Rosenfeld also writes that “Anti-Zionism, in fact, is the form that much of today’s anti-Semitism takes, so much so that some now see earlier attempts to rid the world of Jews finding a parallel in present-day desires to get rid of the Jewish state.” I believe the some in the sentence is Mr. Rosenfeld and the AJC, and that his saying so doesn’t make it so. Again, I’ll try to be explicit: There are exterminationist anti-Semites using anti-Zionist rhetoric to gain power. That does not mean that all anti-Zionist rhetoric is anti-Semitic, nor that all those who would like to abandon the Zionist project are anti-Semites. The existence of a black cat only shows that some cats are black.

Mr. Rosenfeld then turns to those Jews who have abandoned (or never shared in) the Zionist project. He admits that Zionism was never every Jew’s dream. “Jewish Marxists regularly denounced Zionism as inherently imperialist, colonialist, racist, and repressive; they saw it as an ideological enemy of those who stood on the side of the oppressed in the class struggle.” I so rarely call myself a Marxist these days, but, um, yeah inherently imperialist, colonialist, racist and repressive. Is there some sort of argument that it wasn’t? Sure, it was other things, too, and those other things count for a great deal. After all, the founding of these United States, of which I am so fond, was inherently imperialist, colonialist, racist and repressive. And on balance, it’s come out rather well, really.

The next, and lengthiest section of the essay is a detailed look at a handful of moderately prominent anti-Zionist Jews in England and America. He describes their rhetoric, showing that they often use heated language and exaggeration. He is particularly incensed at the accusation that the Israeli government is engaged in genocide, and I understand that. The term is exaggerated for effect, and it’s possible that some poor saps are so dulled by that exaggerated use that they really do not see the difference between the disgusting and inhumane policies of the Israeli government and actual genocide. That is bad. Furthermore, some people suggest that Israel has become one of the vilest and worst nations in the world. Not so, says Mr. Rosenfeld: “Compared to the truly horrendous crimes committed by other nation-states—think Sudan, Cambodia, Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia, or Augusto Pinochet’s Chile—Israel’s record actually looks relatively good.” Now that’s a slogan. Sharon was better than Pinochet! I’m sure Theodore Herzl is looking down on Israel now, thinking Yes, my dream has been fulfilled, the leadership of Zion is being favorably compared to Pol Pot!

Look, I agree that some of the rhetoric about the appallingly bad, vile, evil and wrong policies of several successive Israeli governments has been exaggerated and irresponsible. That is how political arguments happen. But the policies have been bad, vile, evil and wrong nonetheless. I’ll go further. Some of the writers have claimed that these policies are not so much choices, independently and wrongly arrived at but independent from the idea of Zionism, but are instead the likeliest result of the Zionist project. Not, let me be clear, because the people making the policies are Jews, but because of the nature of partition. I would like to see the counter-argument, the argument that points a way for the Zionist project to continue without such policies and their inevitable disastrous consequences. Heck, I would like to see the argument that points a way for Pakistan to exist without bad, vile, evil and wrong policies. That’d be swell, wouldn’t it? Asking for such an argument is not (in my eyes) racist, and neither is the refusal to accept such an argument, certainly not in the absence of the argument actually being argued.

Mr. Rosenfeld sees such refusal as inexplicable, or at least inexplicable without resort to racism. He’s left pointing at the people who refuse to accept Zionism and gasping in shock. He attributes to Joel Kovel the notion that “The Jewish vocation, in other words, is to be fulfilled by living openly and peacefully in the Diaspora, not narrowly and defensively within the confines of territorial borders.” OMGWTF? How could anyone believe something like that?

““Should Israel Exist?” Can one imagine such a question being raised in an American schoolbook about any other country on the globe? “Should Sweden, Egypt, or Argentina exist?” “Should Canada or Japan exist?” The question would be so baffling as to never arise.

But then, the question is not the same question (and, yes, the question of whether, say, East Germany, the Ottoman Empire, Kurdistan, Gran Colombia, Aztlan, Yugoslavia or Chechnya should exist does on occasion arise). The question Should Israel Exist is, as Mr. Rosenfeld puts it elsewhere, the question of whether Jews have some sort of right to a geographic area with a sovereign government, in which area they are to be the majority population. That right is not obvious to me. It isn’t obvious to me that if, for instance, Germans became the minority population in Germany that they would be deprived of some natural right. I don’t see that the Romany have a natural right to a carved-out area of majority population. I don’t see that Poland, for instance, exists because of some right that the Poles have to self-governance as Poles, which was violated by their inclusion in the Austria-Hungarian empire simply due to their being a minority in the nation-state. There are arguments, of course, for the self-governance of a self-identifying People (vaddevah dat means), and for the existing self-government to protect that self-identifying People, but I don’t see that those arguments derive from any natural right as opposed to pragmatic realism.

Look, the arguments for Zionism are, as far as I can tell, threefold. First, there’s the self-defense argument, which states that Zionism is the only response to the Holocaust. I disagree. Zionism was not the correct response to the massacre in 1096. Zionism was not the correct response to the Spanish Inquisition and the Alhambra Decree. Zionism was not the correct response to Philip the Fair and the expulsion from France in 1306. It was not the correct response to the expulsion from Arabia under Caliph 'Umar in 641 or the expulsion from the Babylonian Empire by Heraclius I in 629. It was not the correct response to Hadrian’s depredation in 135. It was not even the correct response to the destruction of the Second Temple. I understand the thinking, but I disagree.

The second argument is religious, and I simply do not see any scriptural or traditional imperative for the idea of a Zionist nation-state. It doesn’t appear to me to be forbidden, mind. But in the absence of the Messiah, we are not commanded to rule the land.

The third argument is simply that, taken one thing with another, the existence of Israel is “good for Jews”. I don’t think it has been, all in all, and I don’t think it will be in the next two or three generations. It has certainly been good for some Jews, and I’ll bite that it has been good for many Jews, but it has also been bad for many Jews, and in the horrific arithmetic this sort of thing comes down to, I think it’s been bad for more. Furthermore, in a general, aggregate sense, Judaism is worse off almost everywhere in the world than it was sixty years ago. Better in the US, better in Israel, but worse in Tehran, in Buenos Aires, in Kabul, in Shanghai, even in Paris and London.

Which means that as far as I can tell, there is no good argument for the Zionist project. Except, unfortunately, that it would be unsafe and unwise to abandon it.

Now, having said all of that, at far too great a length, let me address Mr. Rosenfeld’s essay once more. The argument of the essay, in brief, is that (a) There are anti-Semites who are anti-Zionist, and (2) there are Jews who are anti-Zionist. Therefore... nothing. Seriously, nothing. Mr. Rosenfeld does not claim that the anti-Semites who are pushing anti-Zionism are being strengthened in any particular way by the anti-Zionist Jews. Nor does he claim that the anti-Zionist Jews are using the same anti-Semitic tropes as the anti-Zionist anti-Semites, such as claims that it was really Israel who knocked down the World Trade Center or that Mossad is somehow spreading AIDS in the ummah. Now, if it were the case that anti-Semites were gaining power as a function of Jewish anti-Zionism, then I might well change my mind about the whole Zionist project. That is, if abandoning the Zionist project or even weakening the support for it would lead to exterminationist anti-Semites being given political power they would not otherwise have, then, well, I’d be agin that. That’s why I read the article, actually; it seemed from, well, from the existence of the article, that it must be making such an argument. But it wasn’t. So what was it saying?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 17, 2007

Don't talk about the subject of the conversation, please

Your Humble Blogger's computer blew up. It's not so bad, and we are warming ourselves at the electrical fire, but it does mean that I am blogging from an seven-year-old iBook like some sort of wild animal in the wilderness. I have no idea how long it will be before I have access to a tertiochiliastic computer once more, but in the meantime, I suspect that notes will be scarce, poorly thought out, have few links and many typos, and be generally lo-rez.

I will link to a long interesting article in this past week's New York Times magazine. It's called Does Abe Foxman Have an Anti-Anti-Semite Problem? , and it's by James Traub, who appears to be an intelligent and observant person. One of the interesting things about the way the piece is written is that it assumes that everybody is a New York Jew, or wants to be. It's a very New York Times attitude, or at least it used to be. The helpful translation so that you, too, Gentle Reader, can use yiddish phrases. The affectionately mocking use of certain rhythms, the centrality of the Holocaust to modern life, the assumption that Israel is the center of modern Judaism.

The thing for me is that it's hard to escape Israel. Temple Beth Bolshoi shares the almost fanatical Zionism that I grew up with, the sense that the modern political state of Israel is of tremendous importance to us, not only as a family matter but as a theological one. We read that sense back into Scripture, over and over, and for a Jew like myself, who feels that Zionism was a terrible political and theological mistake, it's terribly alienating. And yet, given that it did happen, given that there is a Jewish state, what now? And how to even have that discussion?

The article manages to have the discussion about the discussion, or perhaps the discussion about the discussion about the discussion, without touching on the discussion itself. That's deliberate, of course; you can sense Mr. Traub shying away from even presenting the substantive views, because if he does, he will have to explain them, and weigh them, and then how to get out again?

For my own benefit, then, what seem to be to be the questions the US should be discussing about Israel: Is our aid to Israel commensurate with their need? Is it commensurate with our interests? Given that we give more assistance to Israel than to any other nation on the globe-far more-are we getting the benefit of that aid? Could that money be more useful elsewhere? Given a sense of grievance among Arabs, legitimate or not, that seems to have spread to Muslims outside the Middle East as well, how much does our support for Israel cost us? Is there any way to reduce that cost, and if so, what would that reduction cost us? Is it appropriate for us to lean on Israel to improve its human rights record, or to change other policies to suit our own interests? If not, is that something specific to Israel, or is that a general policy principle? Most importantly, what are our long-term goals in the region? Are we committed to continuing the current level of aid permanently, or are we interested in ultimately reducing or eliminating that aid? If we want to ultimately reduce that aid, what conditions would need to apply before we can do it, and what are we doing to make those conditions come to pass?

If people want to chime in with possible answers or clarifications, that would be terrific. My problem is that the whole thing seems not only terrible but unsolvable, and so I get depressed and tired, and don't want to talk about it. It's easier to talk about how there were other potential responses to the Holocaust, just as there were other responses to Peter the Hermit, to the Inquisition, to the Kossacks, to the French pograms. It's easier to talk about how people are not having the discussion, and why not, and what various people are doing to make the discussion easier or more difficult. The actual discussion, though, that's hard stuff, and I can't do it on this computer.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus:,
-Vardibidian.

December 22, 2006

XXXXXXX, XXXXXXXXXX, XXXXXXX

Just in case Gentle Readers have not been following the Case of the Classified Op-Ed, the New York Times evidently printed the Op-Ed by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann with the CIA blacklines obscuring the text in question. The allegation is that the CIA had approved the original piece, but that the White House had “intervened in the normal prepublication review process and demanded substantial deletions.” Mr. Leverett and Ms. Mann (married, by the way, according to a rather sweet notice in the Times three and a half years ago) claim that CIA sources tell them the censorship is from political rather than security motivation.

I’d like to make clear that I have no way of knowing who is telling the truth in this matter. I don’t know what’s behind the black line. I don’t know whether Mr. Leverett and Ms. Mann are telling the truth either about what was deleted or about what they were told by their sources (or even if there were sources). If there were sources, I have no way of knowing whether the sources were telling the truth to Mr. Leverett and Ms. Mann. It’s perfectly possible that the executive branch was, in fact, just doing the job that is their job to do.

On the other hand, who am I kidding?

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

December 5, 2006

Schools of thought

I am paying some attention to the recent Supreme Court case about public school desegregation efforts, in part because my own school district is facing the issue. I have, in the past, talked about the continued need for action to distribute opportunities more equally, given the continuing effects of segregation and official discrimination. There’s something more going on here than that, and it’s an odd thing that I’m uncomfortable with, so I thought I’d lay it out for y’all.

First of all, it seems clear that as the Seattle school district’s lawyer told Chief Justice Roberts (and I’m taking my quote from Linda Greenhouse’s NYT article, Court Reviews Race as Factor in School Plans), “Segregation is harmful.” That, by the way, is based on observation, not on philosophy. Segregated schools are bad for the kids in ghetto schools, and that is not only based on an inevitable difference in resources but on a variety of social issues. In other words, actual harm would be done to kids in a segregated system, even if the resources were somehow kept equal. It follows, I think, that the state has an interest in desegregating.

Second, busing is harmful. I think that’s been studied enough to have nearly as good a sense of that as of the other. It’s better for a kid to go to a school in his neighborhood, with other kids from that neighborhood, than to go to a school outside his neighborhood, with other kids from different neighborhoods. The harm in busing is not (as far as I know—I am not an expert on sociology and education, so my information comes from inaccurate newspaper articles and the occasional abstract from a real study report) so bad as the harm in segregation, but it exists.

Third, equality under the law demands a presumption that people of different races should be treated equally. This presumption will need to be overcome in some cases, such as to redress actual harm, so the question is whether a particular case does overcome such a presumption.

Fourth, there is, in fact, a history in this country of racial prejudice and harmful discrimination. In an actual case, it must make a difference whether the effect of a rule would increase or decrease the ongoing detrimental effects of that. In other words, there is a clear difference between a rule giving preference of some kind to white people and a rule giving preference to black people; it’s preposterous to suppose that there is no difference between them.

Enough to go on.

Your Humble Blogger lives in an affluent town in an affluent state. Our school district is wonderful, with tasty test scores and attractive well-kept school buildings. My Perfect Non-Reader goes to kindergarten five blocks from home. Her school is well-appointed and well-funded (within the current American context); recently each child in her kindergarten class was given a box of crayons to take home. Her school is also one of two schools in the town with any appreciable number of minority students. Her school is, according to state stats, about 65% minority; the town is around 33% minority. As far as I can tell, about a sixth of the non-white students in town go to her school, and about a sixth go to the next school to the south, with the other two-third spread over the other nine schools. There are two schools that are the reverse, with around 85% white students, and the other five look more or less like the city.

Five years ago or so, the state gave special status to our school and the other heavily non-white school, exempting them from affirmative action to desegregate in return for an affirmative effort to make the schools attractive to families from all over the town. My daughter’s school is a “magnet” school for science and technology; there are special facilities for studying science, right down to the kindergarten level. The “magnet” thing is pretty minor, though; most of the students are from the neighborhood, with the opportunity to cross neighborhoods to attend a magnet school for a limited number of families. There are other magnet schools for other things; most families choose the neighborhood schools. The special status hasn’t done much to change the demographics of the school, as far as I can tell from the reports.

Now, I understand that the state should be very skeptical of segregated schools. If it turns out that all the non-white kids are in one neighborhood, which is often the case, and one or two schools have most of those kids, you need to look very carefully at those schools, both because you can assume a resource imbalance and because (as was mentioned above) segregation is harmful. I get that. And I hate to be the kind of liberal that is all in favor of desegregating other people’s schools, in other people’s towns. But are our schools segregated? I’m curious what Gentle Readers will think. My daughter’s school is one-third white; will the various detrimental effects kick in? Most of the non-white kids in town go to other schools; will prospective employers and schools feel that non-white kids from this town are underprepared? Even in the whitest school, one out of seven or so is non-white; there will likely be at least one non-white kid in every class.

One thing that’s skewing my perspective is that my school was very segregated, with only one or two black kids out of twelve hundred in my high school, and a similar ratio in elementary school. There were more Chicanos and Indians (as we called them), but certainly we were more than 85% white. I’m going here by a very loose memory, and also if a kid spoke English at home and wasn’t observably non-white, I’m counting her as white, even if she was named Lupé. What I’m trying to get at is that my school felt very white, and my daughter’s school neither feels very white nor very non-white. In many ways, it’s my liberal dream school: moderately affluent, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial. Multiple good role models of at least four races and at least three religions, so nobody has to be Other on Display (how well I remember that). It’s perfect! It looks just like the tediously put-together illustrations in sort of books that tediously put together illustrations of Benetton-colored kids playing together! Why would you touch it?

Now, my daughter is white, so if they start in trying to bus kids out of the neighborhood to even out the numbers, she’ll be one of the ones who gets to stay. And I say gets to stay because she loves it, and would be all broken up if we had to go somewhere else (which we well might, next year, for our own reasons). I think—I think—that the other kids also love the school, in that kindergartner way. I don’t perceive any need for state intrusion at all. On the other hand, I am in a terrific position not to perceive that need if it does exist.

This hooks together with the day’s news because some of the policies that went in front of the Supreme Court yesterday were similar to policies in our town. I understand that the policies are awkward and in some ways individually unfair. My reaction to the move to further desegregate my own school was substantially negative. On the other hand, I do understand the interest of the state, and I further understand that the more latitude you give the state to waive its policies in individual cases, the more latitude you give it to consign politically weak groups to an underclass. That’s not happening in my town—it never happens in my town, but I could see it happening elsewhere. And obviously (I hope this is obvious) the Judiciary actively overturning local democratic-based decision making to protect members of a group that is already privileged seems wrong. And yet, I have to wonder—are we stuck with desegregation forever? Are there policies or plans to have neither segregation or desegregation? Because honestly, they both suck, and the fact that I’ll accept one rather than the other doesn’t solve either.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

November 14, 2006

Stifling a reporter's creativity

In this morning’s New York Times, there’s an article called As Math Scores Lag, a New Push for the Basics by Tamar Lewin. First of all, Tamar? Who names their daughter Tamar? Did they not read the Bible?

What I meant to write about, though, is about yet another potential change in the way arithmetic is taught in elementary schools. There’s a lot to be cranky about—Ms. Lewin mentions a report by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics but doesn’t seem to have talked to any officials or representatives of that group, much less anybody who writes the textbooks that are being discussed. But what really caught my eye was this:

“When my oldest child, an A-plus stellar student, was in sixth grade, I realized he had no idea, no idea at all, how to do long division,” Ms. Backman said, “so I went to school and talked to the teacher, who said, ‘We don’t teach long division; it stifles their creativity.’ ”

A question for Gentle Readers: Do you believe this conversation happened? Do you believe that the teacher said what Ms. Backman claims was said? Because I, for one, do not. I have some small experience of teachers, and I simply do not believe that any teacher in this nation has used the phrase “stifles their creativity” seriously at any time in the last five years, certainly not in a conversation with an aggrieved parent.

Now, I like long division, and I think there are a lot of good reasons for teaching it, but on the other hand there are lots of other things to teach, and I would understand if my Perfect Reader never learns it, because, you know, honestly, there’s not so much long division in the real world. It’s fun and instructive, and gives practice multiplying single-digit numbers and subtracting double-digit numbers, and those things are really quite useful to be able to do in your head, and besides I think it can give a sense of numbers and patterns that might, for some kids, lead them to consider putting some effort into real math. Which would be hijjus for those kids, who might turn into mathematicians, but it would be Good for the Country, which needs mathematicians to, um, you know, all that stuff. The stuff we need mathematicians to do. Make physicists feel good about themselves.

But my point (here it comes, wait, no, it was here a minute ago) is not about long division, it’s about journalism. Is there an ethical problem in letting Ms. Backman just make shit up like that? Or is it understood that Ms. Backman is not quoting a teacher, but giving her impression of what the teacher meant? Does Ms. Lewin, as a journalist, have some responsibility to let us know whether the reported conversation actually occurred? Are we, as readers, expected to believe Ms. Backman’s reporting? Or Ms. Lewin’s reporting of Ms. Backman’s reporting? Is there harm done (to the credibility of the paper, to the image in our heads of teacher, to our culture) by that paragraph? Or is clearly laying out the issue, by reporting Ms. Backman’s self-description of why she is organizing?

It makes me very uncomfortable, in part because I think Ms. Backman is, in some sense, slandering teacherhood. As a culture, we build up images or types, and just the way that, f’r’ex, professional baseball players are viewed as lazy, selfish, arrogant and dishonest, teachers are viewed as small-minded, bureaucratic, inflexible and petty. All of the negative aspects of unionism in our culture are put on them, and none of the positive ones (if there are any left). Individually, of course, we love teachers, or hate them, depending on the individuals, but more likely respect and appreciate them. Not all of us, and not all teachers, but in general, if you have an acquaintance from high-school who went into elementary-school teaching, you probably think good for her. But the generic teacher is not like that. Which is why we can’t possibly raise our taxes to give them significant support.

In a world where (as is clearly implied in this article), math teachers can make much more money and enjoy better working conditions by quitting the day job and going into tutoring full-time, it’s a problem if we erroneously think that teachers will not teach long division for fear of stifling the child’s productivity. Naturally, then, we will not feel ashamed when the resources are diverted away from that small-minded, bureaucratic, inflexible and petty teacher, and to the clever, independent entrepreneur at Kumon. It won’t occur to us that it’s the same person, simply following the resources. The fact that there are lots of students who won’t be able to follow the teacher (as she follows the resources) might, but then our solution will be to provide some way for that student to follow that teacher, thus diverting even more resources away from the school.

I think it’s fair to blame Ms. Backman for her share in that. I’m not sure if it’s fair to blame Ms. Lewin.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

October 3, 2006

Big Deal

Well, and the scandal de jour is about a nasty, stinking Republican Congressman diddling little boys. Ah, scandal. It smells like victory. And comes with a slice of schadenfreude pie! Mmm, pie.

Republicans, unsurprisingly, are shocked—shocked!—that the Democrats are using this unavoidable tragedy for political purposes. Democrats (and anti-Republicans, a much larger sect of Left Blogovia) are gleefully attacking Republican hypocrisy, as they are the ones who make such a big deal about The Children and Teh Sex. Republicans (and anti-Democrats, a somewhat larger sect of Right Blogovia) are sullenly attacking Democrat hypocrisy (note, by the way, that they are not on the whole attacking Democratic hypocrisy), as they are the ones who say we shouldn’t jump to conclusions, shouldn’t read other people’s email, shouldn’t condemn people just because they like to have sex with little boys, and want to open the door to all sorts of disgusting immorality, like that they pretend to believe Rep. Foley engaged in.

Digression: There was a moment a couple of weeks ago where Matt Yglesias posted that, say what you will about the Iran’s madman, he dresses well and seems pretty confident, looked nice, and generally seemed to be making a good impression at the UN. Somebody then pointed out that you could tell that Matt Yglesias was an independent blogger, writing about what interested him, because anybody whose primary goal was to Win for the Party would not write something like that, as people would immediately start saying “You see! Democrats love Iran! Democrats want to suck snazzy terrorist dick!” And, as Mr. Yglesias is a quite prominent member of Left Blogovia, I think it’s worth noting that I think he probably ought to think twice before posting things, with an eye towards avoiding becoming a shanda fur de goyim. Your Humble Blogger, on the other hand, can say whatever he damn pleases without worry about how it will make other people look. Sometimes it’s nice having low Page Rank. End digression.

You see, much as I like the idea of Republican come-uppance, and much as I think that the goal (ending Republican dominance of the government by winning enough seats to wrest control of the House or Senate or both) may well be worth the means, I am deeply uncomfortable about the Democrats making use of this.

Yes, I think it was wrong for Rep. Foley to flirt so outrageously with teenagers who were in the lower end of the power dynamic. I think the situation (Congressman/page) makes consent very tricky indeed, and even if it turns out Rep. Foley did not, for instance, write nice college recommendations only for those pages who played nice with the old man, I think it was immoral, and he would have been well (ethically) advised to Cut It Out.

On the other hand, the teenagers were all of age to consent, legally, and there’s every reason to believe that sixteen-year-olds are, on the whole, sexually aware and if not actually ready for a healthy sexual relationship (in many cases), capable of being something other than victims in a flirtation. Capable, I’m saying, of enjoying a flirtation, and possibly even something more than that. Capable, legally and morally, of consent. Some of them. Without knowing the people involved, I am certainly not willing to say the individuals involved were, but again without knowing them, I am not willing to say they were not.

Again, I think the situation was icky. Even amongst adults, when the power differential is that extreme, I think the powerful one has a responsibility not to be icky. And this seems to be icky. Furthermore, I think that the Republican leadership almost certainly shut their eyes, preferring Not To Know what they could have known, and what, if they had known, they would have had to do something about. For that reason—for the self-deception, the dishonesty, the cheapness—the Republican leadership probably deserves to catch whatever shit is flung at them. On the other hand, in the flinging, the message the Democrats and their allies are giving is that yes, this is a Big Deal, and won’t somebody think of the Children.

And me, I don’t think this is a Big Deal. I mean, even if Rep. Foley laid all the House Pages end to end, I don’t think this is a Big Deal. Sorry about that, everybody.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

August 5, 2006

Mouse at Fifty, not at Rest

I read in the New York Times Arts, Briefly that Armistead Maupin’s next book, Michael Tolliver Lives, will be out next year. I thought I’d pass that along for those who want to know.

Your Humble Blogger is ambivalent (there’s a surprise). On one hand, I like Michael Tolliver. I’d even go so far as to say that I miss Michael Tolliver. I am looking forward to finding out what he’s been up to these last years. On the other hand, returning to a world created in his youth is often (I know, not always, but often) a sign of expiring creative energy. Or at least it’s a disappointment: the Stella Gibbons of Conference at Cold Comfort Farm has different concerns from the Stella Gibbons who wrote the original, and her point that you can’t go home again (if that was her point) was scarcely what I wanted from a return to Howling, Sussex. Or the author decides to turn the whole thing on its head, which is even less welcome.

Still, Michael Tolliver Lives! That’s a relief.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

July 31, 2006

Feh, inshallah

Your Humble Blogger feels that it is somehow incumbent on him to comment on the story of the Dobriches of Georgetown, Delaware. Or formerly of Georgetown, Delaware, as they have moved following increasing Christian proselytizing in the Georgetown public school, an attempt to combat that, a hostile defense in the community, and death threats. You can read about it in the New York Times in an article mildly headlined Families Challenging Religious Influence in Delaware Schools. Or not. Frankly, it’s depressing and not altogether enlightening.

Or you could read about a maniac shooting six people at a Jewish Federation building in Seattle or about or about Mel Gibson’s drunken rantings about Jewish conspiracies. The good news is that these stories are news. The bad news is that they happen. Of course, I am aware that these sorts of things, particularly the kind of thing that happened in Georgetown, does happen to minorities of all kinds, and that it doesn’t always make the paper. But I do think that, on the whole, we live in a remarkably tolerant world, and some of us live in a wonderful sub-nation where variety is celebrated rather than feared or hated.

How do we react, then, to these aberrations, these profoundly un-American (and here the term is prescriptive, rather than descriptive—I’m talking about the self-image we try to live up to, rather than the selves we struggle against) and disgusting incidences of anti-Semitism (or racism, or homophobia, etc, etc)? How do we simultaneously remember that in a nation of 300 million people and three and a half million square miles, such incidents can be both frequent and unusual? How do we shine a sufficient light on such nastiness to correct the various seemingly neutral behaviors and policies that support it, while maintaining a sense of proportion and a patriotic willingness to see our better selves?

The answer, I’m afraid, is that I don’t. Instead, I veer back and forth between cheerful blindness to our faults and vicious contempt for our society. Healthy. But what can you do?

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

June 15, 2006

It's for you...

Your Humble Blogger has seen a lot of hoo-hah this week about the high-pitched ring-tone that supposedly is beyond the frequency that grown-ups can hear, but will be audible to teenagers. Now, I understand that high-tech hoo-hah is and of right ought to be unconnected with real life or actual usefulness, but do people really think that this is a big deal? I mean, mobile phones already have silent modes, right? In what I think of as an ordinary high-school classroom, having the inaudible-to-grupps ring-tone will not prevent the teacher from spotting a student who whips out the device and starts thumbing it, particularly if all the circumjacent teenagers are looking around at her and giggling. And in a big college lecture hall, the teacher wouldn’t notice the vibrating noise of a mobile on silent, and is besides likely to be a TA not so many years older than the undergrads. None of this addresses the real issues: when is it OK to use the mobile? When is it OK, as long as it’s silent? When is it OK to be out of touch for a few hours? What is the appropriate behavior when in class? What is the appropriate behavior for a teacher, when he sees the mobile come out? Is it OK to take notes on laptops, and is it OK for a teacher to forbid laptops (because of IM)?

I think we (meaning people more or less my age, post-boomers say, born between 1965 and 1975 or so) are the last to think of it as normal to be completely out of touch for most of the day. When were at school, an injury or illness might mean waiting in the nurse’s office for an hour or more while attempts were made to contact a parent. Answering machines started appearing, but were not truly ubiquitous until the 90s. Not only were mobile phones terribly uncommon but most jobs did not allow the employee to take personal calls. Oh, in a truly dire emergency, it was generally possible to get hold of somebody within a few hours, but that delay was an expected part of the work or school day. We were out of touch while at school, and if we went to work we were out of touch while at work. It was occasionally annoying, but on the whole, it was just how the world worked.

My own view is skewed as well by four years at a college which did not allow phones in the dorm rooms. There were two phones to a hall, one at each end, and they were generally shared by twenty to thirty people. They were often busy, as you can imagine, and they were also often unanswered, as the occupants of nearby rooms might be away (or sulking), and the occupants of farther rooms might not hear the ring. And, of course, email was something you might check once or even twice a day, by going up to the computer lab. If you were a nerd.

Now, of course, it’s only old grumps who make themselves inaccessible, moment to moment. Phone calls and emails are expected to reach the recipient immediately or sooner, and the idea of leaving your child at school while you visit the store incommunicado is quite likely actionable.

And, on the whole, it’s an improvement. Why, after all, would it be good to be out of touch? But it does place a burden on the individual to manage access, preferably by turning off the phone whilst in class, rather than by programming it for ear-piercing shrieks.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

May 15, 2006

I think I've said this before...

Your Humble Blogger has mentioned before that the social conservatives haven’t actually been very successful since their Party took power, counting either from 1994 or 2000. They were on about the homosexual agenda, abortion, disrespect for Christians (well, for them, anyway), and sex and violence in popular culture. Well, in most of those areas, they have lost ground, by any measure. More and more Republicans in office, more abortions, more gay marriage, more filth on television and radio. In part, this is because the leaders of the Republican party have betrayed ordinary Republican voters by ceding power to a secretive cabal of crooks and incompetents (were you all singing along on that one?), but in part it’s because social conservatism was always a bit of a ruse the big-money boys used to push corporate capitalism. Now and then, the leaders of social conservatism pretend to be shocked by this, and we get headlines such as Conservative Christians Criticize Republicans (on a story by David D. Kirkpatrick in this morning’s New York Times).

My point, though, is that on social measures, and to a large extent on fiscal and foreign policy as well, it’s not enough to put people from Your Party in office. Remember that democracy is not about elections. It’s about persuasion. The Republicans, with their brilliant decades-long discipline of getting people elected to various state and local positions for which they really had soft support, and then using those small offices to build the Party, had this flaw. They got very good at getting elected. They were never as good at getting the country to believe their shit.

