Friday, September 08, 2017

Weird v. Dull

It occurred to me this morning that the basic conflict in the world now is between creative and interesting weird people and reliable but boring people.  For most of human history, the default was reliable and boring.  Our lives depended on being reliable and predictable members of a small group. Creativity might be fun, but more times than not changing anything changed it for the worse.  Humans adopted new technologies only after a long period of observation and only once it became clear that the new method was necessary or so clearly better than the old one that failing to adopt it would be dangerous.  To use one recent example, firearms were inaccurate and far more dangerous to the one using them than to anything else from their introduction in the late 13th century until the end of the 15th.  That is, from the late 1200's until the very late 1400's, archers were better than riflemen. The creative souls who invented guns died thinking their invention was mostly a failure.  Cannon were more useful but principally for knocking down fortifications, and since sieges were worse for the besieges than the besieged, cannon were still less desireable than a good infantry battle.  Novelty requires the leisure time and surplus of goods to play with the novelty until its use becomes apparent, and for the large majority of human history we didn't have the surplus necessary.  So, most people were boring but reliable, and weirdness was sharply discouraged.

You will, of course, have already seen the problem here.  Eventually adopting novelty becomes necessary and failing to do so at the right time means catastrophe.  Groups that delayed too long in adopting the new stuff eventually get eliminated.  China in the 17th Century thought itself superior to the European interlopers and for centuries it had been so.  By the end of the 19th century Europeans owned large chunks of China and manipulated its government, and largely controlled its economy.  Since the advent of machine production and now with the vastly greater automation capacity of electronics, we have far more stuff than we really need, and clearly enough to reward the weird and creative for being weird and creative.  Thus, we have artist celebrities and inventors and scientists and all manner of fascinating but clearly odd people in important places.

So far, so ordinary.  What is the point?  Societies were being boring and reliable are desirable are homogenous ones.  People have to be predictable in such places, and the prerequisite to being predictable is having mostly the same looks and tastes and motivations.  This works great for hunter-gatherers and small village farmers.  Now, however, we don't live in homogenous villages, and failing to be part of the predictable and boring default group has painful economic consequences.  In a world where the preferences of certain kinds of white males are the default, not sharing those preferences or being unable to share those preferences means forever being excluded from power and influence.  That, in turn, means living a much more precarious life than someone who is part of the dominant group would.  In the language I've been using, there are people whose normal is weird to the dominant group and who suffer for wanting to be normal according to their own terms.

So, still, what's the point? Humans like boring and predictable, yet we now live in a world where there is a lot of reward for those who disrupt things and at the same time reward the preferences of one particular dominant group.  Thus, both the predictable and reliable AND the creative weird live in stressful and unpleasant realities.  The predictable blame the creative types for being weird and the creative types blame the predictable for being repressive and boring.  Trump voters are mostly boring; Democrats are mostly creative.

Finally, my point: right now, being boring is worse than being weird.  We do not live in a predictable world, and consequently trying to cling to predictable things makes the world a lot worse.  We have to find a way to make those who prefer predictability as part of the dominant group comfortable with what to them is weird.  As a diehard Weird Novelty Seeker, this is important to me.  We are most successful when we present ourselves as wanting normal -- black students wanting to eat lunch at Woolworths, gay people wanting to marry, women wanting recognition for our intellect instead of our looks, transpeople wanting to just go to the damned bathroom --  all were recognized as wanting to be part of normal and were mostly successful at doing so.  We lose when the other side paints us as weird.

We have to find a way to make the boring understand that different people have normal needs.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Resolutions for the Trump Era

1.  I will not suggest that he is somehow not actually the President.  He is formally entitled to the office under the rules established for that office.  I will, at the same time, continue to note that those rules were made up in the 18th century as a way of preserving the power of slaveowners at the expense of everyone else.  Furthermore, I will not suggest or support any suggestions that we redo the elections because of possible foreign interference, Trump's own extraordinary conflicts of interest and general incompetence.  The Constitution has a procedure for removing Presidents once they take office.  If the facts warrant removal, then follow those rules.  If not, then we defeat him at the polls.  Trump lost the popular vote by a large margin and is historically unpopular.  We work with those things.  

