Koko and the Nature of Communication

Koko and All BallAs I was researching today’s birthday post, I came upon Louis-Claude Daquin who was born on this day in 1694. But on Wikipedia, it said that he was “a French composer of Jewish birth writing…” That stopped me right in my tracks. What, pray tell, is “Jewish birth writing”? But after a moment, I figured it out. This is the sort of thing that drives people like Lynne Truss crazy. It should have said that he was a French composer of Jewish birth comma writing in the Baroque and Galant styles. (The Galant style is that transition between Baroque and Classical that I like so much.) Now you know me: I’m no grammar bully. But this is a case where punctuation really matters. In fact, for the last hundred years or so, grammar bullies have often been the kind who hate punctuation. I feel that too much punctuation is better than too little for exactly this reason. And yes, I know I’m clueless. I know that most people wouldn’t have made the mistake of thinking that “Jewish birth writing” was something real. But there really are special musical forms for things like bar mitzvahs and (I swear I am not making this up) circumcisions.

Anyway, Daquin is quite good. Listen to this short piece:

The great writer Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in 1804. In addition to all of his writing, he was also a friend of Herman Melville. At this point in my life, I have to say: I like Melville’s ideas much more, but Hawthorne was a far better writer. I think Melville was too stuck in his own head. If 500 words wasn’t enough to completely confuse the reader, he would give you 5,000 words. Melville is better in his short stories. Regardless: great writers both.

The remarkable songwriter Stephen Foster was born in 1826. He is mostly associated with the south. Yet he never lived there. He was a northern boy, born in Pennsylvania and died in New York. What’s more, he only visited the south once. And that was after having written “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” and “Old Folks at Home.” He was only 37 when he died. He are James Taylor and Johnny Cash doing “Oh! Susanna” live:

Circus ringmaster James Anthony Bailey was born in 1847. Film producer and the last M in MGM, Louis B. Mayer was born in 1882. Cartoonist Rube Goldberg was born in 1883:

The brilliant writer Lionel Trilling was born in 1905. Ann Landers was born in 1918. Two football executives known for their “colorfulness” (read: vile personality traits) Al Davis and George Steinbrenner were born in 1929 and 1930.

Abstract expressionist (And not a bad one!) Fernand Leduc is 97 today. The beautiful Eva Marie Saint is 89 today. I loved her in On the Waterfront. The even more beautiful Gina Lollobrigida is 86. The funny and apparently not a complete prick like Mel Brooks, Neil Simon is also 86. And the wonderful Bill Withers is 75. We never miss an opportunity to listen to him:

The day, however, goes to Koko, the gorilla master of sign language, who is 42 today. There are a lot of scientists who argue that Koko isn’t really communicating; she’s just been trained to use certain signs under certain conditions. I find this more than wrongheaded; it is offensive. It goes back to the idea that somehow humans are distinctly different from other animals. I can accept that Koko may be limited in terms of abstract thought. But I have a hard time explaining her request and subsequent behavior towards her cat All Ball as anything but indicative of human-like communication. Are we, as humans so insecure that we can’t allow other animals to be closely related? It is shameful to think otherwise.

Happy birthday Koko!

Facebook and the Perfect Employee

Facebook SucksI feel sorry for young people today. Throughout my life, I have done many stupid things. But mostly, they only reside in my flawed memory. Today, young people have to suffer what has long been an unfortunate aspect of being a celebrity: the permanent documentation of every silly idea, poorly chosen word, and thoughtless action you ever managed to make concrete. And it has set up a situation that I’ve been bitching about for years. Employers increasingly look at such things as if they provide any information about how good an employee will be.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about, Unstable Weirdos and Business Success. That article dealt with the fact that most brilliant people are generally a little screwy one way or another. There’s a great quote from Michael Clayton, “Come on, Karen. You didn’t hire this guy because of his low-key regularity. You hired him because he’s a killer and because he’s brilliant and because he’s crazy enough to grind away on a case like this for six years without a break.” Karen, of course, does not understand at all and only responds, “We pay for his time.” And in the end, Karen ends up showing she is not up to the task of her own job. Maybe she could have used a little instability.

The point is that employers want brilliant, creative people who are also just stuffed shirts. But it isn’t just when it comes to the “geniuses.” Businesses generally would rather hire stuffed shirts than effective workers. Another example of this comes from an episode of the TV series Taxi. Elaine becomes the secretary for a man in middle management. He has made it in his corporation because basically no one knows he exists; he never says anything. But he has brilliant ideas for the company. Elaine convinces him to make a proposal to the company. And they fire him. Yes, that is a whimsical take on the problem. But the base dynamic is correct: a useless but unchallenging employee is better than a useful and challenging one.

