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Black, White, and Blues: A Commentary on Complex Truths and Traditions in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave

11 Aug

I forget just when I originally wrote this, sometime in the early 1990s, or maybe the late 1980s. A reference to FloJo sets 1988 as the earliest possible date, as that’s the year she set her “fastest woman in the world” records in the Olympics, but I may have written it a couple years later. No matter. Most of the references are, if not timeless, at least respectably old and well entrenched in American history (e.g. Thomas Jefferson, Nat Turner, W.C. Handy). Since TnT is all about truths and traditions I figued this little packet of poetic dynamite would be just the thing.

(Note: The hyperlinks in the poem are supposed to take you to notes at the end. But they don’t work too well. Still, if something in the poem is underlined, then there’s a note at the end commenting on it. The notes are in order.)

Independence Day, 2001: In Which a President Finally Frees His Slave Mistress

I

When Thomas Jefferson dreamed of Bessie Smith
Lincoln was shot and Michael Jackson got a nose job,
Atlanta was burned and Rosa Parks welcomed Neil Armstrong to the moon,
While hooded Klansmen invaded Star Wars with their laser whips
And FloJo embarrassed Hitler in Berlin.

The dream stained his sheets, the pleasure embarrassing.
Yet Tom needed his sweets and wouldn’t dream of his wife.
She was the mother of his children and the apple of his eye,_
But Bessie knew other things, secret hidden ways to sing
The blues, who do the voodoo? the long snake moan.

II

When Bill Handy had dinner with Mozart
Malcolm X traveled to Mecca and Lennon gave peace a chance,
The Declaration of Independence was signed and Haiti was born,
Bobby Kennedy was shot while chatting with Nat Turner at Trader Vic’s,
And Elvis became the King so he could buy his mamma a house.

It was a good evening. Amadeus sure could tickle the ivories,
And old Bill liked to tickle people, white folks too.
Wolfgang taught him the secret arts of notation so he could gather
Songs for Bessie to sing. That’s how the blues propagated.
Now old Tom could buy records and learn to dance.

III

When Jack Johnson escorted Marilyn Monroe to the theatre
Hiroshima was atomized so Nipponese could sing doo-wop in blackface
Chinese ghosts still haunting the Union Pacific.
Sequoya created his alphabet so the Cherokee could read Booker T.
And Augustine became a Christian before Aretha’s first was born.

The show depicted a familiar tableau:
Leontyne sang Aida in gold lame while Caliban
Fiddled with Queen Bess who couldn’t believe
That Tom had finally taken Shine’s advice and
Decided to jump ship and haul ass for New Jerusalem.

IV

When Bessie played with Martin Luther
Sometimes the magic worked, and sometimes it didn’t.
The writers of those manuals couldn’t cover everything.
Still, when Bird called and Louis Moreau played bamboula
Nijinsky would dance so fast he heated Chano’s skins.

Tom liked to watch but finally got hip to participatory democracy.
He embraced equality and burned his wig,
Freeing himself to perform unspoken acts
With his wife while the children were asleep,
Dreaming of genies and their magic lamps. Continue reading

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What Happened to the Craftsmanship Spirit? — Essay – NYTimes.com

23 Jul

Yes! Making things with your own hands is the most basic form of building things. All other forms are built on that. Whether you’re building a computer  program, an industrial empire, a philosophical system, or a social club, building takes skills and those skills start with learning how to build things with your body.

It’s all very handy stuff, I guess, a convenient way to be a do-it-yourselfer without being all that good with tools. But at a time when the American factory seems to be a shrinking presence, and when good manufacturing jobs have vanished, perhaps never to return, there is something deeply troubling about this dilution of American craftsmanship.

This isn’t a lament — or not merely a lament — for bygone times. It’s a social and cultural issue, as well as an economic one. The Home Depot approach to craftsmanship — simplify it, dumb it down, hire a contractor — is one signal that mastering tools and working with one’s hands is receding in America as a hobby, as a valued skill, as a cultural influence that shaped thinking and behavior in vast sections of the country.

via What Happened to the Craftsmanship Spirit? — Essay – NYTimes.com.

Congress’ new bank outrage – Salon.com

10 Jul

Regulators on both sides of the Atlantic are expressing dismay. On Monday, San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank president John Williams acknowledged, reported Reuters, that Barclays’ behavior had eroded confidence in the integrity of the banking system. Which is bad news, he said, because “trust is absolutely critical to conduct any type of business.”

