Friday, 5 October 2018

You'll Never Get a Better Chance

Like the rest of the country, and a chunk of the rest of the world it seems, I've been following the goings-on in Washington with the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court.

I have my own feelings about the nomination, the allegations of sexual assault against him, whose telling the truth, how the vote should go down.

This is not about that.

Recently, President Trump made a speech in which he said
It is a very scary time for young men in America, where you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of.
He's referring specifically to the as yet unsubstantiated charges against Judge Kavanaugh, but also more broadly of the accusations flying in the "#MeToo" movement of women (and some men as well) coming out with disturbing stories of sexual harassment and assault.

Again, I do not know if the allegations against Judge Kavanaugh are true, partly true, or made up of whole cloth. The FBI are looking into the situation, and though not tasked with deciding truth and falseness, will issue a report on what they find.

I was asked recently what I thought of President Trump's comments. Is it really a "scary time for young men in America?"

I am no longer a young man, but I am the parent of one, and my time being one is not so distant so as to be forgotten.

Now, while I did not vote for Donald Trump, I was not upset that he was elected over Hillary Clinton. I think that Trump is a terrible choice for president; he's crude, impetuous, seems ignorant of many basic elements of governing. He makes statements that are damaging to his own cause.

But had I been forced to choose between the Trump and Clinton, I would have opted for his (at the time presumed, but now to a degree demonstrated) incompetence vs. her demonstrated competence at making the wrong decisions.

I think Trump has been about what I would have expected, bumbling from mistake to mistake, and saying some pretty laughably dumb things along the way. But still, I'm glad that Hillary Clinton (and worse, the actual powers behind the throne) have been again kept from the levers power.

In addition, Brett Kavanaugh is, with a few exceptions, the sort of judge I would want on the court. The (in my opinion, ridiculous) decisions like using the commerce clause to justify federal government intrusion into decidedly non commercial activities, upholding the ACA as a ‘tax’ when the authors themselves explicitly argued that it wasn’t, the justification of affirmative action with a wink at the 14th amendment because “it is likely only to be necessary for a little longer.”

Finally, the timing of the release of the accusations by Senator Feinstein, and the partisan way that the Democrats have used it not as a means to get to the truth, but as a cudgel that I suspect is more to try to prevent the court from tilting too far from how they want it and less about the truth or justice for Professor Ford. I think that (Professor Ford aside) what we are seeing is pretty much unadulterated political theatre.

So, the all of the elements of the situation make me inclined to to lean towards support of Kavanaugh. Under other circumstances, I would be a strong supporter of his nomination, in fact.


What I think of President Trump's claim - that it is a 'scary time' for young men is this:

It’s rubbish. I think that it should be pointed out in the most direct words for the wrong-headed and hyperbolic cant that it is.

It’s true that, as of now, there is no solid, irrefutable proof that Professor Ford is telling the truth. It’s true that false accusations can - and do - happen. While I personally have not been accused of something falsely (in each case where someone has said I was guilty, I was as guilty as hell), I know people who have. I understand that it can happen. It has happened. It surely will happen again.

But I am roughly the same age as Judge Kavanaugh. When I was in high school, I was not in the “cool” crowd, so the sorts of parties alleged, and the sorts of behaviours described were outside of my social orbit. I never - not one single time - was invited to a house party. I never - not once- attended one.

The only "house parties" I attended were playing cards in friends' basements.

But the events that have been described, I can say with absolutely no fear of mis-remembering or exaggeration, strike me as 100 per cent believable.

If you were in high school or college as I was in the 1980s, I suspect that you know that this is true.

These parties were well known in my school - which was about as close to a middle-of-the-road American public high school as you could imagine. They were well-known even to people way down the social pecking order like me. The events were described in lurid detail. Think about the sorts of people along the “Breakfast Club” spectrum who were your classmates - the cool kids, the sport-os, the geeks, the guys who wore jeans jackets and smoked out behind the library. Can you think of one or two guys who, if it were suggested, had gotten a girl drunk and had sex with her, you would say, “Yes. I believe it?” You know damned well that you can.

