“Art can soothe, it can inspire, but it also stirs heated passions and outright protest. Why does that happen, and why in some cases but not others? That’s the subject of the new book, ‘Not Here, Not Now, Not That! Protest Over Art and Culture in America.'”

For a PBS transcript of that topic, or even a video clip, you can read Conversation: Why Do Americans Protest Art?

I was immediately struck by a parallel question of my own. In Pakistan, why do they stone the rape victim?

It seemed obvious to me that overzealous righteousness has everything to do with it: the god-given notion that we have the right to define what offends us personally as an offense to the very universe, and that we somehow then acquire the divine right to mete out retribution of our own choosing without benefit of judge, jury, trial or verdict.

They are in this country illegally; they deserve whatever we can do to them. If an official suspects a person of wrongdoing, it should be OK to detain them indefinitely without charges or a hearing. My neighbor is voting Republican; he must be a very bad person. The Jones are voting Democratic; see how they have renounced the American Way.

When we think about The Crusades, the Holocaust, Little Rock, Matthew Shepard, the Jihads or the Salem witch trials, there looms a very real sense in which the greatest evils of mankind come not from unguarded sin, but from unbridled righteousness.

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The Little Old Lady and the Dog – a Modern Parable

I have one or two friends who are fond of forwarding “loaded” jokes of the variety that, on one level, seem to be straightforward humor or truism, but with a second layer of gratuitous and purely political invective grafted on. Somehow, these unfailingly parrot the far end of the “right-wing” political party line, with which I find myself currently and profoundly disaffected. After receiving one more of those from a friend with just such a penchant for politically-hijacked “jokes,” I wrote this up and almost did a “reply-all” to chain letter and all its recipients with my own composition below attached. But, proving a point, by embarrassing my friend in front of all his other friends, is just not worth ending a 55-year friendship — even though it’s true enough that I am always in the right, whereas he is always 100% in the wrong and never has a leg to stand on. So I will just share this with you as food for thought, Dear Readers, and let it go at that.

The Little Old Lady and the Dog

There was this little old lady Gladys who went for a walk with her Yorkshire terrier. Along the way, she met her old friend Mrs. Gunderson, who said, “Why hello Gladys, how good to see you again, how are you?”

Gladys said, “I am fine, I am very glad to see you, and I do so want to tell you about my new little dog Herriot! But I must say how very upset I am about how all these Liberals are trying to wreck the country with equal this and equal that and tax the rich and spend spend spend. Land sakes, there they go again, trying force all these illegals down our throats and expecting us to like it, can you imagine? Next thing you know they’ll be wanting to marry. They’re just awful! Now just look at how they’ve ruined our school system: why, kids can’t even count change properly like we could when we were their age, not of course that I would stoop to count change out to some … some commoner! Everything we did in the day was superior to anything they’re doing today. You didn’t catch US spending all day texting and surfing the internet! And, when we wanted to make money, we’d go out out and earn it the tried-and-proven hard way, honest money every penny of it, devoting lifetimes of sheer hard work and loyal drudgery to a single at-will employer … if, of course, we didn’t marry into the right circles soon enough – my dear, how is that husband of yours doing in what, that clerical position of his? You do look a little harried today! No no, you didn’t catch any of us growing so-called “startups,” they call them now, peddling IPO’s while still in their teen years, and retiring as billionaires in their mid-twenties! And they’re all these damn Nancy Pelosi Liberals, you know, every single last one of them, who will try to twist the conversation around into the Environment when all we’re discussing is how to make a $20 profit on a truckload of old-growth redwood. They’ll take a simple innocent declarative sentence like this one and embroider and embellish it until it sounds like Al Gore’s Sermon on the Mount! Who the blazes do they think they are? They act like they’re so high-falutin’ SUPERIOR when in fact you or I have more superiority in our little fingers than they have in their amply fat Burger King rear ends, my dear! And, let me tell you another thing, they complain like crazy when we try to tell our side, the real truth of the story, and they LAUGH at us like we’re demented old coots when we try to warn them of the many evils of their godless ways. If there’s one thing I just don’t like, it’s their little smug, defamatory, self-righteously hostile attitudes. If the misbegotten little shits can’t be forced to listen to reason, why don’t they all go back where they came from?”

Mrs. Gunderson said, “Why my dear Gladys, this is all well and fine, I’m sure! But what about your darling little Yorkie?”

Gladys said, “Oh, Mrs. Gunderson, my goodness, he’s not important; he’s just along for the walk — don’t you see, dear? The important thing is for us to be ready to take any conversation, situation or scenario and turn it into a venue for righteous political agenda.

