Rainy and cold, cold and *really* rainy. It reminds me of my theory (need I say it is mine?) about the connection between Starbucks and the African savanna.
Suppose humans evolved on the African savanna or something like it. Even in the rainy season, the savanna doesn't see many days that are cold and grey. So I theorize that on such days ancestral humans (being apes and thus notoriously prone to pneumonia) would be better off just snoozing and taking it slow, instead of running around getting cold and wet. Tomorrow will be a warmer day, and probably it won't rain all day long, either.
So on cold, gray, rainy days, all I feel like doing is hibernating. I can't help it, it's an evolutionary mandate!
Even in New Jersey, we don't get all that many such days in a row, and I can soon crawl out of the blanket fort and back to accomplishing things -- or have more coffee, if I actually *must* do something on Evolutionarily Mandated Hibernation Day.
I don't know if there's enough coffee in the *world* for me to live in Seattle, however. No wonder Starbucks got its start there, and why Seattle has at least one coffee shop per block. It's not an indulgence, it's a *biological necessity* if you're going to insist on living in a place so very un-savanna-like.
Now pardon me, I'm heading back to the blanket fort.
Another advantage of aging is that it helps give us
perspective on the world over time, just as travel, especially residence
abroad, helps provide perspective on the world across space and ethnicity. Put
in terms of academe, both history and area studies point us to alternatives to
what it's like all around us. Things don't have to be as they are. (Fiction,
particularly science fiction, may do this even more memorably, but reality is
The fact is that we all grow up thinking that the world is –
and always has been, and really ought to be – more or less what we ourselves
have encountered. When we're very young, we think all families are like ours: kids
have mommy and daddy and siblings (or not); this is what the mommy does and
what the daddy does; these are the other relatives that sometimes show up, etc.
That's “normal,” for us; it's the human experience.
And though before long we come to understand that there are
different kinds of families – though how different, and how “normal,” remain
significant variables – we persist in larger mythologies about what communities
and countries are like (= our community, our country), what schools and
churches and elections are like (= our school, our church, our elections), and
what human nature itself is like (= us). And therefore, by implication, why
those who don't think and behave like us are Doing It Wrong.
This is what we feel, even though we know better. Since the
ancient Greeks, if not before, we have known that nothing in life is constant. Everything
changes; you can't step in the same river twice; the universe is not fixed
Platonic essences, but a constant state of Heraclitean flux. In our hearts,
however, we deny this:
I conceive of beings static,
Which is reasoning erratic
That I borrowed from the Attic:
Yet 'tis true
That I dream not of emotion,
Mutability or motion,
Or the everchanging ocean,
But of you.
helps – or should help – overcome this sentiment; the study of history just
does so more systematically. Sometimes when people find I'm a historian,
they'll say, “Doesn't history show that people everywhere are always pretty
much the same?,” and I'll try to mutter some polite response, because a social
gathering is not the place to argue the point or to parse precisely what is
meant by “pretty much the same.” But the honest answer would be “No – or at
least not necessarily.”
For one thing, almost anything that can be measured has
recurrent ups and downs – climate, the Dow, women's hemlines. Global warming is
not disproved by a season of cooler temperatures. Nothing is linear above the
level of basic physics/chemistry, and I'm not even sure about that. Everything
goes up and down, despite Lucy's attempt to gainsay this truism:
Charlie Brown: "Well Lucy, life does have it's ups
and downs, you know."
Lucy: "But why? Why should it? Why can't my life be all UPS? If I want all UPS, why can't I have them?.....Why can't I just move from one UP to another UP? Why can't I just go from and UP to an UPPER-UP?......I
don't want any Downs! I Just want Ups
and Ups and Ups and Ups!"
the more important question is whether there are long-term trends – up, down,
or level/constant. (Many cultures envision cyclical patterns, but for our
purposes we can take cyclical to be a version of “constant,” if the ending
point is where we began. Alternatively, as my old friend and fellow historian Michael Aung-Thwin has pointed out, there may be “spirals,” in which the second
and subsequent times a phenomenon comes around it is consistently higher or
lower than the first time; these we might consider a variant of “upward” or
“downward” trends.) My conclusion on this topic, evolved over nearly seventy
years of living and more than fifty of studying history, echoes Fats Waller:
One Never Knows, Do One?
grew up in California in the 1950s, which was about as upward-trending an
environment as any child has experienced since Victorian England. The USA was
the richest and most powerful and best country in the world, we understood. And
California was the very essence of American modernity: the fastest growing, most “advanced,” most enlightened state, with far more college students than
anywhere else in the country, indeed in the world. Whatever happened in
California would generally happen a couple of years later in New York, a decade
in the Midwest, a lifetime in Europe. I'm scarcely a Pollyanna by temperament, so something must have been in the air for me to assume that things were
always, automatically getting better. A lot was wrong, sure – probably more
than I was aware of at the time, but greater knowledge wouldn't have altered
the underlying premise. Setting aside routine ups and downs (I had figured that
much out already), this year was better than last year, and next year would be
better than this.
