Friday, March 22, 2019

Prescription: Sample Your Wares

Bookstores are among my favorite businesses on the planet. One of the neat things that's been happening in the last few years is the survival and strengthening of the independent bookstore. Endangered and dying in the 1990s because of giants like Border's and Barnes and Noble, the independent store watched the megabox domination crumble when pushed up against Amazon. A well-run bookstore is one of my most-loved places to be, and one where I can easily waste more hours in a day than is good for my punctuality.

But sometimes they're stupid, such as the Whitcoulls chain in New Zealand. In the aftermath of the horrible massacre in Christchurch, the chain has pulled from its shelves the book 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson.

Peterson is a Canadian professor who has gained a significant following with his no-nonsense approach to what can seem to be a crazy modern world. He's gotten flack for refusing to use people's preferred pronouns when addressing them if those pronouns contrast with their obvious gender. In 12 Rules, he offers some common-sense ways for people to help reduce stress in their own lives and make them better people for themselves as well as those around them. A self-declared agnostic, Peterson has no real problem with those who adapt his rules to fit a more religious way of life even though he doesn't really frame them that way. He is not known for any public stance on Islam or its practitioners. The book itself does not address Islam or argue against it.

Current speculation is that someone in the chain saw a picture of Peterson hugging a fan, who was wearing a T-shirt that said, "I am an Islamophobe." Because of this, it's thought, the chain feared he might be linked to anti-Muslim sentiment. We don't know, because Whitcoulls isn't talking.

We do know, however, that among the books still on their shelves and available for online ordering is a book called My Struggle, written while the author was in prison for treason. Published in 1925, you would probably know it better by its title in the author's native German language: Mein Kampf.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Not Humdrum

"Drone" as a sound describes a constant noise, sort of in the background and unchanging. Drone photography, on the other hand, is anything but unchanging and in the background. This page at Bored Panda shows the top 25 pics in an international drone photography contest, showing what kind of amazing images are available when shooting angles and such aren't limited by clumsy old human beings.

At least a couple of the drones seem to have traveled a little ways more distant than intended. Number four gives the definite impression of being taken on another world, while numbers two and five were obviously taken somewhere in Middle-Earth.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Scandal Revisited

A century ago, several of the Chicago White Sox took money to throw the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. Thanks to a pretty good movie made from Eliot Asinof's 1963 book Eight Men Out, most folks today think they have the facts of the story down. But as the Society for American Baseball Research shows at the linked page, there are many things about which someone could say, "Say it ain't so" and be reassured that it was indeed not so.

Both the book and the 1988 John Sayles movie exaggerate some facts, make up some others and straight-out whiff on still more. This appendix offers a more extensive list of the errors, and the SABR folks include links to several articles and more extensive research to document their charges of error.

The truth, of course, is that the broken-open scandal, representing what was at the time just part of the overall gambling problem baseball faced, could have wrecked Major League Baseball. Although owners tried to coast a little through the 1920 season they eventually realized they had to clean things up. If you can't trust the score, why watch the game? Under Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first commissioner of baseball, the leagues took care of the first step they needed to clean up their game. They would not take the next step until the Brooklyn Dodgers started Jackie Robinson at first base in 1947. Although Landis had many opportunities to link his name with that historic step he never did, and left it as a credit to Happy Chandler and Branch Rickey.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019


Economist Don Boudreaux uses a metaphor about balls and strikes to describe the operation of the free market, suggesting that in a truly free market the consumer makes certain pitches "hits" by swinging at them and others "balls" by not swinging at them. The seller, or pitcher, can claim something should have been a strike, but from the point of view of the batter, if it had been a strike then he would have swung on it.

The point is a pretty good one and I'm rarely averse to a succinct explanation of the way the free market works, but my favorite piece of the post is the quote that Boudreaux lifts from a 2007 George Will column about a young pitcher facing St. Louis Cardinals great Rogers Hornsby:
"Rogers Hornsby, who averaged .400 over five years, was facing a rookie pitcher who threw three pitches that he thought were strikes but that the umpire called balls. The rookie shouted a complaint to the umpire, who replied: 'Young man, when you throw a strike, Mr. Hornsby will let you know.'''

Monday, March 18, 2019

Layers of Duh

The dumb website Buzzfeed has published an opinion column by two college students who confronted Chelsea Clinton when she attended a vigil for victims of the mosque massacres in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Now, Buzzfeed is not dumb for publishing the piece -- they were dumb before and they would still be dumb if they didn't give the two women space for their thoughts. They've drawn some heat for doing so but I personally don't mind all that much. For one, it's Buzzfeed. It's not like they've got a reputation to uphold. For another, my thinking on stuff like this follows the old joke that says liberals want conservatives to shut up, but conservatives want liberals to keep talking. Why?

