Tuesday, May 10, 2016

In praise of distracted, Internet-addled writing

In his review of Freewrite's "Smart Typewriter," Ian Bogost offers praise for the pre-Internet era of writing, when one could set one's fingers to the keyboard and simply write, without all the distractions and bells and whistles that a wifi connection bring to the process.

There's more than a hint of protesting too much.

No one would reasonably dispute that writing tools affect the shape and content of both writing and the thought that goes into writing, but it's mistaken to suggest — as Bogost seems to — the the older, slower way was necessarily deeper. Here's an odd passage:
For Nietzsche, the typewriter offered a way to write despite his deteriorating vision (and sanity). He knew that tools changed their users; “Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts,” Nietzsche aphorized. These are facts I happen to know just because they were memorable, not because I remember facts like these regularly anymore. I’ve long since outsourced such easily-rediscovered knowledge to the Internet.
Here's the thing: The human brain is at once both wondrous and limited. In writing this essay 30 or 40 years ago, Bogost might've dropped the exact same knowledge from memory — or, if he (as is often the case with this kind of learning) remembered-ish Nietzsche's comment, he would've gone into the stacks of books (his own, or perhaps a library's) to find the comment, quote it precisely, and cite it. Now, if he's unsure, he can Google it up. Good writing rarely stops and starts with the writer's brain and the writing tools; it's often augmented by reporting and research, knowledge of not just how to marshal facts in service of a story or argument, but how to marshal those facts. Forty years ago, Bogost might've written: "I've outsourced such easily-rediscovered knowledge to the encyclopedia," and it would've sounded silly as a lament. We writers use such tools to enlarge our understanding, and our craft.

Our old arguments don't explain Donald Trump. (Or, why point-counterpoint is in danger.)

Dennis Prager's approach to column-writing is pretty simple: A) Something is bad in the world. B) Democrats are at fault. So goes his explanation for the rise of Donald Trump.

It's tendentious and dumb — as per usual with Prager — but reading it made me consider a possibility: The old right vs. left construct of our debates might be a bad template going forward. It depends on how much Trumpism survives 2016. If this is more than a one-off, then "telling both sides of the story" won't work anymore, nor will point-counterpoint presentations. (I say that as somebody who co-authors a nationally syndicated point-counterpoint column.)  Trumpism has an array of causes, and grafting an explanation for him onto our old debates seems to not quite hit the point. We're going to need new arguments.

Vulture ponders: "Why X-Men: Apocalypse Is Generating So Little Excitement"

Unexplored possibility: We're at peak super-hero, and maybe after two giant comic-based adventure movies in the last six weeks - including one a week ago -  maybe we're about all ka-blammed! out.

Teaching Philly kids to use guns — the right way

Two years ago, trying to find a radical solution to the gun violence problem in Philadelphia, I suggested that maybe it was time to stop clamping down on guns and time to start inculcating a culture of responsible gun ownership and usage. It was kind of a controversial idea. 

While there are plenty of guns circulating in Philadelphia, there are also plenty of guns — per-capita, at least — in my home state of Kansas. Yet there are relatively few gun deaths there: As best I can tell, 9.9 gun deaths per 100,000 residents in Kansas, compared to 24.3 in Philadelphia. (The comparisons aren’t quite exact, but I think the disparity between those two numbers is probably in the neighborhood of correct.) Why? 
One of the reasons, surely, is that cities are simply more violent places: Living cheek by jowl can produce short tempers; short tempers can produce violence. 
But it’s also true that my rural friends have built a culture of gun safety that goes hand-in-hand with the culture of gun ownership. The clearest expression of this: To get a hunter’s license in Kansas, you must complete a 10-hour hunter safety course — heavy, of course, with lessons on how to handle firearms safely and respectfully. Some classes are taught by the NRA, but a hunter safety course was offered in my rural Kansas middle school back in the late 1980s.

Today, Helen Ubinas reports somebody else had the idea, too, and is running with it. Meet Maj Toure:

While gun-control advocates are forever looking for ways to reduce the number of guns in circulation, Toure favors dealing with a gun culture that isn't going anywhere, believing that legal gun ownership and training can reduce crime. In a city where so many people die by guns, I'd love to believe that solution would work. But my guess is that the people who go to the trouble of educating themselves about what it takes to own and handle a gun legally aren't the yahoos creating chaos with guns on the streets. 
"I was 15, walking around with a gun I had no idea how to use and no real respect for," he said. "In hindsight, I wish there would have been somebody to say, hey, this is a firearm, it's not a game. So when I'm seeing other people living out the same scenario, I want to be that adult teaching them properly."

