Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Tipping and Economic Justice

[My comments from a "Wikifray Symposium" You can find out what others think about it over there.]

There's little, if anything, we consumers can do with most businesses to influence justice in payment. My personal boycott of Wal-Mart is too small to influence their employment practices. The managers and CEOs of any large organization whose goods or services I use will still be compensated beyond their worth, and will like as not peddle inferior products made in some third-world sweatshop, choke the air with carcinogens, and deforest the Amazon. For most of the stuff I buy, I'm well removed from the immediate effects of our decision, and even to the extent we're aware, there's not a whole hell of a lot we can do change them anyway. (I'm sure it makes me a bad person, but I haven't been willing to descend into pure aescticism to make a point.)

This is one reason to patronize local businesses. You can't do much about the supply chain, but since you're one of a small pool paying the people at the front end, and you have an idea of the sorts of business practices they utilize, you do influence some measure of equity. In the case of waiting tables, the difference between good tippers and bad seems to be an aware of the social contract. Maybe it's good that we know that one person. Restaurants are some of the most localized, and maybe the only one where we're expected to contribute voluntarily to the fair compensation of its employees. Even if we need to drop the charade of "performance," maybe we shouldn't let that handle go.

How does that social contract end up being enforced? Restaurants attract customers largely based on their menus, and there is an incentive to discount service from teh cost of the food. If Bob's Bistro is able to list $18 filets on the menu while discounting the waiter's pay, then Steve's Slop-chute can't afford to include that cost in the advertisement. No one will come, even if Steve double-deep-fries his steaks to colon-clogging perfection (yuck). Just costs too damn much.

[This is kind of funny, actually, because most restaurants don't make their off of food, but rather booze, which is also not included in the menu price.]

The other thing that keeps tipping alive is the (fucking) IRS. Restaurant employers can legally underpay wait staff at some low fraction of the legal minimum wage. (In MA, the base waiter pay is two-something an hour.) Employees need the tips to get paid anything approaching working wages. Depends on where you work, but a fraction of the tips usually go to the other underpaid restaurant schlubs: the busboys and dishwashers, and the person who cooks your food. Waiters also get screwed at tax time, as the two dollars and change is often insufficient to get properly FICAed. It's always fun to come up with a couple grand of lump sum in April.

The justice of tipping depends on where you work. There are advanced skills working at a quality restaurant (you need to know about the food, and how to satisfy the expectations of moneyed assholes), but as John notes, the skill level doesn't exactly rise as fast as teh food costs do. If you're in fine dining, waiting tables is surprisingly lucrative. If my wife did it full-time, she'd be coming close to her old engineer's salary. (See kids, college is for suckers.) The pay scales in fine restaurants seem a little absurd when you start comparing waiter take home pay to that of the skill players (the chefs).

On the other hand, old Mabel slinging breakfast hash is on her feet just as long (dealing with teh expectations of unmonied assholes), and earning a quarter for every plate to supplement her salary. You'd be nuts to serve breakfast, and I try to give these people a break. I think the pizza deliverer has the worst lot of the bunch, and not just for the humiliating uniform and drunk customers. Do you think Papa John's D.P. Dough is paying anyone's car insurance? I tip the pizza guy best of all.

I don't tip people in fast food: these poor sots earn a normal wage, expect me to bus my own table, and don't bring my sack o' crap past teh counter. Not part of the contract. I tip bartenders less because I think they deserve it, and more because I want the drinks to keep coming when it gets crowded. Is it happy hour yet, or what?


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Pinky and the Brain

I scored a bunch of free lumber from work recently (this year's bonus--I made sure to earn it) and decided to build a backyard shed with it, a project that's been successfully procrastinated for three years now, as all the tools rusting under my carport attest. I'm one of those natural carpenters, by which I mean I'm married and I own a home. That killer eye for level and square just happens to reside in my partner's head, as do the big-picture designs (and redesigns). All the technical building prowess is my own however, and there's nothing like a square, solid blow with a hammer to show that off. My fingernail immediately turned purple, and I could touch nothing with it for a whole day. Eventually I did bump my pinky a little bit (typing is hard work), causing blood and pus to leak out all over, but mercifully it released the pressure underneath. Most of the purple bled out, but that nail's still going to come off: close inspection reveals an underground river of frothy goo. It's still leaking clear blister juice from the top, and it's just gross. But what the hell, whoever uses their little finger?