©Alexander Forbes and www.summitlake.com December 7, 2011
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Politically Strange Weather Year

It’s raining here right now. No, not drizzle – you can hear the rain dripping off the eaves. Shhhhh, the National Weather Service web page doesn’t know about this yet. For my area, they’re forecasting an iffy 30% chance of rain tomorrow, and patchy fog today. But what’s the forecast for the next 10 years, or 100?

Today, maybe we’ll get enough of the wet stuff I won’t have to water. The American Southwest could use more of this stuff. According to a randomly selected chart, “Cool-season Precipitation in the Southwestern USA since AD 1000“, precipitation follows a roughly 10-year cycle and (alarmingly) we are nearing a peak of a good cycle.  The paper is posted by  the University of Arizona (tree ring research), and copyright by the Royal Meteorological Society.
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  • Site Outage Reminder: our web host provider is taking our site offline for a four-hour outage, sometime Sunday evening or the early hours of Monday morning.
  • Gasoline Taxes: according to the American Petroleum Institute, Californians pay the highest gasoline tax per gallon of any state in the nation, above even Hawaii and New York. In cents per gallon (selected states):  CA- 48.6, HI-45.1, ME-31.0, MA-23.5, AZ-19.0, MO-17.3, WYO-14.0.
  • Due Diligence: There’s a reason why professional pollsters don’t hire drunks in internet chat rooms to conduct their polls. The next time you receive an e-mail poll, petition or “statement”, you can certainly chuck it into the junk mail or trash. But what if you think you approve? Unless you make a habit of doing everything others tell you to do, don’t just “SEND THIS ON TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW”. Research it yourself. Are the claims true? To debunk urban myths,  www.snopes.com is a good place to start. Don’t embarrass yourself by unwittingly forwarding internet trash mail!
  • Dark matter: Yep, astrophysicists think the Hubble Space Telescope has photographed it, and they think they know what it may be. You’ve seen photos of those squiggly lines in “bubble chambers” – the impact area of high energy particle colliders, cyclotrons and atom-smashers? This high-energy shower of subatomic sparks doesn’t just evaporate. Accumulated over the 13.7 billion year lifespan of our universe, from all of the collisions and supernovas that ever existed, we may have found the “smoking gun” responsible for an expanding universe.

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Ads We Can Do Without

Wearily, I takes up arms once more against obnoxious ads that grate the nerves and offend our sensibilities. This could be a longer compendium, but it is all I can stand. Here are some advertisement categories that ought to be taken out and shot:

  • Any ad containing expert testimonials from an animated cartoon character (“Mr. Opportunity”)
  • Any fly-by-night legal service ad that preys on tax and mortgage debt insecurity with exaggerated claims and anonymous testmonials (Binder & Binder, TaxMaster)
  • US Fidelis, the scam artists who used to flood the nations’ telephones with recorded messages “This may be your last chance …”. But it wasn’t; now it’s Rusty and his racing team. They want you to insure your old clunker for auto repairs. Don’t do it. Google these folks instead.

If we’re half as stupid as the ad executives seem to think we are, we’re all in deep doo-doo.

I always hit the “mute” button on the US Fidelis ad. The mere mention of them overloaded my circuits. I can’t think of any more items for the list right now.

One more thought: as contemptible as the ad execs are, it’s not helpful to complain about the smell when one has just stepped into a fresh cow pie. What I want to know is, how do the broadcasting execs live with themselves? How can stations take pride in 45 minutes of carefully crafted broadcast time when it must share that time with 15 recorded minutes  of the trots?

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Grammar Police: The Endangered Species

Corporate memo Last I heard, the plural of “holiday” is “holidays”, right? When I saw this in a Human Resources document released this afternoon at work, I at first assumed it was written and published in our local office. But, checking “Properties” for the document, I found it was indeed published by Corporate.

In the bad old days before the internet, people still misspelled words and made grammar errors, but it was generally on the harder words, like the old gag about that note from home: “Please excuse Johnny from school yesterday he was sick on account of diahh dire diarrr the shits.”

It’s my own observation that spelling and grammar have gotten much worst since the internet and e-mail because a misspelling can be propagated by a single individual to the entire group without editorial intervention, and because very often that misspelling is conscientiously imitated by peers like any other new fad.

You can see it spread around an office like the flu. One individual misspells the verb “lose” as “loose” (a spell-checker will not catch that), as in “if you do not use all your float days in a year, you will loose them”. Soon, everybody is doing it, and then you start seeing it on the internet forums.

