New Word: “Salutary”

An adjective:

(especially with reference to something unwelcome or unpleasant) producing good effects; beneficial.

So, something is not objectively pleasant, but that provides good benefits overall.  Found in a sabbatical application:

Rubbing shoulders with [discipline] scholars again with be salutary.

In this case, the use was more generic — rubbing shoulders with other scholars wasn’t viewed as negative; “salutary” just meaning “good” more generally.

New Word: “Dialectical”

An adjective which means:

  • relating to the logical discussion of ideas and opinions.
  • concerned with or acting through opposing forces.

I found this in a review of Bridges of Spies, in the New York Times, which described the move as “insistently dialectical.”  Wikipedia describes the root form — dialectic – this way:

The dialectical method is discourse between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject, who wish to establish the truth of the matter guided by reasoned arguments.

And this is a fair way to describe Bridge of Spies. The movement is a constant examination of the opposing forces during the Cold War.  It presents both sides, and careens back and forth between them, never particularly choosing a side as correct.

The term dialectics is not synonymous with the term debate. While in theory debaters are not necessarily emotionally invested in their point of view, in practice debaters frequently display an emotional commitment that may cloud rational judgement. Debates are won through a combination of persuading the opponent; proving one’s argument correct; or proving the opponent’s argument incorrect.

And this is an accurate description of the movie.  Bridge is very detached from the subject.  It’s more of a a neutral observation of a situation that took place during the Cold War.  The movie invites the viewer to make their own decision, while at the same time, subtly making the point that nothing has really changed, and standoffs between superpowers continue today and will forevermore.


Not All “Likes” Are Created Equal

I quit Facebook about a month ago.

I still have an account because I need it for work — a surprising number of business comes in through Facebook, and I maintain 3-4 Facebook Messenger conversations on any given day.  However, I stopped posting updates back in November and even went to the trouble to “gut” my Facebook account.  I found a $2.99 Firefox extension which deleted everything, including 500 pictures and almost 3,000 status updates. Aside from a few profile pictures, my account is now essentially an empty shell.

Why I did this is a long story, involving an intersection between my own narcissism and insecurity. If there’s any platform in the world more capable than Facebook of exaggerating those two things, I have yet to find it.  I essentially spent seven years of my life trying to be interesting on Facebook and feeling insecure that I wasn’t as interesting as I hoped to be. It’s embarrassing to admit that, but there you go.

Withdrawal is hard. It’s been difficult to avoid the kneejerk reaction to share stuff. A couple of times a day, I find a web link that I want to tell people about, or something I could take a picture of and share.  I keep having to remind myself that I don’t do that anymore.

Last night, my wife and I watched the 1995 remake of Sabrina with our eldest daughter.  After it was over, I immediately thought about posting something about it on Facebook.  I could tell people about this movie, I thought, and (the thought behind the thought was…) people would “Like” it.

But I don’t do that anymore. Weirdly, I found myself I looking over at my wife (#1) and daughter (#2) on the couch, and thinking, “Hell, I only got two ‘Likes’ out of this…” Nevermind the fact that they were actual “Likes,” meaning actual breathing humans who are important to me and that genuinely liked something I did.

But here’s the rub: not all “Likes” are created equal, and it’s taken me a long time to acknowledge it. Oh sure, in the back of my head, I knew this was true. But as venal and superficial as I am, I somehow equated dozens of meaningless button presses from people I barely knew as having some worth.

So, I watched a movie last night and got two “Likes” for it – my wife and my daughter.  I’m on my way back to an emotional state where that is simply enough and I’ll know that those two “Likes” are more important than all the others.

If you are in this state now (and be honest…), stay there.  Over almost 20 years, the Internet has turned me into a damn superficial person, and at 43-years-old I’m finally in the process of extracting myself from that aspect of it.

It’s going to take a while to get there (I’m learning that Facebook is just the beginning), but I’ll be a better person for it.