Funny I should ask.

It was a whole year ago (holy crap, have I been blogging that long?) that I decided to retard any skill I'd attained on my mandolin by then by re-learning my right hand technique. My heart was in the right place with the effort, but my problem was less one of anchoring (I mean hey, Bill friggin' Monroe anchored his palm like me, and I can play almost 5% as fast as he can*) and more generally one of pick direction. As I stumbled through the last year teaching myself minor variations of tunes, I found that if I wasn't going the right way, I was fighting the rhythm. So it's been fixing itself. Sort of. About as gradually as I can learn anything, my right hand issues are slowly ironing themselves out.

So now that I'm all the way into second gear again, the obvious thing is to do drop the machine back down to a lurching crawl. Usually when you start learning the mandolin, you go after the old American (by way of the British Isles) fiddle classics. They're tuned in the keys of A, G, or D (or their relative minor keys) because the root notes rest on open strings (just pluck it, don't press it), and that's an easy place to start on either instrument, which are (normally) tuned identically. But if you ultimately wish to express more than the same ol', it's good to get beyond the three-chord classics and/or to play in keys of interest to other instrumentalists. You can do this while using open strings of course, but they won't be your home base anymore, and if you continue to anchor yourself there, you have to relearn the fingerings for every tune each time you play in a different key. To be a more versatile mando player you must make the dreaded foray up the neck. You have to use your pinky. And you have to think--at first.

The mandolin is brilliantly designed for four fingers. (Go ahead and whack your thumb, it doesn't matter.) It's tuned such that if you start a scale by fretting with your index finger, you'll get to the fourth note (halfway up) with your pinky before you switch strings. If you're playing in all closed positions (i.e., no open strings), then the fifth note will be with the index finger again, and you'll conclude the octave with your pinky. Playing with open strings means you can avoid fretting with your weakest and least coordinated digit--which is why most people start this way--but if you can master that awkward little bastard, then there are only four fretting patterns, depending on with which finger you start. That's true in minor keys as well, or whatever funky-ass mode you're trying to groove in. Only four patterns, ever. It's a piece of cake to transpose your tune to any key at all, just by sliding your starting position up and down the neck. If you play your chords in closed positions too (a good idea anyway), then you also realize how cool it is that the mandolin is four across as well, as you can pinch off every string with a finger, sliding the chords up and down just as easily as the scales.

For any tune I've memorized in the closed positions, transposing is nearly without thought, but it's a bitch getting them in my head in the first place. My wife is learning the fiddle (less ambitiously), and as she picks up a tune, I must do the same. Her up-the-neck lesson isn't coming soon, and as you might guess, her selections don't necessarily play as easily in the closed position, except, you know, when they do. I've found some of the fiddle melodies infuriating to play with pinky applied, but some of the other ones grow surprisingly easier. It's all about minimizing the amount of fingerboard covered and finding the most comfortable fingering sequences. It takes some painful experimenting with which of the four fretting patterns you use to play which parts--thinking!--and it's bloody difficult to read the music, as I don't really associate the short frets with any notes on the staff. But unlike my mediocre attempts at dexterity, I can see how my sinister pinky is opening up doors. If only I get my brain around it.

* even when dead

Monday, August 20, 2007

Review of In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

Where in the world is Carm-- er, Splendid IREny?Lost in the bowels of the human network is a conversation I had with Splendid IREny shortly before she went intentionally missing. I mentioned that I expected to next hear from her via book jacket, presumably encasing the published story of the female noir hero she was then toying with. (Maybe she's working on it now.) I knew exactly what the photo would look like.*

As a "books for buds" entry, I wanted to uncover dark crime fiction that, if I couldn't find something with a female detective lead, at least somehow subverted or played with the hypermasculinity I associate with noir. A hunt on Amazon revealed a series of pulp classics authored by women, and In a Lonely Place got the highest ranking of the bunch. I'm going to be thinking about that brilliant insight as I stuff this in the stacks between my collection of Peter Whimsy stories and my lone Agatha Christie tome. I guess crime fiction was hardly just (or hardly best) a man's game sixty years ago, anymore than it is today. Oh well.