Except Reagan, of course, and the whole anti-government thing, which I think is different.

But you are not going to eliminate abortion by legislating restrictions. You aren’t even really going to decrease it. And, in fact, in a country that supports the individual right to make that choice, you aren’t even going to successfully pass that legislation, just because you get your boys elected. And that’s one of the easy ones. You’re surely not going to reverse cultural trends by winning 53% of a suppressed vote. You aren’t going to eliminate poverty that way, either, or prop up unions and working people against employers and banks, and you aren’t going to get national health care with 53% of the vote, either. I’m not saying we on the left should ignore the elections, I’m just saying elections aren’t enough. Mr. Dobson has discovered that.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

March 22, 2006

In the times, the New York Times...

Sometimes I avoid writing about intellectual property, just because so much of what is said about it is nonsense, so nonsense from this Tohu Bohu would be surplus. Now and then, though, something is brought to my attention that just baffles me.

For background. I don’t believe in intellectual property. The idea that one can own ideas is ridiculous on its face, and the idea that expressions of ideas are somehow different from ideas is one I can’t find a way to accept. It’s true that the pretense of intellectual property (not the phrase itself, but the legal fiction) served surprisingly well in the crude capitalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, much better than my understanding of the model would suggest. It also seems to be the case that the pretense is not working well in this age of corporate capitalism. I do not have any particular ideas for replacing it, though, at least not within the structures of corporate capitalism itself. I have some ideas about replacing that, but then intellectual property is the least of the reasons for doing so, and the least of the problems of replacing it.

So. In this morning’s New York Times, there’s a fascinating article by Sharon LaFraniere called In the Jungle, the Unjust Jungle, a Small Victory about the history of the song I know as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. The article (and accompanying sound clips) traces the song from a recording by Solomon Linda and the Original Evening Birds to its frequent use in movies and television today. Various people added to it, in a variety of ways, adding melodic bits, adding English lyrics, changing the rhythm, and generally treating it like a folk song is treated. I would have liked more analysis, as well as more interviews with the various people who had a hand in the various version. Why was the doo-wop version so popular? How did Disney miss the chance to return the chant from the nonsense “Wemoweh” to the Zulu “Mbumbe”? Why did the song’s popularity outlive the popularity of falsetto singing? More than once?

Rather than go in to all of that, the story of the article is the story of how Mr. Linda’s family received only a small amount of money from the sale of the copyright, and only intermittently received royalty payments. Mr. Linda died poor, in 1962, and his family remained poor until I suppose 1991, when money from The Lion King started filtering through to them. The crumbs from Disney’s table must have been a heck of a bounty, to them, although of course in Disney’s terms it was a good deal less than they paid people to sweep the floors (a job Mr. Linda got from his record company forty years previously). Eventually, Mr. Linda’s descendants sued, and now they aren’t poor anymore. Hurrah! A triumph for rightness!

Um, hunh?

I mean, when they bring up that one of Mr. Linda’s daughters died of AIDS, unable to afford treatment, I am outraged. As outrageous as that is, though, it can’t quite keep me to being further outraged by the idea that Ms. Linda should not have died of neglect and poverty because her father wrote a pretty tune once. Really, all those other people who died of AIDS in Africa in the nineties, should they have had one of their parents write a pretty tune before they were born? What were they thinking? I have no sympathy for them at all. Ms. Linda clearly had far more right to treatment than they did.

Look, I was going to write about my bewilderment with the whole thing—Mr. Linda sold his copyright for a mess o’ pottage in 1952, very sad, but if there is ownership, then he doesn’t own it anymore. I’ll leave out that the family sold the copyright again in the eighties, apparently the victim of fraud, but then apparently also the perpetrators of fraud, since they didn’t own it anymore themselves. But the law is complicated (and bad), and perhaps there is some sense in which it makes sense that they own it. I mean, if a song is property, like a car, then whoever buys it, owns it, right? But it isn’t, of course. Except when it is.

And then there’s the strange part where the heroes essentially brought a lawsuit without merit in order to blackmail Disney against bad publicity, and of course to exploit the fact that Disney doesn’t really want to go to court and argue that intellectual property is complicated and byzantine and so we shouldn’t punish infringers in cases where copyright ownership is unclear. And they really don’t want to win that case. So the Linda family goes to Disney and says ‘Nice intellectual property there, shame if anything were to happen to it’, and Disney gives them a million or so, and Hooray for the Lindas!

No, the thing that really seemed strange to me is the sentence “By all rights, Mr. Linda should have been a rich man.” Hunh? Mr. Linda wrote a lovely song, yes, and certainly there have been lots of people who got rich over the years who deserved it less, but what if “Mbumbe” hadn’t been taken up by Mr. Seeger, or by the Kingston Trio, or by Mr. Weiss and the Tokens, or by Disney? Would some right have been violated? Does Mr. Seeger not deserve, by this measure, to be a rich man? Not that he isn’t, for all I know, but if Mr. Seeger hadn’t pushed the song, Disney wouldn’t have used it, and there would be no money for Mr. Linda’s children. Or perhaps if Mr. Weiss had not re-written the melody, and added words, and totally transformed the song—is Mr. Weiss a rich man? Does he have the right to be?

Look, I think the story is fascinating, and I do think Mr. Linda got a raw deal. I’m sure, by the way, he did better than he would have done had he not written “Mbumbe”, but perhaps that’s irrelevant. It just seems strange to me that the writer assumes, and assumes that her readers assume, that Mr. Linda had some right to riches, just because he wrote a pretty tune.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

February 18, 2006

XDL, business, noises (off)

Mine Gracious Host recently referred to what he called “that most glorious of stage directions”, repeat play. I don’t know if that’s the most glorious; I have friends who would swear by exit, pursued by a bear, and I am partial to Bob sees the aliens in the mirror while shaving, which is really only particularly amusing if you know that it’s from a radio play. Still. That passing reference combined with the lively conversation about memorizing lines and my week-long silence on this Tohu Bohu has inspired me to blog a bit about stage directions, when I really should be working on my lines.

In short, I don’t like ’em.

Oh, some of them are necessary, I suppose, although my dislike is sufficiently severe that (back when YHB was writing plays for his own amusement) I left them out entirely, and it wasn’t too difficult to do. I was once told (probably in error) that the stage directions written into all the modern copies of William Shakespeare’s plays were modern, and that it’s a good idea to mark them out. I don’t know about actually marking them out, but certainly they don’t add much to the plays. The odd enter and exit are key, particularly if the other characters don’t immediately verbally acknowledge the entrance or exit, but that’s about it. Crossing left or right depends entirely on the stage setting for that particular play.

In particular, I dislike the stage directions Mr. Samuel French includes with his playing copies of scripts. From the first page of Les Liaisons Dangereuses (for which I will need some sort of short or nick- name if I am to often write about it here), interpolated into Madame the Marquise’s first line: CÉCILE who has been daydreaming, starts, not quite sure, for a second, if it’s she who’s being addressed. Now I can scarcely complain about comma placement, but really, why does Mr. French or Mr. Hampton feel the need to insert this? I call this sort of thing director’s discretion, or at any rate to be worked out between the actress and the director.

There were two moderately interesting stories about the theeyayter in the news recently, but not so recently that I still have links lying around, sorry about that. One was a story about how directors are, in some sense that isn’t clear to me at all, copyrighting their production of a play, so that other directors at other theaters who copy their directorial contributions have to get permission, and pay or give credit or whatever the whim of the original director is at the moment. There were a couple of examples, but the one that sticks in my mind was a regional production of Love! Valour! Compassion!, for which the director clearly drew inspiration (to say the least) from having seen the original New York production, directed by Joe Mantello. Mr. Mantello, if I remember correctly, sued the director (or perhaps the theater) and forced a nonmonetary settlement of some kind. It was viewed as a precedent, though.

The other news was that a theater in, and again I may be misremembering the whole thing, Italy was putting on Waiting for Godot, and due to one thing and another replaced their lead actors with lead actresses (that’s lead as in follow, not lead as in pewter). Samuel Beckett had forbidden the play to be performed with women in the leads during his life, and his estate sued to prevent the production and lost in the Italian courts. The dead playwright did not, it seems, have the moral right to dictate all the conditions of the play (although the case was made easier by the fact that Didi and Gogo remained male, so the audience experience was not held to be discernibly different).

These seemed to me to be tied together, at least in my mind, by the idea that there is an important difference between a play and a production of that play. Whether Didi and Gogo are played by men or women, whether there is a dollhouse on the stage representing the beach house, whether Cécile is daydreaming, these are aspects of the production, not the play. The play exists before and after the productions. A good play will have a good production, a great play will have many good productions, different one to another. This is complicated, of course, by what I see as the moral rights of the playwright (or at least a certain moral obligation on the part of the producers) to have his or her wishes taken into account. Still. Ultimately, if the director wants Hedda Gabler to be surrounded by robots, then that’s how it’ll be.

No, that’s not an actual production of Hedda Gabler, but rather Heddatron, a play about, in some sense, surrounding Hedda with robots. Be that as it may, I think if you parse that in the Latin declension, you’ll find that my point is still moot.

Anyway, what I was going to say is that I do not, when typing in my scenes to study, include stage directions, except (where absolutely necessary) entrances and exits. I print out the pages with loads of space to scribble in blocking and notes, and that’s enough.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

February 10, 2006

no, no, I get to define things, me, I do

Every now and then, the fact that people are different, one to another, and perceive different universes, still manages to surprise Your Humble Blogger. Manohla Dargis, in a New York Times review of Firewall called An Aging Action Hero With a Flair for Computers and a Family to Protect, says that “It's not a little painful, then, to watch Mr. [Harrison] Ford in "Firewall," a rote retread of the kind of family-in-jeopardy flicks that helped define his career.”

Now, I’m not commenting on “Firewall”, which I ain’t seen and ain’t going to see. Nor is this a vendetta against the New York Times Arts and Leisure section, which as you are aware, Gentle Readers, gets right up my nose on occasion, but still forms an enjoyable part of my readload. No, it’s just that my immediate reaction was that Mr. Ford’s career is defined by Indiana Jones, and may possibly have been redefined by “The Fugitive”, and that neither of those were family-in-danger movies. And when I mentioned to my Best Reader how preposterous it was that somebody might say that Mr. Ford’s career was defined by family-in-danger movies, she immediately said “Witness”. I dismissed it as a minor movie, but you know, that was wrong. Sorry, Best Reader.

That is, I think it’s perfectly plausible to consider an actor’s first Oscar nomination as, in some sense, a defining role, even if I think the movie is forgettable and forgotten, and if it pretty obviously ranks no higher than tenth of his movies’ Pop Culture strength. That is, behind three Indy movies, three Star Wars movies, Blade Runner, the Fugitive and American Graffiti. And no, I don’t count the last Indy movie as a “family-in-danger” movie; the old man was doing fine on his own. Nor does the Fugitive count, as the family is not so much in danger as dead. Of course, one could argue that “Witness” isn’t a “family-in-danger” movie, either, as the family in danger isn’t his, but that seems stretching.

More to the point, Mr. Ford has saved his movie family in, if I’m not missing any, “Witness”, “Patriot Games”, “Air Force One” and possibly “Mosquito Coast”, although in the latter movie they are primarily in danger from his character. I saw Mosquito Coast in 1986, and “Witness” in, probably, 1988 or so, and haven’t seen the other two, so my view of Mr. Ford is pretty much entirely missing that aspect of his career. So I kinda just forgot about it. In fact, I haven’t seen any of the last five movies Mr. Ford has carried. The one I saw was a romantic comedy, which wasn’t terribly successful, and didn’t help define his career at all. In fact, as it turns out, I count 26 movies in which Mr. Ford has either been the star or a major supporting role, and I’ve seen, um, 16. If I’m counting correctly. Mostly from the beginning of his career, meaning I have seen fourteen of the fifteen movies made up through 1990, and two of the eleven made since. And I was all upset that somebody was defining his career all wrong. Um, perhaps I’m not so much an authority as I thought.

I’m just saying. My perception of the universe is incomplete. Sometimes I forget that. It’s good that I’m reminded of it. Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded in the context of a topic that doesn’t matter at all.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

February 3, 2006

tohu bohu note written whilst not sleeping, unless I dozed off and dreamed part of it

A recent article in the New York Times (When All the 'Greatest Hits' Are Too Many to Download, by Jeff Leeds) brought to mind the whole music business mess. It seems that, in an utterly unprecedented way, people are now purchasing recordings of single songs, or what I call singles. Clearly there is no way civilization can withstand this.

The article does, however, dance around the true heart of the issue, which is that the music industry and its customers have different and not entirely complementary sets of interests. That is, unlike in the pants business, where customers want to overpay for crappy ugly shoddy grotty merchandise, and producers want to make customers’ lives easy, comfortable, stylish and convenient, there are aspects to the music business that can’t be so easily resolved. The recording industry wants, as a natural part of being the recording industry, to have full and total control over every bit of recorded data in existence, particularly the data on privately owned hard drives, flash drives and neuron networks, and to prevent anyone anywhere from ever listening to any recorded or live music. The customer, on the other hand, simply by virtue of being a music customer, wants to be able to listen to any music he or she wants, at any time, without paying anything, with the ability to alter it in any way, while having sex with Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey. There is no way to make these two interests compatible. Believe me, I’ve tried. Nick gets all cross and clingy, and then sulks and won’t wear the ears.

How, then, to break the stalemate? Well, why not look at other cases where supposedly antithetical forces were able to mediate their differences by using some Third Way, some perhaps technological solution that allowed everybody to be beaten, robbed, and left in a pool of their own filth while the residents of Samaria walked by, snickering? For instance, in the case of copyright infringement with photocopiers, rather than a futile attempt to restrict what body parts could or could not be legally copied, legislation was enacted to set aside two cents out of every xerographic copy made anywhere in the world to fund a secret race of otter-ninjas, trained to thwart the evil plans of the Rosicrucians. I’m not saying that otter-ninjas are the answer to the problems of the recording industry. I’m not saying that otter-ninjas are not the answer. I’m just saying sometimes you have to think outside the brain pan.

My proposal is a sort of audio-sonic vibratory molecular transmutational device (of my own invention) that will actually block out all audio waves of every kind, thus releasing us from this tedious quarrel over who owns what bits of noise. Sure, the recording industry will still claim control over silent video files, but who makes any money from movies? I mean, be serious. Furthermore, when you are dragged into court by large green-jacketed attornions with bees in their mouths, you will not need to respond to charges that you will be unable to hear.

What’s that, Your Honor? I’m sorry? No, I can’t hear you, you’ll have to speak up. Charges dismissed, you say?

Then, with the triumvirate of Your Humble Blogger, Dr. Science and Giblets at the controls, um, well, it would be a mistake to plan out the details too far in advance, as it would inhibit us from flexibly applying principles to circumstances as they arise. Besides, a triumvirate is clearly the most stable form of government known to man, so there’s no need to worry. It's not rocket psychiatry, you know.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

January 25, 2006

complaints, complaints

Sometimes the writing in the New York Times Arts section just gets right up Your Humble Blogger’s nose.

From Chimney Sweep's World, With No Mary Poppins, an article by Ben Sisario on Colin Meloy: “His lyrics giddily engage a Scrabble master's vocabulary; one song on the Decemberists' latest album, "Picaresque," rhymes folderol, chaparral and coronal.” Um, huh? Has Mr. Sisario never played Scrabble? A Scrabble master’s vocabulary is about knowing that it is OK to spell adze without the e, or that fid and fil and fiz are just as legitimate as fib, fie, fig, fin, fir, fit, and fix. Well, more about knowing that ba and bo are as good as be, bi and by, but that *bu is right out. Oh, and that qua is a word, but that *quo isn’t, for some reason. I have known a couple of genuine Scrabble masters, and have played Scrabble with some players a lot better than I am, and I doubt that any of them would have played chapparal under any circumstances, even if there was room after chap. Dumping a rack with folderol is possible, if I left the board open, and I could easily imagine somebody supplying the l after I foolishly played corona (for almost no points). Yes, I know, I’m quibbling, but really. That’s aside from the fact that folderol and coronal do not rhyme, nor does either rhyme with chapparal, which is not a dactyl but an anapest, and therefore possibly wouldn’t scan. Not that I’m knocking Mr. Meloy; I have no idea how those words are actually used. I’m just saying.

And while I’m whinging, may I point out that Ben Brantley, in It Only Hurts When You Don't Laugh, a review of Major Bang (which, bye-the-bye, looks quite good), refers to the present as “four years after Americans were deprived of the assumption that their days were unlikely to include terrorist attacks.” Now, Mr. Brantley doesn’t mean assumption; I think he means illusion, but he may mean belief or something like that. At any rate, the word choice wouldn’t make me pick up my head and look around for a Gentle Reader to complain to. No, but I really hope most Americans don’t currently think their days are likely to include terrorist attacks. I know I’m always on about how humans are lousy at risk analysis in any frame longer than a minute or so, but this is beyond me. As far as I can tell, Mr. Brantley wanted to intimate that before the attack on the World Trade Center (the second one, you know, the one that worked), Americans (erroneously) thought themselves immune from terrorism, that is, they thought it was impossible that their days would include terrorist attacks, and now not only is such an idea conceivable but it’s hard (Mr. Brantley says) to keep it out of your head. So perhaps he means something like four years after Americans were deprived of their ability to ignore the possibility that their days would include terrorist attacks. Or something. Anyway, it’s a lousy sentence at the top of the review, and (as with many lousy sentences) fixing it wouldn’t help.

Hmf. Just to show that (a) I am capable of liking something, and (ii) I really am a pathetic Anglophile, I will recognize that the Guardian has a fascinating report on, as they say, the “slow transition from contemporary controversy to historical fact” of the Limehouse Declaration and the SDP. YHB particularly enjoyed the last section, written by Michael White, on the disagreement within the (left-leaning) Guardian at the time. But really, I don’t demand particularly good writing from my newspaper. I just want to finish the article without complaining about anything but the content.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

January 24, 2006

long, droning, rambling entry with discursive but not altogether illustrative meanders, all about keeping to the point

For the casual reader of Left Blogovia (or, indeed, the causal one, I suppose), it’s become easy to now perceive the scandal about Jack Abramoff, bribery, embezzlement, murder, organized crime, casinos and the Legislature as being, ultimately, not about what happened, nor who was taking bribes, nor who knew that bribes were being spread around but continued to deal with Mr. Abramoff and his associates, nor even about whether Mr. Abramoff was or was not connected to Democratic legislators, nor yet about whether the press are reporting accurately whether Mr. Abramoff was or was not connected to Democratic legislators, nor yet even whether the press, having printed some misinformation about the extent to which Mr. Abramoff was connected to Democratic legislators, did so inadvertently or deliberately, but whether, after being criticized for printing misinformation about the extent of Mr. Abramoff’s connection to Democratic legislators, the Washington Post over-reacted sincerely, if misguidedly, or were marching to a different drummer altogether.

Keep your eye on the ball, boys.

A few days ago, Norman Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann placed in the New York Times an op-ed piece called If You Give a Congressman a Cookie. In it, they attempt to guide readers from the superficially flashy Abramoff scandal to the not-totally-unrelated matter of the Republican Party’s betrayal of the norms of Congressional behavior. I was glad to see it, not least because I find the outrageous behavior of the Republican leadership on the House floor to be more arresting than the murder and millions of the corrupt lobbyist. They say that “If you can play fast and loose with the rules of the game in lawmaking, it becomes easier to consider playing fast and loose with everything else, including relations with lobbyists, acceptance of favors, the use of official resources and the discharge of governmental power”. I don’t think that goes far enough, and I think it shows an unduly institution-based filter in their perception.

Frankly, to me it’s more about the people. The same people who acted dishonestly in the Medicare Prescription Drug fiasco acted dishonestly in the Abramoff crimes. It should not be surprising that people who negotiate dishonestly with the opposition Party, that people who campaign dishonestly for votes and suppress voting for the opposition, that people who legislatively loot the treasury of the country to put into the pockets of their friends (and often their erstwhile and future business partners) also take bribes. Changing the rules about bribe-taking, or even changing the norms in Our House, will not work as well as getting rid of the dishonest people. Not that you will get honest people in their places, of course. Well, some of them will be honest, more or less, but sure, some of the replacements will be bad ’uns, too, perhaps even to the astonishing level of venality we are currently seeing, but then who said being a democrat was easy?

Digression: For some reason, the scale of these bribes is what outrages me. Oh, sure, I understand that organizations with business in front of the Senate will hire the relatives and friends of Senators in order to curry favor, and it wouldn’t shock me if a Kennedy or two had said to somebody that there was a nephew or an aide or a mistress who would be just perfect for that job that happened to be open. That sort of thing happens all the time, and doesn’t strike me as a sign that the politician in question in particularly dishonest or venal. On the other hand, telling such an organization that it would be a good idea to hire a particular lobbying company for a hundred thousand bucks, said company employing two or three former aides, wives and business partners, and implicitly the legislator himself, well, I understand that the difference is in scale, not in kind, but whoo-boy, it seems like a whole nother deal. End Digression.

It seems relevant to repeat the two antithetical joke-definitions of an honest politician. The old British joke is that an honest politician is one who stays bought, that is, one who can be expected to always vote in the interests of his true constituency, whoever that is. For some, the buying will be cash (or, like Sen. McCain, luxury trips for him and family), and for some, the buying will be (as James Madison intended) continued political support (as for politicians owned by labor, by religious groups, by business interests, by regional interests, etcetera, etcetera). There’s a good deal to be said for predictability, and Your Humble Blogger has certainly said a great deal for it, and will do so again, later. But there’s the other definition, the Texas one, that says that an honest politician is one who can shake their hands, take their money, smoke their cigars, drink their whiskey, fuck their wives, and then vote the other way. It ain’t predictable, but there’s a good deal to be said for that, too.

What I think, I suppose, is that (i) most politicians are, at heart, honest enough, although their position requires them to make compromises that most of us find repugnant and also makes unethical activities that most of us find routine, and (b) there are dishonest politicians, who use their position to increase their own wealth and power and that of their friends, and (3) it’s more difficult to tell the difference between the two than you might think. Further, I don’t think that a number of dishonest politicians (by any definition, judicial or jocular) do much to make the difference between good and bad government. However, when dishonest politicians are in charge of the majority Party, when they are unrestrained by political opposition or their own rank and file, when they can loot and cheat with impunity, then whatever you think of their Party’s platform, those people must go.

Once upon a time, the Democratic Speaker of the House took some money from supporters via a sweetheart book deal, and his wife took a $18,000 sinecure, and we ditched him and he was never heard from again. He was, by the way, a real Texas politician, not that other kind.

Your Humble Blogger has been saying for some time that Our Only President has betrayed rank and file Republicans and other Conservatives far more than he has betrayed people like me. I have not, on the whole, been saying that of the legislative leadership. That was an oversight. Really, though, it’s clear that Tom DeLay and his associates (including mentors Dick Cheney and Dick Armey, Grover Norquist, Rick Santorum, the ARMPAC folk, the K Street project lobbyists including Jack Abramoff, TRMPAC and the Texas folk there including Rick Perry) as well as Denny Hastert under whose watch all this occurred, need to answer to Republican Party members. Oh, I am still being shocked (again, by the scale more than anything else), but then they are not claiming to be my leaders. And, of course, whatever the moral and ethical rights and wrongs, it seems clear to me that purely as a political matter, my Party should be emphasizing how the Republican leadership have failed their followers.

Can we get on that, please? And please, Senator Reid, Representative Pelosi, don’t take Left Blogovia seriously enough to ignore our tendencies to obsession over detail. Blogovia is good at detail. Without obsession over detail and a total lack of perspective, we wouldn’t have Fisking. And, Senator, Representative, your actual job, legislating, if the governing Party would let you do it, is all about detail, and I appreciate that. But thirty posts on one topic in the L. B. usually means we’ve lost the plot, and you can ignore us until we remember what’s really going on.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

January 10, 2006

complexity, of course

I read the op-ed column Attention, Medicare Shoppers in this morning’s New York Times with the combination of outrage and skepticism that Gentle Readers have come to expect. In the piece, Lisa Doggett talks about helping her grandmother save $2,000 a year on her prescription drug costs under the new Medicare benefit. Dr. Doggett seems like her heart is in the right place (she is evidently active in Physicians for Social Responsibility and the People’s Community Clinic in Austin, and her old dad appears to be on the good side of the aisle), so I don’t want to make this about her, or even about her piece. But while she is warning people to do a little research and comparison shopping to save money on Medicare, she is (perhaps intentionally) exposing a system that is so utterly outrageous it takes my breath away.

Essentially, she says, if you have a near relative who is a doctor and is willing to spend an hour or so looking at your prescriptions and seeing what changes would save money but be “medically insignificant”, you will save money. Otherwise, you’re up the creek without the proverbial. Oh, she suggests that if you have Mad Google Skillz, or have a near relative with Mad Google Skillz, you could then present the results to your physician, who might approve the changes and then you would save the money. Since Dr. Doggett says that “overburdened physicians can't be expected to counsel each individual patient”, I’m not sure how much help you can actually expect your physician to be, when it comes to explaining whether you can switch a ‘preferred’ blood pressure medication, or whether that switch would interfere with the efficacy of the some other medication for some other chronic condition. But hey, I’ll use my Mad Google Skillz to help out my parents, sure. And heck, if I make an error of some kind, it’s just my mother’s health, abi gezunt.

But I didn’t really want to get into a long rant about the foolishness of this particular Medicare plan. You’ve heard that elsewhere, Gentle Reader, and if you haven’t, then you aren’t interested and don’t want to here it here. But what occurred to me about this set-up is that it is very similar, experientially I mean, to the 401k kind of thing, where the pensioner is responsible for directing his own investments.

Look, a hundred years ago, most people were not expected to choose between different complicated plans of any kind. There was a pension, and you paid into it. If your doctor prescribed something, you paid the druggist for it, and if you couldn’t afford it, you didn’t get it. If you had some sort of health insurance system, you paid into it, and they paid out, or they didn’t. You almost certainly didn’t choose between insurers, or between plans. Most people weren’t in the stock market at all. If you got a mortgage, the bank (or the wealthy guy down the street) told you the terms, and you could take it or leave it. Or, perhaps, you could choose between a twenty-year and a thirty-year note. Nothing too complicated.

Now, there’s a lot more choice for a lot more people. There’s also a lot more information available to a lot more people. Someone around the median income level can pretty likely get access to the web, develop Mad Search Engine Skillz, and find out in an hour an incredible level of detail about, well, pretty nearly anything. Do you want to choose between investment companies for your retirement account? You can find out the records of the various options, and even the records of the various funds within those companies, and the turnover rate of the fund managers, and so on. That would have been incredibly difficult two generations ago. When you didn’t need that information. Want to buy a refrigerator? You can find out safety information, owner satisfaction rates, energy ratings, how long they last, etc, etc. You are required to make more complex choices, and you have more information at hand to help you make those choices.

This is not an unmitigated positive, nor an unmitigated negative. It just is. The crazy Medicare system (which, I reiterate, is an outrage) is one example of a whole cultural trend that both forces and allows a greater range of choice. As we talked about in the comments to Stiles a while ago, it’s not clear that a greater range of choice is always good, but then it’s not clear that the choices aren’t better choices. Neither the Satisficer or the Maximizer have reliable strategies, I think, but both make useful decisions in their way.

My point, if I have one? It’s just that, well, I think this really is qualitatively different from our parents’ generation, and certainly from our grandparents’. I think, without having done any research, that the situation I describe is reaching across class lines in a way it didn’t, and is therefore affecting the culture in ways it didn’t before. I wonder how that plays out indirectly, in ways that our generation and the next accomplishes pattern-matching and story-telling. I wonder how that affects generational conversations and expectations. I wonder if that difference, the difference in comfort with complex plans and research into choices, is a useful frame to look at other social questions. I think it might be.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

January 5, 2006

grouchy this morning

James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn have an interesting op-ed in this morning’s Times called No More Second-Term Blues. In it, they argue for the repeal of the 22nd amendment. Now, I’ve been on record as being against term limits (for any office, but particularly for the presidency) for some time, so it’s nice for me to have an excellent historian such as Mr. Burns agree with me (I’m not familiar with Ms. Dunn’s work; her reputation is excellent also). On the other hand, I found myself reading the op-ed with growing skepticism. Their arguments against the power of incumbency seem a bit weak, and they place a good deal of emphasis (as historians are wont to do) on the history of the amendment, rather than on its merits.

Really, though, I was concerned that the column didn’t address what I perceive as a growing, majority or near-majority sense that elections are not central to who we are. I agree that term limits disempower voters, but there is much more than that going on. The last two presidential elections went seriously awry, resulting in what were essentially fraudulent victories for Our Only President. The out-of-cycle redistricting in Texas, along with other redistricting fiascos, further demoralized citizen non-voters.

Ten years ago, the combination of the term limits movement and the campaign finance reform movement, together with the increase in non-participation, led me to worry that Americans, on the whole, no longer thought of their elections as being free and fair, in the sense of representing the will of the constituency. Both of those movements have died down, to a great extent, but if anything I think the general disenchantment has increased.

In a democracy, the thing that provides stability is not the people’s intelligence, or their knowledge, or even the government’s ability to govern well. It’s the belief in democracy. If the populace in a democracy believes in democracy, then it will ride out almost anything between elections, and it will keep riding it out between elections pretty much forever. If, on the other hand, the populace loses its faith in democracy, it will soon feel that the government is illegitimate, and that the next one will be, too, and then anything can happen.

It’s not that repealing the 22nd amendment is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s that repealing the 22nd amendment is like putting out a fire in the boiler room on the Titanic. It might keep us afloat long enough to hit the iceberg.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

December 18, 2005

Madison, again

Your Humble Blogger has kept his pixels shut about the latest report of illegal activity by Our Only President and his cronies. I can’t say I am surprised that Our Only President authorized warrantless wiretapping. After all, aren’t warrants a sort of judicial activism? I would, however, like to explicitly state something that has been talked about a lot since the invasion of Afghanistan, and is, I think, at the heart of the whole issue. And that’s the Congress’s abdication of its Constitutional responsibility under Article 1, Section 8.

You see, there was a purpose behind splitting the war powers of the national government. Under James Madison’s little system, the President can’t simply decide that we are at war, and then grant to himself wartime powers. All of the arguments I have seen (and I haven’t bothered looking much, I must admit) in favor of Our Only President’s warrantless wiretaps have said, essentially look, we’re at war, and we have to do what we have to do. And that’s actually fairly compelling. But who said we were at war? The President. Who decided that our war aims outweight the constitional requirements for warrants? The President. Further, who decided what information to pass along to the Congress, for them to make their allocation decisions? The President.

