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Creative ambiguity, Scottish independence, and sudden death

17 Sep

Fascinating little post by Tyler Cowen:

Many political unions subsist on creative ambiguity.  That is, if the right question were posed, and the citizenry forced to answer it definitely, political order might spin out of control.

Canada, Belgium, and indeed the entire European Union seem to be organized on this basis.  It’s not quite that everyone thinks they are getting their way, but rather explicit concessions are not demanded for each loss of control embodied in the broader system.  Certain rights are held in reserve, with the expectation that they probably will not be exercised, but they can nonetheless influence the final bargaining equilibrium.

Most international treaties rely on some degree of creative ambiguity, as do most central banks, with their semi-promises of bailouts but “not too much not too certain you know” as the default.  You might like the mandated outcome (or not), but I doubt if it would improve political discourse in the United States to have an explicit thumbs up vs. thumbs down referendum on abortion.

Many partnerships and marriages rely on creative ambiguity too.  Should the Beatles have forced Lennon and McCartney to specify who had the final say over each cut?  That probably would have led to a split in 1968 and there would be no Abbey Road.  Must parties to a marriage specify the entire division of chores and responsibilities in advance?

via Creative ambiguity, Scottish independence, and sudden death.

Aka, what you don’t say may keep you whole.


One Good Thing About George W. Bush

14 Sep

He was no micro-manager.

Dick Chaney, unfortunately, was. But that’s beside the point.

George Bush apparently wasn’t. He liked to take his time away from the office. And that’s good.

The Presidency is such an insane job that it’s nuts for anyone to even try to do it all. Get a handful of trusted associates, some of them superb manages, if not all, and let them do their jobs. And see that they, in turn do likewise: pick good subordinates, etc.

That way you can all set a good example of work/life balance.

Why? Because micro-manages are a pain in the ass and just make things worse for their direct reports without actually achieving any increase in effectiveness.

It’s about the job, not you.

I’m thinking G. W. Bush understood that. He just had a questionable set of ideas about what needed to get done.

How I Found a Home in Jersey City and Got Steve Fulop Elected Mayor, Part 1

15 Jul

On that last, not really. I voted for him and made a small contribution to his campaign and I did one or two others things. But I didn’t spend 10, 20 or more hours a week volunteering for the campaign nor did I bundle big bucks for his campaign war chest. Still...

* * * * *

What is home? That’s a tricky one. I think of Johnstown, Pa. as my hometown. I was born in Pittsburgh, but that’s only where the hospital was located. I spent the first three or four years of my life in Ellsworth, Pa., but I don’t remember those years at all. Johnstown is the place I remember. Actually, a suburb in Richland, Twp. just outside Johnstown proper.

That’s where I went to primary and secondary school and that’s where I returned during summers when I was at college in Baltimore (Johns Hopkins). When I graduated with my BA I remained in Baltimore, summers too, getting a master’s degree and working out my alternative service (those were the Vietnam years) in the Chaplain’s Office at Hopkins. At the same time my father’s job moved the family to Allentown, Pa. No more returning to Johnstown. My hometown could no longer serve as my home.

From Baltimore I moved to Buffalo to pursue a Ph.D. I was as comfortable living there as I’d been since living in Johnstown, and it’s only recently that I’ve felt that kind of comfort here in Jersey City.

Why? There’s an easy and obvious explanation for my comfort in Buffalo. Though I was studying in the English Department at SUNY (the State University of New York), and liked the department, my real intellectual home was in a running seminar hosted by Prof. David G. Hays, in linguistics. Hays and I clicked as I’ve never clicked with any other thinker. Continue reading

Evolutionary Alienation

27 Sep

What do you mean by that? you ask. Crudely put, we evolved in a world surrounded by plants and animals. We’re now headed pell-mell into cities where plants and animals are largely absent. And so we no longer fell at home. We’re alienated. We miss our friends and companions.

And we’re not going to find them by cruising the web or watching CGI movies.

Do you actually believe that? you ask. How the hell would I know? says I, I just thought of it.

What made you think of it?

Two things: cartoons and community gardens.

