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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Any sufficiently understood magic is indistinguishable from technology

by John MacBeath Watkins

In the forest of my youth
every gnarled primeval root
was the bones of some nightmare beast
defeated by the valorous feat
of an eldritch power to me unknown
that might next turn upon my home.

The forest trail's now wide and plain
a garden path in all but name
and I can name that eldritch power
against which stands no wall or tower
in which I've lived, both boy and man
which sifts away like grains of sand.

Its power is greater than I dreamed
but isn't frightening as it seemed.
Magic, if understood by me
seems like mere technology.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Raccoons, cats, and I'm sure we know exactly where we've seen those damned masks before

by John MacBeath Watkins

There's a bookcase outside the picture window in my shop that I put up so that the cats can climb up to the window. Two raccoons are on it as I write this, staring in the window at me, as if looking soulful would get them invited in for catfood.

Bonney, my shyer cat, looked at them, hissed, then retreated to take full advantage of the natural cover provided by the bookselves and peak around the corner at them. Even flash photography doesn't seem to scare these cheeky devils. But then, one of them came into the shop when I was watching a film, so human voices combined with lights didn't deter them either.

Wait, now a third has come. This is beginning to look like a gang, or perhaps poorly organized crime. Now the other two are leaving, and showing themselves to be rather clumsy climbers compared to my cats. I'm sitting five feet from the window, and even when I walked over to with a couple feet, the largest of the three simply stared at me.

I've done my level best to convince these masked marauders that they are not my pets. I've hissed at them to chase them away, closed the door in their faces, made sure they can't get at any food -- but they seem to be fascinated. I'm wondering if someone in the neighborhood has been feeding them. They are quite capable of getting their own living, as wild animals should.

And however fascinating they may find my cats, I don't want them interacting too closely, because from a cat's point of view, they probably look like small bears. And I worry that from a raccoon's point of view, my cats might look like food.

And I'm sure we all know where we've seen those masks before.

Cheeky devils.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

2011 homebuilt boats at the Center for Wooden Boats

by John MacBeath Watkins

I spent Saturday and a wee bit of Sunday last week at the Center for Wooden Boats Homebuilt Boats Weekend. I forgot my camera, but managed to get a few shots with my phone.

I didn't take a lot of notes,but here are some of my favorites:

Bruce Smith bought this boat only partially planked, and finished it in seven weeks. It sails remarkably well, and who doesn't like to look at a catboat in a hurry? At about 11 feet, she's a small one, and about 300 lb. lighter than a Beetle Cat. With that sharp, high bow (below) she's a lot drier as well.
I mean, try doing this in a Beetle Cat, even if you removed enough deck, you'd be soaked:

For the broader scene, here's a view of the setting, with Tim Yeadon's Big Food on the left, Noah Seixas's melon seed against the dock by the boathouse.

Chris Cunningham brought his a cruising rowboat (a V-bottomed garvey) with a queen-sized bed and a wood stove. Nice work on the varnished foredeck.
I was happy to see that Ernie and Erica Wisner made it with their sampan, done from plans taken off at the Singapore drydock by William Maxwell Blake about a century ago.

Robbie Bumpus built the above Edwardian yawl from plans in Dixon Kemp's Manual of Yacht and Boat Sailing, and the design dates from about 1880. On the plans, the rig looks frighteningly large, but under sail and with the ballast intended, it seems about right. I must say, I've never been able to develop any affection for the push-me-pull-you tillers so many small yawls have, and the off-center mizzen looks like a decent solution, though I suspect the mizzen isn't as useful on port tack as on starboard. Todd Waffner built a Caledonia Yawl with another solution, a nicely laminated curvy tiller. I've seen iron ones like this made by a blacksmith.

Monday, July 25, 2011

1860, 2008, and not accepting the legitimacy of an elected president

by John MacBeath Watkins

I used to think that no, the Republican reaction to President Obama isn't about race, because look at how they reacted to Bill Clinton. Then, via Paul Krugman, I read this portion of Abraham Lincoln's Cooper Union speech:

Under all these circumstances, do you really feel yourselves justified to break up this Government unless such a court decision as yours is, shall be at once submitted to as a conclusive and final rule of political action? But you will not abide the election of a Republican president! In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, “Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!”
 Cool, of course, had not yet gained its "hip" connotations, and a modern speaker would say, "that's cold."

But the striking thing here is that the slave states (and slave territories) would not accept the legitimacy of the election of a Republican president, because the Republican Party stood for the abolition of slavery. The parties have changed places since then. With the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act under Lyndon Johnson, the Democrats became the party of civil rights and, with Nixon's Southern strategy, the Republican Party became the party of Jesse Helms, no longer that of Abraham Lincoln. As the Republican Party came to be increasingly captured by the Old South, a group of activist Republicans came to see the election of Democrats as illegitimate, just as it once had seen the election of Republicans as illegitimate. Under the New Deal, Democrats had retained the South with their silence on matters of race. Under the Great Society, that pact was broken, and as Johnson foresaw, the Democrats were destined to lose the South.

In either case, Lincoln or Obama, it's the man who did not represent the South that the party representing the South cannot accept as legitimate. And though the Republican Party is not only about representing the South and its history, that's where this question of legitimacy gets its fuel, and it is attitudes toward race that unite important parts of the Republican Party.

Certainly there is no natural alliance between Evangelical Christians and libertarians. Where do they meet? Well, Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act on libertarian grounds -- no government should regulate who a business had to serve, in his view, not because of race but because of the property rights of the business owner. Evangelical churches got a boost when many of them started "White academies," sometimes called segregation academies, where Whites could avoid the integration of schools.

President Carter understood well that these schools were using their tax-free status to continue segregation. During his administration, the IRS started looking into the tax-exempt status of these organizations. By the standards of some parents, he did too little, and they sued the IRS (unsuccessfully.)

Race has always been a complex subject in America, and there's plenty of racism in the North. Having lived in both North and South, however, I'd offer the opinion that there is more open racism in the South, as well as more interaction between the races.

Via Sensory Overload, here are a couple of maps:

And from Wikipedia, a map of the electoral college results in the 1860 election (Republicans are in pink, Southern Democrats green.):

I am constantly amazed at how slowly culture can change. The second and third maps show how completely the parties have changed places, the first and second show the extent to which the states and territories where slavery was legal match up with current Republican voting patterns.

Of course, there's a great deal more to the Republican Party than these patterns. Many cultural conservatives aren't racist, and I know this because my extended family has quite a few cultural conservatives in it. I'd say most libertarians are not motivated by racism either -- it's not a philosophy about race, after all. But picture a Venn diagram of these two movements (pardon the crudity, I did it by hand):

Most of the philosophical territory occupied by L (libertarian) and E (Evangelical) lies outside their intersection. We may picture the outer box as the entire Republican Party (although there would be a lot more bubbles to describe the entire Republican party.) R (racism) lies entirely within the intersection between L and E, and certainly doesn't define either, nor the larger set of Republicans. It does, however, lie at the nexus, knitting otherwise disparate philosophies together into an alliance under the party, because it represents the goal they have in common. Libertarians wish to legalize many things now regulated by the government, for many of them including drugs and prostitution. Evangelicals have no wish to see those particular things legalized, and may wish many things the libertarians do not -- mandatory teaching of creationism, for example.

