Take a Load Off Robbie

Robbie RobertsonThe captain of the HMS Beagle when Darwin did his research, Robert FitzRoy was born on this day in 1805. He’s been portrayed as a bad guy because he didn’t accept Darwin’s theories, but FitzRoy was a good, if not a great man. He was an important meteorologist and a publicly minded man, if limited by the mores of his time. On the other side of the Atlantic was a man I don’t really have anything good to say about. But I did James Anthony Bailey the other day, so I’m forced to admit that P. T. Barnum was born in 1810. The great French writer Jean Cocteau was born in 1889. Pioneering Russian puppeteer Sergey Obraztsov was born in 1901. And composer George Rochberg was born in 1918. Here is his Caprice Variations played with much vigor by violinist Gidon Kremer (who is really good here and everywhere). Look, I know this piece is not easy. But if you stick with it and go with it, I think you’ll find it enjoyable. There is a method to all the madness. It is just that it is a highly dissonant piece:

Comedic actor Katherine Helmond is 85 today. Huey Lewis is 63. And Terry Chimes of The Class is 57.

Not much of a day for birthdays, which is why it belongs to the guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson who is 70 today. I mostly really like him for writing the great song “The Weight.” Here he is with The Band from The Last Waltz:

Happy birthday Robbie Robertson!

Broken Links and the Little Blog

Broken LinkEarlier today, I was looking for statistics on the number of gun suicides in the United States. This is an issue that I’ve written about a lot. So I looked there for a link. And I found one! It was to the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence (ICAHV) website. But don’t click on that link, because it will just take you to a “Page Not Found” error page. It would be one thing if the ICAHV didn’t exist anymore, but that’s not the case. What it looks like happened is that they just decided to rearrange their site. The page used to be at /facts-about-suicide-and-gun-violence but now it is at /gun-facts/suicide-and-gun-violence.

I find myself in this situation quite often. And with over 2,300 article on this blog, I cannot spend my time going through all the links to see if they are still good. In the case of ICAHV, the situation is completely unacceptable. A site can reorganize itself and still protect old links. And this should be a priority for an advocacy group. But the problem is much worse than this. Entire sites go away. This may seem like a problem that cannot be solved but that isn’t true. I have plans that when this site has outlived its usefulness to me (like when I die), it will still exist except with ads that will pay for the hosting fees. That might not be possible with content that requires royalties be paid, but I’m sure even that issue could be worked out. (Normally when a publisher goes out of business, the copyright returns to the writer; most writers would prefer that their work still exist.)

By far the biggest problem I run into is with embedded videos. Sometimes videos are taken down because there was a copyright claim. I understand that and little can be done except to fix our broken intellectual property system. But mostly, videos go away simply because YouTube accounts are closed. Most of these are not of the type that YouTube closed for “multiple copyright violations.” It seems that people just remove their YouTube accounts for what reason I can’t say. Regardless, it’s a pain.

Another problem that is only getting bigger is the change from free content to paid content. I have years of links to the New York Times and the Washington Post, both of which are now behind a pay wall. There is an obvious solution for this if it weren’t that these companies were evil. They could keep previously free content free. For example, the Post only went pay last month. Why not keep all of the content before June free? After all, people are only paying for the new content. They are, after all, news papers. It would actually make sense to keep all content that is more than a month old free. That would have many advantages, including keeping the brand alive. But they won’t do that because, as I said, they are evil.

Felix Salmon took on this issue last week, The Spread of Link Rot. His concern is more from the standpoint of a reader than a writer. And it is more of a lament: nothing can be done! There is a lot that can be done. For one thing, if I were Salmon, I would try to get some protections in my contract. If enough writers of his stature took on the issue, something might happen. And there are potential technological solutions to the problem. They could also do what people like Jonathan Bernstein do and have their own blogs, which they can control.

The reason the situation seems hopeless to people like Salmon is that they’ve been trained to think like their corporate overlords. If any given page isn’t getting tens of thousands of views per day, it is useless. This is very much like Hollywood blockbusters. They play for a few weeks and then they are on your TV. But those of us working the margins of the internet are like people who make tiny films: we expect to grow an audience over a long period of time. Thus, if a year old Felix Salmon column has a broken link, it doesn’t much matter. He may not like it, but he knows that the vast majority of people read what he writes as he writes it. But it really does matter to me that my links are good a year or two on, because I still get a fair percentage of my traffic from those old articles.

So I try as best I can to fix broken links, replace paid content with free content, and find replacement videos. But my time is limited.

Turtles and Clueless Atheists

The God ArgumentDamon Linker has written something over at The Week, Where Are the Honest Atheists? It starts off as a review of A. C. Grayling’s latest book, The God Argument. And that’s why I read the article, because I think Grayling is an insightful thinker, and I’ve ordered the book. So I was interested to hear what people were saying about it. After reading the article, however, I’m not sure that Linker has read the book.

