Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Coffee. Lettuce. Get over it.

The S word is just the E word in disguise.

From a Slate magazine article comes word on Microsoft's initial foray into addressing the amusing Mac/PC ads (what kept them? I've been enjoying these ads for a couple of years now.) Nonetheless, Slate says of Microsoft's reply::
Even if they are a little saccharine, the core message of Microsoft's ads—that Apple is snooty—should resonate. That's because Apple is snooty. Here's a quote from Steve Jobs, circa the mid-1990s: "The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste. They have absolutely no taste." Apple's corporate identity is built on that mind-set—on its supposed underdog exclusivity, on the idea that choosing a Mac is an act of noble rebellion against the totalitarian IBM-Microsoft regime. Apple has been very successful in cementing this image. I once asked Jason Snell, the editorial director of the company that publishes Macworld magazine, about the difference between people who buy Macs and people who buy Windows. No one buys Windows, he said. There are only Mac people: people who've consciously chosen to buy a computer for its differences. Folks who use Windows didn't choose to use Windows—they don't make any decision at all. They just took what everyone else had.
Sorry? For most people, this is exactly the case.There are tons of stores where it is not possible to buy Apple hardware or software, because of Microsoft exclusivity agreements, which go beyond Mac/PC to which versions of Microsoft products may be sold. When Vista came out, for instance, I was just acquiring my current zippy new system with a brain as big as a planet. I had to go to the computer version of a guy in an alley to buy a copy of XP Pro. Future Shop had been ordered to send back all their copies to give Vista a free run.

What really caught my attention, however, was the dogwhistle term "snooty" in the article above. It's a term equivalent to "elitist" on political discourse, and thus I distrust it wherever found. It strips away the possibility that the "elite" or "snooty" thing might actually be better than, or even different from the alternative, leaving only the sneer floating in the air like the Cheshire cat's smile.

My experience with Macs is that the snootiness is well deserved. Pervasive beauty is the first thing I notice. Clean function, good security, speed and friendliness to the user are typical of the world of Mac. The keyword (as with Google in all its incarnation) is generosity.

Contrast PC's world, which can be handsome but is undercut by questionable security, huge quivering applications sitting on your hard drive like Jabba the Hutt, and formats as demanding and unreasonable as a very unreasonable thing. Oh, and they conscript their customers as frontline beta (and sometimes alpha) testers. The keyword is miserly.

But let's go back to the word "elite". It's a favorite epithet of the right wing. Why do you suppose that is? Simply, it's a multipurpose weapon in the class wars, like a Swiss Army Epithet.

It's used to scorn the tastes of others, especially others with more money than sense. Arugula! Latte! Feh. They're just fancy cabbage and strong coffee with milk, their only real elitism is their richer flavour and learning to spell them.

Much worse is the use of "elite" to short circuiting access to understanding, by scorning the learned and the experienced with their fine-grained grasp of topics which, if understood, would necessarily drive decisions in economy and social policy, among other areas.

Whose interests are served by neutering of knowledge and the raising of artificial barriers of scorn between large groups? The poor but intelligent Mac crowd versus the clueless but wealthy PCers eerily echoes the rifts between most Americans versus the true elites of the USA -- you know, the 1% or 0.1% with enough money to have arugula and fresh strawberries for breakfast and a latte maker in every guest bedroom? Tousled Mac and neurotic PC in the Apple ads differ only because of their mutual regard and even affection -- no trace of which transfers to the class conflict.

Do I mind that some people have Matterhorns of cash while most live down near sea level? Not in itself. But that so many live below sea level, is troubling.

The scorning of knowledge and division of the peoples is an ill in itself. The language changes in every generation, but the tactics of divide-and-blame and coloring book discourse are perennial, and their results predictable. One, they move benefits upwards and detriments downwards. Two, they decrease the overall wealth of the whole nation.


I'm a PC, and I'm Worried About My Image
Microsoft's $300 million campaign to prove Windows isn't lame.
By Farhad Manjoo

Posted on Slate, Monday, Sept. 29, 2008, at 4:08 PM ET

Monday, September 29, 2008

It's Called "Bomb Surfing"

Suppose you are an avid surfer, but there are no waves today or the waves aren't big enough to suit you. You can:

a) surf on the waves you have, not the waves you wish you had
b) add another sport to your repertoire
c) drop a huge bomb out to sea and surf on those waves

The financial inventors over the past seven or ten years -- the hedge fundies and the tranchifiers and the Pere Noel's of the mortgage market -- in one way or another stirred up the waves and were admired for their surfing prowess.