What binds them together is the area where government regulates segregation. Libertarians may not want businesses or schools to segregate, but they do have more faith than liberals that markets will create an acceptable outcome in this area, and are willing to accept outcomes that liberals will not. Evangelical Christians may not want segregation, but find government intervention in their schools more objectionable. And both find themselves aligned with people who are uncomfortable with race mixing, as demonstrated here.

I know this sounds like a problem we should have heard the last of in the 1950s, but consider this. There were 19 pogroms against Jews in Germany in the 1920s. Eighteen of them happened in cities that had pogroms in 1349, according to this study. Patterns of ethnic hatred are persistent, particularly in areas where there is little in-migration (which means that Virginia and North Carolina, for example, can be expected to show change sooner than states with less new blood.)

Society is changing, and I'm hoping a time will come when too few people are motivated by racism for it to matter. But the voting patterns the Sensory Overload blog noted are real, and reflect the hard, cold fact that race is alive and well as a factor in American politics.

Two graphs and a link on the futility of debt negotiations based on no new revenues

by John MacBeath Watkins

From the New York Times, this timely chart:

The analysis is well worth reading as well, pointing to the futility of trying to tackle the deficit when the biggest single factor in producing it, the Bush tax cut, is, according to the Republican negotiators, off the table.

The NYT piece has a wistful what-might-have been -- a projection of the surpluses we might have seen with a continuation of the Clinton administration policies under Bush, with a helpful comparison to the actual deficits under his actual policies, and and a warning -- what the projected deficits would be with a continuation of the Bush policies under Obama:

For the NYT's analysis, which is well worth reading, follow the link following the first graph.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Another young crow

By Jamie Lutton:

I was on my way to work today, and I saw I had a crow shadowing me; landing on the ground in front of me, flying up ahead of me, then landing in front of me. I looked up, and there were three or four crows in the trees, watching me.

I ducked down an alley, put my empty cup in a waste bin, and tossed a treat out onto the parking lot behind the pet store. Instantly, about fifteen crows showed up, and arrayed themselves like the outfield in baseball, waiting for my pitch. I was pitching dog biscuits out to them, and they played the game with me, scuffling with each other to grab one.  As I did this, I noticed that these 'identical' birds all looked different from each other. Some were fatter, some thinner, some had missing feathers, some were streaked with white from cleaning a nest, some were very ruffled, sickly, as they were elderly. Some were shyer, would not get very close to me, and a few brave ones came up within a few feet of me.

I saw another baby. It was a thin, smallish crow. It had flown over into the outfield, but it was on the ground, hopping about, facing another crow, and opening its beak, begging for food. It originally did not pay any attention to me, just the crow it seemed to be with. I saw the red interior of its mouth as it begged, a sure sign it was very young. It honked at the adult, who was too busy watching me. I threw a treat in that crows direction. It missed getting it, as it was not quick enough. I had to throw several treats before it got one, it then flew away, across the street, treat in its beak.

As I left turned away, I heard  (another?) honking, very loud, of a baby bird. It seemed to come from everywhere. I saw an acquaintance, and I bade her listen, and told her she was hearing a baby crow.  We both stopped and enjoyed the honking, which to my ears sounded annoyed and frantic, like the cries of a hungry human baby. I finally looked up and behind me, and there it was - I caught the flash of the inside of it's mouth; all red; as it walked back and fourth on the top of the building, honking its heart out.

I think it missed the nest, when it could be assured that an adult would feed it. As  I left that block, I could hear that baby for a good block away. I am sure that cry is effective in getting some adult to shove food in its mouth. A behavior book I read about crows said that adults will feed flying fledglings who are as old as a year; perhaps to shut up that honking cry (and pitiful look) the baby crows give.

I am back to work on my book on books.  I started this project ten years ago, in a hazy way, when I set out to read everything Shakespeare read that was extant, so I could better understand his mind.  This morphed into a book on books project. I have been rattling off ten, twenty nonfiction titles that I thought were essential to my regular customers, and got a blank look from most of them; so I thought there was a need. Plus, the books on books are mostly pretty pitiful, and focus on fiction, rather than nonfiction; modern writers rather than, say, books Shakespeare might have read, or Dickens.  I will be posting some of the chapters soon on this site, and will (hope) to get feedback.

I would be further along if my laptop had not blown up, and I have no other computer besides my work computer. Plus, watching and writing about crows has distracted me. I was a science fiction fan first, in my youth. That kind of addiction makes me frame my experience with crows a bit differently; rather than shrugging them off as nuisances, I enjoy watching this (nearly) sentient species.

An SF writer called David Brin  created a world with 'Uplifted' dolphins and chimpanzees 25 years ago,  who could converse with humans after being genetically modified.  He wrote several clever, believable books in this world, slightly in our future. He strove for realism, tried to make his newly sentient species act as they would, true to their natures as we know them. He did  miss what was under his nose; the intelligence of birds, surpassing both of these species.  At the time I read these books, I thought he had plotted a plausible future, having studied these species a bit in college and on my own.

When we modern readers  examine SF from the 19th century, or of 75 years ago,  we crow over what obvious advances, changes in human culture,  they did not see coming.   Yet this important writer, and nearly all the modern SF writers missed these birds, the corvids, ravens and crows, who quietly (or not so quietly) share our cities with us, and do not see their start on the rise to intelligence.

Only .Robert Sawyer has written a science fiction book (the title of which escapes me right now) where the crows inherit the earth; and they are humorless creatures, hardly recognizable, with alien, unknown motives.  And they no longer had working wings; very sad. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

Two patterns of partisanship

by John MacBeath Watkins

Probably the blogosphere's most data-driven writer is Nate Silver, who is therefore one of my heroes. Too much of our conversation is driven by opinion and narrative, too little by facts.

However, much as I think his latest post is a must-read, I see a problem with his interpretation of the data (and the fact that I can do this is one of the greats things about data-driven blogging.)

Here are two charts from his post, which, with apologies to Mr. Silver, I have modified (I hope he doesn't mind, normally I'd link to the chart and do my best to drive traffic to him, but I think the added line makes my point more clear.) The top chart shows the ideological alignment of governors belonging to the Republican (red) and Democratic (blue) parties after the 2010 election, and the bottom chart shows the Republican governors before that election.

Mr. Silver says that this shows the Republican governors are leaving the moderate voters behind. And, indeed, prior to the 2010 election (second chart,) Republican governors did show a remarkable spread of ideology. I've added a line showing where the center is on both charts, so that you can more easily see how far from the center each party is. The vertical axis is the ideology of the governor, from zero (most liberal) to 100 (most conservative) while the horizontal axis is the ideology of the voters in their state on the same scale. To show where they would need to be to perfectly align with voters, my added diagonal line goes from zero to 100 on both axis.

It looks to me like prior to the 2010 election, the Republican governors were remarkably well aligned with their constituents. Following that election, they clustered at the top of the scale in the conservative corner -- but take a look at those Democrats. They show a wider spectrum of ideology, but all but one are more liberal than their constituents. Three Republicans cross the line.

Indeed, what we see here is a continuation of a long political trend to more partisanship, and our politics are at this point as partisan as they have ever been since Reconstruction.

We discussed this trend in this post. Take a look at the trends Voteview's data show. The problem is not as asymmetrical as liberal bloggers would have us believe, though. Those Democratic governors in the top chart are as far from the center as the Republican governors, even if they are more inclined to reflect the degree of conservatism of their constituents. The difference is that while Republicans have clustered in conservative states and on the conservative end of the spectrum, the Democrats are instead a fairly consistent degree more liberal than their constituents.

