Thursday, June 26, 2014

Moving The Bomb Line On Climate Change

Yossarian has nothing on  the North Carolina legislature

This little news item ("Rising tide.  Damp Market."  The Denver Post, June 26, 2014) from North Carolina wins my first sporadically awarded Moving The Bomb Line Above Bologna prize in tribute to Yossarian doing just that in Catch-22  to avoid a suicide bombing mission.  It seems that back in 2011 North Carolina state officials, under the direction of a Democratic governor, released a study that showed the water levels on the coast rising 39 inches by the end of the century!  They were even in the process of creating a web site showing all the properties that would be inundated by the year 2100.  They figured North Carolineans could look at the handy web site as a guide to preparing for the future.

Well, one lobbyist for realtors and home builders, combined with plenty of Republican state legislators and assorted climate change deniers, set about to fight the report.  With the help of a newly elected Republican governor, North Carolina's legislator "took back" the report and instead released information for the next 30 years only.  According to the more limited study, coastal water levels would only rise by 8 inches.  The realtors were happy.  The Republicans were happy.  Together, they had managed to save 31 inches.  If that's not conservation, what is?

Let's be fair for a second.  It is hard to blame a homeowner or businessman living on the outer coast.  A web site guaranteeing the imminent destruction of your property and all the surrounding properties would most assuredly devastate your region's economy.  Good luck selling.  Good luck attracting tourists.  How long can you tread water?  I'm glad I live in the mountains where I only have to worry about avalanches, landslides, wild fires, and floods.

On the other hand, 97 % of the scientific community not employed by the Koch brothers agree that if we don't act now,  phenomena like the inundation of North Carolina' coast are inevitable.  Of course, they're probably inevitably no matter what we do, but hey, let's keep a good thought.  So, explain to me how acting to curb climate change, to limit our carbon footprint, to be sustainable, etc., etc., is going to cost us too much money.  How much is it costing to rebuild Atlantic City and the rest of the east coast after Sandy?  How many more times in the next 100 years are we going to have to rebuild it again?  It seems like acting now would be more cost effective.  If the 39 inch prediction is true, and the confidence is high, then $700 billion dollars of property will be below sea level in 2100 and an additional $730 billion will be at risk at high tide.

I know I don't understand about business (pause to genuflect here) and job creation and all that, but all those figures in the last paragraph seem like real money to me.  We ought to muster the political will to do something about it, something other than moving the bomb line and hoping nobody will notice.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Plato at the Googleplex - Michael Lewis on Wall Street


A Prose Cocktail

The combination of PLATO AT THE GOOGLEPLEX by Rebecca Goldstein and Michael Lewis’ FLASH BOYS is a disturbing cocktail, one I haven’t been able to stop thinking about, especially since every time I turn around I see another connection.  I bought the Goldstein book because the reviews made it irresistible.  The book follows the delightful conceit that Plato is on a book tour for his most recent work, THE REPUBLIC, and in the course of the tour does interviews with techies at Google, a tiger mom, a cable news host (read:  Bill O’Reilly) and a brain scientist.  When I started the book poolside in Belize, I was mostly looking forward to Plato’s evisceration of O’Reilly; instead, I got a delightful review of Platonic thought, the history of philosophy, Greek myth, and modern science in one.  But more than that, I was reminded of the key philosophical questions that drew me to philosophy in the first place.  As an added bonus, the book is clearly a playful, but nonetheless stern, rebuke to modern day pundits and politicians of all persuasions.

There are all kinds of great questions:  Why is there something rather than nothing (ontological)?  Is it better to live a short life full of significance, or a long life undistinguished (Achilles, not to mention Pippin)?  How does one live a life that matters (teleological)?  They are all fun to debate in the campus coffee shop  at all hours of the night and morning. 

