Friday, 27 October 2017

All the Problems in the World

You Can Hide Your Face Behind a Smile
So much bad news; so much anger. The president is in a nearly daily verbal food fight with the press and trades insults with the leader of North Korea (whom he has dubbed "Rocket Man" derisively). Our state has been burnt by enormous wildfires. Hurricanes.

And there is no escaping by ignoring the news and turning to traditional outlets. Our paid gladiators are protesting. Our actors are engulfed in a truly shocking, disgusting series of scandals.

When everyone is trying to "resist" something, what can we as a society do to try to combat the rising feeling of helpless despair?

I was thinking about this recently. “Society,” which I define somewhat proximally, is the people and environment I live among and within.

I live in San Francisco, California, so I focus somewhat on my own “society,” as it is the one I think I know best.

Your mileage may vary.

I'm not naturally an optimist (one of my favourite aphorisms, courtesy of Bernard Shaw, is that the power of accurate observation is often called "cynicism" by those who haven't got it. I'm not a cynic, but I do like to think my views are grounded and that they are accurate.

When asked how I stay focused and remain positive, I answer that what we need most (individually and collectively) is a refresher that your life is your own, and to a very large degree, you would be happier and much better off if you did not think of life as ‘relative.’

Do not base your happiness and sense of satisfaction on what you have in comparison to what the guy next to you, down the block, or across town has. My neighbour has a bigger house, perhaps. Or a fancier car. Or maybe he makes more money in a year or has more “power.”

In the grand scheme of things, none of these realities has any real, measurable impact on me. My happiness is not relative. 

Either my house is adequate to my needs, or it isn’t. I either have enough money to meet my basic needs and to try to enjoy a luxury from time to time that I really want, or I don’t. My wife and I went out to a nice dinner with our son last Sunday night. It wasn’t a Michelin 3-star restaurant, but we enjoyed it. There are people who can afford to go to Saison (a very expensive, fancy restaurant here in San Francisco) more than the once every couple of years that my wife and I budget. That in no way diminishes the nice family evening we had. 

Someone will always have more. I accept that fact.

Do not base your satisfaction with your life by the way others see you. Do not worry about the opinion of strangers. I like certain music, certain movies. I have certain political views. I am happy to share these with other people, and am open to listening. But I do not gauge my worth on how others see me. Long ago, I stopped seeking the approval of strangers. 

You can only be defined by other people when you let them.

Conversely, leave other people alone. Their lives are theirs and not yours. It’s not your place to condemn or criticise. That guy across the street who dresses oddly or has different tastes is different, not wrong. He is living his one life as you are. 

The world is made up with seven billion individuals, each with this one life - a singular gift; a unique chance. It's yours to do as you please. Enjoy it.

I used to read the baseball writings of Bill James. James is not any sort of spiritual genius, but he made a metaphor 35 years ago that has stuck with me. And it is this:

All of us are standing in a long, long line. We can choose to look to those to our left, see that they have more, and be envious. We can look to those on our right, see that they have less, and be grateful. It's all a matter of where you choose to look.

Be satisfied with what you have, and happy with who you are. Your worth is absolute and not relative.

I don't have enormous wealth, or a fancy house. I don't have a model's looks. 

There are plenty of people who have more. There are a lot of people who have less. In some cases, a lot less.

I try not to look left or right; I choose to look at myself and by OK with who and what I am

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

So You Want To Be a Rock and Roll Star

You want to get into Stanford? Make a 1d20 saving throw. If you roll a 20, congratulations.

Thought that I would change gears just a bit today; no politics or personal stories about my son. 

From time to time, I participate in the on-line Q and A site called Quora, which is a moderated forum of, well, questions put to people with some professed expertise, and the answers. I've pitched it before, but generally, the level of discourse is better than on, inter alia,twitter or Facebook. 

If you're not a Quora user, I recommend at least to check it out.

And you can follow me over there for me nonsense (largely) and brilliance (occasional).

Today, as a Stanford graduate, I got an "asked to answer" requesting how an "average student" might gain acceptance to Stanford.

It's not the first time I've gotten a question on the topic, and I suspect that, with deadlines for applications looming, more will come. I attended Stanford as a graduate student (maths) 25 years ago, which (I guess) gives me some insight.

Given that the school rejects about 19 of 20 applicants, that gives me some insights that 95% of a sample don't have.

A couple of other Stanford grads weighed in, offering that one be a top athlete (Tiger Woods), or a famous actor (Fred Savage), or perhaps the daughter of the president (Chelsea Clinton).

Of course, all of these are ways an average student (academically) could gain acceptance, but then, these people are not really "average" in any real sense of the word.

The cold, hard truth is this: if you are an outstanding student, the odds are you will not get in. If you are just average, barring one of those Twilight Zone level, toss a coin and have it land on the edge, neither heads nor tails events, there is practically no chance at all that you will get in.

An “average student” will not get into a top university like Stanford. The likelihood of this is sufficiently close to zero that one can in all realities ignore it.

In the past, people talked about HYP (Harvard, Yale, Princeton), a group into which Stanford has now nudged its way. Over the past 50 years, competition for spots in these universities has gone from tough to fierce to ridiculous.

Part of the reason is that the population of the US has roughly doubled in that time (from 170 million or so in 1960 to 310 million in 2010, based on census numbers). The size of the undergraduate student body at Stanford has gone from 5600 or so to 6800.

