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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Printed books are to e-books as movies are to television, or printed books are to e-books as VHS is to DVD? More on publishing in the twilight of the printed word

by John MacBeath Watkins

From Nicholas Carr, a fascinating study comparing printed textbooks to reading text on computer screens. Here's Carr's take on it:

The most illuminating part of the survey came when respondents were asked to explain their preferences. The answers suggest that while students prefer e-books when they need to search through a book quickly to find a particular fact or passage, they prefer printed books for deep, attentive reading. "E-books divide my attention," said one undergraduate. "Paper ... keeps me focused and away from distractions that may arise from computer usage," said another. "I have some difficulty paying careful attention to long passages on my computer,” said another. "Reading on the computer makes it harder for me to understand the information," said another. Commented a graduate student: "I am a better reader when I have the print copy in front of me."
Go ahead and read the study itself, as well.

As some of the comments on Carr's post suggest, there may be better technologies for e-books than the ones explored in this survey (or an earlier one by the University of Washington.) But my own observation from years of doing business in Seattle's University District is that students use the devices most convenient to them, which means that if they need a laptop to write their paper, that's probably what they'll use for most of their research, and if they only have their phone with them at lunch, that's what they'll do their reading on. Having to carry another device with them to do their reading on might still have advantages over carrying books (especially in terms of the weight they must carry -- shouldn't physics textbooks, at least, have antigravity devices?) but they are an extra thing, just as a book is.

There are also advantages for publishers, who have expended a great deal of effort over the years trying to make sure students can't get by with used copies of their books, coming out with new editions every couple of years to make sure the students won't be on the same page as their professor if they buy an earlier edition. Think of how delighted they could be if they could make textbooks "expire," the way e-books from the library do, at the end of each quarter. School books would be more expensive, of course, and students couldn't refer to their textbooks in later years, but the war on sellers of used books would be won.

The question, really, is this: Is the transition to e-books more like the transition from radio to television, in which case the printed book will continue to have an audience, or more like the transition from VHS tapes to DVDs, where the new technology for transmitting the experience is the important thing.

What will determine this is partly how different the experience is. Radio and television are different enough that there is room for both, and more interestingly, movies and television are different enough that movies theaters have survived.  I think the question is whether books are like movies, and the experience of them in book form is as different as the experience of movies in a theater is from watching movies on a television screen.

Certainly, an Easton Press edition with leather binding and gilt-edged pages is a visual and tactile experience quite different from reading a book on my phone, and probably different enough for Easton Press to survive the transition. But the studies Carr refers to may indicate that a Norton Critical Edition may also be a different enough experience to be valued as a different experience than an e-book.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Do 63 percent of Americans really want the consequences of another debt-ceiling fight?

by John MacBeath Watkins

According to a recent CBS poll, 63 percent of Americans think raising the debt limit is a bad idea.

I'm wondering, if you asked the same people if you think it's a good idea for congress to default on our country's debts, would they still think it's a good idea? Or if you asked, should congress vote to shut down the government, how would they respond?

The framing of the question is important, because hardly anyone understands what the debt ceiling is. If people think you're asking, "should congress vote to increase the debt?" I'm sure at least 63 percent will say no. And yet, that really was the meaning of the question they were asked.

But the debt ceiling is a stranger beast than that. Congress voted to increase the debt back in December, when they told President Obama that he could have an extension on federal employment insurance if they could extend the Bush tax breaks. Having voted to spend the money, they now must raise the debt ceiling to actually pay the bills.

If they don't, we have some options. We can stop paying our creditors, stop paying interest on the national debt, stop paying federal pensions and Social Security, stop paying doctors to treat Medicare patients -- so, default on the debt, which will vastly increase the interest costs on the debt in the long run, and possibly also stop paying retirees the money they need to pay their bills, and doctors to treat them.

Do you imagine 63 percent of Americans favor that?

The reason you don't hear about other countries having this controversy is that they don't have a debt limit. They have a budgeting process, and the assumption is that if they budget the expenditures, thereby requiring the government to spend the money, they must intend for the government to spend it. The debt ceiling does not appear in the U.S. Constitution, and in fact, we didn't have one until 1917 (some history for you here.)

 This went along with greater authority to create debt, in the form of Liberty Bonds, to finance World War I. In 1919. the debt limit was $43 billion, but the actual debt needed to finance the operations of government was $25.5 billion. In other words, congress gave the executive branch plenty of room to work.

Since then, the debt ceiling has become a political football. In the 1995-1996 debt ceiling crisis, a Republican congress forced government "shutdowns" twice, with a large number of federal employees furloughed.

As this GAO study points out...

When a debt ceiling is reached, Treasury is unable to issue additional
Treasury securities without adding to the public debt and exceeding the
debt ceiling. Treasury is also unable to discharge its normal trust fund
investment and redemption responsibilities.
 One of those trust fund redemption responsibilities is paying Social Security recipients. In 1995-96, this could be avoided, because we had a strong economy, and the government had more options for avoiding disruptive cutbacks. As Bill McBride notes on the Calculated Risk blog:

In fiscal 1995, the government could do the same "extraordinary measures" as today to delay the day of reckoning, and then eventually cut off all non-essential discretionary outlays (the "government shutdown"). That was enough to buy more time, and the government didn't have to default on the debt, or cut Social Security or Medicare payments.

Now there is a cyclical deficit on top of an even larger structural deficit. It is impossible to just shutdown non-essential discretionary outlays - the cuts will have to go deeper. So the comparison isn't valid.
This should concern our congressmen, because even in the 1995-96 crisis, voters didn't much care for congress's actions.

Polls on this are going to be meaningless unless pollsters ask questions that are meaningful to those interviewed. Older voters will understand the stakes better if they are asked if congress should vote to shut the government down as they did in 1995-96. Younger voters might not recall those events, but such a question would come closer to understanding how they would react to the actual events likely to unfold than simply asking if the debt ceiling would be raised.

And this framing is important, because I think congressmen are acting on faulty information that makes them think they can shut down the government again, this time with the approval of the voters. If they have a faulty picture of how their actions will be received, we can expect them to act in a faulty manner.

Consider this NBC/WSJ poll,which shows how differently people react based on what they think the consequences will be. Once they know the possible consequences, those favoring an increase in the debt ceiling are a plurality (46 percent to 42 percent.)

The problem is, the consequences are not at all predictable. We can ask the question in terms of the last shutdown, but it would likely be worse this time, because we are operating in a much more fragile economy.

Me and my shadow

By Jamie Lutton.

I dropped by the locksmith a five blocks from my shop today, to talk about renting the side of their shop for a sign for my business (again). Sound Transit decided (again) to take down my tiny sign saying where I had moved, and I noticed a dip in business. I have had many customers tell me that this is the only way they found me again. There is no reason given for this that made any sense.