But I want to talk mostly about laws and justice here.  Plato proposes a fascinating thought experiment.  Imagine you had in your possession a ring that would render you invisible whenever you wore it, reminiscent of Perseus’ helmet in CLASH OF THE TITANS (“I’m invisible.  Can’t you see that.”).  When invisible you could do anything you felt like with no fear of getting caught, no fear of retribution.  You could walk into a house and take whatever you wanted.  You could rifle money out of cash drawers.  Lurk around girls’ or boys’ locker rooms.  Steal cars.  Take free rides on airplanes.  Anything.  Would you take advantage of that situation?  Regardless of your answer, what percentage of the rest of us would?  Most everyone would answer, “Of course not.  Of course I wouldn’t take advantage.”  But do you think that’s an honest response?  If you had the ring long enough, wouldn’t you be tempted to use it for little stuff?  You’re short of cash and you’ve left your bank card at home.  Wouldn’t you slip on the ring and score that Twinkie, or that $100,000 bar?  Who’s it gonna hurt?  And wouldn’t that make the next transgression a little easier?  I mean, that’d just be human, right?

Plato goes off from that experiment to suggest that at the extreme end of the range of human desires lies the ring.  If heaven or hell were not hanging over our heads, we would all ultimately agree that being able to do anything we would like to do and get away with it would be ideal.  Of course, we would also agree that the worse that could happen to us is if someone else who was getting away with everything did anything to hurt us.  The space between those two conflicting desires is the realm of law and justice.  Since we have no choice but to live in a community (Plato thought that anyone who lived outside of society was by definition either a god or a monster), we have to cooperate to survive.  We have to have a social contract.  And to do that we would have consider questions like “What is the good life?” “What makes life matter?”

Even more than that, the good of the polis, the city-state, outweighs the good of the individual.  Anything else equals chaos.  Sparta honored collective glory.  Individual glory—a life that matters—was secondary to the glory of the state.  Athens gloried in the individual, but a life that mattered for the individual was still one that furthered the state.  The braid of beauty, truth, and goodness held this magical society together.  The pursuit of any part of this trilogy was the purest endeavor and one that could not help but further the good of the state.  All politicians in Plato’s utopia would be the poorest people in the state and forbade extravagance so as to guard against the inevitable corruption that comes from the combination of power and wealth.

In the ultimately unsatisfying chapter where Plato is interviewed by the Bill O’Reilly character (It is unsatisfying because you finally see that it is not possible to win an argument with a prating knave.), Plato asks Roy McCoy if he would rather refute someone, or be refuted?  Would he rather hurt another, or himself be hurt?  McCoy treats it like a trick question.  Of course, he would rather refute, would rather hurt than be hurt.  What kind of idiot wouldn’t?  Plato is just that kind of idiot.  He is the kind of idiot any polis needs to hold it together.  The USA of the first part of the twenty-first century is in short supply of such idiots and if we had them they would just queue up to be demolished by the pundits, the cable news hosts, the bought and paid for politicians.

That’s why PLATO AT THE GOOGLEPLEX fits in so nicely with FLASH BOYS.  The Plato book shows us how to make a better polis.  Michael Lewis’ book shows us why that is a pipe dream.  We all know the story.  Wall Street types, whose only motivation is to make increasing amounts of money, discovered that they could game the system by simply placing their orders faster than anyone else.  If a person could find a price fluctuation between the futures market in Chicago and the exchange on Wall Street, he could make a lot of money by placing a virtually instant order to buy or sell. 

That is an epic over-simplification, but suffice it to say that all that technical wheeling and dealing aside, FLASH BOYS is a book about unbridled greed and our culture’s tacit acceptance of that fact.  

Folks just made a whole shit load of money by jumping the market and in the process screwing the little guys, the guys who lost value in their retirement, the mutual funds who were naive enough to play by the rules.  When the book’s hero, the guy who spearheads the push to figure out the scam, tries to establish a fair stock market that wasn’t based on bilking the common man, he went to the big banks to get them to participate.  At first, when asked why he was doing this, why he was giving up a big money job to make the market fair again, he simply told them that he wanted to do the right thing.  That response was greeted by such genuine bewilderment that he didn’t raise a dime.  When he changed his story and rigged some numbers to suggest that he would make an eventual killing on the deal, the investors lined up at his door.