Toure's militance puts Ubinas off a bit — he apparently favors black gun ownership as a deterrence against police brutality. It's worth noting, though, that Second Amendment activists often suggest that private gun ownership is a means of restraining government; Toure is well within NRA norms on that one. And for what it's worth, gun control efforts largely have their roots in white fears of an armed black populace. I'm curious to see what impact Toure's efforts have in Philadelphia. It's a hell of an experiment, at the very least. 

Senate GOP investigates Facebook

If Facebook really has biased its feed results against conservative outlets, that truly sucks. But I wonder if my conservative friends think that warrants government intrusion into the company's affairs, and if so: On what basis?

Thursday, May 5, 2016

WaPo: Hillary can win only by deferring to the sensitive egos of short-fingered men

Wonder if Hillary has a sexism problem? Read this morning's column by Danielle Allen in the Washington Post:
Consider her slogan, “Fighting for us.” For many men, this slogan would have to be experienced as emasculating. 
Wait. Really? Are America's men really so easily afflicted with a sense of emasculation?

A woman fighting for them? Rightly or wrongly, the slogan rubs the wrong way in relation to traditional notions of masculinity. 
Apparently so.
Her slogan itself reveals a limited conception of who she seeks to represent. 
This, I don't get. "Us" is a fairly broad and innocuous term. The only way the slogan could be more rhetorically inclusive is if it it was "Fighting for us AND them." But that, uh, would present its own set of challenges.

How does Allen suggest Clinton overcome her problem?
Personally, she should meet his insults with a cheery silence, or a lighthearted deflectionary joke.
Don't want to seem like an angry feminist! This, of course, cedes too much ground to Donald Trump -- he's free to continue his misogyny and the advice is not to counter it and call it out for what it is, but to smile and say something pleasant. It's the same advice women have been getting for years, and it's mostly been offered in order to keep men from feeling uncomfortable in the face of women's frustration with the behavior of bros.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Are conservatives relevant to 2016's politics?

One relief about the rise of Donald Trump is that his alienation from the conservative intellectuals in the Republican Party means he can’t — and probably won’t — gussy up his campaign with any pretense that it’s about restoring limited-government Constitutionalism to American governance. We don’t really know if Trump even has a theory of Constitutional interpretation, but his public statements seem skeptical of the idea that his presidency would be one that could be checked or balanced.

Why is this a relief? Because for all the talk my smart conservative friends have about the Founders, liberty, fiscal rectitude, and a strict-constructionist view of the Constitution, Republicans don’t actually govern that way all that often. George W. Bush was more or less handpicked by the conservative establishment, and defended vociferously by it, but his administration was defined by both mounting deficits (just like Reagan’s!) and its attempts to innovate theories of expanded executive power. (Remember the unitary executive?) Republicans often talk a sort of libertarian talk, but they don’t walk it very often. And there's plenty of evidence that's not really what their voters want from them anyway, except when a Democrat is president. (When a Democrat is elected, they beat their chests, try to make the Democrat conform more fully to their constitutional vision, and promise to do better next time.) This election, at least, they won’t talk it, either.

Here’s the weird news: That means the argument is about to change.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Long Struggle Against Trumpism

Well, that's it. Donald Trump is your presumptive GOP nominee for president.

I do not think he will win the presidential election — but I don't take  his loss for granted. I'm more worried about a repeat of 1964. Barry Goldwater went down in flames. But his candidacy provided the platform for Ronald Reagan's political career. And the battle of 1964 was won, ultimately, in 1980.

Does Trumpism have that kind of staying power? I suspect yes, but I'm a pessimist. If so, then, we who disagree with Trumpism have to work to defeat him this year — but his spiritual successors in years to come, as well. Will the battle of 2016 be decided in 2032? We should prepare for that possibility.

One way to battle Trumpism: Acknowledge that some of Trumpism's underlying causes have merit. (Not all of them: The anti-Semites and racists are just evil people.) Those of us who have been nattering on about income inequality for years — well, this is a reason why. When people finally get tired of the Way Things Are, they rarely change things in a pretty or pleasing way. Stuff gets broken. And there's no point in complaining about the mess. So maybe it would be better to address some of those issues proactively.

It's probably the work of a lifetime.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Netflix Queue: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

Three thoughts about E.T., coming up after the trailer....

