Wednesday, September 30, 2009

democratic party

One thing about George Bush, especially in his first term, he enforced Republican discipline. He was able to get so called fiscal conservatives to spend vast sums on anything he wanted. Only in the last few months of his term, when it was clear he was leading the party to defeat, did some in his party break with him. The Democratic Party has no such discipline. In some ways, this is positive. The party has a wider set of constituencies, and genuine debate is theoretically healthy. But from a tactical standpoint, the party is clearly letting its vast governing majority go to waste. And, as it dithers on health care reform, it diminishes the clout of the president. Obama has his hands full, to be sure. Even with a unified party, what to do is not so clear in almost all the major policy debates on the table. But with a fractured Democratic Party, and a Republican Party that has decided that they will give him no support on anything, he is becoming less and less influential. I think the Democrats have to take a look at their tactical position. If they cannot make policy as the governing party, there is no reason to care if they stay in power.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

What I Understood...

What I Understood
by Katha Pollitt

When I was a child I understood everything
about, for example, futility. Standing for hours
on the hot asphalt outfield, trudging for balls
I'd ask myself, how many times will I have to perform
this pointless task, and all the others? I knew
about snobbery, too, and cruelty—for children
are snobbish and cruel—and loneliness: in restaurants
the dignity and shame of solitary diners
disabled me, and when my grandmother
screamed at me, "Someday you'll know what it's like!"
I knew she was right, the way I knew
about the single rooms my teachers went home to,
the pictures on the dresser, the hoard of chocolates,
and that there was no God, and that I would die.
All this I understood, no one needed to tell me.
the only thing I didn't understand
was how in a world whose predominant characteristics
are futility, cruelty, loneliness, disappointment
people are saved every day
by a sparrow, a foghorn, a grassblade, a tablecloth.
This year I'll be
thirty-nine, and I still don't understand it.

"What I Understood" by Katha Pollitt, from The Mind-Body Problem. © Random House, 2009

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Teach your children well. Their father's hell did slowly go by...

Hat tip to Jacquelyn Mitchard who posted how parents teach abstinence at

1. Start drinking early in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. Come out of the bedroom in a Santa Claus bikini at midnight. After you pass out, forget Santa. Send the kids back into their rooms until noon and tell them Santa was hung over. Laugh. When the kids beg you to stop, tell them to grow up.

2. Pretend it never happened. None of it – the weeping-clown eyes, the shouts and fights, the makeout sessions on the coats in the bedroom with the lady from down the street – never happened. At all.

3. Go out on New Year’s Eve – for three days. There are plenty of Good Humor bars in the refrigerator. And Grandma and Grandpa didn’t leave for Florida yet? Or did they?

4. Nuzzle a waitress’ boobs, even after your friend, the owner of the place, asks you to stop, until your wife and kids get up and walk home. Six miles.

5. Tell your kid he better start on the team. When he does, show up for one game.

6. Talk about how much you drank on vacation the way other people talk about vacation.

7. When your son asks what you’re going to do tonight , say, “I’m going to drink. And you’re going to stay home.”

8. When your daughter, who’s 11, calls you at a dinner party from home to say that someone has broken into the apartment building, tell her to call the cops.

9. When your best friend suggests you slow down, on the night of your birthday, wait until he’s facing the other way and kick him through the TV.

10. Show up at eighth grade graduation, drunk. Show up at high school graduation drunk. Explain that you can’t make it to college graduation.

11. Shout out your requests for Trini Lopez songs so loudly that the bandleader refers to you as “Lawrence Welk and Mrs. Robinson.”

12. When one of the kids is seventeen and gets drunk for the first of three times in her life, throwing up until she’s weak and sobbing, tell her not to worry – everyone feels this way.

13. Be beautiful and charming and funny and complex and inquisitive when you’re sober. Be diminishing, surly, humiliating and cruel when you’re drunk.