I could write a great deal about my opinion of this organization, but suffice to say that I think they that they forgot, or never knew, that the business of a city is business, not "projects". The money for "projects" come from businesses like me, as taxpayers came up with the money to build the tunnel in the first place from working at little businesses like mine, all over the country.

Well, I was in the locksmith, when one of the employees said "look". There was a crow on the railing outside, peering in the big front windows; only a few feet away.  I laughed, and said "oh, he must have followed me here."  We all turned and looked at the crow. He stared in at me, fidgeting, as if he was a husband waiting impatiently outside a boutique in a mall. Same kind of vibe.   I kept talking to the locksmiths, and he flew away, but returned in a few minutes to perch upon the railing again, and stare in, walking back and forth.  Very bold.  A big, fat crow.

I finally left, went down the steps, and the crow took off, landing on the roof of the locksmith. I threw him a treat, as I was secretly pleased to have him show off like that. He nabbed it neatly. The guys down at the locksmith are friends of mine; it was fun to watch their reactions. 

I called them back to say I had made some calls about my project, and apologized for the crow. They said it was all right; they would only have been worried at Halloween, say.       

Monday, June 27, 2011

The decadence of conservatism, bad-ex syndrome, and the size of government

By John MacBeath Watkins

We have an ongoing controversy about upping the debt limit so that the federal government can pay its bills. Mind you, Congress and the White House agreed on the budget back in December, so the size of the budget under which we are operating is already set. The controversy is really about whether to pay our bills.

The actors in this comedy talk as if it were about our government spending more than it should. Now, much of government spending (Medicare, Social Security, unemployment insurance) is not discretionary. It's set by law, and if we want to change it, we can't just put new numbers in the budget, we have to change the laws that determine what the government must pay. So rather than discuss the total budget as a raw number or as a percent of GDP, the best proxy for government growth might be how many people are on the federal payroll.

The above table, (which you can click on to make it larger and easier to read,) is from a 2006 study titled The New True Size of Government, by Paul C. Light, founding director of the organizational performance initiative, Paulette Goddard professor of public service, Robert F. Wagner Graduate School, New York University (try saying that in one breath!)

Prof. Light's study is important, because, as he notes, "The federal government does not use contracts and grants just to procure needed goods and services, however. It also uses contracts, grants, and mandates to state and local governments to hide its true size, thereby creating the illusion that it smaller than it actually is..."

As a result, it's not that easy to just ask the simple question, "how many people does the federal government employ?" Prof. Light had to do some digging, and this table reflects a lot of digging and a certain amount of calculation using educated guesses. I encourage you to read the entire study, so that you understand his methodology.

It shows that between 1990 and 1999 federal employment decreased by 1,589,000, or roughly 12.6 percent. Between 1999 and 2002, it had increased by 1,066,000, and between 2002 and 2005 it had increased by another 2,849,000, for a total increase of 3,915,000. That's an astonishing 35 percent increase in federal employment in six years, most of it in the final three.

How did this come about?

The decrease happened in Bill Clinton's presidency. It was not entirely voluntary. A Republican-held House of Representatives refused to up the debt ceiling until he agreed to cut the deficit, both by cutting spending and by increasing taxes.

The increase in the number of people on the federal payroll happened at a time when the Republican Party controlled the presidency and both houses of congress. Yet how can this be, if they cared so much about the deficit that during Bill Clinton's administration, they shut down the government?

Paul O'Neill, treasury secretary at the beginning of the Bush Administration, has said that he tried to convince Vice President Dick Cheney that the deficits the Bush Administration was running up posted a threat to the economy.

 O'Neill says that Cheney cut him off, and said "You know, Paul, Reagan proved deficits don't matter." A month later, in December of 2002, Cheney told him he was fired.

Reagan, of course, did think deficits mattered. In response to increasing deficits in the wake of his 1981 tax cuts, he signed the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982, which increased revenues by closing tax loopholes. He responded to the failure of supply-side economics with a pragmatic policy. By the standards of Grover Norquist, that would be a tax increase, and for modern Republicans, verboten.

There has been a sea change in the Republican Party. What was once a conservative movement with basic principles that guided its policies has become a conservative apparatus that seeks to benefit its members and its donors. It has, in short, become decadent.

It's current policies bear less resemblance to Reagan's than to those of a bad divorced parent who wants to manipulate situations so that he can play Santa to the kids while his ex is forced to play the Grinch, something we might call bad-ex syndrome.

When a Democrat is president, the deficit is an emergency, and popular programs must be cut. In the 1990s, unpopular taxes also had to be passed. People tend to blame the direction of the country on the president rather than on their local representative, so the object was to force Clinton to sign legislation that would make Democrats unpopular.

Under Bush, deficits didn't "matter" because a Republican was president, and a Republican congress wanted him to play Santa, with tax cuts all around, Medicare Part D (projected cost from 2009 through 2018 is $727.3 billion, none of which Bush planned to pay for with taxes.) Bush put two wars on the credit card as well, and ten days after the 9/11 attack he told Americans to "Get down to Disney World in Florida." As a way of saying, keep calm and carry on, like the famous London posters from the Blitz, that wouldn't have been too bad. But he asked no sacrifice except from our troops, not even a willingness to pay some part of the cost of the war with taxes.

The message from Republican leaders now, is don't keep calm, don't carry on, the budget is an emergency, only not such an important one that we should be willing to pay higher taxes to solve the problem. After all, they saw how that turned out for Clinton -- far from harming the economy and making him unpopular, the policy coincided with an improving economy that helped restore his popularity. They certainly don't want to see a replay of that, so they've decided that not only is the budget in crisis, the obvious way of solving the crisis, a mixture of spending cuts and tax increases, is not to be allowed.

The alternative is to keep calm and carry on, treat the national debt as a problem that needs to be solved and explore all options for solving it. But then no one would be Santa, and no one would be the Grinch.

The crows, the books, the project

by Jamie Lutton

I have curtailed my crow watching for a while, and the crows have been seeing less of me. Part of that is the leafy canopy that hides the people on the ground, I am sure. The crows nearest my home do not come and visit me as much partly because they cannot see me. When I was first feeding them, the trees were bare, now, in full summer, I am camouflaged under all the green leaves.

The crows up on Broadway, who roost on buildings, still can spot me, and still greet me gaily. They fly overhead, stealthy; I am stalked by them.

A cross between Angels of Death and my very own falcons.

When I look up and see a crow, and she sees me, and begins to fly parallel to my steps, it is a comedy. When I throw her a treat, six or seven crows I did not see will suddenly appear, saying 'what about me?'