So can I.

Over the weeks, I’ve seen a lot written about how, in the mid 80s. What was considered “sexual assault” is way different from what it is today. The Atlantic magazine recently published an article that drove the point home to me as clearly as it could possibly be done. It was a piece about movies of the period - focusing on "Sixteen Candles" as its device - and how getting a girl drunk and taking advantage of her was not only not sexual assault, it was funny.

There is a scene towards the end where "The Geek" gets put into a Rolls Royce with the prom queen, who is too drunk to even know who he (and likely, she) is. They end up having sex, though neither really knows for sure. It's a plot device in a classic "coming of age" movie.

A month or so ago, I got into a debate with a friend on Facebook, and stated that the movie Animal House (1978) was one that I thought (and mostly still think) is hilarious. But there are parts that have just not aged well at all. One shows a fraternity brother in his room with a girl (who turns out, in the end, to be 13) who get drunk, and then listening to a debate between an angel and a devil on his shoulder about whether to have sex with the girl. The devil actually at one point says “You’ll never get a better chance.”

The audiences laughed at the scene. I laughed at it as a 16 year old.

Just today in a discussion, someone pointed out that "Pinto" ended up listening to his angel rather than his devil, and waits until later - and in fact, when his date tells him that he "won't need" beer to "get lucky."

Great; but in the very end of the film, Bluto kidnaps Mandy Pepperidge, tosses her into a car, and drives off victorious. He is identified as "Senator Blutarsky."

The claim that it’s a scary time for young men in America just does not square with this reality.

Not at all.

“You’ll never get a better chance.”

That is really all I need to think about when considering this statement, sorry.

Are there cases where young men get falsely accused? Of course there are. People get falsely accused of crimes, which is regrettable. Is it difficult to respond to an accusation of sexual assault where it is quite literally just your word and hers. That is undeniable. The recent debacle at the University of Virginia, where a coed made up, out of whole cloth, a phony story about getting raped in a fraternity, as it turns out as part of a “catfishing” scheme is disgusting, and people who make false accusations must be held to account.

I have a 13 year old son, who is close to entering the stage of his life where dating and perhaps sexual politics become part of the ambient noise. I am not sure what I would do if he were accused falsely.

It does happen. But it is not the norm. Let’s look at the reality. Accusations of sex crimes are false in about 5% of cases according to a recent study published in the Journal of Forensic Psychology. 5 per cent is not zero, but it's not high. And it certainly is not enough to make for "scary times."

Put another way, in 1978, the mayor of San Francisco (George Moscone) and a supervisor (Harvey Milk) were killed by a disgruntled former supervisor (Dan White). It made national headlines. Was that a “scary time” to be a mayor? No. It was an outlier where one angry man with a grudge killed two other politicians. It was not “the norm.”

Should my 13 year old be "scared?" I don't think so.

Look - it is, in my opinion, incumbent on him as a “young man” to behave with decency and respect towards men and women. Part of the responsibility falls on his mother and me to show him through our own role-playing what a healthy relationship looks like, that pressuring a girl into sex or getting her drunk so that he will “never have a better chance” is just out of the question.

He should not do these things - not because he is afraid of being accused of them, but because they are wrong.

I am now 48 years old. I’ve done things in my life that I really wish I hadn’t. But I do not fear that there will be someone who will, for financial or political or personal or indeed, no reason at all, accuse me. I suspect that the only young men who do fear this are those who should be afraid.

“You’ll never get a better chance.”

No. It’s not a scary time for young men. It really isn’t.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

Image result for baseball images faceplant

As summer transitions to fall, the days are shorter and shorter (and soon, we will be returning home from work in the dark), and the kids settle back into their school routine, the inevitable real end of the seasons approaches.

Saturday is the first of September. For baseball fans, September is a key point where the pretenders (which is most of the teams) bring their minor league prospects up for the traditional cup of coffee, and the "wait til next year" chorus begins warming up.

