Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Flu Thought

What does it say about me that the front of the Sudafed box seems to have a line saying Noam Chomsky?

That was Non-Drowsy for those of you who don't have a head full of snot.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

This Is Weird. A Press Release from the House Judiciary Committee.

It's full of those moving GIFs which always make me feel as if I'm trying to follow table tennis played very fast by very small mice. 

But that's not what is weird about the communication.  The topic is president Obama and US immigration laws.  And the GIFs:

In a reflection of the racial demographics of House Republicans, all of the GIFs in Wednesday's Judiciary Committee press release depict white people, among them Jennifer Lawrence, Britney Spears and Steve Carell. The vast majority of the 245 House Republicans are white. Seven are Hispanic, and two are black.

Unlike House Republicans, however, the people seen in the GIFs are nearly all female. Only 23 House Republicans, or a little less than 10 percent, are women.
“The Little Mermaid” tells the story of a woman who is part fish and who longs to emigrate from sea to land. In the 1989 Disney film, the mermaid stays on land.
Who is the press release intended to reach?  I wonder and wonder.

And yes, this is old stuff.  My apologies for it.  I got the flu even though I got vaccinated.  

Friday, March 20, 2015

Monopoly. The Game.

Yesterday was the eightieth anniversary of the game called Monopoly.  There's an interesting subtext to the history of the game.  Or a sub-game, if you wish:

Legend has it that Charles Darrow, an unemployed salesman, invented the game in his kitchen in 1930. But the roots of Monopoly actually date back a few more decades, to a game called the Landlord's Game created by Elizabeth Magie in 1903.
The Landlord's Game was meant to be educational, illustrating economist Henry George's belief -- inspired by the Gilded Age -- that property ownership by individuals is inherently unfair. Magie's game was an underground success, leading to a number of offshoots, including the one that Darrow tweaked. Parker Brothers bought her patent for $500 in 1935, closing the loop.

The New York Times recently published an article about Elizabeth Magie and her Landlord's Game as the possible basic source for Monopoly.  I recommend reading the whole piece, because it's a fairly representative case study of the "disappearing women"  phenomenon:

Magie’s game featured a path that allowed players to circle the board, in contrast to the linear-path design used by many games at the time. In one corner were the Poor House and the Public Park, and across the board was the Jail. Another corner contained an image of the globe and a homage to Henry George: “Labor Upon Mother Earth Produces Wages.” Also included on the board were three words that have endured for more than a century after Lizzie scrawled them there: “Go to Jail.”
It was a version of this game that Charles Darrow was taught by a friend, played and eventually sold to Parker Brothers. The version of that game had the core of Magie’s game, but also modifications added by the Quakers to make the game easier to play. In addition to properties named after Atlantic City streets, fixed prices were added to the board. In its efforts to seize total control of Monopoly and other related games, the company struck a deal with Magie to purchase her Landlord’s Game patent and two more of her game ideas not long after it made its deal with Darrow.
Magie never really benefited financially from her game, whereas Darrow became very rich indeed.  The reasons why history ended up that way can be many, but Magie's gender certainly would not have helped. 

There's something about the way we (as humans) write history which downplays or erases the contributions of individuals which don't fit the subconscious patterns we have in our minds,* and women working in science or literature have frequently found their work  ignored or reinterpreted for that reason.  Sometimes the erasure is conscious, but often it is not. 

What fascinates me is that often the unconscious or conscious rewriting seems to take place a short time after** the events, not immediately, as if it's the slightly more distant observers who have erased, say, any women from stories of inventions or scientific discoveries or assigned them to the more "natural" helper roles.   That could be because the effect of the unconscious patterns becomes more powerful when the actual individuals are no longer known.

*The case of Rosalind Franklin is a well-known example of this.

For an example outside gender, consider the case of Sir Edmond Hillary and Tenzing Norgay as an example.  The early recognition went mostly to Hillary, perhaps because Norgay was seen as someone just doing his job whereas Hillary was the white adventurer.

**Time is a relative concept here, and I refer to such things as the evaluation of literary merit of various writers a generation after their work, rather than hundred years later.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

And To War, To War We go? On Iran As The Next Target.

Joshua Muravchik has written an opinion piece in the Washington Post about what the United States should do with respect to Iran's plan to acquire nuclear weapons.  Muravchik would like some other people to sacrifice themselves in a war against Iran, because he believes that a war with Iran is the best possible answer to the disagreements. 

Even the title of the piece says that if you are in a hurry and can't read the rest of the column:  "War with Iran is probably our best option." 

The opinion piece is fun to read if you ignore what it's all about.  Muravchik worries about nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran's hard-liners and explains to us why it is imperative to avoid that situation:

What if force is the only way to block Iran from gaining nuclear weapons? That, in fact, is probably the reality. Ideology is the raison d’etre of Iran’s regime, legitimating its rule and inspiring its leaders and their supporters. In this sense, it is akin to communist, fascist and Nazi regimes that set out to transform the world. Iran aims to carry its Islamic revolution across the Middle East and beyond. A nuclear arsenal, even if it is only brandished, would vastly enhance Iran’s power to achieve that goal.

Hmm.  I think it's Saudi Arabia that is financing and spreading the Islamic revolution across the Middle East and beyond, in the form of Sunni Wahhabism.  And Pakistan, a major base for various Islamist terrorist groups, already has nuclear weapons.  Some suggest Pakistan has a deal with the Saudis to let them have those weapons if necessary. 