The other day, when I  had a crow or crows following me, I recalled My Side of the Mountain, a young adult novel wherein a young man captures and tames a falcon to hunt small game for him.  He had been living in the Appalachian wilderness by himself, and needed the help to survive.  He names the bird Frightful. The author of this book based her character on the exploits of her young twin brothers, who grew up to be famous naturalists.   So, when I look up and see a beautiful crow flying overhead or near me, looking down, I think about this book, which is a favorite of mine. The wilderness in this book still lives in my heart, a precious place.

I have tried, as a bookseller, to get everyone I know to read this book. It is an amazing American novel; written in 1959, it is still a steady bestseller, and ripped off (or borrowed from) to write other chidrens classics like Hatchet. It has a quiet, beautiful tone, written in journal form; like a young persons Thoreau.

I have been trying to assemble a book on books; 500 titles and poems that I think should be read by an educated reader in English.  I am bypassing most fiction, sticking to nonfiction and poetry. People have written more than enough guides to fiction.

I have been reading some of the other must-read book guides; and I am surprised by how often I catch the author cheating. The books are often profusely illustrated, flashy, but make glaring errors. The outlines of the books show that the editors did not actually read the books.

The novels I have read, that I could check this for sure, I caught one author missing the plot line completely.  The second glaring mistake they make is that they reveal too much of the plot, this is called being a 'spoiler'; people who review movies and books who do a good job usually avoid this mistake, or signal that in the text.  The review of The Martian Chronicles gave a plodding blow by blow review of every plot twist, which would make it unnecessary to read the book; and ruined the experience beforehand. Yick. If I had not read the book already, I would have been quite annoyed by this entry.  The wonder of this book is that the author surprises and astonishes while reading; knowing what will happen beforehand is like going to see that film Fight Club, say, for the first time, and know how it will end.  Reviews who spoil books should be strongly discouraged.

Another book that I saw spoiled was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon. The reviewer said that the narrator was suspected in the dog's death - and  I do not recall that. I think that is a glaring error; he was never a suspect.  The whole interview looked like it was a summeary from the dust jacket read while under the influence of a shot of whiskey; rushed and blurry.  And that is not the only review that had that feeling; That read from Cliff notes feeling.

I am going to try to avoid these mistakes with my book. I am taking three years to get it down, and I am sticking to books I have actually read. I like to read everything. I hope I have a critical eye, so that I choose well. Soon, I will post part of the book here, so I can get some feedback.

The result, I hope will not resemble the rushed, trivial book encyclopedias other committees have produced.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Another reason for the huge increase in incarceration and fatherless youth

by John MacBeath Watkins

In this post, we talked about the increase in people incarcerated in proportion to population, which has increased five-fold in three decades. This post on Talking Points Memo points to one of the reasons this has become self-sustaining:

Private prison companies have helped fuel government policies which lead to an increase in prison population and boost their profits, according to a recent report.

The private prison population has grown 353.7 percent in the past 15 years, according to a study by the Justice Policy Institute. Major private prison companies have an incentive to encourage policies which keep that number on the rise...
...Some of the biggest names in the private prison industry have given $835,514 to federal candidates since 2000 and a stunning $6,092,331 to state politicians in the last five elections.

And it's not hard to push peoples' buttons on an issue like crime during the heat of an election campaign. I find it utterly amazing that as recently as 1980, we had about the average incarceration rate for the world, and we now have five times the average incarceration rate. It's as if there were a revolution that no one noticed, as if the Committee of Public Safety had set up the guillotine and run it faster and faster while people walked by without looking.

How does this tie in with the increase in the number of single moms? Remember that it is disproportionately young black men, the very ones that we want to stay with their wives and children, that are being imprisoned, and few things could disrupt a family more. Of course, two of those "few things" is those same men either having a drug addiction or participating in gang activities, which are fed by the lucrative drug trade. We've tried fighting the drug trade with a "war," which all the evidence indicates has not worked. Legalization may not be a panacea, but it's one of the options we should be exploring.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Wecoming a new blog to the family

by John MacBeath Watkins

In addition to my sister's blog, Studio Notes, my mother now has a new blog, Island Epicure, where she will be publishing recipes she's written for her Island Epicure column which she's written for many years, first for the Beachcomber, later for The Loop, both of which serve Vashon Island.

The first recipe is for Paella Valenciana, a recipe she picked up while traveling in Spain. Right now it's the only recipe, but I'm linking to that particular post because in no time at all, there will be so many recipes that it might get hard to find. She started writing a grocery column for Fred Meyer when she worked for him in World War II as a 20-year-old advertising copy writer, and has never left off collecting recipes and perfecting them.

A peace treaty to end the drug wars? Or, why we have five times the incarceration rate of the average for the world

by John MacBeath Watkins

The debate about legalizing marijuana in the state of Washington is heating up. From the Seattle Times (full story here.):

A coalition that includes former U.S. Attorney John McKay, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes and travel guide Rick Steves is launching an initiative that would legalize marijuana in Washington state.

Let's join the debate. To begin, let's compare a couple of charts, shall we?

(chart from Wikipedia)

It's easy to see why bookstores are having a hard time. Not only were those charts easy to find, the other stuff you can get quickly is amazing.  I've just watched one of my favorite films, and one of my favorite lines in it is "Cousin, you're back at last! But what a state!  Quick! A shirt and a sandwich!  Melons and a hat! Stockings!"

As an experiment, I plugged the line (which was the original title of this post) into a search engine, and lo and behold, up comes the entire screenplay of The King of Hearts. Before the internet I'd have had to search a fairly large library to find the screenplay, and I might have found it untranslated, in the original three languages. I suppose that has something to do with the spellchecks that insist I've not written internet right unless I capitalize it, as if it was a proper name, or I was writing about God. It's as if you'd be taking technology's name in vain.

But why is that such a good line? The film is about the insanity of war, as revealed by the reaction of the inmates of an insane asylum to it. That line has a hallucinogenic absurdity to it that takes us to a metaphorical war, the war on drugs, which increasing numbers of people are saying is over, and the drugs won. Is it time, then, to negotiate a peace treaty?

One consequence of the drug war is that we have 25% of the world's prison population, with only 5% of the world's total population, which if my math is right means we have five times the average incarceration rate for the world (and five times the incarceration rate we had prior to 1980.)

This is tremendously expensive. And it has a great deal to do with our drug laws and their enforcement.

It seems to have escaped the notice of most Americans that the easiest and cheapest way to cut the crime rate is to make more things legal. The political solution is perhaps slightly more rational than calling for melons and a hat: Hire more police and lock more people up for longer periods of time. This might be an efficient way of dealing with the problem if our prisons were really good at getting people to stop committing crimes.