How so? Continue reading

A Garden State of Mind

20 Sep

Though I watched my mother tend to her flower gardens, I even helped her weed, and each Spring I looked for the irises to bloom, I didn’t become a gardener. For one thing, I never owned a home with grounds for a garden, though I could certainly have planted gardens in the house I rented in Cropseyville, NY, for two years or so. But I never had any such inclinations.

Thus it comes as a bit of a surprise to find myself tending plants, pruning them, a bit of weeding, and a bit of watering. I like it.

But what’s it about, this gardening thing? Here I’m thinking as an evolutionary psychologist, you know, the folks who believe that we’ve got Stone Age minds we’ve got to harness to operate the Modern World. And I agree with them, in a way.

Our Stone Age ancestors didn’t garden, nor do our primate relatives. We all forage and eat plants, and we also do a bit of hunting for animal flesh, humans more so than other primates. We’ve got ‘instincts’ for those things. But we’ve got no gardening instinct.

Nor for that matter, do we have instincts for quantum mechanics, archery, basket weaving, hopscotch, square dancing or bowling, among many other things. So how does our Stone Age mind do such things?

Obviously we’ve got to construct routines for these various purposes. Continue reading

Let us fight no more forever

25 Aug

Late in 1877 the Nez Perce nation fought an asymmetrical war with the United States of America. For over three months Chief Joseph led 800 companions in a battle against the United States Army as they made a thousand-mile flight to Canada that stopped 40 miles short. On October 5, 1877 Chief Joseph surrendered, uttering these words:

Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our Chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Ta Hool Hool Shute is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are – perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my Chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.

Joseph and his people were not treated well in surrender. Alas.

But it is not the Nez Perce that I’m thinking about today. Continue reading

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


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.


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.


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.


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

Take a Nap Already (Science Said So!) – Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg – The Atlantic

7 Aug

ASAP Science explains how “power naps” boost productivity, memory, and creativity. The trick, they say, is timing: waking up at the right phase of the sleep cycle will leave you feeling rested, but not groggy.

via Take a Nap Already (Science Said So!) – Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg – The Atlantic.

America’s apocalypse obsession –

18 Jul

A cultural grief process?

The 2012 myth has intrigued the fictional world, as well: last year, “Melancholia”, the latest film from Danish director Lars von Trier used it as its backdrop, and during the 2012 Superbowl there was even an ad that borrowed the conceit to sell Chevrolets. Barring a handful of people running Mayan apocalypse Web sites, there is a strange, smirking subtext to those who cite 2012, an overarching sense of cynicism that seems almost gleeful that we could be destined for our comeuppance. Maybe it’s simply because everyone believes that they will be among the handful of survivors, but humanity really seems to hate itself—which is fortuitous, since we will probably be responsible for our own demise.

via America’s apocalypse obsession –

Public Prayer and the Power of Ritual

4 Jul

I belong to a small block association that, as often as not, ends its meetings with a prayer. We stand, join hands, and one person will say the prayer—there’s two or three lay ministers in the group.

Though I don’t entertain any conventional religious belief, I like this little ritual. It feels good.

If a loaded gun were put to my head and my life depended on it, I might say I was an atheist. Might. Otherwise I’d just as soon not say any such thing. Nor even agnostic. Too damn rational.

And yet this Christian prayer, uttered by a devout Christian among other devout Christians, that doesn’t make me feel at all uncomfortable. As I said, I like it.

Question: Could this ritual be done without religious belief?

Ah, son, you ARE doing it without religious belief.

True enough. But I don’t think I could offer the prayer myself. For one thing, I don’t have the words and phrases ready to hand, couldn’t improvise one at all.

Getting back to the issue: If there is no religious belief, then to whom do you address the prayer? Certainly not to the mayor, nor to the CEO of Walmart, nor to Beyoncé, nor to the Japanese Emperor. Perhaps to some abstract entity such as the powers of abundance and fecundity throughout the universe? That’s edging up on a deity, no?

And there’s the hand-holding. Intimate, but not personal. Without that address to WHATEVER intimate hand-holding could be uncomfortable and embarrassing. Without the intimacy the hand-holding would be meaningless.

How do you engineer a way to have public intimacy that enlarges and enriches the group without being embarrassing?