Now, the starfish and driftwood and dead whales are coming home to roost. The surfers are possibly losers in this aftermath, but not as much as they deserve. Meanwhile the grownups and the Red Cross are strapping on their gas masks and picking up their shovels.


Saturday, September 27, 2008

The White Knight Runs Amok

It was broad daylight when I heard the news on the radio, but I was nonetheless tempted to pinch myself good and hard to make sure that I wasn't in Wonderland. For a minute, I thought that my ears had fooled me as they often do, because I couldn't believe that Stephane Dion had actually scrapped Lesley Hughes under an accusation of anti-Semitism.

In Lewis Carroll's weird and backward land, cardboard playing cards and flowers walk and talk, and the land itself is a chessboard of divided fields -- quite a lot like Manitoba, actually. The chess pieces move in their prescribed paths across the board, while other characters unrelated to the game wander through, intent on their own errands, quite a lot like the world of politics, actually.

In that "children's story" which gives much more to adults than to the kiddies, the savage Red Queen ran around with only one prescription -- "off with their heads!" -- and that prescription applied to almost everyone for almost any transgression. But in a twist that Wonderlands Wonderland itself, the man calling for Lesley Hughes head, Stephane Dion, is no Red Queen. He's an almost archetypal White Knight, far more likely to fall off his horse while thinking of another brilliant plan or invention. In Wonderland, the White Knight is kindly, thoughtful and protective. In the real world I have to wonder what on earth Dion was thinking.

Out east, maybe Lesley is an unknown, but back here in Manitoba, Lesley Hughes is a well-known Winnipeg journalist, teacher and perennial social activist, and this has been the case for as long as I've known her name -- thirty years at least. She has spoken and written with passion on these topics, whether poverty, racial prejudice, wrongful conviction and all the others, for all this time, without ever wavering from her fierce protectiveness.

To my irritation, I could not find the original article that was supposed to be her downfall. I would be very grateful to anyone who could get me a link. Looking at the news today, they traced back to so-called accusation five years or more to an obscure church newsletter which is quoted and referenced, but not linked to. The quote was read in its entirety on air on the CBC yesterday (Friday) afternoon, but only once that I heard it. Judging from that quote, it sounded as though her alleged anti-Semitism consisted of her quoting a German source -- not originating the thought herself. Without access to the rest of the article, it's difficult to speak about this except in reference to Ms. Hughes history and other work. Nonetheless, the disconnect between the two is so severe that I can't believe the accusation.

What is even more peculiar is that the verbal transgressions of the Canadian right wing (at least, those allowed to speak) has been so flagrant and so egregious that that mocking website The Canadian Cynic never goes more than a few hours without a well deserved bout of mockery. The natural opinions of the Harperites have been effectively smothered over the past five years of Harper's Conservative party, only occasionally breaking out like an especially large pimple with not nearly enough foundation to cover it.

Harper himself has spent God knows how much money and attention in this election cycle trying to paint himself as a cuddly Father Knows Best, with mixed results. And yet his chilliness and the plethora of Conservative faux pas’s doesn't seem to have as much effect as a single possible misstatement written about the same time that Peter MacKay was lying to David Orchard and thereby lying the foundations of Harper's Conservative party. It is as though a cup of pure mud is preferable to a cup of milk with a tiny nubbin of mud in it.

Dion may have made the politically correct decision here; without seeing the original document I can’t tell. But I can tell you his political street cred has lost a lot of its punch as far as I am concerned. He still has one huge advantage – he is better than the Harper Conservatives. But hell, so’s Gilles Duceppe, and he’s a separatist.


A final word about the whole 9/11 truther phenomenon. Like so many people around the world, I also stood in my bare feet and bathrobe watching the towers in real time as the two airliners took them down. At that point, George Bush had been in office in his first term for only seven months. And yet, as I watched the destruction, unable yet to feel the full horror of what was happening, one thought floated to the surface of my mind -- "What a stroke of luck for that son of a bitch." And part of me wondered and still wonders how much of it was luck, how much was neglect and how much was intentional.

I've read some of the arguments, and I do consider it very unlikely that the Bush administration intentionally took down the towers, or otherwise cooperated in the destruction. Mainly, I don't think that they are competent enough to do that without it being known and I don't think such a terrible secret could have been contained. I reject the idea that the towers were somehow mined in order to make doubly certain of their total destruction. I don't think anyone, even the bombers, foresaw that.