When I cracked open this novel, I felt a tremendous let-down: the prose is just awful. Hughes wrote the whole book as a series of simple declarative sentences that evinced no particular rhythm, and certainly no pleasures of sound, expression, or description. In the few places where the tension accelerated my reading, the prose aspired to be invisble, but in the subtler dramas of shared looks and perceptions (He was angry. He looked at her. She couldn't tell. She gave him a stare.), it was completely unevocative. Oddly, I felt guilty about this. If I'm reviewing a book for someone, I want it to be a good book.

It took nearly half the book to realize that Hughes' poor "telling" didn't overturn any old writing maxims. Her vision is fine, she's just not very good at saying it. In fact, by the end of the book, I became impressed by the subtlety of how the author tugged at expectations. The point-of-view character, Dix Steele, is introduced as (and is named like) a traditional war hero: ace pilot, good looks, confident. The author sets up a good chill by the third page--the "hero" is a cold-blooded bastard, a killer. His point of view is refreshingly not cerebral. Dix doesn't analyze himself, there are no boring internal monologues or tired episodes of psychobabble. Hughes doesn't get past Dix's own self-image in the narration, which is indolent, narcissistic, not very articulate (for a would-be writer), and hinges on a confidence that's genuine but not always maintainable. It must have been a challenging storytelling approach: it succeeds exclusively on what's shown. (For this reason, I bet the movie was great.)

I didn't like the character, but despite his evil, he's not insane exactly, and I almost wanted an out to present itself. His background doesn't inspire the confidence he shows (and though Hughes barely mentions it, war death appears to have affected him strongly). I don't know if it takes a woman to poke holes in that masculine self-assurance and to expose the possessive notions of romantic love, but she calls it for a facade, opaque enough to obscure the other characters as well as the plot itself. The red-headed femme fatale is not the frighteningly sharp vixen she appears, his friend's wife's odd behavior isn't attraction, and the investigation proceeds not through detective heroics, but routinely and behind the scenes as Dix Steele spins his borrowed wheels with growing urgency. The unraveling is cleverly paced, and manages to rise above the blank narration. Glad I stuck with this one.

Addendum (from comments): Hemingway, anti-heroes, etc.: talk about your low-hanging critical fruit. Did I ever mention I was an engineering major?

*Go ahead and click on it. I spent hours tweaking my original pencil sketch from a Napoleon Dynamite special (I spent, like, three hours on shading the lower lip alone) into something (I hope) not insulting.

Genre: ,

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Review of I Dont Know How She Does It, by Allison Pearson

Trouble!  Somewhere!
Rundeep is super. Afflicted with an online writing addiction as bad as my own (but more diverse, incisive, and well-regarded), she seems to balance this with a successful and happy marriage, a high-visibility career, and, evidently, time to be a great parent as well. Either she's got it totally figured out (in which case she's my hero) or else she's brilliantly faking it (in which case she's my hero). Rundeep is hard to pin down as a book choice because she seems to have a smart angle on everything. So what could I do but find some fictional character that seems to manage it all? I don't know how she does it either, but I'd sure like to figure out something similar. I'm honored to include rundeep as one of the buds.


There's a certain prose style that's been working its way into the literature for the past 20 or 30 years, a certain brand of ironic hyperbole that compounds everyday observation with huge absurd metaphors, almost at the end of every sentence. Off the cuff, I'll guess that it started as soon as anyone saw fit to parody Raymond Chandler, but whatever the origin, it's worked itself into something of a standard form, identifiable a couple paragraphs in. I love it, and Allison Pearson wins big points for doing it well. She has a lot of fun with the verbal gymnastics, and the pace of the language is a good match for the frantic knot of the main character's mental state. Low on plot (but with an entertaining movie-script denoument), the book flies by as fast as Kate Reddy thinks. I'd have read it in a sitting if I'd had enough of a sitting.

I Don't Know How She Does It is told in the first person, in present tense, in roughly real time, a framing device that doesn't quite work. 8:17 AM: Am rushing to cab... Logistically, she can't possibly be dictating, but the book is too diary-like to be an internal monologue either. Even so, it's more than enough to get intimate with the Kate's internal thoughts. Her racing mind dwarfs the stimuli from her external life, and the contrast of her thoughts (stern at home, sweet and funny at work) to her actions (sweet at home and stern at work) are a great vehicle to reveal character. She's an easy woman to like, if only she'd calm down for ten minutes.