Sure, we'd make mistakes, but we'd learn from them, and do
better after that. OK, the Russians pipped us into space, but we'd catch up and
pass them. (We did that.) OK, there was still segregation in the South, but Ike
had sent the troops in, and we were gradually defeating racism, just as we had
defeated Hitler. (Not so much.) Democrats and Republicans squabbled with each
other, but a GOP president and a Democratic congress managed to work together
to get things done, including a national highway program, and the economy kept
growing, even with a 90% marginal tax rate at the top. We dominated the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, because we were also the highest, fastest, and strongest
people in the world.
The only real question seemed to be whether we were
“progressing” fast enough, and Kennedy's 1960 campaign was essentially that we
were not. He promised to “get this country moving again,” and the great deadpan
jest of the year was, “What's wrong with Eisenhower? He hasn't done anything.” I
favored the Republicans at the time, thanks to family inclination and my underdeveloped political philosophy, but I never believed for a moment that if the Democrats won they could actually reverse the trend, undo the progress we were predestined to enjoy. They might mess it up a bit, slow it down, but time was definitely on our – on America's – side.
The 1960s began dismantling my assumptions, though some of
them did not crumble until the 1970s, when a few years after Nixon had been
forced out of the White House and the US had been forced out of Vietnam it
became clear that we had not “progressed” after all. The forces of reaction
came back stronger than ever, starting with revisionist accounts of the Vietnam
War (a topic on which I was then teaching), culminating in the 1980 election of
Ronald Reagan, a man who was publicly determined not to learn anything from
history. And of course if you can't acknowledge your mistakes, you can't
correct them, and we didn't, and here we are . . .
(I cannot fully imagine what it must be like to be growing
up more recently in the United States, where so many trends are downward, and
it must seem as if everything is going to hell in a handbasket. I'd like to assure today's youth that This Too Shall Pass, but there would be little real
surety in such assurance.)
It seems that there is a bit of a to do about the information the NSA collects on Americans. Whether or not this is "legal" - from a statutory or Constitutional perspective - it's a bit troubling.
First, it has been done in complete secrecy outside of government officials (until these reports). Second, it seems it's been done with minimal oversight, other than via the rather docile FISA court, which almost never objects. Third, the current Administration, like the one before it, invokes the state secrets doctrine/privilege whenever a citizen of the United States might object to said information collection, and Article III courts seem to think this is just fine and dismiss the cases left and right (cases are also dismissed under the rather silly standing doctrine), thus avoiding any sunlight and application of the Constitution in an adversarial proceeding (and then the administration talks about the program to the press, natch, including declassifying information, the horror!). Fourth, there seems to be bi-partisan support for this program on Capitol Hill (with exceptions), so even though this might otherwise be a "scandal," not so much - other than that the "real" scandal is the leaker(s) who must be found and prosecuted for revealing this to the American people.
Of course, the national security apparatus assures us that "safeguards" are in place and that proper respect is paid to civil liberties and Americans' privacy. Well, prove it, as reports like this are not instilling confidence.
Without any meaningful, public, neutral oversight, it's hard to tell what might be needed, what's just a bunch of CYA, and what's abusive (or criminal), but it seems that collecting, at a minimum, the pen-register/meta-data of every single Verizon customer for seven years (and I would have to guess the customers of all the other telecomms) might be a tad bit excessive and oppressive. But, "no one is listening to your phonecalls." Right.
I suppose the best we can hope for is not to have thugs working for and running the national security apparatus, but it seems we only have thugs of differing degrees.
This insightful piece about Daily Central correspondent John Oliver in the Grauniad is quite interesting, but what I want to highlight
His earliest Daily Show appearances played almost exclusively on his Britishness; most Americans, he points out, hear his distinctively Brummie accent as standard Posh English. He once interviewed Tea Party activists while purporting to be offended that they called Obama a tyrant, on the grounds that it was an insult to real British tyranny in pre-revolutionary America. (Or there's this, from a back-and-forth with Stewart, on immigration: "Jon, like billions of other unfortunate people in the world, I tragically was not born American.")