But here is what remains after all these years: it is still thinkable to many non-crazy adults that the Bush administration might have done such a thing if they had believed they could get away with it. If you can judge by its results, the falling of the towers was a Reichstag event in the USA, leading to extraordinary powers to the president and widespread suspension of civil liberties, (though the original Reichstag got more bang for its buck – one building burned and no-one died.)

In watching the current (US) election, always at the back of my mind is the expectation that sometime in the next month we will see another burning of the Reichstag, in some form or other. So far as I know, no one’s running a book on it yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

One of the Largest Lakes in the World -- September

A few shots of Lake Winnipeg, with white soft sand and beaches that run for miles.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Aunt Velma, Silverback Butch, and the Obligate Game

The chief goal of terrorism is to change the rules of the game, by pushing the opponent into a completely different game, one which he cannot win. It isn’t necessary that the terrorist be able to win, just that you lose. It’s like a losing chess player pulling a knife. The fact of the knife changes the chess game unilaterally into a game where you, too, need a knife, and the ivory and ebony markers of civil society are meaningless.

A single bomb can end rational interaction, kills rational or irrational opponents, and sends spectators running. It trumps skill and strategy and targets all agents of judgment or even observation.

Any game which has the quality of forcing the other player into participation, is called an obligate game. Terrorism is one, but not the only one. It is always less civil, less fair and less nuanced than non-obligate games. It yields less prosperous outcomes and is usually wasteful of resources and people. However it can be a powerful tool for the outclassed opponent.

And it doesn’t need guns or bombs. Your Aunt Velma can do it too. The hated silver tea service kept polished because Velma might stop by, the children dressed to evade her scorn of jeans and sneakers, the hiding of books and choosing of churches in order to not upset Velma, are all evidence of her unilateral imposition of her standards on her family. Velma would never consider that her preferences might be anything but laws of nature or God, and her disapproval goes far beyond a wrinkled nose to the territory of screaming and threatening. Velma isn’t a Victorian prude, but a hurricane of family destruction, promising to ruin Christmases or birthdays with her judgmental bombs unless her relatives take her preferences into account.

Family members like Velma can be avoided, thank heavens. You can move to Australia as a last resort (or Saskatchewan, if you already live in Australia). But what do you do when the obligate game enters your government?

If you are running for office and your opponent will not argue the issues, but instead flings feces or simply screams louder than his opponent, how do you oppose this game change? The silverback chimp “Butch” changed the game from a sober chess game, a contest of real skill, to a power struggle between alpha chimpanzees. Nobody moving a bishop, however skillfully or decisively, looks as tough as a ruthless male chimp baring his teeth. Butch is strong, a true leader, all the other chimps are silent when he screams, none dare oppose him!

This would be all right in politics if having a strong alpha chimp was what the people needed. But what if the people need an intelligent, dedicated human being who understands complex issues, and looks far enough in the future to take needed action now instead of waiting for a time when emergency measures are needed? What if a single leader speaking for dozens of silent chimps, could be replaced by dozens of capable leaders all doing their own work?

I never support anyone who imposes an obligate game. I can imagine instances when this would be a good idea, but to date, every use I have seen has been for vanity, greed and malice.

I have seen the incredible damage that Velma has done, with her savage imposition of her own values on other’s choices. I have watched an alpha chimp try to oppose forces of nature and man with his loud rattling of old sheet metal, while his troop are injured and go ill and hungry. I am tired of crazy Velma and violent Butch, this year I’m voting for people instead.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

they got used to the noise, the grinding

they got used to the noise

they got used to the noise, the grinding
of marble on marble shifting

they builded their stalls and storerooms
abutting the base of the pillars

no betrayal blinded their sampson,
installed as their jovial patron

they sought him and they found him
they chose him and they fed him

they welcomed the noise, the grinding
the movement of solid stone

as the temple collapses they sell
and trade the broken bits

spinning, the fragments fall,
pediment faces and arms,

blind eyes fixed in ruin.
stone saints now saleable.

as falling blocks fill the air --
sampson steals out, stage right

Monday, September 15, 2008

Why this prosperity?

"Our great national prosperity in recent years is not yet thoroughly understood" declared the president of the New York stock exchange, Mr. EHH Simmons, in an address in Chicago last month. "No nation in all history has ever experienced quite the same sort of thing and few if any of us have as yet satisfactorily analyzed its basic causes." And he might have added that few if any of us have any idea as to where it is all leading.