I'm not sure I identify with her though. I suppose I'm more like her husband--I've had a good upbringing that's robbed me of overambition--but I don't quite get that dude's dull entitlement either. (He's easy to write myself onto because Kate spends the novel ignoring him.) I had kids at the same chronological time as that fictional couple (though I am younger), and while in grad school, did some daddy-at-home time while my wife won bread. A man, especially a young one, was at best a novelty, but more often was beneath the notice of the local Muffia, and I really enjoyed Pearson's pokes at those overbearing ghouls. (Now my poor wife spends more time scratching her head over their bizarre commitments.) I couldn't get behind the noxious men who had a path paved to business success (if I were to encounter in the workplace the level of overt misogyny that Kate did, I'd be appalled), nor the women who were conflicted about their maternal instincts, even if I could (and still can) relate to the way that dual incomes run roughshod over family life.

The premise of this novel--a woman that tries to succeed as both a proper English mum (can I ever tell you how much English classisms bug me?) and a badass executive--is one that invites an exploration of gender roles, but none of the major or minor characters captured very well the complicated perspectives of the people even I know. Even with humor (and maybe especially with humor), this honesty is essential, and I think it's where Pearson lost the opportunity to write something powerful instead of something light and disposable. It would be difficult to resolve the setup without appearing to approve one side or other of Kate's dual drives, and when she starts extolling motherhood as a compulsion straight from the womb, you can hear the faint crackle of a message, and by the time she introduces and quickly martyrs the novel's only saint, it's screaming in your ear. The successful (balanced) women in the showcase are either wives, or else have assumed some bullshit girl-acceptable career. (To put it another way, I'd rather have any one of Kate's female friends managing my hypothetical funds than the douchebag men she worked with.) The men, the best and worst of them, are all overgrown boys that need a little mommying. She doesn't criticize the subtler chauvinism of Kate's "good" boss, nor that of her inappropriate romantic interest--they're just boys who have been failed by women. It's all so very comfortable with old traditions by the end, I found it disappointingly at odds with the way Pearson opened the story. For rundeep, I wish I came up with something that was balanced in substance as well.


Monday, August 13, 2007

Science : Journalism :: Science Fiction : Punditry

[I've been boring myself with this one all week, now it's your turn. On the plus side, it should be out of my head now.]

Even though I've been committing some half-assed versions of it lately, I'm not a big fan of science journalism. Or maybe that's not quite correct: I like the stuff in here when I read it, and the various popular science magazines can be OK for fields I'm unfamiliar with, even if one of them was once so foolish as to include my photo once (the last time I saw my name in print, I think). My occasional viewing of the NYT science section has revealed a general readability and even Will Saletan can occasionally be trenchant as he parrots it. And I like fantasizing about science too. No the problem is less what's written, and more the readers. I don't mind opening eyes and instilling a desire for greater understanding (again, I've enjoyed popularly styled reports recently in areas I was totally ignorant), and I'm all for inquiry, but it annoys me when dumb people read a breezy piece, with their own agendas on their backs like monkeys, and think they have it down. It annoys me even more when those people are influential.

I think it's John McG's fault that this came across my attention. According to the poster,

[a cited USA Today article] also contains some worthwhile comments on the danger of politicizing science, as well as in pretending that science can resolve contentious policy debates.
Yes, you have to beware of people using their credentials to forward political (or market) agendas, but science isn't something that bears the weight of opinion as obviously as everyone seems to think. Just because theories can be developed and institutionalized to a degree, it's rare that this stuff sifts through peer review for very long. It may take an extra convincing argument to sway the establishment, but at the end, science is interpretation of facts and measurements, while politics is interpretation of opinions. Ideally, opinions are grounded in facts, but they sure don't have to be.

Facts enrich opinions more than opinions enrich facts. You do have to be wary of the latter, whatever the source. Still, I wish I had more sources of science policy opinion.* When scientists write editorials they tend to be either dreadful (and USA Today and Volokh are right that the opinion is often more funding) or bombastic (which is more fun since there are a lot of earnest deniers out there, but I'm still glad I skipped Stephen Jay Gould deriding The Bell Curve at novel length). In the opposite case, when professional opinion writers get their hands on scientific points, it's nothing short of a train wreck. It's the worse with conservative pundits, because conservatism, by definition, is a set of opinions that's been reinforced for a while. The liberation from a justifying set of facts for those opinions may be a newer development in the movement. Certainly they're more crass than I remember as a kid.