Doing English teaching in Japan, you are going to run into a lot more Brits (and Aussies and Kiwis) than you would and the conflicting notions often slap one in the face. I love the observation about accents and there is also this
Until 2009, when he finally received his green card, Oliver's sense of outsiderhood in New York was not solely a joke: he was obliged to seek the renewal of his visa every year at the American embassy in London, and lived in fear of being turned down. "The worst experience I had was an immigration officer there, an American lady, saying, 'Give me one good reason I should let you back in to insult my country,'" he recalls. "I felt a pulse of ice go through me. Then she said, 'Oh, I'm just kidding, I love the show.' But I was too stunned to laugh. My life had just flashed in front of my eyes… You realise, if it's this difficult for me – and I have almost all the help and privileges I could have, to help me navigate the system – then clearly the immigration system is broken and barbaric."
I will be personally enriched by Governor Chris Christie's decision to hold a special October election for Frank Lautenberg's Senate seat. I'm a pollworker: every NJ election puts $200 in my pocket (for 15+ hours of work, mind you, so it's hardly a sinecure).
More elections means lower turnout per election [PDF]. Normally, a NJ governor election has about 50% turnout [PDF]. I'm betting that having two elections in 3 weeks will reduce the turnout for each well below 50%, even if the cumulative turnout makes it to 50%. This is after a record-low turnout last November, when pretty much everyone in the state was dealing with the aftermath of Sandy.
The general rule of thumb is that overall low turnout tilts the electorate toward Republicans, because poorer and younger voters -- more likely to be Democrats -- experience more barriers to voting. This is IMHO why Republicans have been pushing so hard in recent years to "tighten up" voting laws -- even though voter fraud is very rare.
I have no idea if Governor Christie is *consciously* aware that scheduling 2 elections within a month is certain to reduce voter turnout, and to reduce Democratic turnout relative to Republican, but it sure is convenient from his POV, and fits in with the general Republican strategy to un-small-d-democratically restrict the franchise.
Whether the election is in October or rolled into the general election in November, there still needs to be a primary. Holding that in mid-August pretty much guarantees horrifically low turnouts for both parties, but I'm not sure how much of a choice Christie really had. But spending an extra $12 million or so to have a special election in October is self-indulgently wasteful on Christie's part, even though it means money in my pocket. To a woman and regardless of party, pollworkers want high turnout more than anything else: we want *everyone* to vote, that's what makes the hellishly long hours worthwhile.
 Old ladies are the backbone of American pollworking. I'm in my mid-50s, so I'm the kid at my regular polling place (which serves 2 districts). This week, though, things were very different, because the high school made a big effort to get students signed up as "pollworker interns" (excused from school! paid real money!), so Sprog the Younger was a pollworker for half the day.
When I've had a garden, they've been shade gardens. I like to plant a lot of perennials, especially native plants, but for summer-long color to break up the relentless green my go-to plant has always been the common impatiens .
A typical shade garden in August. Or it used to be. source.
This era has ended. A fungal disease, impatiens downy mildew, is infecting most impatiens in the US and Europe. Because mildew spores can overwinter in the soil and persist for years, even if you could get uninfected plants you couldn't trust that you had a place to put them. US gardeners are having to face the fact that we've probably bought our last flat of this species of impatiens, and we're going to have to think of something else for summer color in the shade.
This is the kind of thing that happens with globalization, I guess: you get emotionally attached to a plant that's native to Kenya, it spreads easily around the world, and then its disease spreads around the world, too.
It's kind of the flip side of invasive alien species, that spread really easily when they *don't* have a disease following them. Like, say, Asian carp, which have spread throughout the Mississippi River basin. If they become established in the Great Lakes, they're likely to devastate the ecosystem and the fishing industry there. The question is whether the only way to keep them out of the Great Lakes would be to close the connection between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi basin, at Chicago. This would cost billions of dollars, seriously disrupt shipping, and might not work if the fish already have a toehold (finhold?) in the Great Lakes.
Have a good couple of days, guys: I'm a pollworker for NJ's Primary Election, tomorrow. I'm pretty sure the number of voters at my district will get into double digits, but I doubt it'll be triple. The only real vote is over the choice of Democrat to be ritually sacrificied go up against Christie.
Growing old is not entirely negative, though it certainly ain't for wusses. If I sounded angst-y in my last post, and even morbid in the comments, it's because I split up my reflections on age and happened to post the downside first.
One big advantage of aging is experience, and not only in the sense of being able to pontificate about how things were Back In The Day, pleasant though that pastime is. (Unlike the classic “we had it tougher than you” riff – best expressed by Monty Python, of course: – what I'm most conscious of is how much better off I was than today's youth are, particularly in going to college when there were still full-ride scholarships to be had [not just student loans] and the prospect of careers after we graduated. Those Were The Days, My Friends!)