1. My family watched E.T. tonight — for me, the first full sit-through since I originally saw the movie as a 9-year-old in 1982. Back then, popular movies stuck around in the theaters for a few months; they didn't do all their business the first week or two. So after months of increasing word-of-mouth, my parents took us to see. I remember crying when E.T. died and shouting with joy when the kids took off into the air on their bicycles.

My 7-year-old son didn't get teary-eyed tonight. But the adults did. And when Elliott and ET took the air and sailed "across the moon," my boy did, in fact, shout out with delight. What can I say? It made me happy the movie can still connect, and it made me happy that my blockbuster-blitzed son isn't already jaded.

2. One thing Spielberg does in the movie is create the world as a children's world. Something I'd never noticed before: Except for Dee Wallace, as E.T.'s mother, you never directly see an adult's face for the entire movie until Peter Coyote shows his, three-quarters of the way in, after the family's house has been sealed off and quarantined.

3. Henry Thomas as Elliott: Gives an amazing performance by a child actor, actually. So does Drew Barrymore. They feel real, not like kids acting. Some of that, I'm sure, has to be Spielberg's directing.

Bonus point: Since I obsessively re-watch movies I love, why no return visit to E.T. until now? I'm not sure. I think I was afraid I'd find it overly saccharine as an adult. That didn't turn out to be the case. But it might be also true that I did revisit E.T. obsessively when I was a kid: My uncle owned the movie's novelization — do they still do that? — and I read and re-read that paperback until it literally fell apart. The movie I created in my mind's eye was as rich as what had appeared on screen, and for a long time, it served my purposes.

And yes: For several years, I fantasized about finding my own extra-terrestrial. Never happened.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Netflix Queue: No, Punisher isn't "Daredevil's" most moral character

I actually enjoy Marvel on Netflix better than most of what the company brings to the big screen. So this piece at The Federalist caught my eye:
The Punisher, who murders dozens, if not hundreds, of people in the second season of Netflix’s “Daredevil,” is actually the most moral character on the show. 
Daredevil, who’s willing to break every law and ethical rule on the road to putting villains in useless prisons but unwilling to go any further, willingly participates in a vicious cycle that makes a mockery of justice. Allowing the revolving door of crime to continue ad infinitum is naive at best and immoral at worst. The Punisher realizes this and attempts to end the cycle instead.
Through murder, of course.

Now, we're talking about comic book characters here, so this probably isn't a topic worth dwelling on too long but a counterpoint is needed here. If your viewpoint is that there's good and evil and evil can only be overcome by being destroyed, maybe the writer — Stephen Gutowski — has a point.

But if your moral framework includes the possibility of redemption — of being lost, then found; of making the journey from darkness into light — then the Punisher's ethos has to be reconsidered.

Gutowski all but calls Daredevil a "wimp" in his piece here, and it's true that Matt Murdock's angst in the Netflix show can get a bit overbearing sometimes. But it's interesting that Gutowski never quotes Murdock's defense of his "take them off the streets but let them live" approach:
DD: What about hope? 
P: Oh, f*ck. DD: Come on, Frank... 
P: You wanna talk about Santa Claus? 
DD: You wanna talk about Santa Claus? I live in the real world too, and I've seen it. 
P: Yeah? What have you seen? 
DD: Redemption, Frank. P: Ah, Jesus Christ. 
DD: It's real. And it's possible. The people you murder deserve another chance. 
P: What, to kill again? Rape again? Is that what you want? 
DD: No, Frank. To try again, Frank. (panting) To try.
I'm lapsed in my own faith, but I'm reminded (as I so often am) of John 8:
8 But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people were coming to Him; and He sat down and began to teach them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees *brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, 4 they *said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?” 6 They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground. 7 But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court. 10 Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” 11 She said, “No one, [a]Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”]
If Jesus wanted to guarantee the woman sinned no more, of course, he could have stood by and watched as the Pharisees killed her. Instead, he reminded everybody of their own moral failings, and admonished her to do better.

Morality untempered by humility, given the power over life and death, is often twisted into something ugly and, frankly, immoral in and of itself. It's a tension that makes for great storytelling — the Punisher is a great character, and so is Javert, and hell, so is the John Lithgow character in "Footloose." Frank Castle might be "Daredevil's" most interesting character this season, but most moral? Nah. That's too easy.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The NYT says American productivity is stagnant. Here's a theory why.