Now, none of this is new. We’ve been arguing war powers in this country for long enough to have come to some sort of conclusion. On the other hand, it is fairly new that non-government entities, stateless states, can have enough resources to do minor but significant damage. Clearly it would make very little sense for the Congress to have passed a Declaration of War against, say, Al-Qaida, an organization that may not even actually exist. On the other hand, since our expressed aim was invasion to overthrow the sovereign governments of Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s hard to see that this brave new world is significantly different that it relieves the Congress of its responsibility. But concentrating on this matter of a stateless organization operating under different names, schedules, and organizational models, I see that it is, in some sense, difficult to fit all of that into Article 1, Section 8.

Digression: Of course, one of the foreign policy failures of Our Only President and his cabal of incompetents and crooks was the Bush Doctrine, which said that a response to state support of non-state action was that we would overthrow the sovereign governments of those states. This was a mistake, a bad doctrine. However, the one advantage of the doctrine was that although it did not model the current universe as it can be perceived, it did model the Constitutional provisions. The real problem should have required real thinking, but the Bush Doctrine should only have required that the President ask the Congress for a declaration of war, receive such a declaration, and proceed sending the world to hell. End digression.

Whatever new response our government should come up with for war against stateless states, and I admit that I don’t know how that should be formalized, the important thing surely is to keep that aspect of the constitution that provides for good government (and, incidentally, was what the Founders wanted). That is, the decision to go to war-like-thing against these stateless states must be made by Congress, which answers to the states and the citizens thereof. I don’t know that we would need to amend the Constitution to address the issue; perhaps a statutory device stating that we are not at war, and that the Executive cannot use wartime powers, in the absence of a Joint Resolution of a kind defined within the statute, with certain specific provisions for withdrawing those wartime powers, and an understanding, preferably explicit, reserving to the Senate its exclusive Constitutional authority to end the war by ratifying a Treaty (under Article 2, Section 2). This is, by the way, quite a different matter from the sort of Resolution that was actually passed by Congress authorizing the Iraq invasion. That Resolution, which was itself a flawed and dangerous precedent, did in some sense act as a Declaration of War, that war being against the Ba’athist government of Iraq. I’m talking about a Resolution that allows the Executive war-time powers in the absence of a sovereign government to overthrow.

Look, the worst situation, and this is obvious, and was obvious to Mssrs Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and Adams (all in agreement on this one, which isn’t usual, so perhaps we should pay more attention than usual to their opinion), the worst situation is where one man, President or King or Caesar, can grant to himself war powers, for a duration to be decided by himself, to an extent decided by himself, and within limits only known to himself. Now, I understand that, as with warrants, certain war powers may have to be used immediately and without warning, and whoever is the Commander-in-Chief will have to take those war powers on himself on his own authority. But the system needs to be set up so that will never happen. It can remain hypothetical. And as long as those hypothetical powers are bound around with limits, they will be likely to remain hypothetical. You see? But once that particular door is open, it’s going to stay open unless somebody closes it.

We’ve had bad presidents before. We will, I hope, survive as a nation to have bad presidents again. Previous bad presidents have, for the most part, been restricted in their badness by Mr. Madison’s straightjacket. The worst actions by US Presidents have been inactions, rather than aggressions, and that’s probably best. Now, though, we need to worry about the next president, and the one after, and the one after that, implementing a total police state. If what we have in the Constitution is no longer sufficient, then we have to amend it. I think it is, though, but we have to have a Congress that will insist on it. And, of course, we have to have an electorate that will insist on a Congress that will insist on it.

It’s not enough to blame Our Only President (although he is to blame). We have to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

December 9, 2005

Can't blog, too pluralist

Your Humble Blogger has mentioned before that a big drawback of this Tohu Bohu as a blog is that if I can’t think of anything to say on a piece of news, I usually just won’t blog it. That’s not the way to move up the Ecosystem, now, is it? Case in point: for a couple of days, now, I’ve been sitting on this thing about megachurches closing their doors on Xmas. I mean, it seemed like the sort of thing that one should blog about, but to say what? And really, how is it any of my business what Christians I don’t know choose to do with their religious holidays and excursions. I mean, it bugs me, because for several years my Best Reader was prevented from worshipping on the holiday with her congregation because of the whole ‘Christmas is for families’ business, but again, that’s to do with her preference, her congregation at the time, and her family, and Lord knows I shouldn’t extrapolate from that sort of thing.

Heck, I only barely feel entitled to whinge about Temple Beth Reform; I don’t like their services, but then who asked me to? If they were doing something harmful, sure, I’ll holler, and honestly I’ll make fun of them no matter what, because I’m that way, but the use of a piano during service scarcely is a shanda fer the goyim. It’s wrong, it’s deeply deeply wrong, but let them do it, abi gezunt. Nu? So if the Shulamit Faith Community of Greater Nowhere thinks that it is appropriate to have no services on Xmas Sunday, it’s their choice, and I don’t care. It’s yet another way in which those churches don’t appeal to me, which should neither surprise nor bother anybody.

I’ll add (oh, I really shouldn’t have started here) that most of these churches aren’t even remotely Sabbatarian anyway. When the room fills up on Sunday, they have Saturday meetin’, and that works just fine. Yes, it’s totally alien to me, but then it’s not my religious tradition. It’s not even my religious-tradition-in-law, which I won’t say absolutely requires taking the Lord’s Meal at the Lord’s Table on the Lord’s Day, but at least makes a distinction between LMatLTotLD and chicken’n’ribs in front of the college football game on the tube. Not that a nice family meal isn’t holy in itself, but it is Different. And if you aren’t going to church for the LMatLTotLD, then why not stay home, says I? This, of course, is one of my problems with Temple Beth Reform; if you aren’t going to get into the fetishization of the Scroll, then why not stay home and read your parshah in your jammies? But again (and again and again) this is Your Humble Blogger’s preference, this is YHB’s tradition and teaching, this is how YHB draws spiritual sustenance, this is why YHB prefers one thing to another. As it is written, Your Mileage May Vary.

On the other hand, there is something about this story that just ... well, I wanted to have something to write about it. I really did. I wanted to make fun of people who observe their own traditions in their own way. And yet, happy little pluralist me, I couldn’t see my way to it. Fortunately, there’s John Scalzi, who manages to use the opportunity to skewer everybody in sight. Ah, that’s better. That’s what I like about this blogosphere thingy. If you wait a few minutes, somebody else will come along and blog it for you.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

November 14, 2005

furthermore, the contractual obligations outlined in the agreement at the time of the severance clearly stipulate that he gets the chicks for free

No comment from Your Humble Blogger on the report, in College Leaders' Earnings Top $1 Million by Michael Janofsky in this mornings NYT, that John R. Silber of Boston University made $1,253,352 last year.

People who care about this sort of thing will recall that Mr. Silber is not the President of BU, nor is he the immediate past president, nor is he the president before the immediate past president. I have no idea whether President Brown is making a cool mil, nor if former Presidents Chobanian and Westling are receiving similar compensation at this late date. It is true that Mr. Silber, upon leaving the presidency, became chancellor, a position that appears to have been created for him and been retired with him. I’m sure, though, that whatever he is doing, it is worth a million and another quarter-million to the institution he headed so impressively. Particularly if it was a buyout.

I’m not sure, though, whether that level of compensation is comparable to other people who were forced out of leadership the previous year at real-estate development firms. For some reason, the Times compares his take-home with that of people leading educational institutions, which is of course preposterous.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

November 10, 2005

Cranky blogger here, nothing to see

I don’t like, here in this Tohu Bohu, to spend too much time whining about annoying columnists. I don’t, on the whole, go in for Fisking. Much of the Fisking that I see is just cheap mockery, and although I like cheap mockery, I restrain myself from it here. Sorry, guys.

On the other hand, I am (as y’all know) interested in rhetoric, and I am interested in argument, and as such I try occasionally to take apart a bit of rhetoric and see how it works. The Tohu Bohu wasn’t a week old before I went off on ad hominem in an argument purportedly about SUVs. I particularly enjoyed looking at Michael Behe’s dishonest op-ed last February. And, of course, I’ve attempted to apply the techniques to actual political speeches, from both parties. All of which is leading up to another note about somebody’s op-ed, and to sort of acknowledge, before I dig in, that the whole thing is a bit unfair, and yet I enjoy it anyway. What’s really unfair, actually, is that I pick on pieces which detail a position I disagree with, when I ignore far worse writing if it agrees with me. There it is; I’m in it for the fun.

Anyway.

John F. Manning writes in this morning’s New York Times about the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito, and the rhetoric surrounding that nomination. Well, he’s sort of writing about the rhetoric, and sort of writing about the nomination itself, and sort of writing about the history of the Court, and sort of making a muddle of things generally. The piece is called Balancing Act (regreq but not Select), and it purports to be a response to Democratic Senators who argue that seating Judge Alito would disturb the “balance of the court”. To begin with, I’ll point out that the four words I’ve just put in quotes are the only words Prof. Manning quotes in his piece. This is a warning sign for a straw man argument.

Well, and the first warning is that the piece begins “Some ... have argued”. Any time you read that some have argued something, you can assume that the argument as presented is not the argument as made. On the other hand, as a reading strategy, looking for straw men can be unproductive, simply because nobody ever is going to present the oppositions arguments entirely faithfully. The question is whether the speaker’s argument depends on the distortion. That is, if I say that, oh, Dick Cheney wants to allow the CIA to torture innocent people, and then I base my argument about torture on the innocence of the people being tortured, then the argument is not with Dick Cheney, but with a straw man. If, on the other hand, I say that Dick Cheney wants to allow the CIA to torture innocent people, and then I make an argument based on the efficacy of torture in intelligence-gathering, or on diplomatic complications when our rhetorical enemies portray us as willing to torture innocents, or on moral grounds that do not differentiate between “guilty” and “innocent” when it comes to torture, then I’ve just taken a cheap shot at the Vice President, but the argument is not with straw.

So. Sadly, when we consider that I’m taking the trouble to write about it at such length, I am not really familiar with the Democratic arguments concerning the balance of the court. So I’m cheating. I am assuming that Senator Schumer and his colleagues are saying things that make sense. It’s possible that isn’t true. I should probably look into it, but I won’t. Lazy, lazy me.

Anyway, Prof. Manning presents the Democratic argument that Judge Alito would throw off the balance of the court as being a general, rather than a specific argument, an argument for a “premise of some ideal and inviolate balance.” He suggests that the Democrats think that “presidents should select nominees who will leave the court's ideological composition intact”. He then mocks that argument, showing that the Senators do not generally object to movement on the Court. He reduces this (already ridiculous) argument to its absurd condition, saying that “Unless one is willing to say (without tongue in cheek) that today's court preserves the balance of the court appointed by George Washington and of every court in between, no rational basis exists to believe that the present ideological composition merits greater respect than that of any court that has come before or, more important, of any likely to follow.”

Wait a minute—does he really say that there is no rational basis to respect a good court over a bad one? No, that kind of Fisking is no more respectable than the straw man Prof. Manning creates. What he does appear to be saying is that when the Democrats argue for “balance”, they are really arguing for ideologies that agree with theirs. And there is some merit to that. On the other hand, I would guess that when Democrats argue that replacing Justice O’Connor with Judge Alito would upset the “balance of the court”, they are not pretending to argue that the balance is historical or perennial. No, they are saying that, at the moment, the court is balanced more or less where the country is balanced. Furthermore, Justice O’Connor was considered (by many, and I think inaccurately) to be the balancer on the court, the swing voter, the one who made the various factions at least converse with each other through her. For those who think that way, replacing her will automatically throw off the “balance of the court”, its equanimity, its ability to occasionally produce an actually useful precedent. Again, I disagree, but the argument has nothing to do with George Washington. Prof. Manning is refuting an argument that nobody is making, and ignoring the arguments that stand.

Prof. Manning also, and this really pisses me off, says “Ultimately, it will be difficult to avoid seeing Judge Alito as the Republican equivalent of Judge Ginsburg.” Ultimately, this is crap. Ultimately, people will (Your Humble Blogger hopes) remember that Justice Ginsburg was the pick of a centrist Democrat “triangulating” between Republicans and Congressional Democrats (who were viewed as liberal for some reason). Ultimately, the record stands that the “base” was not thrilled with the choice. Ultimately, Lexis-Nexis will continue to show that, for instance, Joan Biskupic’s Washington Post article of June 15, 1993 reads in part

Ginsburg, 60, has straddled the liberal-conservative divide of the D.C. Court of Appeals for the last 13 years. And while she would come to the court with more "liberal" leanings than retiring Justice Byron R. White, her record is a far cry from the traditional activism of retired Justice William J. Brennan Jr. and the late Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Ultimately, the record will show that Tom Oliphant wrote, on June 17, 1993 (syndicated to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) that “Ginsburg diverges from Marshall, though, in her evolution from passionate advocacy into consensus conservatism on the federal appellate bench here for more than a decade.” Tony Mauro, in USA Today on June 28: “If, as expected, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, President Clinton's nominee to replace White, joins the court before it convenes again in October, the moderate middle will be strengthened.” Neil A. Lewis, the New York Times, June 26: “On a court that tends to divide along liberal and conservative lines, Judge Ginsburg is often in the middle.” Mr. Lewis also writes in that article of “the resolutely centrist judicial style of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” and “Judge Ginsburg's decidedly moderate jurisprudence”. Jurek Martin, in the Financial Times (of London), June 16: “It is generally assumed she will strengthen the divided court's centre, represented by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy and David Souter.” Dick Lehr, the Boston Globe, June 15: “The confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg ... would quickly strengthen the high court's emerging moderate bloc, according to legal experts.” Marshall Ingwerson, Christian Science Monitor, June 15: “The Ginsburg appointment generally fits Clinton's recent pattern of visibly moving toward the political center.” Judy Wiessler, in the June 15 Houston Chronicle, quotes “conservative legal scholar” Bruce Fein saying Justice Ginsburg is “destined to join the troika of uncourageous centrists.”

Admittedly, William H. Freivogel wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on June 27 that then-Judge Ginsburg is “is somewhat more liberal than advertised.” And noted legal scholar Robert Novak wrote that he was privy to information that then-Judge Breyer had been “vetoed by the left”, implying that Judge Ginsburg was the left’s choice. The Atlanta Consitution editorialized that “To the conservative eye, she is as acceptable as the choice of a liberal president can be.” I do not want to argue that everybody was happy with the nomination, nor do I want to say that conservatives ought to have been happy with it. I’m just saying, replace Ginsburg with Alito in those quotes, and see if Judge Alito is the Republican equivalent of then-Judge Ginsburg. Because he isn’t. That’s just a lie. And it’s a lie that has been repeated over and over by a self-serving group of Republicans who have everything to gain from an everybody-does-it false equivalence.

Because, by the way, Prof. Manning is probably the top academic textualist. That is, if you want to know about textualism, I’m told, you should go directly to Textualism and Legislative Intent, by John F. Manning, 91 Va. L. Rev. 419 (2005). Prof. Manning clerked for Judge Bork and Justice Scalia, worked with Justice Roberts in the Solicitor General’s office under Ken Starr, and he was nominated to head the Office of Legal Counsel in Attorney General Ashcroft’s office, but withdrew his name for reasons unclear to me. He’s been giving positive quotes about Judge Alito to the press. He’s not just some law professor opining on the law. He’s a player in this game. And, what’s more, he clearly agrees with Judge Alito on philosophical grounds.

Which are the grounds we should be discussing. It’s one thing for Your Humble Blogger, who likes to write about rhetoric, to write a whole long note about how the argument is taking place. But there is no reason for the New York Times to print a law professor’s op-ed piece endorsing Judge Alito’s nomination and let him drive the conversation from an actual discussion of the candidate and his qualifications and beliefs to a straw man argument about the rhetoric of the discussion. Please, please, please everybody, please Mr. NYT, talk about the subject under discussion. Please.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

November 3, 2005

Another glass?

For reasons that will likely be clear to Gentle Readers, the following passage just leapt off the screen at Your Humble Blogger from an article otherwise of only minimal interest:

"English writers for the most part try to follow Orwell's dictum that prose should be a pane of clear glass through which you look," he [John Banville] said. "But Irish writers think of prose style as a distorting lens. We love that ambiguity; we love that a word can have three or four meanings at the same time."
His Love of Words Rivals His Contempt for Critics
Yes, said I to myself, said I, a distorting lens, rather than clear glass. Or, at any rate, tinted glass, and—most importantly—with a nice frame around it. And possibly one of those polarized filters so if you don’t look at it just right, it’s completely opaque.

Well, and yes, and no, but the metaphor is interesting on another level as well. It presents prose as something through which the audience looks at—what? The author? The world? The author’s view of the world? When I, as a reader, look at and through the prose, what am I looking for? In the case of a novel, well, I can do whatever the hell I want, and the author can get stuffed, or the author can try to trick me into doing what the author wants me to do, or I can go into trying to see what the author wants me to see, or I can go into it determined to see something different. I can, perhaps, try to hang the author’s frame and glass over my own view of the world. I can attempt to collaborate with the author, or I can try to subvert her intentions, or I can ignore the intentions. After all, it’s just me and my reading experience, and as long as I don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses, I can please myself.

But there is another kind of writing, and another kind of reading.

Antonin Scalia recently wrote an article called The Language of Law, which discusses, among other things, the responsibilities of a reader to the text and to the author or authors thereof. Mr. Justice Scalia, Gentle Readers will be all too aware, is the primary apologist for a judicial philosophy called textualism, which is a sort of strict constructionism that differs from originalism in that it eschews the intent of the Founders to concentrate on the text itself, limiting judicial goals and achievements to explication of texts. This leads him to state categorically that the Constitution does not allow the Federal Judiciary to rule on state regulations of abortion, sex discrimination, or euthanasia. “The federal Constitution says nothing on these subjects, which are therefore left to be governed by state law,” says Justice Scalia. Not that I believe Justice Scalia to rule consistently in keeping with this modesty, but there it is. A short, easy passage, written for laymen, that makes it clear what Justice Scalia believes his philosophy to entail.

But I am not writing about the law at the moment. Well, and I am, but I want to come around to it by a more roundabout route. We’re in no hurry, are we? There’s tea in the pot.

The article is a review of a book by Steven D. Smith called Law’s Quandary. I have not read the book in question or (I think) any of Prof. Smith’s work, so please, please Gentle Reader, do not mistake my musings for his arguments. Just saying. When I respond to Justice Scalia’s response to Prof. Smith’s work, I feel somewhat responsible to them both, and am aware that you, Gentle Reader, view my own writing through my distorted lens, and within my frame, and when I attempt hang that frame over Justice Scalia’s lens and frame over ... well, Gentle Reader, you’d better squint.

Justice Scalia quotes Prof. Smith as saying it is a “basic ontological proposition that persons, not objects, have the property of being able to mean.” Justice Scalia does not agree. “What is needed for a symbol to convey meaning is not an intelligent author, but a conventional understanding on the part of the readers or hearers that certain signs or certain sounds represent certain concepts.” That is, meaning exists in things, not in people, and that the reader stops with the thing. Or, to quote Mark Liberman on Scalia on the meaning of meaning: “Scalia's specific arguments that meaning is something that (people perceive that) texts have, not something that people do (for the purpose of affecting other people)...” Mr. Justice Scalia gives several dopey examples of texts (or events, or symbols) that have meaning as divorced from an author, or at least an author’s intent, the most troubling of which is that “The bridegroom who says ‘I do,’ intending by that expression to mean ‘I do not,’ has not succeeded in communicating his intent; but what he has said unquestionably means that he consents to marriage.” Emphasis, most emphatically, Justice Scalia’s. You won’t catch me emphasizing his words. Hoo boy. Well, and perhaps I will later. Later? Aren’t I nearly done?

I find Prof. Smith’s basic ontological proposition philosophically interesting, and Gentle Readers will be aware that by philosophically interesting I mean something like potentially useful in renovating the frameworks on which I construct machines for pattern-matching and decision-making. What are my responsibilities as a reader? How do those change with what I know about the authors and the intended audience? Justice Scalia says that the responsible reader considers “a conventional understanding on the part of the readers or hearers”. While Gentle Readers have by now put up with a good deal of my attempts to discern the understanding of the Declaration of Independence on the part of its hearers, as an exculsive practice it seems to me logically unsustainable. The readers or hearers are a part of the intention of the author. If we ignore the author, we have to invent the reader ourselves. It’s a topsy-turvy deconstruction, which privileges the conventional reader and assumes that all glass is clear and without distortion.

Now, I do understand the reluctance to take the authors at their words, particularly in a text with multiple authors with different declared intent, or with political interests in disguising or denying united intent. That doesn’t let the reader off the hook of intentionality. I understand that, ultimately, a text says what it says, and doesn’t say what it doesn’t say. I’m not convinced that those categories are so easy to differentiate, and I think there are a lot of things that any text neither ignores nor states. We can argue from principle, we can argue from context, we can argue from form.

OK, here, bear with me, because I think this next link is also related. “Linguists now have an agreed-upon standard for writing this sound [ the labiodental flap] when doing phonetic transcription—a very practical outcome of [Kenneth S.] Olson’s research.” This is from a press release announcing a new IPA symbol, a matter of interest to phoneticians and purveyors of frridze magnets. Now, get me for a moment—Dr. Olson spends years and years studying African languages, and the practical outcome is a v with a hook on the right arm. When I read about the practical outcome of research, I’m thinking about blowing shit up. I’m thinking about skyscrapers that stay up in earthquakes. I’m thinking about powdered orange juice. You know, practical stuff. Now, this right hook ‘v’ is practical, in that it will help people write about a thing that was difficult to write about previously, and to compare things that were previously somewhat difficult to compare, which activities are the common practice of certain linguists. There are different readers, here, who look for different meanings, and find them. My job, when I’m reading a press release from the Summer Institute of Linguistics, is to pay attention to the context, and what the authors are intending to convey, as well as what they are actually conveying. When they say a thing is practical, they mean, well, what they mean. And, of course, they’re right. What is more practical than talking? The symbol, here, is being invented, is being created, and it has not only an authorial intention but an intended audience, and if I found a right hook ‘v’ carved into a tree, I’d need to put some effort whether it really meant a labiodental flap.

And I’m just a guy with a blog. Look, I can’t and don’t particularly want to give a definitive answer on where meaning resides. What I do want to say is that when we look at the framework on which Mr. Justice Scalia builds his decision-making machinery, it states emphatically that meaning resides in things, not in people. He reads that way. He interprets that way. His instincts, his priorities, his conclusions are all products of that machinery, built to that framework. And even if he’s right, I’d rather have somebody sitting on that particular bench who incorrectly thinks that meaning resides in people than somebody who correctly thinks it does not. More important still, I’d like a Justice to acknowledge that the text is the (warped) glass through which the world is visible, and that it is the world, ultimately, that the Justice is looking at, however darkly.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

October 19, 2005

How could anyone...

Count Your Humble Blogger among those who are regularly surprised that people still think that Mssrs. Strunk and White have mostly good advice about The Elements of Style. Fond as I am of Mr. White actual writing (both his wonderful children’s books and his essays), his writing style benefits immeasurably from his ability to ignore Mr. Strunk’s advice, which he passes on to us. We should follow his example, at least in ignoring the advice, if not in passing the advice along.

So, when the illustrator of the new edition is quoted in the New York Times (Style Gets New Elements, by Jeremy Eichler) asking “how could anyone not have illustrated this before?”, well, in my own case, aside from not being interested in illustrating generally, having no talent for it, I specifically never illustrated The Elements of Style because I dislike the book.

To pick another example at random, William Hogarth never illustrated The Elements of Style because he died in 1764 and Strunk wasn’t born until 1869.

So, Gentle Reader, how could you not have illustrated The Elements of Style before? Submit your answers to the Tohu Bohu, remembering to Omit Needless Words, eschew the passive, do not contract, avoid beginning your sentences with and but or however, and heck, make up another pointless and arbitrary rule that has never been followed by any decent writer. Here’s one: ending a sentence with any word more than six letters long is an egregious grammatical violation.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

September 18, 2005

King High Suit

I have several times mentioned Tom Mahon of the magnificent blog English Cut, who has been on a roll since returning from his holiday in the south of France. Any Gentle Reader who has not added it to his aggregator or otherwise checked it is missing fascinating stuff. This morning’s New York Times, in its Men’s Fashion Magazine, gives a nice, if brief mention, under the heading Fit for a King. Or the Prince of Wales, anyway. My own veddy English given names, by the way, led Rabbi Tuttenauer to declare at my bris that I was actually the King of England, I’m told. I don’t recall it myself. As long as I’m releasing little tidbits of non-anonymity relating me to the Windsors, Gentle Readers might be interested in my very own English Cut suit, courtesy of Mr. Mahon and Gentle Reader Michael.

YHB

The shirt is by Albert Nipon, possibly from before Mr. Nipon’s prison sentence, or perhaps the whole tax-fraud thing was why I was able to pick it up for nearly nothing. The hat is from Dorfman Pacific’s Scalo Classico line, a bit battered, and yes, the photo was taken before Labor Day. I have no idea which tie that was, and the fading late summer light make it impossible to tell for sure, but I suspect it’s one of two I own from Rivetz of Boston. The photo was taken on the front porch of YHB’s current residence, which is as bucolic as it appears. We have moved, as the song goes, way out on the outskirts of town.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

September 16, 2005

insert text here

Well, and as long as Your Humble Blogger is going to blog all day, here’s another little tidbit. The New York Times op-ed page hosted a column called Just What the Professor Ordered, by Ian Ayres. It’s about textbook prices. They are, you see, too high.

Prof. Ayres references a GAO report that examines the trends in textbook costs for college students, and notes that they are unbelievably fucking high. I mean, forget inflation, this shit is crazy. Even viewed in the context of rapidly rising tuition costs, textbooks are out of control. The GAO study concludes that, on the whole, this is because publishers have to spend a lot more money on making texts, what with all the supplemental web-sites and CDs and iPods and other peripheral crap. Prof. Ayres magisterially dismisses the conclusion and all the evidence behind it and declares that the real problem is a lack of competition.

Now, my immediate thought was that Prof. Ayres was just being stereotypical Yale faculty guy; any actual research done outside of New Haven can be ignored. However, I wasted quite some time reading through the GAO report and, honestly, it can be ignored. Well, people interested in rhetoric might enjoy it as a tremendous example of the attempt to seem disinterested (like an umpire!) while actually privileging the views of one group over those of any another. The publishers (through their trade association, I believe, and encompassing as far as I can tell only the major houses rather than small or university presses) are asked a variety of things, and their responses are always transmitted transparently, as if dissimulation were unthinkable. In any matter where the publishers might be at odds with retailers, the retailers’ perspective is given first, and the publishers’ response follows and contradicts it. As for other players, well, there is no research done whatever into the views of instructors or students.

My favorite bit is this: “Publishers understand that when students spend money for course materials that are never used they may perceive the purchase as unnecessary.” Well, students may possibly and I should point out completely irrationally perceive the purchase of access to crap websites or 7th-grade-level multiple-choice chapter reviews on CDR bundled with this year’s fuckteenth edition as unnecessary, but at least they know that publishers understand. Of course, there is no need to do anything, but they understand, and that’s what is important.

Not, let me say, that Prof. Ayres’s vision of a Textbook Affordability Board to which Profs would apply for permission to waste the Corporation’s money on an Art History book with color plates is anything like a solution. Some textbooks are more expensive than others, true, but some are better than others. A Prof trying to base the decision of what text to use on cost is up the proverbial, and if all he’s got for a paddle is the Executive Dean, well, good luck to him.

The truth is that the market has failed here. I know this comes as a shock, but markets can fail. In fact, markets, you know, evolve, and not with any sort of intelligence behind the design, either. The whole thing makes no sense, and the nice little graphic in the GAO report with arrows and percentages only clarifies the lack of sense. The system is built on textbooks being sold back as soon as the final is over, as if they are assumed to have no lasting value. It’s based on a bizarre farrago of retailers, wholesalers and publishers (not to mention libraries and copy shops), each of which have incentives that work counter to the market.

On the other hand, complaining about the cost of textbooks is kind of like Kembrew McLeod complaining about how intellectual property law prevents law-abiding hip-hop artists from making recordings he likes at a price he can afford. Boo freaking hoo. I like monumental sculpture, but nobody’s making granite subsidies and cheap labor available so artists can make some in my price range. If the market for college textbooks is failing, well, too bad. Use the library. Share. Steal. Drop out.

Or, maybe, are we unwilling to just take what the market hands us? Is it possible that there’s a different way? I don’t know, but I suspect that the socialist tipping point for Americans just isn’t college textbooks.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

September 11, 2005

American Venice

OK, if you want to know the difference between the two parties, how about this. If, when Bruce Babbitt talks about rebuilding New Orleans as an American Venice, you feel your breath catch a little, and your eyes get dreamy, and you imagine what that could look like, well, you’re a Democrat. If, on the other hand, your first reaction is that making an American Venice is a waste of taxpayers’ money on lazy and foolish goldbrickers, well, you’re a Republican.

Disclaimer #1: I understand that not everybody identifies with one party or the other. My point is that the two parties correspond to totally different mindsets, and lots of people who identify themselves as, say, Libertarians, or Greens, or Independents for perfectly viable reasons actually share the mindset of one party or the other, however they vote. Lots of people have totally different reactions, too, and that’s fine. People are different, one to another, and that’s what makes the world interesting and fun. But if somebody tells you that there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats, remember the American Venice that could have been.

Disclaimer #2: I have no idea whether Mr. Babbitt’s actual plan is a good one or a bad one. I am no expert on, well, anything at all. My opinion is that Mr. Babbitt knows an awful lot about (a) water, (2) politics, and (iii) the environment. But I’m not endorsing his plan, I’m just talking about the vision thing, and how it works. For all that I’ve cussed out Mr. Babbitt in the past, and for all that he ran commercials saying you should vote for him even though he’s a Democrat, he is a Democrat, where it counts.

Disclaimer #3: You know, when it comes down to it, there’s some guy with a house that just got a bit of flood damage, and maybe two or three thousand bucks will fix it, and his neighborhood got about the same amount of damage, and the corner place where he gets his ben-yays could easily be up and running in three months. This guy could get his life back. And the best and most sensible plan for rebuilding New Orleans—any reasonable plan, not just the American Venice plan—is going to involve knocking his house down and getting rid of his neighborhood. The odds are that this guy, whoever he is, is rich, moderately affluent, and a voter. In a neighborhood with %70 turnout, likely enough. Who is going to tell him that his neighborhood has got to go? That the storm spared it, but the reconstruction won’t? Which elected officials are going to fall on that sword? No, I predict (sadly) that his neighborhood is going to be left alone, and the whole thing will be done piecemeal like that, a neighborhood here and there, and there will be no actual plan, and then we’ll do it all again in twenty-five years. And, you know, that’s OK, too; we can be an awfully good country even if we miss opportunities, and blunder around, and screw up here and there. And I really don’t want to knock that guy’s house down. I understand his outrage, and I think it’s justified, even if it’s short-sighted.

Disclaimer #4: You know, it’s a blog.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

September 1, 2005

what do you call that act?