Experience, of course, is supposed to protect one from repetition of errors, or at least ameliorate them: “Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other,” as Benjamin Franklin put it. But this itself is erroneous, or at least misleading, in my experience. One may indeed avoid repeating the same old blunders – though even this is far from automatic – but in this everchanging world there are always new and interesting ways to screw things up. To err is human, but to truly f**k up takes a computer.
What experience does provide, however, is a personal reservoir of Epic Past Failures, next to which any current crises fades into a minor distraction. When I was younger – and not just when I was actually young, either – I did things so stupid and so awful, encountered events so crushing, that at times I thought “I'll never survive this. Or if I do, I'll never dare show my face in public again.” Yet here I am.
Commit a social faux pas? Forget it. It's nothing compared to writing a sympathy note to a widow on the death of her beloved husband – an old family friend, in fact eponym – only to have him answer, because in fact it was the wife who had died. (Yes, I actually did that.) Drink too much at a party? At least this time I didn't wind up at home after a friend's birthday barbecue with no idea how I had driven there. (Fortunately, no one was hurt.) Get delayed several hours in an airport? Try spending 24 hours in a departure lounge (without food court or other amenities) at Sydney airport, sleeping on the floor, because there had been a wildcat strike of baggage handlers in Brisbane. Get confused by the calendar? Compare that with arriving in Honolulu (from Manila) a day earlier than planned – a day earlier than friends were expecting us and reservations were made – because we miscalculated the International Date Line. Make an ill-advised purchase? Not as ill as a used car, bought from a friend for $300, that was totaled (without insurance, of course) the very first time I took it for a spin, because the brakes completely failed as I steered slowly up the abutment protecting the toll booth. Mess up a recipe? Probably no worse than the pasta that had to be pitched as completely inedible because the gorgonzola was left out too long . . .
And there's worse – much much worse – that I could tell, but I don't know you all that well. (I'm not sure I know anyone well enough to share everything.) Hurting people, being hurt myself, in ways too excruciating to dwell upon; these are private experiences mostly, but they serve to prop up the soul. I certainly can't guarantee that nothing that nothing that is to come will ever be more devastating: “No worst, there is none,” said Gerard Manly Hopkins. But the vagaries of everyday mishaps and bloopers and little tragedies have largely lost their power to ruin my life. Which is a blessing. At times I even appear philosophical in my old age, which few would have expected earlier. It Is What It Is.
The flip side, of course, is that genuinely transcendent new experiences are also rare, because I've seen, heard, felt so much already, over the years. Been There, Done That, Got The T-Shirt. But the most extreme of these peaks are already decades past, so the passage into my senior years (senescence?) is not all that costly. Long before that, I knew I'd never again marvel at the stirrings of first love, or hear the Bach Magnificat for the first time, or see with virgin eyes Mount Mayon from the air, or taste the original boeuf bourguinon.
But I'm happy enough to be living with someone I love:
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made.
(On re-reading, Robert Browning actually has his “Rabbi Ben Ezra” contemplating his relationship with God, rather than the boon of a lifetime companion, but I'll borrow these first three lines for my own purposes and leave the rest for the pious among you.)
And we live in our dream house, which is paid for, with enough left over to contemplate the delights on offer in Triangle Restaurant Week, upcoming. Hoping for a taste of something not just delicious (which I'm sure it will be) but, perhaps, never before experienced.
I had this for the Friday open thread, but didn't want to blogblock dr ngo's post. The Guardian, riffing about an AP report here, reveals that al-Qaida is organized like a bad cubicle farm.
After 15 years as one of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb's top commanders, it became clear that the Algerian terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar was simply not a team player. In a long letter just discovered by the Associated Press in Mali, but dated 3 October last year, AQIM's leadership make clear how exasperated they had become by Belmokhtar's constant insubordination. And when he floated the idea of becoming his own boss, they had had enough.
"We refrained from wading into this battle in the past out of a hope that the crooked could be straightened," the council said, "… until your last letter arrived, ending any hope of stanching the wound and healing it." In 30 bullet points, they castigate their man for a succession of failures. He dodged meetings, they say; he did not file expenses; he was never available for phone calls; he shared internal matters publicly on jihadist forums; one group of reinforcements spent three years wandering the desert trying to find him. Worse still, he had not pulled off one "spectacular operation" against "the crusader alliance". That last point aside, he was, in short, being rebuked for failings readily found in any office.