The New York Times observes that American productivity is stagnant, and considers three theories why.
During the 2008 recession, labor productivity soared. Was this because employers laid off their least productive workers first? Because everybody worked harder, fearful for their jobs? Or was it a measurement problem as government statistics-takers struggled to capture fast-moving changes in the economy? We don’t know for sure.
None of the Times' three theories use this armchair psychoanalysis to consider one obvious reason American workers aren't more productive these days:

It isn't friggin' worth it.

Since the end of the Great Recession, Americans have become more and more aware — aided by growing discussion of income inequality and movements like Occupy Wall Street — of two very salient points:

• For decades, American productivity has soared.

• During those same decades, worker wages have stagnated.

Here's The Atlantic, reporting in February 2015:
Though productivity (defined as the output of goods and services per hours worked) grew by about 74 percent between 1973 and 2013, compensation for workers grew at a much slower rate of only 9 percent during the same time period, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute.
That increased productivity has been good for the bottom line of a lot of businesses, but it hasn't meant boo to most workers. (Top earners, though, have seen their income and wealth soar.) Why have Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump been so successful this  election cycle? Because a fundamental American promise — worker harder, you'll probably do better — seems to be broken.

I come from the news industry, where we've spent most of the last couple of decades under constant pressure to do more with less, more with less, more with less. At some point, there's no more to be wrung from less. And if giving more won't gain you more, why not just put in your time, clock out at the end of the day, and stress out a little bit less?

This isn't the kind of thing that economists measure, I don't suppose. But maybe productivity is declining because workers are tired of the cycle. Maybe they need incentives.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

How can you vote for Hillary Clinton and call yourself progressive?

Good question. Easy answer. I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000. I think we all remember how that worked out.

OK. Time to go vote.

Gonna cast a ballot for Hillary, hope she defends the progressive gains of the last eight years, and pray she doesn't choose to needlessly invade a Middle Eastern country.

It's a gamble.

What Vox gets wrong about Mississippi's anti-LGBT law.

Vox's explainer gets a little too cute today in discussing state-level LGBT laws:

What if I told you Mississippi's law doesn't actually allow anything new?

Now, the new law does technically allow discrimination against LGBTQ people: It lets bakery owners, for instance, cite religious beliefs to deny services to same-sex couples seeking to buy a wedding cake. 
But even before the new law was passed, this type of anti-LGBTQ discrimination was entirely legal in the state, because neither Mississippi nor any municipality in the state included sexual orientation or gender identity in its nondiscrimination protections. So it was already legal for Mississippi businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people, whether they cited religious beliefs or just said they don't like gay or transgender people.
This is both true — and good on Vox for helping readers understand that gays don't have protection in many places — but also kind of missing the point.

No, gays didn't have that legal protection in many states. But it's also a relatively new thing to write into the law that certain types of discrimination will be explicitly protected by the state.

As much as anything, laws have signaling functions: In this case, they allow a specific group (Christians) to deny services to a specific group (gays) in a way that's pretty rare in the rest of our laws.

I'm on record saying I'd rather my gay friends and Christian friends find solutions that avoid big fights like this — there ought to be room for both sides to exercise their rights without it becoming a zero-sum game that nobody really wins — and Vox is right that discrimination against gays is often legal.

But the law was silent before. It now affirms the discrimination. The effect may be moot, but the signal is not. That's new, and it's troubling.

Friday, April 22, 2016

No, Curt Schilling is not a free speech martyr.

Some angry talk these days from my conservative friends about ESPN's firing of famed pitcher Curt Schilling after Schilling posted some anti-transgender comments to social media the other day. "Progressive America is sending a message," National Review's David French wrote. "In the institutions it controls, there is no distinction between the personal and professional. Keep dissent to yourself. All your words belong to your boss."

I don' think that's quite the lesson to draw here.

This is what Curt Schilling posted:

It's a distasteful, near-pornographic image — one that, even if it said something like AMERICA IS THE GREATEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD or VOTE FOR BERNIE SANDERS might've caused most people a bit of faint-heartedness.

Now, understand too: Schilling had already been suspended last fall for THIS post:

Too me, the sentiment is objectionable without being pornographic. This is the incident I might've criticized ESPN about. But Schilling, at the time, very much affirmed ESPN's right and wisdom to take him off-air.

"I understand and accept my suspension. 100% my fault. Bad choices have bad consequences and this was a bad decision in every way on my part," he wrote.

So Schilling knew there was a line, and had affirmed his employer's right to hold that line.