Embedded Racial Bias

Racial Bias, Even When We Have Good Intentions: A good (bad?) rollup of studies which show that embedded, perhaps subconscious racism is alive and well.

  • When doctors were shown patient histories and asked to make judgments about heart disease, they were much less likely to recommend cardiac catheterization (a helpful procedure) to black patients […]
  • When whites and blacks were sent to bargain for a used car, blacks were offered initial prices roughly $700 higher, and they received far smaller concessions.
  • […] sending emails with stereotypically black names in response to apartment-rental ads on Craigslist elicited fewer responses than sending ones with white names.
  • White state legislators were found to be less likely to respond to constituents with African-American names. This was true of legislators in both political parties.
  • Emails sent to faculty members at universities, asking to talk about research opportunities, were more likely to get a reply if a stereotypically white name was used.
  • Even eBay auctions were not immune. When iPods were auctioned on eBay, researchers randomly varied the skin color on the hand holding the iPod. A white hand holding the iPod received 21 percent more offers than a black hand.

Lots more in the article, including some analysis as to why this happens.

Reading Shakespeare

My reading goal in 2014 was 52 books (one per week). I ended up reading 66 (and counting). My tentative goal for 2015 is to read all of Shakespeare’s 38 plays.

I started early with The Merchant of Venice.  I read the text first – it’s quite short, but slow, slow going. Shakespeare being Shakespeare, the writing is not…straightforward.  To call it “flowery” would be an insult to flowers.

I bought a book which, along with the script, had a scene-by-scene, Cliff Notes-ish companion. All throughout, I was dismayed at how much I was missing. I would read a scene, then read the summary, and realize that huge parts of it had gone over my head.

In an effort to better understand it, I figured I should watch a performance of it.  Completely by luck, I stumbled on an amazing collection of 14 YouTube videos comprising the entirety of a 1974 TV special.  I watched the entire thing, while reading along with the text, and I learned a lot about the performance of drama:

  • The timing is quite different. My copy of the play had only Shakespeare’s original stage direction, which were minimal. People would make huge speeches, which you could only imagine them standing there and doing as a grand monologue. But in the video, people stopped talking, then moved around the set, then started talking again.  Or they had huge pauses between words that ran together in the text – some sentences, when spoken, began in the middle of a verse in the text, and ended in the middle of another verse. Watching this gave so much more context.  What seemed to be a strange, clearly Shakespearean monologue turned out to be something much less awkward and obvious, broken up between many different actions and gaps in speech which made it seem more natural.
  • There is emotion, in voice, facial expression, and physical performance.  In regular fiction writing, you have adverbs.  Someone can say something “angrily” or “happily.”  In a script, you have no such direction – you just have dialog and stage direction.  Watching Shylock’s reaction when he realizes his daughter has run away made me understand that he blamed Christians for it, and was so happy when Antonio’s ships were sunk, so he could get his pound of flesh.  Watching Laurence Olivier delver this is scene is just amazing. Later, when Gratiano mocks Shylock, and when Shylock screams upon being sentenced – mere words in a screenplay just cannot convey the emotion of these scenes.
  • There is physical context.  When the play is being acted out, there are props and rooms and a sense of physical space.  The scene where Portia’s suitors are selecting “caskets” made so much more sense – they were actually small chests, not the funeral caskets I was envisioning. When the actors were delivering the lines in a decorated set, so much more made sense than it did when you had nothing but the text.

(Also worth nothing about this play in particular: it’s anti-semitic as hell.  It’s uncomfortable in its stereotypical depiction of Jews. I’m wondering if every bigoted perspective of Jewish people as greedy money-lenders came from this play. The character of Shylock the Jew is a grand collection of every negative cliché associated with the Jewish people.)

A script is a tough read in general.  I’m beginning to wonder if my goal to “read” Shakespeare should perhaps instead be a goal to watch a performance of each of his plays, while following along with the script. There’s no doubt that I’ll have to watch each play to make sense of it, and would it be…legal, to do my reading of it at the same time?