"30 bullet points". Something about a hell constructed of powerpoint presentations comes to mind.
Nobody – well, hardly anybody – really believed the Who when they sang “Hope I die before I get old.” Well, maybe Keith Moon, and a few other rockers like Brian Jones and Jimi Hendrix, but we still have Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey with us – and even Keith Richards. So we have to assume that most of you are, believe or not, actually going to get old one day. And I'm here to help you think about it.
I've already promised not to dwell on the physical ailments that tend to accompany age, though these can easily dominate one's quotidian existence. (Mickey Mantle is supposed to have said, “If I had known I'd live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself.” Maybe, maybe not.) Nor is my topic the financial liabilities that all too easily arise for seniors, especially those of us living in backward countries without universal health care. We've been lucky in this regard, and are comfortably off in our Golden (not quite Platinum) Years.
Instead I'm going to talk about retirement, which comes to all who do not die in harness. In my case it was compulsory – I was teaching overseas, where you can still be forced out for being too old, which has not been the case in the USA for more than twenty years. This was not entirely a bad thing, although had I been given a choice, I'd probably have hung on for a bit longer, since I wasn't sure if I had enough money for a comfortable life in retirement. It turned out I did, and since I had grown weary of the long losing battle against the forces of transplanted and warmed-over Thatcherism in higher education, I wasn't really sad to leave.
We found a good place to live – wonderful house, pleasant neighborhood, good nearby universities with which I could affiliate – and I looked forward to a scholarly “afterlife” of catching up on a number of projects I had begun, or at least contemplated, during the last few decades in academe, which had been increasingly devoted to Meetings (“The Practical Alternative To Work”). At one point I actually listed five such projects, with my only question being which of them I would tackle first.
Now, nine years on, I know the answer: None. In part this was a response to adjusting to a new life, back in the USA after more than twenty years abroad, taking up the responsibilities of homeownership after decades of living in university housing, where when anything went wrong one simply phoned the Estates Office and they sent around someone to fix it. In part this was exposure to the wealth of American television, especially sports, which was (is) as deadly to me as any drug to any addict.
But in part it was also the loss of my profession, at least in a “professional” sense. For the first couple of years I was able to pick up a course at each of the local universities, for which I was paid generously by the standards of adjunct teaching, but ridiculously by the standards of any real profession. (I had run into other good schools – including USNA! – where they paid $3000 a course or less; I was getting at least twice that. Thank goodness I had enough to live on without this pittance.) I was given a library card, and temporary access to an office, but not a parking permit. I was not expected, much less required, to attend departmental meetings, though I suppose I could have had I desired. But effectively, after thirty years of full-time academic/scholarly employment, my occupation had ended.
It plays with the mind; at least it did with mine. All of my adult life had been spent in accumulating knowledge and experience – not to mention credentials – that among other things increased my skills and marketability, and now no one cares. I'll never get another promotion. I'll never get another full-time academic job, not that I want one. I'll probably never persuade anyone to pay my way to another conference or research trip. No one wants to know what I know. (Arguably many of my students didn't really want to know it either, but they wanted the grade leading to the degree, so they paid attention, up to a point.) I am no longer Of Use.
I could still write scholarly articles – but why? I have been asked to referee manuscripts for publishers and journals: generally gratis. I have edited friends' books: gratis, of course. I have given a couple of talks on Asia to local senior citizens: gratis. I have just finished editing a 300+ page handbook in my field, recruiting and dealing with 30 authors spread over four continents, a task that took me almost four years, for which I received total recompense of roughly $1500 (minus expenses): less than minimum wage, if pro-rated.
Don't get me wrong. I don't need the money, and if I had greater strength of character and resolve and intellectual integrity or something, none of this would arise. I've had colleagues more productive in retirement than ever, so mine is obviously not a universal, much less an ideal, response. But that's precisely my point – I didn't realize how much of my identity was wrapped up in my Profession, though I'd never have imagined myself one of those guys who keeps showing up at the office even after retirement because he's got nothing else to do. It's disconcerting to me; it may happen to you.
I had been happy, if the general camp,
Pioners and all, had tasted her sweet body,
So I had nothing known. O, now, for ever
Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troop, and the big wars,
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!
And, O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
The immortal Jove's dead clamours counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello's occupation's gone! (3.3.345-357)
Note that Othello's speech, though wonderful, is totally illogical. There's no reason at all why a man should give up his military career because his wife is cheating on him – even if if were true (which of course it isn't) – but he has no better way to express, no truer way to feel, the ground giving way under him, the loss of a sense of what he is, than this: