Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Ho Ho Home for the Holidays

Sullen Family Members: The Gift that
Keeps on Giving, All Year Long
It's two days until Christmas (J-1 as they say here in France).  Shortly, le Père Noel glissera dans la cheminée.  It's our second Christmas in Paris, and far, far from family back home.  

Read this morning on social media about a woman who has taken, over the past four years, to creating shall we say, "offbeat" holiday cards.  The back-story for "Bridget" - an apparently single woman approaching 30 - was dropped from her parents' annual Christmas cards, a decision that did not sit well with the woman:
Bridget is the youngest of five children. As her older siblings grew up and got married, they departed their parents annual cards and began sending out their own. Eventually, it was just Mom, Dad and Bridget. When Bridget's mom decided that it was awkward to have their one single adult child in their card, Bridget was left on her own. 
The cards feature photos of  "Bridget" in what (to me) appear to be increasingly sad, desperate poses.  Sitting at a table surrounded by cats, slumped over apparently drunk in a park, in a pool with the top half of a department store dummy.  And all surrounded either by empty cans of cheap beer, or swilling a full bottle of wine.  One features an expletive-laced holiday "wish" for her family.

The blog, Twitter, and Facebook-spheres are singing the praises of the hilarious, ironic, and brilliant response.

I'm not so sure.

If one reads the comments of "Bridget," she apparently was upset that, after all of her siblings got married one by one and had their own family cards, her parents decided it was a bit, well, awkward to have a Christmas card with them and their decidedly adult daughter.  This seems to have offended "Bridget."

I dunno - "Bridget" is younger than I am, but not a whole generation younger.  My own family never went in for posing in September at Sears to make family cards, but some friends' families did.  And they stopped featuring the kids when the "children" were in the early to middle teen years.  At the latest.  

Rather than finding it funny, I guess I find it a little creepy that a 30 year old woman thinks it appropriate to be in the Christmas card with "mom and dad" as if she were 8.  And she is also apparently angry at her siblings for having the audacity to grow up, move out, and get married.  (Really, what other explanation is there for lashing out at their "f*cking perfect families" and complaining that she was "kicked out" of the pictures?)

I don't think she's funny.  I don't think she's clever.  Or awesome,  Or brilliant.  All words used in the comments on various news aggregators carrying the story.

She's an entitled, petulant woman trapped in a bizarre Peter Pan fantasy of her own creation.

"Look at me!  I'm 30 and angry that my daddy won't let me be in his Christmas cards.  Oh, and I celebrate the holidays getting drunk in the woods on cheap, domestic beer." (I'm guessing: Rolling Rock).

I suspect she is not likely to challenge Dave Barry.

Thinking about it, how is a chick like this available?  Pushing 30, living at home, spoiled, petulant, needy, with serious "daddy" issues, and possibly budding alcoholism. She has "cat lady" written all over.

Any guy not rushing to sign up for that has mis-placed standards.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Le "Re-Gifting" Arrive en France

Christmas is coming in three days - hope you've got your shopping done.  Over the week-end, the stores here in Paris were jammed with people trying to make last-minute purchases, including on Sunday.  For anyone unfamiliar with the pace of life in France, this is highly unusual.  All but certain "essential" shops (e.g., restaurants, one pharmacy per quartier, the neighbourhood boulangerie - life in France without fresh-baked bread is not life) must close on Sundays, save for a handful of "ouvertures exceptionnelles".  

The final Sunday before Christmas is one of les exceptions. 

Reading today in the paper, another US tradition has landed here in France.  "Regifting," which is to say, the practice of taking a gift you don't really like, re-wrapping it, and then presenting it to someone else.  The practice became famous in the States thanks to the "Seinfeld" television programme, but it's now becoming quite the thing in Paris as well.

According to a recent sondage, nearly one third of respondents answered that they were so disappointed by a present received, the item was re-gifted.  And one in six were immediately re-sold on the internet.

The Anglicism "le re-gifting" was actually used, with a parenthetic explanation <<ils iront même jusqu'à les "offrir" à un proche.>> 

The article is quite helpful beyond the laugh.  Titled "Les Cadeaux A Ne Pas Faire" (The gifts not to give), advice is presented on the top "bad gifts," helpfully broken down for him and for her.

For the gentlemen, do not wrap for your wife/girlfriend 

  1. Les équipements de bricolage (tools and equipment for home repair) - cited by 23% of French women as terrible, unwanted gifts
  2. Les appareils électroménagers (small household electrics, like a vacuum cleaner) 15%
  3. Chaussettes (socks) 9%

And for the ladies, your husband/boyfriend does not want

  1. Chaussettes (13%)
  2. Cosmétiques (9%)
  3. Equipements pour la cuisine (kitchen appliances) 6%
It looks like there is some commonality in the battle of the sexes.  Neither women nor men wants socks as a present, and both do not appreciate items for the kitchen.  

I guess this latter explains why French people eat out in restaurants so frequently.

Bon Noel à tous!

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Homer Simpson Turns 25

Yesterday (17 December) marked the 25th anniversary of the television show "The Simpsons," which debuted on the Fox network on 17.12.1989.

25 years is a long time.  It's about 60 per cent of my life thus far (I was home from college on my freshman-year Christmas break).  Of course, the actual Simpsons had premiered a couple of years earlier as a short on "The Tracy Ulman Show," but the yellow family of five got their permanent spot a bit later.

I'm a big fan of the show, and I am not the least bit embarrassed to admit that virtually every day, I use a quote, a metaphor, or an allusion to it.

Longevity is one of the big advantages to having an animated cast - Bart Simpson was 10 in 1989, he remains 10, even if the gap between his age and that of the woman (!) who voices his character grows wider each year.

To put things into perspective, the top rated shows of the 1989-1990 season included "The Cosby Show," "Roseanne," "Cheers," "The Golden Girls."  and "The Wonder Years."  The last of these was a drama set in 1968 about a young teen, played by Fred Savage.  I later had Savage as a college student in one of the sections I led as graduate student at Stanford.  Savage is on the edge of middle-age now, the love interest of the show was portrayed by Danica McKellar who for a while became a mathematician and has a proof named for her.