Your Humble Blogger hasn’t done any rhetorical analysis in ages, in part because, well, I can’t really listen to Our Only President and The Aristocrats with any objectivity at all. And what with one thing and another, I haven’t put much energy into listening to any Democrats, either. I have sympathy for ’em, but it’s a bit painful. Anyway, I know analysis of speechifyin’ is one of the few things Gentle Readers might actually be looking for at this Tohu Bohu, and there hasn’t been much.

When the Times this morning opined that “George W. Bush gave one of the worst speeches of his life yesterday,” YHB thought this I gotta see! Enh. It was certainly a bad speech, or rather, not much of a speech at all. The only bit that is remotely memorable is his insistence that “This recovery will take years.” Surprise! Other than that, the speech was given over to a very dry recitation of what federal assistance has been provided since the hurricane, and a vague promise of more federal assistance to come. The only actual news, I think, is that natural disaster relief has been put under the Homeland Security umbrella, which seems odd to me, but may well make logistical sense. Also, there’s something I totally fail to understand about “fuel blends” which I assume will mean crappier dirtier gas for a while, but may mean no shortages.

YHB is not, overall, particularly sensitive. This may be because I don’t watch much television. We disconnected the TV just before the hurricane hit, so I couldn’t succumb to the images of the drowned and drowning. As a result, I have a sort of detached intellectual understanding that an American city has been hit with something like the 1906 San Francisco quake and fire, and that (a) it will be incredibly expensive and laborious to rebuild it, and (2) it won’t be the same city it was before. Oh, and that thousands of people died, and tens of thousands will be homeless, and that even those with good insurance, transportation and support networks will have lost a lot. But I am not devastated by it, and I don’t feel in need of leadership, or inspiration, or anything along those lines. As such, a so-so speech detailing the federal efforts seems, you know, less than ideal, but not particularly worth talking about. But I do understand that most people are more humane, and that one of the jobs of the President of the United States is to fill that need. I couldn’t help feeling that Our Only President feels much the same way about this hurricane as I do, only of course more frustrated because some of the added labor will be his.

I watched the video from the White House web site, shaky and grainy as it was, and I noticed a few things that I found surprising. First, The Aristocrats’ usual eye for a good camera picture completely failed them. The speaker was surrounded by the Cabinet, who all looked vaguely uncomfortable, a trifle bored, and, on the whole, itching to go back and do their damn’ jobs. As the list of tasks was being read, I couldn’t help thinking aren’t those Secretaries busy? couldn't you have let them go?. In particular, Secretary Chertoff, hollow-eyed, held his hands tightly together in an attempt not to fidget. In this he was not altogether successful. He looked, in YHB’s opinion, like a man with a lot of work on his desk, half-listening to the boss while thinking about how much more work is being put on his desk every minute the man blathers on.

The second thing was the extent to which Our Only President’s inability to stand still while delivering a speech was evident. It has always been there; camera shots from behind the podium have often shown him with one foot up on a little shelf, or twisted around behind the other. He has clearly worked hard to restrain it, hiding his shifts of balance as rhythmic emphases to his words, or leaning forward on the podium to steady himself. Yesterday, though, he was swaying right, left, right, left, right, like he had a pinched nerve in his back or something. With the grainy video, he looked a bit like he was on a boat. I don’t know. It was terribly distracting. I assume it was either exhaustion or boredom, but of course he may have been drunk. No, no, it didn’t look like that at all. Much.

Another thing he did that I have seen before is the obvious interruption of the prepared speech to explain himself in simpler terms. This can give the impression that he hasn’t read the text before, although I think it’s a reaction to the audience. To me, it sounds like I do when I’m reading something from a newspaper to my Perfect Non-Reader; a few sentences of multi-syllabic cliché, followed by a change of tone and timbre as well as a shift to simpler sentences with shorter words, and then a return to the text. One I remember comes in this bit: “HHS and CDC are working with local officials to identify operating hospital facilities—so we can help them, help the nurses and doctors provide necessary medical care.” A moment or two later, he says “The Department of Energy is approving loans from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to limit disruptions in crude supplies for refineries,” and then shifts to explain that “A lot of crude production has been shut down because of the storm.”

In fact (and I didn’t want to go into the content, here, because I would just rant about how he doesn’t mention anything the federal government did before the damage was done, because they didn’t do anything before the damage was done), the thing that struck me as most unfortunate about the speech was the transition from the fairly detailed plan to deal with the oil and gas problem to the extremely vague assessment that “displaced citizens” (and perhaps, by implication, resident aliens) would need “housing and education and health care and other essential needs.” Now, nobody who likes and trusts this president will read that as prioritizing the needs of the oil industry over the needs of the poor. Nor would anybody who dislikes and distrusts the man be persuaded by a speech expressing great compassion for the poor, and dismissing the needs of the oil companies with a few sentences indicating that these were logistical matters that could be dealt with. But shouldn’t somebody have noticed how bad that transition was?

OK, last thing. This was a very dry speech. The only thing that I would really call a metaphor is the reference to “armies of compassion” (with Armored Vehicles of Generosity), which is a reference to an earlier policy. I can’t include phrases like difficult road, or dark days, or even the city getting back on its feet, all of which are, by the way, in the last paragraph. Up until then, even such limited color is scarce. There is no reference the Divine, or to Scripture, at least not that I caught. There is no new expression of pain, or of hope, or even of resolve, to bring us to a new understanding of our situation, or to make it easier to talk about. There was no new context, or new way of looking at it. Now, I didn’t need any of those things, as it happened. But if, in fact, the country is in distress and in need of “words of consolation and wisdom”, as the New York Times editorially states, then this speech failed to provide them.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

August 30, 2005

Another common tragedy

I made a note of John Tierney’s column in this morning’s Times, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why I thought this piece of drivel was worth blogging. It’s called The Road to Hell Is Clogged With Righteous Hybrids, and as you can imagine, it’s filled with the sort of sneering at “those of us virtuous enough to drive the right hybrids.” As a recent passenger in one of those hybrids, YHB is pretty sure that, um, well, whatever. Should Mr. Tierney choose to pay twice as much per mile for his ride, that’s fine with me. I’m sure it’s no reflection on his character.

The actual policy matter that occasions Mr. Tierney’s sneers is the decision to open High-Occupancy Vehicle lanes to high-mileage cars. He states that “even if these new privileges put more fuel-efficient cars on the road, I'm afraid the net effect will be dirtier air and more gasoline consumption.” Um, why? Because with so many cars in the HOV lanes, the HOV lanes will get clogged, and those backed-up cars will idle, burning gas and causing pollution. This, you see, is the Tragedy of the Commons. Perhaps that’s why I flagged it, although the writer doesn’t totally misuse the TotC. He does have people acting in somewhat perplexing ways; I’m not sure why, once the HOV lane gets clogged, it remains in people’s interest to take it. I would guess that’s a Nash Equilibrium situation, where after a while, a new status quo sets in, with more (and slower) cars in the HOV lane, but that lane still moving slightly faster than the other lanes. Perhaps the equilibrium won’t set in until the HOV lane is essentially no faster than the others, which would remove the incentive for carpooling, but since nobody carpools anyway, I can’t say I’d get all weepy about that.

Oh, and Mr. Tierney? I know you say you’ve been driving a Prius, but you somehow missed the most obvious thing about it. It doesn’t idle. It doesn’t idle. Four days ago, Your Humble Blogger was stuck in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike, and used up, oh, about, let’s see, six drops of gas in the half-hour I was waiting to see the car fire. Yes, the battery did get a bit run down, but it seems to have topped itself back up, and we got 45-50 mpg on the trip. A traffic jam of Priussessii wouldn’t be much fun to be in, but it wouldn’t involve a whole heck of a lot of gas and pollution. Or noise.

Anyway, Mr. Tierney’s preferred alteration to the HOV lane is to convert it to an HOT lane, which has the advantage of a far better acronym (does anybody actually pronounce it huhv? or hohv?). HOT stands for high-occupancy toll, which does not, as one might imagine, charge a toll for those with high-occupancy, but rather allows low-occupancy cars into the lane for a consideration. There are obvious logistical problems, it seems to me. You can’t use an EZ-Pass kind of thing, unless individuals have them embedded in their persons, since there would be no way of knowing whether a car is high- or low-occupancy on a given trip. So every car would have to stop to pay the toll (or get a head count and be waved through). Mr. Tierney’s suggestion of setting tolls by the weight of the vehicle also would require a weigh station, adding to the length of the stop, but feasible enough. Mr. Tierney allows that one could give a discount to hybrid engines, although he doesn’t see why we would want to.

Which, by the way, is where he totally misses the point, or pretends to, anyway. The HOV lane is not intended to decrease the pollution or gas consumption of the cars on it. It decreases the pollution and gas consumption of the cars left at home by the second and third occupants of the cars on it. It is a bribe. It is a government incentive to carpool, or take the bus, or otherwise waive your Right to Drive. If you act like a good citizen, the government will let you drive in this nice empty lane. Mr. Tierney doesn’t address the real point, which is that the State of California (and the State of Virginia, and a few others) are willing to bribe people to buy hybrids, because they have noticed that without the bribes, people don’t really want to buy hybrids. It’s fair to ask whether the state should care, or whether if the state does care it should act on that caring or stay out of the whole thing, sure. But he doesn’t do that. He just ignores the entire point of the policy. Perhaps it would be easier for him if we called it the bribe lane.

Should the state give the same bribe to hybrids as high-occupancy cars? OK, that’s a fair question. Should the state allow Hummer drivers to drive on the bribe lane for a fee? Er, why again?

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

July 26, 2005

posted anonymously, because I'm a dog

OK, for those who have been following the hoo-hah about anonymity and its motives, a quote from this morning’s New York Times, in Skirmish Over a Query About Roberts's Faith, by David D. Kirkpatrick: “The discussion was described by two officials who spoke anonymously because the meeting was confidential and by a Republican senator who was briefed on their conversation.”

Hmmm. How about ‘... because they wanted to remain anonymous’? Or ‘... because we let them’?

I mean, what is the point of having a policy that a reporter can only hide the identity of a leaker if there is no other way of getting the information, if the reporter is going to be a total patsy? And the editor is going to let the reporter be a patsy? Shouldn’t they just admit it and have a patsy policy?

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

July 24, 2005

Independence, Justice, Modesty

As Gentle Readers may have sensed, Your Humble Blogger is not paying quite as close attention to matters national and international as I might were I not packing up house. I haven’t much to say about Our Only President’s choice of nominee for the Supreme Court, preferring, as Mark Schmitt advises, to take the hearings seriously enough to wait for them. The one thing that worried me, really, is that Judge Roberts has such an extensive experience arguing Supreme Court cases for the executive that he will instinctively favor the White House when it clashes with the legislature or with the Constitution. That in itself wouldn’t be horrendous, as there are Justices who clearly distrust the executive to balance it out, but it comes in a context of an administration gathering power closer and closer not just to the executive branch but to the person of the President.

In this morning’s Times, Arlen Specter writes about Bringing the Hearings to Order, and relates that “[Judge Roberts’] goal was to be a modest jurist on a modest court that understands its place in the balance of powers inherent in our Constitution.” That sounds unobjectionable, but to my ears it pretty much screams that Our Only President wants the Court to act as his lap dog. The Court has stood up to some of the worst and most obvious foulnesses of this administration, in some cases calling a spade a spade. That must continue. An independent judiciary is as important to a republic as elections; attacks on the judiciary’s independence are attacks on the republic. One toady on the court over the next twenty years could swing us into fascism proper.

I know this is a highly abstract thing to worry about, when there will be more immediate problems that will actually affect people’s lives and liberties. But Our Only President is, in fact, Our Only President, legitimately inaugurated, and therefore it would be foolish to expect a competent, thoughtful, long-sighted, compassionate nominee. We (and by we I mean the Democratic Party in alliance with the half of the country that distrusts Our Only President and his secretive cabal of incompetents and crooks) can’t force such a nominee. What some of us can do is alert people to dangers we see upcoming, and possibly use the hearings to call the nominee to his better self.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

June 22, 2005

I heard it let you down

In a desperate attempt to refrain from making the obvious post about Snapple’s little popsicle problem, Your Humble Blogger presents this partial lyric from the Boomtown Rats:

Snap me in your breach, I want to be your bullet
I want a little kiss that's gonna take my breath away
And every lover tries to do things in a different way
Ah-hey-hey-hey

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

June 16, 2005

Meta, but not in that interesting and amusing way

One of the reasons I’m blogging so slowly lately is that the really complicated stuff I have found interesting over the last few days remains in a muddle, and I have little idea how to write about it at all, much less how to form a blognote I’d be happy to put into my Tohu Bohu. For instance ... Benjamin Rosenbaum has been hosting a lovely discussion about the myth of the Self, and materialism, and the nature of the universe. The participants are arguing at what I would call a pretty high level of rigor and vocabulary, and I haven’t dipped my oar in because (in part) what I have found useful is simply my rewording other people’s statements into language with which I feel somewhat comfortable, and then being unsure whether I’ve done so within a reasonable limit, or whether I agree with the statement or not, or even whether I really am comfortable with the words I’ve chosen. When Mr. Rosenbaum talks about the Self being a myth, for instance, he is stating that it is an explanation of observed phenomena, and that it is persuasive without being rational. Like, oh, Adam and Eve, or the Flood, or the Founding Fathers, or the Septuagint, it’s a framework for interpretation, and it can be a very useful one regardless of whether the explanation bears close resemblance to the empirical universe or holds up to logical scrutiny. But this status depends, clearly, on rhetorical effectiveness: what does it mean to say that an explanation is a myth, rather than saying it is false? It must be accepted, and thus the rhetoric is an inherent part of it. And I don’t think that Mr. Rosenbaum or Your Humble Blogger are willing to tackle Self as a rhetorical issue. Not today, thank you.

You see? All that hobble-de-hoy, and all I’ve done is put my blogging self at the bottom of a mountain, and declared it steep. The blogging equivalent of going back to Rivendell to report there was snow in January.

Another example, although a bit more tenuous. There’s a discussion of internet anonymity going on in response to The Latest Dark Cabal (and I’m thinking here of the conversation at the Chrononaut Log, basically, without which I would barely be aware of the existence of such a cabal, who, I should add, are clearly not writing with Your Humble Blogger as a member of their ideal audience, and whose entire project seems infused with a ponderous humour of the type I usually find appealing, but which because of that whiff of exclusion I find annoying in this case), and it occurred to me to question my own pseudonymity at this site. Most of you, Gentle Readers, know my name, address and telephone number; anonymity is scarcely a good description for that relationship. The one Gentle Reader (or at least commenter) who I am certain I have never met could be told my name, address and phone number without any difficulty; I can’t imagine it would mean anything to him. The pseudonym does not exist to buffer me from him. The buffer, really, is for situations entirely hypothetical. I will, at some point, be looking for employment, and it’s possible that a potential employer will go to the trouble of googling my name or otherwise searching for what passes for Me on the internet, and although I have no intention of deceiving anyone about my political affiliation, nor yet my baseball affiliation, still it’s easy to see how a quick perusal of this Tohu Bohu might well decrease my chances. And, of course, should I someday be employed, there’s that end of it, too; I never really did write about my employer when I was employed, but there may well have been things in this Tohu Bohu that I would phrase differently, or even elide altogether, in conversations with co-workers or employers. And, of course, if, as could happen in the blogosphere through no individual blame or credit, some post of mine gets picked up by even a B list blogger, some wild thing I say in passing (and of course, it would be the most irresponsible and ill-thought-out that would be so picked up) could well be taken to be the whole of my personhood; I am willing to let Vardibidian be vulnerable to that, but I’m not willing to let my name, address and telephone number be attached to that risk, nor yet my Best Reader or my Perfect Non-Reader (and it is, of course, a terribly low risk, particularly now I’ve left off commenting on other people’s blogs). On the other hand, I have no way of knowing the cost of using the pseudonym, because the cost would presumably be in lost readers, who wouldn’t contact me to let me know that they find my musings less interesting and/or persuasive knowing that my name is not attached. All of which could, conceivably, be made into a blognote, I suppose, although I would have to come to some sort of conclusion, or at least some sort of question.

In fact, the sort of thing that strikes me as being easy enough to blog about doesn’t strike me as being worth your time to read, Gentle Reader. I mean, it’s easy enough to make fun of any given David Brooks column, such as today’s where he takes as his jumping-off point for talking about the Decline and Fall of Practically Everything a lengthy essay in Time magazine about Ernest Hemingway. Mr. Brooks says that “this type of essay was not unusual in that era.” He does not mention that the essay appears two weeks after Mr. Hemingway’s suicide. It was not a randomly chosen “middlebrow” bit of literary theory; it was news. Now, if he wants to argue that ... look, what’s the point? The man’s not honest, and nobody reading this is likely to give any credence to his nonsense. Writing a note on that would be necrophilic bestial flagellation, you know, beating a dead horse.

So.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

May 31, 2005

Fish, barrel, content

Stanley Fish’s a column in this morning’s New York Times is Devoid of Content. No, that’s the headline. Now, it’s like shooting, um, well, look, I’m trying really hard not to be too snarky, OK?

Prof. Fish doesn’t make it easy on me. He begins by stating calling “most [new college graduates] utterly unable to write a clear and coherent English sentence.” Here’s one: Fuck you, prof! Here’s another: Bite me! Now, it may be that Prof. Fish is simply engaging in hyperbole, rather than libel, and he simply means that, um, I don’t actually know. The percentage of college graduates who really cannot write the above clear English sentence has got to be below ten percent, even including non-traditional, distance, and incarcerated students. So most is not so much hyperbole as lying. It’s possible that he meant that most college graduates, in writing, often make errors of grammar and spelling, as well as showing a certain deficiency of style. The hyperbole then is in the description of their level of competence; since this also describes Your Humble Blogger, I’d be inclined to call that lying as well. That may just be me, but what he’s done so far is to annoy me and make me skeptical of his conclusions.

Those conclusions?

Most composition courses that American students take today emphasize content rather than form, on the theory that if you chew over big ideas long enough, the ability to write about them will (mysteriously) follow. The theory is wrong. Content is a lure and a delusion, and it should be banished from the classroom. Form is the way.

Now, I’m not convinced that most American students actually take composition courses, but I haven’t studied it. I’m certainly not convinced that most of the courses that students do take “emphasize content rather than form”, and of those that can be said to, I can’t imagine that anybody on the curriculum committee involved would agree that “if you chew over big ideas long enough, the ability to write about them will (mysteriously) follow.” That theory is nonsense. On the other hand, it is certainly possible that some composition courses are set up on the idea that writing should be about something, that an essay of whatever kind should have a point, and that point should be made out of some sort of knowledge. That doesn’t seem preposterous to me.

However, here we have an argument; teaching form, rather than content, leads to students who can write sentences. OK, I’m game, tell me about it. He does. Prof. Fish describes to me an introductory linguistics course, which teaches English grammar by inventing a new one, more or less on the old basis that it’s easier to learn grammar in a foreign language. I agree with that basis, having learned most of what I know about English grammar in introductory German, and the rest in paging through a Latin text. Geoffrey Pullum, over at Language Log, reports that real linguistics profs at Prof. Fish’s institution seem to think the class goes pretty well, and I for one think there’s a good argument to be made for requiring a certain amount of linguistics, at least for students of literature and languages.

In the course of this, er, course, the students seem to learn a lot about constructing a language, as well as how to make the prof happy. He describes two moments of particular pride, one when a student asks a process-oriented question revealing (I suppose) some understanding of the assignment, if not of the English language, and one when a student restricts the conversation in class to what Prof. Fish wants to hear. And, you know, I’m glad that Prof. Fish gets those happy moments; we all could use a happy moment now and then. On the other hand, Prof. Fish shows no evidence whatsoever that the students now, in their writing, regularly construct grammatically perfect and coherent English sentences. Certainly he shows no evidence that they can write good paragraphs, or essays, or descriptions, or narratives, or arguments, or anything like that, but he’s indicated he has no interest in that, so we’ll give him a pass on the thing that seem actually important to me. No, let’s concentrate on what he says is important: writing a coherent sentence.

In fact, the only evidence he gives about his students competence in writing coherent sentences is that at the beginning of the class, possibly on the very first day, although his writing is unclear on this point, each of his students is able to give him a sentence, “all perfectly coherent and all quite different.” Um, so he’s saying that first-year college students can, when asked, write a coherent English sentence, but most graduates are “utterly unable” to do so? And, by the way, that’s it. We get no evidence that the students improve at that, or any other aspect of composition. It may well be that learning the details of how English expresses manner, tense, and mood improve sentence-writing (I’m inclined to think it would), but Prof. Fish gives us no reason to believe it or not to. In fact, his essay is rather conspicuously devoid of content.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

May 28, 2005

what's the point?

In this morning’s New York Times, there’s a not-yet-pay-per-view guest column by Matt Miller called Honor Thy Teacher, which suggests spending rougly $30 billion nationally on increasing the salaries of teachers in impoverished elementary school districts, in exchange for two union concessions: merit pay rather than seniority, and easier termination of “the worst teachers”. The 30 bees would raise starting salaries to $60,000 in the cities; “[t]he best teachers would earn up to $150,000.” Oh, and he’s suggesting the Democrats in Washington propose reinstating the estate tax to pay for this.

No, no, stop laughing. And you, stop weeping. I know, I know. It’ll never happen. I don’t want to talk about the merits of the plan (it has many), but why Mr. Miller is proposing it in the pages of the New York Times. What is his rhetorical purpose? What does he want? Because even if he really does want to make this grand bargain, he must know that there is nobody to make it with.

My first thought was that by indicating that the unions would be willing to make those concessions for a ton of money, he was devaluing those concessions, saying, in effect, that the unions didn’t really believe in seniority pay and job protection, but were just holding out for more money. I do think he’s doing that, but I don’t think that’s the main purpose of the article. It might be. It’s incredibly dismissive of those concessions, calling them “reforms” and acting as if there could be no doubt that they should be enacted, and it is just a matter of shmearing the right people. Myself (and y’all know how pro-union I am, Gentle Readers), I distrust merit pay, particularly coupled with removing job protection, as a way for budget-squeezed management to screw workers. It’s management who decide merit, usually, and their incentive to do it fairly is what, exactly? And if you complain, well, then, remember the last guy who complained? His performance reviews went downhill, and now he’s in another line of work.

I admit that there are serious flaws with systems that don’t allow pay raises for merit, and that don’t allow incompetents to be sacked. I have no idea whether those systems as they are currently enacted really do exacerbate those flaws. I do know that portraying the unions as inflexible, greedy and destructive political mammoths has been a trope used for specific political purposes by a party opposed to broadly egalitarian education. So by using language such as “soothe the savage union beast” or even “reforming destructive union practices”, Mr. Miller is telling me that either he isn’t really interested in improving public schools, or that he has bought in to the Republican line, or that he is pretending to have bought into it. Whichever is the truth, it doesn’t inspire me to trust the man. Still, I don’t think that weakening the union position is the main point of the article.

I was tempted, after dismissing that, to think that the point of the article was simply self-aggrandizement. Look, he says, I have an idea! Since it isn’t within the realm of political possibility, I don’t have any associated responsibilities. I can claim support for it without providing any evidence for it. I can smugly declare that I know what would be best without getting my hands dirty. I can be the smart guy! And, you know, there’s something to that. And, you know, he’s sitting in Maureen Dowd’s chair.

I think there’s something more to it, though. Mr. Miller’s Big Idea is that we need to be talking about Big Ideas. His big Big Idea is a 2% solution for increasing public investment, which, you know, I haven’t read, but he claims that conservatives would love it. I haven’t noticed. But I have some sympathy for the Big Idea that we should, nationally, be talking about big changes, not just tiny ones. Particularly, I think there’s some slight chance that Big Ideas could catch the public’s attention, and compete with the Anti-Tax idea. So I hope that the point of the article is not to seriously claim that “If Schwarzenegger or Bloomberg were to scrap their current plans and declare such ambitious goals, unions would chuck their dogma and link arms to find the money.” No, I hope that Mr. Miller is making such a preposterous claim in order to goad people to think about Big Idea solutions rather than small idea solutions to a variety of other problems. The point is not to solve this problem at this time, but to build a framework for solving problems in the future. At least if that’s his rhetorical purpose, it’s one I can take seriously. I still don’t, you know, wholeheartedly agree, but at least it’s not a total waste of the Times’s space.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

May 19, 2005

Pape, Friedman, Times

The news that the New York Times will soon charge for access to its op-ed and opinion pages (as well as its other columnists) reminds me to whinge about yesterday’s lineup while the only thing required is registration. And I imagine there are ways around that, if registration bugs any Gentle Reader too much.

Anyway, there were two interesting pieces, particularly seen in conjuction. Blowing Up an Assumption, by Robert A. Pape, looks analytically at the phenomenon of suicide terrorism over the last twenty-five years or so, and points out where commonalities do, and do not, exist. His main points are (a) “there is far less of a connection between suicide terrorism and religious fundamentalism than most people think”, and (2) sponsors of suicide terrorism seek “to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.”

The telling point, here, is that the Tamil Tigers have been the world’s most effective supporters of suicide terrorism, and without religious fundamentalism (much less “Islamism”). Furthermore, as Mr. Pape doesn’t really make clear, terrorism is a plausibly effective method against an occupying democracy, so that connection makes a mad sort of sense, while the connection to religious fundamentalism, even to religious essentialism, requires a deeper stretch into madness. Actually, though, Mr. Pape is not looking for what makes sense, or for what might seem to make sense to a madman. Mr. Pape is looking for what actually occurred. Then, having looked at that, he draws conclusions.

I’m not altogether convinced by his conclusions. For one thing, I’m not convinced that his sample is as complete as he thinks, either because of unreported incidents (that is, murder/suicides not claimed as political) or because of his own restrictions. For another, his terms, in the piece, are sufficiently vague that they cry out to me to be used in question-begging and definition-shifting. For instance, does al-qaeda really think of Saudi Arabia as a homeland, in that sense? Or is their homeland all of the Middle East? Or all of the East? I know the Times Op-Ed page is not generally the place for rigorous definition of terms, so my own laziness in refusing to look up and read Mr. Pape’s academic works on the topic is more likely to blame. Also, as a by the way, Mr. Pape has been (if I remember aright) consistently accurate in his predictions of the actions of Our Only President and his administration as well as those of other governments and non-governments. In short, I think Mr. Pape may well be right, but I’d like to see somebody try to refute him.

And, of course, if what he says has any resemblance to the world, an understanding of it should lead to some sort of change of tactics. I must confess I don’t know how best to play it from that point; I’m pretty sure that a policy of declaring that we never negotiate with terrorists, all the while actively negotiating is not a productive one (although in all seriousness, I would expect it to be). On the other hand, publicly giving the terrorists what they want is not, in this case, a pretty option. Neither is a hard line. Remind me again why we got into this? No, don’t, please don’t.

After having read that, it was a bit of a shock to read Outrage and Silence, by Thomas L. Friedman, who simply orders Muslim clerics (I am always, by the way, wryly amused by the use of ‘cleric’ to refer to various levels of imams and ayatollahs and whatnot, as if they were either third-assistant librarians at monasteries or third-level adventurer half-elves) to shame the insurgency out of the tactic. Does Mr. Friedman really think that anyone of any serious influence will read this column, smack his wrinkled forehead, and say (in a comic-book accent) ‘Of course! We should denounce the suicide terrorists! What were we thinking? Praise Allah for Friedman-sahib!’

Now, I do understand that Mr. Friedman feels betrayed by the culture he feels is on the edge of the tipping point, and that it really ought to, really really ought to, really really really ought to tip over into an appreciation for minority rights, democratic processes and capitalist progress any minute now. It must be frustrating to him that it doesn’t happen. Heck, it’s frustrating for me, and I only believe in two out of three myself. But in comparison with Mr. Pape’s column on the same page, it sure looks as if Mr. Friedman is drawing lessons from the way he thinks things should be, not from the way things actually are.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

April 10, 2005

to Morrow's episode

So, Your Humble Blogger had, you know, noticed the advertisement for the new Fox sitcom Stacked because of the enormous stacks of books, right? But I had thereafter dismissed it from mind. And I probably would not have thought of it much again, had I not happened to notice the New York Times review Why Johnny Can't Read, by Alexandra Jacobs. And even then, the thing that caught my eye was the following sentence: “The show's bookstore - supplied exclusively with volumes from HarperCollins, which, like Fox, is owned by the News Corporation - is the place "where everyone knows your name,"...”

Genius. Evil, yes, but genius. Synergy, right? If the show is moderately successful, they can easily slip an author signing, too. And nobody will notice. There is no way that the average viewer—heck there’s no way that the really hepped-up insider would notice that the half-dozen or so actual book titles mentioned over the course of an episode are all published out of the same house and its imprints such as William Morrow, Avon, Eos, Zondervan, Caedmon, and Quill (among others). And really, what does it hurt? I mean, yes, the writers are a trifle constrained, but with so many books to choose from, it shouldn’t be at all difficult for the writers to throw the ads in while giving each character distinct preferences and dislikes. Of course, it’s dishonest and sneaky, but you can’t blame the show for the conglomeration of publishing houses under media megacorporations, or those media megacorporations for taking advantage of their, you know, evil megacorporatude.

Or can you?

Anyway, if the show is successful, can we expect a chain of Stacks ‘independent’ bookstores, stocked only with HarperCollins books and leftover Cliff and Norm animatrons?

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

March 18, 2005

Spamelot

This morning’s New York Times has, at last, the review of Spamelot, which is to Monty Python what Mamma Mia! is to Abba. And the review (A Quest Beyond the Grail, by Ben Brantley) says that, well, Spamelot is to Monty Python what Mamma Mia! is to Abba. Which would be entertaining and all, but ...

Mr. Brantley nails my sense of it when he writes “The mere appearance of a figure in a certain costume (say, a headpiece with ram's horns) or the utterance of a single word (i.e., "ni") is enough to provoke anticipatory guffaws among the cognoscenti. Punch lines come to seem almost irrelevant.” That was pretty much why I gave up watching Python when I was eighteen or so. No, I didn’t give it up altogether, but stopped seeking out opportunities to watch it, particularly with other people. At one point, senior year, a roomful of people were watching And Now For Something Completely Different, and I found myself experiencing a moment of tremendous alienation: what were these humans laughing at? Nothing funny is happening! I slipped out quietly. Now, I do think most of that stuff is funny (although, for some reason, the versions in the movie seem off somehow), but I couldn’t even get the jokes at that moment, as the raucous laughter and chanting prevented me from hearing the lines actually said by the funny people. So mostly, it was suddenly very perplexing.

I should point out that I am aware that I do the same thing myself. I was watching O Brother Where Art Thou a few weeks ago and cachinnating as soon as the scene began. “She going to say bona fide!” I would say to my Best Reader, who would smile quietly to herself. And, really, I don’t have any basis for criticizing the behaviour, which is a perfectly good way to enjoy a performance. Still, it interfered with Your Humble Blogger’s enjoyment at the time, and I suspect it would still do so today, even with hundred-dollar tickets.