After I finished the book, I looked up a number of negative reviews to find out what all those Michael Lewis haters were saying.  Not much.  The main thing I took away from the reviews was that Lewis was ignoring the fact that HFT (high frequency trading) created liquidity, put more money into the economy, and of course (prepare to genuflect) created jobs.  None of those reviewers seemed bothered by the amoral pursuit of money and the shameless disregard of others that seems to control our economy.  Bill O’Reilly and the folks at FoxNews would call that democracy.  Plato, not knowing what to call it, would simply weep.


Wednesday, April 30, 2014

CHRISTIANIST CHARITY

A Contradiction In Terms

I shared a thing by Andrew Sullivan on Facebook yesterday.  It was a well documented attack on Sarah Palin's statement that "Waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists."  More than that--because we all know that anything that Palin says is bound to be so absurd as to make attack unnecessary--he attacked the "Christianists" (his word) who support such sentiment and the gathered NRA convention goers who wildly applauded her statement.

I introduced the post by paraphrasing James Baldwin's wonderful statement on a Dick Cavett show:  "The most segregated hour in the week is high noon on Sunday."  I bastardized that statement with my paraphrase:  "The most unchristian time and place of the week is in church on Sunday."  Okay, so I took some major liberties with Baldwin, but this is a blog so who gives a shit?  Predictably, that overstated paraphrase got some reaction.  Let me paraphrase.  A few folks maintained that in their particular church there was all kinds of Christian charity.  Their church helped those less fortunate.  One person even said that his church had black people in attendance!

But an attack on the good that churches do was not my intention and it certainly wasn't Baldwin's or Sullivan's.  I love churches.  I cannot walk into the sanctuary of any church without feeling overwhelmed.  I almost always start crying.  I can safely say that I have spent more time in churches and on altars dressed in black cassocks and white chasubles than anyone I know who isn't a priest.  I can still recite the prayers at the foot of the altar in Latin and I can't seem to get the text of The Baltimore Catechism out of my head.

Churches are great.  It's the people inside them I'm not so sure about.  You see, I look askance at the kind of charity promulgated by churches.  I think it too often serves as a way to build up credits in one's spiritual bank account, thus enabling the "Christianist" to perpetrate all sorts of damage during the rest of the week.  Of course, there are all kinds of churchgoing Christians who don't limit their charity to one hour on Sunday.  They are Christians 24/7.

But the kind of Christians who Sullivan terms "Christianists" aren't like that.  They go to church, give money to augment the building fund, send donations to some random kid in Africa in need of saving and all the rest.  But when they aren't in Church feeling holy, they are holed up at home listening to FoxNews, getting angry at all those takers--you know, the people of color who are content to live off the hard work of others--who are after their money, cheering every time John Boehner makes fun of immigration reform, or figures out a way to block gun regulations, or insures tax breaks for corporations even as he blocks them for those of us who don't have a deep pocketed lobby working to preserve our power.  Those same "Christianists" are the ones who just a couple of years ago were excited about a new project financed by some right wing foundation or other to rewrite the bible in order to remove its liberal bias--Christ was surely joking when he made that eye of a camel comment, right?  Those same "Christianists" see nothing wrong with torture, or death penalties, or destroying immigrant families who simply want to survive.  Those are the people Andrew Sullivan is attacking and rightly so.  And I join him in that attack.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Route 66





Katherine today.  

I'm bridging a gap between too many hours in the sun by a pool (yummy indulgence) and a Rockies spring training game tonight by thinking about our trek here on the remnants of Route 66.  The drive is rife with memories and tedium and nice little private jokes with Jim.  Jim contends that large numbers of private jokes are a prerequisite to a good marriage.  I'm not sure if he's being descriptive or prescriptive or ironic.  We are an interesting pair--I seek sympathy and need to vent.  He offers solutions and a good ribbing.  I love him.  I need him these days.

My mom has Alzheimer's.  My brother and I are moving her to assisted living memory care.  It's awful.  I am immersed in memories of her (wonderful and truly awful) and full of empathy and realizing all my fights to keep her independent have been wrong.  Her decline has been precipitous and I am a sad little girl.

In the midst of all this, I ran away from home to Rockies Spring Training in Scottsdale Arizona.  I'm a master at running away.  My mom is brave, but not me.  As a little girl I ran away to Stapleton Airport.  I got on a real live plane once.  We lived within a mile of the airport and I ran there often.  The stewardesses at the check-in gates learned to call Mom as soon as they saw me.