14. Die young.

Jacquelyn Mitchard is the author of the number one New York Times bestselling novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, chosen as the first book for Oprah’s Book Club and named by USA Today the second most influential novel of the past 25 years. She has written four other bestsellers and is a contributing editor for Wondertime magazine as well as the author of four novels for young adults. Her new novel, No Time to Wave Goodbye, comes out this week.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Mavis Staples, The Band, Joss Stone

Here are two videos/songs featuring Mavis Staples. About the first, Spencer Tweedy, a 13 year old who is treading on some pretty precocious waters (see Spencer Tweedy's Blog) wrote: "One of the best songs ever written or performed, in my book. Literally gave me shivers when Mavis sang." I know what he means. (hat tip to A.B. for the lead to Spencer).

Following that is a Joss Stone/ Mavis Staples version of "Help Me" (or the name of the song may be "Take Me There" - I am not sure). I must be on a precocious theme because I think Joss Stone fits that bill.

PS. Mavis Staples began her career in 1950. She had her first hit in 1957 the year she graduated from high school.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Citizen Cope

The talented Citizen Cope

"Ain't no words to describe it - in french or in english... these feelings won't go away"

Friday, September 11, 2009

Joan Baez

The very beautiful Joan Baez...

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Tiny Dancer (for example)...

For a couple of posts I am going to just put up some stuff that I like with just a few (if any) words about why.

I like this for the change of mood that just happens (from really bad to really good) and how good (and singing along with the radio?) is like being home.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Obama's speech to students...

Below is the speech that Barack Obama gave to the nation's school children yesterday. If you did not know it was his speech you might think it was written by say, Ronald Reagan (or Bill Clinton, or John McCain or Ted Kennedy). The conservative objections to his speech were loony. From "Obama to brainwash students" to a "public option is the first step towards a single payer national health care system" to "Obama plans emergency powers to take over the Internet and threaten democracy"...if you turn on talk radio and listen to Hannity and his ilk - they sound misinformed and delusional - like hucksters (e.g. Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry).

Here is one passage from Obama's speech: "But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world -- and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.

And that's what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself."

Sounds like something Sean Hannity would say if he could stop foaming at the mouth.

Here is the Obama speech to our kids that Hannity was so opposed to:

Arlington, Virginia
September 8, 2009

Hello everyone -- how's everybody doing today? I'm here with students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia. And we've got students tuning in from all across America, kindergarten through twelfth grade. I'm glad you all could join us today.

I know that for many of you, today is the first day of school. And for those of you in kindergarten, or starting middle or high school, it's your first day in a new school, so it's understandable if you're a little nervous. I imagine there are some seniors out there who are feeling pretty good right now, with just one more year to go. And no matter what grade you're in, some of you are probably wishing it were still summer, and you could've stayed in bed just a little longer this morning.

I know that feeling. When I was young, my family lived in Indonesia for a few years, and my mother didn't have the money to send me where all the American kids went to school. So she decided to teach me extra lessons herself, Monday through Friday -- at 4:30 in the morning.

Now I wasn't too happy about getting up that early. A lot of times, I'd fall asleep right there at the kitchen table. But whenever I'd complain, my mother would just give me one of those looks and say, "This is no picnic for me either, buster."

So I know some of you are still adjusting to being back at school. But I'm here today because I have something important to discuss with you. I'm here because I want to talk with you about your education and what's expected of all of you in this new school year.

Now I've given a lot of speeches about education. And I've talked a lot about responsibility.

I've talked about your teachers' responsibility for inspiring you, and pushing you to learn.

I've talked about your parents' responsibility for making sure you stay on track, and get your homework done, and don't spend every waking hour in front of the TV or with that Xbox.
I've talked a lot about your government's responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren't working where students aren't getting the opportunities they deserve.

But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world -- and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.

And that's what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.

Every single one of you has something you're good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That's the opportunity an education can provide.

Maybe you could be a good writer -- maybe even good enough to write a book or articles in a newspaper -- but you might not know it until you write a paper for your English class. Maybe you could be an innovator or an inventor -- maybe even good enough to come up with the next iPhone or a new medicine or vaccine -- but you might not know it until you do a project for your science class. Maybe you could be a mayor or a Senator or a Supreme Court Justice, but you might not know that until you join student government or the debate team.