The era portrayed in "The Wonder Years" was only 20 years prior to when the show itself was on the air - five years less than the gap between the launch of "The Simpsons" and today.

Put another way, if one were to look at the shows that were in the top ratings 25 years before Homer and his family appeared - 1964 - they include "Bonanza," "Gomer Pyle, USMC," "The Andy Griffith Show," and "The Red Skelton Hour."

In the arc of history, the Simpsons contains jokes about George Bush, Bill Clinton, George W Bush, and Barack Obama.  There are references to Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, Lollapalooza, Lady Gaga, and Taylor Swift.  In my own life, it's been on for college, graduate school, my first real job, my marriage, the birth of my first son, moves from California to New Jersey to Paris, and my own son becoming old enough to tune in to watch.

Time magazine in 2000 voted "The Simpsons" as the best show of the millenium.

Call Mr Plow, that's my name.  That name again is Mr Plow.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Lecture... Aléatoire

Is This Trip Really Necessary?

It's been a crazy couple of days, and I've a lot on my mind, so....now for something completely different (and un-focused).  

Imprimus Number One:  Ugly Sweater Day in the US

The local Vingt Minutes reported yesterday that Friday was "La journée du pull Noel moche " (the day of ugly Christmas sweaters) back home in the U.S.  I've been gone from the States for a couple of years, but this "holiday" was not celebrated during my four decades of life there.  I remember getting more than one ugly sweater for a Christmas/birthday present, but never coming to work with one on in the hopes of capturing a prize.  Is this a potential rival for "Festivus?"

Nothing Says "Merry Christmas" Better than
a Santa-Hat-WearingDinosaur

Imprimus Number Two:  Fun with Politically-Charged Language

Read in the Direct Matin this morning that General Mills has declared a truce in the war with France.  Yes; a spokesman for the General indicated that, starting January 1st, the detente between his soldiers and an imagined French enemy will allow the return to US shores of "French Toast Crunch" cereal.  Apparently, French Toast Crunch was introduced in 1995, but later became "Cinnamon Toast Crunch" in 2006 because the French government did not support the US war in Iraq.  Whether this cease fire also applies to the Navy remains unknown, as Captain Crunch could not be reached for comment.

Imprimus Number Three:  Australians Have Crabs.  Lots of Them

Setting to the side the truly terrible news coming from down under, and in keeping with the spirit of the season, today and tomorrow, beaches in Australia's Christmas Island will be teeming with small, red crabs.  The little, land-dwelling crustaceans once a year flock to the sea to cast their eggs into the surf.  They are a bit late this year, as apparently, the heat and unusually strong drought conditions in the area have kept the crabs waiting.  According to an article in the English journal Nature, the crabs are incredibly sensitive to weather conditions, and will only come to lay their eggs if more than 22 mm of rain have fallen.  Thanks to new El Nino conditions, the time has come.  My son has a set of BBC videos called "Blue Planet" in which this incredible visual drama is played out.  

Imprimus Number Four:  "Living Privilege"

Anyone following the bellum omnia contra heteronormative, cisgendered, white male privileged should avert his eyes from Jezebel for an hour and tune into the second season of the English television programme "In the Flesh."  Here in France, it was announced that the local cable network OCS+ will pick up the show, which focuses on the struggles of the living-challenged for equality and inclusion in a biased, oppressive society of living privilege.  I am a fan of the zombie genre (living in Paris and being cut off from "The Walking Dead" is one thing I really, truly miss about the States), but I am not sure.  It's a novel idea, the potential social struggles of the undead.  But I fear this may be just another potential disaffected group for the Democratic party to try to cobble into its wobbly coalition of the aggrieved.  

And besides, the dead already vote in huge numbers for the Democrats.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Steering AWAY from a False Equivalency

The Popular Press Get the Wrong End of the Stick.

When I think of Australia, my age and space belie me.  Huge cans of Foster's beer.  Crocodile Dundee.  Dingoes eating babies.  Terrible Outback Steakhouse adverts.  

Yes; I know that that last one is not really Australian.

Today, the news out of Sydney is horrible.  An Iranian refugee, admitted to Australia in 1996 seeking asylum, took multiple hostages in a crowded Lindt cafe, holding them captive for several hours before finally killing two of them and himself being killed when police raided the store.

All this, a week before Christmas.

Australia, like many western countries, is currently doing a great deal of soul-searching about just how many and what sort of refugees to grant asylum to.  I live in France, and the EU is similarly beseiged by asylum-seekers.  Thousands are currently in a camp in Pas-de-Calais in the north of France; they don't want to stay in France, preferring the far more generous welfare benefits afforded in the United Kingdom, just a few dozen kilometres to the north.  The UK is not a full signatory to the Schengen agreement, and thus the refugees are not entitled to free entry from continental Europe.

The bloodshed is tragic here - two people are dead, after all, plus the terrorist himself.  The killer, a self-styled "cleric" and "sheikh" was named Man Haron Monis, and according to reports, was well-known to Australian police for a series of offences, including accusations of accessory to murder, sexual assault, and of sending malicious and threatening letters to the families of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

In short, he's not exactly a sympathetic figure.

But aside from the feelings of disgust I feel about the senseless loss of life, I am truly puzzled by the reaction I am seeing in various quarters, including social media and the New York Times.  To wit, there is a significant set of stories about the "right reaction to terrorism" being displayed by Australia's citizenry.  The "IWillRideWithYou" hymnal.

According to news reports, during the stand-off, trending news lionised an apocryphal incident that took place on a Sydney public bus, wherein, an apparently Islamic woman, apparently out of fear of a backlash, removed her hijab - the scarf many Moslem women wear for religious purposes of modesty to cover their hair.  A fellow traveller assured the woman that she should replace her scarf, promising to ride along and protect her.

The indicent quickly became a meme, popularised in part by a professional writer and semi-professional activist called Tessa Kum. Kum blogs and 'tweets' frequently about the evils of the world - typically men, and specifically, white men.  White men are guilty of sexism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and a host of other modern sins.  