Indeed, was drama meant to be watched, rather than read?  Can you read a play and expect to comprehend and appreciate the full weight of it?  I think when you have a combination of (1) language and verbiage very different from contemporary usage, and (2) minimal stage direction, this makes it very hard to envision and understand what’s going on.

Teaching True North

Beverly Joy Davison Barker Huisman WhitleyMy mother died five years ago. I was 38 when she died, an adult with kids of my own. My oldest was a teenager.

Since then, I’ve watched my son graduate high school and start his second year of college. Watching one of your children leave the house is a sobering experience. You have moments of panic where you wonder if you’ve taught them everything they need to know. Are they ready for the world? I am injecting this adult that I have raised into society – will it better or worse for the experience?

Over the years, I keep coming back to thoughts of Mom and what she must have gone through with me. I was a disaster as a child and worse as a young adult. I couldn’t remember anything. I had no ability to keep my room clean. Personal responsibility was an alien concept.  My adolescence was a continual tug of war between Mom and I.  I kept trying to regress into complete disorder, and she kept pulling me back to civilization.

Mom nagged me about grades, though I never improved much. Mom kept on me about cleaning up after myself, though I never did. Mom corrected my English, but I still said things like “I want that really bad” to which she would instantly retort “Badly! You want that really badly.” Mom dragged me to church every Sunday morning, even though I continued to drift away. Mom quoted Bible verses to me, even when I tried hard not to listen.

When I finally left Mom’s house at 21, I wondered, “Is she disappointed with me?  Does she think she failed because I never managed to get my crap together?”  But now, at 43 and with the perspective that goes along with those years, I think I finally understand.

As parents, we have a core responsibility to teach our children how to find “true north.” We owe it to the world to give our children a compass with which they can always orient themselves in the right direction, even if it takes them a while to move that way.  They might get lost on the side of the road, wander aimlessly, even occasionally go backwards.  This is simply the imperfect process of growing up.  But so long as they know where true north is, they can find their way back.

I spent my early 20s wandering in circles. I spent some time in the military, dropped in and out of college, had bad relationships, drank a little too much, and spent money I didn’t have.  By all accounts, I was an aimless wreck.

But all throughout, I knew where true north was.  Even if I was heading in the wrong direction most of the time, I was at least self-aware, and I knew what I should be doing, even if I couldn’t bring myself to actually do it.

I don’t know what Mom thought during this time.  If she was disappointed in me, she never showed it. She loved me relentlessly, and was always available to dispense either support or tough love, depending on the crisis (and there were many).  I suspect she simply put faith in her belief that she had taught me true north, and her hope that eventually I’d circle back in the right direction.

And eventually I did.  I married a wonderful woman, built a business, and I’m in various stages of raising three amazing children. I even ended up on the Board of Trustees of the seminary where Mom worked for years (she would have been absolutely floored by this, had she lived long enough to see it).

I think I’ve put a life together than Mom would be proud of.  It took me a while to get here, but Mom made sure I knew which path would deliver me.

I try to remember this when my girls don’t throw away the little plastic sleeves that the juice box straws come in. I find these all over the kitchen, and no matter how often I point it out, they still end up everywhere. Perhaps one day they’ll learn to throw them away, or perhaps they won’t, but my responsibility as a parent is to make sure they know what the right thing is, even if they leave my house never having done it.

Yes, it’d be wonderful if we could change every undesirable behavior of our children.  Lord knows I’ll never stop trying.  But even if they head into the world not being able to keep their rooms clean, staying up too late, and eating too much sugar, I promise you that I’ll be the nagging voice in the back of their heads.  Call it guilt, call it what you want, but they’ll think of me every time they don’t clean up after themselves or skip church on Sunday morning.  They’ll know true north, and they’ll always know how to find their way back to it.