2. I will not share or otherwise publicize obviously fake or poorly-sourced news stories about his alleged salacious activities.  Mostly because his policies start at catastrophic and go on up to mass-extinction-event level; paraphrasing the great Molly Ivins, he's going to screw enough people in office so we don't need to worry about who he's screwing after hours.  (On the Pee-Pee Tape: his kink is gross but so long as everyone was willing and of age, it's none of my business.  It shows an arrogant disregard for the poor maids who had to clean up after him, but other than that no one should care.). 

3.  I will not criticize his family unless they insert themselves into policy making.  I will never criticize Melania's or Ivanka's looks or aesthetic choices as a backhanded way of attacking him.  To the extent possible I will completely ignore their existence.  

4. I will not cut off anyone of my actual friends because they supported him.  They were wrong, but unless I have concrete evidence that they supported Trump because they hate dark-skinned people or women, they get the benefit of the doubt.  I will not let Cheeto Mussolini prevent me from sharing my friends' lives, especially their vacation and baby pictures.  I am not denying myself their music, art, recipes, and jokes because the rest of the country elected a buffoon.  

5. Most importantly, I will never share or endorse any ridicule directed at Trump voters who will suffer under his horribly policies.  That guy who disliked Obamacare but loved the ACA needed help, not abuse.  The Republican Party treated Obama's policies like Cotton Mather treated witches -- as means to obtain power by lying. That people who don't have the privileges that I do to check on such things fell for it reflects on the liars and not their victims.  I will do whatever I can to help these people, including explaining how Democratic polices are better for them than Republican ones.  

6. Finally, I will not give up andI will not stop opposing him and his evil policies.  Someone suggested that wanting the President to fail is like wanting the pilot on my airplane to fail.  If the pilot announced that he was going to fly the plane into the ground, damn straight I want him to fail.  I want everyone who can to work to stop him,  Same here.  His policies, such as they are, are all horrible.  They need to be stopped.  

The next four years are going to be at best trying and, well, I'm not going to say what the worst will be.  I have to believe that we're better than this and that we can inspire our fellow citizens to correct this mistake as soon as possible.  

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The uses of "connected with" and evidence

The best thing about having a humanities degree is that it trained me in how to argue, and especially how to spot weak arguments.  (The ability to see through stupid arguments explains the hostility some politicians and pundits have toward the humanities.  If more people could do this, those guys would have to get a real job.)  One particularly bad one I've seen often is the assertion that some person or another is "connected" with some bad thing or another.  Syrian refugees are "connected" to Daesh or al Qaeda.  Obama is "connected" to the Weathermen.  Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was "connected" to the Nazis.  The evidence supporting the connection varies, but the writer asserts a connection between Random Terrible Thing and whatever person the writer wants to discredit.  The writer isn't required to provide her evidence or state any arguments against any particular policy because the connection to random terrible thing is enough to spoil anything the person with Random Terrible Connection advocates.

Let's walk through a case study: I am connected to Charles Whitman, the guy who held the title for death toll in a school shooting for many years.  I graduated from UT Austin; Whitman attended UT Austin.  I used to work with a guy who was actually on campus during the shooting and won a bet that he couldn't run across the street and make a call from a phone booth -- for those under 40, use Google -- and run back to the dorm without getting shot.  Even more persuasive, my husband's uncle was a Justice of the Peace for that precinct in 1966 and signed the death certificates for the victims and for Whitman himself.  Thus, I am 'connected' to Charles Whitman.