[Is this what happened to economics? I had just finished mocking supply side theorists last night when it occurred to me that Milton Friedman shouldn't really be called a lightweight. I don't know if he can be blamed for skyrocketing the national debt in flush times, favoring short-term speculation over real investment, or a suspiciously self-serving policy of enriching the already rich, but whatever we have now also seems a far cry from Friedman's monetarism. Need to read more on that. Consider it an invitation to comment.] Even if they've got some intellectual bits distantly behind them, the cheerleaders of poorly fortified opinions generally (and wrongly) imagine themselves the first in line to reap the promised rewards of their insincerity. Cushy and undeserved jobs aside, I don't know if your average conservative hack is really of the ownership class, and less so their readers.

But what the fuck, they've no doubt mangled Thomas Jefferson and Sun Tzu just as badly as anyone else. Frustratingly, other fields have crept into their purview as well, ones that I actually know stuff about. Jonah Goldberg, no deep thinker he, and a frequent complainer about scientists' inability to accept simple rhetorical "truths", has opined that those clever can-do scientists are going to save us from an oil crunch, fersure. Evidently, everyone is as eager as he is to keep him in his pampered, dull sinecure. (If you need a goat on the liberal side of things, witness the slavering over stem cells.)

To add insult to insult, the opinion hacks are doing their damndest to ruin my beloved science speculation too. Glenn Reynolds (of AG Android fame, and also doing his damndest to delve the shallows) has made time blathering about the hypothetical technological singularity as though he'll be the first to be uploaded. As though we need to listen to a computerized pundit for all eternity. Roy Edroso makes me sad when he picks on these people, but just because goobers latch onto it, it doesn't mean that speculation can't be instructive too. Some people read that stuff and it inspires them to become scientists, or merely to look down new avenues of thought. Others find it justification for their own mediocrity. Sharpen up your facts to defend against them.


*For the record, m'man Archaeopteryx actually does it pretty well.

[Update: Doncha hate when you have to correct something dumb? I was a little breezy myself with the anti-supply-side mumbo-jumbo last night, and had to qualify it a lot this morning. So I go to the stat counter hoping no one was up in the wee hours reading my drivel, and lo, there were those rare and valued readers pulled in from foreign comments sections. Figures.]

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Funding Pure and Applied Science

I found this golden oldie while I was looking to verify something for another post. Maybe it's not fair to pick on what ideologues were saying ten years ago, but if there's an organization that hoists petards willy-nilly, it's Cato. I read some of their shit for a short time, when I was more sympathetic (shortly before this essay was hoisted), but it takes about five forays into their voluminous screed to realize that they endeavor in no reasoning which does not beg the question. Really, choose five random samples and report back. The conclusion is forgone, and from the introduction, it's a weasely path to get to telling us that federal funding is bad and the (allegedly) free market will make this topic just as super as it can make everything else. Throwbacks to the halcyon days of child labor and flaming rivers are a bonus. The reasoning path bears the semblance of logic, but it suffers the doctrinal inability to weight anything properly. You could have an equivalent conversation with a Marxist, and find out how central committees are the solution to all economics. The annoying thing about the glibertarians,* is that they pretend to pragmatism.

Maybe Kealey, the author of that piece, could be forgiven for not being an American, but his case to "End Government Science Funding" rests on three tenuous or contradictory ideas:

  1. companies that engage in "pure research" do well, even though the research is risky

  2. private people really do fund science, especially the rich, who really, really do feel a need to give

  3. government-funded research doesn't always produce products
He commits a lot of sins in his breezy piece of tendentious shit: industrial research in 1997 was much different than that of the 1960s, and he ignores academia entirely. His first and third point contradict one another. Risky research, he says, is good when spread out among a big rich company that can get the rare reward, but the risk is what makes government funding for it bad. (Anyone want to tackle the second point?)

