Speaking of Flight (Or, Life in the Suburbs)

Posted on April 24th, 2014 in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

Here on Usonia Road, I recently put up a bird feeder. It looks like a little red house with a silver top and a platform on the front, like a front step, where the birds feed.

Uncool, maybe, but actually, kinda cool. It’s the easiest way to see a diversity of wildlife just outside your window that I can think of short of moving to a ground floor apartment in the East Village. Right now, for example, as I type, I’m watching what appears to be a fight between a male cardinal and a significantly larger blue jay, with the cardinal pursuing the jay through the rhododendron tree that flanks the bird feeder. Why is that happening? I have no idea. But it’s pretty dramatic, I can assure you.

I get up pretty early, and watch the birds as the sun comes up—it’s when they’re most active. Yesterday morning between 5:30 and 7:15 I saw countless sparrows and chickadees and tufted titmouses, a pair of cardinals, any number of jays, a red bellied woodpecker (he’s a recurring visitor, and astonishingly beautiful), and a wild turkey. Okay, that wasn’t at the bird feeder; he was crossing the road by my driveway.

Maybe this is middle age speaking, but…it’s wonderful.

The jay and the cardinal are still fighting….

red_bellied_woodpecker_11
(A red bellied woodpecker, not the one in question)

I’m Coining a Phrase: Tech Flight

Posted on April 24th, 2014 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

Yesterday the Mets pitcher Matt Harvey announced that he was giving up Twitter after his team scolded him for posting a picture of himself making an obscene gesture. (What do you expect? He’s a Met.) The University of South Florida has asked its graduating students to stop taking selfies while accepting their diplomas. Perhaps the most enthusiastic supporter of Google Glass has just announced that he’s giving it up. And one of the world’s smartest hedge fund managers, David Einhorn, has just declared that he sees another tech bubble due to an irrational support for “cool kid” stocks.

Tech Flight: The phenomenon of adopting a new tech fad for a brief time, then realizing that it really doesn’t make your life more meaningful or better, and giving it up.

Of course, there are plenty of trends in the opposite direction. More than not, I would imagine. Facebooks’ profits tripled in the last quarter! (But does anyone really get excited about Facebook anymore! I check it by habit, but find it less and less interesting.)

What I’m suggesting is that we come to a more nuanced cultural understanding of tech innovation in which we don’t automatically assume the universal adoption of some new digital platform or innovation, with attendant panic about everything else. For example: Yes, some forms of journalism will work well online; no, not all forms of print will go extinct. Yes, Twitter will be useful for some things. No, there’s no particular reason for most people to Tweet.

And so on.

The real tech bubble that we need to pop here is not so much the stocks; a lot of the stocks in question aren’t widely held by retail investors, and if they did plummet, the economic impact would be much more limited than in 2000.

The bubble we need to pop is actually the mindless genuflecting toward the cultural power of Silicon Valley 20-somethings. As smart as these guys are, most of them can’t speak another language, have never read a poem or studied a painting, don’t know anything about faith, and just aren’t very mature—for all their technical skill, their understanding of the world is limited. (Binary, you might say.) And yet, we have afforded them a kind of cultural hegemony solely because they work in a field that most of us don’t understand and make huge sums of money doing so.

Tech flight: It’s a real thing, in my opinion, and it’s going to get more widespread. Not that people will become Luddites, mind you. But they’ll feel increasingly comfortable with picking and choosing what tech advances they want to participate in, and not worrying so much about the rest. “You know what? it’s okay if I don’t give a damn about Pinterest.” We have lives to lead, and they won’t always revolve around our interactions with smartphones and computers.

Now, if only we could do something abut those people who walk down the street and text at the same time….

The South Is Really Getting Scary

Posted on April 24th, 2014 in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

Do you ever feel alienated from large parts of the country? Reading about how radically conservative the South is becoming, I do. In Georgia yesterday, the governor signed into law a bill allowing people to carry guns into schools and airports. The governor of Mississippi just signed a law banning abortions after 20 weeks, with no exception for rape or incest. But truth be told, the law probably won’t make a huge difference: There’s only one abortion clinic in Mississippi anyway. Across the South, most Southerners “loathe” Obamacare, even as they think that their state’s health care exchange is working well. And all the time, the South is only becoming more racist; there’s barely a white person in the region who can bring him or herself to say a kind word about President Obama. The whole area is starting to feel like Dallas on November 21st, 1963—a place defined by fear and hate.