Now that Mom is gone, I see the path she hoped I would follow, more and more every day. She walked me as far down that path as I would let her, then she let me go, watched me get lost, and eventually find my way back again.

Mom is waiting at the end of that path, somewhere over the horizon. One of the driving forces in her life was to make sure I knew how to find the right way to the end of it.  When I get there, I hope I’ll be able to tell her that I did the same thing for my own children.

Crowd Counting

Here’s an interesting article which makes the point that it’s virtually impossible to figure out how many people actually attend an outdoor event, and some people get pissed about the number that’s estimated.

Disparate crowd counts aren’t uncommon. Just take a look at the controversies surrounding the crowd counts for the Million Man March in 1995, or Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally in 2010. For both events, the “official” crowd count touted by the organizers was much higher than the count released by outside entities. After the Million Man March, the Nation of Islam (who estimated more than 1 million participants) threatened to sue the National Park Service, whose estimate was 400,000.

Where is your Iceland?

I just finished “Brave New World,” a novel written in 1932 which describes the “perfection” of society through science.

Parallel to the advancement of science, “Brave New World” deals in the retardation of creativity and individuality. Humans in civilized society are expected to fit in. “Everyone belongs to everyone else,” is the mantra (indeed, people are bred, with no concept of parentage or family). The masses are tranquilized with regular access to a drug called soma. No one needs to step out of line, because everyone is artificially happy. They worship a God called “Ford,” after Henry Ford, the car manufacturer who championed the assembly line method of production.

Two of the main characters – Bernard Marx and Hermholtz Watson — are misfits who have a lingering distaste for the society in which they live.  Both have been threatened in the past with being forced to leave it. The standard threat is to exile them to an island (usually Iceland), away from civilization, to live with others who have been exiled.

Due to an unfortunate event, these threats come true, and Bernard is dragged out of a room screaming for mercy.  After he leaves, “The Controller” (a man who was a bit of a subversive himself in his younger days) says this:

“One would think he was going to have his throat cut,” said the Controller, as the door closed. “Whereas, if he had the smallest sense, he’d understand that his punishment is really a reward. He’s being sent to an island. That’s to say, he’s being sent to a place where he’ll meet the most interesting set of men and women to be found anywhere in the world. All the people who, for one reason or another, have got too self-consciously individual to fit into community-life. All the people who aren’t satisfied with orthodoxy, who’ve got independent ideas of their own. Every one, in a word, who’s any one. I almost envy you, Mr. Watson.”

The Controller understands that beauty is not in conformity, but in individuality and creativity.  Bernard is being sent to an uncontrolled environment, to live with people just like him: “…the most interesting set of men and women to be found anywhere in the world.”

Hermholtz accepts his fate with more stoicism, as all he has ever wanted to be was a poet:

The Controller smiled. “[…] would you like a tropical climate? The Marquesas, for example; or Samoa? Or something rather more bracing?”

Helmholtz rose from his pneumatic chair. “I should like a thoroughly bad climate,” he answered. “I believe one would write better if the climate were bad. If there were a lot of wind and storms, for example …”

The Controller nodded his approbation. “I like your spirit, Mr. Watson. I like it very much indeed. As much as I officially disapprove of it.” He smiled. “What about the Falkland Islands?”

“Yes, I think that will do,” Helmholtz answered.

May we all find our Iceland or our Falkland Islands someday.

States’ Rights and the Scope of Government

There’s a constant debate in this country about the appropriate size, scope and strength of  government. This debate has raged since all the country was founded and shows no signs of letting up.

Conservatives think all forms of government should be smaller in scope. And while Liberals don’t necessarily want government to be larger just for the sake of being larger (few people will get elected by campaigning for more government), they think that in many cases it needs to be larger in order to adequately enforce justice and fairness.