And no matter what you want to do with your life -- I guarantee that you'll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You're going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You can't drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You've got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.

And this isn't just important for your own life and your own future. What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you're learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.

You'll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You'll need the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You'll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.

We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don't do that -- if you quit on school -- you're not just quitting on yourself, you're quitting on your country.

Now I know it's not always easy to do well in school. I know a lot of you have challenges in your lives right now that can make it hard to focus on your schoolwork.

I get it. I know what that's like. My father left my family when I was two years old, and I was raised by a single mother who struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn't always able to give us things the other kids had. There were times when I missed having a father in my life. There were times when I was lonely and felt like I didn't fit in.

So I wasn't always as focused as I should have been. I did some things I'm not proud of, and got in more trouble than I should have. And my life could have easily taken a turn for the worse.

But I was fortunate. I got a lot of second chances and had the opportunity to go to college, and law school, and follow my dreams. My wife, our First Lady Michelle Obama, has a similar story. Neither of her parents had gone to college, and they didn't have much. But they worked hard, and she worked hard, so that she could go to the best schools in this country.

Some of you might not have those advantages. Maybe you don't have adults in your life who give you the support that you need. Maybe someone in your family has lost their job, and there's not enough money to go around. Maybe you live in a neighborhood where you don't feel safe, or have friends who are pressuring you to do things you know aren't right.

But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life -- what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you've got going on at home -- that's no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude. That's no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That's no excuse for not trying.

Where you are right now doesn't have to determine where you'll end up. No one's written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future.

That's what young people like you are doing every day, all across America.

Young people like Jazmin Perez, from Roma, Texas. Jazmin didn't speak English when she first started school. Hardly anyone in her hometown went to college, and neither of her parents had gone either. But she worked hard, earned good grades, got a scholarship to Brown University, and is now in graduate school, studying public health, on her way to being Dr. Jazmin Perez.

I'm thinking about Andoni Schultz, from Los Altos, California, who's fought brain cancer since he was three. He's endured all sorts of treatments and surgeries, one of which affected his memory, so it took him much longer -- hundreds of extra hours -- to do his schoolwork. But he never fell behind, and he's headed to college this fall.

And then there's Shantell Steve, from my hometown of Chicago, Illinois. Even when bouncing from foster home to foster home in the toughest neighborhoods, she managed to get a job at a local health center; start a program to keep young people out of gangs; and she's on track to graduate high school with honors and go on to college.

Jazmin, Andoni and Shantell aren't any different from any of you. They faced challenges in their lives just like you do. But they refused to give up. They chose to take responsibility for their education and set goals for themselves. And I expect all of you to do the same.

That's why today, I'm calling on each of you to set your own goals for your education -- and to do everything you can to meet them. Your goal can be something as simple as doing all your homework, paying attention in class, or spending time each day reading a book. Maybe you'll decide to get involved in an extracurricular activity, or volunteer in your community. Maybe you'll decide to stand up for kids who are being teased or bullied because of who they are or how they look, because you believe, like I do, that all kids deserve a safe environment to study and learn. Maybe you'll decide to take better care of yourself so you can be more ready to learn. And along those lines, I hope you'll all wash your hands a lot, and stay home from school when you don't feel well, so we can keep people from getting the flu this fall and winter.

Whatever you resolve to do, I want you to commit to it. I want you to really work at it.

I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work -- that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you're not going to be any of those things.

But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won't love every subject you study. You won't click with every teacher. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute. And you won't necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try.

That's OK. Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who've had the most failures. JK Rowling's first Harry Potter book was rejected twelve times before it was finally published. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, "I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."

These people succeeded because they understand that you can't let your failures define you -- you have to let them teach you. You have to let them show you what to do differently next time. If you get in trouble, that doesn't mean you're a troublemaker, it means you need to try harder to behave. If you get a bad grade, that doesn't mean you're stupid, it just means you need to spend more time studying.