Most of us have some superficial idea as to the causes underlying the prosperity of the past six or eight years, but our views are likely to be colored by the prejudices, the political tenets, the occupation or previous condition of servitude of the individual expressing the opinion. To the banker it might seem that the tremendous gold stock of the country and the great expansion in credit to have been the basic causes of our prosperity. To the head of a labor union it might seem that high wages and the gradual rise in the standard of living in this country with basic reasons. The manufacturer would undoubtedly explain our prosperity by pointing to the development of mass production, which has made possible the consumption of more goods at lower prices. And an habitué of Wall Street would unhesitatingly declare that the confidence inspired by the election of President Coolidge in 1924 was the spark that kindled the flame of prosperity in this country, and the foreign observer would end up unquestionably insisting that the war, which changed this nation from a debtor to a creditor nation, to which Europeans must pay tribute for years to come, was the real cause of our prosperity. Probably all are correct to a certain degree. To pick out one specific cause as being the most important would be difficult, if not impossible.

Invisible banking

For the better part of the past year a controversy has been raging between one section of Wall Street and the Federal Reserve Board over the question of money rates, and particularly the attitude of the Federal Reserve officials toward the money market. At the root of the entire controversy is the development of a new phase of modern banking, which Colonel Leonard P. Ayers, banker and statistician, describes as "invisible banking" . And back of that is the fact that the keenest financial minds in the country are vaguely groping their way, fearful, on one hand, that the great expansion in nonbanking funds, which are being offered for sale at interest rates ranging up to 10 or 15% or more, may blow the bubble of speculation in the stock market to the bursting point; yet wondering all the while whether this may not be part of the normal evolution of banking and comprise a new and permanent factor in the credit situation of the country. The nature of this new form of credit has been explained in these columns previously. It has been shown that while the security for this credit is stock exchange collateral, the indirect effect of money so alone is to provide credit for industry, since many corporations are issuing securities to obtain capital that formerly was obtained from banks.

Those who "view with alarm" insist that these nonbanking funds are subject to withdrawal upon short notice, particularly that portion advanced by foreign lenders and corporations which are subject to sudden emergencies. They argue that in such an emergency the entire stock market entourage will be clamoring for credit at the doors of the New York banks.

Those who view the situation with confidence argue that these loans "are not credit, manufactured by the banks", and as a result, "a money market technique devised for the control of credit does not apply with equal force to loans which represent capital savings." With logic they insist that there is nothing in the Federal Reserve act that permits the reserve officials to dictate how businesses or individuals shall invest their capital, and they imply that the Federal Reserve is not in tune with present-day business.

This, then, is but one of the many new faces of modern business of which are awaiting the test of time and which are typical of the radical changes which are occurring from year to year. It is not surprising that most of the older school of business man are bewildered by the new order of things, BES and facility with which new methods are adopted and old methods, if in use for decades, are scrapped. New inventions and new methods of producing old products at a lower cost staggers the imagination. Newman is that the merchandising are revolutionizing industry. Competition is the order of the day, and it is cropping up taxing the capacity of business executives to maintain their patients. And a crêpe, it has failed to show the normal increments that one naturally

10 years ago competition, tumult business. In objects. Who would have predicted that tobacco would ever compete with sugar confectionery industry is making the cotton manufacturing industry has been standing still while the rayon business has been expanding enormously. This simple change in women's styles from long skirts to kneelength dresses has been one of the several factors that have greatly depreciated the value of investments in cotton mills, and made millions for the manufacturers of rayon stockings.

Competition accelerated

Fuel oil for domestic household consumption is replacing a certain amount of coal that would have been used otherwise, but no sooner is fuel oil well established as a commodity for heating the home then along comes the gas industry with household heating appliances. Since gas is manufactured from coal, the coal industry can look for some compensation on this score. Hydroelectric power plants are supplying a considerable volume of electric current which otherwise would have required coal as fuel, but in this case it is supplementing coal and is not available in such quantities as to supplant coal. Nevertheless, fortunes are being made in the development of new hydroelectric power companies. A decade ago natural ice applied practically the only means of refrigeration in the household; today the electric refrigerator is a formidable competitor. But hardly is the electric refrigerator in the field when along comes a refrigerator that consumes gas. Electric locomotives are leading to a considerable displacement of steam locomotives. The effect of this has not been particularly detrimental to the owners of locomotive builder's stocks, but it has stimulated the business of manufacturers of electrical machinery.

Copper metal goes up in price and we find aluminum being used as a handy substitute for many purposes. Rubber has already displaced a great deal of sole leather and the sole leather industry is laboring under a handicap accordingly. Prohibition has stimulated the sale of ginger ale beyond imagination.