Add to that, the number of foreign students at Stanford (close to zero in those days) has grown to more than 10%, according to Stanford's own published data.

Projecting the 11% reported onto the total of 6800, about 700 or so are from overseas.

It’s obvious that the result of this is tremendous pressure.

Stanford now admits something like 5% (1 of 20) of its applicants. And that applicant pool itself is self-selecting.

Unless your SAT scores are in the far right tail of the distribution, and your GPA puts you at or near the top of your class, your application is likely not even going to pass the three second screening. Even then, you’re now into a group that puts your odds at being terrible.

The reality is this: getting admitted to a school like Stanford is, aside from a handful of people who are recruited by one of the coaches to play on an NCAA team, or who invented something significant, or were a television star, or whose father was the president, down to luck. Pure and simple.

People will give you ‘recipes’ for getting in, and they will tell you how well qualified and brilliant they were (or their kid was), and that that is how they stood out.

It’s BS.

They were flat-out lucky. Period. Paragraph.

I'd like to say that I was brilliant, or interesting, or perhaps brilliant and interesting. But really, I was lucky. 

Aside from a tiny number of people who are obviously going to get admitted (the top recruits to the football team; the daughter of the president of the USA; someone who invents a medicine that cures cancer), there is extremely little difference between those admitted and those rejected.

It's just luck.  

With thousands and thousands of applicants where the range of GPA is between 4.0 and 4.2, and with SAT scores within an equally tight distribution, it is then down to how much the admissions officer who reads your individual application happens to think there is "something" unusual about it.  

I would love to see a sample of 1000 people who got admitted to Stanford matched via some sort of propensity score based on grades, class rank, and test scores to 1000 who did not.

Shuffle the 2000 together, and give them to admissions officers at say, Harvard or Yale, and ask them to identify who was admitted and who wasn't.

What this means for you, as an applicant is thsi:

If you’re a nobody from a public high school in Illinois who is first in his class with SATs of 1500 or so, take a die with 20 sides and roll it. Did you get a ‘1’ on the roll? Congratulations and welcome to Stanford. Did you roll anything else? I am sure that you will do very well at Northwestern, or perhaps the University of Illinois.

It’s really that simple.

If you’re not someone with those credentials (say, a 1350 on the SAT), then throw a couple of 20-sided dice. If BOTH came up a ‘1’, you’re in.

If you’re an ‘average’ student (1000 or so on the SAT, somewhere in the middle of the class, you sat the bench on the school football team). Throw that same die 100 times. All 100 will have to be a 1.

Sorry - by introducing other criteria (‘particularly interesting’) - makes you decidedly not ‘average.’

That is the cold, honest truth.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

All Summer in a Day

When our son was very small, when we would travel in the car we would play his music to help pass the time. One of his favourites was the sound track from "Mary Poppins." We took him to see the play, and he has of course, seen the movie on DVD.

It's a bit of a bitter-sweet story - one that is apparently based on the less-than-happy childhood of its author, P.L. Travers (pseudonym for Helen Goff, the Australian creator), whose alcoholic father died young. Mr Banks, the Edwardian banker in the story is allegedly a scrubbed-up version of her own father, and Mary Poppins herself is a perfected character based on the nanny who came to care for Travers (Goff).

One of the many songs from the sound-track finds Mr Banks, who has lost his job after his young kids make a bit of a hash at the bank, taking some advice about life priorities from Bert, the chimney-sweep:
Tricked you into taking the children on an outing? Outrageous! A man with all the important things you have to do? Shameful!
You're a man of high position, esteemed by your peers
And when your little tykes are crying you haven't time to dry their tears
And see their grateful little faces smiling up at you
Because their dad, he always knows just what to do
You've got to grind, grind, grind at that grindstone
Though childhood slips like sand through a sieve
And all too soon they've up and grown, and then they've flown
And it's too late for you to give.
A couple of years ago (nearly exactly), I came across an article by a soon-to-be empty nester who was recalling with some nostalgia the days when her own children - soon to have "flown" - were small, and how in those early days, oh how she wished that the children would just hurry up and grow already.

As I said then, though I was often tired, and at times short-tempered (three hours of sleep per night will do that), I never wanted our son to hurry up.

In your kids' lives, for every moment, there will be a last time. Giving them a bath, lifting them up, holding their hand as you cross the street.

All of these things end. And the last time you get to do each, you will always only recognise it retrospectively. When the moment actually happens, you won't notice it. Days, weeks, months later, you will think, "I haven't held my kid's hand crossing the street." and the next time you reach for it, you will be met with a sort of indignant look, and maybe a quick response that "I'm not a baby, you know?"

I am almost 50 years old, and thus, I know magic is not real, and in any case, illusion does not last forever.  The sun rises, it shines, briefly, and it warms.  But we know it will set.

No amount of holding a little hand tightly can stop it, no matter how hard you try.

Alastair (our son) is now 12. Adolescence is juuust over the hill over there (squint and point to an imagined horizon in the distance).  The little hill on the horizon two years ago is looming. We're not there yet, but it's close. Closer in any case than it was two years ago.

I'm used to being greeted each day with an smile and some reported excitement for the day. Maybe a question.  Friday, when I got home, Alastair was nowhere to be seen. I asked his mother where he might be, and the answer was "in his room."

We do not allow our son to play with tech gadgets during the week. No iPad, no computer games. But Friday when the week is over, the rules are relaxed. So, it's not uncommon to find him lounging on the sofa.