A quick look through her blog finds not a single mention of mention of the crimes committed by Islamic fundamentalists, let alone a condemnation.  I might have missed them, as she is quite prolific in churning out 10,000 word screeds.

Now, I stiuplate that all of the above - racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia - are all bad things.  They are to be condemned.  Blaming Moslems en masse for the horrific actions of an evil man is wrong.  Women on buses should not be the targets of threats or intimidation because of a terrorist act by someone whom they share no connection other than being co-religionists.  And it's great that non-Moslem Australians are willing to stand up for "the other."

But in this instance, are people like Kum not taking the wrong end of the stick?

Thus far, I have not seen a single report of a Moslem or a person of middle eastern origin who has been the victim of violence following this attack.  I've seen no news stories about a refugee beaten or a mosque burned.

The victims in Sydney are not Moslems.

They are two people named Tori Johnson and Katrina Dawson.  They were not insulted or ridiculed in tweets (the apparent crime claimed by Kum and others).  They were shot and killed.  By Man Haron Monis.

They won't be harrassed by tweets, or badgered on Sydney buses.  They won't be coming home at all.

The victims are the dozens of people who were terrorised for hours by a gunman, welcomed to Australia as an asylum seeker.  They include a couple of pregnant women.  They include a Sydney policeman, hit in the face with shotgun pellets.

The REAL Victims in Sydney.
Will You "Ride with Them?"

The story in Sydney is not about the possibility of a "backlash" - whether real or imagined.  It is about the killing of two people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The western world has truly lost its mind when the prime fear becomes whether a particular group will be the victim of some mean tweets or social media posts.

Blogger Mark Steyn hit the nail squarely on the head in writing:
Sorry, but that doesn’t “restore my faith in humanity”. In fact, it makes me think humanity, or at any rate civilization, is doomed. The mythical “backlash” against Muslims is such a dreary staple of these stories that I might as well just rerun my shtick from a dozen or so backlashes back:
Stage Four: The backlash that never happens. Because apparently the really bad thing about actual dead Jews is that it might lead to dead non-Jews: “French Muslims Fear Backlash After Shooting.” Likewise, after Major Hasan’s mountain of dead infidels, “Shooting Raises Fears For Muslims In US Army.” Likewise, after the London Tube slaughter, “British Muslims Fear Repercussions After Tomorrow’s Train Bombing.” Oh, no, wait, that’s a parody, though it’s hard to tell.
Indeed. Usually the Muslims-fear-backlash crowd at least waits till the terrorist atrocity is over. In this case the desiccated multiculti saps launched the #I’llRideWithYou campaign even as the siege was still ongoing – while Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson were still alive. Muslims are not the victims here. Ms Dawson and Mr Johnson are the victims. And yet the urge to usher Muslims into the victim chair and massage their tender sensibilities is now so reflexive the narcissists on Twitter don’t even have the good taste to wait till the siege is over and the corpse count is known. Far from a restoration of faith in humanity, it’s a glimpse of how advanced the sickness is.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is asking the the question polite people dare not ask:  WHY WAS THIS GUY NOT ON ANY OF THE APPROPRIATE LISTS:
How can someone who has had such a long and chequered history not be on the appropriate watch lists and how can someone like that be entirely at large in the community?

I would add, "why was he still in Australia to begin with?"

At some point, the people who lead our nations need to stop asking what is "good and fair" for refugees and others seeking to enter, and start asking what is right and fair for those already here.

There are many who believe that what will be remembered from Sydney will be #IWillRideWithYou as a reaction to an imagined backlash.

I hope it will be about two innocent people who were killed in part because our leaders forgot that their primary responsibility is to serve and protect their people from killers like this.

I hope we will remember Tori Johnson and Katrina Dawson, not Tessa Kum.

Monday, 15 December 2014

A Numerate Nation

God Doesn't Bother with Closed-Form Calculus;
He Integrates Empirically.
It's been a quite busy autumn here in Paris; several business trips and other activities have more or less eaten up the calendar.  Work has a tendancy to become a real inconvenience

I just noticed that I'm seriously behind in my writing.  Perhaps even negligently derelict.  My last post was exactly two months ago, and about the baseball World Series (won by the San Francisco Giants, as it were).

Apologies for that.

Anyhow, on the way in to work, the local newspaper this week celebrated the official adoption in December, 1799 of the metric system by the revolutionary French regime.  Prior to the radical overthrow of the ancien régime, the French system of weights and measures was a mish-mash of units not unlike those of the United Kingdom, and familar today to Americans.  With the overthrow of the Bourban monarchy, of course, units like the livre du roi had to go.

The introduction was not a great success, and just 12 short years later, Napoleon Bonaparte instituted his own system which was something of a hybrid.

How Much Is that in Inches?

One of the great things I find of living in France is that education strongly focuses on mathematics, and there is a real appreciation.  Numbers have real significance, and history is rife with records, measurements, and figures.  

This is not surprising, given the huge role that the French have played over the centuries in mathematics.  Names familiar to anyone who has studied algebra, or calculus, or real analysis include Cauchy, La Place, La Grange, L'Hopital, and Galois.  No student of probability and statistics is unaware of Buffon's needle.  Fourier, Poincaré Pascal are giants.  And of course, Renee Descartes, also claimed by philosophy.

Back when I was a grad student, Stanford had only recently done away with the requirement that PhD students demonstrate a reading knowledge of French.  Many of the seminal texts, especially in set and number theory, are in French.

The metric system itself was, oddly enough, created by an Englishman.  

It was not entirely a success, as the Jacobins also hoped to extend the concept of decimilisation from length, weight, and temperature to time.  The concept of the metric day - 10 decimal hours, each comprising 100 decimal minutes of 100 decimal seconds - was introduced.  The effect was that a decimal 'hour' was equivalent to two customary hours, plus 24 customary minutes.  Moreover, the traditional 12 months were replaced (the Jacobins were none to happy with the Church, and thus the Gregorian calendar was out as well) with revolution-inspired names, and each had 30 days.

The problems of such a system are obvious, and it was abandoned rather quickly.  At one point, the Palais des Tuileries had clocks displaying time in both the traditional and metric systems.  It, too, has disappeared, destroyed by fire in the middle 19th century.