Well, for one it's the whole freedom of speech thing. My experience is that free speech is not a conservative value, but as more and more folks on the left buy into Herbert Marcuse's bushwa about "repressive tolerance," you might begin to worry. I may just be fortunate to know smart and principled liberals who have limited their mistakes to accepting my friendship, but I think most folks accept some notion that one's political leanings or point of view don't remove them from the umbrella of the first amendment. The ones that don't are just louder.

For another, as soon as some folks -- like the two women who confronted Ms. Clinton -- start explaining themselves, they do more damage to any idea they're supposed to be supporting than any opponent ever could. What happened was that Ms. Clinton attended a vigil Friday night for those killed in last week's massacre. While she was there, the two women confronted her angrily, one filming while the other blamed the massacre on feelings stirred up by the former first daughter's tweets criticizing Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar's anti-Semitic remarks. That single tweet, one woman alleged, caused the atmosphere that led to the massacre.

Now if this idea doesn't sound whackadoodle to you from the start, then head over to Buzzfeed and read the elaboration. Are there potential grounds to believe Ms. Clinton was being an opportunist by attending the vigil? Sure -- she is, after all, a Clinton. But on the other hand she's also a person and may have thought a good way to show solidarity with Muslims following this tragedy was to support the vigil. Are there potential grounds for believing her single tweet saying that anti-Semitism from elected leaders is bad helped spur the massacre in New Zealand? No, not on this planet.

When confronted, the pregnant Ms. Clinton said she was sorry that the students felt that way about what she had tweeted. Others shouted out, "What does that mean?" I can't read her mind, but when I use those words I usually mean, "This is a bad time for me to point out you just said something exceedingly stupid."

In the Buzzfeed article, the women attempt to explain both the reasoning behind their point of view and their actions, ignoring another old saying: When you're explaining, you're losing. We could refine it: When you're explaining why you got in the face of a pregnant woman at a prayer vigil, you are most definitely losing. If you need another sign you've erred, realize your actions caused this headline: "Trump defends Clinton," as Donald Trump, Jr., said Ms. Clinton was the wronged party in this exchange.

The smart thing to do is to say something like, "I was angry and lashed out in a way I wouldn't have otherwise. I'd welcome the chance to meet with her sometime to talk about what I was trying to say." The dumb thing is to let a clickbait factory like Buzzfeed take advantage of your youth by letting you try to explain yourself -- not because they really care about what you believe, but because they care about the traffic you will generate.

In the end, it seems like the thing to do is to paraphrase Zed from Men in Black: "Congratulations! You're everything we've come to expect from years of modern undergraduate education."

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Lucky Day

Hope everyone had a fun day pretending to be Irish!

By the way, did you ever notice how people are more than happy to down a pint of stout to celebrate the patron saint of Ireland, but seem really averse to the idea of a plateful of haggis on St. Andrew's Day?

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The (Welcome?) End of an Era

Over at The Federalist, New Yorker and theater manager David Marcus muses on the death of the last "Golden Age" Mafia don, Carmine Persico. With Persico's death, Marcus says, the last of the so-called "Five Families" crimelords is gone, and so too may be the romanticized view of organized crime that's been part and parcel of American popular culture since the early 1970s.

Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather is an amazing movie, but the same pop culture that never digs deeply enough to see the real meaning of anything failed to appreciate what it actually showed. It picked up the swagger of lines like, "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli" or supposed crime family phrases such as "sleeps with the fishes" to represent the death and watery disposal of an unfortunate soldier.

But the pop references missed the way that Al Pacino's Michael Corleone slowly loses the humanity and life he began the movie with, as he becomes more and more involved in the illegal work of his father's organization. Animated and lively as the movie begins, his face and manner slowly ossify over its arc until he can stand in front of a priest and repeat the baptismal formula for his infant nephew while men acting on his command murder his enemies and at least one innocent bystander.

Though it's roundly criticized and definitely flawed, Godfather Part III shows the ultimate end of these choices: Michael howling as he holds his dead daughter in his arms, shot by an assassin sent for him, and then dying many years later, alone.

The romantic vision of daring outlaws and colorful characters penetrated entertainment culture until it became the preferred way of processing stories about these awful people. We bust out another Pacino line, "Say hello to my little frien'!" overlooking how Scarface's Tony Montana had just shot his new brother-in-law and best friend in a cocaine-soaked rage, and put his sister Gina in the path of men who want to kill him.

Marcus talks about how the diffusion of the Italian ethnic identity, both geographically and ethnically, has combined with crime bosses who like not being in the papers to leave no successors to the real life godfathers and made men from the Mafia's heyday. It wouldn't be the worst thing if we had one less reason to think better of the people who flaunt the law rather than those who tried to obey it.