This was one of those "uh oh" moments that remind us why the word "nostalgia" has as it's root a pain - literally, from a return. Like a homecoming, or to memories of the past.

Before Friday, I had never returned to find my little boy in his room with his door closed. I can't say that any more. Later in the evening after dinner, we watched a kid's movie and he ate popcorn and asked silly, little boy questions. So the inevitable day when it's his time to fly remains at bay. We can pretend he's still a little one just a bit longer.

Growing up is a bit like that. Forward for a couple of steps, then one back. But it's always relentlessly forward.

It's not yet too late to give a spoonful of sugar, but this week, I got a little look over the top of the hill of adolescence.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

The Concrete and the Clay Beneath My Feet

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert... near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies

The English romantic poet P.B. Shelley's wonderful poem Ozymandias reminds us that, in time, even mighty kings whose powers seem without bound are all likely at some point to fall. The collapsed statue lying in ruin in the desert is said to be patterned after a statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II that, in 1821, was transported to the British Museum. On the pedestal is the Greek name, User-maat-re Setep-en-re.

The king commanded great armies and inspired fear in his enemies and respect in his allies. Shelley describes the "half sunk" face with a sneer of cold command which directs all to gaze upon his mighty works and despair.

In the end, all is gone save for these relics of conceit.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains

Today's object lesson in selecting our idols of clay with great care is the disgraced Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein.

I won't spend time here on the details of his apparent crimes of harassment up to and including sexual assault. Needless to say, the accusations are many, they are specific, and they are disgusting. Weinstein has fled the country, ostensibly to seek "treatment" for sex and behavioural problems in Europe - I reckon he may be escaping the long arm of the law. He has been fired from the movie company named he built, his name apparently will be scrubbed from that company, and his "friends" in Hollywood and Washington are falling over themselves to scramble for the safety of the shadow of cover proclamations of how "disturbed" they are by all of this.

My point of today's ruminations is this: when you are looking for "guidance" on important matters of life, choose carefully. Things are, indeed, seldom what they seem.

While I am not at all interested in jumping on the right wing bandwagon that has erupted with glee that one of the loudest, wealthiest fundraisers of the Democratic party has been exposed as a disgusting, misogynistic creep, it is instructive as a warning not to take as our 'leaders' people solely because they are famous.

In the past campaign, one of the many - perhaps most - disturbing moments was when an old video recording of eventual winner Donald Trump surfaced in which he proclaimed in just about the most grotesque way possible exactly how he thinks about women when they are around celebrities. A collective howl of righteous indignation erupted; Trump tried to explain his remarks by laying them off to "locker room" talk.

His excuses were rejected - as they should have been. 

I personally found his remarks disgusting, but his explanation to be, sadly - pathetically - accurate. 

Just how right Trump was has been revealed, hasn't it? 

After the election, there was a rally in DC, highlighted by many of the gliteratti wearing pink "pussy" hats. Amongst those describing how personally outraged she was was the actress Ashley Judd. 

Today, Judd is in the news revealing that she was among those assaulted by Weinstein. The same Weinstein who held fundraising parties for Hillary Clinton in his apartment. Surely, Ashley Judd and many others in Hollywood knew exactly what sort of man Weinstein is.

What happened to Ashley Judd is reprehensible. It may be criminal. Was she really "shocked and offended" when Trump's comments were published? I don't believe it.

In the French press, the actress Lea Seydoux, best known in the US perhaps as being a "Bond girl" is tracking for an interview in which she described exactly how Weinstein attacked her years ago. Shocked and humiliated, she had not spoken about it publicly. Neither had Ashley Judd, or Angelina Jolie, or Gwyneth Paltrow, who won an Academy Award for her performance in "Shakespeare in Love," a movie produced by Weinstein.

All describe a similar story - they kept quiet because they were ashamed. And they kept quiet because they were afraid that Weinstein had the power to make or break their careers. All of them indicate that over time, his behaviour was an open secret. The comedian Seth Macfarlane in 2013 at the Academy Awards made a veiled joke about how the five nominees now "no longer had to pretend to be attracted" to Weinstein. The joke got a mixed reaction - some nervous laughter but also, muffled displeasure.

How could HE say THAT about Harvey?

I thought at the time that it was because the audience was offended that a relative nobody dared to say such a thing about a man of power and respect. In retrospect, I wonder if the reaction was more a collective shock that, at last, someone said, out loud, what everyone knew.

In her interview, Seydoux says that Weinstein is not the only powerful director or producer who is known to assault women. She (and others) indicate that it is practically an accepted part of the culture. It's worth noting that Hollywood still gives awards to the likes of Roman Polanski, who is not able to set foot in the US because he was convicted of drugging and raping a 13 year old girl. He lives beyond the reach of American law in France.

Today, after condemning (weakly) Harvey Weinstein, Ben Affleck was immediately called out for gross behaviour - grabbing a young woman's breast on live television and then laughing it off. Affleck was a co-Academy Award winner with Matt Damon for writing the movie "Good Will Hunting," produced by Weinstein. 

People in Hollywood have every right to hold their opinions. They have every right to voice them. But we need to separate the views of someone who plays a good guy on a two dimensional screen from the fact that that person may very well be a pretty bad guy in three dimensional reality.

I wonder, given the recollections coming out, how many of those sculpted faces that proclaimed to be speaking out for women said nothing when an actual woman was under attack? Worse, how many of them participated?