French Decimal Clock with Traditional Hours for "Conversion"

Napoleon came to power shortly after, and these experiments were largely abandoned.  But the metric system has lived on, and spread.  To virtually every country on earth, save for the US.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

That Time of the Year (Again)

It's now mid-October; cool temps.  Earlier and earlier sunsets.

And playoff baseball.

It's a time of mixed emotions for me.  On the one hand, I enjoy the World Series, despite the fact that my team has missed the playoffs again, making it 21 straight seasons of futility.  I've many fond memories of past seasons that were again, a mixture of joy and sadness.  On the other hand, it also means that baseball season is almost over, and that feeling is made even worse by the reality that football season has begun.

I live in Europe now, so it's entirely possible to simply ignore the noise of football, which is another tick in the "Plus" column for life in France.

Though I'm less and less a fan of baseball as I get older (and now, removed by physical and temporal distance), I still find the games interesting and try to follow, if not quite as closely.

A nice story unfolding is the Kansas City Royals, who prior to 2014 had not made the playoffs since 1985.  That, incidentally, was the first year that my beloved Blue Jays were in - and they collapsed in epic fashion to the Royals, becoming the first team in the history of baseball to blow a three games to one lead in a best of seven series.

The Royals then immediately turned the same trick on Saint Louis, whom they came back to beat four games to three.  The teams on the field at that time had rosters with guys like George Brett, John Tudor, and Dan Quisenberry.

KC has suffered through 29 years of mostly less than mediocre play.  But this year, everything has come together, and the Royals are now one game away from returning to the World Series, having again knocked off the Baltimore Orioles last night.

It's been many years, of course, but the win is the Royals' 10th straight (they are thus far undefeated in seven playoff contests this year, after their remarkable three straight to pull out the '85 Series).

In looking at the box score, old friend Jason Frasor was the winner last night in relief. Frasor pitched for the Blue Jays on a couple of different occasions, over nine years, and is the team's all-time leader in games pitched.  In other sort of weird trivia, Frasor was born in 1977, the year Toronto played its inaugural season.

In the NL contest, San Francisco continued to win in, shall we say, odd fashion.  The Giants managed to squander a four run lead, before ultimately winning in extra innings on an error by the pitcher.  The night before, San Frrancisco tied Saint Louis (them again!) on a truly bizarre play, where the runner on second scored on a wild pitch.

Seems that Saint Louis is bent on inventing ways to fail this year.

It looks like it may be a SF-KC series this year.  Two teams without truly "great" players who scrap their way.  Not sure whom I would cheer for - I lived in the Bay Area for many years and was a fan of the Giants when I lived there.  During those years, the Giants never actuallty won of course - indeed, San Francisco as a franchise had never won the World Series prior to 2010 following their move 50 years earlier to California.  They've won the two most recent 'even' year Series (2010, 2012).  But it's tough to root against a team like KC, who have waited so long to get back, and may not come back again for another third of a century.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety-Two

Yesterday back in the States was Columbus Day (or, as we who come from Canada call it, "Thanksgiving Day").  Every year, there is a parade of politically-charged cartoons and comments marking the day, some humourous, some pointed.  Some are relevant and thoughtful while others are politically correct and silly.  A fair number blend hisory with contemporary politics.

There are big sale events (hard to miss even living in France in the age of internet advertising).  And of course, the usual foolishness in the arguments about "Indigineous Peoples' Day."

I've never held strong feelings one way or the other about Columbus Day, though I have always appreciated having the day off of school/work when we got it.  I'm ambivalent about the history of Columbus - yes; he certainly ruled the lands he "discovered" with a degre of brutality, and it's hard to argue that the coming of Europeans to the Americas did not have disastrous consequences for the Native Americans living there.  On the other hand, the 'discovery' of the West and the founding of the societies that followed (perhaps most notably, the United States) are in my opinion a tremendous and positive achievment for mankind, an opinion I find that is also very difficult to counter if one looks objectively at the facts.  Surely Columbus was a polarising figure, his voyages have had complicated impacts, and his legacies are mixed and complex.

This year, there is a bit of a theme that I've noticed that has been missing in the past.

A prominent meme I've observed has to do with the current struggle with Ebola, and how the West should respond.  The current cartoons and comments on the internet joke about how, in effect, discussions about the bringing of deadly viral infections reminded people to wish one another a Happy Columbus Day (obviously, playing on the historical artefact that smallpox and other European diseases arrived soon after Columbus, with devastating impact on American Indians. 

Now, I've written here, here, and here, I am unambiguous in that I believe that Western countries should immediately quarantine the affected countries.  Flights between the US and Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea should be interdicted; people with passports from or who have traveleld recently to those nations should be denied visas to enter.  The recent infections in the US and Spain of nurses treating patientswho had arrived with the virus  - and the subsequent hand-waving of officials - have not moved me away from this view.

What seems to be lost - completely - on those who make the analogy between European settlement and the current threat that Ebola presents is the reality that ultimately, the unwillingness or inabilty of Native Americans to respond to the challenge of European settlement resulted in their virtual disappearance.  

Is that really what they advocate for Americans?  Like it or not, that's the reductio ad absurdum of this line.  Carried to its logical conclusion, if Ebola is like smallpox, then these posters are in effect hoping that it will wipe out the current populations of Europe and North America.

When I see posts or comments from people along these lines, I always ask them, "If you were to ask a Native American (most of those posting the cartoons are in fact, not actual Indians) how the whole Columbus landing worked out for them, what do you think they would say?"

Simply - "How'd ignoring the European landings work out for the Indians?"

My own answer is, "not particularly well."

The most ironic posting of the meme I saw was on a friend's Facebook page, where a self-described activist of Palestinian freedom, a woman of Arab descent with a catalogue of quite incendiary comments about Israel, linked a cartoon describing "Genocide Day".  It's historical fact that one of the main reasons Columbus set out on his voyages was because earlier land routes to trade in India were blocked by Arab conquests in eastern Europe.  Spain was able to finance the voyages because they had - after several centuries - expelled Arab invaders from their own land.