Of course, these connections don't prove anything.  I had turned three years old about a month before Whitman's rampage.  I had nothing whatsoever to do with this particular tragedy other than be born before it happened.  It is possible, however, to type "Karen Cox has connections to Charles Whitman" and not be a complete filthy liar.  Thus, assertions of connections is a common rhetorical technique in mendacious and tenacious arguments.

Let's follow a real-world example, that of Benedict XVI.  Now, I have zero use for pretty much any Pope.  I'm a proud and committed Protestant and will happily explain why a belief in transubstantiation is wrong and idolatrous, should any of you be foolish enough to ask.  That said, I know that Nazi Pope assertions were, to use the technical term, bullshit.  Joseph Ratzinger joined the Hitler Youth when he was a teenager in Germany.  So far, okay.  Supporting the conclusion that Ratzinger was a Nazi and therefore all of his opinions were terrible, however, requires ignoring the other facts about being a teenager in Nazi Germany, such as refusing to join meant at the very least causing his family a great deal of pain, up to and including imprisonment.  It also meant getting sent to the Eastern Front for little Josephchen.  Expecting a teenager to risk his and his family's lives just to make a point many years later is absurd.  Yes, Ratzinger was a member of a Nazi youth organization.  He probably heard many antisemitic speeches and read a lot of propaganda.  Those facts are in no way relevant to whether or not the Catholic Church should recognize second marriages or punish dissident theologians.

To use an example from Team Red, many people claim President Obama is somehow a protege of the Weather Underground -- the radicals, not the weather website -- because he and Bill Ayers both lived in the same neighborhood in Chicago.  Bill Ayers was actually involved a couple of unsuccessful bomb plots, and wrote an autobiography making, in my opinion, an unsuccessful effort to justify his actions.  He's a genuine radical, with at best a checkered legacy.  All of his violent acts, however, occurred before 1970.  He's been a boringly conventional rich guy with leftist opinions since then.  President Obama was nine years old in 1970, and living in, I think, Indonesia.  He was not at the '68 Democratic convention.  Obama may agree with Ayers on some things -- or not -- but their connection doesn't prove anything.

My point is not to defend Obamacare or the exclusion of divorced and remarried people from Catholic Communion.  If I wanted to do that, I would, for example, discuss the cost of medication and the effect on poor people of delayed or denied care, or discuss the doctrine of the sacraments and the effect of changing that doctrine.  My point is to demonstrate a particularly terrible rhetorical device, and to encourage everyone to check the evidence before repeating that Facebook or Tumblr post or forwarding that Tweet or email.  During the next election year, there will be as many opinions about candidates or policies presented as their are people with an Internet connection.  Those opinions stand or fall on the evidence presented to support them, not on what clubs the people on either side joined when they were kids or whether one person recognized another at cocktail parties.  Be careful!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Heavy Metal Summer Camp

my son Aaron is at electric guitar day camp.  I think that the time is right for a heavy metal boy band, like N'Sync with skulls.  A Disney Channel or Nick at Night sitcom as well.  More on this later.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Just Keeping Things Alive

Making sure I don't lose my place.

Friday, August 16, 2013

German Travelogue Day 3

This was a bus tour in the morning with a visit to "Checkpoint Charlie" in the afternoon. We saw what's left of the Berlin Wall, which the city has turned into an outdoor art exhibit. Artists take a section of wall and paint a mural. My favorite was a picture of Leonid Breshnev and Erich Honnecker locked in an intense smooch. The end of the morning part was at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, officially known as "The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe." It's across the street from the new American Embassy, and I recall the guide saying that the site was the location of the Gestapo headquarters, but I can't find anything confirming that statement. Standing on the edge of the park all of the stone blocks look about the same height. Inside, however, the floor slopes so that in the middle observers are about six feet below street level and all the blocks tower over their heads. It's designed to be disorienting and confusing, a goal at which it succeeds remarkably well. I found it very effective and appropriate. We skipped the Checkpoint Charlie museum and walked around old East Berlin. We saw a parade of Trabants, the East German horrible car, which now has quite a lot of nostalgia. They were made with a two-stroke engine, which was used in the West for things like lawn mowers and chain saws. Not very powerful. Their exhaust smells like a lawn mower and they don't go very fast, but since that was the pinnacle of consumer goods in the DDR, they were something of a status symbol. The cars in the parade had all been customized, including my favorite one, pink with Gucci stripes. We also went to a chocolate shop that has been in business since the middle of the 19th Century, although they haven't been in the same place that long. They had scale model chocolate sculptures of the Brandenburg Gate, the TV Tower, the Titanic, the Reichstag, and other Berlin sites, as well as a Berlin mascot bear wearing a gold marzipan crown.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Germany Travelogue Day 2