But in fact, it seems that the people who have the easiest time getting out of a life of crime are those who don't get caught, don't get a prison record that keeps them from getting a good job, don't learn what our prisons have to teach. They are the ones more likely to pay taxes than to be a burden on the taxpayer. The Stanford Prison Experiment showed back in 1971 how prisons only bring out the worst in people, regardless of which side of the bars they are on. We've responded to this knowledge by putting more and more people behind bars. Quick! A shirt and a sandwich!

We now have guards' unions lobbying for longer prison sentences because that's how they get job security. We have private prison companies that benefit from these policies as well. We have police corrupted by drug money in a most peculiar way -- property forfeiture laws have made arrests so lucrative for police department budgets that in some cases, such as the notorious Tenaha, Texas, scandal, police have been allegedly using the laws to take property from innocent people. The corrupting temptation this puts before police agencies is illustrated by this chart (from here.)

Of course, there will always be corrupt police. And biased judges, bad restaurants, etc. The problem is that the drug war puts so much power in their hands and so much wealth within reach. Tenaha might have been known for a speed trap in a more innocent age, but the drug war has increased their power, and in economic terms, the rent they can gain by abusing it. Nor is this the only corrupting influence of the drug war on police -- because distribution of drugs is illegal, there are drug dealers out there who can't go to the authorities if money is stolen from them -- sometimes by the police.

With budgets straining, perhaps we can take another look at the money we're spending on this and come up with a more sensible arrangement. Take another look at the charts above. The crime rate started to decline when the baby boomers passed peach age for criminal activity, spiked again as crack flowed into neighborhoods and gangs fought violent turf wars, and has been declining since. If the crime rate were falling because incarceration was increasing, we would expect to seen a steady decline as the incarceration rate increased.

Now, we'd like to think the incarceration rate has something to do with the decline, and in fact, I'm pretty sure it does have something to do with it. Notice that the American violent crime rate started to decline in 1980, when incarceration increased. Here, by way of contrast, is the history of the crime rate in the United Kingdom, from a BBC story (the green line, which tracks serious crime, is most comparable to the chart shown for American murder and robbery rates.)

Note that when we began our incarceration spree in 1980, our crime rate started dropping. Note also that the second peak in the early 1990s is a closer match to the UK crime rate.

Canada also saw its violent crime rate peak in the early 1990s, so some part of the drop in crime since then is not attributable to incarceration, but to demographics or other broad social trends. Part of the difference in the total crime rate and the violent crime rate in the chart above can be attributed to the fact that many people were arrested for non-violent drug offenses. Consider these two charts:

 And, from here:

Notice that the arrests for teen drug crimes blossomed at a time when there was no corresponding increase in teen drug use. By this time, the war on drugs had a momentum of its own. Stepped-up enforcement was producing an increase in crime statistics and people charged with crimes while there was no corresponding increase in criminal behavior.

Not that drug dealing is anything but a criminal enterprise. That, in fact, is one of the major problems with the drug war. That spike in violent crime when crack came into the neighborhood? That's caused by the distribution of crack being illegal. If it were legal to sell the stuff, a bunch of thugs could not compete with Phillip Morris in the efficient advertising and distribution of the drug. We don't let Phillip Morris compete on these grounds because we recognize that crack really messes up the people who use it. Making crack legal would increase the number of users, just as ending Prohibition increased alcohol consumption.

The question is, does the harm done by the drug use outweigh the harm done by empowering criminal enterprises by making the drugs illegal? Organized crime was with us before Prohibition, but it gained wealth and stature when the distribution of alcohol became illegal, and businessmen unwilling to risk their freedom for profits abandoned the distribution of alcohol. When alcohol distribution became legal again, career criminals engaged in it had to find new careers, either different crimes or honest work.

We really need to study this question -- are the drug laws producing more harm than the drugs they control would if they were legal? I'd have a hard time justifying the damage methamphetamine can do based on this calculus. It seems to me that the issue is much easier with marijuana, because it  seems to blight people's lives far less than alcohol, which we've decided produces lower social costs as a legal drug.

Not that I've come to expect rational results from our political process, but we need rational voices in the debate over drug policy or we'll never get there. At a time when Mexico is being torn apart by the criminal enterprises that deliver our marijuana and our prisoners are overflowing and costing us more than we can afford, it's good to see some former prosecutors adding their voices to a call for legalization.

The proposed initiative calls for regulation of marijuana sales much like the regulation of alcohol sales, which seems entirely rational to me. But what shall we call the legal purveyors of euphoric hemp? "Dope dealer" should apply only to illegal sales, just a "bootlegger" only applies to illegal purveyors of alcohol.

I propose we call them commercial thurifers, after the fellow who swings the thurible in the more formal sort of religious service, spreading aromatic smoke. For those who use marijuana for non-medicinal purposes, after all, it has become a social sacrament. As it happens, my social milieu is not one that uses this sacrament to solidify its bonds, but any anthropologist will tell you, most societies have some such use of substances. If this is a normal part of human society, we'll make little progress eliminating it entirely.

More on this topic here and here and here.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Raccoon walks into a bookstore...

by John MacBeath Watkins

The raccoons in this neighborhood are a bit familiar for my taste.

As I've mentioned before, I'm trying to acclimate my cats to go outdoors now and then. I've been thinking that leaving the door open might help, and as the weather is clement, it was still open at 9:55 p.m. while I watched a movie in my shop, which is now also my abode.

Bunny came in from outdoors, glancing behind herself. I looked over, thinking at first that Bonney was coming in with her, then realized that the creature following her was larger and differently camouflaged -- a raccoon. Bunny is large in spirit, small in stature, and the raccoon was about twice her length, probably six to eight times her weight.

Now, I have no particular beef with raccoons. They are a part of nature, and as long as I can keep them from harming my cats or tipping over the garbage, we should get along fine.

But when a raccoon come marching into my house, where the lights are on, voices emanate from the movie playing (was the raccoon attracted to Audrey Hepburn? Who wouldn't be?) right at the heels of my cat, I must inquire after its intentions.

I stood to my towering height (5' 6" is huge to a raccoon), fixed it with stern and gimlet eye, and spoke to it in such terms that it could not mistake my meaning, (hissed at it) causing it to reverse course and exit posthaste.

Bunny has been a bit reserved since the incident, perhaps contemplating the fleeting nature of Life, and the unfamiliar dangers of the natural world. Bonney, taking full advantage of the natural cover, ensconced herself beneath the bed and remained there for half an hour.

Most likely the creature's ambition was to raid the cats' larder, cat food being ambrosia to raccoons (though Wikipedia informs me that if fed this for too long, they can develop gout. Apparently, this disease can strike them even in the absence of port wine.) Cats lie somewhere between the tame and the wild, for most of their history having a choice to live with humans or without them. Raccoons are not good pets, becoming cantankerous as they age, but they are somewhere on the continuum beyond cats, living comfortably in human territory without developing those bonds of affection that cats and dogs tend to have toward sources of food.