In saying this, I don’t mean to imply that I’ve caught Linker at anything. He simply thinks that the world does not need another New Atheist book. This strikes me as odd, because I ordered the book because I don’t think of Grayling as being part of the New Atheist movement except in the most general terms. But I should know in a week or so. It has seemed to me up to this point that Grayling is a far better thinker than Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris.

Most of Linker’s article is about the writer Philip Larkin and his dark images of a godless universe. Linker seems to think that atheism is only valid if proponents hate it. There is something to be said for that, I guess. I think what he really has a problem with is all the happy horseshit of atheists, who are often more New Age than a 60s commune. No, if we all become atheists, we would not all just get along. But there is a happy side of atheism that very few atheists understand. Certainly Linker, who I assume is an atheist, doesn’t seem to understand it:

Finitude is a good thing!

I cannot think of a single thing as terrifying as immortality. Because if I lived forever, I would experience every one of the lesser terrors an infinite number of times. Who over the age of thirty thinks it would be cool to get older and older? Hell, I am only marginally happy with the workings of my body now; give it another 40 years and I’ll be begging for the lethal injection.

But there is a reason that we get so much happy horseshit from the New Atheists. The nonsecular world has been telling us for thousands of years that without God, there would be nothing but chaos because it is only out of fear and allegiance to God that people behave. That strikes me as a reasonable thing to argue against. Meanwhile, Linker sends us to Larkin, whose primary concern is that without God we will lose the sacred. But that’s something that the vast majority of the secular and nonsecular world have in common: the idea that God and the sacred have anything to do with each other.

There is a mystery to existence. Anyone who understands that communes with the sacred. God actually gets in the way of that because the way that most people conceptualize him (The pronoun tells all!) hides the question. This is like kindergarten theology, yet very few people seem to get it. Who created you? Your mother! And who created her? Her mother! Tracing that all the way back might get you to God, but it won’t get you to the sacred. Why? Because it isn’t about counting the turtles, it’s about accepting them.

Update (Almost Immediately)

I found this recent interview by Sam Harris with A.C. Grayling, and I must admit, I’m not impressed. In particular, this exchange is typical of what I think of as very low-level atheist thinking:

What would you say to someone who argues that we need religion, whether or not any religious doctrine is true, because religion gives us spirituality, rituals, etc.?

I say that such pleasures and relaxations as a country walk, dinner with friends, an afternoon in an art gallery, attending a concert or the theatre, intimacy with a loved one, lying on a beach in the sun, reading and learning, making things, are all “spiritual exercises” in their refreshment, strengthening and promotion of connections with others and the world—these are the only “rituals” and observances required for an intelligent appreciation of what is good and possible in human life.

This is why I like the word “sacred.” The word “spirituality” could mean anything. I take great pleasure in long walks, but they are not in themselves spiritual or sacred. All the things he mentions are important things for humans to do, but they are beside the point. It’s like telling someone who is horny that they ought to go shoes shopping because that too is sensual.

Quixote Vs. Kowalski

QuixoticYou all know what a Don Quixote fan I am. What you probably don’t know is that I’ve been trying to write my own take on the tale. To some extent, I’ve been inspired by Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote. I am trying to do something quite different, however. I want to stay much closer to the original. Greene takes the tale in a highly philosophical direction and doesn’t attack the core of the book which is the nature of self. At first, I started the story (for lack of a better term, because I don’t know what it is at this point) on a bus with a man defending a woman’s honor. He is so overpowered with the feelings from this that something snaps in him and he begins to wander the country like Caine in Kung Fu. But the bus wasn’t really cutting it, so I changed the location to a bar.

Life may indeed imitate art. But I write comedy. And life is tragic. Simon Gutierrez at the ABC affiliate in Houston reported earlier this week about a bar fight last Saturday. The reporting is vague and contradictory, but I think I’ve got the broad outlines of the story. A couple of guys came into the bar right before closing. They acted like real jerks, getting in people’s faces and such. Then they force a woman to dance with them. Another guy, our own gallant Don Quixote who is said to be Jesus Geraldo Solis,[1] intervened and told the guys to knock it off. He said she had a boyfriend or some such. A fight broke out. One of the jerks pulled out a gun, and shot Solis twice, killing him.

This makes me reflect on Don Quixote all the more. In a reasonable world, Don Quixote might lose a battle badly. He certainly does in the book but not as much as you would think given that he’s old and crazy. But in our unreasonable world, Don Quixote just gets blown away. There is no romance. No gallantry. No manhood. There is simply the great technological leveler—the individual equivalent of nuclear weapons and the madness Mutual Assured Destruction.