Even though I've been good and done my bit helping Mom,  I ran away from home and  I feel guilty and I am here in Scottsdale and enjoying the amazing sun (how I love it) and the Rockies and everything.  I digress.

I want to talk about Route 66.  It is an interesting road an a part of our journey from Denver to Scottsdale.  I've been on that road off and on since I was eleven years old.  I thought about it this time.

We have done this trip enough that I consciously try to think of a new way to look at it each trip. I decided I'd focus on Roadside Attractions this trip.  I was thinking about Mom and her adamant and forceful battles with Dad about stopping at stupid Roadside Attractions.  She always won.  I remember thinking how weird it was she wanted to see the Shoshone Ice Caves or the largest piece of lava in Idaho ("Lave is free--make your own soap!").  I learned as a traveling parent that moms and kids need to pee and move about and her fascination with the Roadside Attractions was more about parenting than curiosity.

I figured this Roadside point of view would be fun when we passed a place in Larkspur that offered miniature golf and goat rides.  But that was it until Santa Fe.  There was an Italian restaurant in Trinidad with singing waiters and since Trinidad is the sex change capital of the country, I contemplated the singing wait staff as a Roadside Attraction.  I decided not to go there.

The only other Roadside Attraction of note was the NRA Wittendon Center just south of Raton, New Mexico.  I don't think Mom would have battled for a stop here.

We stayed the night in Santa Fe and headed off on the highway that would begin to follow the Route 66 my childhood.

It wasn't long before I realized that there are no more family Roadside Attractions.  They are almost gone.  Grown-up things have taken over.  Kids watch movies in the backseats of cars and Roadside Attractions are casinos on Native American Reservations.  My least favorite Roadside Attraction was Knife City.  It had a ton of signs about the various lethal weapons they offered (high capacity clips were offered as well) and only one sign mentioned kitchen cutlery.

There was a 90 mile stretch of Arizona just after we entered the state worthy of note.  The roads in Arizona stink compared to New Mexico and Colorado.  I'm sure the tax rate is lower though.
Also, that part of the road is on the Navajo Reservation.  It was also one of the few parts of the road that echoed my memories of Route 66.  There were competing "Indian Villages" with jewelry and moccasins and tepees (one to smoke in), beaded belts, and fireworks.  The signs were bright and competitive.  I somehow wanted to stop.  Just for old times sake.  Jim would have stopped for me.  He'll do almost anything for me.  I couldn't even explain why I would and never said a word.  I don't want to stop on the way back either.  I'm pretty much over the Roadside Attraction thing.

In Gallup, New Mexico, we passed the El Rancho Motel.  We had lunch there once and might do so again on the way back.  It's where John Wayne stayed when he made movies with John Ford in Monument Valley.  It's really cheesy.  That's the point.  The burgers were okay.  That's the most I would recommend and that's iffy.

There's not much else to report.  We saw our first Saguaro near Bumble Bee Arizona (no services) and shortly after that there was a "Scenic View with Vending Machines."  What--no Wifi?

I have had a wonderful time in the sun here in Arizona.  I have seen a Rockies game and am headed to another tonight (this is when they seem to do their best) and yesterday I spent a day at the spa at the Camelback Inn.  I had dinner at the sports bar at the Four Seasons in Carefree last night.   When I run away, I run away.

My mom ran way from home because she was trapped at home.  I run away from home because home is hard and I need to take a deep breath before I face the next battle.

The Route 66 of my childhood was a road dotted with one-story motels.  Most of them had swimming pools and metal pool chairs that semi-rocked and parents who drove like madmen all day long to collapse in those chairs while they watched their kids use up energy in those pools.  I loved checking into the motels.  My mom would carry in a "beach bag" that was filled with gin and tonics for her and Jim Beam for my dad.  My brother and I were ordered to the pool and we dove in with glee and Mom and Dad got tipsy and happy and life was good on Route 66.

Travel well.