No one's born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work. You're not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don't hit every note the first time you sing a song. You've got to practice. It's the same with your schoolwork. You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right, or read something a few times before you understand it, or do a few drafts of a paper before it's good enough to hand in.

Don't be afraid to ask questions. Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn't a sign of weakness, it's a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don't know something, and to learn something new. So find an adult you trust -- a parent, grandparent or teacher; a coach or counselor -- and ask them to help you stay on track to meet your goals.

And even when you're struggling, even when you're discouraged, and you feel like other people have given up on you -- don't ever give up on yourself. Because when you give up on yourself, you give up on your country.

The story of America isn't about people who quit when things got tough. It's about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.

It's the story of students who sat where you sit 250 years ago, and went on to wage a revolution and found this nation. Students who sat where you sit 75 years ago who overcame a Depression and won a world war; who fought for civil rights and put a man on the moon. Students who sat where you sit 20 years ago who founded Google, Twitter and Facebook and changed the way we communicate with each other.

So today, I want to ask you, what's your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in twenty or fifty or one hundred years say about what all of you did for this country?

Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I'm working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn. But you've got to do your part too. So I expect you to get serious this year. I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you. So don't let us down -- don't let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Religion, Politics and Identity.

I do not recall where on the web I found this essay but it has stuck with me. Paul Graham, who wrote this essay ponders why politics and religion often take on a uniquely unscientific feel.

[Speaking of politics, from what I have picked up from the many testimonials is that one of Ted Kennedy's personal and professional strengths was that he did not let it get it personal. He seemed quite capable of being a liberal stalwart/leader while being friends with counterparts on the Republican side. In a 2006 interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air he said that one of the most corrosive aspects of the modern political scene is money. Senators spend half their time raising money for their next election campaign. The answer: public finance for all elections. Why does this not happen? Incumbents have the money advantage so it's not possible to get meaningful campaign finance reform passed (McCain-Feingold is a failure). I have thought about this before and will again (each time taking it more seriously) the next time my party or my candidate asks for a contribution.]

Getting back to this essay - there is something about religion, politics and identity that seems to contain a common thread.

PS. I think foot note # 2 states the thesis well.

By Paul Graham

February 2009

I finally realized today why politics and religion yield such uniquely useless discussions.

As a rule, any mention of religion on an online forum degenerates into a religious argument. Why? Why does this happen with religion and not with Javascript or baking or other topics people talk about on forums?

What's different about religion is that people don't feel they need to have any particular expertise to have opinions about it. All they need is strongly held beliefs, and anyone can have those. No thread about Javascript will grow as fast as one about religion, because people feel they have to be over some threshold of expertise to post comments about that. But on religion everyone's an expert.

Then it struck me: this is the problem with politics too. Politics, like religion, is a topic where there's no threshold of expertise for expressing an opinion. All you need is strong convictions.

Do religion and politics have something in common that explains this similarity? One possible explanation is that they deal with questions that have no definite answers, so there's no back pressure on people's opinions. Since no one can be proven wrong, every opinion is equally valid, and sensing this, everyone lets fly with theirs.

But this isn't true. There are certainly some political questions that have definite answers, like how much a new government policy will cost. But the more precise political questions suffer the same fate as the vaguer ones.

I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people's identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that's part of their identity. By definition they're partisan.

Which topics engage people's identity depends on the people, not the topic. For example, a discussion about a battle that included citizens of one or more of the countries involved would probably degenerate into a political argument. But a discussion today about a battle that took place in the Bronze Age probably wouldn't. No one would know what side to be on. So it's not politics that's the source of the trouble, but identity. When people say a discussion has degenerated into a religious war, what they really mean is that it has started to be driven mostly by people's identities. [1]

Because the point at which this happens depends on the people rather than the topic, it's a mistake to conclude that because a question tends to provoke religious wars, it must have no answer. For example, the question of the relative merits of programming languages often degenerates into a religious war, because so many programmers identify as X programmers or Y programmers. This sometimes leads people to conclude the question must be unanswerablehat all languages are equally good. Obviously that's false: anything else people make can be well or badly designed; why should this be uniquely impossible for programming languages? And indeed, you can have a fruitful discussion about the relative merits of programming languages, so long as you exclude people who respond from identity.