Their celebrity, looks, charisma, and fame do not preclude them lecturing us, but they also do not give them any additional credibility. 

I suspect that, in time, a lot more nasty business is about to be revealed about our screen idols. We are going to learn some things that we frankly do not want to know. This is why so many of us are sceptical when an actor or athlete or musician begins to lecture us. 

Choose your Gods wisely people.

When the curtain finally falls, and it surely will, it's likely that nothing beside remains.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Be Thankful, Because Before You Know it, it Will Be Over

Photo: from Twitter User Kate Kisset
Living as we do in California brings with it many advantages. It's usually pretty warm. We get many sunny days - Sunday was the 8th of October, and it was a clear day - sparkling, azure sky with a light breeze. About 78 degrees. 

We are blessed by magnificent hills, rolling valleys, crashing surf. Winter brings some of the best skiing anywhere in the world, just a couple of hours away. Farms nearby mean fresh produce most of the year of all types.

All of this comes at a price, of course, and that price is on display now. 

About this time last year, as we went through the annual "California Shake Out" (the day that we are urged to participate in prepare for the inevitable next large earthquake, I was thinking about how everything is OK until it isn't.

In the best-selling book The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb made the point that the happiest, most secure day in the life of a turkey is the day before Thanksgiving. His point was that, each day a turkey lives, the farmer has invested more time and resources to raise it, and as a result, has ever more incentive to ensure that the turkey will survive for another tomorrow. The turkey will have better conditions, better treatment, better food, and better health. Each day is just a bit better than the one before.

The turkey cannot see what is coming, so he lives in a sense of increasing joy - increasing complacency.

What could possibly go wrong?

We live in San Francisco, which in 1989 was devastated by a massive earthquake. The city was more or less destroyed in 1906 by a quake and fire.

There are scars over the city, constant reminders, that at some point, Thanksgiving is coming.

I woke Monday morning to take our dog out, as I do every morning. There was an unmistakable, acrid smell of smoke in our neighbourhood, and the air shown hazily through the rising sun. At first, I thought someone had lit a fire in his chimney, or maybe there had been a fire not far away. But then, I did not hear any fire engines or alarms. 

The news revealed the awful truth.

As I write this, about 50 or so kilometres north of the city, the famous wine country of Napa and Sonoma counties are being ravaged by wild fires. An area of 100,000 acres - roughly three times size the city of  San Francisco is burning or has been burnt. My son's school has alerted us that the classes will remain indoors today for recess because the air is unhealthy for children. I can smell smoke in my office building, and the Metro tunnels today had smoke in them, slowing trains.

For the rest of the country, I am guessing that most of the coverage is about the threat to the grape harvest and wine that Napa and Sonoma are famous for. We belong to the Stag's Leap Wine Club, and the flames of the Atlas Peak fire are just a few miles away - as of right now, Stag's Leap is not affected. Some of the most famous (and expensive) producers in the area are threatened - Shafer Vineyards, Opus One, Silverado are all just a few miles away.  Names that all oenophiles recognise - St Helena, Rutherford, Oak Knoll are all, all just outside the flames.

Napa Valley is a v-shaped valley tucked between two low mountain ranges studded with Coastal Live Oak tries and tall grass that are golden brown at this time of the year. They make for excellent tinder.

1500 homes have been destroyed thus far, one of the largest counts in 50 years, and 15 people have lost their lives.

100 more people remain unaccounted for.

Everything is fine until it isn't.

Life itself comes with risks. Some are distant and abstract, whilst others are immediate and concrete.

As I said last year, John Lennon described life as what happens when you're making plans. 

My father was a planner; he liked to think of the long term. He was always imagining a day that he thought would come. 

It didn't work out that way. My father ran out of tomorrows almost 25 years ago.

For all of us, there will be a today where tomorrow simply will not come. For 15 people in Napa who went to sleep on the 9th of October, there would not be an 10th.

I, too, like to plan. But I always try to stop to remind myself that ultimately, whilst planning for tomorrow is prudent, there will be a day when, like my father, I am going to run out of tomorrows. My wife, son, and I have been most fortunate. Of course, we plan for the days that are to come, saving for schooling, for retirement, for the unforeseen leaking roof.  

But it's important - every day, if possible - to take some time and just enjoy being alive. Spend some money on a nice meal from time to time. Take a trip to a foreign land. Simply do nothing at all.

I have long thought that pain and tragedy are perhaps the greatest teachers we have; earthquakes or fires or tornadoes should be reminders to us that our lives are ephemeral.  

We should not be afraid, but we should be aware. Guard your time preciously, jealously, because it is precious.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

You Have to Ask the Right Question

Like just about everyone in the US, and many beyond our shores, I have watched and read the unfolding story of the Las Vegas "gunman," who last week killed 58 people as they attended a country music festival in the shadows of the Mandalay Bay casino complex.

Like many (though decidedly fewer I admit), I wonder if, with this latest horrific event, the US will finally set aside the frankly tribal politics around guns and put in place some sensible measures that may at last curb some of the bloodshed in our country.

I've made my thoughts on the topic pretty clear over the years. The US has thousands of gun killings each year, many many times more than in France, the UK, or other Western European nations. 

There are more murders in a year in Chicago (population two and a half million) than in the entire nation of France (population 65 million).