I suspect that investment philosophy has more complicated lineage than government tax policy, but in the late twentieth century, enormous private laboratories started drying up--the culture was less long-term, and more geared to satisfying the bottom line, presumably for shareholders. It's a Cato wet dream of ownership, but it's been a capricious sort of investiture: no one's in for the long haul, and fundamental R&D (pure science) is all but toppled in those places as a result of selling out to the gods of productivity. Bell Labs is gone. Westinghouse labs is gone. Xerox and Kodak are going. Work still gets done under the industry mantle, but it's applied: what can get to product in a short time frame? The best case for pure corporate research is the pharmaceutical industry, but that is pretty applied too, and Pharma's relationship with government is pretty intense.

It's fine (and logical) that companies should do more applied science than government-funded work, but someone needs to take the long view--there's only so much innovation to be found in new ways to sell the same old crap. The fundamental research still needs to be done, and it makes for the government to do the investing. Insurance models work out best across a statistically large set of members, and I've mentioned before that an all-inclusive single-payer model ends up looking (counterintuitively to me) like the best option under this framework. Funding of risky (pure) scientific research can be looked at as spreading the risks of no product and sunk costs to the entire population, which will benefit as a whole from a robust technical economy.

As it stands, the government is supportive and open about turning pure science into patents and profit for ambitious citizens. If you go to an academic chemistry or biology department, you'll find a bunch of professors churning furiously around trying to spin small startup businesses off at every opportunity, begging for venture capital, all based on knowledge and experience attained on the government's dime. It's by far the healthiest and purest entrepreneurial environment that I've personally encountered. That pure initial research is rarely funded through the private sector, and it costs a lot to hire us credentialed science dudes, while grad students are essentially free.

I'm less sanguine about government investment in the private sector (much as I like having a job), but that's mostly because so much of it comes through the Department of Defense. There isn't a whole lot of pure research coming through those initiatives, believe me, and the big chunks go to the big contractors. Worse, with all that cool and lethal technology, people just itch to use it.

The marked change in DoD funding vehicles in the past five years is toward the more applied research (yup, even DARPA). Understandable maybe, in the middle of a war, but it's made my job prospects appear that much more bleak. It's ridiculously competitive these days to get those dollars these days, and you pretty much need to go in with the problem solved when you walk in, and Raytheon (or whichever big contractor) on your arm doesn't hurt. They want someone who's proven they can already produce the idea too.

In non-defense sectors, scientific funding seem to be relatively unbuggered, however. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (who publish the prestigious Science journal) list some historical data of funding trends in a series of excellent graphs. They're interesting to peruse. As a percentage of GDP, science funding has been decreasing gradually since the seventies, but has been rising just as slightly in terms of constant dollars. I was surprised to learn that science funding dropped precipitously during the Clinton years, and has been brought back up to pace under the tenure of the Bush administration. The DoD portion of that budget has even dropped slightly under Bush. (Another reason my job looks so bleak these days.)

You can blame the Bush gang for subverting results it disagrees with (upcoming post), for naïve pet projects (though the Mars mission is a small chunk of the overall pie), and for any number of their policies. But they're doing the right thing with research funding. I'm as surprised as you are.


*You'll note the rhetorical distinction maybe. There are smart libertarians. I've no end of respect for the likes of Jim Henley, IOZ, Julian Sanchez, et al., etc., and I get behind many of their views. Maybe Cato even has honest contributors, but I haven't read them.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Abortions for Some, Miniature American Flags for Others

Even though they're a fine source of perpetual blog ideas, politics tend to depress the hell out of me. I only ever began following the great silly game out of a sense of civic responsibility, and a perpetual desire to bitch about stuff. Well, it's not like I feel any more responsible.

I occasionally call myself a libertarian, though I'd expand enough on what government is good for (to include insurance and pollution control as well defense and justice) to push me into some odd leftie version of that. Famously (and appealingly) enough, libertarians prefer to complain about the government than do stuff about stuff, and who can blame them when you think about what governments do with power?

IOZ (shhh, I'm trolling for his readers) had some fun picking on the Democrats today. Yeah, sure, easy targets, what with showing their bellies to the president, proving themselves yet again tools to executive power, waiting their turn. Fucking party politicians: the lure of being a high-level appartchik is evidently stronger than retaining some Constitutionally declared powers for your own house. You'd think that with enough popular demand, the appeal of keeping one's seat would trump presidential awe, but tell that to Ned Lamont. Anyway, IOZ mocked the various netroots goobers for being fooled again. Most important election ever --> horrible policies --> we need more and better Democrats! Lather, rinse, repeat.

still fucking illegibleBut then again, I remember the libertarians complaining ten years ago about the nanny state, whose jack-booted drug-stealing thugs ended up being a lot more subtle than their most dire warnings. The support for the (allegedly) small-government conservatives (never mind the racism and Jesus-throttling and fiscal idiocy) was not always implicit. They've got their useless cycle too, as do the conservatives, with the difference that libertarians don't get to enact their own horrible policies. So I fixed the figure. Hope it helps.