A long about the time the street railways began to clamor for more than the traditional nickels fair, alert individual swarmed into the field with jitney buses. Today in many sections of the country abandoned street railway tracks are the only remainder of what used to be the most popular means of transportation 20 years ago. Now motor trucks are monopolizing the highways, if you ask the driver of a pleasure car, and we have visible evidence that the railroads are losing a certain amount of business that they formerly carried. Today the airplane is firmly entrenched in the business of carrying mail, and it is making a bid for some of the long-distance passenger business of the railroads. The radio temporarily put the photograph out of business until the photograph people develop something new which made it valid a valuable adjunct to the radio.

The telephoto is becoming a serious competitor of the telegraph. Pictures are being sent by wire, and frequently it is quicker and more accurate to send a picture of a letter or a long news story than to send a telegram. The silent movies have been displaced by the talkies, and both of them are wondering what the effect of television will be upon their business.

New sales methods

Merchandising methods are showing no less radical tendencies to change. The chain store has revolutionized retail distribution and greatly affected wholesale houses and jobbers in some lines. The mail-order houses going after the department store business and department stores have switched to the offensive by uniting in chains themselves.

Even banking is moving out of its traditional lines. National banks are going after the business of investment bankers. Trust companies are absorbing a great deal of the business formerly done by lawyers as executors and administrators. But investment bankers are turning around and organizing trust companies, and to the extent that they handle incidental commercial banking they are coming into competition with the banks. The finance company is taking care of a great deal of the old-fashioned commercial credit. Instead of a merchant of borrowing from his bank to carry a line of goods on his shelves, his customer borrows from the finance company and pays for his goods in installments.

Nonbanking lenders are now rushing funds to Wall Street to the extent of two or three billions of dollars in doing a business that was formerly done by banks. Many corporations are lending more money in Wall Street than the average country banking institution can offer.

Business methods and customs are changing more rapidly than they ever have before. The spectacular advances in stocks have led many to raise the cry of inflation where only normal appreciation under the new order of things is being discounted. It explains why some people regard certain stocks is cheap which are selling at 20 times their earning power, and why the same people believe other stocks are dear at 10 times their earning power or less. So radical and so rapid are the changes that it is no wonder we are uncertain as to which, if any, are responsible for our national prosperity.


Why this prosperity?
by Donald Rae Hanson
Forum Magazine, August 1929


From Wikipedia: " The Wall Street Crash of 1929, also known as the Crash of ’29 or the Great Crash, was the most devastating stock market crash in the history of the United States, taking into consideration the full and longevity of its fallout. Three phrases—Black Thursday, Black Monday, and Black Tuesday—are used to describe this collapse of stock values. All three are appropriate, for the crash was not a one-day affair. The initial crash occurred on Black Thursday (October 24, 1929), but it was the catastrophic downturn of Black Monday and Tuesday (October 28 and October 29, 1929) that precipitated widespread panic and the onset of unprecedented and long-lasting consequences for the United States. The collapse continued for a month.

Why would someone want you to think the market is doing fine? The same reason "Doc" wants to play cards with you

The blogosphere is up in arms over the latest Donald Luskin moonshine, a Washington Post Op-Ed saying things aren't really so bad. A transparent tissue of boneheadedness, no need to repeat it . I have a piece on it, which begins::
The Man Who Cried “Sheep!”

Shorter Donald Luskin: “People think the economy is crashing, but it’s all Obama’s fault because he wants to make the Republicans look bad.”


Luskin trying to tell us that housing, mortgages, and the debt and financial markets are not a concern? Anyone would think so, reading this paragraph, but of course he can legitimately say it is still not as bad as the Great Depression.


[Luskin seems] to be saying at the moment that American’s fears are overblown, and I agree. Hah! You young ‘uns has it easy. America does not yet have large numbers of hobos riding the rails (a terrifying method of traveling by train which does not include being inside a box car). American seniors at the moment have both an income and health care -- unlike people who have not yet reached age 65. Rickets and scurvy and tuberculosis and worms aren’t as common as they were in the Great Depression, and almost everyone has indoor plumbing. Things aren’t THAT bad, not as bad as the Depression. And if things aren’t bad, that means they’re good, right?

Oh, and of course Luskin tells us “Full disclosure: I'm an adviser to John McCain's campaign…”
Luskin, according to some, is "The Stupidest Man Alive". My take on it?
No, not stupid. Writing stuff like this cannot be done by the dumb. Especially not over months or years.

He's a decent enough writer, but his stuff [correction: "this piece". I haven't read all his stuff. --NM] isn't factual, much less opinion -- it's advertising, or propaganda, "... the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist."