This is, funnily enough, not a good thing for the Republican Party, as there aren’t enough Southern racists to elect a president, but there are enough to stop a Republican moderate from getting the GOP nomination. But that’s bad for the country. The Republican Party should be a healthy political force, rather than a toxic one.

I’ve searched for some good explanations why the South has become even more conservative during the past, say, six years. My suspicion is that it’s a reaction against having an African-American president, but it must be more than that, too. Or is that last part just wishful thinking?

And the Rivalry Heats Up

Posted on April 24th, 2014 in Uncategorized | 11 Comments »

It was a good game for the Sox last night, and a ridiculous one for the Yankees, marred by Michael Pineda’s bizarre decision to slap a huge wad of pine tar on his neck. By contrast, Boston’s John Lackey pitched a great game. Credit where it’s due, and as to Pineda, I suppose it’s a reminder that athletes aren’t always the sharpest knives in the drawer.

The Red Sox Get Crushed

Posted on April 23rd, 2014 in Uncategorized | 19 Comments »

It’s a long season…but the Yankees have already beat the Red Sox four times, as opposed to just six in 2012. This is very exciting, and also just plain good All-American fun.

Last night’s game was particularly satisfying: outstanding pitching from Masahiro Tanaka, fine hitting by Jacoby Ellsbury, Derek Jeter extended his ten-game hitting streak, and a pathetic, embarrassing outing by Sox “ace” John Lester.

Of course, only about 12 percent of the season has been played, and things could change: Ivan Nova’s season- (career?) ending injury doesn’t help, and the Yankees are pretty thin in the infield. But any patriotic American has to be pleased with the way things are going so far.

What Elizabeth Warren Says About Larry Summers

Posted on April 17th, 2014 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

The New Yorker’s review of Elizabeth Warren’s new autobiography, A Fighting Chance, contains this anecdote:

In 2008, Warren joined a five-person congressional-oversight panel whose creation was mandated by the seven-hundred-billion-dollar bailout. She found that thrilling and maddening, too. In the spring of 2009, after the panel issued its third report, critical of the bailout, Larry Summers took Warren out to dinner in Washington and, she recalls, told her that she had a choice. to make. She could be an insider or an outsider, but if she was going to be an insider she needed to understand one unbreakable rule about insiders: “They don’t criticize other insiders.” That’s about when Warren went on the Jon Stewart show, and you get the sense that, over that dinner, she decided to run for office.

Fascinating, don’t you think? I love the fact that, in the most arrogant and patronizing of ways, Summers tried to teach the woman how the world works—which inspired the woman to go out and do something that made her considerably more powerful than Summers, and also ensured that she would oppose his nomination to replace Ben Bernanke at the Fed should that ever have happened.

This is why, when people so routinely and unthinkingly characterize Summers as “brilliant,” I generally demur: This is the most ham-handed and boneheaded of power plays. And while you can’t say for sure that Summers felt comfortable engaging in it because of Warren’s gender—it’s possible Summers would be just as arrogant with a man—it’s hard not to think that gender played some role here. Another reason why I am unconvinced of Summers’ all-around brilliance: Did he learn nothing from the women-in-science fiasco?

And one final point on insiders versus outsiders: I expect that Summers’ insight is correct, but what a noxious modus vivendi!

In this particular instance, Summers appears to be suggesting that Warren should shut up cease her criticism of a hugely important, $700 billion program…in order to maintain her status as an insider.

Makes you wonder what public goods Summers has bartered in order to do the same.

Are Sox Fans Getting Worried?

Posted on April 13th, 2014 in Uncategorized | 12 Comments »

Judging from the comments below, I’d say so. You guys are touchy!

Let me give Chris, who asks why I continue to harp on David Ortiz’s steroid use, a serious answer.

Chris says, “Your steroid fixation with Ortiz is getting old. Why don’t you focus on guys who really used them—Afraud, Clemens, Pettite [sic]…”

Afraud? I’d go with Aroid, but that’s just me.

In any case, the answer is this.

Pettite says he used steroids once to come back from an injury, and nobody really seems to argue that; Clemens is a former Red Sox, so you know where that trouble started (and besides, he’s out of baseball); and A-Rod, well, I still think there’s more to that story. How A-Rod became the most hated man in baseball, I’m still not sure I understand.