I guess the fact that Arabic (nor Islam, for that matter) did not arise in the Levant, let alone Spain, is an artefact of history ignored in "Palestine."

World history is a complicated thing, and retrospective, facile analysis is a poor medium.  It's funny to post comical cartoons, but reality is seldom cartoonish.  I find it's best to look at historical events and historical figures in this context.  And remembering the details is often a good way to consider the challenges we face to day.

Learning from and not repeating the mistakes of past events is one of the greatest gifts of history.

Monday, 13 October 2014

To Gentrify or Not; Too Gentrified?

A friend who still lives back in the San Francisco Bay Area tipped me off to a recent minor skirmish in the Mission District (one of the informally-defined neighbourhoods) of San Francisco,  It seems a group of workers from the company "DropBox" - one of the manifold "tech" companies who have sprouted up further and further up the peninsula from the traditional Silicon Valley had sought to play a friendly soccer match in one of the neighbourhood parks.  Athletic fields in San Francisco - a very dense (by American standards) city - are a premium item, given that most of the land has long since been paved over, developed, or is too hilly to allow for a soccer field, and hence, the guys reserved the field for an hour one evening with the local city government.

WELL, lo and behold, when it came time for them to take the field, they were confronted with a rather ugly scene, as the field was already occupied by a group of young adults who were not too pleased, and the whole situation was recorded (by whom?) and posted to intenet, as these things tend to be.  The incident is reported at local noisemaker Valleywag on the Gawker web page, replete with the somewhat inciteful (if not insightful) title "Dropbox Dudes Try To Kick Children Off a Soccer Field."  

The URL embedded in the title is a bit more to the point: "Dropbox-doucebags-tried-to-kick-children-off-a-soccer."

In point of fact, the "children" largely look to be young men between the ages of about 17 and 25.  The tone of the rest of the article is similarly pointed.  It's hardly honest to imply a bunch of mean old guys yanked some candy canes away from 8 and 9 year old kids.

Don't get me wrong; I've little use for the so-called millenial techies, and watching the video, it's obvious that the Dropbox guys really handled the situation in an extremely undiplomatic and obnoxious way.  But the story quickly degenerated (it didn't really have far to go with "reporting" of the type on display) into finger pointing, fake social consciousness porn, and self-righteous preening about the community. 

And it raises (again) the issue of gentrification that is apparently roiling San Francisco. I wrote about this very topic a couple of months ago, when it was reported (at another site) that tensions between "long time San Franciscans" (if experience is still accurate, means those who came in the 1970s just after the city surrendered to liberal insanity) and the newcomers of the current tech bubble came to a head. 

At that time, the question of gentrification had focused on buses that Google and others were running between San Francisco and their campuses on the peninsula.  An infamous image showed one of the protesters astride a Yahoo bus, having, apparently, just vomitted on the front windscreen of the bus.

The debate about gentrification in the Bay Area (and elsewhere) is not new.  I lived in San Jose, about an hour south of San Francisco, for several years; my home was in downtown San Jose, partially because it was an area I could afford, and equally because I liked the "look and feel" of the neighbourhood.  My neighbourhood just to the east of downtown San Jose had at one point been an upper-middle class enclave.  At the turn of the century - the 20th century - the former homestead of General Henry Naglee was divided up into hundreds of 6500 square-foot lots on which nice Victorian, Craftsman, Spanish Revival, and other types of homes were built. 

It's a quite attractive area, and convenient to most of the Valley.

During the 1960s, as the freeways went in and development pushed to the suburbs, many of the well-to-do fled San Jose for Saratoga or Los Gatos or Los Altos or other more far-flung places, and the downtown core deteriorated.  It's seen something of a revival over the past 25 years, and that has resulted in the classic tensions that gentrification brings.  Many of the old Victorian mansions south of San Jose State and in Naglee Park to the east had been cut up into low-rent apartments.  These were now being purchased and restored to their original single-family origins.  In my opinion, this was for the better, but that view was not and is not universal.

And so it is with the process of gentrification, and no where is that more vividly on display than in San Francisco.  The Mission district, when I lived in the Bay Area, was a neighbourhood of poor and working-class people, heavily Latino.  It was a place many avoided - in fact, my very first job was at UCSF, and I commuted in on the 280, exiting at San Jose Avenue, and then driving up Dolores Street very near to where the park in the film is located.  I kept my windows rolled up.

That has largely changed, and the area is being overtaken by 'wealthy' millenials, though 'wealthy' is relative.  They are wealthier than the working class to be sure, but not wealthy enough to make it into Noe Valley or above Geary St.

The soccer field incident is a symptom of the larger problems.  The Dropbox guys wanted to use the field, and they availed themselves of the system that the San Francisco Parks and Recs to reserve it.  They could have (should have) behaved better, but the fury directed at them seems misplaced.  If the city of San Francisco puts in place a system to reserve blocs of time in crowded playing fields, and these guys followed that system, it's hard for me to see how they are in the wrong here.

But there is a meta-issue here that is larger as well, and that is the continued silliness of the arguments about just who 'deserves' to live in places of high demand.  The current residents in places like the Mission District (or, the lower east side in Manhattan) loudly complain that they are being pushed out by people with more money.  And this is true.

I'm sympathetic to arguments like that.  

But they tend to ignore the reality that, before the Mission District was heavily Latino, it was filled with working-class Irish and Italians.  THEY were "pushed out" as well.  And the others in the self-described "creative" class of San Francisco, most who arrived between 1965 and 1985, themselves displaced others.  

The world changes; it's hypocritical in my view to say that history starts when I got here, and that I, having replaced someone else, become the arbiter of when a city must stop evolving.  Far too many people in California and in the Bay Area in particular want to trap the area in amber at the moment they arrived.  The argument that the world is a perfect place necessarily means that any change must be bad.

The world is not perfect, folks.  It never was. It never will be.

Reading the Valleywag article and its comments, the word "privilege" is bandied about.  A lot.  In fact, one of the commenters makes the risible complaint that they guy, when asked to show the permit he got from the city does as he is asked and produces it, is "literally waving white privilege in the faces of the minority "kids" (sic).

