In Which I Stare at a Woman’s Breasts

Sonoma County Democratic PartySo I decided to finally get off my duff and go check out the local Democratic Party that meets just around the corner from me. And they were a nice group—lively and friendly. Afterwards, I was talking to a guy and he explained how it all worked. I told him that I wasn’t very interested in voting inside the party apparatus and all that stuff; I just wanted to help out. I mentioned that I was a copy editor and that I thought my skills might be helpful to people in the group. He directed me to a woman who was something like the head of communications.

I went up to her and told her my sad tale: I was not really the representative kind of person but that I was a copy editor and maybe I could help out. Now, this was a pretty young woman who was clearly smart and also friendly. You know: exactly the kind of woman who drives me crazy. It isn’t sexual. I’m old. But old habits die hard and I immediately lapsed into my best impression of myself at 17. So I wanted to get out of there. I was a nervous wreck anyway. If I can avoid it, I don’t leave the house. I don’t like wide open spaces with people I don’t know. And I sure don’t like big meetings with people in close contact. Thus, almost from the first sentence, I was fighting my very strong and rational desire to run away.

As usual when I’m insecure, I look at a persons eyes for a while and then I look at the ground. Wash, rinse, repeat. But in this case, every time I looked down, I was looking directly at her breasts. And they were fine breasts. And that did not make things better! “Oh my God,” I thought. “I’m staring at her breasts!” So I looked at her eyes. And they too were very fine. But it was too intense, so I looked down. Again at her breasts!

This repeated itself four times at least. Finally, I excused myself and headed for the car. My heart was pounding. I was sweating. I felt like I’d just made it through my first day of kindergarten. The only difference was, I held it together better in kindergarten. I think I will limit my communications with the Democratic Party to email. It’s so much less embarrassing!

Democratic Party: 1; Frank: 0.

Dai Vernon

Dai VernonItalian Baroque composer Giovanni Antonio Giay was born on this day in 1690. And Portuguese Baroque composer Carlos Seixas was born in 1704. English Romantic painter John Constable was born in 1776. Photographic innovator Julia Margaret Cameron was born in 1815. Refrigeration technology inventor Carl von Linde was born in 1842.

On this day in 1864, the great composer Richard Strauss was born. Since I was a kid, I’ve been most interested in him not for his music but for his life. His only son Franz married a Jewish woman. He spent much of the late 30s and early 40s trying to protect his daughter-in-law and grandsons. And he was successful. But it did require him to associate with the Nazi regime in ways that disgusted him. Here is Also sprach Zarathustra, which Joseph Goebbels thought decadent, performed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra:

The man who moved his family’s textile company into automobiles, Kiichiro Toyoda was born in 1894. Jacques Cousteau was born in 1910. And one of the few football coaches I could name, Vince Lombardi was born in 1913.

Gene Wilder is 80 today. I doubt that Mel Brooks should have gotten screenwriting credit for Young Frankenstein. As far as I can tell, Wilder conceived and wrote the whole thing and Brooks acted the way directors normally do in the development of scripts. Much the same thing can be said of Blazing Saddles, where Brooks took top credit for screenwriting and put “Story by Andrew Bergman” in tiny letters. I think everyone knows that Bergman is a comic genius because of his later career, but few even know that Wilder wrote Young Frankenstein and is singularly responsible for its best scene:[1]

This clip from the movie has been eliminated from the internet. Of course our copyright system is out of control. But even more, these copyright owners are extremely shortsighted about this stuff. Might it be the case that having great clips like this would increase sales? I don’t doubt it.

One of the few football players I could name, Joe Montana is 57. The great comedian Hugh Laurie is 54. Here he is with Stephen Fry doing their brilliant skit about the privatization of the police force:

And actor Peter Dinklage is 44.

The day, however, belongs to the great magician Dai Vernon who was born on this day in 1894. He had an enormous influence on close-up magic over the last century (he lived to be 98). But unlike too much of the magic fraternity, he wasn’t obsessed with getting credit for ever little thing he did. Magic, I’m afraid, is like academic politics: fierce because the stakes are so low. So in that environment, Vernon was refreshingly pleasant. And brilliant. Here is something amazing: 26 seconds of him doing the slow motion card vanish as a young man:

Happy birthday Dai Vernon!

[1] Yes, I really do hate Mel Brooks. I think he’s an awful human being. But if he had done any decent work after Young Frankenstein, I would be more forgiving.