I made a bulleted list of what I care about politically, but I'll save it for when I'm in the mood. Suffice to say that I'll continue to vote for the party that is marginally closer to achieving some of them, and failing that, I'll vote to poke the incumbents in the eye. It's not like any of these assholes is about to swap a trillion dollar war for public health insurance and science research anytime soon. Those wheels just keep spinning each other around like a hot-air powered aeropile.

What do all those gears grind? Sausage, I guess. Politics.

[Sorry, I'm behind in my reading.]

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Five More Thoughts - Personal Days Edition

Five sunny days in the Pacific Northwest, I'd say that sounds like enough for a list. I was out for a funeral, and, naturally enough, got introspective about some things. In some thoughts, family is referred to generally, I hope they don't mind. (I didn't ask.)

1. Some of these thoughts sound better awake at 4AM
We humans sure do love to surround ourselves with the murmur of our own creations. Cozied in our own spheres, we hardly notice the usual buzzes and hums, but spending the a week on unfamiliar couches in unfamiliar cities can highlight the whispers of other places, the normally unobserved conversations of the ubiquitous machines. Cities have bad reputations as harsh and clangorous places, but urban machinery just sings a more cacophonous version of the same tune, and is as soothing in its way.

Coming home--the hum of my air conditioner, the intermittent buzz of air pumped through the ducts, the distant highway--is to be surrounded by my own sounds, and as deeply as I loathe the glare of the streetlight outside of my bedroom window, its faint sizzle is a lullaby, a sussurrus underlying the occasional whoosh of the distant highway or the faraway buzz of a jet overhead. If and when civilization ever tanks, the popular image is people coming out rubbing their eyes at the light, but I think it's the quiet that will drive us over the brink.

(I'm a fan of natural white noise too, though.)

2. Mile high anthropology
I like those jets better when they're distant. Up close, inside, they're a nasty warren of people at their worst: smelly, cramped, forced by proximity into social or antisocial behavior.

Air travel is a nation unto itself, at least if the endless references to Sky this and Air that are any indicator. You walk into the airport with its funny vehicles (I get no end of chuckles at the stair trucks and little luggage trains), odd dress codes, and cosmopolitan insularity. It's like stepping into an odd foreign country, and maybe that's the best case I can make for anyone ever wanting to clamber into a cramped booth and boink one of the locals.

It takes a special kind of person to savor air travel. You need to thrive on being away, you need to be personable but not close, need to have a remarkable ability to tolerate idiocy and discomfort. Flight attendants exude that close casualness, and almost to an individual, no matter their actual age or shape (or gender), seem to evince a world-weary sexiness. Which isn't to say gender roles in the airline culture don't bother me, they do, falling too easily into neat prejudices about sophisticated free spirits (i.e., they are all hot, youngish women and gay men). The predictability of the cabin crew bothers me less than the conformity of the higher status flight crew, every one of which seems to be trying to pull off an aging Chuck Yeager look,* as solid and square-jawed as the attendants are free-spirited. Yesterday, my fist female jet pilot flew me home, and the possibilities are obviously slim, but way less remote than they ought to be. Anyway, good for her. I always love to see stereotypes thwarted.

3. Keifus Rants
But I got there, saw the relatives. Like all families, mine is nuts. We drive each other crazy, and yet we can't keep away from each other. We're all successful in similar ways (trained professional types, artsy streaks more or less expressed), and we seem to all be haunted by similar demons. The point of origin is arbitrary, but it's most tempting to give my grandfather the biggest visible footprint. Like his face, you can trace facets his personality down the line. Absolutely none of us will admit to them.