Which, of course, takes away our incentive to be intentional sources of food.

I suppose the tame/wild behavioral distribution is one of those statistical curves with a long tail, possibly furry and with dark rings on it.

Arty Bollocks

by John MacBeath Watkins

At last, someone has come up with an Arty Bollocks generator, filling a need we had felt, more than known, with a pastiche of pastel prose and ethereal punctuation that elevates the reader into ecstasies of, wait, that last bit was from the Victorian porn generator. Which, if it does not exist, should.

A sample of the automated bollocks:

"My work explores the relationship between new class identities and recycling culture.
"With influences as diverse as Camus and Francis Bacon, new synergies are crafted from both traditional and modern meanings.
"Ever since I was a student I have been fascinated by the traditional understanding of the human condition. What starts out as hope soon becomes corroded into a hegemony of lust, leaving only a sense of chaos and the prospect of a new beginning.
"As shifting impressions become clarified through boundaried and personal practice, the viewer is left with a statement of the limits of our future."

(The picture is from Lascaux Caves. I found the image here, give it a look!)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Vignette in Verse

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've been re-reading some P.G. Wodehouse, specifically the Mr. Mulliner stories, and I happened by one of my favorites, Unpleasantness at Bludleigh Court, which contains a rare bit of verse by Wodehouse. In the story, two delicate souls, Charlotte Mulliner and Aubrey Bassinger, meet at the Crushed Pansy, an eatery serving a clientele of rather wet poets. Instantly, they fall in love, but then they must travel to the Bassinger ancestral home, Bludleigh Court, where everyone is strangely affected by the place, becoming bloodthirsty sportsmen.

Charlotte, who writes Vignettes in Verse for the less profitable literary magazines, has been asked to contribute one for The Animal Lover's Gazette. Unaware that she has been changed by the spell of Bludleigh Hall, she pens the following:

Good Gnus
 (A Vignette in Verse)

 When cares attack and life seems black,
 How sweet it is to pot a yak,
       Or puncture hares and grizzly bears,
          And others I could mention;
 But in my Animals "Who's Who"
 No name stands higher than the Gnu;
       And each new gnu that comes in view
          Receives my prompt attention.

 When Afric's sun is sinking low,
 And shadows wander to and fro,
       And everywhere there's in the air
          A hush that's deep and solemn;
 Then is the time good men and true
 With View Halloo pursue the gnu;
       (The safest spot to put your shot
          is through the spinal column).

 To take the creature by surprise
 We must adopt some rude disguise,
       Although deceit is never sweet,
          And falsehoods don't attract us;
 So, as with gun in hand you wait,
 Remember to impersonate
       A tuft of grass, a mountain-pass,
          A kopje or a cactus.

 A brief suspense, and then at last
 The waiting's o'er, the vigil past;
       A careful aim. A spurt of flame.
         It's done. You've pulled the trigger,
 And one more gnu, so fair and frail,
 Has handed in its dinner-pail;
       (The females all are rather small,
          The males are somewhat bigger).

You can tell that Wodehouse was at one time a librettist for musical comedies, with Jerome Kern writing the music. I'm particularly fond of the lines: So, as with gun in hand you wait,/ Remember to impersonate/A tuft of grass, a mountain-pass,/A kopje or a cactus.

And now I leave you, to practice my impersonation of a mountain-pass.

(A Wodehouse Bestiary is probably the collection containing this story that is easiest to find.)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Murder of Crows -- the policeman did it

By Jamie Lutton

I had been depressed this weekend, as some police in Renton decided to shoot crows out of the sky with bean bag guns and kill them. The crows were buzzing their heads, as this is the month young crows come out of their nests and attempt to fly. Some crows had decided to nest near their station, and gave the cops a"a bad time", flying near their heads.

According to the experts, the urban crows build their nests higher than they used to, so the birds have further to fall.  So we have anxious mothers and fathers and older siblings worrying about what is the equivalent of 2 year olds, young birds, learning to fly, and they have very far to fall; often 20-30 feet.   So, the crows (bravely)  buzz anyone who walks near whatever bush their babies landed into, as they are VERY SURE that whatever human is near them, their precious babies will be touched, grabbed, hurt, killed.

Well, can you blame them?

Think of the bravery of these crows. They weigh less than a pound; going up against a human, buzzing their heads, just because the human might notice their babies.

One commentator on line compared the crows to 'rats'; called them 'vermin'. 

I am thinking about the Renton cops; did they never read Prince Caspian by C. S. Lewis? They did not remember the talking animals from Narnia?

Perhaps the talking mice? 

The point of Reepicheep was that he was a brave mouse.    Mice are supposed to be disgusting creatures, to be crushed underfoot. C. S. Lewis made them, or one of them a grand creature, a swordsman from the pages of Dumas,  incredibly brave, willing to tackle a foe that outweighed him by a factor of 60.  All in the name of honor, and glory.   The reader, the child out there, was supposed to learn a bit of compassion from this book, that even the smallest of us can have honor worth defending.  When Prince Caspian first encounters the talking mice, he thought they were almost a joke, and would be no help in war. When he saw them in battle;  they held their own, with their little swords, and fierce, over the top spirits, even when dreadfully wounded.

Reepicheep may be the best character in the Narnia series; because of his bad temper, his fierceness, his desire for a fight, and his quick wit.  So like a crow.

The crow's 'foes' out weighed them by a factor of 200 or so. And the 'foe' was in the crows justified fear of what humans might do, to the uneducated baby crow, who is loved by it's parents and older brothers and sisters.

Respect the love the crow has for its babies. Remember Reepicheep.  I can only surmise that the Renton cops forgot Narnia, or never read about Reepicheep, otherwise they would have had compassion.

Today I saw two brilliant crows.
One swooped out of the sky, surprising me going 'Aw Aw Aw' at me; then landed in the street about 10 feet from me.It sounded happy and raucous, talking to me the way crows talk to each other.   I tossed a dog biscuit so it dropped in front of it; it stomped over to it, and pecked it open.

A younger version of him flew down; I tossed him a biscuit, too. This crow flew up then,  flew by my head, and landed on a fence by the library, and I tossed it another treat.  I left them behind, and got my coffee. I cut through an alley, behind Charlies, where I had seen a lot of crows the other day congregating, where there had been a great deal of spilled food. Today, a crow came from the west, flew in a low circle around me, then landed on a fence post, silently.  In his circular flight, he was only a few feet off of the ground.  It was magnificent; a wonderful piece of virtuoso flying.   I spun around to watch him fly around me, which took a few heart beats, a slow bit of acrobatics, just to amuse me, I think.