The difference is not so much that one party is further from the average voter in their states. It is that one is ideologically driven and therefore likely to be elected only in states where that ideology sells, whereas the other has a pragmatic program of adapting to the ideology of the available voters, to compete in a wider variety of states while pulling policy about the same degree from the center.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Watching a young crow learn the game

By Jamie Lutton

By now, I can spot a young crow pretty fast.  This morning, I was getting my coffee from the the TNT stand, when I saw this skinny, small crow standing in a mud puddle in the parking lot behind the stand. I noticed that it was sort of hesitant looking, looking around. A fat, mature crow landed at my feet on the sidewalk, begging for a treat. I threw him one, and I saw this young crow fly over, and land by the older, fat crow, and honk-crow at him, asking for a bit. He did not flutter his wings as if he was a baby, but he did open his beak and honk.  The adult ignored him. I threw the young one a treat; the older crow grabbed that one, too, and the young crow flew up into the tree.   He seemed shy and easily startled.

I looked at the young crow, held up a dog biscuit, and tossed it down. Again, a different older crow took it. I then tossed down several, and at that point the young crow flew down, hesitated, then grabbed one, in concert with several crows, jumping for the treats.  I believe he was a youngster because of his high-pitched, honking caw, and how he tried to beg from the older crow. After that,  I walked about, listening to the crow calls, and I heard young crows in many of the trees. The high pitched honking tone is unmistakable, once you have heard it from a young crow.

The tree across from my shop must have a healthy young crow, as his honking is so loud that he nearly drowns out the sound of the other crows.

Several of the trees around my shop and home are filled with the sound of young crows, honking. 

I don't see nearly as many crows as I used to in the winter. I think that they are feasting on all the open garbage bins I see everywhere, and the garbage strewn about the summer streets. There is so much garbage everywhere, overflowing, spilling out onto the ground. And often restaurants use plastic bags for their food garbage, that the crows can easily rip open with their beaks. There is a waste disposal company that has its clients use plastic bags, which is insane, as that is like spreading the banquet table for the crows.

We are lucky, in a way, that we have the crows, because if it was not for them, there would be bits of food everywhere, and/or a lot more Norwegian rats running around in the daytime. I think about the 19th century and earlier descriptions of London and other European cities, and how rats were visible on the street, eating garbage, all the time. You could not scare them away; they were completely bold.  Businesses used to keep rat-terriers to try to control them; they were far too big for cats to tackle .

We are lucky that we have a local bird that is so fond of garbage.  There is not that much left at night for the rats, though we still have some. I observe rat-catchers going into restaurants all around me; and have talked to the exterminators. They tell me that all the buildings around me have persistent rat and mice infestations, and that at night, you can see them trotting about. .

If we want to see 'fewer crows' about, restaurants, street garbage bins and such would have to be a lot more serious about disposing of food waste. As it is, old food is everywhere on the ground, if you happen to look around for it, next to and piled by waste containers, and it bits and pieces on the street, dropped from human hands. I wish that we would do more food recycling; I know that they have this in place for homes, but  not yet for apartments and restaurants. Then this food waste would go into making mulch, and not into the mouths of crows.

I like watching and feeding the crows, but I know that they are a sign that the streets are really dirty and pocked with food waste. Only Dick's drive-in has food recycling, as far as I can tell (I am sure some other places are doing this, but it is rare to see big RECYCLE bins  like they have).  I assume the city fathers are eventually going to have mulching of restaurant and condo waste in place, enforced by law.

I feed the crows only enough to get a few to notice me, anyway. There are many, many crows who make no notice of me; flying high in straight lines, on important crow business. I see them flying in straight lines, high in the sky and wonder what they are about.

I saw two crows get angry with each other this morning, before my coffee, just near my apartment. One collided with another at high speed in the sky, about 15 feet off the ground - BAM - and then they both retreated to their respective trees, and scolded each other.  They were, I think, arguing over territory; as each one came from a completely different direction, scolding as they flew, flying chasing each other across the sky, till they collided, clung to each other for a moment, spinning in the air,  snarling/cawing like mad cats. This encounter happened very, very fast.

Perhaps they were both coming to ask me for a treat, saw each other, and got mad over territory; decided to have it out.. Well, that day, neither one got a treat; they were CAW-CAWING at each other, angrily,  while a few stray black feathers drifted down.  I waited for a bit; but they were too busy being mad to have a dog biscuit with me.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Where I live now

by John MacBeath Watkins

The view from my home (not the shop, where the raccoon keeps trying to get in to raid the cats' larder, upstairs, from the porch.)
 It isn't always so calm. On July 6, it looked like this:

Bit of a change from this. Still got crows, though.

What to read: Two important essays about conservatism, and some good conservative work

by John MacBeath Watkins

It occurs to me sometimes that I spend entirely too many words on politics, perhaps Jamie spends too many on crows, and neither of us it suggesting reading material as much as we should.

Here are a couple things you can read on line, since you are apparently sitting at a computer even as we speak.

We've discussed the decline of conservatism as an intellectual force in this post, so let me suggest some further reading on that topic.

The Paranoid Style in American Politics, written by Richard Hofstadter and published by Harper’s Magazine, November 1964, is one of the most important essays written about American politics in my lifetime. The full text is here. If you're wondering why I'm recommending a 1964 essay, try this first few sentences:

"American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wind. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind."
Sound familiar?

George Packer takes up the tale a few years later, with Richard Nixon's transformation of the Republican party from the party of Abraham Lincoln to the party of Trent Lott and Jesse Helms. I recommend his 2008 essay for the New Yorker, The Fall of Conservatism, so often, I've got it bookmarked in my browser. Full text is here.

Packer tells how Nixon spotted a chance to use the human weaknesses described by Hofstadter and the racial animosities involved in the civil rights movement (both as a cause and an effect) to separate the "solid South" from the Democrats.

Appealing to peoples' better angles was not in his skill set, but Nixon had a genius for exploiting hatred, and he saw that he could, by doing that, shear off a huge part of the New Deal coalition. He was ably assisted by Patrick Buchanan. Here's Packer's account of an early meeting to explore the strategy:

"The Southerners were the kind of men whom Nixon whipped into a frenzy one night in the fall of 1966, at the Wade Hampton Hotel, in Columbia, South Carolina. Nixon, who was then a partner in a New York law firm, had travelled there with Buchanan on behalf of Republican congressional candidates. Buchanan recalls that the room was full of sweat, cigar smoke, and rage; the rhetoric, which was about patriotism and law and order, 'burned the paint off the walls.' As they left the hotel, Nixon said, 'This is the future of this Party, right here in the South.'”
These are essays, not blog posts, so they'll take a little time, but they are well worth your time. Perhaps one day there will be blog posts as important, but I know of none so far.

Which is interesting. Even in an age when blogging is perhaps the dominant form of political discourse, the old forms still have power. Long-form essays can say things short blog posts can't, and magazines can support the reporting Packer did to make his essay powerful. Blog posts are ephemeral, rushed, and for the most part, soon forgotten (although I'm quite chuffed by the enduring popularity of some of my posts, such as What Huck Finn Means to Me, and Eugenics: The opposite of Natural Selection, and I'm sure Jamie is happy people keep reading A crow who likes to surprise me.)