Ironically, the Las Vegas gunman had rented a hotel room in Chicago, at the time of the Lollapalooza music event, with the idea to kill people clustered at that festival. It's not clear why, but I know people who were in Chicago (my cousin and his young children among them).

It's too awful an idea to spend much time thinking about, but it's a reminder how important the role of chance plays in our lives, despite a belief that we control the levers and knobs that determine the settings.

I do wonder - what is it that should be done to stop this? What should be done.

More to the point, what can be done.

One blog I follow is Scott Adams, of "Dilbert" fame. He gained some notoriety in the past 18 or so months by doggedly explaining why Donald Trump would be elected president. I am not sure how seriously even Adams took his guesses, but following - and the daily reactions - was amusing. 

I think Adams is a somewhat poor cartoonist, from a technical point. But "Dilbert" was always funny. I am not sure Adams is a brilliant man, but often, his suggestions have a common-sense truth to them.

Today, Adams hit the nail squarely as he talked through why, in his opinion, sensible gun control remains beyond our grasp. And it's not all just politics.

He points out that we are just asking the wrong questions. With that, it's obvious that the answers we get back are going to be flawed.
Both sides [of the debate] pretend they are arguing on principle, but neither side is. Both sides are arguing from their personal risk profiles, and those are simply different. Our risk profiles will never be the same across the entire population, so we will never agree on gun control. (emphasis added)
A key counter-argument about gun control is the famous "If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns."

Personally, I've never found this argument convincing - for one thing, it's what logicians call "truth functionally true." That means to say it is vacuously true, or true by definition. If posessing a gun is illegal, then someone who has a gun, by definition, is breaking the law- an outlaw.

That should not be a shocking revelation.

The gun people go further and say that, because people willing to break the law will not be stopped by yet one more law (in this case, possession of an illegal firearm), the law will not eliminate crime. They go further and offer examples (as Adams points out, like the knife-murderer in Japan) where gun laws will not prevent killing. Even in France, which has pretty strict gun laws, there are still not -zero- murders per year.

But as Adams further points out, the laws are in practical terms not meant to eliminate crime; they are meant to reduce crime to a tolerable amount. 
Humans are lazy and stupid, on average. If you make something 20% harder to do, a lot of humans will pass. It doesn’t matter what topic you are discussing; if you introduce friction, fewer people do it.
Gun laws do not have to be perfect; they just have to good enough. The tail of the distribution of those willing to go the extra mile to commit a senseless murder is pretty extreme. Yes; the lunatic in Japan is still going to find a way, but some number - 80%, 90%? - of would-be-madmen are not going to be willing to exert the effort. 

Thus, the question is not, "How do we end the slaughter." The question to the gun folks would be, "What level of senseless killing is OK for you so that you can have open access to all levels of gun and ammunition?"

We just have to make getting these weapons obnoxious enough that lives are saved. Let's find out what that level is, and get to it.

Another common trope is the famous "slippery slope." Pace Adams's point, limitations on what and how many guns you can own is not what the NRA and gun lobby would have you believe. NO ONE is going to come grab your hunting rifle or pistol that you keep at home to (ostensibly) protect you. We hear people warn us not to let a camel's nose into the tent on practically every argument. 

Trump should not initiate a restriction on the granting of visitor visas to people from countries hostile to the US because it will lead to concentration camps. "Hitler did not start in 1933 by rounding up" scapegoats.

It's non-sense when the antifa fools say it; it's non-sense when the gun nuts say it.

As Adams writes: 
Banning personal use of grenade launchers did not lead to confiscation of hunting knives, and probably never will. The slippery slope idea inspires fear in gun lovers – because creeping regulations feel like a risk – but in the real world, each decision stands alone. The slippery slope is an irrational fear, not a reasonable factor in policy-making.
If you are a right-wing gun rights supporter, consider this: The next time you feel an  inclination to fall back on the "gun control is going to lead to gun bans," remember how stupid the argument of the leftists is that Trump is Hitler.

That is what you sound like to the rest of us,

Yes, it is.

To those on the left (with whom I generally agree with respect to guns), stop pretending that the real problem with guns in the US is nutty white men with automatic weapons.

Right after Las Vegas, there were memes galore circulating (Shaun King, the one man rent-a-grievance at the New York Daily News tweeted multiple times about how this was yet another case of imagined white privilege) about how the US has some sort of "angry white man" problem at the root of gun violence.

Anyone who pays attention to the data knows that this is pretty much unadulterated bullshit. Slate today had an on-line argument that basically destroys this point, after trolling through the data collected over the past decade by Mother Jones.

Thousands of people do die each year because of gun violence. A tiny percentage is from incidents like Las Vegas, or Columbine, or Aurora. The overwhelming majority of gun killing is done with Saturday Night Specials. Banning "assault" rifles or "bump stocks" feels good, but will have no real impact on the carnage.

Stop rushing to get in front of a camera to propose pointless laws that touch the political erogenous zones of your activist donors, and propose real solutions. Instead of looking to score points, work with sensible people on the other side of the divide to draw up real solutions. Stop opposing programmes (e.g., Stop and Frisk) that actually work to get guns out of the hands of criminals.

If you want to get to sensible answers, you cannot begin from foolish questions.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Still the Word

Continuing (oddly I suppose) the walk down memory lane, today brings a fond memory rather than heartbreak.

As I said, one of the by-products of living is that one collects a past. A history that cannot be unwritten.