Nowadays, with the informality of the internet and e-mail, almost any sloppiness is understood and excused. Never mind that the personal computer has now been with us for over a quarter of a century. If a document is illegible, it may still be perfectly true that the writer simply didn’t give a rat, but the computer gets the blame.

Not surprisingly, the individual most likely to initiate a new wave of mis-spelling is already, at least electronically speaking, an authority figure: a manager or executive at work, or the owner of a mailing list. It is not surprising that a manager would have less to fear from propagating a simple spelling mistake (outside the publishing business, that is). The rank-and-file person is more likely to have someone in the know monitoring the mailing lists and cc lines, but in actual practice the authority figure will save the “bigger hammer” for more serious infractions, like my own usage of the vernacular “the shits” above, where “diarrhea” is expected.

Ever office have an employee who believe’s that the plural’s of every word deserve’s an apostrophe, and sometime’s any other word ending in ‘s’ (or sounding like it might) deserve’s one too in most of his her’s there sentence’s. One cannot be too careful.

I am not going to expand the discussion to cover common internet infractions because most of them are all too obvious. We have seen the last of most of the old-schoolers who typed in ALL CAPS, but now we also have those who make a point of showing how busy they are by typing in all lower case with minimal punctuation.

So what?

I myself am of mixed emotions on this point. While it’s beyond me to understand why we should get sucked into the trap of becoming everybody’s surrogate fifth-grade grammar cop, it boggles my mind how many people actually expect to be taken seriously when their written presentations of ideas (and even their resumés) look like the contents of a street person’s shopping cart.

Mind you, I am not talking about the person or the letter that contains the occasional typo. I’m not even talking about the person who isn’t really a very good speller (and just never will be) and doesn’t spell-check. I’m talking about the person whose compositions are so systematically infested with corruptions of standard English that they are confusing and distracting, difficult to read, and a real challenge to interpret for actual content.

We needn’t go back to the old “take a letter Miss Johnson” days where one typo was enough to require re-typing the whole letter — and this, before word processing. There is a very good reason why all of us type our own business and personal letters today: the cost of labor. Miss Johnson, bless her, is retired, reading this article now, and still laughing at all the highly-compensated careers she saved by being a little sharper, and a little more educated in the written word, than her employers.

And there’s nobody to replace her, and never again will there be. We’re on our own now.

In the long run, I suppose we might revert to pre-ninteenth century English where a word’s spelling and placement in the sentence was determined largly by the whim of the person able to read, write and afford a pen, quill nib, and ink (not to mention the expense of the paper). It might not be so bad. Shakespeare managed quite well – but then you could probably make a case that his influence helped standardize the spellings and usages he employed.

Just spare us the few people who need to be excused from school because their self-editing skills are the – well, you know.

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Schrödinger’s Cat and Less Famous Felines

  • Amazing science, heard on the ra-didio the other day: folks with insomnia, and others who subsist on too few hours of sleep each night, tend to put on the pounds – compared to skinnier counterparts who get in their traditional eight hours a night. What about the obvious fact that “fat cat” sleeper A is presumably eating or snacking an extra couple of hours or so every day, compared to sleeper B, who by definition is fasting? The radio report just didn’t say.
  • The December Scientific American did a bit on Hugh Everett, who first (and controversially) proposed that the split between quantum physics and classical physics was needless. In the quantum world, the mathematical position of a particle in space and time may have either of one or two states, depending on its interaction with an observer. Superposed particle waves might be said to exist in two states at once. In the classical “macro” world that we know, an object may be at position A, or B, but never both at the same time.
  • You may think this pure twaddle, but as it turns out that math of the quantum world works beautifully, while the math of the classical world falls flat, in describing and predicting actual experimental quantum results. Everett’s way to reconcile this monstrous theoretical contradiction was to postulate alternative universes, where both macro states exist at the same time, but in parallel and diverging worlds. For this effort, Everett was theoretically lynched in absentia by the scientific community.
  • After being egged on by Albert Einstein, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger hatched up his famous Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment. A geiger counter is rigged to detect the decay of a subatomic particle. If the particle decays, the geiger counter triggers release of a poison gas, which kills the cat. If the particle doesn’t decay, the cat lives. But, if in the quantum world we have to entertain the possibility of a particle in two different states at once, don’t we have to admit to the possibility of a dead-and-alive cat existing in both possible states at once?
  • My brother (who is neither as famous as Schrödinger or Einstein singularly, nor as both at the same time) was grudgingly adopted by a stray cat sometime in the 1980’s. People would say, “Oh, what a beautiful cat you have! What’s its name?” My brother would answer, “That’s not my cat”. They would say, “Yes, but what is the name of the cat?” And he would answer, “That’s not my cat“, for that indeed turned out to be the name of the cat.
  • As mean and hurtful as it sounds, there’s still more than one way to skin a cat (but not my cat). Happily, unless your cat is about the size of a subatomic particle, it can still only be skinned, so to speak, one way at a time.