Oh, and as I was typing this, the mail carrier arrived with this week’s Entertainment Weekly, which, coincident with the opening of Spamelot, has a largish series of articles and sidebars on things Python, which I immediately read. And my first response to the list of 20 best sketches was the classic python-nerd’s response of disbelief that they had left off, say, da Bishop (we wuz ... too late!) or World Forum (The Hammers is the nickname of what English football team) or the profane version of the Albatross (‘course you don’t get any fucking wafers with it!). So, you know, here I am, Python nerd.

My second reaction was that Mr. Josh Wolk (if that’s his real name) had picked sketches based on how often they were quoted out of context, rather than how funny they actually were. Number One was the Spanish Inquisition (for which, by the way, Graham Chapman’s brilliant put-upon mill-worker should get more credit), number three was the taunting at the castle of Sir Guy duy Loimbard, 8 was nudge-nudge, 13 was the Spam diner, and 20 was the Argument Clinic. And somehow Mr. Wolk thinks that “Every Sperm is Sacred” is about masturbation, rather than contraception. My third reaction was that really one of the things about Python, particularly the Flying Circus, is that some of the most brilliant bits are only ten seconds long, or are funny only because of where they come in the show, or because you hadn’t seen them before. So you can’t put them in a list of the top 20 sketches. In fact, the Queen Victoria handicap is a good example of all three of those: the actual Queen Victoria handicap is a brilliant visual bit that lasts about ten seconds, is only really funny the first time you see it in an oh-my-Lord-they-aren’t-actually-going-to-do-that way, and leads directly in to the punch line of the earlier Hamlet bits strung throughout the episode, which really aren’t very funny either, but the combined bit, where Fortinbras, dressed as Queen Victoria, tells Horatio, dressed as, um, Queen Victoria, oh look, it’s just really funny.

Anyway.

I suspect Python will come back into this Tohu Bohu in a few days, when we all sing Jerusalem.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

March 16, 2005

Who gets it?

I’m sure that everybody’s favorite residents of Left Blogovia will be all over Mr. Kristof’s column Who Gets It? Hillary in this morning’s New York Times (regreq, of course; I think it was Jeanne over at Body and Soul who suggested that the Times and others reverse their current policy and provide the archives for free, while charging for current news, providing an incentive for bloggers to think before typing), which really is a marvel of what in an FCC-regulated medium I might call Harry G. Frankfurt. It seems, you see, that Hilary Clinton shows precisely the way that a Democrat can be elected President again, except that, as he points out, (a) it wouldn’t work for her, and (b) it wouldn’t work for Dean. He doesn’t point out that the same strategy (c) didn’t work for John Kerry, and he shows no evidence that it would actually work for anybody else.

The problem isn’t that Democrats consistently run candidates who are reluctant to talk about their religion and abortion. John Kerry prattled on about being an altar boy. Al Gore talked about religion. Michael Dukakis talked about religion. It’s possible (although I have seen little evidence for this, really) that the problem is that the Democrats haven’t placed effective talk about religion as high a priority as, say, ability to govern honestly and competently, but Mr. Kristof isn’t talking about the difference between persuasive talk and unpersuasive talk, he’s just saying they should talk. And they do.

By the way, why is it that the Republicans generally nominate candidates such as Bob Dole and Poppy Bush who are so bad at talking about religion?

No, the reason why I’m blogging this is that Mr. Kristof writes this whole article without mentioning once why it is that Democratic candidates have such difficulty convincing people that they are, personally, religious and against abortion-as-birth-control. Could it be, perhaps, that there has been a decades-long campaign by their political opposition to portray them that way? Is it just possible that such church-goers as, oh, Al Sharpton, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, John Kerry (who got into hot water for attending Mass regularly), Ted Kennedy, Michael Lerner (not so much church, but you know), Eric Alterman, Tom Harkin, Jim Wallis, Marian Wright Edelman, oh, heck, do I need to go on, have been painted by Republicans and their allies as anti-church as an election tactic?

I mean, surely this goes beyond he-said-she-said journalism. That would at least require that Mr. Kristof “report” that although the Democrats say they support churchin’, the Republicans say they don’t. No, this internalizes the Republican argument, and makes it sound as if the Democrats have been arguing with themselves. And I believe, in this Tohu Bohu, I can call it bullshit without fear of a fine.

It’s true, I’m sure, that much of the public have also internalized the Republican arguments. Millions of people, I’m sure, haven’t quite figured out that the reason they find Democrats unpersuasive on religion is not only that Democrats often have a nuanced view of the relationship between church and state but because Republicans have been saying for years that Democrats hate the Bible. There are good reasons why the Republicans were effective with that line. For one thing, Democrats do often have some difficulty explaining why their own scriptural interpretations are not the basis for all the legislation they promote. For another, Democrats somehow didn’t figure out that this was killing them, and so didn’t even think about how to fight it until it was a thoroughly integrated part of the political scene. For a third, Democrats often do take governing seriously enough to endorse and promote people who are knowledgeable, honest, and competent, but not really very likeable. For another, our Liberal Lion, who I understand to be a believer, was young and irresponsible into his forties (like Our Only President was), and will never outlive Chappaquiddick. Also, the left necessarily includes the real anti-clerical wing, as small as it is, so we are, as they say, tarred by the brush. And again, most people are ignorant enough to believe that Michael Moore and Tom Robbins have some serious influence in party legislation.

If Mr. Kristof had addressed any of this, he would have had to admit that his talk-like-Hillary advice is bullshit. It’s the kind of vague but plausible bullshit that gets bullshit artists jobs, but as for usefulness, well, imagine a baseball column that suggested that the Devil Rays could do better in the standings if they won more games, and that, as you could see by looking at the Red Sox and Yankees, winning games is easier if you do a thing called hitting, which involves scoring runs. The problem the Devil Rays have been having is that they didn’t score very many runs; perhaps if they scored more runs, they would win the division. Gosh, Mr. Kristof, we’ll look into that; have you mentioned it to the Red Sox pitchers?

Oh, and that was a good ending, but I have to add that it’s even less useful than that, since of course unlike run-scoring and the standings, nobody has actually shown that effective religious talk would in fact make the difference in a presidential election. It’s plausible (although it doesn’t explain how Al Gore beat Our Only President), but it ain’t necessarily so.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

March 11, 2005

Yes, Most Definitely

Speaking of speaking sloppily about sloppy speaking, Your Humble Blogger found A Def Ear to the Rules of Grammar by Clyde Haberman in this morning’s New York Times, to be a marvelous example of a journalist neither knowing nor caring what he’s talking about. Well, former journalist, I suppose. Mr. Haberman, writing about rap music, says, “The people who should really be hip-hopping mad are grammarians.”

Anyway, it’s not clear whether Mr. Haberman really believes creative misspelling to be a grammar problem, or whether he just uses ‘grammar’ as schenectady for something like ‘written usage claimed as standard in bad middle-school texts’. He has one example which vaguely alludes to subject-verb agreement, I think, and the rest are all about nonstandard spelling, mostly in stage names. That is, he thinks Snoop Dogg, in choosing his stage name, made some sort of error in grammar, when in fact Mr. Broadus hasn’t even made an error in spelling.

He asks four ... not grammarians, but let’s say, people who deal with written usage claimed as standard in bad texts, one of whom is enough of a stickler to register the complaint that hip-hop “offends all kinds of sensibilities, including those of grammarians.” Jesse Sheidlower, as you might expect, far from being a stickler, says “their poetic inventiveness is worthy of emulation”. The other two also fail to throw the hissy fit Mr. Haberman seems to think is the primary job of people who study language.

The funny thing, for me, is that after asking four ... people Mr. Haberman thinks are experts on whatever he thinks he’s talking about, he ignores what they tell him. And, of course, he didn’t think to ask one of them “Is it correct to refer to the stage name Ludacris as a grammar error?” It’s also fairly likely that one of the four could have told him that def is not a misspelling of deaf, and that it is Mr. Haberman who has the deaf ear for what grammar is, if not its Standard English rules, while it is far more likely to be Chuck D who has the definitive ear for grammar.

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

March 8, 2005

Dock (definition four)

I’m not sure why I even read this morning’s yesterday’s NYT Op-Ed contribution called The Unkindest Cut, by Nicolette Hahn Niman. Perhaps it was the title. Which just goes to show. Or perhaps it was the word ‘dock’ which had come up in this context over the weekend. Coincidence?

Anyway, Your Humble Blogger knows little about animal husbandry, so expecting me to have a position on tail-docking seems a trifle odd. In fact, Ms. Hahn Niman doesn’t really seem to think I should have a well-thought-out position; she wants me to say ‘Ew!’, and then to guide me from that visceral reaction to an appreciation of the farming techniques that obviate the need for tail-docking. She wants me to see tail-docking as the straw that broke the camel’s back of my meat-purchasing habits.

But, here’s the thing: Your Humble Blogger, like the preponderance of this column’s readers, is what we used to refer to as a Times Reader. I know about the horrific conditions of the factory farms. I have lots of friends who won’t eat meat, many of whom have expressed their informed views eloquently and intelligently. I haven’t actually read Fast Food Nation, but you know, I know about it. I know about the chicken-flickers locked into firetraps. I know about the ordure, the dangerous levels of whatnot, the horrific conditions of this and that. And I still eat Jimmy Dean premium pork sausage (Maple flavor—it’s so good). I’ve got to figure that any Times reader who still eats Jimmy Dean is not going to be suddenly shocked out of that particular bad habit by the discovery that they cut off the pig’s tails with a carving knife.

Digression: Your Humble Blogger does not mean to imply that all or even most readers of the New York Times have watched Babe whilst eating leftover Redbone’s sausage. As far as I know, that’s just Your Humble Blogger and his Best Reader. End Digression.

One reason why the tail-docking is such a bad device for changing my mind is that I am aware that they dock sheep’s tails, and have done so for generations. I mean, there are nursery rhymes about it. I doubt I’ve ever seen a sheep with its natural tail, although I must say I’ve actually seen very few sheep in my life. Anyway, if Ms. Hahn Niman tells me that a cow without a tail is “a sad sight”, she’d better tell me why a sheep without a tail is just terrific. Now, I suspect that there are very good reasons why farmers have been docking sheep’s tails for generations, and not docking cows’ and pigs’ tails. I suspect Ms. Hahn Niman is correct that this is a new practice born out of new farming practices, and that the practice and the practices that make it desirable should be eschewed. But that’s pretty much from my knowledge independent of that column; the column itself doesn’t address that at all.

Anyway, although Ms. Hahn Niman may have an aesthetic appreciation for cows’ tails and pigs’ tails, I don’t. I doubt many Times readers do. The final line, where a good hog farmer says “I like seeing pigs with their tails”, is cute, but mostly sounds quaint. Frankly, I think the video that’s been making the rounds of the E-Z Catch Harvester is much more startling, if only because the Bright Coop folks are using the video to promote their product.

I should also point out that Ms. Hahn Niman isn’t trying to get people to give up beef or ham, only to patronize farms that she finds more humane. Yes, she’s arguing for a regulatory ban on tail-docking, but that’s not really the thrust of the article. She doesn’t want you, after reading the thing, to contact your representatives in the government or to change your voting pattern but to change your shopping pattern. That’s hard to do. In fact, I don’t think, in general, that large-scale shifts in meat-purchasing patterns have ever been affected by outrage over inhumane farming practices. Health scares work better, but aren’t usually long-lasting. It’s easier to get people to avoid pork by claiming that pigs are inherently disgusting or unclean. On that note, next time you order duck l’orange, try not to think of this Ig Nobel-winning research.

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

February 21, 2005

Beep-beep! Oh, pardon me, my detector's gone off again...

Since reading the New York Times article “Between Truth and Lies, An Unprintable Ubiquity”, I have been absolutely deluged with references to the Harry Frankfurt’s newish book On Bullshit. Why is that? What are people trying to say?

Perhaps my Gentle Readers simply know my fondness for profanity, and the magnificent way it can be used in the English language. Or perhaps it’s Mr. Frankfurt’s admirable attempt to define his terms. Or perhaps it’s some sort of deeper connection in people’s mind between this Tohu Bohu and bullshit.

Anyway, I read the excerpt (or whatever it is) at some guy’s site; I should warn you that there is no reason to believe that it is honestly excerpted or even closely connected with the original article. Still, I was impressed. The opening, mind you, led me to believe that Mr. Frankfurt was missing a good deal of how the word is actually used by actual people, but it turns out he does cover a pretty wide variety of its uses, and finds a connection between them.

Digression: It appears to be a local Boston thing, or perhaps even a Southie thing, to use the word bullshit as an adjective more or less synonymous with “furious”. As in “They towed Sully’s car; he was bullshit!” Or “How did she take it? Was she totally bullshit?” Any information on this variant would be greatly appreciated; it appears to be totally without connection to the term in its more widely-used, Frankfurtian, sense. End Digression.

I don’t yet agree entirely with Mr. Frankfurt’s description of bullshit as necessarily having a disregard for truth or falsehood. I would need to read the whole article, which I will undoubtedly do in the next year or two. And, of course, language changes. I don’t know if the term to “call bullshit” on a person or statement was in vogue twenty years ago when the article was written, but a current article would have to take it into account. That term, as I see it used these days, is not meant to call a bluff on a suspected bullshit artist, but to disagree with someone’s argument (or occasionally evidence). To me, that implies that the bullshit in question is not the bullshit that Mr. Frankfurt describes, but is a mode of argument connected with facts and their misrepresentation. Is this related to Penn and Teller’s television show of that name? I don’t know. Any Gentle Reader who posts to their site should definitely ask Mr. Jillette if he agrees with Mr. Frankfurt’s definition; I suspect he does not. Which voice speaks with more authority is a problem left to the Gentle Reader.

I also found the argument from excrement totally unconvincing. It fails, utterly, to explain the ‘bull’ in bullshit. When is something shit, and when is it bullshit? After blowing a five-run lead, one can complain about shitty pitching, or about horseshit pitching, or even about chickenshit pitching (if that was the problem), but not about bullshit pitching. Of course, one can complain about bullshit calls, which could make an interesting case for the unconnected-with-accuracy framework; are bullshit calls wrong or made-up? I would say that a cry of “Bullshit!” from the bleachers indicates a belief that the call was wrong in the sense of mistaken, not in the sense of Frankfurt’s bullshit. But it bears examination.

The most convincing bit, to my mind, is the riff off of the advice (from Eric Ambler’s novel Dirty Story) “Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.” Mr. Frankfurt concludes that the speaker “was more strongly drawn to this mode of creativity, regardless of its relative merit or effectiveness, than he was to the more austere and rigorous demands of lying.” This is as close as he comes in this excerpt to our natural love of bullshit, and our admiration for the bullshit artist. We recognize, I think, how impressive it is to bullshit with verve and imagination, possibly because we wade through so much boilerplate bullshit every day.

In Hear My Song, Mickey O’Neill, the consummate bullshit artist, is played and co-written by Adrian Dunbar. When up against it, Mickey breaks out the bullshit. “I was born in peacetime. I haven’t seen what you’ve seen; I haven’t been where you’ve been.” If you haven’t seen it, I don’t know if you can imagine the power of the lilting voice and the off-center grin. “There are givers, and there are takers, and there are those who find a kind of giving in their taking.” True, Mickey learns humility and even honesty by the end of the movie, but that’s not why we love him. We love him because we can see through the baffle and we can choose not to see through it. We love him because we want to love him, because he wants us to love him. We love him, and we love Walter Burns, and we love Henry Gondorff, and we love Hickey, too, and even James Tyrone, the bastard, and we’re even fond of Ricky Roma and B.B. Babowsky and John Falstaff and we adore Captain Shotover, whose bullshit turns out to be rum, and a bunch of us even loved Ross Perot.

And if we didn’t love Willy Loman, and I couldn’t quite love him, perhaps it was because his line of bullshit didn’t quite work on anybody but himself. He bullshits himself when Charley appears, and it’s so transparent, so pathetic, that we agree that we dassn’t blame him. We blame Mickey and Falstaff and Burns, but we dassn’t blame Loman, and we love Mickey and Falstaff and Burns, and we don’t love Loman. It’s harder to love a bullshit artist in real life, of course, and easier to love a Loman. But then, in real life the bullshitter is trying to take us in; we’re the mark, not the audience.

Which brings us back to Mr. Frankfurt’s question, what is it about bullshit? What is it about that particular kind of dishonesty that makes it so different from lying, from bluffing, from fraud? What is it about us that loves a bullshitter, at least at a distance? These questions are not new, nor were they new twenty years ago. Mr. Frankfurt’s essay doesn’t answer them, and I suspect it doesn’t attempt to. Perhaps, though, if he succeeds in defining the term a little better, we can then ask the questions a little better, and maybe even find convincing (and even moderately well-defined) answers.

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

February 15, 2005

Grumpy grumpy me

So. Your Humble Blogger saw Million Dollar Baby the other day. And the rest of this column is about the plot twist, and its representations elsewhere. So if you want to be surprised by the twist—and I was, more or less, this would be a good time to stop reading. Or now. Before the start of the next paragraph, anyway. Certainly before following the link to Frank Rich’s column, How Dirty Harry Turned Commie.

The movie’s protagonist is Frankie Dunn, a boxing trainer/manager and cut-man who owns a run-down old gym. When we first get to know him, it’s clear that he’s a better cut-man than manager. He is seriously risk-averse; he refuses a title bout that his fighter might lose. The fighter, predictably, leaves him for a gutsier, more ambitious manager, leaving Frankie with just the gym. A ... spunky ... young woman named Maggie demands that Frankie train her as a boxer. He does, reluctantly. It turns out she’s great. They bond. He gets her a championship fight; she is winning when her opponent hits her with a cheap shot after the bell. She goes down, hits her head on the stool, cracks her spine (C2-C3, I think), and is permanently paralyzed. She, suicidal, pleads with him to kill her. He dithers for a bit, and then does. End of movie.

Now, it’s a seriously well-made movie. I found the emotional stuff powerfully moving, and even knowing there was a plot twist, I was surprised by it when it happened. The foreshadowing didn’t give it away (to me), but was enough that I thought back on it when it happened. Also, the writing brought out various aspects of Frankie’s character very nicely. His risk-aversion costs him his fighter. His only employee is an ex-fighter kept in penance for their youth, when his skill as cut-man kept the fighter in the ring long enough to lose an eye; this too feeds in to the themes of protection, risk, and responsibility. He attends Mass obsessively, passing off his religiosity by making a show of needling Father Straightman. He writes his estranged daughter every week, putting her through the grief of returning each letter, unopened. He offers unsolicited financial advice to his protégée, even snooping through her checkbook, and the advice is, unsurprisingly, to buy a house, cash in hand, no mortgage. He fears risk. He assumes responsibility. Eastwood, directing himself, makes use of his well-known face and mannerisms to hammer home the characters’ inflated sense of responsibility as well as his obsessive, magnificent commitment to upholding that responsibility.

Thus, when Maggie is paralyzed, there is no moment of decision, no struggle in his mind. He leaves all other work to take care of her, appearing to move in to the hospital and then the rehab center. She doesn’t (I think) thank him for it, nor does the viewer; we accept it. When her family appears, our fear is that she will foolishly choose her biological relatives rather than Frankie, who has assumed the role of father, protector and support. Of course, she sends them packing. Then, when she demands Frankie kill her, we see that his responsibility tears him in half. Breaking down, he says to his priest that he’s killing her by keeping her alive. He can’t fulfill his responsibility to protect her—to make up for his failure to protect her, in fact—without doing as she asks.

Except, of course, that he can. There is no inkling whatever in the movie that the woman is temporarily noncompos, and that her will is not binding under the circumstances. Let me add, by the way, that her family, who are portrayed as awful, vile people who have no love for her, come specifically to bilk her of her estate (although I have no idea how, or to what end, or if she makes a new and probably invalid will to disinherit them after the attempt, or what). And, of course, she goes from the championship fight to the wheelchair, losing her obsessive goal in an eyeblink. And yet, the only response of the medical staff to her suicidal depression is to sedate her to vegetation. The film doesn’t allow any alternatives to Frankie, and not (in my viewing) because he is blind to them, as he might well be, but because the filmmakers want us to be blind to them. Her life was boxing; a wheelchair-bound life is intolerable and death is a release. That’s it.

Now, to the political and ethical points, and I’d like to emphasize that they are different. First, we are currently working on under what circumstances, if any, it should be legal to assist someone in committing suicide, so by showing someone doing it without showing repercussions is a little, um, disingenuous. Legally, Frankie commits murder; nobody discusses any legal implications of that. Still, I suppose, it’s possible to claim that the movie should stimulate discussion of whether he made the right choice, and, if we assume that the right choice should be legal, change our views of the laws to accommodate that. Phooey. Hard cases make bad laws. Fictional cases make worse ones. The contribution of this piece of film to the policy discussion can only be to muddy it with Dirty Harry’s face on an issue that is hard enough to think clearly about in the abstract.

Secondly, I’d like to make clear that no law will remove the necessity of moral thought. If assisting in suicide becomes legal in some cases, it will still be morally wrong in a subset of those cases. It may even be morally right in a subset of cases where it remains illegal. I do believe (and I can argue this separately) that it is incumbent on a person to take the law into account while making moral decisions, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to make the decision. To me, it then follows that if this film is meant to address assisted suicide legislation, it does so from the wrong angle entirely.

In other words, the film has come to be a proving ground for arguments about whether assisted suicide should be criminal, and it’s a bad idea either for the filmmakers or viewers to use it in that sense. It’s just not a good vehicle for that.

There remains the question of whether Frankie’s action was right. As I was watching the movie, I felt bad for Frankie precisely because his own character flaws prevented him from making the decision well. It’s possible, just barely, that such was the point; if so, it’s a powerful argument for our own inabilities to make such terrible decisions, for we are all at least as flawed as Frankie in our own ways. In a way, if that’s the view of the film, it’s a defense of the church. Had Frankie leaned on the crutch of the church, instead of standing alone in his pride, he would have made a better decision. As it was, he made a bad one. Perhaps that was why I was so depressed about it.

Really, though, I think the movie approves of his action, which I find totally inexplicable. I do believe that there are circumstances where suicide is an allowable option, and assisting someone is the most moral option available. This is not one of those circumstances. Maggie is not dying; with decent medical care (unlike the fictional kind in the movie), she could live for decades, and not in chronic pain, either. She simply chooses not to live in her current circumstances. She doesn’t want to live until she can’t hear, in her mind, the crowds chanting her name (or her nickname, anyway). Fine. All athletes reach the point where they can no longer perform at their peak, or even at all. Is it their right to be killed? Is the difference that Maggie can’t walk? Lots of people are bound to wheelchairs and live; most of those have had suicidal moments. Heck, most of all of us have had them.

Look, we don’t know anything about Maggie’s actual medical condition, which is a tool of the filmmakers anyway. But it seems clear to me that she has options. She can choose to live. She can choose to adapt. She can choose to start a new life, with new goals. Frankie is bound, in responsibility, to help Maggie with those choices. But if she chooses death, he is not bound to help her with that. First, of course, because there is no reason to believe that she is of sound mind, but second because there are limits to what a person can ask another to do for a choice. In necessity, those limits are different. This is only a matter of necessity because the movie forces it to be by narrowing our vision.

The movie also cheats. By portraying her family as unpleasant, unattractive, unloving and dishonest, it makes a false choice between them and death. By consistently showing Maggie’s development as purely physical, it makes a false choice between physical activity and death. By buying into the championship fever typical of sports and sports movies, it makes a false choice between victory and failure (victory in this movie consists of a title fight, of “getting your shot”, not necessarily of getting the title; it’s a distinction without a difference). And, of course, it ties us into Frankie’s view of the world, and makes us view the decision solely from his perspective, which is not the only one or the best one.

OK, enough. Maybe having got it written down, I’ll be able to let it go.

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

February 7, 2005

Authority, commonality, microbiology

I happened to read a very odd op-ed piece in the New York Times this morning. It’s called “Design for Living”, and it’s by Michael J. Behe of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture. Mr. Behe is arguing for “Intelligent Design”, as opposed to either natural selection or biblical creationism. He claims to be simply clearing up “widespread confusion about what intelligent design is and what it is not”, but of course this is a familiar rhetorical structure to gain the reader’s sympathy. The reason I’m writing about it at all is because he’s quite good at those structures.

Mr. Behe begins the argument by saying, “The first claim is uncontroversial: we can often recognize the effects of design in nature.” Now, Gentle Readers, you all know that when somebody is trying to persuade you of something and says in passing that a particular point is not controversial, you will end up with an ear full of cider. Particularly, of course, when the terms are loosely defined: here I have no real idea what he means by “often” “recognize” “effects” “design” and “nature”. I’m not even sure what he means by “we”; his example, that Mount Rushmore is clearly designed while the Rocky Mountains are clearly natural, applies to humans who have a reference of monumental sculpture but no inherent truth. I don’t, myself, believe that I can consistently recognize design from nature; a home-made chocolate chip cookie looks awfully natural, while a pine cone seems awfully designed. So this first uncontroversial claim is misleading.

By claiming the statement as written is uncontroversial, Mr. Behe also leads us to infer that a stronger version is actually true. The claim changes, in our minds, to “we can [often always correctly] recognize the effects of design in nature”. And I think some people infer “I” from “we”, so that the final statement is something like “if something looks designed to you, it is designed.” That statement is certainly controversial, and both empirically and logically wrong. And he doesn’t make it, he just brings the reader to the point of inferring it, and tacitly agrees with the reader who does.

The second claim Mr. Behe brings is that “the physical marks of design are visible in aspects of biology. This is uncontroversial, too.” I have no idea whether this is actually uncontroversial, but am initially skeptical. I’m even more skeptical when he brings in the argument from authority: “For example, Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, once wrote that biologists must constantly remind themselves that what they see was not designed but evolved. (Imagine a scientist repeating through clenched teeth: "It wasn't really designed. Not really.")” Note that he first usurps Mr. Crick’s authority, actually on the side of natural selection, to his own position. Then he mocks a “scientist” for hypocrisy and dishonesty. The specific scientist, as an authority, he takes (and distorts), but the general scientist is an outsider, and not an authority at all.

Again, by claiming the statement is uncontroversial as written, he leads us to infer a stronger version, that is, that “the physical marks of design are [often or always] visible in aspects of biology”, which I don’t think most biologists would say is uncontroversial. And, by the way, the phrasing assumes physical marks exist; an alternate phrasing might be something like “there exist forms in cellular biology which more closely resemble designed objects than natural ones.” I have no idea what that would actually mean, phrased that way, since any resembling to anything I would recognize would be tenuous, anyway. In fact, it seems to be a preposterous claim on the face of it, and pretty controversial as well.

Mr. Behe admits that his third claim is controversial: “that we have no good explanation for the foundation of life that doesn't involve intelligence”. I have no idea what he means by this. His only example is to state “there are no research studies indicating that Darwinian processes can make molecular machines of the complexity we find in the cell.” There are some research studies that discuss the possibility of natural selection of such things, but clearly it is up to the individual to accept them or not as good explanations. Also, by the way, note that by saying that “we have no good explanation”, Mr. Behe implies that no such explanation exists; the exact meaning is overshadowed by the misleading implication. He also, by contrast, implies that there does exist a good, scientifically rigorous explanation of how intelligence could be involved in the creation of complex molecular machines; I don’t think that such has been found, even taken hypothetically. That is, even given as a hypothesis that the Creator had the idea for these things, and decided to create them, there is no model I’m aware of that goes from that hypothesis to the empirically observed phenomena that adheres better than any other model.

This leads to Mr. Behe’s fourth claim: “in the absence of any convincing non-design explanation, we are justified in thinking that real intelligent design was involved in life”. He is assuming that there exists a convincing design explanation, that is, claim three. He then states that “it's important to keep in mind that it is the profound appearance of design in life that everyone is laboring to explain”. Notice he is here again assuming the “appearance of design” that he claimed was uncontroversial earlier. If you reject the first claims, then naturally you are not laboring to explain the problems they bring up, you are simply trying to explain how things work, or even how they came to be what they are, and can ignore the distinction between design and nature that Mr. Behe claims is so obvious, but seems to me to be primarily rhetorical.

He concludes:

Still, some critics claim that science by definition can't accept design, while others argue that science should keep looking for another explanation in case one is out there. But we can't settle questions about reality with definitions, nor does it seem useful to search relentlessly for a non-design explanation of Mount Rushmore. Besides, whatever special restrictions scientists adopt for themselves don't bind the public, which polls show, overwhelmingly, and sensibly, thinks that life was designed. And so do many scientists who see roles for both the messiness of evolution and the elegance of design.
Let’s see. As a flag that the remainder of the sentence is going to be misleading, “some critics claim” is right up there with “uncontroversial”. I mean, really. And the response is marvelously non sequitor: even Prof. Straw isn’t trying to settle the “question of reality” by defining science excluding design (and I should underscore that Prof. Straw doesn’t exist); he’s narrowing his field to observable stuff in order to avoid the question entirely. Then there’s his colleague, Dr. Haye, who evidently takes the controversial stance that when there is disagreement on a topic, more research might be advisable. The response to that is that such research is pilpul; the question has been answered. How? By forcing you to accept the uncontroversial claims 1 and 2, and then claiming 3 and 4 follow. No more work to be done here, Dr. Haye. Move along.

Having used scientists both as authorities and as straw men, Mr. Behe then dismisses them entirely. Now he appeals for authority to the wisdom of the masses, who he claims support his position. They do no such thing, of course. Many believe in creationism outright; Mr. Behe’s position is that six-day creationism is bunk and inconsistent. Many others believe in natural (unguided) selection. Others don’t care. Others believe in a sort of clockwork Creator, who set up conditions for everything before the beginning, and whose interference in molecular biology is unnecessary. Others believe in a sort of Divine Interferer, who works through natural causes, but can’t violate his own rules, which leaves out designing molecular machines. Others believe in Mr. Behe’s Designer. It’s not overwhelming in Mr. Behe’s favor. And of course the whole appeal is bunk anyway; just because Mr. Behe claims such support is sensible doesn’t make it so, and I have believed in enough nonsensical things myself to understand that.

Then the scientists come back, or many of them, anyway, to add their authority, because of course these ones aren’t the scientists Mr. Behe was mocking earlier, but the good ones. Hm. Initially, what I found most interesting was the claim of commonality, and the ways in which he makes himself and his views seem reasonable and familiar, and other people and views unreasonable and strange. Now that I look at it closely, his shifting appeals to various kinds of authority is also interesting, and slippery as hell. These two, combined with a topic whose empirical evidence is microscopic, make for a persuasive column that is hard to refute, because it hardly ever is saying what it actually says. You can’t persuasively contradict his evidence, because I have no way of knowing if what you say is true. You can’t successfully counter his authorities with other authorities, because the shifts in authority make each individual claim seem irrelevant. And because of his identification with the reader against scientific straw men, attempts to attack Mr. Behe come off as attacks on the reader.