It strikes me there's a need for the sort of thing Hofstadter and Packer pulled off in those essays, and I certainly hope there continues to be an economic model for supporting such work.
Now, I ask myself, why do I know of no conservative critiques of liberalism as powerful as these liberal critiques of conservatism? It's quite possible I simply haven't met them. I've certainly seen excellent work in favor of conservative views, and here I'm thinking in particular of Milton Friedman's television series on economics, Free to Choose, which ironically ran on public television. You can find his work here. He certainly showed that conservatism has a great deal to be said in its favor. John Kenneth Galbraith represented the liberal economics on PBS, and paled by comparison.

But conservative critiques of liberalism have, in my humble opinion, lacked the power of Friedman's work in favor of conservative economics. Too often, it's been of the Anne Coulter/Roger Moore type of propaganda, either too preachy or too mean to be intellectually powerful, and too often it relies on misrepresentations of what liberals actually think.

Perhaps it is the baleful shadow of Nixon's genius for exploiting divisions and hatred (which might explain Coulter, but not Moore.) Our political discourse his marred by liberal scolds and out-and-out propagandists like Moore, but a major characteristic of conservative discourse has, for a long time, been to discourage dissent from the party line, which is not good for those intent on writing insightful essays. David Frum was pushed out of the nest for daring to suggest that the Republican strategy on President Obama's healthcare legislation was a failure.

"I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters – but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead."

From was recognizably objecting to the paranoid style in American politics (he's Canadian, by the way.) For that, he lost his job at the American Enterprise Institute, one of the better conservative think tanks.

(By the way, while I'm recommending essays you can read on line, the AIE essay on the collapse of the Soviet Union and the role oil and grain played in it is the best thing I've read on the subject. You can find it here.)

Now, I see criticism of President Obama and the Democratic congressional leaders by liberals all the time that is at least as harsh as what Frum said about the conservative strategy on healthcare. Of course, it's harder to violate the Democrats' party line because the Democrats often have no discernible party line, but when they do, there are always some liberal yahoos yelling their lungs out about how this is the wrong strategy or the wrong priority. No one seems to mind.

Baby crow! That haunting honking sound

By Jamie Lutton

I saw another baby crow on the ground. This one was only a block from the first one, so it could be the same crow (though I doubt it). This was behind QFC.

It was a quiet morning, two days after the last sighting. The parents were next to it, and it was beating its wings in the manner of all baby birds, as they were stuffing food into its mouth. This one was well onto the sidewalk.

They flew up into the tree, scolding me, when I walked up. This time, I immediately backed away, as it was not in any immediate danger. I did get a good look at it, though. It had the same blank expression on its face, and let me walk right up to it.

A young couple went by. I pointed at the baby on the sidewalk, so they would not accidentally kick it, and said "Look, a baby crow". They looked up, right away, and an apprehensive look went across their face. They had heard about Dangerous Mother and Father crows; I think they were expecting crows in with little machine guns to appear.  A woman my age came from the other direction; I said "Look, a baby crow" and she said, with some skepticism, "it looks pretty big for a baby"; but she walked around.

After a bit,. it wandered into the middle of Harvard; I held my breath. I car came, and was going to run over it. The crow did not move. So, I quickly walked into the middle of the street, knelt down, and put my hand up, pointing down with the other hand, so the driver could guess why I was doing this. I mouthed "BABY BIRD", and pointed. The car stopped about ten feet from us, and drove around us. As this happened, the baby crow hopped to the other side of the street, and disappeared into some bushes.

I walked by that spot in the late afternoon, and pretended to look in the bushes where the baby crow had run, since I saw  a crow on a tree, overhead. That parent immediately started to scold me loudly; so  I knew the baby was still alive (and maybe some siblings).

A few days later, I went by, and had some real luck.  I saw the baby in the same tree it was at the foot of. I knew it was the same  baby crow (or a sibling) as it did not fly; it hopped from branch to branch. And its caw was like more like a honking sound, like a duck or goose, than a caw. More high pitched. I watched it for about half an hour; it never tried to fly more than two feet or so.  Also, I knew it was a baby as it had a parent right next to it, scolding me, as I watched it's baby.

You might go out, today, and listen where there are heavy tree coverage and crows sighted, and see if you can hear this high pitched honking-crowing sound. There will probably be accompanying scolding from a parent, for you daring  to be so close.

My regular crows have been keeping me company.  I fed come crows some dog biscuits early yesterday morning, and one of them, half an hour later, dive bombed past me, flying under my right arm then up into a tree, with a biscuit in his beak.  He landed on a fence, then turned toward me for a moment or two; before flying away..

He was not hungry, obviously,  just saying hello, I suppose. This sort of thing happens a lot. It is the main reason I still feed the crows; they will fly in circles over my head, or dive bomb around me, saying hello, as I feed them.   They do all sorts of curious things, to get my attention, but try not get swatted  or hit by (other) people.

The crows are also landing on the railing outside my shop, and just walking back and forth, peering in. Nick also feeds them; so they do so to get our attention, to get treats. Sometimes we get as many as four or five, walking back and fourth, waiting expectantly outside.   I bought him his own sack of crow treats, yesterday., so he did not have to depend on me.  It is fun to have this thing to share with him; otherwise we have so little in common; as I am his boss, etc. I don't like being a boss; it means the people I am around for five to ten hours a day..  I have to keep my distance from.

It is like the first two chapters of C. S. Foresters Beat to Quarters, when Hornblower has to learn not to talk to his subordinates. This book has been held up as the great mirror of what it is like to be a boss. I happen to agree.

It is a very tiresome necessity, but it is better to be silent, and not too friendly with your employees. I have never succeeded in doing this, but I recognizance this as the ideal. It is best for both the employees, and the boss. 

I have had wonderful people work for me for the last 21 yeasrs; but very few visit, or call after they leave, as I was 'the boss'. But, that is the way of the world.  Several have shops of their own; and have done me proud. 

Last Thursday, July 14th, it was my 21st anniversary in business, if I start counting from the day I opened in on John Street. If I start counting from when I opened in the Broadway Market, I started back Feb. 17, 1987.

I celebrated quietly, with a little crow watching.  I thought a lot about all my employees and friends, long gone, and the friends who made it possible for me to open my shop.

My projects for the next year is to keep Twice Sold Tales running,  to the best of my ability, and to (finally) buy a replacement laptop, so I can get back to work on my book on books, that I have been working on for over a year. I may even put the crows in it.

Tolkien, when he came to write the sequel to the Hobbit that he publisher begged him for, he found that the Black Riders just 'rode into' the text, without his volition. They also  help hijack the book, along with the Ring,  and complications thereon, etc., so that it took Tolkien 12 years to write Lord of the Rings. He also he had friends who prompted him to rewrite the thing, till it was better, then still better; prompted him to write his best.  I picked up this information from the collected letters of Tolkien.

I have given myself only three years to finish my book on books, as I do not have a circle of friends to critique my work.  I think crows have flown into my book on books, though, and have roosted there. . For every time I start to write about books people should read, etc, crows come out of my fingers in this blog. .

I think my  black birds are a less ominous than Tolkiens black  riders, but I think they are here to stay. 

Another reason I don't write about books (yet) is that I have had books all my life, but crows only less than a year.  I am still stunned by birds.  An example: on my balcony, I have been putting outsunflower seeds, and red finches come, eat, and amuse my cat, who can't get at them. My cat stares at  the birds, who ignore her, and my cat chatters her teeth, and stares at them in frustration.  Usually,  I miss most of this drama.