I am a Toronto Blue Jays fan, and 2018 has been another pretty dismal season. The team has played poorly, and worse still, has a roster stocked with an admixture of non-prospects, nobodies, and has-beens. 

No; that's not really fair, their "has beens" largely never really were much to begin with (Kendrys Morales?) Losing with a roster of young players at least offers some level of excitement. One (or more) of those guys at some point might be a star on a contending team.

The 2018 Blue Jays are losing with the oldest roster in the major leagues.

So, they are going to lose more than 90 games this year; and in all likelihood, the team will actually be worse in 2019.

In March, I thought that the team would possibly be historically awful - the Blue Jays have not lost 100 games in a season in 40 years. A "hot" start (they won 13 of their first 19 games, and were briefly in first before reality came around) made that unlikely. 

So the Blue Jays will have to settle for an unremarkably poor season - the sort that Toronto fans have come to expect over the past quarter century.

But 2018 has provided something interesting that has, as far as I know, gone un-noticed.

While this Toronto team is going to go down as yet another forgettable bunch, the Baltimore Orioles of 2018 actually can reach a level of futility for the ages.

There are, of course, many ways to answer the question. Worst, cumulatively? The most losses in a single season? Winning percentage? Who finished the furthest down in the standings.

When talking about terrible teams, you almost have start with the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Phillies were the first team in all of professional sport to amass 10,000 losses, which they accomplished in 2007. But to be fair, they’ve been in the National League continuously since 1876, so of course, they have had a lot more opportunity to lose than, say, the New York Mets (born in 1962).

They Phillies have been joined by the Cubs, Pirates, and and Braves in the 10,000 loss club.

The St Louis Browns from 1901–1953 racked up a record of 3462–4554 (.431), which translates to a 162 game average of 92 losses per season. The Browns lost more than 90 games on average every season they existed. In their 53 years in St Louis, they appeared in the World Series exactly once (in 1944 during the War when man of the top players were off in the Army). Only 3 other times did they finish less than 10 games out.

The Browns were an epically horrible team - and it's worth noting, the predecessors to the Baltimore Orioles, having moved in 1953 from St Louis to Baltimore.

The Kansas City Athletics were in KC for only 13 forgettable seasons, and in that time produced no winning seasons. The “best” record they produced (1958) saw the team win 73 and lose 81 games. They still finished 19 games out of first. Four of their 13 seasons saw the team lose more than 100 games (and for half of those, the season was only 154 games long).

In terms of single-seasons, there are of course the 1962 Mets (40–120) and 2003 Detroit Tigers (43–119) have posted the most losses in a single season.

By percentage, the 1916 Philadelphia As (36–117, .235) and 1935 Boston Braves (38–115, .248) are the only two teams to lose more than 3/4 of their games in a season.

By games behind, the 1909 Braves (65), 1939 Browns (64) and 1932 Red Sox (64) have finished the  furthest out.

So what then, does that mean for the Baltimore Orioles?

In 2018, as of today (29 August) the Baltimore Orioles stand at 39–94 (.293), and 52 games behind the Red Sox. At this pace, the Orioles will finish with a record of 47–115.

47 wins and 115 losses is a terrible record, but does not pose serious risk to the records of the Mets (total losses) or Athletics (worst winning percentage). 

Projecting their position in the standings, however, over 162 games, the Orioles are on pace to end the year 63 games out of first place. They are in a position to challenge that record.

With a little bit of luck, the Baltimore Orioles in 2018 can set the major league record for most games out of first place in the modern era.

The 2018 Orioles are within reach of a season of historical importance. Baltimore fans, it seems, do have something to be cheering for.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Who? Whom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much for contrition. And for educating oneself.

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 19 April 2018

All Summer in a Day

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

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

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

Real things risk imperfection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 16 March 2018

One Tin Soldier

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

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

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

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

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

Five years later, and nothing has really changed.

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

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

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

On Quora, the question was put to me:

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

Which I hope I am not. 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So we kept quiet.

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

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

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

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

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

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