I looked at him, and he at me.  I said 'oh, pretty bird', several times and tossed out a treat on the pavement. He looked at me, and did nothing. I tossed another, that landed near the first, and then a third. As other crows appeared in the air from the west, he flew down and took two of the treats, and flew off, as other crows arrived.  The other crows did not fly as beautifully as this crow had, but they got treats, too.

I had never 'owned' a bird, and never knew a bird before I started feeding crows. I had no attraction to birds in cages; thinking of the poet Blake's 'Robin Redbreast in a cage/put's all Heaven in a rage'.

I do think that the myth of fairies and fairy folk, the Irish version where they are little, little people must come from birds.  When I am alone, the tricks these birds pull to amuse me, (?) or amuse themselves, (I am not sure), must have convinced some peoples that they were fairy folk, disguised as birds.  

In a world before science and before the Christian god, the crows and other birds must have seemed to be magical creatures, fey creatures. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

1945, and she wore nothing but a flimsy burnoose

by John MacBeath Watkins

Since my father's death, we've been going through his effects and we found two postcards that I hadn't known about. They are postcard my father sent my mother when he went through French North Africa in about 1945 on his way either to or from Italy, where he was a bombardier in B-17s.
About this lovely young woman, Dad wrote the following on the back of the postcard featuring her:

So the women with the sheer veils were the equivalent of flappers, in his view, fashionable young flibbertigibbets who were, as Firesign Theater would have put it, wearing nothing but a flimsy burnoose. Of course, the veils on European hats were even more revealing, but to get wrapped up in that comparison misses the joke.

There's a line in Jurassic Park where the mathematician says, "life will find a way." He's talking about reproduction, so in a sense he's saying sex will find a way. No matter what the mores of their society, men and women will find a way to make themselves attractive to the opposite sex.

The veiled woman contrasts with what my father called the "tough-looking girls" in the postcard below, with a repressed eroticism that is more attractive. Clearly, the prostitutes are posed to make it clear that what they offer is easy access, rather than the most desirable partner.

It would appear the French authorities started their own bordello and arrested and fined these women so that they would staff it, since they were (if Dad got the story right, and I should note that the last sentence shows he was skeptical) paying off their fines for the crime of prostitution by engaging in prostitution while in jail. Nasty bit of business, and it sheds some light on why the Algerian war was so bitter -- a colonial power that treated the people of its colonies this way would certainly engender an extraordinary sort of resentment. Of course, if we are to believe even half of what Henri Charrière, author of the memoir Papillion, had to say about French colonial penal colonies, they didn't treat men who were French citizens any better. Colonialism does seem to require a certain dehumanizing of the colonized.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The shabby man ages

(to be read in a single breath.)

by John MacBeath Watkins

His jowls sag, his belly swells
his dreams are crushed beneath the years
and yet he faces every day
and doesn't let his mind dwell
on slipping hopes and growing fears
and failing eyes and still I  say
his courage holds up very well
to walk among his desperate peers
and face his fate down on the way.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Bunny and the pygmy dinosaur

by John MacBeath Watkins

My cats are having trouble adjusting to a door left open to Vashon Island's green, wild world of trees and grass and birds and insects after a lifetime spent indoors in a city apartment. Bonney, out of an abundance of caution, hides, and has so far done no more than look outside. Bunny, my rumpy Manx, has courage in abundance, but that abundance so far does not lead far from the door.

Often, she stands on the concrete porch while a small bird, possibly a towhee, hurls abuse at her (at least I think that's what it is, I don't speak chirp.) I would imagine the bird has a nest nearby, and decided views on whether cats should be let outdoors.

Bunny is a mighty insectivore, but while she's death to bugs, she's never even tried for a bird. The towhee, if that's what it is, can't know that, though.

It sits on its limb and declaims at the top of its lungs, no doubt saying something like, "I am the descendant of dinosaurs, you puny mammal, take one step onto the grass and I will crush you!"

High above, a crow, which probably could take out a house cat without too much trouble, caws its disapproval as well. Bunny watches the towhee cautiously, never showing the longing for predation that she and Bonney displayed while watching pigeons through a protective layer of the apartment's glass. This is not a game, they seem to realize, there's a real bird out there, and it's no dumb pigeon, it really does seem to have an agenda regarding cats.

I'm sure the towhee is wise enough to know that jawboning (or whatever the beak equivalent is) has its limits, and knows to keep its distance from cats. But at the rate things are going, I'm wondering if it will ever need to apply that knowledge. It's a shame I don't have Chuck and Frank, my shop cats from the University District, here, because being younger, they likely would have adapted to outdoor life more quickly.

But then, there's something to be said for a brace of cats who are safe for songbirds, isn't there?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

To read is to become a stolen child

by John MacBeath Watkins

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

 That's the refrain from The Stolen Child, by William Butler Yeats. It came to mind after my father's funeral last month, when we gathered at my sister's house and her granddaughter was running around with fairy wings on.

But then, last night, I stayed up reading into the wee hours, barely able to keep my eyes open as I came to the end of a book (Gridlinked, by Neil Asher, sort of sci-fi noir with alien dragons and a 007-type of secret agent. This is a bit like the reviewer who said of a Robert Ludlum book, "this is a terrible book, so I stayed up until 3 a.m. reading it.")

It's happened enough to me that it doesn't feel strange, but it is strange for a medium-sized mammal with a real world to live in to be taken away like a stolen child, enticed into a world that isn't real in the conventional sense, but is real enough to take us into it, and away from the world we know.

Stories are a kind of virtual reality we have been entering since the invention of language. Symbolic thought is a world my cats don't experience, cannot experience because their sentience is of a different and more practical nature. We will always have a literature, at least as long as we are human, which will give us sanctuary from the world in which we eat and sleep, teach us things we have not experienced in the real world, and let us empathize with the troubles of those we've never met.

I'm reminded of a quip I've quoted before, from Kung Fu Monkey:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

We come back from these worlds marked by them. An Episcopal minister, the Reverend Carla Pryne, (no relation of Hester Prynne, you can tell by the spelling and the fact that she's real) recently told me that reading -- she mentioned in particular C.S. Lewis's Narnia books -- led her to her profession. On the other end of the scale, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., was influenced not by Christian apologists like Lewis, but by Ayn Rand, who shared with Karl Marx a conviction that religion does terrible things to people's minds and their lives, and a determination to substitute her philosophy for religion in peoples' minds.

