Friday, 20 April 2018

Who? Whom?


Contrary to popular belief, clown shes come in red AND blue

I read in the papers today yet one more story about a cartoonishly ignorant politician making offensive, racist comments on his Facebook page.

(Why does any serious politician comment on Facebook about anything other than the baby kissing opportunities that he is looking forward to at this week-end's barbecues?)

This one had everything. Stupidity about "climate change." Crazy conspiracy theories. Anti-semitism. Phony contrition. A non-apology. And a hastily-orchestrated visit to a Holocaust museum.

I know what you're thinking. Some rube Republican in Louisville, Kentucky. 

Wrong. Sorry. Would you like to try for Double Jeopardy!, where the scores really change?

This is not some hick town in Mississippi, but a council man in our nation's capital.

One could not be blamed for thinking that it was, however. Because that is the narrative that you are being fed. Ignorant, racist fool? Must be some Republican from the south. Better get some footage of the rube for The Daily Show, ASAP. What? It's a Democrat from the District of Columbia? Oops. Nix that and write me another joke about Sarah Huckabee's face.

Washington Councilman Trayon White got into trouble when, on his Facebook page following an odd, early spring snow storm, he posted a video and comment:

It just started snowing out of nowhere this morning, man. Y’all better pay attention to this climate control, man, this climate manipulation. And D.C. keep talking about, ‘We a resilient city.’ And that’s a model based off the Rothschilds controlling the climate to create natural disasters they can pay for to own the cities, man. Be careful.

Confronted with the obvious problems with the science if not the prejudice in the comment, it was deleted. White tried to inoculate himself by making at appearance at the national Museum of the Holocaust.

It went about as well as you might expect for a man who believes that French-Jewish banking families can control the weather in DC.

Standing before a photo of a woman being subjected to ritual humiliation, White asked if the Nazi soldiers on either side were there "to protect her." The docent informed Mr White that, no. The woman was being marched through a ghetto, to which he replied "marching through is protecting."

"Um. No. I think that they are trying to humiliate her," the docent responded.

Later, when informed of the walls encircling the Warsaw Ghetto, members of the council member's staff asked, "Is that like a gated community?" Rabbi Batya Glazer answered simply, "Yeah, I wouldn’t call it a gated community. More like a prison.”

Worst of all, about half-way through the visit, Mr White sneaked out the side door and was no-where to be found. 

So much for contrition. And for educating oneself.

The whole story is as ludicrous as it is pathetic. This man, who according to the Washington Post has seen no damage to his support in his district (which is described as the most "isolated" in the city, though how someone can be isolated in a city of about 70 square miles is a mystery) is incredibly ignorant of many basic things. And his empty mind gives space to crazy theories about Jewish conspiracies to tamper with the weather to enrich their banks. 

All of this is just begging to be mocked by alleged "comedians."

It has escaped the attention of Trevor Noah. Jimmy Kimmel has not tweeted about it. I do not watch John Oliver, but I am guessing he's not yet touched it.

The point is that controlling the megaphone of popular culture allows people to control the national narrative



Thursday, 19 April 2018

All Summer in a Day


Roses occasionally suffer from black spot.
But these roses are guaranteed free from any imperfections.

It is always advisable to purchase goods with guarantees, even if they cost slightly more.

The Philip K Dick story "Super Toys Last All Summer Long," the literary basis for the film "AI" ends with a terrible disclosure that we all grasp perhaps before the final denouement. One of the penultimate passages describes the return of the father of the story, Henry Swinton, appearing at his simulated home, with simulated, perfect roses at the gates. The artificial Servingman at his side points out the reality that roses are often not perfect.

Real things risk imperfection.


An advert came across my Twitter feed today from Saint-Jude Children's Hospital. Saint-Jude's is a charity group who raise money for paediatric cancer research and treatment, and provide free services to families of young children stricken with cancer.

In the video, a little boy, called Calvin, is shown reacting to the images his oncologist shows him of a tumour in his brain. Calvin, you see, was diagnosed at 9 with a malignancy. In the video, Calvin sees first evidence that his treatments are working to arrest the growth.




Saint-Jude's is one of a handful of charities that we donate to support; it's truly doing God's work - funding research to help families like Calvin to have hope, and providing totally free medical care for those who are struck with cancer.

There is another short story I recall from days past, this one from Ray Bradbury. It is called "All Summer in a Day," and it details a single hour for a colony of humans living on Venus. The bottom line is that, because of the peculiar rotational and weather patterns of Venus, the sky is dark and rain-filled all the time, save for one hour every seven years. Most of the children in the classroom have never seen the sun in their lives, and they eagerly await it. One little girl, Margot, has been locked in a locker as a prank. In the anticipation of the once in a near-decade event, the children forget Margot and run out to enjoy the brief dance in the sun. As the clouds reappear, one child suddenly remembers the little girl.


In reality, summer is not over in a day; but we all have a finite number of summers. For every one of us, there will at some point be no more tomorrows. 

30 years ago, I had a friend named Clay Mahaffey. Clay was in my Cub Scout den. If I recall correctly, he was a good student in the way that second graders are "good" or "poor" students. I played little league with him, and recall that he was a pretty good baseball player. About as good as a 10 year old can be. He was an excellent basketball player - much better than I was. But my nearly 40 year old memory is mostly that he was a pretty nice little boy. 

Clay had a younger brother named David, who was in class with my kid brother and sister. David was also a friendly little kid. But he was not much of a ball player. David also missed quite a lot of school, because David suffered from leukaemia. He would be gone from time to time for treatment. But each time, he came back, smiling. 

When I saw the story of Calvin, who thanks to Saint-Jude will have a few more tomrrows - I hope a lot more, I thought of David.

We moved away from the town we were living in in the final weeks of 1980; I've never been back in all these years. 


In April 1981 - almost exactly 37 years ago - David lost his battle to leukaemia. He was eight years old. 

As the Servingman in "Super Toys" points out, real, living things cannot come with guarantees. Not roses. Not children. It just doesn't work that way.

I think of David Mahaffey from time to time. He would have been 45 years old this year. 

If you are in position, I highly recommend giving to Saint-Jude's. 


Friday, 16 March 2018

One Tin Soldier




Courage means being the only one who knows that you're actually afraid
- Franklin P Jones (English Engineer)

Recently, there was in these United States another incident where an angry, disturbed young man (and they are almost always men) went to a school and killed several of his classmates and a few teachers who tried to protect their students for good measure. 


There have been many words written and said about gun violence. Too many and to too little effect. I've had my say more than once, here, here , and here.


It's not my intention today to talk about gun violence or gun control. Just so that there is no confusion, however, I quote my words from just over five years ago, when another angry, disturbed young man went into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and killed 20 children (all under the age of eight) with a gun that his mother legally obtained.


A weekend has now passed between us and the horrific shooting in Newtown, CT.  The images of crying, shaken young children will not soon be forgotten.  And the thought of little five and six year old, lifeless children with unopened Christmas presents and named stockings forever awaiting a return that will not come, spending the weekend pending crime scene investigations to be completed is too terrible a thought to consider.
Predictably, the discussion has turned to what to do about this.
The point is, sensible people understand that we need to balance the "rights" (and more accurately, the desires) of one individual against the rights of others. 
The Republicans are just dead wrong on this. 
Yes, we need to take steps to reduce the toxicity of the sewage culture - with its phony machismo, out-sized sense of "respect" that is frankly narcissistic, and plain glorification of violence.  Yes, we need parents to be parents.  We need to make sure that mentally ill people have the resources and equally, avail themselves of those resources.
But I'm sorry.  Pretending that bromides about how "guns don't kill people, people kill people," or clinging to fantasies that these yahoos are somehow keeping an otherwise tyrannical government in check is killing people.

Five years later, and nothing has really changed.


But today, I don't want to talk about guns; I want to talk about courage.


I participate from time to time in an on-line forum called Quora. It's not the typical internet food-fight, but rather, a place where questions are asked and those with some knowledge provide answers. I get questions directed to me about maths, about economics, about life for foreigners in France. All because I am a mathematician, I make economic models, and lived as an American in France.


But I also get the odd question about US politics, and recently, with the shooting in Florida, the US president, Donald Trump, boasted about how, should he have been around the scene, would have "run into the building" to confront the murderer. One supposes that this boast is meant to contrast against the police deputy who hid outside as the gunman roamed the corridors of the school for several minutes, shooting his peers.


On Quora, the question was put to me:

Who believes that Donald Trump would run at a gunman? In my experience, the ones who say 'I would have done this' are always the people who would never do what they say, so why say it?
Now, I have no idea if it's actually true that President Trump would have run at the gunman. Honestly, in such a situation, it's hard to say how any of us would react. It's just too bizarre a situation, and how we would or would not behave really would require to be in that position.

Which I hope I am not. 


Ever.


But I tried to answer the question, and doing so made me think.


Would I have the courage? Would it even be courage that was required of me?


First, to answer the question directly, more than sixty million people voted for Donald Trump. Not all of them did so because they thought that Hillary Clinton was an awful candidate who would make a terrible president - some did because they actually think Trump is an effective, credible leader.



So, yes. It seems almost existentially obvious that at least one person believes that Donald Trump would run at a gunman. I suspect that for many, there is virtually no amount of empirical evidence to the contrary that would dispel this belief.


A more difficult, introspective question is, why would President Trump make such a boast? Why does anyone do so?


I cannot speak to your personal experience, but my feeling about people who seem to puff themselves up with such ostentatious displays of courage do so because all of us would like to think that we have more courage than we really do.


We all like to think that, if put in a situation where we can do something to prevent a wrong will act.


I have a 12 year old son, and I've written here many times about his life. Our son is a quiet boy; his likes and dislikes are not the most "main stream." Unsurprisingly, he has been the subject at times of bullying. 


I am now 48 years old, but I recall being his age, and I saw bullying around me. It was frequent, and it was not hidden. To be fair, I was not a specific, frequent target of bullies, but I did draw their attention more than once. I remember the experience to this day. Names. Details. Everything.


In the 1970s and 1980s, in the school yards of my youth, one pretty much divided into three camps. 



  1. There was a small group of “alpha” dogs who, in my memory, kept their position at the top by bullying and intimidating the weak.
  2. There was a small group of kids who, for one reason or another, were the “weak” of the herd, and they took most of the abuse. Perhaps they were perceived to be eccentric. Maybe they did not like sports or wore clothes that were odd.
  3. The rest of us who were neither the predators or the prey.

Looking back, the vast majority of us were in the middle. We had the numbers. We could have spoken up and stopped the bullying. Any of us could.


We didn’t, for no other reason than fear.


It was understood by most that if you stand up too loudly, the wolf will find you instead of the lamb. 


So we kept quiet.


In retrospect, I wish I had been more courageous. I would like to tell my son - to tell myself - if I could go back to being 10 again and change one thing, I would stand beside the weaker. I would raise my voice. I would sit next to the kid who was a "fag" (and at the time, this was a ubiquitous, generic insult) at lunch.


The problem is, I know it’s not true. It’s a false courage. But from time to time, I lie to myself and say I would, even though I know that I wouldn’t.


That is why people like to say they would run towards the gunman.


This is the difference between courage and bravado. Bravado is making claims about what we would have done in a situation. Courage is what we actually did.


And for many of us, there ain't a lot of it to spare.


I suspect that Donald Trump, at least in this respect, is like a lot of us.