Drunk Driving Hysteria

Drunk DrivingI am not much of a drinker. But I really hate the modern abstinence movement that is best represented by MADD. And look: I understand! The negative effects of alcohol are big and obvious. I don’t even much think of drunk driving. Alcohol makes a lot of people total assholes. But here’s the thing. Americans are far more responsible drinkers than they’ve ever been. And what has our society done as a result: become more and more hysterical about the evils of the devil’s brew.

Do I really mean that MADD is an abstinence movement? Yes! MADD lobbied to have the legal alcohol level be reduced from 0.12 to 0.08. I’m not necessarily against that, although I think it is madness to say that a blood alcohol content (BAC) alone really tells much about how fit someone is to drive. But the point is that the moment that MADD got the BAC level reduced to 0.08, it immediately started lobbying to have the new number reduced to 0.04. I’m not a big believer in slippery slopes, but I have no doubt that MADD would not be happy with the 0.04 level if they got it. It would soon be 0.02 and then zero tolerance.

What’s more, MADD has been very deceptive in pushing for their policies. A great one is to get a group of non-drinkers together. They then have them drink a glass of wine and ask them, “Would you feel comfortable driving in this state?” The answer is almost always no. And then they tell the people, well, you’re BAC is less than 0.04! I try to have a glass of wine each night and I agree: I’m not fit to drive after I’ve had a glass of wine. That’s because, I’m a lightweight. People who drink more than I do are not incapacitated at that level.

Along these lines, Sarah Kliff reported this afternoon on a new study (pdf) that found—Brace yourself!—designated drivers sometimes have a drink. The results are supposed to be shocking, but I found them rather encouraging. For starters, you need to know that the study was conducted with twenty-somethings in college bars. Yet the study found that 65% of designated drivers had had no alcohol at all. To me, that’s the headline. I never would have thought that this group would be that responsible. That result really cheers me up!

In addition, 82% were below 0.05 BAC—also known as well below the legal limit. And the kicker is that even among the 18% who had a BAC above 0.05, the median was only 0.08. (The average was higher, indicated that some were clearly drunk.) So even among the most irresponsible, there was a level of responsibility. What’s more: I want to know how their friends tested. Is a designated driver BAC of 0.08 optimal? Of course not. But if he (it is usually he) is driving around comrades who test at 0.22, that’s a good thing, is it not?

But the paper’s conclusion is just the opposite of this, “These findings identify the need for consensus across researcher, layperson, and communication campaigns that a DD must be someone who has abstained from drinking entirely.” Really?! That strikes me as an awfully moralistic conclusion for a scientific paper. Although it is typical of the drug treatment community that thinks that anything but perfection is failure. And this has a pernicious effect on society. I always encourage people who are having trouble quitting smoking to try just to reduce their smoking. It really isn’t the case that one cigarette or 40 is the same. But talking to these fools, you get the idea that it is.

Kliff’s headline is typical of the kind of hysteria that the abstinence movement is pushing: “Go Home Designated Drivers; You’re Drunk.” But of course, that is not what the study showed at all. It showed that a very strong majority of designated drivers were not drinking at all. And it showed that 91% of them were at or below the legal limit. Clearly, some of the designated drivers were confused about their jobs. But this isn’t something that deserves hysteria: “Study shows 9% of a collection of people known to be irresponsible are in fact irresponsible.” Alert the press! Oops. They already did.


The data were collected between 10:00 pm and 2:30 am. This is important, because this shows that the results do indicate a worst case scenario. These are the more serious drinkers—again, the people you would think would be more irresponsible. But if I were being completely fair, the headline ought to have been, “Most designated drivers do excellent job; some do not.”

Americans Don’t Care About Anything Important

Public Support for NSA: Then and Now

Steve Benen provided this graph that shows a fair bit of hypocrisy in how both Democrats and Republicans think about the surveillance state. But Benen is much more of a partisan than I am. His whole point of showing the graph was to push back on the “Democratic hypocrisy” narrative that is forming. He quite correctly noted that the question in 2006 was different than the question in 2013. In 2006, people were asked about an illegal program; in 2013, it is a legal program.

He’s reaching, right? We’re all very glad that Obama cares enough about the law generally to put a patina of legality on the vile surveillance practices of his administration. It at least provides for the possibility of oversight and maybe even a change of policies if only the American people actually cared about the issue. But the opposite argument could be made. This program is much bigger and it doesn’t necessarily involve communication with foreigners.

To my mind, both programs are terrible in their own ways. The Bush program was highly invasive and illegal. The Obama program is not very invasive and legal, but it is vast. What’s more, I have little doubt that the information will creep into other uses. The New York Times editorial board has been very good on this issue; however, I thought they asked some naive (but good) questions this morning:

Are the calls and texts of ordinary Americans mined for patterns that might put innocent people under suspicion? Why is data from every phone call collected, and not just those made by people whom the government suspects of terrorist activity? How long is the data kept, and can it be used for routine police investigations?