I now live in San Francisco, California - the latest (and I hope perhaps, final) stop in a series of homes. Toronto, Los Angeles, South Carolina, Cleveland, Paris, France. My wife, son, and I live in the Castro neighbourhood of the city, a colourful, central area of Victorian homes, small shops, restaurants. 

One of the real gems of our neighbourhood is the Castro Theatre, a glorious Spanish baroque cinema opened early in the last century (and reputedly still owned by the family who built it). It screens classic movies as well as the occasional special event with more modern fare (at the time of the Academy Awards, it screened "La La Land" in an event hosted by co-stars Ryan Gosling and  Emma Stone) in a large, balconied auditorium. Before the movies, audiences are entertained by a period Wurlizter pipe organ.

In the Bay Area, we are blessed to have both the Castro and its spiritual cousin, The Stanford Theatre half an hour south in Palo Alto.

Tonight, the Castro is doing a screening of the (less than classic, but still fun) musical movie Grease

As fate would have it, Grease is actually the very first movie that I ever went to without my parents. Back in 1978, at the ripe old age of eight, my mother dropped my older brother Charles and me and two friends at a decidedly less stylish multi-plex of the sort popular in the middle 1970s with a buck each for the ticket and another dollar to buy popcorn.

Back in those days, two bucks was enough for a show and snack.

I don't remember too much about the date. I remember that the mother of our friends, both brothers as well, came to collect us all when the show was over. Brent and Brian Agnew (Brent was my age, and like me, had very blond hair, just a lot curlier; Brian was the about the same age as Charles - perhaps a year older, and, like Charles, had straight, brown hair). 

I still recall pretty clearly climbing out of the way-back (third row) seat of my mother's 1976 Chevrolet station wagon (yes, it had the fake wood panel that was de rigeur at the time), and getting our matinee tickets. We thought we were oh so "with it" in our polyester turtlenecks and Toughskins jeans (pretty sure that that label has joined Sylvania and Hang Ten in the bin of defunct brands).

Grease is not a great movie of course, but it's a fun one. And the music (faux 1950s tunes) are in my Spotify feed. The jokes are corny, and John Travolta is less than convincing as a 'greaser' high school tough. I still laugh when I think of the scene at the Rydell dance where "Blue Moon" is, shall we say, cut short by the T-Bird antics.

I bet that that is the only time in movie history that the name "J Edgar Hoover" ever got a laugh. 

I had no idea what became of the Agnew brothers - we moved away a couple of years later. Turns out, both are on "Facebook" (bless the internet). Brent is a teacher in Gaineseville, GA, and Brian is a school principal in Charleston, SC. 

I think our son will, like I did, like the movie. Some of the jokes will go over his head, as they did mine. I suspect, strongly, that he will laugh at the unfortunate ending of "Blue Moon", like I did.

Childhood, life indeed, is made up of moments. Some of them make you want to cry. Some stick with you in the form of a mildly subversive laugh.

Friday, 6 October 2017

You Can Only Be Naive Once

(Art Credit: Aaron Dana,
The problem with time passing is you acquire a history. 

Getting older has many draw-backs; at first, frivolity is replaced by seriousness. Freedom slowly erodes into responsibility. Tiny bumps and scrapes become nagging pains that never seem to quite go away before new ones arise.

Your memories grow longer as your time grows short.

When we are young, there is always an impatience for tomorrow. None of us believe that tomorrow is going to come, even if we paradoxically understand that it will.

But in the end, the real issue is that with time, we acquire a past.

Yesterday, the 4th of October, marked a significant moment in my own past. On this date, 30 years ago, one of the seminal moments of my adolescence was punctuated by a weak, bouncing baseball that four hopped 35 feet into the glove of Frank Tanana, veteran left-hand pitcher for the Detroit Tigers.

Garth Iorg's full swing and weak tap-out was the anti-climax to what remains perhaps the greatest disappointment of my youth. 

My team, the Toronto Blue Jays that year ended their season with seven consecutive losses, three one-run defeats in the final week-end of the season. And what had just a week before seemed a certain walk into the playoffs ended with one of the most epic collapses in the history of sport. 

It's been 30 years. 

Other collapses have gotten more ink - the 1969 Mets overcoming a huge deficit in the final weeks of the season to stun the Chicago Cubs. The 1964 Phillie Phlop. 

It may simply be a reflection of a sheltered youth (more than likely the case) that was largely void of drama, but as I reflect on the early days of my life, nothing comes close. Getting cut from actual sports teams I tried out for. Nope. Unfulfilled or unrequited romances? No.

I look back on that week, if I am being honest, with more bitterness - much more bitterness - than I do thinking of college rejection. I felt more deflated with that defeat than I did when the "You're a swell guy, and I am sure you're going to be a big success whichever school you go to. It just won't be this one" letter that I got in a thin envelope from Harvard just a few months later.

Funny how that is. And now that I'm fully an adult (NB: by age in any case, even if I still snicker when I hear "Time to musk up" said for the 47th time), I don't even care at all about sports.

In 1987, I was 17 years old. In many ways, that summer was the last real time of 'youth' in some sense. I was entering my senior year of high school. College applications (and acceptances and rejections) awaited. I had not yet worked any sort of job, unless you count chores around the house - lawn cutting and the like. My first actual job came in the summer following high school graduation.

That was still a year away.