Before Your Humble Blogger finally leaves off, a footer is in order. I believe in a Divine Creator, and I find natural selection incredibly persuasive. As a religious matter, the six-day Creation story makes me happy, but I don’t particularly care if its truth is inconsistent with reproducible laws of nature. I also quite like the idea of a Creator who creates the world anew each day, who notes the fall of each sparrow, and whose ineffable spirit is in the very molecules of our nature. I don’t find at all appealing the idea of a creator who plays with molecules as Tinkertoys, who is bound by the laws of nature or by the design specs of microbiology. Within the entire controversy, I fall on both of the two sides that Mr. Behe rejects, so it perhaps isn’t altogether surprising that I am not pleased by his article.

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

February 4, 2005

Why doesn't he do it in the road?

When I saw this stupid op-comic piece in the Times the other day, I thought, that’s a stupid op-comic piece. But that clearly wasn’t enough. There’s an actual news article on the same idea, that it’s funny to think about the Super Bowl people vetting Paul McCartney for suitability.

Um, guys? He’s a rock star. He sings about rocking and rolling. True, he never kissed a bear, nor has he ever kissed a goon, but he has been known to shake a chicken in the middle of the room.

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

February 3, 2005

Harsh, but fair?

Your Humble Blogger has often complained about reviews that are more about the wit of the reviewer than about the thing being reviewed. It’s the curse of Dorothy Parker; her stuff is clearly about her, but then she is actually more entertaining than many of the books she reviewed (which were often enough chosen for that purpose). Her generation of imitators had no such excuse. On the other hand, I admit to chortling at a really nasty, vicious pan. Ben Brantley, in this morning’s Times (regreq), begins with the premise that To Everything There Is a Purpose, and concludes that the purpose of Good Vibrations, the Mamma Mia of the Beach Boys, is “to make all other musicals on Broadway look good.” The best (and nastiest) part is the first three paragraphs, culminating in suggesting not that the performers are enjoying it more than the audience, but that the performers are somewhat less pained by it. Later, he excuses himself from mentioning any of the performers names, since they “aren’t really to blame”.

Ooh, it’s a cold morning on West 49th Street.

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

January 26, 2005

85 - 13

On the whole, I think that the President of the United States should be able to choose the Cabinet he wants to govern with. Yes, the Senate should advise before it consents, but for me the bar for turfing a cabinet member has to be actual incompetence. Certainly, a nominee should not be dismissed for sharing policy views with her President.

Therefore, I’m pretty happy with the news that the Senate confirmed Secretary Rice, 85-13. In other words, the President gets the Secretary of State to which he is entitled, while it is made clear this is the worst choice in recent history. Not to say an argument couldn’t be formulated for her actual incompetence—has she ever got anything right? I mean, she made her foreign policy name saying we shouldn’t touch M. Gorbachev with a ten-foot pole, and that the Communists were still strong and stable. She has a longish and prominent academic career of making predictions about public policy, so it should be pretty easy to check if any of them were right.

Still, clearly analysis is one thing and diplomacy is another. The most important job of the Secretary of State is, um, what was it again? What is it that she’s qualified to do? I mean, I don’t mean to play dumb, but I understood what Madeleine Albright was hired for, more or less to do the job she had been doing at the UN, but at a higher level. Before then, Warren Christopher’s qualifications involved negotiating with China and Panama and so on. Lawrence Eagleburger was also an old State hand by the time he was nominated. Of course George Shultz was an economist, and James Baker was, um, a Cabinet Member. Colin Powell, like Al Haig, came out of the military, although Al Haig as our NATO guy had more diplomatic cred then Mr. Powell. Still, I suppose Mr. Powell’s role in the Kuwait affair involved some diplomatic skills, although of course I have no idea what they would be.

But what, again, are Ms. Rice’s qualifications for the job of America’s top diplomat? I mean, she was qualified to be National Security Advisor, whether you think she did a good job of it or if you perceive the actual universe, but surely in the American system, there’s an expectation that the Secretary of a Department should have some expertise in that field? Ah, well. I suppose looking at that, the most qualified person that there was any chance of being put forward to the Senate was John Negroponte.

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

December 14, 2004

Ranting

I do not like to use this Tohu Bohu as a griping zone just to call attention to those things in the world that I think are wrongheaded, but an article by Sharon Waxman called Onscreen, It's the Season of Cynicism in this morning’s NYTimes appears to be serious in making the argument that today’s sappy Xmas movies are “a whole new genre of anti-holiday holiday movies”. The examples she cites (Surviving Christmas, Christmas with the Kranks, The Santa Clause, Jingle all the Way, and even How the Grinch Stole Christmas) all seem to be stories of somebody who begins by feeling that the holiday is as Ms. Waxman puts it “something to endure rather than celebrate”, and ends by discovering/recovering the True Joy of the Season. Elf, also mentioned, has I believe not only that plotline but the endearing main character who really does keep the spirit of the season year-round, because he’s a fucking elf, that’s why.

In other words, these movies are tremendously sentimental, but operate in a mindset that says that everything outside the movies is too cynical. Or, rather, that these movies place themselves as fighters against cynicism, and in ways that would make Frank Capra vomit. And I haven’t even seen them. I find it difficult to believe that not having seen them I understand them better than Ms. Waxman, but then I need to point this out:

Her very first example of how different today’s movies are from such heartwarming holiday classics as It’s a Wonderful Life is that Surviving Christmas begins with a suicide attempt.

And, you know? There were other classic Christmas movies. Let’s see ... White Christmas is about the superfluous ex-army fellas that can’t find work or respect. The Lemon Drop Kid is about a gang of thieves and gamblers who dress up as charity Santas to rip off the suckers. There’s the Alastair Sim Christmas Carol, nuff said. There’s A Christmas Story, which I’ve never seen, but which is, I’m told, a satire about the single-minded focus on presents. And there’s Miracle on 34th Street. Maybe that’s what she’s thinking of.

But isn’t Elf a zany remake of Miracle? Again, I haven’t seen it, but that’s the plot of the trailer. And isn’t a good deal of the point of Miracle that the world is cynical and doesn’t believe? In the end, it turns out that really is Santa Clause/Elf, right?

What is this writer on about?

Whew. Feel better now.

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

November 29, 2004

MFQ again

The New York Times Magazine appears to have gone sort of nuts for toys this week. In addition to a disturbingly wonderful slide show of cutting-edge Japanese playgrounds, and another slideshow that’s less wonderful and more disturbing, what with the spray-on polyethylene baby clothes, there’s a fascinating article on MFQ. Well, it’s not about MFQ as such, it’s about Cranium, makers of unconventional board games. The article is called The Play’s the Thing, and it’s by Clive Thompson, and there should be something in it for each of you Gentle Readers to defend and to deny.

Myself, I like the idea that making people feel like morons isn’t a fun way to spend an evening. On the other hand, game design isn’t the primary monster here. Scrabble, for instance, is perhaps the game most perfectly designed to make a player feel like a moron. The problem, however, isn’t usually the player’s vocabulary, but the player’s Scrabble-playing skills. The best vocabulary in the world isn’t going to help you put a g on the end of ‘thin’ and then put ‘grew’ on the triple for a boatload of points. In other words, it’s the design of the game that would totally put off the Cranium folk. But once the player is familiar with it, Scrabble is a terrific game with a very high MFQ.

Also, there’s no discussion of my own pet peeve in game design. In my experience, the most anti-MFQ thing in the actual design of a game is when, having already dropped quite a ways behind the lead, the losing player or players has to endure a long period of boredom. That is, ideally, each player should feel like she could be in striking distance of first almost until the very end of the game (measured in minutes that feel like hours), or alternately, should have things to do that are interesting even if they don’t lead to victory.

In Scrabble, for instance, until the board fills up quite a bit, it’s quite possible either through rack-dumping or through the triple to make up fifty points in a turn. Even if you feel like you can’t make up the difference in the score, each individual play is just as interesting as if you were in the lead, or more so if, like Your Humble Blogger, you find a tight board a challenge. In Settlers of Catan (another brilliant game), though, a bad start can lead to getting cut off of ports and such, and reduce not only your chances of winning, but your play options, until you just try to buy cards and get lucky. That doesn’t happen too terribly often, and the game is short enough anyway to make it not so severe, but it is a problem.

Anyway, the mailman has just delivered my copy of Holy Tango of Literature, so I have to go now.

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

November 28, 2004

Around the Horn

I’ve seen a few things recently on-line that are interesting, but about which I don’t have enough to write an essay. So:

  • From the Language Log, Arnold Zwicky writes about Two and Threes, specifically about the figure of speech taken from the real estate joke that the three most important things are location, location and location. The thing I find interesting is that it translates well to other topics now (the three best things about I, Robot were the visuals, the visuals, and the visuals), but only as a referent to the original joke. That is, no-one would use the figure with two things, or with four; it would make just as much sense on its own, but it would be wrong.
  • According to a a New York Times article, not only is the great Henry Selick doing the sea monster for The Life Aquatic (with Steve Zissou) but he and TLA(wSZ) director Wes Anderson are co-directing an animated adaptation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Roald Dahl. Now, I’m not a huge fan of Mr. Anderson; I’ve only seen Rushmore, which I liked, but not enough to seek out The Royal Tenenbaums. But I will seek out Mr. Selick’s stuff wherever it may be. James and the Giant Peach was beyond brilliant, and Monkeybone was brilliant, if not beyond. I vaguely remember enjoying The Nightmare before Christmas a lot, and I keep meaning to see it again. Oh, and I’ve never seen the short Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions; does anybody have a copy? Are any of the MTV shorts on any of the Selick DVDs? Anyway, I’m guessing Fox will be after Mr. Selick’s next, something called Coraline.
  • Via supergee, a good take on Alexander and gay-ness. The point that calling somebody ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ can be useful but doesn’t encompass the whole realm of attraction is, I think, right on the money. I myself have developed a pash for two men and about a zillion women; I’m scarcely bisexual, but when I call myself straight, am I somehow denying those two crushes? This is all in addition to the point that in Alexander’s culture, a long-term exclusive male friendship that involved kissing, embracing, and sleeping together was considered normal and distinct from family duties such as marriage and procreation (much as in Victorian England, women were expected to have ‘sisterly’ relationships of great physical affection that weren’t considered in any competition with their conjugal duties).
  • In case I never get around to writing about States’ Rights and Federalism, the Chrononautic Log has a provocative take. The issue is complicated; in an email to one Gentle Reader I said, among other things, “Should we allow the states to become farther apart, legally, to have serious border issues, then that's bad for the country as a whole, and bad for blue states as well. It's not really a big deal when the highways have fireworks shops and tax-free liquor stores at the borders, but it's different if it's unlicensed handguns and whorehouses.” I’m still thinking the issue through; it’s always possible I’ll actually write a note on it later.
  • Does anybody have a good book on the Plymouth Pilgrims to recommend? There are a few references in God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible that intrigued me, and also made it clear how little I actually know about them. I’m primarily interested in their politics and theology (to the extent that those are different), rather than a struggles-in-the-new-world book. Why they left, what they believed, what the English and Dutch thought they believed that sort of thing.

    Thank you,
    -Vardibidian.

November 23, 2004

Movie Report: The Incredibles

So. Your Humble Blogger saw The Incredibles, and enjoyed it immensely. Anything said below should be held in that context; I thought it was great, and pretty much if you think you’d like it, you will. For one thing, it’s the first new-animation movie I’ve seen that has done humans at all well. I’m seriously creeped out by the moving mannequins in Toy Story and Finding Nemo and the trailer for The Polar Express. Not only are these the most natural and plausible humans I’ve seen in a Pixar movie, they are far more natural and plausible than the humans in SkyCap.

There is, though, something to say about the, um, politics, for want of a better world. It’s awkward. I felt quite defensive at times, as though the writer was attacking beliefs I actually hold. I scarcely am a supporter of giving everybody a medal at track events, nor of graduation ceremonies for rising fourth-graders. Still, when various characters trot out the theme that ‘when everybody is special, nobody is’, it bothered me. That sentiment was so clear, and repeated so often, that even the New York Times published an article by John Tierney (“When Every Child Is Good Enough” Nov. 19) talking about it.

Digression: Why is it that several people, including Mr. Tierney, have written than the villain has a evil plan to give everybody superpowers? Why would he need the battle bot for that? Wouldn’t he just set up a factory? No, Syndrome’s evil plan, clearly and explicitly stated, is to kill all the supers and then set himself up as the world’s only super. He then tosses off what would ordinarily be a throwaway line about how, when he gets bored with that, he’ll sell off his inventions, which would let everybody be super, and thus no-one. That’s a reiteration of the theme, and worth mentioning as part of an analysis of that theme, but it isn’t the point of the evil plan. End Digression.

Where was I? Oh, yes. As much the practice of giving awards to everybody just for existing (and I had, for years, a drawerful of ’em) is silly and distasteful, so too is any sort of supremacist ideology that says that supers count for more just because they can run fast or stretch or make themselves invisible. To the limited extent that Bob Incredible is admirable, it’s his dogged determination to help people, his willingness to risk himself in the attempt, and his pathetic need to be useful that is admirable; his super strength and occasional good idea just assist him in that. Of course, his propensity for violence is pretty nasty. He puts his boss in the hospital because of their differing philosophies (admittedly, his boss is the Most Annoying Man on the Planet) and he tortures a woman into telling him what he didn’t know she already wanted to tell him. But it’s a cartoon, right?

Anyway, the answer, I think, is in a kind of acknowledgement that people are different, one from another, and that although the fast and the strong and the clever are marvelous, the slow and the weak and the dim are lovable as well. In fact, everyone is special, at least in the sense that everyone is unique, everyone is valuable and (at some point in their lives) lovable, which means that everyone is special. It’s worth taking the time to find out how. This idea that everyone’s ‘specialness’ lies in some sort of conformist mediocrity is preposterous, and should be mocked, if only anyone actually held it. But in mocking that particular straw man, I feel as if Mr. Bird is mocking the idea that everyone is valuable, that everyone is holy, and perhaps that is why I felt so defensive.

OK, glad I got it off my chest. Now I can go back to thinking about the interesting things about the movie, such as its pretty clear implication that supers don’t make the world safer or more crime-free, but rather bring out the supervillains. When Bob is a superhero in a crowd of supers, he can’t go a block without coming across somebody to save; when Bob is a claims adjuster, he waits for somebody—anybody—to be in mortal jeopardy. In the fifteen years of the superheroes’ retirement no mad genius destroys the planet or even takes over the city. Syndrome’s psychotic yearning for adulation means that he has to invent and build a threat that will require a superhero to defeat, for no such threat exists. But at the end, when Bob is a superhero again, a supervillain comes out of the ground at his feet.

It’s no Hench, but it’s an interesting point, isn’t it?

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

November 22, 2004

Liberals, arts, colleges

I happened to see a New York Times article about two recent studies of the Liberal Professoriate (working paper versions are available of the two, How Politically Diverse Are the Social Sciences and Humanities? Survey Evidence from Six Fields and How Many Democrats per Republican at UC-Berkeley and Stanford? Voter Registration Data Across 23 Academic Departments) shortly after seeing a Language Log piece called The "liberal professoriate"—not so fast. The Language Log article, by the way, is discussing different studies than the Times article; the criticisms of the one can only be applied to the other hypothetically. And I haven’t read the two articles, or examined the stats; it should be assumed, as always, that I’m talking through my hat.

Anyway, I think the whole question is interesting. I am convinced, more or less, that the professoriate (to the extent that it’s remotely appropriate to use such a word) is more ‘liberal’ than the population at large, and it seems from Prof. Klein’s work that faculties may be contain more Democrats by weight even than the surrounding area; even in Berkeley, I don’t think registration is 10 to one Dems over Republicans. I do think that a large portion of the situation is demographic. Colleges and Universities tend to be in urban centers; urban centers tend to be disproportionately liberal. People working as faculty tend to have advanced degrees; the group of people with advanced degrees is disproportionately liberal. Faculty members tend to think of themselves as working for non-profit organizations; such workers are disproportionately liberal. I suspect that many instructors feel that with their skills and talents they could be making more money if they chose to do something else, and that people who feel that way tend to be disproportionately liberal. I suspect that people who wind up in higher education view education as tremendously important; such people tend to be disproportionately liberal. So, profs as a group tend to be urban, post-baccalaureate, non-profit workers who have chosen to do something socially important rather than maximize income and who place a very high value on education; I suspect that any such group would be far more liberal than the general populace. Whether such a group would be eight or nine to one Democrats is certainly doubtful, but is a matter for speculation. At any rate, the mere existence of such a disproportion does not to me automatically imply bias in hiring and promotion. Such bias would be disturbing to me as interfering with the intellectual freedom of individuals, whereas a demographic explanation wouldn’t.

There’s another question, though, which is whether anybody should really be concerned. That is, whether the situation is organic or whether bias is involved, is it a bad situation when the range of political opinion amongst colleagues is so lopsided? Is that bad for collegiality, bad for students, bad for the workplace? Honestly, I don’t know. I do find it troubling, but I don’t know how much so.

As an example, I have a close friend who is a visiting assistant professor at a prestigious university. I don’t believe she has had many political conversations with the dozen or so faculty members in her department; I couldn’t say for sure how many voted Republican in the last election. I do assume that none of them did, which is bad socially, but that assumption is based more or less on the demographic explanation I outlined. More to the point, I don’t think anybody in the department would interfere with her career if it turned out she held views that were unpopular at the university but in the mainstream of the general culture (although I think someone who espoused eugenics or Red Brigade violence, say, would likely have a tough time getting recommendations). Further, although the content of her classes is necessarily affected by the same perceptions of the universe, habits of thought, and hierarchy of values that affect her political judgment, such content is constrained by academic habits. Thus, somebody who would be likely to teach with Queer Theory in mind is also likely to vote against Our Only President, but is also likely to teach about formalism, or New Criticism, or positivism, or whatnot, simply as a matter of academic integrity (which not everybody has, I know, but it seems to me pretty common). Would her department be better if it had more Republicans? Would it be better for students? For her?

My gut instinct is that it would be better, but not enough better to do anything about it. There are far worse things affecting collegiality, groupthink, deliberation, and other aspects of the far-from-ideal faculty; I think party politics is pretty far down the line. But I do understand the concern, and honestly if you ask me next year I may well have a different answer.

Oh, and I do think it’s important, in any story about higher education and party politics, to make it clear that for a generation the Republican party has wanted to decrease federal funding for higher education (and at least recently state funding as well) while the Democratic party has wanted to increase it. If the current conversation is what the Democrats are doing wrong in not persuading more people to vote for their candidate, then perhaps in discussing the political monoculture at universities, part of the conversation should be what the Republicans are doing so terribly wrong there.

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

November 2, 2004

Wasting time

Follow the bouncing links, right? After I had deliberately passed on reading this NYT article, I was sent back by this Michael Bérubé note to look at this inspirational photo, which I’m certainly nominating for the Jesus of the Week. Oddly enough, I could swear that the fellow about to put his hand in the hand of the man from Galilee is Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz.

Caption contest? “Well, I’ll have to tell the Pope we’re ditching the Pillsbury account.”

                           ,
-Vardibidian.

October 29, 2004

news from the front

Articles such as this one in the Times remind me that there were an awful lot of people who warned, before the invasion, that this could well degenerate into a house-to-house shooting war. As it happens, I am not one of them; I can’t say that I ever came to a decision about whether it was really likely or not. On the one hand, it never occurred to me that our military would be ill-trained and ill-equipped (in large measure, though not altogether). On the other hand, I did not particularly expect our troops to be greeted with flowers, New English bibles and voter registration cards. Anyway, the crows and Cassandras were right, as they often are, and will undoubtedly get their usual reward for it.

And as long as I’m on about it, in April of 2003, I mentioned that I was relieved that the Butcher’s Bill for this little adventure in democracy, non-proliferation and international harmony was so low. Hahahahaha. I was so funny, and I didn’t even know. I can’t say that I find this survey (or, for those who wish to register for the Lancet, this full report) altogether convincing, but I think we can safely say that the Butcher’s Bill is pretty damn’ high, and it’s going to get higher. Sure, it’s being paid by Iraqis, for the most part. Oh, and remember how sweet it was when Dick Cheney paid tribute to the Iraqi spirit by using their dead to make it appear that the US wasn’t becoming a pariah state? Now there are more numbers? See? The US can’t be considered a rogue state when Iraqis have been joining us in graves a thousand for one! Now that’s freedom on the march.

Sorry, I got carried away there. Let the bitterness go, just feed it to the ducks. Hope is on the way, or help or something. I’ll go have a lie-down.

                           ,
-Vardibidian.

October 21, 2004

Party time

It’s probably not the ideal time to write about it, but this Op-Ed by Phil Keisling and Sam Reed in this morning’s yesterday’s Times and this segment on Morning Edition piqued me into talking about political parties.

You see, I’m a Democrat. I think it means something to be a Democrat. And I hate open primaries; when we Democrats get together to decide our candidate, I don’t see why we should give a damn what anybody else thinks. I think people are Democrats because they believe in the same basic idea: that it is a good thing to use the might of the federal government to help those people who could use help, particularly against the power of the powerful. As I understand it, in general, Republicans believe that the might of the federal government is what people should be shielded against. Neither party is particularly extreme about it, not in this generation, although we each welcome those who are along with their more centrist neighbors.

I think the Democratic Party has a reason for being. I think that individuals, when left to their own politics, don’t achieve as much as groups, and besides I think groups are on the whole Good Things. I have my own policy opinions. They’re good ones, I think, but they’re not worth much. They’re worth more if I find people who share them, and they are worth even more if I can talk about them and throw them the hell out when I see better ones. They’re worth even more if I don’t let them blind me to getting something tangible that people can live with. I’ll say it again: without a party, my policy opinions, good as they are, aren’t worth much.

Now, I think that the Party would be better with more people in it, and I think it would be better if the discussion were wider-ranging, and focused less on who would win the next election and more on how to govern well. But I also think it would be better if the Giants were up against the Sox next week. I don’t get what I want; I’m OK with that.

The real question, I think, is whether the two parties dominate the political landscape because between them they really do comprise eighty percent of the electorate, or whether they use their previous dominance to maintain future dominance. That is, are there so few Libertarians because lots of people who might be persuaded to join and vote Libertarian never get the opportunity, or because Libertarianism just hasn’t been very convincing? After the bizarre success of H. Ross Perot, the idea that it just isn’t possible to get non-third-party candidates heard is hard to believe, but then did H. Ross Perot have any ideas? His platform was, if I recall correctly, a combination of protectionism, deficit hawkishness, and personality. None of those ideas was outside the mainstream of the two parties, although neither of the policy aspects was persuasive enough to win primary battles. Still, the genuinely out-of-the-mainstream ideas, such as those of the Libertarian and Socialist parties, remain out of the mainstream.

I think, on the whole, it’s because those ideas aren’t persuasive, and aren’t presented persuasively. The other explanation has merit as well. Note, though, that I’m talking about persuasion, the most important thing in a democracy, not correctness, which is incidental at best. I am a socialist, myself, if we’re talking economics; I don’t want to impose a socialist system on a culture that so clearly doesn’t want it, but it seems more sensible to me than the Market. But on just that point, if socialists can’t make the country want socialism, then socialism would be bad for it. If the Socialists can’t get votes, then why should anybody be bothered by their inability to get votes?

And then, on yet another hand, when I’ve watched debates that include Socialist and Libertarian candidates, it seems clear that anybody with any political talent or skill steers clear of third parties, whatever their policies. So they get no chance to have the most persuasive people argue their positions, and in debates generally look like the amateurs they are. Those restraints are almost demanded by the constitutional set-up of the country. A parliamentary system, with coalitions of parties and proportional representation, could in some ways lead to better and more wide-ranging deliberation (and be as well-governed as, say, Israel?), but that isn’t what we have or will ever have in our current borders.

Look, you can do what you like, of course. Perhaps the fundamental issue is not really one of governance or deliberation, but one of social networks. I think it’s a good idea to be part of a party, even if and especially if there are disagreements within it. I think that the more those parties develop and maintain some sort of coherence, the better it is for the people in them and the people outside them. I think that the more we view voting as something we do together, an ultimately co-operative effort by the people voting with and against you, the more we succeed at democracy. I’m not, here, talking about a path to good government, which would certainly be nice; I’m talking about being Better Together. Really, I think open primaries and inclusion of third-party candidates with minimal support in debates and such detract from the norms of politics, and that those norms are good for us as a democracy in ways that are more important than the implementation of policies.

Which is one of the reasons I didn’t vote today. I’m going on the 2nd, to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Republicans (and, yes, the Libertarians, the Socialists, the Greens, and the Reforms, and whatever Nader’s electors will call themselves) and say I am voting for a candidate, but we are voting for democracy.

                           ,
-Vardibidian.

October 18, 2004

We'll always have the Paris Review

One of the most talked about articles of the day is the Suskind article in the Times Magazine. Almost every political blogger has had a say on it; I’m going to just choose one idea and riff from that, and not about Our Only President, either.

And for those who don't get it? That was explained to me in late 2002 by Mark McKinnon, a longtime senior media adviser to Bush, who now runs his own consulting firm and helps the president. He started by challenging me. ''You think he's an idiot, don't you?'' I said, no, I didn't. ''No, you do, all of you do, up and down the West Coast, the East Coast, a few blocks in southern Manhattan called Wall Street. Let me clue you in. We don't care. You see, you're outnumbered 2 to 1 by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don't read The New York Times or Washington Post or The L.A. Times. And you know what they like? They like the way he walks and the way he points, the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him. And when you attack him for his malaprops, his jumbled syntax, it's good for us. Because you know what those folks don't like? They don't like you!'' In this instance, the final ''you,'' of course, meant the entire reality-based community.

When I read that, I started to wonder ... after the whole world and his wife blogged this article, I think it’s pretty obvious that a bunch of people read it who don’t generally read the New York Times in print, or, I’d guess, on-line. I myself read much less of the Times than I used to, even on-line. There are days when I don’t bother to check the Op-Ed page, figuring that if there’s anything really interesting, one or another of the blogs I check will point to it. It’s sad; I happened to get a chance to pick up a paper copy the other day and really enjoyed paging through it, reading whatever my eye happened on.

The point is that the distinction between a reader of the Times and a non-reader has, in my case, blurred, as it has with what I’d guess are a hundred thousand people who will follow one or another link to the Suskind piece. The cultural image of a Times reader is no longer current; I may well read an article in the Post, if my blog/editors suggest it’s worth my time. That has lots of repercussions in the publishing industry, which I feel I’ve been talking about forever, but it also has lots of repercussions in the cultural stereotype industry, which hadn’t really crossed my mind.

Look, Mr. McKinnon has an idea of what a Times reader is like. I do, too, and it’s not that different from me. In Boston, there were Globe readers and there were Herald readers, and the twain didn’t meet much. But I could, if I wanted to, read the Globe’s national coverage and the Herald’s sports page; I always could, of course, but I didn’t. Now I can, and without becoming a “Herald reader”, either.

Are we being shaken loose from the old ruts, or are we simply settling into new ones, with Atrios and the Instapundit replacing the Times and the Post? Even if it’s the latter, there’s something about internet reading that resists (so far) the cultural baggage of stereotypes. I don’t have an idea of what the Slashdot reader is like, nor yet the Pandagon reader. I do have an idea of the typical LiveJournal type, although none of the LiveJournals I read (is it perhaps twenty now?) are the remotest bit like that. I don’t know. But I will say that a statement that the Times readers don’t like X, and that people who like X don’t like Times readers seems likely to be—not less accurate, for it was never meant to be accurate—less resonant, and possibly less understandable.

Now, don’t get me wrong ... this isn’t a happy, optimistic, we’re-all-learning-to-eschew-stereotypes-and-see-each-other-as-we-really-are post. Stereotypes are a kind of pattern-matching, and Your Humble Blogger is kind of obsessed with pattern-matching. Remember, there are miniscules of merit in the most wantonly fallacious stereotype. The thing is to understand these things, to use them for good, and not for evil, to know the limits and most importantly to be able to match the right ones with the right jokes. I’m just saying that maybe there is one set of them that is changing faster than people realize.

                           ,
-Vardibidian.

October 11, 2004

Badges?

Just a quick note, Gentle Readers, to point you to a very impressive Op-Ed piece by Sean Flynn in this morning’s New York Times about the ‘training’ currently given to Iraqi ‘police’. As Atrios would say, oy.

                           ,
-Vardibidian.

September 13, 2004

Shhh, he's talking about tenure...

There was an odd Op-Ed piece in this morning’s New York Times by John M. McCardell, Jr., former President of Middlebury College, where he claims to say what most serving college presidents dare not say. And, of course, the first thing is—three guesses? And the first two don’t count unless they begin with ‘ten’ and end in ‘ure’. Yes, it seems that tenure is an outdated policy, which served its purpose in the 40s and 50s, but is not now necessary. Yes, the most undiscussed secret of higher education is tenure. You will never, ever, ever hear a college president with the temerity to knock tenure. Nope.

Oh, come on.

Look, Your Humble Blogger takes a back seat to no-one in his bewildered contempt for the economics of higher education. Further, I admit that tenure is probably every bit as justified in factories as it is in universities; I’ll go along with that, too. But the tenure debate is raging free and easy across the land, and for President Emeritus McCardell to suggest that this is some new, daring thing is preposterous. I will say that he does present some newish arguments, if that’s what they are. He claims that academic freedom is no longer at risk (good to know, Mr. President), and therefore the tenure protections are unimportant (although it’s entertaining that he does that in the context of claiming there were things about higher education that college president’s don’t dare say, but now that he’s retired, he can say them). He hints that, in fact, it might be better for young professors if tenure was not the norm, as it would relieve the publish-or-perish pressure. He even, I think, attempts to imply that abolition of tenure would help even up the gender imbalance, but I may be reading too much into that. He doesn’t say anything at all about money.

What tenure does is prevent the employer from firing the employee. That’s what it is. If you want to lift that, presumably it’s because you want to fire some employees. It seems pretty simple. Every serious argument for getting rid of tenure that I’ve ever heard comes down to ‘we want to fire a bunch of expensive useless profs’. Well, and use the threat of layoffs to hold down salaries. Either there are a lot of profs who have tenure but who aren’t very good at their jobs, which is possible but I have not seen any evidence of it, or this is about money.