Come on. After what we’ve witnessed and learned in the last five years, is there anyone who still trusts the integrity of the global banking system? The great Greek cynic Diogenes had a significantly better chance of finding an honest man than we do today of locating someone with confidence in the premise that bankers get up in the morning every day determined to do the right thing by their customers and the larger economy. The evidence is overwhelming.

Robert Reich wonders whether “the unfolding Libor scandal will provide enough ammunition and energy to finally get the job [of breaking up the big banks] done.” The New York Times’ Joe Nocera expresses surprise that Americans don’t seem to be giving the debacle as much attention as the British, considering how fundamentally important it is, but hopes that as the scandal continues to unfold, increasing opportunities for outrage will encourage Americans to ” finally summon the will to change banking once and for all.” At Slate, Mathew Yglesias believes that the new revelations “should destroy the credibility of banks once and for all.”

To all three commentators, I can only say, have you looked at what our political system is currently doing with respect to bankers?

Giving them a “Get Out of Jail Free” card is what!

via Congress’ new bank outrage – Salon.com.

We Live in a Culture of Fear

3 Jul

Barry Glassner. The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things. Basic Books 1999.

From the introduction, p. xxvi:

Mary Douglas, The eminent anthropologist who devoted much of her career to studying how people interpret risk, pointed out that every society has an almost infinite quantity of potential dangers from which to choose. Dangers get selected for special emphasis, Douglas showed, either because they offend the basic moral principles of the society or because they enable criticism of disliked groups and institutions.

p. xxviii:

The short answer to why Americans harbor so many misbegotten fears is that immense power and money await those who tap into our moral insecurities and supply us with symbolic substitutes. Continue reading

Pluto the Dwarf and the Politics of Science

29 Jun

I was doing my usual situation review at 5AM when it struck me that the object officially known as 134340 Pluto would be a good case study for the role of social construction and politics in science. When I was growing up that object was known as Pluto (Wikipedia entry here), the ninth planet of our solar system. It was discovered in 1930 after a search that had begun in the 1840s. The name was suggested a British school girl, Venetia Burney and, soon after being applied to the planet, was applied to a cartoon dog by the Walt Disney Company.

And that’s where things stood until early in the last decade of the 20th Century when astronomers began to discover other similar objects “out there” in what became known as the Kuiper belt (Wikipedia article here). A number of the moons of other planets are hypothesized to be members of the Kuiper belt.

Then, 136199 Eris was discovered early in 2005. It’s much farther out in space then 134340 Pluto; but it orbits the sun; has its own moon, Dysnomia; and is larger than 134340 Pluto. Whoops! We’ve got problems, Houston.

It was one thing to discover the Pluto was one of a bunch of objects out there, some of which may be orbiting other planets as moons. As long as Pluto was larger than those other objects it made sense to classify it as a plant along with the other 8 (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) and thus as something other than those other KBOs (Kuiper Belt Objects). But if Eris is larger than Pluto, albeit farther out, this classification is looking a bit capricious and arbitrary.

What to do?

Well, in 2006 the International Astronomical Union met, adopted an official definition of planet, and Pluto was demoted to dwarfhood, along with Eris, Ceres, Haumea, and Makemake. People were not happy, not happy at all. But that’s life.

The reclassification of Pluto was a political matter in the sense that it involved negotiations among different parties with different interests. But it wasn’t political in the sense that those competing parties were competing over laws, budgets, resources, and programs that have a strong influence on how many people live their lives. It was a matter of social construction in the utterly trivial sense that any named entities are social constructions by virtue of the fact that language itself is a social construction.

Scientific practice is full of this kind of politics and this kind of social construction. It’s ongoing and has been since forever, almost. But it mostly takes place out of public view and concerns matters which are intelligible only to highly educated specialists. But everyone knew about Pluto and the concept of a planet is an easy one to grasp. And so this scientific spat had a public face that got petitions circulated and passed some amusing laws in California, New Mexico, and Illinois.

The case of global warming is different and far more consequential. The science is difficult and problematic even within the scientific community; the relevant scientific models cannot be grasped without considerable mathematical and technical sophistication. The implications of the science are staggering. The lives of billions of humans and countless nonhumans are at stake, if not immediately or in the near future, then over the next century or so.

Things ARE going to change. We don’t know what those changes will be or how much we can influence them. All we know is that the longer we wait to act, the less we’ll be able to influence those changes.

And some people refuse to believe even that.