By size and scope, we mean the “level” at which we are governed.  Considering yourself as a resident of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, you’re subject to multiple levels of government, from smaller to larger:

  1. The City of Sioux Falls
  2. The County of Lincoln or Minnehaha
  3. The State of South Dakota
  4. The Federal Government of the United States

Each “level” has its own laws and rules. Sometimes they contradict each other, and there are rules for how those conflicts are resolved.  In general, the larger government entity wins – county governments can overrule city governments, states can overrule counties, and the federal government of the United States can overrule everyone.

(You need to understand that word: federal. That means the government of the country. Federal means, roughly, “a group of things together,” or a federation. Whenever someone refers to “federal [anything],” they’re referring to that thing at the level of the country government, as opposed to state, county, or city.)

In the Constitution is something called the Supremacy Clause, which reads like this:

This Constitution [...] shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.

Essentially, the federal government wins all conflicts over laws. The federal government is “the supreme law of the land,” and if it has a law about something, that law supersedes anything at a lower level of government.

In complete opposition to this is the idea of “states’ rights.”  States’ rights means that the states have powers that the federal government shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with.  To this end, the Supremacy Clause is held in check by the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which says this:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

This says, essentially, that the federal government can only take powers specifically granted to it by the Constitution. Any powers outside of that belong to the states. This amendment was put in place to placate people who were afraid that a large federal government was just going to suck up all the power it could.

That this was included in the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) speaks volumes about how much the founding fathers of this country wrestled with the scope of government. When this country was being formed, one of the biggest debates was how strong the federal government should be, in opposition to the state governments. The two sides of the debate were the “federalists,” who wanted a strong central government, and the (awkwardly-named) “anti-federalists” that wanted a weaker central government.

(The Federalists wrote a series of articles in the late 1780s, while the current Constitution was under debate. These articles laid out the case for our current government in an attempt to persuade people to ratify it. Collectively, they are called The Federalist Papers and they likely constitute the greatest argument in favor of the current government of the United States. As a sidenote, there was an unorganized counter-effort called The Anti-Federalist Papers, which isn’t nearly as well-known.)

Hundreds of years later, we’re still wrestling with this question. We have never-ending arguments about whether or not the federal government possesses the power to do many of the things it does.

The Civil War was certainly about slavery, but it was also about states who claimed that the federal government had no right to tell them how to deal with slavery. More recently, a lot of the argument about Obamacare has centered largely on whether or not the federal government is allowed to enforce many of the laws and rules that program requires to operate. (States have implemented things very close to Obamacare, and no one complained. It became a big issue only when the federal government tried to do it.)

In fact, a lot of cases in front of the Supreme Court aren’t even about the merits of whether or not some law should or should not be enacted. Rather, they’re arguing about whether or not the federal government tried to take power away from the states in violation of the Tenth Amendment.

Why do we care about this?  A Conservative would cite three reasons against larger government:

  1. Larger government doesn’t always represent the governed
  2. Larger government runs the risk of over-reaching and becoming oppressive
  3. Larger government is inefficient

First, many people, especially conservatives, feel that government needs to be as “close” to the governed as possible, and larger government shouldn’t be allowed to indiscriminately rule over smaller government. The argument is that The City of Sioux Falls knows what a resident of Sioux Falls wants and needs more than the county, state, or country, so the city would be more effective in addressing those needs.

Put another way, trying to enforce the same laws in Texas (very conservative) and Massachusetts (very liberal) leads to problems. You can’t blanket a hugely diverse country like ours with laws that will violate the conscience and ideals of large groups of people. Therefore, laws should take into account the beliefs and desires of the governed, and we are so different across this country that the only way to make sure this happens is to try to “drive down” government to the level closest to those subjected to its laws.

Second, the United States has a bad history with government. Remember that we broke away from England in the late 1700s, which was the very definition of an oppressive government. It ruled us from across the Atlantic (at a time when communication took months), extracted a lot of taxes, and didn’t do much in return. Therefore, fear and loathing of a large, detached government runs deep in this country. We’re quite different from the countries of Europe in this respect. They have a more trusting and welcoming opinion of government, where many people in this country are still influenced by the memory of our original relationship with the British.