Whether your world view is shaped more by The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or by Atlas Shrugged, the way we live our lives is in part a product of the stories we inhabit. They become a part of us, and we become a part of them, bringing a desire to live those stories in our real world back with us from our expeditions into fantasy. Because our consciousness is shaped in part by the enchanted world of books, the more bookish we are (for that matter the more we love stories from any kind or source) the more symbolic our lives become. In fact, David Copperfield, Charles Dickens' masterpiece, begins with this sentence:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
It's seldom that explicit, this desire to live our lives as stories, though in Lou Reed's perceptive lyric from Street Hassle,

But you know people get all emotional
and sometimes, man,  they don't act rational, you know
they think they're just on TV.
Personally, I've always hoped my life would turn into a musical comedy, but I see people making decisions that make their lives more dramatic instead of solving their problems, and I know the story they are living is more like a soap opera. That's the kind of story where they learned what life's supposed to be like.

We remain animals living our lives, eating, defecating, sleeping, reproducing our genetic material...but what makes us human is this peculiar fact, that we are stolen children, taken by the fairies of our myths, legends and history (which is both myth and legend,) and bringing those stories into the real world where we try to live them.

For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than he can understand.


The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone
"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word
On being a ghost in a soft machine

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Economics, lemon socialism, and surreal interpretations

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've run into an innovative argument on a forum I frequent: That the lessons of the European debt crisis are all about the dangers of Keynesian economics. Just to give a feel for how surreal this is, I dug up some graphs.

(From this source.)

Spain and Ireland, in terms of their government spending, were more fiscally responsible than Germany prior to the banking crisis. They were admired by conservatives for their low taxes and the freedom they gave their banks. The banks used that freedom to finance property booms that busted, bringing the banks to the edge of collapse.

To prevent the banks from collapsing, Ireland and Spain socialized the banks' losses, making the taxpayers responsible for the bankers' mistakes (this is known as "lemon socialism," where profits belong to private parties and losses are given to the public to pay off.) A lot of the capital their banks were loaning came from Germany, so a large part of their debt is caused by trying to protect the German banks from the consequences of their mistakes.

In 2008, before the financial crisis and subsequent recession, Finland, also admired by conservatives, had debt of only 44 per cent and a surplus of 4 per cent of GDP.

As for Greece, they were clearly the least responsible government in Europe. It's not clear to me that they can ever pay off their debt, I really think they'll have to default. And that means repricing their whole economy, which would be easy to do if they could devalue, but they can't because they are part of the Euro zone.

In their case, austerity isn't the worst idea, although they spent less of their GDP on government than Germany when they were flush. They just haven't been paying for it, running up big deficits when times were good. Although their spending is in line with European norms, they have been unwilling to pay for the government they demand. Greeks just don't like paying taxes. Their problem is more like passing a tax cut and a spending program during good times (Medicare Part D, anyone?) than like deficit spending as a deliberate policy for kickstarting a stalled economy. Can you think of any countries in North America that spend less than Germany as a percent of GDP but are unwilling to pay the taxes to support that?

(from here.)

And what did Keynes say about budgets when times were good? He said governments should run surpluses then, so that they could run the necessary deficits when the economy stalled. Because Greece didn't follow Keynes' advice when times were good, they've been forced into practicing the opposite of Keynes' advice now.

So, none of the countries we've been talking about have been practicing Keynesian economics. Incidentally, in addition to running budget surpluses prior to the banking crisis, Spain and Ireland are on the low end of government spending as a percent of GDP for Europe.

And as for the economics, conservatives seem to think that running a deficit when the economy is in good shape is something Keynes would urge. No, that's something Grover Norquist would urge, because Norquist and his allies are not fiscal hawks. Norquist famously quipped,  "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."

In 1990, the U.S. government employed 12,571,000 people. That includes the civil service, military, contractors, those employed by federal grant, even the postal service. By 1999, it employed 11,028,000, according to this source. Most of the cuts were in the civil service and the military.

Both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton reduced the size of government and increased revenues. The result was predictable: The huge debt run up in the Reagan years started to become less of a problem. Unfortunately for Bush, his responsible moves were not popular with the Republican base, and he lost an election when too many of them sat on their hands.

The Onion's famous satire from Jan. 17, 2000, George W. Bush's inauguration day, imagined George W. Bush saying, "our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over."  Had those words actually been spoken, truer words would never have been spoken.

Of course, he had help ending the peace bit, though at least one of the wars he stated was not justified by the goals he claimed for it. And of course, his concern was not to shrink government while making it more effective.

By the end of 2005, employment by the U.S. government had gown again to 14,601,000, an increase, at almost 3.6 million, of about 30 percent from the size of government at the end of the Clinton Administration. Almost all of this was because of an increase in the use of contractors, according to this source. The military, for example, despite fighting two wars, had only about 50,000 more personnel than in 1999, but of course, many of their functions had been taken on by higher-paid contractors. One would think the Grover Norquists of the world would have been all over that, except for one word in this paragraph: Contractors. They are, after all, private industry, even if they are completely funded with government funds.

And how was this paid for? Well, it wasn't. Which, of course, is the other reason Grover Norquist and his chums had no problem with it. They think debt is wonderful, it justifies cutbacks in those things their opponents wish to spend money on.

So there's your pattern. Ramp up spending on conservative priorities, cut taxes, run up debts, declare the debts are a problem and are caused by spending on liberal priorities, cut spending on liberal priorities.

And if it all ends in tears, blame the debt on John Maynard Keynes.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Weiner agonistes

by John MacBeath Watkins

Well, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) has now revealed that he's the creep behind the weiner picture Twittered to a young woman in Bellingham.

I  know it's not uncommon for men to send pictures of their crotches to women, but I have to say, it seems a bit of a mystery to me. Are they thinking, "yeah, this always works!" and anticipating the picture will make these women want them, or is it just plain exhibitionism?

Seems like it must just be the latter, in which case Rep. Weiner must have at some level realized that it was potential political suicide. He did it anyway, which makes me think the shares with Bill Clinton a self-destructive streak.

My first post on this is here:

The infinite improbability of economics

by John MacBeath Watkins

I like reading stuff that blows my mind, just to stretch it. Like A Brief History of Time,  Stephen Hawking's book about physics that is just accessible enough to tempt people like me to try to understand it. In the current Scientific American, I read that gravity, time and space might all be emergent properties resulting from quantum mechanics. So now, when I trip or drop something, it's because of quantum, and what can you do about that? Birds may even be using quantum effects to navigate.

Another sort of mind stretcher is economics. We have brilliant economists, even Nobel prize winners, recommending opposite solutions to economic problems. They can't all be right, and they can't all be dumb, so the solutions can't be coming from pure logic.

Although they use a lot of math, theirs is a science of values, founded by a moral philosopher (Adam Smith) who was thinking deeply about how a system of values works. And speaking of math, the numbers they use sometimes look like the input for an infinite improbability drive. During the stimulus debate, the difference in estimates of the output gap were roughly equivalent to the gross domestic product of Belgium.