Global Warming and the Beginning of the Great Transition

20 Apr

I’ve been thinking about the recent poll showing that a majority of Americans now believe that global warming is real and that it is the cause behind recent extreme weather (as reported in The New York Times):

The poll suggests that a solid majority of the public feels that global warming is real, a result consistent with other polls that have asked the question in various ways. When invited to agree or disagree with the statement, “global warming is affecting the weather in the United States,” 69 percent of respondents in the new poll said they agreed, while 30 percent disagreed.

Not only that, but “one of the more striking findings was that 35 percent of the public reported being affected by extreme weather in the past year.” That is global warming is no longer something affecting only “those people” who live “over there, in that other place far far away from me.” It’s happening here and now, to me!

What’s the ripple effect of these beliefs? William McKibben says ““My sense from around the country and the world is that people definitely understand that things are getting freaky” and his group, 350.org, is planning rallies on May 5 to help people to “Connect the Dots” between the crazy weather we have now and long-term climate change.

Of course those aren’t the only dots that need to be connected. Climate change needs to be connected to energy policy and practices, to farming and ranching and food practices, to relationships between local and global communities, to, well, when you think about it, to just about everything.

Certainly to war and peace. All the time, energy, and resources we throw into way is just thrown away. We need to devote that to saving the earth and thus to saving ourselves and our grandchildren, and their grandchildren.

But first we need to believe that all that must be done. Is this newly emerging consensus on global warming the beginning of that belief? Is this the beginning of the Great Transition?

China Central TV: CCTV America – James Fallows

19 Apr

Over the years in China, I watched my share (thousands of hours?) of China Central TV, CCTV, and have a very clear idea of its role as reliable presenter of the official governmental view.

In the past few evenings I’ve started watching the launch of new programs from CCTV America. I don’t know how representative the shows I’ve seen are, or how long this can go on — but flipping back and forth between CCTV America and a well-known US network based in Atlanta, I’ve generally heard a lot more, and in a lot more detail and less tendentiously and cutesily, from, gasp, CCTV America.

via A Cloud No Bigger Than a Man’s Hand: CCTV America Dept – James Fallows – International – The Atlantic.

Americans Link Global Warming to Extreme Weather, Poll Says – NYTimes.com

18 Apr

A poll due for release on Wednesday shows that a large majority of Americans believe that this year’s unusually warm winter, last year’s blistering summer and some other weather disasters were probably made worse by global warming. And by a 2-to-1 margin, the public says the weather has been getting worse, rather than better, in recent years.

The survey, the most detailed to date on the public response to weather extremes, comes atop other polling showing a recent uptick in concern about climate change. Read together, the polls suggest that direct experience of erratic weather may be convincing some people that the problem is no longer just a vague and distant threat.

via Americans Link Global Warming to Extreme Weather, Poll Says – NYTimes.com.

Greening an Entire Block Instead of Just One Building – Jobs & Economy – The Atlantic Cities

17 Apr

Living City Block’s basic concept is simple. Small buildings rarely have the resources to do a serious retrofit. For most of them, the idea is cost-prohibitive. But what if you combined a small building with 10 more like it? If all of those building owners got together to order high-efficiency water heaters in bulk, or to collectively replace one-thousand windows, could they achieve the kind of economies of scale that the Empire State Building gets?

This sounds feasible, and Riley is sure the idea will work. But he’s talking about creating a kind of building owners’ association that has never been modeled before, one in which neighbors who otherwise have very little in common might make common decisions about pooling their trash pick-up, paying their utility bills, and renovating their properties.

If you’ve ever thrown in your lot with a condo association, you can begin to imagine the logistical and legal challenges of scaling up something like this to the neighborhood level and then convincing banks to finance the joint projects of all of these random people.

“The legal framework, the governance structures and the financing are the biggest three [challenges],” Riley says. “Everything else is just stuff.”

via Greening an Entire Block Instead of Just One Building – Jobs & Economy – The Atlantic Cities.

Water-Ready Map: Impacts of Climate Change on Water Resources | NRDC

10 Apr

Ready or Not: How Water-Ready is Your State?

As climate change affects communities across the U.S., some states are leading the way in preparing for the impacts on water resources. These states are reducing carbon pollution and planning for climate change impacts. Yet many states are not acting and remain woefully unprepared.

Click on a state to find out what risks communities there may face and what the state is doing to prepare.

via Water-Ready Map: Impacts of Climate Change on Water Resources | NRDC.