Three researchers at North Carolina State are pushing back against some of this nonsense. They found, for example, the tactic of looking at Facebook pages doesn’t really tell employers what they think it does. Indications of drug and alcohol use do not make for worse or less conscientious workers. The lead author said, “This means companies are eliminating some conscientious job applicants based on erroneous assumptions regarding what social media behavior tells us about the applicants.”

Of course, it won’t matter. American business approaches workers the way that it approaches any other resource. They want consistency and quality assurance. And that means collecting as much data as possible. The fact that most of the data they collect is useless or worse doesn’t matter. A standard technique in the high tech world is to schedule interviews with a long line of people taking up half a day or more. As an interviewee, it feels like they are trying to break you. And in most cases, I think they do just that. The result is that a lot of perfectly good candidates get weeded out and they are limited to only those candidates who put up well with the unreasonable interview process on that day.

As a result of this, I have found throughout my life that I deal best with immigrant employers who generally don’t care how weird I am, just that I can do the job. Really, if it weren’t for our imperialist military doing the bidding of American business, we would be much further along on our economic death spiral. You may be free in America, but you are most certainly not free in American business. Unless by free you mean the freedom to be like everyone else.

H/T: Matt Yglesias

Four Independence Days

Fake Patriotism

This is the fourth time that this blog has celebrated Independence Day. As you all must know by now, I don’t dig on holidays. They disrupt my life. And Independence Day is particularly bad for a few reasons. First, and probably most important, is the fact that I have a neighbor who sets off loud fireworks. I don’t like explosions. Call me a killjoy, but I’m anxious enough. Second, this is a day when the worst simulacra of patriotism ooze from every pore of society. I find myself in conflict on the whole notion of patriotism. I have a great love for much of this country. I like that Americans do tend to be more positive than many other peoples; I like our naivete. I like our geography; we grabbed some of the best latitudes. I like many of our ideals; I like the vision that Thomas Paine had for this country. But I don’t like our increasing authoritarianism. People claim that we are the police men of the world, but that’s just a nice way of saying we the world’s bullies. And I don’t like that we are less and less a democracy.

I would say, nonetheless, that I am a patriot. But do you know who are not patriots? The rich. I don’t mean every single rich person, of course. But I mean the “greed is good” crowd. During the Gilded Age, the rich were awful. But they understood that they owed something back to society. They weren’t John Galt assholes who couldn’t see just how lucky they were to be born in a time and a place that compensated their skills so remarkably. Yet we have two political parties (the only parties that really matter) who kneel down to these people as though they were demigods. That is how screwed up our country is today: those who only ask what the government can do for them are worshiped. It wouldn’t be so bad if the nation as a whole recognized what was going on. This country is far on the road to the New Feudalism. When I think of the word “serf” I do not think of the pastime of Gen-X slackers. I think of the noun: slaves to our corporate (feudal) lords.

The first year of this blog, I didn’t even write about Independence Day. I wrote a comparison of the two Truman Capote biopics. And it wasn’t because I wasn’t interested in politics. The posts right before and after that one were about economics. I don’t know what was going on. Maybe I had not yet started thinking in terms of writing for holidays. Regardless, I wasn’t writing that much at the time. There were only 8 posts that whole month.

The second year, I wrote about the lack of democracy in this country:

I always feel sad on nationalistic holidays. This is a great change from my youth when I looked forward to watching 1776 on the 4th. Now I think of Ben Franklin’s statement that the United States was, “A republic, if you can keep it.” It sure seems like a republic, at the same time I feel I am not represented. People with money are represented. Things with money are represented. But me? I don’t know. I am an outsider in my own country. I would feel far more relaxed in Mexico right now.

And then I embedded an acoustic version of one of my favorite songs, “I Felt Like a Gringo” by the Minutemen. Here is a live electric version. Man, can these guys play!

The third year, I basically just embedded this great Howard Zimm essay read by Viggo Mortensen:

My feelings about my country are those of a father whose son is a great disappointment. I love this country, but I expect far more from it. And I am not going to stop expecting more from it.

Real Patriotism

Happy July 4th

July 4th

Here’s to a happy and safe July 4th from our families to yours!

Some Patriotic-Sounding Names Fun Fact

Fifty-nine places contain the word “liberty” in the name. Pennsylvania, with 11, has more of these places than any other state. Of the 59 places nationwide containing “liberty” in the name, four are counties: Liberty County, Ga. (65,471), Liberty County, Fla. (8,276), Liberty County, Mont. (2,392) and Liberty County, Texas (76,571).
One place has “patriot” in its name. Patriot, Ind., has an estimated population of 209.

The most common patriotic-sounding word used within place names is “union” with 136. Pennsylvania, with 33, has more of these places than any other state. Other words most commonly used in place names are Washington (127), Franklin (118), Jackson (96) and Lincoln (95).

Fun Facts from United States Census Bureau