White privilege is one of the current foot soldiers of politically correct cliches currenly deployed in print and on-line media.  I am not sympathetic - not at all - to the idea that the rule of law is somehow racist, and that those who obey and follow the rules are "privileged."

Further, the naked hypocrisy of those who post comments that the Dropbox guys should "go back where they came from" in defence of Spanish-speaking residents could not be more ironic.  This is exactly the sort of argument that guys like Pat Buchanan make, routinely, about immigrants from Mexico.  

In short, I am sorry, but the idea that a guy who comes from Virginia (one of the targets in the video is singled out because he is wearing a UVA hat) has no right to live in San Francisco because he would displace an immigrant from Mexico is ridiculous.


I agree with the broader idea that the Dropbox guys should be more respectful; not because I think they don't have a right to be in the park, but because I think people as a general rule just should be respectful and courteous to each other.  We all ultimately do have to live together and that means coexistence.  Uncomfortable at times.   An obvious solution would be simply to share the field - have the Dropbox guys play against the neighbourhood "kids."  Whoever wins keeps the field.  That's frankly how it was done when I was young.  It was called "winners" on our local field.

I am a lot less sympathetic to the argument that "you must follow "my" rules because that's the way we do it here," because I strongly suspect that that is precisely the kind of argument used about 30-40 years ago when Latinos started to show up in the Mission District and open businesses in Spanish.  It is no more (or less) "wrong" now than it was then.

And as to the idea that permits and rules are "white privilege," I would just say this.  One presumes that people come from Mexico to California for a reason.  They do not randomly go to sleep in Oaxaca and wake up in San Francisco.  Part of the reason - the largest part - is because in California, there is a general respect for the rules; corruption and physical threats and intimidation are not how disputes are settled, despite the phony bravado shown in the Valleywag article.

The writers would have you believe that there are millions of Mexicans (and others) living in California - in many cases risking death in order to make the dangerous journey to reach - to take advantage of "white privilege."

It's a racial bridge too far.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

And The Band Plays On

Is It Closing on Midnight in the West?  Time To Unmask?

I'm going to try my luck here by posting one more comment on the Ebola situation in the world.  A couple of posts ago in reflectimg on the actions (or inactions) of the US government to protect its population from infection, I likened the current administration to the characters of the film "The Lost Boys." 

The US has, apparently, invited Ebola in.

Yesterday, upon reading that the government of Israel has taken the opposite step, I suggested facetiously that the Israeli PM is acting to protect his people just as the fictitious Israeli government of the novel World War Z had done.

Today in the local Le Figaro, it is reported that the first diagnosed case of Ebola on European soil has been made - in Spain.  This case is in a way more alarming than the US instance, as the man diagnosed in Texas had travelled to the US from West Africa.  That is to say, he was already infected prior to boarding the flight that carried him to the US.

The Spanish case involves a nurse who had been treating an infected priest brought to Spain for treatment.  This represents a significant step in the potential epidemic, as it apparently is the first case known to date where the infected person contracted the infection outside of Africa.

From Le Figaro 
Une semaine seulement après l'annonce, au Texas, du premier cas de fièvre Ebola diagnostiqué hors d'Afrique de l'Ouest, l'Espagne a annoncé lundi le premier cas de contamination hors d'Afrique, nouvelle étape dans la progression de cette épidémie d'ampleur inédite. La malade, aide-soignante de profession, aurait été infectée alors qu'elle s'occupait d'un prêtre contaminé au Liberia, et rapatrié en Espagne pour y être soigné. Parmi les pistes envisagées pour expliquer cette infection, la presse espagnole rapporte mardi que les professionnels de santé officiant à l'hôpital Carlos III de Madrid ne portent pas toujours les équipements de protection maximale.

[Only one week following the announcement in Texas of the first Ebola case diagnosed outside of West Africa, Spain has announced Monday of the first case of infection outside of Africa, which represents a new step in the progression of the epidemic.  The patient, a nurse, was infected while she was treating a priest who had been contaminated in Liberia, and brought back to Spain for treatment.  Among the possible causes of infection reported Tuesday is that health workers at the hospital in Madrid were not yet using full protective equipment.]

This is troubling on multiple levels.

First, as the article points out, it is now official that an infection has occurred outside the initial zone of contamination.  In the evolution of an epidemic, this is an important - a necessary - step towards a pandemic.  Second, it further belies the claim that governments and departments of health are taking all steps to contain the virus.  Plainly, they aren't.  And third, it fully illustrates that agencies - whether they be hospitals or the US Marines - who willingly enter into actions in infected areas or with those originating from infected regions are put quite obviously and directly in harms way.

A report appeared a month ago on the steps that hospitals need to take to prevent the spread of Ebola (and indeed, any virus).  
  • Train frontline workers to recognize Ebola's signs and symptoms
  • Review emergency department triage procedures
  • Keep state or local health departments in the loop during the testing stages
  • Make sure lab personnel understand specimen collection/transport/testing guidelines
These are all sensible steps.  It should go without saying that I would believe that professionals would already be following all of these rules - rules two and four are, again, applicable to dealing with any infective illness.  Why not add as a rule zero, that people from infected regions will not be in our A&Es because they will not be in our countries?

My mother was a nurse; my father and grandfather were both physicians.  I work in a medical company alongside both doctors and nurses. They pledge to help the sick and therefore necessarily are at the front.  I continue to be perplexed by the total disregard of our leadership to do the one thing that is required of any government.  

To protect and defend its citizens.

It's nice to have "free" healthcare, and subsidies for universities.  It's swell to contribute to the UN and to be involved in the peace process in the Levant.  I'm glad we have Social Security and we have an SEC.  

But a government that cannot take the basic steps to keep its people as far as possible from the threat of what the CDC are calling "a world-wide health crisis [emphasis added]" - it has failed.  The WHO have already declared the outbreak an international emergency.  Apparently, these groups are alarmed about Ebola.  Those of us who say that the US ought to heed these warnings are mocked for panic.