I know that the tenure system has given rise to a system of adjuncts and part-timers that screws everybody. I suspect the answer to that would be to have collective bargaining, and have the employer insist that the bargaining unit include part-timers and adjuncts. There are other suggestions, some of which are probably implementable. But the answer could be removing tenure only if the problem, at its heart, is in the old, useless, well-paid profs. And I don’t think it is. I’ll need to see that argument, and I’ll need to see some data. President Emeritus McCardell just murmurs some nice phrases about secondary and tertiary aspects of the issue, ignoring the primary one. Oh, and his next point is that student/faculty ratio is overrated. Which it is, of course, but ... hm ... how would that ratio be affected by getting rid of tenure again? Oh, yes, you are thinking about (but not talking about) firing people.

No real point, just that if you are going to talk to YHB about abolishing tenure, you’d better start talking about layoffs and pay cuts, because that’s the real issue. I agree with him about the drinking age, though.

                           ,
-Vardibidian.

September 9, 2004

The Fear that Dare Not Speak Its Name

Gentle Readers, y’all have all heard by now that Dick Cheney said “[I]f we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again.” He’s making a threat, right? This is inexcusable behavior for a vice president, right? Well, yes and no. Of course, the line was taken out of context. So, let’s go back and look at the whole paragraph. This is from the tail end of a speech in Des Moines on September 7:

[I]t's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2nd, we make the right choice. Because if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again. That we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States, and that we'll fall back into the pre-9/11 mind set if you will, that in fact these terrorist attacks are just criminal acts, and that we're not really at war. I think that would be a terrible mistake for us.

That’s as much of the context as I’ve seen quoted in newspaper stories or blogs, although I have to admit I haven’t read absolutely everything. I have done a trifle of Googling around, and I fairly confident that that’s pretty much all that gets quoted regularly. Even that much, though, begins to hint that his point is not (or not just) that the odds of an attack would be greater with John Kerry in office than with George W. Bush. Now, I’ve read a good deal of the whole speech, and I’m convinced that what Dick Cheney was getting at was something entirely different. Can you bear with me for a moment?

Dick Cheney is talking about what he calls the “ultimate solution” to the terrorist problem. He admits that “the ultimate solution isn't just to kill terrorists. You can do that all day long. The ultimate solution here is to make certain that we change the circumstances on the ground...” He then goes on to detail differences in the way Our Only President is doing that and the way he claims John Kerry would do it. He concludes, as far as I can tell, that John Kerry would like to treat terrorist attacks as individual events, and find and punish those individuals responsible for them, and that Our Only President sees this as a broader war, in which individual attacks are less important than the sweep of a historic battle between the forces of ‘freedom’ and those of ‘terror’.

This seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable topic for political dispute. In fact, I don’t think John Kerry’s position is what Dick Cheney describes, but mine is. I happen to think that when people commit premeditated murder, whether that is a drive-by shooting or a colossal terrorist attack, the important think is to punish the people who are actually responsible, as well as to work to improve society so that fewer murders happen. I don’t think that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, nor do I think removing him has led to or will lead to fewer murders. It’s a topic for discussion, and that discussion should help John Kerry.

I think that Dick Cheney was saying that there is everpresent a danger of a terrorist attack, no matter who is president, and that if John Kerry is president, he will not seize that attack as an opportunity to invade countries innocent of that attack, nor clumsily attempt to impose a utopian scheme on volatile regions, nor abandon that scheme when bored. I agree. He is saying that John Kerry will view terrorist attacks as crimes, and that he will catch those who commit them, rather than let them recruit new accomplices, that he will try those he catches in a court of law, according to civilized norms, and that he will care whether he catches guilty people or innocent ones. I hope so. It should sure be a topic for discussion.

Look, it’s clear that, whether it’s explicit or implied, Dick Cheney was saying that the country is safer, in the short run and the long run, with Our Only President serving another term. Democrats are up in arms about this. But shouldn’t that topic be one for discussion? Millions of people will be making their decision based on their sense of security. Should the candidates be discussing it? The indignation seems to me to be totally misplaced, not only because it isn’t based on what Dick Cheney actually said, but because it rules out one of the topics most on people’s minds, and one that sure doesn't make Our Only President look good.

                           ,
-Vardibidian.

September 5, 2004

More about schools, and testing, and so on

Your Humble Blogger has no particular insight, but this article in this morning’s NYTimes points out the difficulties of testing and reporting the success of schools. The federal list of underperforming schools evidently includes lots of schools that the locals think are great; one problem is that ‘underperforming’ doesn’t actually mean ‘bad’. It’s all confusing, and in my own opinion, it will all stay confusing, as it’s inherently confusing.

I will, in the spirit of the times, pull out of context a magnificent quote from a Republican. “I never expected to see all these suburban schools on the watch list,” said Rep. Judy Biggert, R-IL.

                           ,
-Vardibidian.

September 2, 2004

Not watching Emperor Palpatine

It’s true; Your Humble Blogger has let partisanship get in the way of blogging. I haven’t watched the Republican Convention at all. I’m assuming that the main speeches will be available for download next week, when I plan to look at them. Honestly, I don’t think I could be useful this week; I’m too cranky.

I did find this count of words in the main speeches on Monday and Tuesday fascinating. Wednesday’s numbers are here. One thing that’s clear is that the edict at the Democratic convention that speakers were to refer to “Republicans” rather than “President Bush” is not in force here. I disagreed with that tactic, as I’ve said repeatedly. I suspect that the Republican tactic of focus on the candidates is the more effective.

One note, however. I have no idea who this Fleisher is, or if his numbers are correct. One of the things I am planning on doing is comparing some of the speeches at the two conventions in somewhat similar terms. I won’t rely on his numbers. Nor will I rely on the numbers at the New York Times, although the graphic deserves its own entry, if not a whole article by Edward Tufte. Hoo-ah.

As an example, by the way, of what Gentle Readers have been spared by YHB not going completely bugnuts watching the RNC, take a peek at this rant by David S. Bernstein, who has been mentioned here before. No, seriously, read it. Much of the Boston Phoenix’s frequent-report coverage of this convention has been worth reading (as was their coverage of the last one, although that was colored in large measure by their hometown perspective, interesting as it was to those of us who know the town), but this is a nice reminder that the journalists are people, the people who make the decisions what to say and what not to say (it’s all scripted, right?) are people, too, and that sometimes you have to take the whole damned thing personally.

                           ,
-Vardibidian.

August 29, 2004

Sunday morning, New York Times

YHB goes through the New York Times Sunday Arts and Leisure section on-line, these days, which is not a good substitute for the real thing, as a good deal of the fun is the ads. Still, there’s a good half-hours fun about it. You’ll need to register, of course.

There’s an entertainingly awkward article about Playgirl TV, and the attempt to make money making video porn for women. Or at least video porn ... for women!. It was funny to see somebody in the business claim that porn for women was “a blank page” in 2002; it’s like Good Vibrations never existed. Still, it’s has some interesting observations, and it’s better than completely ignoring the multi-billion-dollar industry that nobody thinks exists. I liked the different responses when they ask a woman what she wants in porn and ask her what she would improve about a particular video; the things that are distracting or annoying about a particular video are more likely to be the acting and the look of the thing, while the general complaint is likely to be about relationships and communication. As a rule, if you make something good, it doesn’t have to be right. If it’s right, but clumsy and ugly, good luck. Give ’em the old razzle-dazzle.

For something completely different, there’s an article about the popularity of klezmer music among non-Jewish Germans. There are tons of conflicts, lots of layers of difficulty, for those playing the music, those listening to it and those teaching it. I’m amused by the idea of the Deutchers, viewed as stuck-up city-folk by the shtetl folk of Eastern Europe, putting up with this low-class riff-raff music, because it’s what the goyim like. Hee hee. Of course, the few Deutchers left alive are pretty much all in Florida, so there’s no look-on-their-faces aspect, but I can imagine it.

Then there’s the story about Hollywood Hell House, where a group of lefties take a script for a fundamentalist Hell House (like a haunted house for Moral Lessons, where we see how people Sin and go to Hell) and put on a version of it that manages to spoof the thing without changing any of it. Aside from the whole anti-clericalism aspect, and the thesis-worthy post-modern formalist aspect, there’s the red-county/blue-county thing. I had never heard of Hell Houses; are they really popular? There are whole worlds that people don’t experience, even within the U.S.; I hadn’t realized until moving South that the famous “Waffle House” line in 1992 was very much intended to speak to Southerners’ sense of separation from the North and the West, where (by coincidence) they don’t have the Waffle House chain. It failed, which isn’t surprising considering Poppy Bush’s tin ear and faux Southern charm, but that’s how it was supposed to work.

What else ... if you are interested in audio, there’s a fascinating article about the SoundLab using computer modeling to recreate (or create) the sounds of different rooms. There’s an amusing interview with Ellen DeGeneres, a bizarre (and confusingly written) story about Stradivarius violins which might not be by Stradivarius, a little note about type design, and the other forty-seven articles I’m not interested enough to bother with.

The other problem, though, with reading the section on-line, is that I’m likely to think that I’m not interested enough to bother with an article, and then it turns out to be a great little thing about Slava Polunin and “Slava’s Snowshow”, which seems like the Blue Man Group, only better. The best line, though, is when Mr. Polunin, a Russian clown if you don’t mind, says “When customs agents check the lists of the things I'm bringing with me, they always laugh. It's written down on the customs form: ‘moon, wind, rainbow, stars.’” I can’t help combining that with the airport question: did you pack that yourself?

                           ,
-Vardibidian.

August 26, 2004

Jocularity? Jocularity?!?

Your Humble Blogger was considering writing about the recent death of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who identified the five stages of feeding a two-year old (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), but I think instead it’s time for something truly frivolous.

So, as this article in the NYTimes coincided, more or less, with my losing 6,000 song ratings again, I’ll write about music. Oh, and I won’t seize the opportunity to write about the stupidity of hesaid-shesaid-ism. No, I’ll write about music.

Or at least about this whole listening-to-music-via-computer thang. I’ve been doing it for something like three years, now, and it’s been two or more since I essentially stopped listening to music any other way. On the other hand, I have never managed to complete the ratings, even for the Jazz, Klezmer and Rock. That’s not due to my adding new stuff to the hard drive, which I do only sparingly these days, but to (have I mentioned this before?) having twice lost all the ratings I had given. Feh. So take any ratings-related stuff I say with that in mind.

Ratings, actually, was one of my conceptual difficulties with the whole thing. When I think of rating a song from one to five stars, I expect to do it based on how much I like the song. But that’s not what rating songs is about; I’m not starting a Music Hall O’ Fame to spark discussions with my friends and neighbors. I’m laying the groundwork for setting up mixes. So the rating is not one-to-five greatness, but one-to-five mixability. I think the Monty Python Barbershop Quarter singing “Sit on My Face” is great, but I don’t want it to play in the middle of a mix. Nor do I want to hear Tom Waits doing one or another brilliant spoken-word ramble, nor do I want to hear the Finale to La Cage. Too jarring, too distracting. Mostly, I have the music going while I am writing, or reading, or playing: the extent to which I want to pay attention is to say ‘Good song!’ every three minutes or so, and perhaps sing along without paying attention. Not too much drama, not too much funny business, no matter how much I like the song.

Some of that, of course, can be handled with genre: I don’t pull from Musicals or Novelty (or Children’s Music or Early Music or Classical or Xmas music) for my general listening mix. I could well create a genre of Unmixable, for songs I like but want to exclude from the mix. When I go to rate the song, I could change the genre; if I want to listen to those, it’ll be because they’ve earwormed me and I can search for them, or because I’ve put on the album. I could do that, but I don’t. I could also subdivide my genres a lot more than I do. Really, I’ve just got Rock, Jazz and Klezmer; I don’t have a Jazz Instrumentals, a Jazz with Vocals, a 30s Pop, a Big Band, or a Combos category. I could, but the only point would be if I want to make mixes specifically including or excluding those; I don’t see the point of doing it just to make my list more informative.

What I really should do is create a subdivision of Rock (with Profanity), or one of Rock (too loud whilst my Perfect Non-Reader is sleeping), or one of Jazz (company won’t enjoy), or one of Children’s Music (works in a mix). I don’t really mind, at home, if my Perfect Non-Reader sings along with “Heck of a Hat”, but I don’t think the librarians want her growling “Sharpest motherfucker in the joint/other motherfuckers stop and point” even if she sounds more like Shirley Temple than Dicky Barrett. As the comprehension grows, I might well put more songs into the Not Around the Children genre (do I want to explain what is meant by “Kicking the Gong Around”, or “Triggeration”?), and might want to add a mix of grown-up songs the child likes (If it’s the Andrews Sisters singing Mairzy Doats, should it be in the Children’s Music category? What about Rosemary Clooney singing “Sweet Betsy from Pike”?)

And, of course, there’s the whole question of what I want from a mix. Certainly, one of the things I like best about the Big Shuffle (all JKR songs except the ones I’ve excluded, totaling some 400 hours of music) is that I often hear songs that I only like a little, but haven’t heard in forever. At fifty hours (or so) of that a week, I can get through the whole thing in two months; two months of each song once and only once. But I like a bunch of songs enough that I want to hear them more than once every two months. I could put together a mix of faves and near-faves no repeats in a day, or even two days in a row, but probably each song twice a week, and frankly, I could listen to my favorite songs twice a week pretty much forever.

The cool thing about computers and algorithms is that I can make a bunch of conditions, and listen to my favorites twice a week, and my near-favorites twice a month, and pad the rest with good songs, once each until I’ve cycled through the whole six thousand. Sadly, there would be an awful lot of good songs I won’t hear for six months.

And, once I get everything rated and done, and if I don’t have to do it all again right away, I’ll probably want to listen to some Broadway cast albums, and some early music, which I haven’t done in forever, which means shutting off the mix. The only answer, I suppose, is to like fewer songs, or to spend more time near the computer.

                           ,
-Vardibidian.

August 20, 2004

We might report, but please don't decide

OK, Your Humble Blogger will clog up the blog by complaining about the same thing all the other bloggers are complaining about. Feel free to skip this one.

The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth paid for a television ad where people who claim to have served with John Kerry say he’s unfit to command, and claim that he “lied to get his Bronze Star”. There is also a recent book that makes those claims and more, including that two of the three wounds for which he received purple hearts were self-inflicted.

Now, charges such as those are big news, and the newspapers and chat shows have covered them in some detail. But are they true? Well, according to some research, there is good reason to doubt them. The Kerry campaign responds quite credibly; of course I support his campaign, so you may take my credulity as you will. Of course, the money behind the organization spreading the charges comes from supporters of Our Only President and his cronies (according to this and several other stories), so take their credulity as you will as well.

Actually, YHB doesn’t particularly care about John Kerry’s war record, nor even about his honesty about his war record. Were the charges credible, I’d still prefer John Kerry’s mendacity to that of Our Only President and his cronies. I have an old-fashioned sense that being in a war gives you a sort of right to tell war stories, which like fish stories are proverbs for, um. But that’s neither here nor there, as many people clearly would find that making a fraudulent war history the centerpiece of a campaign is, you know, a reason to vote for some other guy. Or something.

But there is some evidence to the charges, and some evidence against them. There are reports made at the time, both narrative and descriptive, and reports of what I would call hard evidence, bullet holes in boats, and medical reports, and so on. I myself have seen little of it, and frankly since I don’t care I ain’t making the time to sift it. I would like to think that the reporters covering the hoo-hah have seen the evidence, and have weighed it, one piece against another. And they are showing no sign that they have, or that anybody should. If you’re with me this far, Gentle Reader, please read this (longish) article by David Espo for the AP with this question in mind: How does Mr. Espo expect the reader to decide if the charges are true or false?

I don’t mean whether Mr. Espo believes them. Nor do I mean whether Mr. Espo provides sufficient information in the story for you to decide; that’s not the purpose of this story. I mean whether Mr. Espo seems to think that, on the whole, it would be a good idea for you to try to figure out whether the charges are true. As well, how does Mr. Espo think you ought to try to do that? And, does Mr. Espo think you have access to enough information elsewhere to decide who to trust?

This is what pisses me off. Not that this is getting more ink than the report in the Weekly World News about Our Only President using Father Aristide’s mad voodoo skillz to curse Sen. Kerry. No, it’s that this reporter, and dozens like him, don’t seem to expect me to know or care about making a reasoned, intelligent, educated decision. It’s like they want me to just go with my party affiliation, or to throw up my hands and say ‘they’re all liars, I won’t vote at all’. Ooh. I won’t be an idiot just because they want me to.

Oh, and before I go, John Scalzi has an excellent note going in a different (but more interesting) direction from the same starting place. If you’re down here at the bottom, and want still more ranting with the words ‘swift boat’ ‘reporter’ and ‘idiot’, make Whatever your very next stop.

                           ,
-Vardibidian.

August 17, 2004

Off the charters!

The New York Times reveals that, according to AFT analysis of NAEP data, charter schools are not actually doing a better job at teaching reading and math than non-charter schools.

Now, I’m agin charter schools, but I always expected them to have better test results. My complaint wasn’t about the children who were in them, but about the children who weren’t. I want the whole public school system to be good, not to have a few escape pods.

And, of course, there’s the problem I didn’t expect, but should have, that the charter schools are a breeding ground for embezzlement and financial incompetence. Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times reported that California Charter Academy, which ran dozens of schools and received over a hundred million dollars in state funding over five years, is shutting its doors. No more teachers, no more books. I suspect that founder C. Stephen Cox has done rather well out of it; I wonder how many of those teachers will find classrooms and rent money before Labor Day.

And now, the much-vaunted educational success turns out to be, at best, inconsistent. Urban charter schools don’t score better than ordinary urban public schools. By the way, I don’t mean to rely on test scores as a measure of education; I don’t trust ’em but they’re all we’ve got at present.

Of course, the whole charter-school shenanigan was a way of failing to address two things. First, that our public school system is on the whole terrific, and the only serious structural problem is the distribution of wealth in our country, also known as concentrated poverty. Second, that elementary education is expensive, and that teaching on the cheap is a bad idea, particularly if you don’t trust the people you’ve hired to do it and therefore want some proof that it’s being done well. If we want to address those issues, fine, but charter schools just let a few people escape from the consequences of not addressing them.

                           ,
-Vardibidian.

August 5, 2004

Boss

I’m sure I won’t be the first place you’ve heard this, but Bruce Springsteen has an Op-Ed in this morning’s New York Times, which, of course, requires registration. Anyway, it’s a simple explanation of why he has chosen to get involved in the upcoming election campaign. It’s worth reading. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s Boss.

                           ,
-Vardibidian.

June 14, 2004

High Risk? Low Return? or what?

Your Humble Blogger’s left-labor blog hero Nathan Newman points to a NYT article that discusses the effect of switching from old-fashioned defined-benefit pensions to new-fangled defined-contribution retirement accounts.

In the article, Mary Williams Walsh says that “virtually all” the studies showing current retirees to be wealthier than the last generation simply ignore the major asset of the last generation’s retirees: their pensions. That is, the studies compared the currently common system, with the major assets being houses, cash reserves, and stocks (mostly through 401k plans and the like), with the previous one, with the major assets being houses, cash reserves, and pensions, but they left out the pensions. Is it possible that those were honest studies?

Anyway, the main problem is that somehow we went from a low-risk low-return system to a high-risk high-return one. That’s fine for the affluent, who can simply add a HRHR plan onto some basic assets, but not great for those of us who have little savings other than our through our employer-assisted plans. I would rather have a LRLR plan, because I don’t want to be old and poor. I wouldn’t mind being old and rich, someday, but being old and comfortable, or even old and solvent, would be fine. I would gladly trade away my shot at old and rich for a guarantee of old and solvent (or at least, a guarantee of solvent if I grow old).

The problem, as I see it, is that I can only really get a LRLR plan (with my employer or my family’s employers contributing) if lots of other people want one. And they don’t. Perhaps they’ve been duped by the phony numbers, or the whole bizarre Dow-Jones-in-the-daily-news thing, or perhaps I’m just on the wrong end of the culture stick this time. I suspect it’s the latter, and I suspect that it’ll be a while before the cultural emphasis changes from rich to not-poor, from HRHR to LRLR. I don’t want the whole country to suddenly become risk-averse, you understand, but ... um ... yes, I do.

This is what happens when parents fail to teach their children to shoot craps.

                           ,
-Vardibidian.

May 23, 2004

Commencing to doubt

Kind of an interesting op-ed piece in this morning’s Times. Joshua Foer, a new Bachelor at Yale, writes about the reaction of his classmates to 9/11, to the invasion of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, and the current mess. He points out that this crop of young people was likely to think of the government as on the whole good, if fallible. Remember, they were born in—what—1983; they have the dimmest memories of Reagan and his message that government is the problem.

They were nine when Bill Clinton brought Change to America, and eleven when the Congress changed hands; they didn’t grow up, as Your Humble Blogger did, with grim predictions that the Congress was forever Democratic and the White House forever Republican, with no chance of elections altering policy. They certainly don’t remember a president resigning in disgrace, nor one impotent in the face of national malaise. Not that the government they knew was spotless, but it isn’t awfully surprising that half of them, more or less, thought that government could be trusted to do the right thing.

Well.

The article wimps out, at the end, with a wait-and-see bit, but I would venture a prediction (Vardibidian Predictions: We’re Never Wrong, unless you count factual inaccuracy) that the defining moment for Mr. Foer's generation will not be the destruction of the World Trade Center, nor the handful of murders at Columbine which seemed to shake our worldview a few years ago, nor even the revelation of domestic terrorism in Oklahoma City, but the disgraceful and dishonest selling of the Iraq invasion and the way we were duped into supporting it, together with our disgraceful and dishonest behaviour after we deposed the Ba’athists, and the ultimate disgrace when we are run out of Iraq, having failed to democratize, stabilize, or rebuild.

I don’t know how people will interpret those events, or how we will move on from them. I am hoping, in my optimistic way, that we will find a way to grow morally, as a culture, and to turn our shame into a spur to goodness. Perhaps we will. But I, too, will wimp out at the end of this note with a wait-and-see, not because I’m afraid to emphasize my true belief, but because I really don’t know. We’re at one of those dark moments in history, where unlike the usual illusive light that allows me confidence in my mistakes, I simply can’t see a way forward. We’ll go forward, of course, as the clocks keep working and the sun goes up and down, but I have no idea how, and I, for one, will be very interested to see how it turns out.

                           ,
-Vardibidian.

May 10, 2004

Around the Horn

When Your Humble Blogger can’t think of much to say, it’s time to go around the horn:

  • John Scalzi comes up with the right phrases pretty often. “Personally, what I wish were that it were November so I could cast my vote and register my disgust with this current administration, which in this as in nearly every other thing it has done has shown little but contempt for anyone and anything that is not of its own narrow ilk.” It could be shorter, but it couldn’t reflect my own attitude any better.
  • And speaking of incompetence, how about this? Can’t you imagine some nitwit in prosecution saying ‘but when we find somebody with the pdf on their hard drive, they’ll claim to have downloaded it from Fox...”
  • Since YHB keeps on thinking about what the heck this blogosphere is, I find great amusement in Blogpulses Key Phrase of the day. See what’s bursty!
  • Speaking of amusement, the Tony noms are out, as is a magnificently indignant attack on the New York Times promoting them.
  • And, to wrap this up, this morning’s episode of Between the Lions inexplicably failed to show the trouser-defying magic of the Great Smartini. So I went on-line, and it turns out that one of the couple of dozen songs they have on-line in their entirety is his full-length theme. Just put on a smarty record/and some trouser that are checkered/and Dance in Smarty Pants! They also have the video of the Monkey Pop-Up Theater’s production of “Sven Said...”

                           ,
-Vardibidian.

May 3, 2004

Musing, and ...

James Rosenthal has a very odd column in this morning’s Times (which requires registration). He is reacting to Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by suggesting, it seems, a maximum-tolerance approach to punctuation. “The question that readers and editors should ask is not whether the punctuation violates the rules, but whether the meaning is clear,” Mr. Rosenthal writes.

I’m inclined to disagree with Mr. Rosenthal (and to buy the panda bear book), but I am in sympathy with his approach. The best way, I think, would be for everybody to know the rules of grammar and punctuation, and to apply them as a matter of course, instinctively. Then meaning would be clear, and we wouldn’t be distracted by people hollering in the theater when somebody is listed as having designed the stars tattoo’s. I recently sent an email to an excellent blogger, who had written an excellent post, but who had mis-itsed the first sentence, which was distracting me. The blogger in question knew the its-it’s rule (it’s is a possessive pronoun like her’s and hi’s, of course), but had mistyped it, and quickly corrected it, and then I could pay attention to the post. Was the problem mine? If I had a higher tolerance, it would saved the blogger and me some effort.

Mr. Rosenthal writes “force-feeding the rules of punctuation isn't working.” I have no idea if he’s correct in general; I have no idea if it ever worked in general. Grammar and punctuation rules change with time, as Mr. Rosenthal points out. I was taught that I should never split infinitives, nor start a sentence with And or But, and that prepositions were words with which sentences should never end. With. Those rules are silly, and outdated, and didn’t contribute to clear writing, and I still tend to follow them unthinkingly. To unthinkingly follow them. Enh. So the force-feeding worked in my case, but not altogether to my benefit. If we eliminate a few commas, it doesn’t seem like much, but it will throw us all off, all of us who know the rules, and use them to learn something about the writer.

Yes, I often ignore the rules. Yes, I sprinkle semi-colons around like confetti. Yes, I use a comma as a pause, indicating the melody of the sentence rather than, say, delineating the clauses. No, I am not a Grammar and Punctuation Maven. Gentle Readers, perusing these notes, learn this about me pretty quickly, and use that knowledge to help build an idea of what this Tohu Bohu is like. That’s one of the things I like about having the Grammar and Punctuation Gang out there, correcting us and maintaining fidelity to the rules. They are the standard, against which y’all can judge me, the background to everybody’s foreground. It’s not just a useful job, it’s a beautiful one.

                           ,
-Vardibidian.

March 29, 2004

Lockbox, new style

Somehow, Your Humble Blogger missed this news about the American occupation shutting down a weekly newspaper in Baghdad.

Shutting down a newspaper.

Now, I understand that ‘newspaper’ is a pretty tough term to apply to Al Hawza, which seems to specialize in lies about the coalition forces. I understand that there isn’t a real judiciary in place to prosecute so-called journalists who commit libel, and that irresponsible stuff in Al Hawza may well contribute to anti-American feeling, and therefore to anti-American (and anti-collaborationist) violence. I understand that the publishers are not actually romantic lone crusaders for truth, fighting censorship and propaganda, that these are bad guys we’re talking about here, and that in a successful state, they might well not be allowed to spout filth with impunity.

But American soldiers shut down a newspaper.

Nice publicity, Mr. Bremmer. That’ll win the hearts and minds. Nothing says ‘freedom’ quite like a padlock on the door of a newspaper office.

Redintegro Iraq,
-Vardibidian.

March 26, 2004

linky

I suppose, to maintain my status as an actual blog, I should link to things, now and then. So:

  • The NYT reports that Antigua and Barbado have gained a ruling from the WTO against a US law which prohibits US citizens from wagering with on-line casino operations licensed there. Essentially, it’s a trade issue, and us free traders all support the opening of this new market, right? Right?
  • My attitude towards Nancy Pelosi goes back and forth, but this contest made me laugh and laugh.
  • Scansion nerds may howl (and you know who you are), but even the title of this poem is worth it.
  • Garry Wills is one of the two people whose views on The Passion I am really looking forward to reading. Haven’t gotten to it yet, but if I link to it, perhaps I will. The other is Kevin Smith, but the only comment of his I’ve seen has been “What controversy?”. I’m excluding people I know; of the, two people I know whose views would be the most interesting, one hasn’t seen it and one has written at some length, which is nice.
  • Yes, I play Yetisports instead of blogging.

Redintegro Iraq,
-Vardibidian.

March 24, 2004

Bad morning

How could NPR sack Bob Edwards? That’s like firing morning!

Redintegro Iraq,
-Vardibidian.

March 4, 2004

Bleah

Your Humble Blogger hasn’t blogged about Our Only President for a nearly a month, now. Why? Well, lots of other people have been doing it for me, and what’s more I can’t face the news coming out of the White House without crippling depression.

All my Gentle Readers know how I feel, right? And y’all got internet, and other places to vent, right? So I don’t need to link to each new story about the iniquity of Our Only President and his cronies, right?

Redintegro Iraq,
-Vardibidian.

November 26, 2003

The Main Drag (edited)

Well, if you were looking for a reason to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade all the way to the end, how about Mrs. Claus, “the man in the big red dress,” portrayed by Harvey Fierstein?

Redintegro Iraq,
-Vardibidian.


OK, it turns out that Mr. Fierstein is not portraying Mrs. Claus in the final float of the parade, but rather will be on the Hairspray float, portraying Edna Turnblad, the character he plays in that show on Broadway. Edna Turnblad will, in honor of the season be wearing a red-and-white outfit that is clearly a Mrs. Claus outfit.

Macy’s issued a statement that “The parade has never and will never be a platform for political and social issues and opinions.” Hunh? Up with People? Marching bands? Rent? The cast of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying singing “The International Brotherhood of Man”? Heck, Seussical the Musical had political and social opinions. And, in case some Gentle Reader hasn’t seen it, the whole thing is a Thanksgiving Parade with a Christian focus, sometimes explicit and sometimes implied, but clear, culminating in the final float that all the fuss is about.

Anyway, you can read about it at the New York Times, but registration is still required.

R.I.
-V.

November 18, 2003

Woo Hoo!

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has spoken: the ban on same-sex marriages violates individual liberties and dignities, and violates the Massachusetts Constitution.

Go read analyses elsewhere, Your Humble Blogger can't even think straight at the moment.

Hip, hip, HOORAY!

Redintegro Iraq,
-Vardibidian.

September 30, 2003

More about Globalization, and other things

Your Humble Blogger just caught a bit in "Taming the phoenix? Monetary governance after the crisis", by Benjamin J. Cohen, in The Asian Financial Crisis and the Architecture of Global Finance, edited by Gregory W. Noble and John Ravenhill (© Cambridge University Press, 2000) that made me think.

"To Keynes, nothing was more damaging than the free movement of speculative capital... Keynes carefully distinguished between genuinely productive investment flows and footloose 'floating funds'."

Once again, my problem is that I adhere to a school of thinking that is fifty years old (and that's one of the more recent ones). Speculation is inherently destabilizing, disruptive and detrimental to society at large; investment, on the other hand, is not only productive and stabilizing but necessary. The difference is that between being short-sighted and thinking long-term. It's fairly easy to see in individual cases, but hard to define, hard to make rules about. Like obscenity (or science fiction), I may know it when I see it, but that means in order to know it, I have to see it. And, of course, since I'm making a judgment about it, I run the risk of tautologizing myself into a corner; I can judge the category based on the results, which begs the question. Anyway, I think it's pretty clear that the financial structure of the US has moved, in large part, from investment to speculation, and that has encouraged short-term thinking in a variety of ways.