In 1985, the Blue Jays had, for the first time in their brief history, captured the American League East crown. In those days, there were only two divisions in the AL - no wild cards and no AL Central. The team took a 3-1 lead over the Kansas City Royals only to lose three straight games (none of which, as close as the scores showed). The team had never won anything prior, so the disappointment was tempered with hopefulness that better days were to come.

1987 was the "next year" in a sense. The team was not terrific, but good, and in fact never fell below .500 all season.

Just one week prior to The Game, a different narrative seemed possible. On consecutive days (Thursday and Friday night games, then Saturday), the Blue Jays had hosted the Tigers in their old derelict stadium (Exhibition Stadium, honestly a football stadium converted for baseball, and poorly) for a four-game set.

The Jays won the first three, all by one run. Friday night and Saturday were "walk-off" wins that, quite frankly, they had little business winning. Friday, for example, the same Frank Tanana who would shut them out just one week later, pitched 8 shutout innings, leaving a 2-0 lead to Mike Henneman. Henneman surrendered the game via a bases-loaded triple to Manny Lee.

Store that name for later.

No one at the time knew it, of course, but that Saturday, 10-9 walk-off would be the last game Toronto won until April of the next year.

There was trouble on the horizon. In the first game, all star shortstop Tony Fernandez was lost for the season on a somewhat dirty take-out slide by Tigers' DH Bill Madlock. Fernandez's elbow was broken. Two days later, veteran catcher Ernie Whitt was similarly lost in a DP slide when Lou Whitaker's knee broke three ribs.

Sill, the Jays built their lead, and in the finale Sunday, the team took a 1-0 lead to the ninth inning. Tom Henke (at the time called "The Terminator" for his ability to come in and simply blow people away) was on the mound on a cold, overcast day. Three outs, and the team would be up by 4 1/2 with just six to play. 

Kirk Gibson had other plans - this was one season before he dramatically broke Dennis Eckersly's heart with a game-ending home run.

Gibson's home run tied the game, which the Tigers won in 13.

OK - so the lead was 2 1/2 with six to play. Still looking good.

As it turns out, that 9th inning was the last appearance that Henke would make in 1987.

The Milwaukee Brewers, who had owned the season, came to town and swept the Jays away. With Detroit winning 3 of 4 in Baltimore, the lead was down to a single game, with three to play in Tiger Stadium.

What just five days earlier looked like a lead-pipe-cinch was now very much in doubt. Still, the Jays were 

  1. Still on top, albeit by a single game
  2. Needed to win only one of the three games to force a play-off
A sloppy Friday night affair in which Toronto hit into five double plays erased the last bits of the lead.

Saturday was an epic game - veteran Mike Flanagan, picked up at the trade dead-line to bolster the rotation faced Tigers' ace Jack Morris. Flanagan pitched 11 innings (and according to rumour, fought tooth and claw to come out for the 12th) despite being nearly 40. Morris battled as well, throwing close to 200 pitches of his own  over 10 innings.

The game ended in the 12th, when Alan Trammell's ground ball right at Manny Lee (see: he's back!) went under Lee's glove with the bases loaded. The infield was in, so an almost certain 6-2-3 double play instead resulted in loss number six.

Incredibly, Trammell was awarded a hit (at the time, Bob Costas actually descibed in the post-game how Manny Lee's error might not have been made by Fernandez - apparently, Costas agreed with me and not the scorer).

It goes without saying that, the final day of the year, what had been building for a week came to pass in an agonizing 1-0 loss. Frank Tanana, who as a young pitcher had paired with Nolan Ryan on the old California Angels to intimidate hitters with a nearly 100-mph fastball, had through injury and time converted to a guy whose fastball wouldn't bruise a baby's butt kept the Jays' off the scoreboard. Larry Herndon's second inning, windblown home run JUUUUST over the glove of left fielder George Bell was the only run of the game (Herndon only had six home runs all season).

Jimmy Key was the hard-luck loser that day, and finished with a 17-8 record. He lead the league in ERA that year, and I felt at the time that, had he been a 1-0 winner on the final day rather than a 1-0 loser, he had a legitimate chance at the Cy Young (NB: it was won by Roger Clemens). Key never won a Cy in his career.

I remember sitting in my parents' living room watching the entire denouement unfold, and feeling....nothing. Not shock. Not anger. Just emptiness.

With that bouncing ball, I quietly switched off the television and went to do my homework (it was a Sunday afternoon).

The Tigers went on to lose in four games to the Minnesota Twins who went on to defeat St Louis in a tight Series.

I didn't watch the Series that year - for one weekend, I was in Boston visiting colleges (and my older brother, who had just gone off to college) with my father. 

It's been 30 years, nearly to the day.

I've gone off to college. Moved from home. I lost my father, more than 20 years ago. My mother a few years ago sold the house, so it, too, is a memory. I've gotten married, bought my own home. I now have my own adolescent son.

With time, you you acquire a past.

The Blue Jays eventually did win the World Series in 1992, repeating the next year. There have been a lot of ups and downs (mostly down) for the team since, and my interest, like my youth, has faded, replaced by other things.

There is of course the famous reading from First Letter of Saint-Paul to the Corinthians:
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, darkly, but then face to face.
The American League playoffs begin tonight (no; the wild card game is still for me a bridge too far). I may tune in to see some, but I doubt it. My own son is in junior high now, and I have a parent-teacher conference. 

I've put away at least some childish things, of which sport is one.

But in 1987, I was still young. And more than the sting of any broken teen romance or failure, that moment I still hang on to.