I'm not panicking.  I'm suggesting our leaders should act responsibly towards those they are committed to lead.  I understand that there are other perhaps more immediate problems.  I know that the flu is going to kill people this winter, as it always does  Does that mean we should do nothing to stop Ebola, when a minimal action is required?  Because speeding kills more people in a year than drunk driving mean we ought to ignore the laws against DUI?  

I've read The Masque of the Red Death, and I know that totally sealing the US borders is impossible.  Friends - some right here on this blog - have offered all sorts of straw man arguments about military deployments.  

We do not need to deploy the military to keep infected people from Liberia or Sierra Leone out of the US.  I'm asked to show a passport when I board flights to the US (I live in France).  Simply refusing visas to people who have been in these regions until a quarantine period has passed would not require the military.

The headline in Le Figaro is a classic example of blame-shifting.  In French, "Contamination Par Ebola : Un Défaut d'Equipement Suspecté."  ["Ebola Contamination:  A Lack of Equipment Suspected."]  The problem in Spain - as in the US, is not a mere absence of equipment.  That is a proximal cause.  There simply is no need for our health workers to come in contact with people infected with Ebola.

Unless we choose to ignore the one step to keep Ebola out.  

We don't have a lack of equipment.  We have a lack of common sense.  A lack of will.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Is Binyamin Netanyahu a Movie-Goer?

Image of a Different Kind of "Wailing Wall" from the Film World War Z

Apparently, while US President Obama goes to play golf, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu enjoys the movies.  At least if action is any indication.  It's also possible he enjoys reading pop lit.

I wrote a few days ago on the folly the American government is following with respect to the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa.  In that set piece, I compared the decision not only to refuse to quarantine the affected regions (the only way, really, to guarantee that the virus behind the infection is kept out) - but worse still, to deploy 3000 soldiers to the afflicted areas - to the 1987 vampire flick "The Lost Boys."

In the climactic scene of the film, the head vampire, Max, declares to the children he is about to attack, "Don't ever invite a vampire into your house, silly boy."

Turns out, maybe the better movie metaphor here is the 2014 blockbuster "World War Z."

In that film, the one, the sole nation on earth that takes a sane response to the zombie outbreak - by self-quarantine - is Israel.  In the novel on which the film is based, Israel establishes itself as one of two countries to avoid being over-run.  The other is North Korea, which achieves its goals by removing the teeth pre-emptively from all of its citizens. (Get it?  You can't bite, you can't infect?)
In the "art is a reflection of reality" news story of the day, Israel has declined to supply human matériel to any already infected regions.

From the Times of Israel 
Israel, citing health considerations, turned down a request from the United States to assist in medical relief in Ebola-stricken West African countries.  Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon says assisting in medical relief in Liberia and Sierra Leone would risk infecting Israeli personnel.
After the Defense Ministry rejected a US request to establish field hospitals in the Ebola-stricken western African countries on Friday, the Foreign Ministry announced Sunday that it will dispatch three teams — in coordination with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Agency for International Development Cooperation (MASHAV) — to bordering African nations at risk of infection. [emphasis added]
Put briefly, the Israelis will send money, and they will deploy personnel to areas not infected, but they are not going to put their soldiers or their populace at risk for infection.

THAT is what a government who are concerned with the well-being of their citizens does.

I do not begrudge the US president from indulging his golf habit, but I might suggest he read some Max Brooks fiction.  It's light reading, and quite entertaining.

And in this case, it just might have the side effect of improving US policy.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

All the Heroes and Legends I Knew as a Child Have Fallen to Idols of Clay

My RSS newsfeed here from Le Figaro has its usual suspects - the French public debt has crossed the two trillion Euro threshold.  Nicholas Sarkozy is angling to get back into the Palais de l'Elysee.  Hongkong young people hissed their leadership at the celebration of the 65th anniversary of the founding of the PRC.  

One item that caught my eye (no pun intended) was the little detail about the recent arrest of American Olympic champion Michael Phelps for DUI.  The screaming headline proclaimed 
"Michael Phelps avait les yeux «injectés de sang»
The text of the story went on to describe how Phelps had bloodshot eyes, slurred speech,  His BAC was reported to be 0.14% - the limit in Maryland, where Phelps was stopped, is 0.08%.  

Further down, Phelps responded in a statement, delivered in parts via Twitter (motto: You cannot spell Twitter without T-W-I-T)
Je comprends la gravité de mes actions et en assume l'entière responsabilité. Je sais que ces mots ne veulent peut-être pas dire grand-chose en ce moment, mais je suis profondément désolé pour tous les gens que j'ai déçus
[I understand the severity of my actions and  take full responsibility. I know these words may not mean much right now but I am deeply sorry to everyone I have let down.]
Bob Bowman and the FINA announced their disappointment and issued a terse statement about how they expect athletes to comport themselves responsibly both in and out of the pool.

Phelps has been in trouble with the law before, first having been arrested in 2004 for DUI and for later being caught in a photo with a marijuana pipe.  

I do no personally condone drink-driving, and Phelps should face the full legal consequences for what he has done.  I'm a bit more sanguine about being caught on film (presumably) smoking pot, as I believe that the drug laws are a futile invasion of personal liberties.  

I would say to Phelps, though, that he hasn't really let anyone down, except perhaps himself.  I understand that athletes are heroes, and we expect them to be role models of a sort.  But if we are being honest, Michael Phelps is a tremendously gifted athlete, perhaps the greatest swimmer who ever lived.  He has worked extremely hard - perhaps inhumanly hard.  He has focused on doing one thing with concentration and determination that are frankly difficult for the average person to understand.  I respect his abilities in the pool, and am amazed by his ability to be so singularly focused on one goal.

But I do not see why our admiration for his abilities ought to be carried over into an expectation that he is something more.  Athletes are not gods and they are not superman, beyond their very circumscribed arenas.  That they are blessed with physical gifts should not be mistaken as some sort of moral rectitude.  Phelps is a human being after all, and human beings fall.  