My grandfather was a world-class ranter, and prodigious drinker in his later years, and we've all got that in us. Politically, we range from tight-ass conservative (older generation) to bleeding-heart liberal (younger ones), with the more balanced members occupying some thoughtful ground of our own declaration. We do go on when we get together. I'd have considered myself of the quieter, non-blathering persuasion, but after excessive plying with three days alcohol and drama, the Chief's genes got their grip on me too, and I raved with the best of them. I let into my Dad (no descendent he, and a rock of sanity by comparison) when he tried to cast me as a political liberal. It's not normally something that works me up, but after hearing so much Republican apologia I felt I should step up for those thoughts I believed, and anyway, I fucking hate being typecast.

Nature and nurture all wrapped up in one boozy loud sack. I feel like an ass.

4. Standing On Ceremony
This gathering had a purpose, and over the days, it closed in. I'm not a fan of ceremony for some reasons--declaring any One True Way always presents perils of division and conflict--but in other ways, they certainly serve a social good. If you parse ceremony down finely enough you'll get to the community traditions, and even the family traditions that bookmark our various milestones in life. It's hard in times of intense emotions to have to ad lib, and a ceremony's script helps to guide the participants past whatever perceived thresholds. On the other hand, the best traditions (including deciding which thresholds to define) have a tendency to develop organically and for a small group.

There's not much getting around death as a milestone, but we'd kind of settled on a memorial "family reunion" as a tribute, following a tradition that had been growing anyway, and one that was beloved by the deceased. There would be (and was) food, some fond or solemn words or tokens from whoever wanted to contribute them, and the usual booze-fueled arguments and friendly conspiracies. Good times needless to say, but also times that dare to tread on the greater American approval sphere. A pastor was invited because someone thought a "real" ceremony was called for. My family, that side of it, stakes out a band of agnosticism ranging from "reluctant" to "total," with a couple of true believers sprinkled in at the distant cousin level, so it's kind of a funny impetus, and this guy had his work cut out for him. To his credit, he did a good job of directing the crowd energy toward a handful of well-spoken remembrances, staking out the timing and punctuation better than a murmuring crowd would have. But it's in the power of the speaker to call the end of speaking, which he pushed off to fit in a sermon, shoving the ceremony out of the natural niche it had found with little help. Maybe it was okay for everyone else, necessary even, but I was uncomfortable that the person who spoke longest for the departed had never met him.

5. Is there an agnostic hell? Who can say?
Predictably enough, old John the Gospeler was trotted out, and the story of Thomas highlighted in particular for us marks wising up enough to look closely at those fish scales. Maybe it wasn't a bad approach, and who knows, maybe he even winged one or two of us. I'm no biblical scholar (Homer voice: obviously!), but I've got to like Thomas. Here's the guy in the story who, when confronted with Jesus resurrected, called for extraordinary proof for the extraordinary claim.

Jesus provided evidence of wounds and that was enough for Tom, who, for all his dalliance with evidence-based thinking, was still given to disciplehood. Jesus did some miracles (the wine thing in particular went far to make up for his tendency to rant at parties), but he did a lot of straight-up proclaiming too, notably in John. Famously, he intoned, "I am the door; by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and go out, and shall find pasture" (John 10:9), and "I am the way, and the truth, and the life: no one cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). It's not got that 23rd psalm poetic sense, but it does have a good ring of deep prophecy. Given the unenviable task of offering a sermon to a bunch of godless heathens, the pastor leaned hard on that last quote. Unknowing what's on the other side of the door, he said, we have to trust Jesus, since he's the one who's claiming to understand what we don't.

I don't think there is any message that is so hard to sell to skeptics nor so easy to sell to those who fear death (those are not exclusive groups), and people have been trying to pitch an afterlife of divine communion or retribution for millennia before and after Jesus spoke. Their evidence was the same. In a way, Jesus's metaphorical proclamations are a better sell than doctored evidence--miracles tend to look small after a little perspective--but that doesn't get me past my allergy to "just trust me." At its best, "just trust me" is a short-term loan, getting a speaker past three tenuous seconds as the results come in. It's not a good marketing tool for long-term prospects (or shouldn't be). Whether it's health or government policy or plans for eternity, "just trust me" usually is a blinking neon signpost telling you you shouldn't. I don't think there are three consecutive words in the language less inspiring of trust, although "y'all watch this" comes close.

As I've yakked about before, I'll keep my faith in doubt. At least there's plenty of evidence of my ignorance.


* Actually, more as I'd imagine a young flyboy aging, less how he actually aged