But what bothers me, Chris, is the double standard here. Sox fans go ballistic about A-Rod, what a terrible guy he is and all that. Hell, if you polled Sox fans, I’ll bet at least 50 percent would approve of Ryan Dempster deliberately throwing at Rodriguez multiple times. Just because, you know, he used steroids.

But out of all the players we’ve mentioned here, the only one who’s actually failed a drug test is David Ortiz. And Ortiz’s ridiculous numbers, both in the mid 2000s, the height of the steroid era, and more recently certainly suggest that he was/is a ‘roid user. From 2004-2006 Ortiz drove in 424 RBIs and hit 142 home runs, or about 47 a season. There’s no way those are not artificially inflated numbers.

And, Chris, the three other players you mention are out of baseball, at least for now. Ortiz is still playing. And, possibly, still using. Let’s be honest, last year was weird.

Yet Sox fans give Ortiz a pass. They don’t want to know. And the main reason they don’t want to admit it is because they’d have to admit that their World Series victories in 2004 and, very likely, 2007 are completely tainted.

Hey, I don’t blame you. That’s a tough thing to come to terms with, given how important those championships were to the Sox. And Ortiz is an immensely likable guy who’d probably be a very good hitter even without steroids. Just not the monster hitter that he was.

Alex Rodriguez, however, is not a likable guy. By almost all accounts, he’s an insufferable jerk. (I say “almost” because I know someone who knows him and swears A-Rod is just misunderstood.)

So Ortiz gets a pass, while A-Rod gets ostracized and thrown at—when they both did the same thing.

That’s not right. That’s high school mentality. We let the cool guy off the hook and pick on the unpopular one. Because we can’t admit Ortiz’s transgressions, we’re just going to pile on A-Rod that much more. To prove to ourselves that, no, really, we take this steroid stuff seriously. There’s no place for it in baseball!

Except when it was the foundation of the Red Sox’s first World Series victory in a century or so.

So as long as Sox fans are in denial about what really happened in 2004 and afterward—or as long as they keep vilifying A-Rod while canonizing Ortiz—I’ll keep harping on David Ortiz’s steroid use.

The Sox Are Struggling. Boo-Hoo.

Posted on April 11th, 2014 in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

They were crushed by the Yankees last night.

I know, I know—every time I write something like this, the Sox go out and crush the Yankees in return.

But I’m going to enjoy this satisfying victory in the first Yanks-Sox matchup of the season.

“Obviously we’ve got to have better at-bats,” said Dustin Pedroia, who was 0 for 4.

Yup.

There was a little controversy as Yankee pitcher Michael Pineda was apparently using pine tar on his hand to help grip the ball. But since the Red Sox do it also, no one made a big thing of it.

Said David Ortiz: “Everybody uses steroids pine tar in the league. It’s not a big deal.”

Tonight looks to be Jon Lester vs. CC Sabathia. Should be a good one.

Quote of the Day

Posted on April 10th, 2014 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

“Those of us who have enjoyed [Al Sharpton's] scoundrelly company have always assumed that he was untrustworthy. But we never thought he was crazy.”

The late Newsday columnist Murray Kempton, who would not have been surprised at recent reports that Al Sharpton became an FBI informant after he tried to serve as a money launderer for an FBI agent posing as a drug kingpin.

What a biography someone could and should write of Sharpton…

Can Harvard Do Better?

Posted on April 4th, 2014 in Uncategorized | 5 Comments »

The Crimson posts this chart comparing Harvard policies on sexual assault to those of peer schools—hilarious, because, when it comes to rape culture, it’s all about how you compare to the other Ivies—and a group called Our Harvard Can Do Better suggests this demonstrates how poorly Harvard is doing.

(Sorry, Crimson, I can’t find the link to this on your site.)

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To me, though, it looks like everyone is doing more or less the same…

Meanwhile, the case of the anonymous letter writer to the Crimson has now been decided in the court of public opinion: The anonymous woman is a martyr and there’s no question that she was raped.

So, anyway, writes a Harvard grad named Winnie Li, who is herself a rape survivor, and writes this on the Huffington Post:

Some might say my own experience of sexual assault is very different from that of the anonymous Harvard student. I was raped by a stranger in Belfast, Northern Ireland, who followed me when I was walking in a park in the middle of the day. She was raped by a friend in his dorm room, after a night of drinking. My rape was the stuff of lurid headlines — newspapers afterward screamed: “Tourist dragged into the bushes and brutally raped.” Her rape was the kind no one wants to talk about, even though it happens all the time, behind closed doors.