I have no idea what Schilling's contract said, but if you're ESPN, you're not just paying Schilling for his opinions, but to express himself in a manner that's entertaining, insightful -- and, because it's a business, doesn't turn too many customers away at the door. Cause people to want to actually turn away from your product, and, well, you have a problem. ESPN is not in the business of supporting expression that makes it *harder* for the company to do business.

Listen: ESPN knew — everybody knew — that Schilling is a conservative when the network hired him. If it hated conservative expression so much, that move is impossible to imagine. It knew what it was getting.

So if Schilling had said something along the lines of: "I have concerns about sending my daughter to bathrooms with people who are born men and I support the North Carolina law," most likely he'd have his job, without changing the underlying substance of what he said. He might've caused an outcry; ESPN would've distanced itself from his remarks; maybe he'd have been given a warning of sorts. Bad enough, certainly. 

Instead, he chose to say it with one of the more grotesquely offensive, off-putting — and, yes, outlying — images possible. That there are consequences from his employer does not make him a free speeh martyr.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

How to solve the problem of bathrooms and gender: Privacy for everybody!

My memories of sixth grade: Moving to a new town, starting middle school, and being herded into group showers with a bunch of naked boys I’d just met.

It’s not a pleasant memory. After a lifetime of being educated on modesty, I suddenly found myself thrust into the most immodest of situations: The requirement that we take showers at the end of our P.E. classes. The boy’s locker room at my new middle school was cramped and had one big shower with a half-dozen nozzle for considerably more than a half-dozen boys. Exacerbating the discomfort? Some of us were hitting puberty faster than others.

Some of us, like me, were hitting it a little later.

That wasn’t the only upsetting feature of the experience. There was the kid who, after showering, put his socks on before putting his underwear. Who does that? Worse yet: My experience with an older kid — I think he’d been held back at least once — who had, to my tender eyes, the body of man: He loomed over me, freakishly hairy in all the spots you’d expect, with muscles that God never quite chose to bestow upon me. Whichever nozzle I managed to claim, even briefly, was the one he decided should be his own.

Ever had to fight naked in the showers? There’s nothing good about it.

All this makes me think that we’re trying to answer the wrong question in the current debate over what bathrooms should be used by which people of which gender identities. The real question is this: Why do we expect people of any gender or orientations to place themselves in a situation where they might be regularly expected to see somebody else’s genitals — or be seen?

Why should anybody have to give up that privacy?

"How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk": Why I hope Bernie stays in the race a little longer.

The decision between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in next week's Pennsylvania primary has been a tough one for me — though my heart says "Bernie," my head says "Clinton," largely because I believe he can't deliver on his vision but that she can, at the very least, defend and cement Democratic gains of the last eight years.

But NYT Mag's story, "How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk" reminds me that I think she's shown some awful judgment on the foreign policy front, and it includes this — to me — chilling sentence:

Well then.

Here's my problem: That awful summation doesn't change my earlier assessment. But I'm not interested in supporting her hawkishness. What's a dovish lefty to do?

Root for Bernie to hang around a little longer, I think.

There's been some talk this week, after Clinton's win in the New York primaries, that Bernie should bow out for the greater good of the Democratic Party. I don't think that's true: Hillary stuck around in 2008 long past the point it seemed clear that Barack Obama would win the nomination, and he did fine in the general election.

The dynamics aren't quite the same this year, but: The longer Bernie sticks in the race and continues to attract significant support, the more Clinton gets the message — not all of us are on board with your entire agenda. It's something she needs to hear, I think.

In 2008, she lost the nomination when Obama ran to her left. Bernie's done the same thing this year and made securing the top spot more difficult than she imagined. Will that make a difference if she gets to the White House? I don't know. But it can't hurt.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

About Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill....

Dems: Hey, you know, all the people on our currency are dead white dudes. Maybe we should put  a woman or somebody of color on the $10 bill.


Dems: OK.

Rs: ....

(The end.)

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Air from Kobe Bryant's last game is being auctioned.

Shake. My. Head.

But that reminds me of an interesting factoid: "Every time you breathe, there’s a good chance that at least one of those molecules was exhaled by Julius Caesar in the throes of death."

The lesson: If you want some Kobe air, just ... wait awhile. You'll get it sooner or later.

Conservatives, cops, and crime: Three questions

Why do conservatives think it's contradictory to want police to both enforce the law and obey it?

Why do conservatives refer to Obamacare in the language of "tyranny" while rooting on the excesses of police?

Why do they think we refer to authoritarian regimes as "police states" and not as "universal health care states?"