Arrived in Berlin. I couldn't sleep at all well on the plane -- the seats never reclined and the movies played constantly -- so I've been awake 38 hours. It's already Wednesday. We have a walking tour of the city, from our hotel in the old East Berlin, S - Bahn (surface train) to Alexanderplatz, then walk to Museum Island and the Reichstag. The one really serious regret I've got is that the tour never allowed us to go into any of the museums there. The Heinrich Schliemann Treasures of Priam, the first Neanderthal skeleton, and tons of things from Sumeria and Babylon are in those Museums, especially the Pergamon Museum and Neues (New) Museum. The Neues was founded in, I think, 1860, so "new" is relative. I wish I could say something profound about the Reichstag building, but mainly it was a really lovely place, which is no longer used for much serious business. The Bundestag does some ceremonial things in there, but mainly it's a nice backdrop to a lovely park. Berlin has lots of trees. None of them date before 1947, but they made up for lost time and planted THOUSANDS of linden and chestnuts, which now make Berlin Europe's greenest city. Since it was about 85 degrees while we were there. I really appreciated the trees. We walked about 8 miles that first day, so I really got to love the trees. There is a farmer named Karl who has set up stands all over the city to sell his strawberries. Karl's strawberries are the platonic ideal of strawberries -- huge, ripe all the way to the top, and sweet. We bought two liters and ate most of them in one night. Karl's berries are to Berlin what Cheetos in vending machines are to the US, which explains why there are no very fat Germans. There are plump, even heavy-set, but nothing like the typical Walmart shopper. Walking ten miles a day, seven miles of which are stairs, plus little junk food, keeps the citizens of Berlin fit. I made my first discovery of pay toilets today. It costs 75-Euro-cents to use the bathroom here. Charging people who have the audacity to leave home to pee cancels all the benefits from the walking, lack of junk food, and excellent public transport. Really, Europe, this is one thing that is so completely superior in the US. Have you ever thought what happens to someone who doesn't have the right change? Overall, toilets aside, I have to say Berlin is lovely. There's still a lot of Worker's Paradise grey block buildings, but in the 20 years since the Wall fell the residents have cheered the place up. Most of the grey blocks have been modified and painted, so they don't look quite so much like the set for a movie of "1984." It's still easy to see the difference between East and West, though, in that the old West Berlin has nicer mid-20th Century buildings and better restoration of the old stuff.

Germany Travelogue Day 1

A Very Long Plane Ride. We left at a little before 9 from Austin and arrived in New York at a little after noon their time. I had dreaded this part, mainly because I have had almost no good experiences with airlines, and those few were with Pan Am. We flew Delta, which has automated its ticket counters so that we got boarding passes from a computer. I put three pieces of paper into my passport, gave one to the gate clerk, and never read the others. While we were in flight to New York, I noticed that I hadn't gotten a boarding pass for the Amsterdam - Berlin leg of the trip. I would get to Europe, but that's as far as it went. I spoke to the gate clerk at Kennedy, and got the correct papers in ten minutes. So, Delta Airlines, you have my respect and admiration. United would have told me to hitchhike from Holland to Germany. We had an uneventful flight the rest of the way, including the pleasant and amazingly clean Amsterdam Airport.