Sunday, March 9, 2014

Responsible Journalism

You Have To Want It

I don't have to tell anyone that since the advent of 24 hour news cycles and screaming, ranting, venting ideologues masquerading as journalists, the news has metastasized into this self-referential monster that has almost no relationship to the Truth (whatever that is).  The sheer volume of the crap makes reading the Sunday paper a daunting task.

As an old journalism teacher, however, I do have some suggestions on how to pare down your reading to only the essential stuff.  You'll notice that there are two kinds of stories that appear on the news pages (We won't even talk about the op-ed stuff.):  stories objectively reporting things that happen in the world and stories telling us the reactions of politicians and pundits to those happenings.  For instance, the breeching of security at Benghazi and the subsequent deaths were serious things that actually happened in real time, but that only comprised a relatively small part of the coverage.  The main coverage of Benghazi focused on political reactions and fall-out.  In other words, it devoted a lot of air time, a lot of column inches, to meaningless political posturing and finger pointing, none of which had anything to do with the actual event.

In that spirit, I spent my morning going through my news web sites while waiting for my new paper delivery person to get the Post and the Times here before EIGHT-FUCKING-O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING!  I went through THE DAILY BEAST, THE HUFFINGTON POST, FOX NEWS, and POLITICO and simply wrote the headlines of all those stories that would, to my way of thinking, constitute a complete waste of time to look at.  I'm going to resist my natural impulse to make snarky comments about each item and just let the list speak for itself.

THE LIST (in no particular order)

"Ann Coulter Disparages Browning Of America"
"Sarah Palin Delivers Vehement CPAC Speech"
"The Right's Plan To Demolish Labor Unions"
"Newt's CPAC Blunder"
"Michelle Bachman Takes A Jab At Hillary Clinton"
"Bobby Jindal Gets A Much Needed History Lesson"
"Rand Paul:  Obama Is Shredding The Constitution"
"McConnell:  Congress Won't Make A Lot Of Big Important Things Happen This Year"
"Santorum Weighs In On Why The GOP Loses"
"Perry:  I Don't Think Nugent's Shocking Comment Was Racist"

I have to add a third category here:  all those lurid, leering articles about celebrities and their fascinating lives.

"The Absolute Worst Thing You Can Do With A Kit Kat"
"Justin and Selena Eat Breakfast Together"
"An Inspiring Tale Of Three Pussycats"
"Miley Cirus Needs A Teleprompter To Remember Her Lyrics"
"Why You Should Embrace Slow Sex"
"Selfies Of The Week"

After you get by all the garbage listed above (just the tip of the iceberg), you will discover some pretty good journalism, but you have to want it.





Friday, February 21, 2014

Growing Old

We Aren't Dead Yet!

I was putting off work on my latest project to idly scroll through all the lurid info, personality assessments, and random lists on Huffington Post when I came across an article by Yagama Shah entitled, "19 Reasons Getting Older Is The Best Thing That Can Happen To You."  Let me go through some of her reasons and explain why Yagama, obviously still in her twenties, doesn't know what she is talking about, because, in the words of my aunt, "Growing old is Hell."

SENIOR DISCOUNTS:  Okay, it's hard to argue with that.  I sometimes like to get out my lifetime national parks pass and just look at it.  On the other hand, it gets irritating waiting in line behind a bunch of fellow seniors digging through their fanny packs looking for discount coupons at the check out stand.

NOT WORRYING AS MUKCH ABOUT HOW THINGS WILL TURN OUT:  What?!  Would you mind explaining that.  The fact is that when you are a senior you realize early on that things are going to turn out a lot sooner than you would like.  I don't know about Yagama and her friends, but for me that is worrisome.

MORE MATURE RELATIONSHIPS:  As in look at that cute couple sitting over there on the park bench feeding pigeons.

LOOKS AREN'T EVERYTHING:  I hate to break this to you Yagama, but nothing could be further from the truth.   What you are saying is that when you look at me you are forced to the conclusion that "God, for that old geezer looks must not be everything.  How nice!"  My fellow old people still check themselves out in the mirror before climbing behind the bars of their walkers.

9:30 BEDTIME IS OKAY:  Hey, that's at least an hour past my bedtime.

DON'T CARE WHAT OTHERS THINK:  This one is a lot like the "looks aren't everything" reason.  Enough said.