To tie this back in to our present brutal political situation, Paul Krugman points out that whether you want Iraq rebuilt or not (and, Gentle Readers, I do), the money being used to rebuild is not actually going to be invested, but rather spent for maximum short-term gain. That is the best we can expect from this administration, he says, and I have to agree. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't rebuild; Truman rebuilt much of the globe and did it more-or-less right (tho' we could argue about whether even that was a good idea). It does mean that we, as a nation, are morally obliged to vote Our Only President out of office at the next election. In my opinion, of course.

Redintegro Iraq,
-Vardibidian.

August 2, 2003

"A series of volumes that ably illustrate our national way of life..."

This morning’s New York Times has an article about the WPA Federal Writers’ Project. It seems the Library of Congress is now presenting their collection of manuscripts from the Folklore Project. The article focuses on the American Guide series, where a guidebook was put together for each state, as well as for Alaska (not then a state, of course), cities, regions and a few hundred other things. “State by State the WPA Writers Projects Describe America to Americans” says a poster for American Guide Week. It turns out that a variety of American writers who are now famous were, you know, dirt poor during the Depression, and got government jobs in the Project. This encouraged them to write, and gave them practice and editing and so on, and then later they became Great American Writers.

To Your Humble Blogger, though, the interesting thing is that we did the Guides in the first place. How cool is that? If they were good, and many of them seem to be, they are a terrific source of information about the country the way it was. Even better, here’s a thing that was good to do, involved hundreds of people across the country and tremendous expense, and we did it. We just did it. Boy, a country that could do something like that could put a man on the moon. Or rebuild Iraq.

Redintegro Iraq,
-Vardibidian.

July 12, 2003

Bright Young Things

Your Humble Blogger is no Bright himself, but I do like the idea of Brights.

I read an op-ed column by Daniel Dennett in this morning's New York Times about The Brights, who are trying to get the use of the term Bright into the general vocabulary.

What’s a Bright, you ask? Well, now they’ve got you, haven’t they? That’s the first step to accepting the word exists.

A Bright is a person whose worldview is naturalistic. That is, a person who doesn’t believe in the supernatural of any kind, neither ghosts nor gods nor ... some third thing that begins with a hard g and is supernatural. Gremlins? Gurus? Gregory the Great? Glossolalia? Graven Images? Yes, I’ll go with that. Neither ghosts nor gods nor graven images.

Actually, it’s a disservice to define a Bright by what he (or she) doesn’t believe, rather than any positive thing. A Bright believes that the world is, essentially, measurable, in theory if not in practice.

My Gentle Readers know by now that I am no Bright. Why, then, do I draw your attention to them? Because I like the idea of having a positively-oriented term for Brights, and I like the idea of Brights being a part of our culture (as in fact they are), and I like the idea of using language as a tool of cultural goals. I find the whole thing fascinating, and I hope it succeeds. I charge you all, therefore, to use the term yourself this week. If you are a Bright, say so. If you have a friend or relation who is a Bright, tell that Bright what a Bright is. Work the term in to conversation, as in “I’m no Bright, but I don’t believe in guardian angels,” or “They kill Brights in the Sudan,” or “You can’t be a Bright and a Red Sox fan.” It’s easy! And be sure to let me know how it works.

Redintegro Iraq,
-Vardibidian.

June 16, 2003

Cities and Poverty

William Julius Wilson writes in this morning Times about—you guessed it—poverty. It turns out that Our Only President has put forward policies that are—you guessed it again—bad for poor people. OK, this is not much of a surprise. On the other hand, Prof. Wilson, who is tremendously thoughtful, insightful, and knowledgeable, points out a specific problem, or rather an important aspect of the problem, which I had not thought about.

Socially, the problem with poverty is not just that there are poor people (this is a moral problem for society, of course, no matter what), but that poor people cause problems for people who are not poor. There are several parts to this: first, social incentives are based on the middle-class, so they often don't work for the poor. If prison isn't much worse than your life, fear of prison isn't going to dissuade you from crime, nor is the fear of losing your bank account to fines. If a child is malnourished, he will not take full advantage of school; nor will a hungry adult spend time researching civic issues and preparing her vote. There are tons of examples, here, or both positive and negative incentives that apply to individuals who are well-fed, well-housed, and have at least a small amount of capital.

As it happens, many (if not most) poor people are also ill-educated, and live in neighborhoods that have substandard city services. This is because schools do better when a high proportion of the students are good, mayors direct services to neighborhoods where a high proportion of residents vote, etc., etc. Businesses, also, are affected. Thus, poor neighborhoods breed poverty as surely as poor people do; furthermore, poor neighborhoods, as Prof. Wilson puts it, magnify the problems that poverty inflict on society: "joblessness, crime, delinquency, drug trafficking, family breakups and poor "social outcomes" like school performance."

One of the outcomes of the nineties boom was a reduction in the number of poor neighborhoods in the US; both because some people got out of poverty and because some people who weren't poor moved into (or back into) cities. Both of those things were, at least in part, deliberate priorities of policymakers on a variety of levels. Part of that was simply that there was enough money in budgets to do things. Now, it appears that the federal level is downgrading that priority, states are in budget crises and as such revealing their priorities more starkly than they had, and cities, at the short end of the proverbial stick, are facing choices of where to spend what resources they have.

Recently, E.J. Dionne wrote about the crisis in city funds (specifically on the security issue), and quoted Boston's Tom Menino as saying "There's no Democratic Party or Republican Party. There's a Mayors' Party." I disagree. The Democratic party is, at least by default, the political party that cares about cities. And I know that not all poor neighborhoods are in cities (in fact, while cities' poor neighborhoods declined in the nineties, the suburban situation actually got worse, according to Paul A. Jargowsky of the Brookings Institution and the University of Texas). But it is important to be clear about things: The Democrats care about the poor, and the Democrats care about cities. And we are good for both.

Redintegro Iraq,
-Vardibidian.

May 31, 2003

More on rights

Felicia R. Lee has an interesting article in this morning's Times about the process of writing new constitutions for new nations (including new nations built on the ashes of old nations, such as South Africa, Eritrea, or Lithuania). It's a sobering business.

There is an interesting point made about the definition of rights in constitutions, which honestly had not occurred to me before. The rights enumerated in such a document are likely to be protections of those abuses that got up the people's noses under the previous government structure.

I know this is not a topic we've come to an agreement on here, but at least in part, rights are protections from government abuse (or, if Chris prefers, rights are just demands that the state secure certain things—I'm not convinced yet, but for the purposes of this note, it comes to the same thing, more or less). Thus, as a practical matter, those rights which get delineated in a Bill of Rights (warning: link is to a very big jpg file) or a UN Declaration (warning: contents are crap) are, most likely, those protections which came to mind most easily, having been recently abused.

Yes, I suppose that the prominence of philosophically trained legislators in the US Congress, along with a delay of some years, led to a better list than most. But the lesson I take is that the conversation we were having—What are rights? How do we make a list, and how do we make our list complete? How ought they be secured?—is important to have, nationally, when the constitution is not changing, when the crises are not immediate.

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

May 19, 2003

Tulips, and so on

Lately, Your Humble Blogger has been reading a few columns about the economy; here's one from the Boston Globe, and Safire from this morning's Times. They are pretty typical of the stuff I've been reading on either side, in that they focus on the numbers, specifically the deficit and the inflation/deflation rate. This recession is defying predictions, just as the boom that proceeded it did, and because the same level of uncertainty is much less pleasant when applied to recession as prosperity, it's really getting up the economists' noses.

Which is a good time to think about the lilies of the field, or rather the tulips. Money, in my opinion, is a species of mass delusion. If I lend you $50, once it's out of your pocket, how does that now-phantom fifty affect your life and mine? Only because we have agreed that you will pay it back at some point: you treat your money as if I "own" $50 of it, and I treat it the same. If we both forgot about that phantom fifty, it wouldn't exist. It's a piece of the universe that we create by perceiving it. Money is like that.

Why is a movie ticket nine bucks? Because millions of people think that it's worth nine bucks to see a movie. If suddenly everybody changed their minds and said that no movie was worth more than two bucks, movie tickets would drop drastically and the industry would be destroyed. The only thing keeping that from happening is a popular idea about money, entertainment, and time. The movie industry is a piece of the universe that a few million people created by agreeing to it. Money is like that.

Economics, properly viewed, is as much a matter of psychology (or, if you prefer, anthropology) as mathematics. A lot of economists appear to deny this, which is why I tend to dismiss the whole pack of 'em as frauds. Which isn't fair. Still, particularly in regards to money, if enough people perceive a thing, it exists; if no-one does, it may not. Why do many people fear debt? Because of what happens when the debt gets called in. If creditors feel that they ultimately won't get paid, they can whistle for their money, of course, but when the debtor needs more money, you want new creditors who believe they will ultimately get paid. On the other hand, the creditors, most of 'em, are also investors (or "citizens" as I like to call 'em) with an interest in keeping the nation afloat; a clear conflict of interest, but there it is. They want their money, but they don't want inflation, or civil unrest, or whatnot.

The fact that money is an illusion, a construct of the national mind, makes it a tricky subject for policy. The fact that it's an illusion does not mean it doesn't exist, or that it isn't a powerful motivator, or that it can't harm us. If, as FDR said, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, then we should fear that fear—fear of inflation caused years of needless unemployment for millions, fear of debt causes investments in research, development, and innovation to be delayed, fear of bankruptcy causes creditors to call in debts and repossess houses, fear of other people's fear causes millions of good decisions to be avoided every day.

Predicting which fears (and which hopes) will make people act in which ways is tricky business, though. And it's worse if you forget that the money doesn't actually exist. Like the tulips in 1636, the whole business could disappear in a moment. The government (or anyone dealing with the economy) has to be nimble enough to react, strong enough to influence, and humble enough to remember that the universe is created every moment by what we perceive it to be.

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

May 1, 2003

How I Learned to Start Worrying and Forget about SARS

OK, so one of Your Humble Blogger's pet peeves is the way low-probability high-profile events become, er, high-profile, despite neither being particularly interesting or particularly noteworthy. Howard Markel and Stephen Doyle got cranky, too, and put this piece in the New York Times. For those of you without NYT registration, it's a sort of (ill-designed) visual representation of the actual health/epidemic worries in the world we actually inhabit, with 2 million deaths a year attributable to TB; 1,000,000 to malaria; and 353 to SARS (actually, 372 according to WHO).

Look, I'm not saying that the CDC and the WHO shouldn't be hanging out the bat-signal, it's just that if you don't live in China or Singapore, you shouldn't particularly worry about it. There were a couple of weeks were it looked both virulent and deadly to an extent that should cause concern, and now it looks like most people recover from it, and even the curves from a week ago give the appearance of something under control.

Whew, of course. Now can we pay attention to something that actually kills thousands of people, such as, oh, malaria or tuberculosis?

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

April 25, 2003

Shoes, Lies, and Litigation

The Supreme Court heard arguments the other day in Kasky v. Nike, a case about, among other things, free speech, lying, harm to others, corporate responsibility, fraud, and , of course, legal technicalities. As far as Your Humble Blogger understands it, here are the issues:

Nike was accused, in the popular press and the unpopular press, in conversations, in flyers, and on 48 Hours, of running sweatshops and other immoral business practices. For a while, it looked almost as if they might actually sell fewer shoes (and hats, and socks, etc., etc.) because the Swoosh stood, not for victory, but for exploitation. They retaliated, again in the popular press and other aspects of the Big Cultural Tohu Bohu, with various arguments which indicated that they were not, in fact, Bad Guys. Some of these arguments appeared as paid advertisements in newspapers, and others were in letters to influential people, letters to the editor, etc. It's just barely possible, just within the realm of credibility, that in all this discussion, there were statements made with intent to deceive.

I'm not saying there were, and I'm not saying there weren't. OK, I'm saying there were. The point is, it doesn't matter for the next bit. Just keep in mind that there are allegations of intent to deceive, and you'll be OK.

Anyway, a fellow out in California by the name of Marc Kasky (who, and may I add that foreshadowing is a legitimate literary technique, wouldn't buy a pair of Nike shoes if his, er, grandmother's feet were cold, or something) sued Nike under California unfair competition law, which bans (among other things) "unfair, deceptive, untrue or misleading advertising." Kasky's contention is that the letters and ads defending Nike's business practices were, in effect, ads for Nike products, and that therefore falsehoods and misleading statements in those letters and ads, were falsehoods and misleading statements in ads for Nike products, and therefore actionable. Nike's contention is that those letters and ads, in response to allegations about their company, were not ads for Nike products, and therefore do not fall under the jurisdiction of the law.

OK, that's all background, and so is this New York Times article, this editorial and this article from the Washington Post, this SF Chronicle article, the Nike website, and the California Supreme Court decision supporting Kasky. Whew.

As for who is right and who is wrong, I am totally uncertain. I think that lying in general is protected speech, at least until actual harm is shown. That is, if I say, in this blog, that I'm 6'4" tall, it's morally wrong (imao), but it isn't and should not be legally actionable. If, on the other hand, I say, in this blog, that I'm a tax-deductible charity organization, it is both morally wrong and legally actionable. If I sell you a car, and it turns out not to have an internal combustion engine, that's fraud and legally actionable. If I sell you a car that I say was hand-made by a team of Moravian midgets, and it turns out that one of the fifty workers was 5'1", and only moved to Moravia when she was five, that's not so much fraud. On the other hand, if I tell you that my grandmother is extremely cold, and I need to sell my Moravian-midget-built car to buy her some slippers, and the car turns out to in fact be everything I said it was, but my grandmother has been dead for years, is that fraud? Is it actionable fraud? If a McDonald's worker smiles at me but isn't actually happy, is that fraud?

Is Nike selling shoes or swooshes? Are they selling the idea of Nike, in which case everything they do is an ad for Nike-ness, or are they selling actual products, in which case the only fraud possible is misrepresentation of those products?

Also, and this is a side point which the Supreme Court has been asked to decide, how was Kasky hurt by the fraud, if fraud there was? If there was a fraud, surely in order to show there was a fraud you have to find some person who was at least potentially defrauded � and that person is not Marc Kasky. Kasky wasn't duped by Nike into buying anything, since he didn't believe anything Nike said for a minute, he wasn't even duped into having an erroneous perception of the universe. The California law specifically states that Kasky, or anybody, is allowed to sue on behalf of the public, but Bush's Solicitor General has filed a brief saying that that part of the law is unconstitutional, and should be struck down. The Bush Boys are doing it to, in general, make it harder for individuals to sue corporations (they have a pattern of that, and I'm agin it), but that doesn't make their argument wrong.

Here's my problem: Not only is Klasky a Good Guy, and Nike a Bad Corporation, but I do think that Nike has deliberately chosen to misrepresent their corporate identity, and that they have done that in order to sell shoes. I just don't know if that constitutes fraud.

OK, I'll stop there, and post, and see if y'all can sort me out.

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

April 22, 2003

Good morning, here's the newspaper and your coffee.

A couple of interesting op-ed columns in this morning's New York Times: Nicholas D. Kristof writes about whether the hawks or the doves were closer to right about Iraq. He quotes himself from a column last September as saying "If we're going to invade, we need to prepare for a worst-case scenario involving street-to-street fighting," but seems to think that was wrong. Key word in that sentence, Mr. Kristof: prepare. You were right. Preparation was necessary. Still, I think it was nice of him to give props to the hawks on some stuff. The whole article comes off too defensive for my tastes, but it seems to match with an earlier note of mine.

A trifle further down the web page, Paul Krugman writes about Our Only President's economic plan. There's a terrific line in there about it being a "W.P.A. program in reverse." Hee hee.

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

April 13, 2003

On a lighter note

This morning's New York Times had an article about She Stoops to Comedy, a new play by David Greenspan. The conceit, essentially, is that a lesbian couple is having difficulties, as Alexandra is terribly possessive; when her girlfriend gets cast as Rosalind in As You Like It, Alexandra disguises herself as a man to audition for Orlando.

So, (everybody who's already got it can pretty much stop reading the note now) in the great bits where Rosalind, in men's clothes, taunts love-struck Orlando, it's a woman dressed as a man and a woman dressed as a man. Only Alexandra is played by the author, so it's actually a man dressed as a woman dressed as a man being taunted by a woman dressed as a woman dressed as a man. The man doesn't recognize the woman he loves but is strangely and uncomfortably attracted to this guy; the woman doesn't recognize the woman she loves but (I'm guessing) is strangely and uncomfortably attracted to this guy.

I have no idea whether the actual play is any good, but I'm vastly entertained by the idea.

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

April 3, 2003

The Mikado, or the Town of Chichibu

This morning's New York Times has an interesting article (regreq, as usual) about a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado in Japan. Evidently, it had never been performed in Japan by a Japanese cast for a Japanese audience, until a couple of years ago.

No real point, just an Interesting Fact.

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

March 26, 2003

RIP Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Daniel Patrick Moynihan has died. It's well worth reading the long obituary; he was a remarkable man, who was involved in our times at a very high level.

In some ways, Sen. Moynihan (together with Sen. Byrd) personified the Idea of the Senate. The Senate can be, and on occasion is, not just a legislative body but a truly deliberative one, where some of our best minds (of the deliberative sort) can get together and debate important policy issues. It does happen on television talk shows, and Sen. Moynihan was part of that, too, but there is the opportunity for it to happen at a very high level in the Senate, as long as there are people like Sen. Moynihan present.

Of course, I do not agree with every position he took over the years, in the Senate or in his appointed positions. That's OK; that's democracy and all. It's nice, though, to remember, on occasion, watching him on C-Span and learning something, even being persuaded on occasion.

I hope he will be missed. I hope that he has been missed, in our Upper House, since he retired a couple of years ago. I hope that his death will remind some of our Senators, and some of us who choose them, what the Senate can be.

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

March 1, 2003

This Morning's New York Times

An unusually large number of things to comment on in this morning's New York Times. As always, the Times requires registration to read their articles; as always, there are ways around that.

Roy Grace has died. Not that I'd ever heard of Roy Grace, but it turns out that he helped create both the suitcase gorilla and the spicy meatball ads, both of which are pretty major cultural items. I still think it's odd that advertisements are such a big part of our cultural literacy, but I know, they're made that way.

There's a long article about the very interesting work of Amartya Sen, and critics of that work, particularly in light of the current situation in India. I've heard Sen speak, and read some of his stuff, and find him interesting, thought-provoking, and persuasive. His famous dictum that "No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy" suffers from the difficulty of defining 'famine' and 'functioning democracy'; it would be easy to do each in terms of the other without noticing, and turn it into a tautology. His work is more nuanced than that, of course, and is the kind of reading that rewards serious thought. Put Sen on my list.

There's also an article about the Alexandria Library, or perhaps library@alexandria. It's a good idea, regardless of software, access, rights, etc., to try to convert every extant book to a form that will be easily convertible to whatever the next format will be.

OK, that's it. I am now anti-war. I still don't see any good alternatives, but Bush has fully convinced me that if their plans (and I call them plans, but I don't trust that they are thought out well enough to seriously be called plans) are carried out, it will in fact be worse than continued sanctions. Faugh. I still support, in principle, a UN decision to disarm Iraq by force; I just can't support handing the implementation of that decision to Bush and his advisors, who are, of course, the only ones with the power to implement it.

On a serious note, I missed the obituary of Tom Glazer who evidently wrote "On Top of Spaghetti".

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

February 23, 2003

The French, again

If Your Humble Blogger keeps on about the French, it'll be a running gag, right? Which every blog needs, right?

Well, Regis DeBray, a former adviser to Mitterrand, writes in French, translated by Jeffrey Mehlman, in this morning's New York Times (reg. required) that "In its principles of action, America is two or three centuries behind 'old Europe.'" He is, particularly, comparing the American plan to disarm Iraq with the Crusades. Further, he suggests that Europe is secular, and that fundamentalism is ebbing, and that the US is intent on giving the fundamentalists something to rally around.

I do think that people should be aware of the deep divide between secularists and fundamentalists. I am a secularist. I am also a believer, and a traditionalist in that belief. I do no think that my belief, or anyone's, forms a good basis for government.

I have been doing a trifle of reading in the Green Book of Muammar Al Qathafi; his arguments against secularism seem to me totally unanswerable. They are unanswerable in the sense that they derive from totally different principles than mine; I can't challenge his principles other than to say they don't appeal to me at all. I believe in liberty, in principle; Qathafi does not. Nor does Bin Laden. Plenty of people don't; it's possible, if I had not grown up in America, I would have started with different principles and kept them.

All this is beside the point, as is, at the moment, the divide between secularists and fundamentalists. It's important to keep that divide in mind, as a part of my perception of the universe, but it isn't the only thing to keep in mind. And it doesn't answer my main question, which is pretty simple: If the UN can't enforce a mandate on a matter of serious importance, in this case Iraq's capabilities for murdering millions of people through chemical, biological, or nuclear war, what future does it have?

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

February 16, 2003

S.U.V. bashing bashed

In this morning's New York Times, somebody named Woody Hochswender writes that people should stop giving him grief about driving an SUV. It's an incoherent mess of an article, chock full o' logical inconsistencies. I'm going to break it down, so if you aren't willing to go in and read the article, first, even if it requires registration, it's probably worth skipping this entry. It's the sort of sloppy thinking and writing that really gets up my nose, and now that I have a blog, I find I can't ignore it.

First, there's an ad hominem attack, suggesting that the producer of Pulp Fiction, who is producing anti-SUV TV ads with Arianna Huffington, is not in a position to make moral proclamations. Even if you accept that this is true, and that it matters who produces a TV ad, it does not in any way invalidate the argument.

The argument of the ads, by the way, is evidently that by driving low-mileage vehicles, we support regimes in oil-rich countries that support terrorism. I haven't seen the ads; I don't know if they make the argument in any coherent way. I do think that US dependence on foreign oil makes us vulnerable to instability in oil-rich regions, but this note isn't about what I think. It's about this Tohu Bohu of a Times Op-Ed piece.

Hochswender, after dismissing the ad as "trendy," says that "[t]hose who implicate Americans ... validate the terrorists as essentially right." This is a bizarre jump; I'm not sure what the terrorists believe (other, of course, than the monstrous belief that there are circumstances which justify acts of terrorism), so I'm not sure what they could possibly be right about. I suspect that he believes that people like Bin Laden hate us for "our freedoms," which include, presumably, our freedom to drive SUVs. This is preposterous. If it is true that fundamentalist Islamists despise American license, it has nothing to do with regulations, or the lack of them, on cars and trucks. It may well have to do with allowing women to drive, and to hold political office, and control their sexual lives themselves, and it may well have to do with our popular culture combining incredible persuasive skill and materialistic godlessness, but I don't think the most fanatic anti-American is incensed by the wide range of vehicles available for purchase.

By the way, in addition to being false, it is another ad hominem argument: if the terrorists are right about something, that thing must be wrong. I suspect that the terrorists believe that, for instance, the sun comes up in the east; I think so, too, and it would be absurd to change that belief simply because there are murderers and madman who share it.

After that, Hochswender makes a detour into defending his choice of vehicle on practical grounds. This is particularly magnificent from a logical point of view. Argument: Driving an SUV supports rogue regimes and therefore terrorists. Rebuttal: But the roads are icy! Look, everybody gets to make their own moral choices, and if you live somewhere where practicalities require you to use resources in a certain way, that's fine. But black ice on the roads doesn't make the initial argument disappear. If oil money supports terrorism, it supports terrorism whether you are getting value for the oil you buy or not.

Next, he defends SUVs against the charge that they are unsafe by saying that he's a safe driver. Yep. Sure. Everyone who says that he's a safe driver is a safe driver. That's evidence. More to the point, it's entirely irrelevant. Again, argument: Driving an SUV supports rogue regimes and therefore terrorists. Rebuttal: SUVs aren't as unsafe as you think they are, because I'm a safe driver. Hunh?

OK, shortly after that, he gets down to addressing in some measure the actual argument. In the eighth paragraph. And what is his defense? Although SUVs get bad mileage, "[p]eople who drive light trucks quickly learn not to drive around aimlessly." He provides no evidence of this at all, other than his own experience, which is suspect (note the appropriate use of an ad hominem argument by Your Humble Blogger: consider the source, and if he has an interest in one side of the argument, do not accept uncorroborated evidence from that source). Still, it does address the main concern, which is that people who drive SUVs consume more gasoline. I'm afraid I don't buy that they don't, but since all of my evidence that they do is equally anecdotal, I can't claim victory.

Then he addresses the macro-economic issue, that is, if America cut its fuel consumption by 20%, what effect would it have on the world economy, and therefore on rogue states, and terrorist organizations? His answer is that it would have no effect whatsoever, because oil companies would still buy up oil from rogue states. Hmmm. Instinctively, I would think that a massive decrease in demand, would lead to some sort of change in the market. I think the results aren't terribly predictable, but no change isn't likely.

He then finishes with yet another ad hominem argument (surprise!) claiming without any evidence whatsoever that Ms. Huffington is spending more on heating and air-conditioning her house than could be saved by giving up an SUV. Look, it is worth pointing out that there are other ways to be fuel-inefficient than driving an SUV, and that the whole focus on SUVs may well be missing the point, like ignoring the golf courses during a drought to focus on people's lawns. But everybody is responsible for their own choices, and to say that Hochswender gets a clean break on the SUV because he fuels his house efficiently is like saying that it's OK for the cops to take protection money from a few places because they do, after all, enforce the law in others. It's a bought indulgence, and it's just silly.

What’s my point? First of all, don’t be persuaded by ad hominem attacks unless they are to the point. It’s fair to say that Bush and his cronies are oilmen, for instance, but that doesn’t mean that everything they say about Hussein is false. Second, don’t pay any attention to irrelevant arguments, or make them. Find out what you (or whoever you are reading or listening to) are arguing against, and stick to that. Better yet, do some research into the initial argument, to find out if it’s any good or not. Third, don’t get Your Humble Blogger started.

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.

February 14, 2003

Fun with Polls!

This morning's New York Times web site has a new poll, and that means it's time for ... Meaningless Data!

According to the poll, 56% of respondents feel "things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track." This is up from December 7th - 10th, 2001, when only 27% were wrong-trackers, so almost 30% of us feel that we've gotten off track sometime in the last fourteen months. When was it? I'm guessing around Game Six of the World Series.

My favorite is from the split questions 5 and 6: When asked what was more important for Congress to concentrate on, people given the three options of terrorism, economics, or Iraq went 41% for the economy, 30% for Iraq, and 23% for the war on terror. The other half of the respondents were given four options, adding North Korea on to the end. Still 41% for the economy, North Korea got 7%, but the war on terror went up to 29%, and Iraq went all the way down to 16%. So, some people presumably would say Iraq rather than terror unless they had the option of saying North Korea, in which case they would say terror. Huh?

Another fun one is to compare Bush's favorable responses on Iraq with Clinton's; the low point for Clinton's was 59% in June of 1993 (remember that?) while W. is currently at 53%. Does that mean that 6% of the people think that Clinton's delay, delay, delay tactic was the right one? Or, more likely, are there a large bunch of people who will never say they approve of Bush, but would always say they approve of Clinton, and vice versa?

My point, not that I have one? Polls are silly, but fun. Don't read the stories if you can read the actual results. And evidently 65% of respondants think that if we do go to war, fewer than 5,000 American soldiers will die.

February 12, 2003

OK, about the war

Well, and it's about time I wrote about the war. The Iraqi war. That one. I've been reluctant to write about it, and I'm still reluctant, and I'm overall very reluctant, and here goes.

I am, reluctantly, pro-war. I follow Tony Blair in this (and if you don't get C-Span, and haven't been following his magnificent performances in the House, you can get a tiny smattering of an inkling of a hint of a totally misleading impression by checking Hansard); if the UN cannot enforce its mandates, then it is worthless. Hussein can prevent the war, but if Hussein prefers war to disarmament, he will have both.

However, I am pro-war (reluctantly), because I am pro-UN, pro-internationalism, anti-nation-state, and anti-war. That means that if Iraq is to be disarmed by military force, it must be with the support of the world. And, sadly, we have not been able (yet) to convince the UN that it needs to enforce its mandates. Thomas L. Friedman writes in this morning's Times (reg. required) that he "would gladly trade a four-week delay today for four years of allied support after a war." I agree whole-heartedly.

Robert Kuttner writes in this morning's Globe: "In deciding whether to strike Iraq, the issue is not whether we have grounds for war (we do) or whether we are likely to win (we are). The issue is: at what cost?" My answer is: at great cost. We must go into this war (if we must go into it at all) knowing that we are sacrificing the lives of our soldiers, of Allied soldiers, of Iraqi soldiers, and of civilians, both in Iraq and in the almost-certain terrorist attacks to follow, for something we believe in. I believe in world government, in a world of laws, in a world where the nations, united, deliberate, mandate, and, if necessary, enforce.

Of course, not everything needs to be enforced by military action. And the UN shouldn't mandate everything. But the mandate in this case seems reasonable (Iraq should not have weapons of mass destruction, under the current regime). I think it's perfectly reasonable to suggest that Kim is worse, and that the UN should similarly act against North Korea; that is not an argument against enforcing the mandate in Iraq. If anything, it should imply that if we want to, later, be able to enforce the disarming of Kim without force, we need to show that we will disarm Hussein even if force is required.

Anyway.

In the final analysis, I agree with Blair: "People say that the choice is ours as to whether conflict happens, but actually the choice is his. If he wants to avoid conflict, he can comply with the UN resolution, co-operate with the inspectors, tell us where this material is, and have it destroyed as it should be. Conflict would then be avoided. So we have made the choice that we had to make, and set it out in the UN resolution. The choice is now for Saddam." ( Jan. 15, Prime Minister's Questions)

Thank you,
Vardibidian.

February 11, 2003

Now, where did I put that severed head?

In one of those that's-just-cool stories, the New York Times reports that Andrea del Verrocchio's sculpture of David had originally been intended to have Goliath's severed head behind David's left foot, but that wouldn't fit on the pedestal, so they sawed it off and jammed it in between the feet. "They" were presumably the city fathers of Florence, and they did it in around 1470. Or else it was the Medici, just before that. In fact, the whole thing is a supposition from examining the head in the course of restoration, but it seems to be pretty well-founded.

Why is this cool? Well, for me it's particularly cool because my first appreciation of art history (as opposed to just knowing what I like) was from a lecture about the various medieval and renaissance Davids; Verrocchio wasn't my favorite, Donatello was, with the goofy hat, the insouciant pose, and the bubble butt. Anyway, the lecture made me think for the first time about the way that art exists in history, and not just in a museum.

Secondly, it's cool because some of the things in the lecture turn out not to be true, and that means that knowledge is increasing. Our perceptions of the universe (though still and always incomplete) are just a trifle closer to the universe itself. And that's cool.

Thirdly, it's just a great story. "Damn, we've bought this sculpture to put on the pedestal, and now it won't fit. Do you think the Medici will give a refund?"
"Nah, let's just jam it on anyhow. How about this?"
"You can't leave the head hanging off like that, people will walk into it!"
"OK, the head will have to go."

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.