Now, currently the debate centers on whether the proper response to a recession is the sort of austerity practiced by the Germans, or the Keynesian approach used in America.

One liberal economist, here, says we should notice what has happened to economies following these different approaches, and conclude that the Germans were wrong because they haven't performed that well. He illustrates the point with this chart:

Another says we should attribute the superior (?) performance of the German economy to the fact that they have not really been austere, when you compare total government spending from all levels of government:

You can read his full (rather snarky) post here.

If these numbers are correct, and I admonish the jury to remember these bloggers are not under oath and are, let's face it, economists, why are conservative economists always telling us that we should cut spending like the Germans have done so that we can enjoy the greater success they have had? Shouldn't they be proving their point by citing the poor performance of the Germans in spite of their spendthrift ways?

Ah, but the Germans were not running big deficits, since their conservatives still believe in paying for their government. Could their worse (or better, depending on who you believe) economic performance be because they have been too fiscally responsible? But wait, didn't the German banks lend a lot of money to the Irish and Spanish banks, which nearly collapsed and were saved by the Irish and Spanish taxpayers? Whose good deed is being punished here, and whose sins rewarded?

And if the debate over Keynesian or monetarist solutions were not enough to stretch your brain all out of shape, we now have a man, Ron Paul, overseeing the actions of the Federal Reserve Bank who does not believe the Fed should exist. In fact, he's not down with Federal Reserve notes, the currency of the realm. He opposes

currency, and the fact that money these days is sometimes nothing but blimps on a computer screen.

A return to the gold standard would eliminate all discretionary monetary policy, which means we now have an important part of government that considers even Milton Friedman too far to the left.

You can make the math as difficult as that Stephen Hawking left out of his book, but it's all still about values, and that's an area where our emotions take hold.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

A poem for Sunday, with transubstantiation

by John MacBeath Watkins

The apostles' cold collation
turns, through transubstantiation,
from bread and wine vegans could toast
to chowing down the party's Host.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

More confirmation on the fact-check fail about Israel

by John MacBeath Watkins

Oh, this is choice. Remember the post where I discussed the fact that President Obama's stand on Israel's borders was in fact not a change in American policy?

Turns out now a member of Bibi Netanyahu's staff has confirmed it.

And it also turns out that the American Jews are not, in fact, confused about this.

No doubt Bibi's comments were for the consumption of the punters back home.

Pratchett prize winners announced

by John MacBeath Watkins Watkins

There are now prizes issued in the name of two of my favorite authors, P.G. Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett, not coincidentally, both English humorists.

From The Bookseller:

Two novelists have been chosen as the winners of the inaugural Terry Pratchett Anywhere But Here, Anywhen But Now Prize.

David Logan’s Half Sick of Shadows and Apocalypse Cow by Michael Logan (no relation) were chosen as joint winners by six judges including Pratchett and Tony Robinson at a ceremony last night (1st June). Both authors win a one-book publishing contract from Transworld.

I look forward to reading these. And I'm delighted that Pratchett gets a prize in his name while he's still around to appreciate it and even judge the contestants.

The Weiner incident, now without weiner jokes

by John MacBeath Watkins

One of the major distractions of this week has been the allegation that New York Rep. Anthony Weiner (D) Twittered a picture of a penis in tight-fitting underwear to a 21-year-old woman who goes to community college in Bellingham, where I did both my undergraduate work and my MA.

He claims his account was hacked. I'm cynical enough about politicians that my initial reaction was, "yeah, right," but I've just run across a statement posted on line by the woman in question. Here's an excerpt and a link:

There have never been any inappropriate exchanges between Anthony Weiner and myself, including the tweet/picture in question, which had apparently been deleted before it reached me. I cannot answer the questions that I do not have the answers to. I am not sure whether or not this letter will alleviate any future harassment. I also do not have a clear understanding as to how or why exactly I am involved in this fiasco. I do know that my life has been seriously impacted by speculation and faulty allegations. My reputation has been called into question by those who lack the character to report the facts.

Whoever is responsible for turning this young woman's life upside down is a real stinker, but she doesn't think it was Weiner. As far as I'm concerned, the jury's still out, but I do find it remarkable that most of the coverage has given short shrift to Gennette Cordova's views on the matter. And it seems to me that her feelings are those that should carry the most weight. They may change, if it turns out that Rep. Weiner actually sent the tweet, and if it does, her feelings will still be real issue.

But to the punditocracy, how this affects Rep. Weiner's career and the competition between our political parties is what's paramount. That stinks, as well.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

It's hard out there for a bookstore chain

 Borders is closing its last stores in Australia. Mind, that's not many stores by this point, and they did sell off the last five stores in New Zealand, but it's another case of bookstore chains experiencing shrinkage.

Beattie's book blog, which has modestly anointed itself with the title of "unofficial homepage of the New Zealand book community," has the sad tale.

A crow who likes to surpise me

By Jamie Lutton:

I more or less have a set routine when  I walk to work. I get my latte at this one stand, then either walk down Broadway or Harvard, to work, five blocks away. If I see a crow, and she sees me, she or he usually flies to a tree overhead, or a wire, and stares at me to get my attention. Sometimes, several crows do this. When this happens, I usually  then walk down Harvard, so  I can quietly  toss them dog treats, to  not disturb other pedestrians.

Two days ago, yesterday, and today, a crow landed at my feet, the same crow, I believe, and went 'Aw, Aw, Aw' very loudly.  He got very close to me. I knelt down, and talked to him for a minute, while I fished out a treat for him. Yesterday, and today, he got chicken, as I had bought some for lunch.

Today, he approached me again;  landing at my feet and cawing very, very loudly. He made me jump, as I did not see him coming. I never, ever see him coming.  I got down, and fished out some chicken for him from my bag.  He hopped around for a minute, picking up the chicken and putting it down,then eating on the spot. He did this with an audience of other crows on the sidewalk, today who did not approach me nearly as closely. He then took some dog biscuits I offered, flying away across the street, flying low.

I have tried many times since then to try to get a crow to get this close to me. This crow, and this crow only, has decided I was okay, and comes up close me on his own to demand a treat.

He always picks the exact same spot on the sidewalk too; right across the street from the coffee shop, these three days.  And he approaches me; I am always surprised by him, landing at my feet and demanding my attention.

I don't have a name for him; but he has a bold, clever heart.  Very fat, big and mature; he always sticks around long enough for me to get a good look at him, while I kneel on the ground, fishing in my bag for a treat for him.

I know he has my number. He knows that what I want is to look at him and his buddies. He seems to be saying 'gotcha' when he lands at my feet, making me jump a bit, when I see him.  Then he caws very loudly for a treat.

A real joker.  I will miss him while I am gone to visit a friend. Hope he finds me next Tuesday, when I return.