This feeling is strong with conservatives.  In his first inaugural address, Ronald Reagan famously said (emphasis mine):

“Government isn’t the solution to our problem; it is the problem.”

These memories also play apart in America’s love affair with personal firearms. Many gun owners just don’t think the government should interfere, but a segment of this group also believes citizens have a responsibility to arm themselves in the event the federal government tries to seize too much power. Armed insurrection is a very real option for these people, and any attempt of the federal government to regulate their gun ownership is part of a sinister program to de-arm them in order to control them. This might seem far-fetched, but it’s just a small — and perhaps extreme — example of the underlying suspicion Americans generally have of their own government.

Also remember that the current Constitution wasn’t our first form of government. Originally, we created the Articles of Confederation, which effectively made states like little countries – they could print their own money, have treaties with other states, etc. The federal government had very little power over the states. This situation lasted for about a decade before we decided it was unworkable and moved to more tightly unify the country under the Constitution. So, understand that the current configuration of the United States is an even larger government than some of the original founding fathers wanted.

Third, the United States is a big country, and scaling government laws and policies to 350 million people can be tough to do. This argument against larger government says that states can do things more efficiently than the federal government, and the federal government has a long history of screwing things up because it’s just too big.

Additionally, there is repetition and overlap are different levels. When Texas governor Rick Perry ran for president in 2012, one of his promised initiatives was to eliminate the federal Department of Education. Many people were horrified: “He doesn’t want to educate children?!”  These people forgot that every state also has a Department of Education, and most every city has a school district. What Perry was trying to say is that education is something we can leave to the states, and not spend money at the federal level to manage it.

So, in the face of all that, why would we want larger government?  Why would be want the federal government to step in and rule over states?  A couple reasons:

  1. Laws from one level of government to another are so different and “patchworked” that it causes inefficiency in commerce
  2. Laws from one level of government violate some national/federal principle of human rights

An example of the former is dealing with rules that interfere with “interstate commerce,” which is when someone tries to conduct business across state lines.  In 1959, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that Illinois couldn’t require a certain type of mudflap on trucks, since no other state did, and in doing this, it made it harder to do business since regular mudflaps were now illegal in Illinois and trucks often had to cross Illinois on their way to somewhere else. The Court said this was a hindrance of interstate commerce and the federal government could nullify this law, which is considered a landmark ruling against states rights and in favor of the federal government.

For the latter, consider gay rights.  The Constitution (the federal law) prohibits discrimination on the basis of things like sex, religion, etc., but not on sexual orientation. This means it’s still within the states’ rights to allow employers to fire a gay employee just because they’re gay. Gay rights activists say this isn’t fair, and that this violates a national principle of fairness, and that all states should be simply required to protect gay employees.Therefore, many believe the federal government needs to exercise the Supremacy Clause and require all states to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Issues of states’ rights and the size and scope of government are a never-ending tug-of-war in this country. Every year, dozens of cases make it to the appellate courts that ask for a ruling on whether or not a state or the federal government has the right to do something.

Should each state have broad powers to govern itself without interference? Or are we better served as a country by a strong central government which prevents states from deviating too far from a national standard of legislation?  Are we fifty strong, individual states which happen to form a nation together?  Or are we more of a single, unified nation which just happens to be divided into fifty states?

A defining principle of a political perspective is where you think the balance of power should lie between the different levels of government, and how strong you think our federal government should be.

Forced Cosmetic Surgery of the Ears

A Hard Look at Brazil’s Kidnapping Industry: Well, this is sobering.

The men had to prove they were serious. Her family needed to know they’d do whatever the kidnappers demanded. So the men cut off her ears.


In the video, her ears are immaculate. You would never know criminals had sawed them off. This is São Paulo, Brazil. Kidnappings are so common here that an industry of plastic surgeons specializing in ear replacements earns millions every year.