Yesterday morning, though,  there was a tiny, incredibly obese finch, who fluttered its wings, and was being fed by an adult on my balcony, accompanied by another adult, as they hit my sunflower seed offering.. I realized that my sunflower seeds had fed up an obese finch baby, who was still being fed by Mama sunflower bits. This drama was taking place a scarce foot from my face, as I crouched on the floor and watched with my  very attentive cat. The finches were red, and brown, and yellow, and so very small. When they flew away, they darted at a speed my eyes could not follow; much faster than a crow could fly. They fell into the sky, off my balcony, and disappeared into the air.

I am a rank beginner, and nearly blind, too. What can I tell you about birds, that you can read about somewhere else, better, by experts?  I hope only to bring the miracle of the sighting of these birds bring to me, the miracle of the texts I have read might bring to you.

I will be careful, then, to be as fresh as I can, and as astounded, as I am about these books I know well, as I am about these birds I have just seen, so you want to look into these books, as I have stared into the sky after my crows, and at my balcony at the tiny finches.

So many people go about their lives, ignoring both birds and books, chasing after goals I don't understand very well. Both the birds and books are worthy of a second look, and, perhaps, astonishment. .

Debt Deja Vue: It isn't smart governance or politics

by John MacBeath Watkins

Does this put any pressure on congress to reach a deal on the debt ceiling?

That's from a new CBS poll, as reported here.

Imagine that, people not responding well to demagoguery. That hasn't happened since...well, the last time Republicans tried to hold the economy hostage using the debt ceiling in 1995-96. My hope is that they will learn their lesson this time, and do their negotiating about the budget when they are passing taxing and spending legislation rather than when the question is whether we should default on the nation's debt.

I believe they were fooled both times by the noisiest part of the Republican base and by polls taken before the public started paying attention to what congress was doing. In the abstract, more debt doesn't sound good to people. As the crisis builds, and they realize a vote not to raise the debt ceiling is a vote to default on the debt, the notion becomes less popular.

But Republican legislators are trapped by their own rhetoric. They whip up their base with talk of a crisis, even though they've raised the debt ceiling in similar circumstances without a peep for a Republican president, then  they have trouble backing away from their demagoguery as the crisis they've brought on approaches.

It isn't smart governance, and it turns out that it isn't smart politics, either. And now, they're bringing out another relic from the 1995-96 crisis, the balanced budget amendment. As written, it would restrict federal spending to 18 percent of GDP, and would require a super majority to raise taxes. The super majority rule is undemocratic and has led to an ongoing fiscal crisis in California as a minority holds the state hostage for their agenda. In essence, it would require that when we go into a recession and the GDP falls while tax receipts fall, we make big cuts elsewhere, probably including Social Security and Medicare, which would make the recession worse.

A more workable alternative would be to stop believing in magic when it comes to budgetary matters, and pass the taxes required to pay for the services voters demand. But that would mean abandoning more than 30 years of tax demagoguery.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Consensus, debt, risk: A legislature that "can’t be trusted to govern the country in a responsible manner"

by John MacBeath Watkins

Japan has a debt load of 225.8 percent of GDP, as reported by the CIA World Fact Book. Italy, at 118.1 percent, has a little over half the debt load Japan has, yet it must pay much higher interest rates to borrow, reflecting a higher risk of not repaying. (interestingly, there are different ways of totaling national debt. America looks pretty good in the CIA World Fact Book, not so good in the IMF numbers. Japan and Italy look about the same regardless of whose numbers you use.)

Why would Italy be less likely to repay its proportionately smaller debt?

Both Japan and Italy have terrible demographic profiles, having had a low birth rate for quite a few years and being unreceptive to immigrants as a solution to that problem. Both are doing poorly economically at the moment.

One big difference, of course, is that Italy does not control its own currency or central bank. but another is simply, the consensus for its government to act responsibly.

No matter who the Japanese elect, they seem to be responsible, if a bit slow-moving. The Italians, on the other hand, seem to chose their governments for their entertainment potential. Compared to the drab, ethics-bound Japanese politicians, Silvio Berlusconi has provided both comedy and drama. Outside of Italy, it's kind of hard to take his administration seriously, and the opposition has not shown enough strength to replace him.

Certainly, politics are important to investors in sovereign debt. Take a look at this chart of American sovereign debt (from here. You can click on it to make it larger.)

Debt as a percentage of GDP fell during the post-WW II era in which the work of John Maynard Keynes underpinned a wide consensus among economists about how the economy works. That period encompassed four Democratic administrations and three Republican ones. Carter was the last president before the Keynesian consensus broke down.

Monetarists, the leading light of whom was Milton Friedman, felt they had a better way, and Republican politicians latched onto supply-side economics and in particular to the "Laffer Curve," which seemed to promise something for nothing, claiming lowering taxes would increase the amount of tax paid. We see the result in the Reagan administration and both Bush administrations.

(Laffer, by the way, did not claim to have invented the theory, attributing it to 14th century Muslim philosopher Ibn Khaldun. Laffer did, however, contribute to the theory by claiming it applied at American levels of taxation, and tax-cut enthusiasts seem to have decided that it applies to almost any level of taxation.)

Keynesian theory says that in economic booms, you should reduce the outstanding debt, and in bad times, government should be ready to put money into the economy to jump-start it. The breakdown in the Keynesian consensus has been accompanied by a breakdown in the consensus that we should pay down the debt in good economic times.

Of course, partisan politics plays a part in all this, as we discussed in this post. Republicans don't mind increasing the debt when a Republican is in the White House, as we discussed here. In fact, the Republican consensus in favor of George W. Bush's stimulus package in 2008 would appear to show that they do, in fact, believe government action can jump-start the economy, and the Republican consensus against the Obama stimulus might actually be because they thought it might work, and help him get re-elected. Such strategic thinking might also be why Republicans were eager to force President Bill Clinton to cut the deficit, and voted repeatedly for tax and spending legislation during the second Bush administration that sent the deficit skyrocketing.

I think the problem here is that the Keynesian consensus has not really been replaced by either a new consensus or by two competing consensus (consensi?) Many of those determining our public policy have abandoned any real model of how the economy works, and now simply look for justifications for policies they want anyway. 

For example, when the economy was booming and the budget was in surplus as President George W. Bush entered office, his solution to this policy challenge was to lower taxes. When the economy was hemorrhaging jobs and the budget was hemorrhaging red ink, his solution was a tax giveaway. Opposite conditions demanded the same response in his view, because any problem the country faced was an opportunity to pursue his political agenda.

This was the response of a man for whom economic analysis had no meaning; only political agendas had meaning.

On the Democrats' side, there is what might be called a weak Keynesian consensus. President Barak Obama, for example, seems to seek a middle ground between his own followers and the Republicans, a ground which arguably does not exist.

In any society, you must have elites who are expert on various topics, and can be counted on for sage words when advice is needed. We lack a consensus about who those experts are on any number of topics, in part because of a deliberate policy of agnotology, in part because dividing the nation was a deliberate strategy pursued by one of our political parties since the 1960s, a process very well described by George Packer's May, 2008 article on the subject in the New Yorker, which I keep finding myself urging people to read.

Nixon's Southern strategy depended on harnessing the resentment of Southern whites. Pat Buchanan wrote a 1971 memo to Nixon that encapsulated that strategy (which had been successful in the 1968 campaign) as using the resentments of Southern and working-class whites to “cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have far the larger half.”

Consensus and trust in elites are things more easily destroyed than restored, and thus far the electoral process is providing few incentives for our politicians to work this out.

Consider this, from Felix Salmon's financial blog:

"The base-case scenario is, still, that the debt ceiling will be raised, somehow. But already an enormous amount of damage has been done: the US Congress has demonstrated clearly that it can’t be trusted to govern the country in a responsible manner. And the tail-risk implications for markets are huge. Think of the speed with which the Egyptian government collapsed earlier this year, or the incredible downward velocity of News Corporation right now. When you build up large stocks of mistrust and ill will, nothing can happen for a very long time. But when something does happen, it’s much quicker and much worse than anybody could have anticipated. The markets might not be punishing the US government at the moment. But the mistrust and ill will is there, believe me. And when it appears, it will appear with a vengeance."

A legislature that "can’t be trusted to govern the country in a responsible manner" sounds more like the Italian government than the Japanese one. And that is an economic problem only because it is a political one.

Friday, July 15, 2011

When did you learn that America lost the war of 1812?

by John MacBeath Watkins

The title of this post is a question that I asked people for a while before giving up because no American seems familiar with this simple fact. Now there's a small ruckus over at The Dish because Jonathan Rausch chose to label it the "Coolest. War. Ever."

Quick reminder: The War of 1812 started because...
a) We were trading with the French, who were at war with the British, and objected to the British efforts to stop us.
b) British ships, desperate for manpower, were taking sailors off of our ships. Granted, some of them had deserted the British Navy, or taken posts on American ships to avoid serving in the British Navy, but still, can you imagine how American voters would respond if some nation was brazenly stopping our ships and impressing our citizens into their navy? The issue was resolved with the defeat of Napoleon in April of 1814, after which the British had no need to impress our sailors.
c) We thought we could conquer Canada, and vastly increase the wealth and territory of our country.

The invasion of Canada was a bust. If memory serves, we lost every land battle in that campaign. In fact, the one land battle we prefer to talk about winning was the Battle of New Orleans, which happened after the peace treaty had been signed, but before word of its signature could reach the generals involved (the Treaty of Ghent was signed Dec. 24, 1814, and the battle took place Jan. 8, 1815.) Another battle, for a fortress on Mobile Bay, also took place after the treaty was signed, and the British won that. We also won a far more important battle, at Plattsburgh, NY, stopping the British/Canadian invasion of America from the north. Those pesky Canadians still had not learned their lesson, resulting in the Pig War of 1859.

The British managed to chase our army out of our capitol and burned much of Washington. Although we won a few single-ship actions, and became about the only country on earth to have a captured British frigate in our fleet, for the most part, the war was a string of humiliations.

Every Canadian or Briton I've asked knew that America lost the War of 1812, and knew if from a fairly young age. Almost no American would admit we lost even when reminded of the historical facts. A professor of American History, asked about this by my girlfriend at the time, said that we hadn't lost -- our "war aims had changed." Apparently, they changed from annexing Canada and changing the British views on what constituted proper behavior for a neutral nation, to a return to the status quo ante bellum.

Of course, if our war aim was to get pretty much exactly what we had before the war, why did we go to war?

Well, it did give us our national anthem, which hardly anybody can sing properly. And the Macedonian, the frigate we captured from the British, was such a status symbol that when Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry went in 1854 to open Japan to trade with America, the Macedonian was his flagship.

(Of course, it wasn't the original, which had rotted away years before, it was a replica built to such exacting standards that it actually fooled at least one man who'd served on the original in his youth. And it was there in part because the steam ships in the fleet couldn't carry enough coal to sail to Japan and back from the nearest port open to them, so they needed a sailing vessel to carry some of the coal.)

The reason I started asking the question was that at the time, we had not yet left Viet Nam, and there were people claiming we should not because America had never lost a war, and we should stay until we won this one. My father, by the way, served in the Viet Nam war, and maintained to the end of his life that we hadn't really lost.

The War of 1812 formally started June 18, 1812, and the ending it was signed Dec. 24, 1814. With the 200-year anniversary of the war coming up in less than a year, perhaps this is a time to look back with a little humility on that adventure. We are now engaged in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, which seems like a lot of wars to try to win. But don't worry, our war aims will change, so victory is assured.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Well, duh. "Maybe the debt ceiling was the wrong place to pick a fight."

by John MacBeath Watkins

From the Huffington Post:

"Maybe the debt ceiling was the wrong place to pick a fight, as it related to trying to get our country's house in order," Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Thursday. "Maybe that was the wrong place to do it."
When Congress passes a budget, the government is legally obligated to spend the money. Trouble is, Congress has decided it wants a second shot at the budget, requiring the debt ceiling be approved by it.

Here's a thought: If you want to cut spending, do it when you pass the budget. And if you fiddle with spending between passing budgets, pay attention to the debt you're piling on.

In December, President Obama wanted to extend unemployment benefits because we're in the worst recession since the Great Depression, and there are about five job seekers for every available job. Republicans in Congress let him know they'd only approve of that if they could extend the Bush tax cuts for a couple more years.

Having determined that they would let Obama spend more if they could tax less, they are now claiming that the national debt is out of control. Know why? It's all in those spending bills you passed, friends.

I'm becoming increasingly convinced that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, (R-Ky) is onto something with his plan to let Obama raise the debt ceiling as long as congress can make symbolic votes against it. The debt limit has been used by both parties for political symbolism, but the problem is that a vote to not raise it is a vote to default on what we owe the nation's creditors. Should this ever actually happen, the consequences for America and the world would be an economic catastrophe, but the current crisis shows that at some point, politicians will paint themselves into a corner they don't feel they can get out of.

McConnell, a man who, in the past, I've admired for his resemblance to an angry rabbit, understands this as well as anyone, but he's willing to think right through to the obvious conclusion -- Congress needs a way to act out its symbolism without crashing the country. He proposes to let the president propose a raise in the debt ceiling, and say what cuts he'd make to avoid having to raise it, then if Congress votes against raising it, they have to come up with a super majority to keep it from going is high as the president has requested. A slim majority, of the sort either party is likely to have in the foreseeable future, couldn't come up with a super majority, so the county gets to pay its bills and the congressmen get their symbolic vote against the debt.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Let's take another look at The American Way

by John MacBeath Watkins

David Brooks has a column this week in which he claims that "The world economy is a complex, unknowable organism," and that all who think they've found the "magic lever" that will make the economy perform better are wrong.

Paul Krugman replied in a post on his blog, maintaining that "realizing that there’s a lot you can do to reverse a short-term slump isn’t magical thinking — it’s what basic macroeconomics, what we learned through hard thinking and hard experience, tells us. Rejecting all that may sound judicious, but it’s actually an act of intellectual amnesia."

He does agree with Brooks that there is little the government can do to improve long-term growth.

I suspect that both men are wrong. Brooks certainly is; economists ranging from Milton Friedman to, well, Paul Krugman, agree that when the country is not in a liquidity trap, monetary policy can stimulate the economy. History demonstrates that they are right.

But what about long-term growth? I maintain that a very old idea, originally called "the American Way," points us to the answer. Readers of this blog will recall that I love charts, and the information usually published by the sources that originate them. So here's a chart from Investment U on American spending on infrastructure:

This graph comes from an article by David Fessler about how the infrastructure of this country -- roads, bridges, sewage lines, etc. -- are falling apart.

"The World Economic Forum published a report that places America twenty-third in terms of infrastructure quality. The ranking is heading south. It found that our roads, railroads, airports and port facilities were all judged inferior to those of northern Europe."

And the effect can be seen in the age of our infrastructure:

And what are our other competitors doing?

This graph comes from a January 22, 2009 New York Times article that tells us:

"The combined national, provincial and local spending for economic stimulus promises to change the face of China, giving the country a world-class infrastructure for moving goods and people quickly, cheaply and reliably across great distances."
Notice that the first chart starts in 1956. The steep slope on the left of the chart goes back to 1953, not coincidentally the beginning of Dwight Eisenhower's administration. In 1919 Eisenhower had participated in the Transcontinental Motor Convoy, spending 62 days crossing the country, and in the process having to repair 88 bridges. Most of the roads were unpaved, which may help explain why the trucks kept breaking down and crashing.

It has been said that in war, amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics. Eisenhower knew logistics very well, and knew that for the economy to function efficiently, it needed roads that would permit good logistics. He ramped up infrastructure spending, and signed what he regarded as the highest accomplishment of his presidency, the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956.

Now, China is doing what Eisenhower did.

Ah, you say, but our roads are already built. Well, yes, but. Remember those bridges the Transcontinental Motor Convoy had to fix before they could cross them? Those were already built, too. Stuff wears out. If you own a factory, you don't figure, okay, I've got my factory, I don't need to spend any more. Or if you do, you are soon uncompetitive. You replace machines that get old, you constantly try to improve your capital stock, and you sometimes tear the whole thing down and start over.

This was actually a problem for the co-op plywood mills that were once fairly common in the Northwest. The workers would often vote to distribute profits to themselves, rather than invest in more machinery. The business managers they hired would have to tell them, no, you can't pay yourself that money, if you don't buy a new pealer you won't be able to keep making plywood.

We're having a similar problem with our country. In essence, it's a big co-op, where we vote on whether to buy a new bridge or keep that money in our take home pay. We've been putting off paying for the new bridge for so long, some of them are literally falling apart.

Part of the problem is ideology. In 2009, Michael Steele, then Republican National Committee Chairman, said, "You and I know that in the history of mankind and womankind, government — federal, state, local, or otherwise — has never created one job." Republican presidential candidate and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, earlier this year said, The fact is, I can unequivocally say that I did not create a single job while I was governor." His point was that private industry creates jobs, and his claim is that despite the fact that the state of New Mexico employs a fair number of people, it gets in the way of private industry employing those people.

The problem with this philosophy is that sometimes, government produces goods more efficiently than private industry. Consider lighthouses. First, there were concerned people who realized that on a dark and stormy night, ships tended to run onto the rocks. Some of them built bonfires to warn them that they were nearing the rocks.

Then, the invisible hand of the market intervened, as people found a way to make the signal bonfires pay. They built them in spots that would cause mariners to run onto the rocks, then looted the wreckage.

Government regulation strangled the private economic enterprise of the wreckers, and competition from tax-supported lighthouses didn't help, either. Thus, a libertarian paradise was strangled in its crib, and the lives of countless mariners were saved.

What this admittedly sardonic account reveals is that sometimes the market fails. Sometimes it's possible to redesign the market so that the incentives align with peoples' needs (the Affordable Care Act is an attempt to do that), sometimes a market failure just means you have to put the matter into public hands.

But the public no longer feels that it has a really direct connection with its government. Part of the reason for this is that since the 1960s, a large number of people have been trying to convince them that the government is an alien thing that only has the capacity to harm them. The mantra that government is not the solution, it's the problem, has a nice ring to it, and we all know instances where government has not functioned as it should.

But a recent study found that 40 percent of Medicare beneficiaries and more than 40 percent of Social Security recipients say that they have not benefited from any government social program. Government is so ubiquitous that people are often not aware of the benefits they receive from it, even when it's something as visible as roads and bridges. So how can you expect people to appreciate the benefits of productive public assets?

Every grade-level crossing delays traffic and trains. If there's enough traffic for this to be a real problem, as is the case in much of the Northeast, the country can be made more productive by building an overpass, but it's not in the interest of any private party to do that for the rest of us.

This is why President Obama is pushing for a National Infrastructure Bank, to invest in public goods. He seems to think that once the debt ceiling issue is dealt with, he can get this engine of investment in public capital projects through congress. This seems quite unlikely to me.

Let's do a quick thought experiment. If a Republican were in the White House at a time of high unemployment and the country was at war, would a Republican-dominated congress decide that it was so important to cut spending that they could not, in good conscience, raise the debt ceiling?

Actually, we don't have to do that experiment, because it already happened. In 2003, a Republican-controlled congress raised the debt ceiling a record 984 billion, while the country was in a much less severe recession. Bush lowered taxes that year, and in his first term increased spending by 26 percent. Democrats wanted to raise it only 300 billion, which would have allowed them to revisit the matter.

If the plan presented today by Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader, resolves the debt limit controversy, I don't expect to see the infrastructure investment problem to be easily resolved. President Obama may want to believe America is still a country that can do big things, but party politics seem to trump that every time. The real battle is to restore peoples' feeling that they own the country, and can invest in it.

When the country was young, men like John Qunicy Adams, Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay believed in something called "the American Way" (the Wikipedia entry refers to it as "the American System.) It was essentially mercantilism,  the dominant economic paradigm of the time, and it featured a concerted effort to build first-rate infrastructure.

Perhaps it's time to revive the term. After all, who could oppose "the American Way," especially when it featured the support of the earliest interpreters of what America should be? Not all aspects of the plan Hamilton and his compatriots pushed (I have my doubts about how useful high tariffs are) but there are some very useful ideas there.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Two parables of the sower, Socratic and Biblical

by John MacBeath Watkins

There are two great parables of the sower in Western literature. One is found in the Bible,* the other in one of Plato's dialogues, the Phaedrus.*

In the Bible, the sower spreads seed on rocky ground where the seeds cannot take root, he spreads them in the thorn thickets where the plants are choked out, and on fertile soil where it grows. The parable concludes, "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." The word is spread on all this ground, and where the ground is able to receive it, it takes root.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates argues, "Would a husbandman, who is a man of sense, take the seeds, which he values and which he wishes to bear fruit, and in sober seriousness plant them during the heat of summer, in some garden of Adonis, that he may rejoice when he sees them in eight days appearing in beauty? at least he would do so, if at all, only for the sake of amusement and pastime. But when he is in earnest he sows in fitting soil, and practices husbandry, and is satisfied if in eight months the seeds which he has sown arrive at perfection?"

Socrates left behind no written records of his own. All the records we have of his thought are written by other people, primarily Plato. He did not broadcast his words, but chose the "right sort" to speak to. He believed, or at least Plato portrayed him as believing, in the superiority of oral communication, in in particular the dialectic, which allowed speakers to question each other.

Socrates, in the Phaedrus, argued that "...even the best of writings are but a reminiscence of what we know, and that only in principles of justice and goodness and nobility taught and communicated orally for the sake of instruction and graven in the soul..." which reflected the fact that in an oral society, people learn great wisdom and great skill, but do so through discipleship rather than solitary study. He lived in a time when Homer was written down, and indeed, Socrates was written down, but both were men of the oral tradition.

He told of an Egyptian myth, in which the god Theuth invents letters, but the got Thamus, who ruled Egypt to him that writing "...will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality."

Socrates preferred the dialectic, but sometimes spoke to a gathering. Socrates shined in conversation, or at least such would be the conclusion from reading Plato's and Xenophon's accounts. He was forever challenging people, and the Socratic method of teaching based on his technique is to ask the student questions, and let them learn by answering the questions.

Yet Jesus, who was famous for having disciples, broadcast his message, rather than rely on one-on-one conversations. As a sower, he broadcast his seed. You don't have to belong to his religion to see that this was a very different approach to spreading his word. The words of both men were written down by their followers and have been taught and discussed since. The prophet, as a sower, was inclined to broadcast, and let his words take root where they might. The philosopher took a different path, and we now know him only through those who were more inclined to record his wisdom in the written word.

We know him best through Plato, who it strikes me was a very different kind of philosopher. Plato wrote, in addition to the Socratic dialogues, works of his own that were far too long for speaking at a sitting. The Republic and The Laws were book length, designed to reward the reader's patient study. Plato had made the leap from orality to literacy. Not because he knew better how to write than Socrates, but because he embraced the notion of writing for an unseen and unknown reader who might well come after his death.

Which is pretty much what a prophet hopes for, whether the prophet gives speeches or writes. That unseen listener is the future of his faith, after all. Yet not all religions have the sort of prophets who wish to communicate in that way. The Druids, for example, were quite insistent on their beliefs not being written down, and on the knowledge of their faith being remembered in living minds. They were so successful in maintaining this doctrine that almost all we know of them comes from sources hostile to them and probably fairly ignorant of them.

Booksellers and bloggers are, of course, more literary tribes. My post about the Seattle Wooden Boat Festival got a comment from a reader in Dubai, and far more strangely, my post A New Theory of the Leisure Class got a comment from Taiwan that was so off-topic and strange that I deleted it.

Forum threads, where people inform, insult and respond to one another, strike me more as a form of orality, for all that they are written. Yet they are less ephemeral than speech, and carry with them the anonymity of the written word, and because they linger in a way that an unrecorded conversation cannot, the information in them may be broadcast to anyone using a search engine to find information on the topic under discussion.

It strikes me that the internet is creating something new here, an amalgam of orality and literacy that we have not yet quite adapted to. I suspect that one problem with e-books is that they are attempting to be books; the new medium will invent its own forms. An early redesign of Salon eliminated the news updates. Happily, they recognized that one of the strengths of the on-line publication is that like radio and unlike magazines, they can constantly update information. Newspapers used to do this by producing a series of editions through the day, an expense that only the larger newspapers in the larger cities could afford. When a publication is on line, it can constantly update, continually edit, and thus free itself from the most annoying limitations of the printed word.

Of course, the old literature will survive, just as Homer's epic poetry does, or (Plato's versions of) Socrates' dialectics, his words confined to written text, where they may be read by, well, just anyone.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

a man who would stomp on baby crows

By Jamie Lutton

I have not been observing much that was unique about my local crows lately;  I did see a nest of pigeons, and they were cute, up in the rafters of my dry cleaner.  But I did not observe them for long, as it was upsetting the mother. They were in a very bare nest, in a crack high up in a wall, about 15 feet up.  I spotted them because they made a fuss while they were getting fed. The mother had the sense to fly away, but he babies creeek-creeked after she left for a while. Two of them; grey, and mostly feathered, almost as big as their mother.  I kept my distance, but watched them for a while. They were very cute, blind, bobbing their heads about.

On my way home last night, I saw a crow standing in the street behind QFC. I thought it was old or injured, as it was just standing there, without the alert atitude of most crows; looking unhappy and confused. Of course I had to check on it.  I noted that its feathers did not look long enough; did not come down towards its feed far enough, and when it cried out, it was at a higher pitch. It let me walk right up to it, and the inside of its mouth was pink. I realized it was a baby. It was the same size of its parents; but not completely formed.  Overhead, there were two crows, scolding me; the parents, I assumed.

This anxious young crow was too young to fly. I got down and looked at it, to encourage it to take off; all it did was walk away from me, back into the middle of the street. This street is not very busy, but I realized that there was a crisis on hand. I was going to have to keep an eye on this baby, until I figured out what to do. I did not want to see it mauled by a dog or a car or a cat.

It really wanted to walk back and forth in the middle of the street. I kept shooing it back out of the street. At one point, I tried to feed it a crow treat, but it would have none of that. I even tried picking it up; the parents overhead really scolded me then; the cawing got louder and angrier then. I had to motion several cars to go around us, as I crouched in the middle of the street near it, moving with it. A passerby called out that it had been wandering about for hours.  He said 'arent you afraid of it's parents?" I said 'no, I know them, I photograph them (my fib) in the early morning. They won't hurt me" but they were diving at my head. I ignored them, and focused on that baby.

I felt so helpless. Even if I took it home, I couldn't help it. I have a very energetic cat. And what would I feed it?  Best thing would be to shoo it off the street somewhere safe, so the parents could deal with it, and feed it.

I finally shooed it, using my bag, into a vacant lot with a lot of tall grass half a block away. I saw it walk far into the tall ragged weeds and flowers.  Overhead, one of the parents peeled away, flying into the distance. I hoped she was going to get food for the baby crow.

I left them to it, hoping that the crows would not be angry with me for interfering.  The curious thing was, that evening, I was doing my laundry, and a elderly white haired resident, a man, someone I have known for years who was friendly to me (I thought)  came up and asked me,  as I emptied the dryer, if anything interesting had happened to me lately.   I started to tell him about the young crow. I did not get to the point to where I shooed it out of the street, just that I had seen it. He started to scream at me, leaning into my face, screaming  that I should have stomped on the baby crow. He said 'stomped' several times.

He said that the crows ate all the songbirds in the neighborhood, and that they were an invasive species, not native to North America. I interrupted him, and said (mildly) that he was confusing them with sparrows. And he leaned in, screaming at me, saying no, no, no, I was wrong.  I blinked, and (being in sales at work) I tacked and said, we would have a lot fewer crows if we, as people, covered our garbage.That the reason we have so many crows about is all the trash up at Broadway.  The crows are eating our garbage, mostly. And he calmed down a bit. But then he contiued to scream at me, waving his arms.

I pointed out, mildly (I hope) that for every crow he saw, that was one Norway rat he did not see, as crows ate the garbage the rats would eat; and rats ate baby birds too. And that Western man had brought the rats with us, when we came to the New world.  He bellowed 'I never heard that one before'. and stomped off. I called out to him that I was taken aback by his behavior, his raising his voice, and that he acted like I had admired a burglar in the street, not a baby bird.

This man really expected me, or would himself, stomp on a lost baby bird wandering in the street, because it might, due to its nature, eat other birds. I wonder if he eats eggs himself, from chickens kept in terrible conditions in factory farms, suffering by inches daily. Yick.  Or eat meat of any kind. Crows, at least, catch their prey fairly, and yes, they are a native bird. And yes, if you want fewer of them, don't drop garbage, food leavings everywhere.

It is a mass cultural problem, not to be solved by screaming at someone who had compassion for a stray baby bird, fallen from it's nest, with its parents flying overhead, panicked and distraught. 

So. Be careful if you admire crows. They have dire human enemies, who do not hesitate to lean in to your face and scream at you if you admire them, even if lost baby bird in the street.  And it is true about the Norway rats.  This city is full of them, and they eat young birds and eggs, if they can get to them.  They live everywhere.   And, if you hate crows, and love songbirds, do you eat commercial eggs?