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In Praise of BiC

I’ve spent more time recently noticing and thinking about the increasing invasiveness and irritability factor of corporate marketing in the USA. Proctor and Gamble spent $2.5 billion on television advertising last year. Is it possible U.S. consumers spent $2.5 billion too much on P&G consumer products last year? The ads themselves are insultingly mindless, but we pay for them again when we buy that box of laundry detergent.

Do companies that own a market share think they own the consumer, too? They act that way. The advertising cartels are killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

Their in-your-face tactics compete for our attentions and business in an increasingly busy and over-crowded consumer marketing landscape. Obnoxious TV ads for fast foods and financial services generally come close to the top my personal hit list. Annoying radio spots for loan companies and car dealerships have to weigh in a close second. Worst of all, unfortunately, are the pervasive spam and uninvited near-spam marketing messages that flood our mailboxes and web pages with hideous messages on the internet.

And it doesn’t stop when you click “MARK AS SPAM”, jump to a new website, or throw the junk mail in the shredder. If you carry a credit card, or recently bought a home appliance, or had your car serviced, you’re marked as a target for even more unwelcome solicitations. I am still getting regular mailings, disguised as “Official” mail, to remind me I didn’t buy the extended warranty on my Maytag dryer, two years ago.

So let us sing the praises of BiC.

BiC products always work, but never intrude.

For some reason I always thought “BiC” stood for “British Industries”, but Societe Bic is actually French, a contraction of the name of founder Marcel Bich, circa 1945. As you know, BiC makes disposable lighters, ballpoint pens, and a number of other indispensable but low-profile consumer items which, over the decades, have generally eclipsed the competition. BiC products are simple, cheap, and work exceptionally well.

BiC has its own website, and an entry on BiC can be found in Wikipedia. Every company has to have its own web page today. Unsurprisingly, BiC’s is relatively tasteful and informative.

Given my attraction to presentation-grade personal accessories, my loyalty to BiC is even more telling.

I have always had a compulsive weakness for really nice pens. Over the years, I’ve accumulated some stunning fountain pens and gift-set executive ball points. I gave up on fountain pens decades ago, after one ruined dress shirt too many. The ballpoints all sit in desk drawers, as beautiful as the day they came out of the gift box — and out if ink. If you’d have thought that Parker Pen and Cross might standardize the refills, even for self-survival, you’d be wrong.

I buy BiC ballpoints by the dozen. They write so well and last so long that a package lasts until next Christmas, when I buy new stocking stuffers. I ran a BiC through the washing machine the other day. It didn’t leak, but the cap was glued on, by what, I didn’t want to find out. I just threw it out, grabbing another cheap, reliable, disposable, ubiquitous BiC.

I’ve had an affection for Zippo lighters for decades, too. They always run out of fuel when I’m nowhere near a can of lighter fluid. If you overfill a Zippo, you risk a nasty chemical burn from raw Naptha, usually on your leg underneath the pants pocket. You have to remember to pack spare flints under the cotton batting inside the case. The fumes don’t smell great either. And, if you forget and have one confiscated at the airport, you’re out a fair chunk of money. Again, I carry BiC. The presentation-grade table lighter is also another one of those same cheap, reliable, disposable, ubiquitous BiC’s.

Others have tried to copy the BiC formula. Other brands of cheap ballpoints generally don’t write well, or for very long. And personally, I find other disposable lighters, even Scripto, to be pretty awful, awkward, unreliable inventions.

I suppose BiC advertises – their web site says they do. But I haven’t really noticed a BiC ad in decades. “Flick your BiC” (circa 1973) is all I need to remember, and it’s a slogan nobody is likely to forget. I like it like that, and I’m sure my loyalty has something to do with recognizing a company that seems to support my right not to be hounded when I buy a product or service.

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Today’s Special: Positive Spins & Pyrrhic Victories

I was going to use today’s space to crow about the elections, but an inconsequential incident at the Deli led to this article instead.