What makes this interesting is that most people who own guns think they make the person more manly. I think it is the opposite. They can certainly just be tools as they are for a great many people. But more often, I’m afraid, they are a symbol of manhood for a culture that has lost it. Don’t get me wrong. I know that actual knights were lowly noblemen who were generally evil and above the law when it came to the vast majority of the people. But there was an ideal.

What is the ideal now? I think there are two things: cash and carnage. Greed is good and so is violence—at least if you can come up with the vaguest of justifications. “He made me look bad in front of that woman, I think I’ll kill him.” But there are ideals for those who want them. And maybe it is better to die a Don Quixote than to live a Stanley Kowalski.

H/T: Mad Mike’s America


[1] I mention his name only because he’s a hero. I get so tired to hearing how every person who puts on a uniform is a hero, like some cop who spends his whole career working in the records department is deserving of the term. People who actually stand up to evil are extremely rare. Mr. Solis is a hero.

Update (23 July 2013 12:09 pm)

Two suspects have been arrested in the case. There is another detail. At first Solis was shot in the leg. He attempted to walk away, so the shooter went up to him and shot him a couple of more times. It is also interesting that one of the guys arrested is only 19.

Paul Krugman Is Depressed

Paul KrugmanI was reading a post by Paul Krugman this morning, and I thought I was reading my own writing. He sounded downright despondent. The article is, On the Political Economy of Permanent Stagnation, and it speculates about how things may not get better. It was the first time I realized that in general, Krugman is a pretty upbeat commentator. And I suspect he will be again. His father died last week and that has got to put a grey patina on one’s world view.

But just because he’s looking at the world from an unhappy place right now doesn’t mean he’s wrong. It is extremely hard not to be discouraged. As he points out, except in Japan, the best we’ve seen from policy makers in the developed world is an attempt to limit damage. No one seems willing or able to do what every introductory economics textbook of the last 50 years says should be done. The situation may actually be better in Greece and Italy and Portugal because things are so bad there. Here is the United States, we are very likely to get absolutely no policy response even if this goes on for a couple of decades. Things are bad but they aren’t that bad.

Or as Krugman puts it:

I guess what I’m saying is that I worry that a more or less permanent depression could end up simply becoming accepted as the way things are, that we could suffer endless, gratuitous suffering, yet the political and policy elite would feel no need to change its ways.

My evolution on this subject has taken a very dark turn this last year. I used to think that the power elites could abuse the nation for only so long. Eventually, the people would rise up. But there are so many things in the United States that push against democracy. Start with a Senate that is not only undemocratic, it skews highly conservative because people from rural states simply don’t understand (or care) about the needs of the majority of their countrymen who live in urban areas. Add to this gerrymandering that is currently killing our country by allowing both state and federal government to be controlled by conservatives entirely against the will of the people. Add the undemocratic effects of unlimited money in politics. And top it all off with a huge dollop of voter suppression and you have the makings for a government run by a small, radical minority.

I’m sure as time goes on, Paul Krugman will feel better about the state of our nation. But it will take something more than a better mood to change my outlook.

Food Sensitivities and ADHD

FoodQuestionMarkBeing with my son day in and day out and because of much of the reading I’ve done, I do feel there is some link between food and behavior. Though I don’t believe certain foods cause ADHD, I think certain foods can cause or exacerbate certain negative behaviors in some kids.

Beyond the obvious effects of sugar, which can turn your child into a bouncy, flouncy Tigger, I have also been hearing and reading a lot about food sensitivities, also called intolerances. According to Wikipedia, such intolerances can cause lots of the same symptoms as true allergies. The difference is that the symptoms of true allergies show up within a half hour after eating the offending food, whereas the effects of food intolerances are usually less severe and more chronic. Casein in milk and gluten in grains seem to be two of the biggest culprits. As a result, many parents are cutting the wheat and dairy out of their children’s diets hoping that this regimen will improve their child’s ADHD symptoms.

Though this is a good start, what if these aren’t the things a particular child is sensitive to? Or, what if they aren’t the only things? If your child has nutrition-focused pediatrician, like my son’s, then she or he should be willing to work with you. If not, I encourage you to be strong and advocate for trying different things in support of your child’s current therapies.

Working closely with your child’s doctor, according to one Purdue University study, you can both test for food sensitivities and follow an elimination diet. The guidelines for an elimination diet are found in many different books. You can either search for them in your local library, or, if you would like to purchase them, you can look here. Some of the most common foods people have sensitivities to, besides the dairy and wheat, are corn, yeast, soy, citrus, eggs, chocolate, and peanuts. Individuals might also have sensitivities to foods with high salicylates. Foods most-commonly known to contain salicylates are in the nightshade family, which include tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and peppers.