30 years.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Well, it Happened Again

Spoiler alert: I think it's time - beyond time - that the US stopped deluding itself that guns are not part of the problem, and enacted sensible limitations on who can own what sort of guns, and how many of them.

It happened again. Not that it matters, at all, but this time in Las Vegas. A "gunman," for reasons that remain at the moment not known, took a cache of guns and massacred a group of innocent, unsuspecting people.

Newtown. Charleston. Orlando. San Bernardino.

This time, Vegas.

I'm not inclined to use the name of the man responsible, but an otherwise "ordinary" man this time has killed 59 people at a country music festival, and injured hundreds more. 

So we as a nation react, as we always do, with thoughts and prayers, and questions of "why," and finger-pointing. Inevitably, one side will offer that this time the US will get serious about gun control. Just as predictably, the other will fire back (pun intended) with arguments about how guns don't kill people, that only a "good guy" with a gun can stop a bad one, how many times a gun is used to prevent crime, how the outcome could have been different if only someone in the crowd had been armed.

In 2012, at Christmas, the nation woke to the horrible story of a "gunman" entered a school full of small children in Newtown, Connecticut and systematically obliterated 20 helpless children. Mostly kindergarten and grade one students. All were six or seven years of age. It was a story that almost uniquely left me feeling genuinely shaken.
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.
I would self-identify as a pretty far-to-the-right conservative.  Not a libertarian, per se, but in that general ZIP code.  And I have to say, listening to my political fellow-travellers talking about this, and in particular, the possibility that we may finally, FINALLY get some sort of sane gun control policy is a journey into madness.
In the end, nothing was done. The "guns don't kill people" crowd carried the day.

Then, 2014, in Santa Barbara, California, a 20 year old male ("man" does not apply) decided that writing his grievances in a 'manifesto' was not enough, so off to the campus he went, where he shot, stabbed, and crushed (with his BMW) a score of his classmates. 
Another needless day of violence and blood-shed in the US.  Like Newton, CT before it.  Or Virginia Tech.  Or Columbine.  There are again candles, and stuffed animals, and flowers.  There are more crying families and friends.
The US, plain and simple, has a violence problem.  It's obvious that, yes, it is far, far past the time that Americans accepted sensible, rational rules about gun ownership.  Requiring law-abiding citizens to have a licence to own a gun, and limiting the amount of ammunition they can purchase is not "gun grabbing."  The Second Amendment guarantees people the right to own guns and to defend themselves.  But this ain't 1750 on the frontier.  The Constitution was not written by God himself, nor was it given to Moses.  It can (and has been) amended to reflect the times.  The Second Amendment itself is testament to that.
It's undeniably true that a gun is an inanimate object; it can no more kill a person by itself than can a broom or a tin of soup. For that matter, neither can a bottle of arsenic. I get it.

But it is beyond dispute that, a person like the individual who opened fire in Las Vegas, if he did not have his arsenal, if he were even limited in what he could have gained access to, many of the 59 people he slaughtered would be alive.

If you cannot accept that basic fact, then you are beyond reach.

I know the arguments about the Second Amendment, and I agree that people have the rights granted. I don't go in for the sophistries about "well regulated militias," nor the collective vs. individual rights. But the Constitution has been amended two dozen times. It's not an act of God. And it's not 1775 anymore.

We do not need to arm ourselves to the teeth against a tyrannical king half-way round the world. Black helicopters are not coming. And even if they were, you and your handguns are not going to stand a chance against them. 

The government have actual, trained soldiers. They have tanks. They have, well, black helicopters.

Red Dawn was a movie, as I said before. 

I used to live in France. Yeah, I know. Cheese eating surrender monkeys and socialism. According to the CIA fact book, in 2015, there were 682 murders in all of France. In the city of Chicago, there were 751.

To put things in perspective, there are 65 million people in France. Chicago is a city of just over 2 million.

And France has among the highest rates of murder in Western Europe.

Obviously, there are other factors at play, but can anyone seriously deny that access to guns is a significant factor? 

It is way, way past time to look at real solutions here. And it's not arming every "good guy" and putting him in a school. Charles Bronson is dead. Sorry.

The question is this for Americans: How many dead are we willing to accept as part of the bargain for our right to keep and bear arms? How much blood? 

Yes - the NRA and their political handmaidens in the Republican party are correct that gun control means giving up some measure of our freedom. Of course it does. Giving up the right to drive 200 miles per hour means giving up some measure of freedom as well. ANY law means that someone won't be able to do something that he wants.

Yes - passing gun control will not "solve" the problem. People will still have access to knives. They will still have the option to drive their late-model Buick into a crowd on the sidewalk. Gun control is not going to cure evil people with murder in their hearts. Laws against murder haven't done that yet. Should the lack of a perfect solution block any step towards reducing the problem?

I'm not a lawyer. I've not read all of the Federalist papers. But it seems like a pretty simple equation to me.

You have the right to keep and bear arms. Agreed. A lot of people have been killed because of that right. People who today would be alive.

Is it worth it? Is all the killing really worth you maintaining the ability to stockpile dozens of weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammunition? Is your right worth all that blood? THAT really is the question here. It's that basic. Because part of the bargain is this: Your right to own (sensibly and responsibly) any number of guns and any amount of ammunition guarantees that we will be having this discussion again. 

Don't pretend that it won't happen. Deal frankly with the fact that it will. 

Please. Think carefully.