FEWER MAJOR LIFE DECISIONS:  Get serious!  The decisions are still there, still as numerous, just more urgent.

DRESS FOR COMFORT:  Yagama must be referring to all those old people in jumpsuits, but that has nothing to do with age.   Jumpsuits are the best things to wear when sitting in front of slot machines in Vegas.

STABLE FRIENDSHIPS:  I would agree with that if it weren't for the fact that so many of my long time friends seem to be dropping dead.

CAN STOP KEEPING UP WITH TECH:  Jesus Christ!  We aren't dead and doddering yet.  See!  I'm writing this and I'm going to post it.  I would even make it look fancier if I knew how.

CAN SIT AT CONCERTS:  Perhaps, but I have to keep getting up to go to the bathroom.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Uncle

A Noodle Joint

Katherine noted just a little while ago that eating in Puerto Vallarta was a much cheaper proposition than eating at home.  That of course is not technically true.  It we actually ate at home it would be different.  Not much, but different nonetheless.

Food in PV is simple.  Katherine fries up egg and bacon sandwiches for breakfast after our morning workout and walk along the beach.  The rest of the day we are either on a tour where the food and drink is part of the package, or we are hanging out by the pool and taking random bites of sliced turkey, ham, and cheese.  At night we eat out, but rarely at pricey places.  We eat at Pipi's, or The Sea Monkey, or take a great and relatively inexpensive food tour courtesy of Vallarta Eats.  The most expensive place we ate with Bud and Janet was Tino's on the Malecon and I ended up getting sick.  Kathie and I did manage to have one mid afternoon foray to Las Palapas, a great restaurant on the beach.  Even that wasn't too pricey.

Things got different when we got home.  First of all, instead of cold cuts, our mid-day snacking has become trays of great cheeses, salamis, and breads along with glasses of wine.  Since we've been home we've eaten at Bonnano Brothers (we were in the neighborhood anyway to pick up a parcel after hours at UPS), Lou's Foodbar (met Franny, Ken, and the kids there our second night back, a traditional meeting place), Ted's Montana Grill (took Kathie's mom there for a burger before the AFC championship game), Bones (stopped there on the way home from a handyman job to grab a quick beer and some Shishito peppers and to grab a take-out order of edamame), Snooze twice (we go there every Saturday morning for breakfast), and just the night before last, Uncle.

I've been wanting to go to Uncle ever since the last "5280" restaurant rating issue had listed Uncle as the top noodle bar in Denver.  I was skeptical.  I agree with my friend Kevin Williams that when all things are considered, Bones (a noodle bar, I should point out) has the best food in Denver.  I was anxious to see how Uncle stacked up.

Pretty well I must say.  There were all kinds of things I liked about the place.   A little like Brothers Bar, the restaurant has a barely visible "Uncle" etched into the window above the black exterior.  If Kathie and I didn't know it's address, 2215 32nd, we never would have noticed it being anything other than a barely visible storefront.  Inside, it is a clean, well-lighted place, with shiny horizontal and vertical wooden slats lining the walls and well-spaced, bare wooden tables and chairs.  The bar overlooking the kitchen is the center piece of the place and by the time six-thirty rolled around every seat in the small room was full.  The music is well-chosen and hipster loud (This is a place for a youngish crowd.).  The vibe--some might say din--limited conversation to guttural responses about the food.  Lots of "oh my god's," and "yums," and "wow's."  The most complicated thought that anyone could communicate went along the lines of "did you try the Bibimbap?"

The menu was quite similar to Bones.  Maybe five appetizers (the brussel sprouts were terrific), but none as interesting as the variety you get at Bones.  There are maybe five different versions of Ramen, and the same number of noodle bowls.  They even have three different types of steamed buns to try, but the pork belly ones we tried, though excellent, were not nearly as perfect as the ones you'll get at Bones.  There is an interesting beer, wine and sake menu plus four specialty cocktails.

The best thing about Uncle is that it is in Franny and Ken's neighborhood, so we are apt to add the place to our restaurant rotation.  I would gladly drive across town to get a noodle bowl at Uncle, but if it were sitting across the street from Frank Bonnano's place, I would end up going to Bones.