In this case, the intent appears to be to keep the sheep quiet and productive while they climb the ramp. It's not stupid -- it's despicable.


Sunday, September 14, 2008

moony Manitoba

The days are still warm and kindly, but we're seeing all the signs of autumn on its way. Last night we took a picnic basket out to eat bread and cheese and watch the last mild moon of the year, as gold as a gouda in the trees.

Amazing what a cheap cell phone can accomplish in capturing the poplars and the moonlight. I didn't expect anything half so good.


Saturday, September 13, 2008

Farewell Gregory Mcdonald

It's too bad that Gregory Mcdonald is best known for his "Fletch" mysteries, generally by way of the two movies made from those books. The goofiness of the movies gives the reader no hint that the books themselves were constructed painstakingly, with the reserve and elegance of a craftsmen who pays equal attention to the overall project and each tiny detail.

In particular, the observation of each character is so satisfying that long after the "mystery" is solved, the books repay multiple readings as generously, or more so, than the initial plunge into a new Mcdonald offering.

He's gone now, dying last Sunday of cancer at 71.

I tried writing a fan letter to the gentleman a few years ago, and mailed it off to the most recent publisher I could find. Some weeks later, it was returned unopened. Mcdonald was, in fact, a very reserved man (which is a very different thing from being a shy man). When I wanted a photograph to accompany this article, I found only one blurred photo from 1985. The attached photo is from his 1994 book “Fletch Reflected”, taken by his wife Cheryle, but it is hardly changed from a photo taken a decade earlier. The impression of wary self-containment appears in every pic of him I’ve seen.

No matter. No photograph could convey as much as one or two pages of his text does.

One reason I keep his books around is because of what Mcdonald leaves out. In particular, his dialogue pulls the weight, with almost no orienting phrases such as -- "Frederick walked to the window and looked at the rain. "She told me she was in trouble, but I never expected this," he whispered." Mcdonald would take Frederick's dialogue and let it stand alone. If he felt he needed the window, the rain, and the whispering he would find another, more information-dense way of presenting them. Not only is this tighter writing, but the reader has to actively engage the dialogue and pull all the meaning out of it, just as though they were eavesdropping on people in the next room.

He also leaves out emotions. Occasionally he will let you inside a character's head in order to trace a memory or train of thought. But he does is much less frequently than some writers -- I'm thinking of one wildly popular writer of supernatural bodice rippers who spends, I swear, half her time inside her main character's head. I enjoy her books, but they are highly colored renaissance brocade tapestries, compared to Mcdonald's Japanese dry brush painting.

Not to say emotion is missing from his books -- the storylines and characters’ actions and reactions are full of conflict and deeply felt passions and compulsions. But the reader has to unfold them and consider them -- they are not just tumbled out on the floor like a spilled suitcase.

I chose to quote from one of his books -- his most recent title, from 2003, the fourth in a series dealing with Inspector Francis Xavier Flynn of the Boston police. Although Flynn lives in a (possibly?) parallel universe containing jetplane propelled nongovernmental security organizations, you can essentially ignore that for most of the books. There is excitement enough in a simple conversation:

"Is this a police car?" Professor Loveson looked around the back seat and at equipment strange to him in the front of the car.
Flynn said, "Yes. Driven by police Sergeant Richard T. Whelan. This is Professor Louis Loveson, Grover. You have his address."
Grover sighed.
"Perhaps we shouldn't talk while the sergeant is driving," Loveson said. "These Cambridge streets are so dangerous."
"Especially when Grover is driving."
"I've never been in a police car before."
"Good for you."
"I've ridden donkeys, elephants, troop carriers, of course, but I've never been in a police car before." He patted the backseat. "Have real criminals set here on this seat, do you suppose? Murderers, rapists, plagiarists?"
"I suppose so. More forgers, I suspect, then plagiarists."
"Is there a difference?"
"We are better at catching forgers, aren't we, Grover?"
Loveson said, "This rather brings home to me the reality of my situation. How ashamed of my father would be to know I had ever written in a police car. Under any circumstances."
To Flynn the professor seemed exceedingly small, sitting next to him on the backseat. Flynn's 15-year-old sons were bigger. Even Winnie, at nine, had more substance, more presence than him. As the car went under streetlights, nothing but bone outlined the knees of the professor's gray trousers.
"Tell me, Professor," Flynn said. "What would you think if you came across a young man, 16 years old, to be exact, standing tall against a tree in a foggy wood at night, with his ear nailed close to the tree?"
Wide-eyed, Grover turned around and looked at Flynn.
"Have you ever?" Loveson asked.
"Last night."
"Really! How very interesting. You see, that's what I mean. Andre Gide once wrote, ‘when all else is forgotten, what remains is culture.’ Core culture, I call it. Of what ethnic is this boy?"
"Italian American."
"Yes. European, surely. And this happened locally?"
"A strange and simple act of that sort, nailing a boy’s ear to a tree, quite common in 15th century Europe, for example, suddenly turns up last night in the Boston area. Probably there has been no such incident on the shores, well, ever before."
"Someone could have just made it up, invented it for himself, thought it's an amusing thing to do."
"The idea, possibly," Loveson said. "But not the attitude behind the idea."
"And how do you describe that attitude?" Flynn asked. "The attitude that makes nailing a boy’s ear to a tree seem a good idea?"
"Punitive, of course. More than that. To mortify him. Wouldn't you say?"
In the front seat, Grover banged the steering wheel with the butt of his sand.
"Did you help the boy get free of the tree, Flynn?"
"I might not have, if I knew who had nailed him to the tree and why."
"He wouldn't tell you?"
"He would not. Once he understood something of the history of his situation, that he had been left there to rip his own ear from the tree, he assured me he would do so immediately after I left. I believed him."
"Saying is quite else from doing."
"Also, my daughter is fond of him. I think she prefers him with two flappy ears instead of one."
"Ah, daughters! I remember. I had one once. She could get me to do, or not do, anything. Sergeant Whelan, I live in this block. Halfway down on the right." To Flynn, Loveson said, "Your daughter’s young friend displeased someone, or some persons, in a very particular way."
"What way?" Flynn asked. "What would be the nature of his crime to cause someone to nail his ear to a tree?"
Loveson said," I suspect he did something unmanly."
"Sorry I can't invite you in, Flynn --"
Flynn had gotten out of the car first. "You are inviting me in, Professor. I need to see where and how you live, for security reasons, if for none other. And to talk with you further."
On the curb, he took Loveson's elbow in hand.
The professor looked up to read to Flynn's eyes. Suddenly, he regained the wise twinkle in his own. "It's either that or you'll take me downtown to headquarters, is that it? Do you still use a rubber hose?"
"Of course," Flynn said. "How else do you make the daisies grow?"
"Well, all right." Loveson began to step across the sidewalk. "Don't blame me for anything you see. Or hear. Or think. Or smell."

--Flynn’s World, 2003

Thanks, Mr. Mcdonald. Fare thee well.


Friday, September 12, 2008

What May Really Said, for the slow of hearing

It's a minor nuisance, but here's a slowed-down recording of the audio clip being misrepresented on the web.

Do politicians really think people are stupid? I generally judge that by their their stunning election promises.


"Teen Girl's Politics", anyone can play!

What do the Heathers and Karl Rove have in common?

Okay, I hated high school. All right, junior high, too. And the primary grades were no cup of chocolate either. I can't be certain why, but I do know one part of school life that I hated more than almost any other.

It's what I call "teen girl's politics". [1]

It's easy to spot if you've ever seen it. Airy superiority, disingenuous savagery, giggling at deliberately misconstrued gossip, making up and secretly spreading nastiness about people who've done nothing, and juxtaposing unrelated items in order to smear someone, making up stupid nicknames -- oh, and setting up third parties to do the damage while the Heathers sit back and smirk.

These days the tactic has a different label, "Rovian", but that's too dignified. It sounds like George Bernard Shaw's "Shavian" or Plato's "platonic". Karl Rove is no GBS or Plato -- far from it, and teen girl politics is no philosophical doctrine.

It is nasty, small, shameless and self-satisfied. It is devoid of any content but its own urge to win, no matter what else is lost in the process. It is dominion without service, cunning without reflection, and it corrodes whoever uses it.

Oh, and it seems to work. In the eighth grade or in the Oval Office, it's a hard strategy to counter. The strategies that work against it in the eighth grade, (avoiding the Heathers, setting up a new group of friends, finding areas of success outside the domains of fashion and sniping, growing up) are no help at all when Heather Rove gets into government.

There used to be statesmen who resigned in the face of dishonour. There are still some of those, but they're at a severe disadvantage. How often these days does serious reflection trump a juicy rumor? When real hockey moms watch TV at the laundomat, are they watching congressional hearings or FOX? Are they reading the business pages of the Times, or back issues of People?

One tactic of the Heathers is to discount knowledge itself. Math and history are soooo stoo-pid. Arguments and proofs are snicker-worthy geekiness. They have to do this, because all their self-importance is based on ... self-importance.