Note how the anonymous letter writer’s story has now evolved and settled into a cultural paradigm; I don’t think that even she described what happened to her as “rape.” But in some ways, Li writes, what happened to the Letterwriter is worse than what happened to her.

My point: We still don’t know for sure what happened to the Letterwriter. Only one side of the story has been presented, and it was presented with a significant degree of ambiguity. And yet, people with their own agendas have hijacked her story for their own purposes. (They may think they’re helping Letterwriter, but how do they know?) Linking what happened to another person with what happened to you may seem like an act of solidarity, and I’m sure it can be. But it can also be an act of narcissism.

Nonetheless, a narrative has been created, based on one person’s ambiguous and anonymous story, that is now assuming cultural power. A lot of people read the Huffington Post—particularly when the words “rape” and “Harvard” appear in a headline.

Li, for example, concludes with this admonition:

I’ve heard a lot recently about the success of the Harvard men’s basketball team, the launch of HarvardX (the online learning experience for alumni), Harvard’s Global Month of Service. Yet, for all this outward broadcasting, Harvard should be looking inwards, first and foremost, to its own students, to make sure they’re offering the right kinds of services to them, no matter what the situation. It’s time to replace a culture of success and winning, with a culture of justice and understanding.

Our educational institutions have failed to truly offer an honest, safe, nurturing environment where students can explore their potential and not be afraid to speak up. In that sense, they have failed in their primary purpose. Because if universities like Harvard pride themselves on shaping the world’s future leaders and thinkers, then they need to start by teaching the right lessons.

So there are a lot of issues embedded in this manifesto. First to me is the idea that Harvard lacks and ought to have a culture of justice and understanding. I’ve wondered often of Harvard: Can it be the world-beating institution that these young people are desperate to attend, sacrifice their childhood to get into, and still satisfy their emotional needs for “nurturing” and “empathy”?

Because Winnie Li isn’t being entirely honest here: She didn’t go to Harvard because she was looking for on-campus understanding. She went to Harvard, as does pretty much everyone who goes to Harvard, precisely because of its culture of success and winning–and she got what she came for. Just look at her blog, which is more or less a recounting of her various successes. Lis is one of 25 women who contributed essays to a small book called Sushi and Tapas, a fact which appears on her blog under the tab “Books.” She describes its publication in Singapore as “my book launch.” Is that a rejection of Harvard values or a display of them?

Li also writes a blog called “The Fag Hag,” a term which some people think should be abolished. But Li explains that “The Fag Hag” is the title of her “forthcoming” novel—though the book does not seem to be written and there’s no evidence of it having a publisher. More power to Li for her confidence in describing an unwritten novel as “forthcoming.” But again—is that presumption a rejection of Harvard values, or an internalization of them?

Does Harvard actually lack a culture of justice, as Li says? I don’t know. I do wonder where is the proof of this serious assertion? It’s not in the chart above. Is it in the Letterwriter’s story? We can’t know, particularly as long as she remains anonymous. But nothing in what I’ve read establishes that she was done an injustice by Harvard officialdom. One of her biggest complaints is that Harvard administrators didn’t seem to feel her pain, but the complaint presumes the validity of her story, and that assumption is not compatible with the administration of “justice,” a term that Li equates with the presumption of guilt.

Third: Are people afraid to speak up at Harvard? I guess…kinda? Since the Letterwriter hasn’t identified herself, we don’t know if she’s faced harmful repercussions—she’s certainly received a lot of public support. Is she protected? Well, The Crison disabled comments on her letter—a newspaper censored free speech, think about that—in order to protect her; it presumed that someone would name her; it presumed guilt. If, after this kind of response, she still doesn’t feel safe, is that Harvard’s fault? I don’t see how it could be. Maybe students who don’t speak up are afraid of jeopardizing their career prospects. But if there’s somewhere in the world where it is safer to “speak up” than at Harvard, you should move there instantly.

As a general matter, yes, every student on every campus should feel safe, nurtured and protected. And it takes real courage for Li to speak so honestly about her horrifying experience of rape—that can not be easy, and I applaud her for doing it. She put a name and a face to her story.

Which reminds me—and should remind Li—that we still don’t know for sure what happened to the Letterwriter, and we should be careful about drawing conclusions about Harvard, American universities, or “rape culture” based on emotion rather than knowledge. In the long run, this kind of caution will only help the cause of justice and understanding.