More generally, you can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn't engage the identities of any of the participants. What makes politics and religion such minefields is that they engage so many people's identities. But you could in principle have a useful conversation about them with some people. And there are other topics that might seem harmless, like the relative merits of Ford and Chevy pickup trucks, that you couldn't safely talk about with others.

The most intriguing thing about this theory, if it's right, is that it explains not merely which kinds of discussions to avoid, but how to have better ideas. If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible. [2]

Most people reading this will already be fairly tolerant. But there is a step beyond thinking of yourself as x but tolerating y: not even to consider yourself an x. The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.


[1] When that happens, it tends to happen fast, like a core going critical. The threshold for participating goes down to zero, which brings in more people. And they tend to say incendiary things, which draw more and angrier counter-arguments.

[2] There may be some things it's a net win to include in your identity. For example, being a scientist. But arguably that is more of a placeholder than an actual labelike putting NMI on a form that asks for your middle initialecause it doesn't commit you to believing anything in particular. A scientist isn't committed to believing in natural selection in the same way a biblical literalist is committed to rejecting it. All he's committed to is following the evidence wherever it leads.

Considering yourself a scientist is equivalent to putting a sign in a cupboard saying "this cupboard must be kept empty." Yes, strictly speaking, you're putting something in the cupboard, but not in the ordinary sense.

Thanks to Sam Altman, Trevor Blackwell, Paul Buchheit, and Robert Morris for reading drafts of this.

Forever Young by Bob Dylan

May God bless and keep you always,
May your wishes all come true,
May you always do for others
And let others do for you.
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung,
May you stay forever young,
Forever young, forever young,
May you stay forever young.

May you grow up to be righteous,
May you grow up to be true,
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you.
May you always be courageous,
Stand upright and be strong,
May you stay forever young,
Forever young, forever young,
May you stay forever young.

May your hands always be busy,
May your feet always be swift,
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift.
May your heart always be joyful,
May your song always be sung,
May you stay forever young,
Forever young, forever young,
May you stay forever young.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A long 2003 interview with David Foster Wallace

If you are interested in David Foster Wallace you might want to click on the title of this post to be taken to a 1 hour and 24 minute (charming and generous) interview he gave for German TV in 2003 (when he was 40). I had not seen this interview before. If I had to say what the interview is about I'd say - growing up.

He frequently and self-effacingly refers to his inability to articulate the complexity of what he is trying to discuss as if he is trying to say something that he cannot express better no matter how smart and well said? As he says, in a novel you are coming as close to experiencing the mind of another person as you can get - like playing music with someone. In conversation (especially interviews for media) less so.

There are some interesting interactions with the interviewer that are worth tuning into. You can jump around the video or watch it straight through. The highlights for me were:

1) types of humor (black, escapist, transfiguring). He comes right out of the box talking about Wittgenstein and jokes.

2) irony - "the song of a bird that has come to love its cage" (3:05)

3) class and culture (5:07)

4) Addiction as a form of devotion and how we are all devoted to something be it, drugs, money, pleasure, achievement, - the belief that one's purpose in life is to gratify our own desires. (7:25)

5) at 10:15 there is a break in the action and the cameraman says he is pontificating and then zooms in on his face - it is interesting.

6) the nature of happiness and freedom of choice as a kind of slavery (19:05)

7) the dread of being alone (and bored) (30:00)

8) the allure of drugs (40:00)

9) entertainment (45:00)

10) why he gives interviews and who his readers are (1 hour 2 mins)

11) higher education, work and jobs (1 hour 9 mins)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Hi, My Name Is Craig...

Craig Ferguson, late night tv comedian, is a very talented guy. He improvises, he is funny and he is authentic (his interviews are often really interesting). This 12 minute unexpected monologue is well worth staying with (in my opinion). His speech takes some unexpected turns fueled by insight that really got to me and ends in simple brilliance of the sort I have seen before - in other people who I also admire for their courage.


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