(Forget the "they do it because they're really insecure" argument. It's seldom true. They've found a winning strategy and they know it, and they also know that any bending to reason or sympathy will destabilize the whole structure.)

This discounting of knowledge also extends to other areas of value and reality as needed and it can change in the blink of an eye. Contempt is the key. And if asked for a reason, contempt for reason itself kicks in.

If you watch the Heather Roves of the world, you can see them flip the switch between one step and the next. One moment, senior generals and injured soldiers are heroes, honoured and respected (as long as they don't ask for money or services.) The next moment they are whiners, or mentally ill, or disgruntled -- exactly the way the Heathers suddenly decide you are not cool enough for them.

C.S. Lewis offers us a valuable view of the practices that enable this sort of contempt, defining flippancy for us so we can recognize it when it's in action. Flippancy is a form of contempt:

"In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke ...[but] any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it.... it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it."

I hear it all the time on talk radio -- it enables hosts to make jokes about gays, women, blacks, Mexicans and others without exposure to the birch rod of the FCC. And if you talk about this being really hate in disguise, suddenly you're the one with "no sense of humour".

So, what to do? We can't grow up any more than we have already, and the TGP practitioners have graduated to a school where their shrewish savage skills earn them a huge salary and control of the levers of power.

A start has been made. Fact checking on the net is now a resource available to all. Holding Heather Rove's feet to the fire is potentially possible. Displaying the factual malfeasance and malice of the Heathers in power is available to all.

It's establishing recognition and rejection of Heather tactics that needs to be accomplished. This will be a long process -- people are out of practice, especially the rejection part. How do you reject the contempt and dismissal of a Heather? It was hard in school, and it's harder and more hard to pin down in adulthood.

I will propose a strategy in a follow-up to this post. Stay tuned, and meanwhile your suggestions would be appreciated.


[1] Obviously boys can do it too. They take longer to learn it, but if they are clever they can become real pros.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Are they using rope or duct tape?

Some headlines just cry out to be shared:

U.S. Government to Arrange Sale of Struggling Lehman Brothers

Are they being kept in the vault, thrashing about in the spilled quarters and dimes, hoping to find a broken pop bottle they can use to cut their bonds?

I know ...it's serious business. But I wish I had been the headline writer -- I bet he's been waiting for years...

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Open thread for midweek -- politics or nature, take your pick

The wild purple asters are in full bloom, marking the coming autumn.

Coincidentally two national elections are in full bloom, marking a similar but much less predictable change. Two weeks ago we in Canada didn't think we would be voting October 14, now the whole circus is in full swing, with party leaders offering surprisingly anemic programs and cuts. A 2 cent cut in diesel prices phased in over four years? Withdrawing our soldier from Afghanistan in 2011 -- just like we promised in 2001? Quelle surprise. I'm waiting for them to offer me a bag of lemon drops to be delivered to my door in 2010.

Go for it, gang.

A quick welcome and grab yourself a mug

For a couple of years I have hung around the edges of other blogs, piping up now and then with my own take on the topics of the day, either in comments or, now and then, as a guest blogger. But there are things I'd enjoy talking about which don't fit in my home blogs, Angry Bear and the Galloping Beaver.

It's a blessing to be able to post whatever I like, but whoooo-eee, it's a curse too. No editor and no brakes makes for a sloppy blog, and no fellow bloggers (at the moment) makes for a single voice, which not every writer can sustain over time.

But I'll try. I thank my friends elsewhere for their encouragement, and hope for their company here at the haus.

By the way, you might wonder why "Tunnel Under Snow"? In this part of the world, when winter sets in and the snow falls, that's the time that field mice settle in for a drowsy, peaceful life under the snow in grass-lined tunnels which seldom get colder than freezing, no matter what the air temperature. They still maintain their underground tunnels, true, but the snow tunnels become their "winter kitchen", just as suburban decks become summer kitchens for human barbecuers in summer. Perhaps the little house of Mole, with its entranceway and bunk beds and bottles of stout laid down by his grandfather, played a part also.

With this in mind, you are welcome to shake the snow off your coat, pull on carpet slippers and come sit by the fire. Bring your Van Nostrand's, your Strong's Concordance (it's not called "exhaustive" for nothing), your Times' (NY and London), and an armload of your other favorites. (Mine include Walker's Mammals of the World, Sayer's The Mind of the Maker, and anything by Terry Pratchett.) The keg is tapped, your mug's on the sideboard.