Bad news is bad enough, but popular trends toward imparting dashed expectations with a “positive spin” seem now to be the rule, rather than the exception, an art form if you will, and all the more obnoxious for their in-your-face obviousness. The formula is: sure, this news is bad, but we’re going to explain why you will actually like it (delivered with the practiced smile that assures you’re the perfect idiot for even asking).

The public may not appreciate being patronized, but we’re already used to this treatment in a business or political context.

  • Yes, the job cuts will be painful, but the health and the future of the company will be assured (and so will the new BMW’s in the parking lot)
  • Prices and rates are going up, and services will be curtailed, but that’s the price we pay to be competitive in the global economy (and fund the stock options, perks and golden parachutes)
  • Nobody likes war, but Real Americans know that freedom requires sacrifice (for example your son or daughter, the health of the economy for the next 30 years, and your best shot at a liveable retirement income).

Earlier generations knew this kind of good news as the Pyrrhic Victory – “the victory which comes at a devastating cost to the victor”?(Wikipedia).

Our company used to have a Human Resources department, and if you had questions you would go to that person and ask your question. How old-fashioned! Nobody’s actually said whether we’ve outsourced or just automated the “Human” our of HR, but now we have web pages for everything. If you ask a question today, the answer will be delivered brightly, and with a smile, by any executive fielding it: “Oh, all you have to do now is go to the web site and you’ll find all the answers there!”

So, what exactly do we need the humans for?

At our Deli this morning, I saw the sign that said “Today’s Special: one tamale and salad, $6.50”. This sounded great to me, as I’m tired of egg salad sandwiches and was looking forward to something really different today. So, I asked for Today’s Special.

“Oh!” they said, “It’s not ready yet!”

OK. I can handle that. It’s happened before. I started trying to decide on an appetizing substitute. But it gets better.

One employee cheerfully started explaining how, yes, they know I come in early, so I always like to eat early, but most customers don’t eat lunch for another hour (it was 11AM), and if they prepared the Special for serving now, then it would be all spoiled for most of their customers! Horrors!

I just can’t recall the last time I was told so masterfully, and so cheerfully, that it was somehow my fault for trying to buy a featured offering.

Mind you, I was the only customer in the Deli, but any fool could see everybody was pretty busy preparing for when the customers come in.

As Woody in “Cheers” once said, I saw it right away. They didn’t have the advertised Special. There was nothing anybody could do about that. They returned to their chores, assured that I could now grasp that I simply needed time alone to think of something more reasonable.

I’m on pretty good speaking terms with everybody at the Deli, so I handled it this way. “OK”, I said, “perhaps we can try another day, then.”

And I walked down the block to the next Deli, which is not as convenient, but where they are always glad to see me, they always have a great selection of fresh ingredients and home-cooked entrees, and they always genuinely appreciate my business.

It’s not about punishing folks whose business needs don’t always play nicely with ours. After all my years in Retail, you’d think I’d be pretty good at helping businesses that stumble when they should be closing the sale. But, the truth is, I think it’s really all about rewarding those who help me get what I want when I’m ready to buy it.

We can further condense that syllogism down to globally universal terms: no matter what kind of a positive spin is put on failure, people are happy when they get what they want.

So maybe I am crowing about the elections, after all. When you ask for the Special, don’t settle for a speech and an egg salad sandwich.

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“Toast to Thoughtlessness”

“Why are so many airline passengers unable to board a plane, quickly store their carry-ons and just sit the hell down? From San Francisco International to Heathrow to Narita, these people apparently believe that once they’re arrived in the general proximity of their seats, all the other passengers waiting behind them cease to exist.” — John Flinn, Travel editor, San Francisco Chronicle

Hell, John, where have you been? Passengeria stupida abound in every situation and walk of life. What about:

  • The SUV’s doing 55 mph in the fast lane, with hundreds of drivers piled up behind, and hundreds of yards of clear lane ahead, sporting their “I’ve got mine” bumper stickers?
  • The supermarket shoppers who park their cart in the middle of the aisle, carefully positioned next to another cart or pile of boxes on the left, while browsing vapidly on the right? No one can get around them, yet they are dead to the world outside and around them.
  • The deli customer who doesn’t study the menu on the wall for the ten minutes we are all waiting in line to order our sandwiches, who then proceeds to entertain the whole deli with pontifications about what they think they might like to choose from today, and, finally, announces that they forgot their purse or wallet.
  • Most historians consider the outbreak of World War I to have started with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. What they won’t tell us: “the war to end all wars” was really precipitated by a thoughtless deli customer in Sarajevo.

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