Indeed, though Iran has been an eager beaver at home in propping up the rules and restrictions concerning women*, those pesky critters which just won't stay inside their allotted little cages and therefore rattle the structure of the Islamic revolution, I don't see Shia Islam as a major aspect of today's international terrorism.

The whole opinion piece is probably one of those click-bait pieces.  But it's also a little like that time-honored Tarzan move:  You bang your hairy chest with your fist and ululate, to frighten everyone who happens to be within hearing range in the jungle. 

But that doesn't work when every country in the area is run by their own Tarzans, all banging their chests.  And then you have to do something more or you lose face.

Muravchek's piece made me wonder who the "we" in the title of this post might be.  But it also acutely reminded me of the types of opinion pieces we got after 911, all telling that Iraq is the place the US should invade to find bin Laden who was in Afghanistan etc. 

*You can download a whole report on the position of women in Iran at that link. 

And More Grumbling

Suppose, just for the sake of an idle example, that you have spent the whole weekend and most of Monday working on post #3 in your series about women and IS.  Suppose that you have twenty footnotes, all with extra links and comments, and that the total length of the post is beginning to approach a small book.

Suppose, then, that it's Tuesday, and you are ready to draw the finishing touches on that post.  You enter the edit mode on this ancient sewing machine called Blogger and start merrily typing away.

You make a mistake, and then use the undo-command to correct that mistake.

Instead of the expected reaction (i.e., mistake corrected), everything written into the draft disappears.  Texts, pictures, footnotes, links, all gone.

What would you do then?  Madly press the undo-command, perhaps?  But because you are a very very stupid goddess you have the auto-save on, and Blogger helpfully saves the empty pages for you.

Well, this happened.  I then spent hours trying to get the post back, but none of the tricks worked.

This is how life teaches you....something.   

Monday, March 16, 2015


Remind me NEVER again to promise a series of long-form posts on any topic whatsoever.  They take ages to write.  AGES!  And nobody probably reads long-form posts because they  now have that Public Service Announcement in their very name which warns potential readers that they are going to be loooong.

This is an explanation for my recent silence on the blog.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

On the Death of Sir Terry Pratchett

Sir Terry Pratchett, an English fantasy writer of humorous and gently sarcastic works,  has died at the age of sixty-six.  He is the creator of Discworld, an imaginary planet which is a flat disc standing on the shoulders of four giant elephants which in their turn stand on the shell of an even more giant turtle.

The turtle is swimming through space towards an unknown destination, and with the turtle swim all creatures Pratchett has peopled his world with: gnomes, trolls, dwarfs, vampires, werewolves,  humans of various types, from powerful witches to funny wizards, melancholy policemen and even a benevolent dictator whose degree is in assassination studies.

While those creatures are carried on to nobody-knows-where, they live their lives, love, hate, steal, help, perform magic, fight wars, pollute their environment, educate their children and practice politics.

In short, they are very much like us here on earth, except for not being like us at all.  Even their politics has a familiar tone:  their gods bicker with each other and play dice games with the creatures, cultures clash, prejudices flare up and are sometimes resolved, wars begin for no good reason at all and are waged ineffectively and stupidly, and at the end of every life there is Death, an anthropomorphized figure with the dark cowl, the skull head and the scythe.

Pratchett's Death wishes to be human.  In one of the books he temporarily adopts a human son and ultimately ends up with a half-human granddaughter (one of my favorite figures in the books).  Death likes a good strong curry (does it just go through his ribcage?) and has strong opinions about the most humane way of harvesting his people.

Death is ultimately just.  That aspect of his personality can be seen in the battles against the auditors of the universe, an odd (infinite?) group of identical creatures without hearts but with an extremely strong urge for tidiness,  order and proper hierarchies.

The creatures of the Discworld are anything but orderly, and so sometimes face the wrath of the auditors who would prefer a silent and quiet planet.  Death refuses to be cowed by the auditors.  He takes the part of his people, his harvest, helped by various individuals of the planet and also the secret weapon which is chocolate.

You may see why I love Pratchett's books.  They have everything:  Political jokes, parables to our world's history and myths, and chocolate.  They even have empathy, compassion and realistic female characters, drawn with skill and often equipped with power.

But mostly I love the books because they are based on a deep thirst for justice and fairness.  Neil Gaiman has written about the anger of Terry Pratchett, the kind of cold and glorious rage which can fuel writing about injustices. 

In one of Pratchett's books a character states: "There is no justice.  There is just us."  I read that as telling us what our role in the collective sense should be:  To create that missing justice and fairness, to make it, so to speak,  the unknown destination of the giant turtle carrying our Discworld.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

David Brooks' Moral Measles

How is that for a post title?

David Brooks, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, has recently gone on (and on) about values.  Values are things which Brooks believes conservatives have and liberals do not have.  It's not that everybody has values, nope.  Or, rather, some people have bad values and other people have good values.  Good values are about family and sacrificing oneself for the sake of order and hierarchy (though the sacrifices are mostly expected of women).  Good values are firmly conservative, bad values are firmly liberal.

That's the first thing you need to know about Brooks and his writings.  The second thing is the manner in which he appears to approach science:  He starts from the conclusions he wishes to draw, then goes backwards until he finds a study or a book which supports those conclusions, then he ignores all other evidence and writes his piece by beginning with the study he likes, implying that it's accepted wisdom by all and then writing how it results in his conclusions.

This pattern is visible in his latest column which is about the good values of rich people and the bad values of poor people.  If only poor people had better values, they, too, could be rich people!

Well, not quite.  But they'd be a lot less trouble to the rich people that way.