Let’s see now. It isn’t that the program might put innocent people under suspicion; it is that it does. All the data are[1] collected for the same reason a dog licks its balls: because it can be done. I don’t think that can be stressed enough: the surveillance state does not processes so much data out of any need. It is just like video stores asking for you Social Security number: they don’t need it; they are just mindlessly collecting all of the data that they can. That’s what the NSA does. The data will be kept forever. And of course the data can be used for other purposes. As I’ve noted before: it can figure out if you are using illegal drugs and it can be used to figure out if you are having an affair. All from so called meta data.

But I’m not worried about any hypocrisy on the part of about 25% of the Democrats and Republicans. There are any number of reasons they could give for the changes in their opinions anyway. What’s more, a lot of those reasons are valid. What I’m worried about is that roughly 55% of both parties are never worried about the government snooping at what we are doing. This is a horrifying, but hardly unusual position for me to find myself in. Large swaths of Americans aren’t worried about global warming. And that’s more important than this. Large swaths are not worried about income inequality. And that’s more important than this. Even fewer care about our racist “justice” system. And that’s more important than this.

So many moral catastrophes, so little time.

[1] “Data” is technically a plural. But that isn’t why I use it as a plural. It just sounds wrong to me to do otherwise. It’s just one of my eccentricities.

Dianne Feinstein Is a Traitor

Dianne FeinsteinIt’s hard to know what to think about Edward Snowden, the young man who leaked NSA information to the Guardian and the Washington Post. On the surface, it is all good and he looks like a hero. But I will admit that the story seems a little weird and so I will wait for more information. What can’t be questioned is that the documents leaked should have been leaked. The American public have a right to know about this stuff.

We’ve come a long way from where we started in this matter. It used to be that the government didn’t want newspapers to print troop movements. Now, the government doesn’t want newspapers to print that there is even a war. The dust up over Snowden’s revelations makes no sense. On the one hand we hear that he is a traitor who put American lives in danger. And on the other hand we hear that we already knew this was going on. This, of course, is what we heard about Bradley Manning, “This doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know—and it’s dangerous!”

Last night, The Hill reported that my very own United States Senator Dianne Feinstein thinks that Snowden is a traitor. On the most basic level, this is absurd. Just as I won’t say that he is a hero, she can’t know he is a traitor. But in her tiny mind he’s a traitor because he broke the law. She said, “He violated the oath, he violated the law. It’s treason.” Let’s just step back and think about it for a moment. Ever since the Nuremberg Trials, we have supposedly know that there are some orders—some laws—that should not be followed. My question for Ms. Feinstein is, “If the law said you should kill 6 million Jews, would you?”

Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is typical of our elected officials. I think of this as the 5-year-old approach to justice: it is always wrong to lie; it is always wrong to fight; it is always wrong to break the law. Of course, Feinstein is all for complexity when it comes to defending her authoritarian approach to the surveillance state. Why do we need it? She’ll tell you it is because it saves lives. But she can’t show you the lives that it saved. Because that might cost lives. I’m serious! She says that she’d be all for accountability, “Here’s the rub: the instances where this has produced good—has disrupted plots, prevented terrorist attacks, is all classified, that’s what’s so hard about this.”

Actually, it isn’t hard at all. As Scalia said, “I’ll bet you, if you conducted a lot of unreasonable searches and seizures, you’d get more convictions too.” The question is not whether having a member of the NSA follow each of us everywhere we go wouldn’t make us safer in the sense of fewer terrorist attacks. The question is whether the trade off is worth it. Clearly, Feinstein thinks the current actions of the NSA are worth it. I think they aren’t. I think it is worth talking about. Without Snowden we couldn’t even do that. Even with him it looks like we can’t.

Treason is a funny thing. When Feinstein was elected to Congress, she took an oath to uphold the Constitution. As the chair of the Select Committee on Intelligence, she has not only allowed the government to infringe on my constitutional rights, she has cheered it on. Who’s the real traitor?

Update (11 June 2013 10:03 am)

I just wrote to Feinstein:

I’m displeased you are calling Edward Snowden a traitor. Breaking the law or an oath does not necessarily make one a traitor. All your public comments are doing is poisoning the water so that we can’t have a reasonable discussion of this. The truth is that at this point we can’t say if Snowden is a hero or a traitor. And you more than anyone ought to understand that. We didn’t send you to Washington so you could be a firewall against democracy and open government. Please at least moderate your rhetoric.
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