If we put idols up on the shelf, we should not be surprised if they have feet of clay.  And if Michael Phelps wants to apologise to someone he has let down, then he should look in the mirror.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Don't Ever *Invite* a Vampire Into Your Own House, Silly Boy

The US May Soon Go "Viral," But Not In a "Good" Way

Some truly disturbing news has come across the wires this morning.  I awoke to the headline in the on-line Le Figaro: "Ebola: premier cas d'infection diagnostiqué aux États-Unis"

One does not need to be an A-levels reader of French to understand what this means, and it is not good news.

Apparently, yesterday in Dallas, Texas, the very first case of a patient diagnosed with the fatal Ebola virus has been announced.

Needless to say, this is bad news.  It's not necessarily alarming news.  Not yet.  It's not something I would recommend to casually ignore, however.  

There has been a number of movies and books with doomsday stories.  In order of decreasing likelihood, the list includes asteroids crashing into the earth.  Widespread terrorist attacks,  nuclear war.  zombie apocalypse.  The first is a virtual certainty given sufficient time; the last is, despite an actual epidemiological simulation run at a reputable university in Canada, not ever going to happen outside the imagination of George A. Romero or Rick Grimes.  I am not particularly concerned about any of these.  But one thing I do actually have on my fear radar is a viral or bacteriological plague.  

In short, we are overdue - WAY overdue - for a thinning of the herd, so to speak.  The last really great plague was the so-called Spanish Influenza of the early 20th century.  What? No.  SARS does not count.  In 1918, the flu infected neary a half billion people, killing around 20% of them.  100 million dead is a lot of people just on its face.  But considering that the world population then was only about two billion, the Spanish Influenza killed around one out of every 20 people on earth.

The world today is more than seven billion, so a similar culling would wipe out nearly two hundred million.  To put that into perspective, the population of Japan is 125 million.

There is a rise of drug-resistant bacteria, and viruses are always changing; always improving their game.  Hence, vigilance is needed.

Which makes the news today nothing short of infuriating.  Put as simply as I can, the leadership in the US has failed.  Big time.  This is a potential catastrophe that does not need to happen.  The government should be acting to ensure that it doesn't.  Instead, they're actually taking steps to encourage the likelihood that it will.

Ebola is a virus that until today has never - not once - arisen on our shores.  It exists in sub-Saharan Africa.  It can only come to the US if people infected come.  And that's just what has happened.  


The Chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa, Chris Coons (D-DE) was quoted in the story as follows:
It was only a matter of time before an Ebola case would emerge here in the United States, but as we’re seeing in Dallas today, our public health system has the resources, capabilities, and knowledge to address and contain this virus quickly and safely

I beg to differ.  It was "only a matter of time" (i.e., inevitable) if our leadership failed to take the one step necessary to stop Ebola spreading.  Namely, to quarantine the regions of the map where the virus is out of control.

Have we done that?  Of course not.  Quite the opposite.  Foolish American medical and other professionals have gone to the region to try to "help."  Worse still, President Obama has deployed 3,000 soldiers  to west Africa, primarily Liberia, including the 101st Airborne.  

Plainly and simply, this is a gross dereliction of duty.  And a flight from common sense.  

For years, we've heard (quite sensibly) that the US military should not be the world's policeman.  How on earth does it make sense for the Marines to be the world's pharmacist?  This is not a matter of national security, and it is not a military matter.  Sending the army to depose Saddam Hussein was stupid.  Sending the US Marines to build hospitals (armed with, and I am not making this up, bottles of hand sanitiser) in Liberia is insanity.

Thus far, five "aid workers" in west Africa have become infected and were subsequently airlifted back to the US.  Is this 'smart'?  Is it in the national interest?

How can anyone say it is?

This is a free country; if medical workers want to risk their own lives to go off to a foreign land, that's their right.  If they get infected with a virus that is nearly perfectly fatal, with no anti-virals or vaccines yet available, then I suggest that they take their chances with treatment in west Africa.  There is plenty of need in the US still for medical saviours.  There is plenty of work here to help the sick and the desperate.  There is no need for American medical experts to be heroic tourists.

And in the case of the unfortunate man in Dallas - he is, apparently, not even a US resident.  He is not entitled to come to the States; rather, he comes as a privilege, and privileges can be denied.  

Sometimes, they should be.

It's fine that CDC spokesman Dr Thomas Frieden reassures us that "U.S. hospitals are well prepared to handle Ebola patients and (assures) the public that the virus should not pose the same threat in the United States as it does in Africa."  It's great that the virus does not pose the same threat in the US as it does in Africa.  But in a sane world, it would not pose any measurable threat.  It would not be allowed to.  There is really no need for American hospitals to be prepared to handle Ebola patients unless we choose to bring it here.  What sane person would do that?

Despite Dr. Frieden's reassurances, I am not, well, particularly reassured.  Statistics in the article reveal:
At least 3,091 people have died from Ebola in the worst outbreak on record that has been ravaging Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea in West Africa. More than 6,500 cases have been diagnosed, and the CDC has warned that the number of infections could rise to as many as 1.4 million people by early next year without a massive global intervention to contain the virus. [emphasis added]
Epidemiology is a science that ostensibly began with the mapping by John Snow of a cholera outbreak in London to a public drinking fountain.  The solution was to isolate and close the fountain.  Unlike Snow at the time, we know what the virus is.  We know how Ebola spreads.  We know where it is.  It should be quarantined and kept there.  Those 1.4 million infected should not include Americans.  It is not "only a matter of time" that they do.

Dr. Frieden concluded his remarks by saying "health authorities (are) taking every step possible to ensure the virus did not spread widely."

No - they plainly and simply are not.  

Do not allow foreign nationals who have been in infected areas entry to the US until they have been quarantined and tested.  Better yet - don't grant them landing visas until the outbreak is under control.

Quarantine any American who visits an area in which it is known that there have been Ebola cases until it can be determined that they are not putting others at risk.

I am sorry that this is ravaging Africa; we and other nations should be working to find vaccines and treatments.  We should be sending aid to alleviate the suffering.  But our government and its institutions exist to serve and protect our population first.  At the exclusion of all others if necessary.

As the head vampire Max of the 80s film "The Lost Boys" said, never invite a vampire into your own house.  I fear we've done just that.