Napoleon, Antosia, and All About Donkeys

Napoleon and AntosiaLast night, Rachel Maddow did a segment on Napoleon and Antosia[1], two donkeys at the Poznan Zoo, in Poland. These donkeys have been a couple for a decade and have had six children during that time. The most recent was this year. But some people complained because it turns out — and this is shocking — in order for a jenny (female donkey) to have a foal, a jack (male donkey) must have sex with her. What’s more, donkey’s don’t even have the decency to us the missionary position.

Oh! My! God!

Can you imagine?! This was being seen by children — human children, specifically. So some people complained to local politician Lydia Dudziak who convinced the director of the zoo to separate these immoral donkeys who were, not to put too fine a point on it, acting like asses. Now let us consider this for a second. Zoos are not the nicest places for animals. This is probably the biggest reason why zoos have problems mating animals. The fact that Napoleon and Antosia manage to carry on their affair after ten years and six foals should be celebrated.

What’s more, if you are as old as I am, you will have noticed a change in nature documentaries. When I was a kid, predators never killed their prey in these things. The rabbit always got away from the fox. Now, watching a cheetah tear apart a beautiful gazelle is no big deal. Yet Napoleon humping Antosia from time to time is going to scar the kiddies? Really, if someone had told me at 5 years old that they were just playing, I would have believed them. I’m not a parent, and so I probably shouldn’t say this, but a lot of parents really need to get over themselves.

It all had a happy ending. After a week the zoo reversed it’s decision:

The zoo acknowledged making a mistake on Thursday and said the donkeys — Napoleon and Antosia — were back again in one pen. “It was never our intention for any animals to feel uncomfortable because of their natural behaviors,” the zoo said in a statement.

The interruption of the long-standing romance has turned into a national news story in Poland in the past days. Nearly 7,000 people signed a petition to have them reunited.

Two fan pages that appeared on Facebook devoted to their cause attracted nearly 10,000 likes — and photos of donkeys in the act.

Experts weighed in, saying that forcing the donkeys to live alone could affect their psychological wellbeing. Politicians were asked about it on the country’s leading news programs.

“Animals separated by sex into different cages? It’s complete idiocy,” said Stefan Niesiolowski, a legislator with the governing party, Civic Platform.

Even the spokesman for the conservative Law and Justice party, which Dudziak belongs to, would not come to her defense.

“It’s a level of absurdity — that has been crossed to such an extent that I don’t even want to read or know about this,” Adam Hofman said on Wednesday, on behalf of the party.

This is all great news, but it got me reading about donkeys last night. I found this great sentence on Wikipedia, “Although formal studies of their behavior and cognition are rather limited, donkeys appear to be quite intelligent, cautious, friendly, playful, and eager to learn.” That sounds very much like me. I’ve always known that donkeys get a bad rap because horses will basically do anything you tell them to and donkeys know better than to trust you. Yes, you can train horses to walk sideways. But I’m a lot smarter than a horse and if you try to teach me to walk sideways, I’m going to react very much like a donkey, although with more violence.

In my reading, I also learned about mules and hinnies. A mule is the offspring of a male donkey and female horse. A hinny is the offspring of a female donkey and a male horse. Because of the way that chromosomes interact (horses have 64, donkeys 62, and mules & hinnies have 63), it is a whole lot harder to create a hinny than a mule. But one thing I absolutely did not know is that hinnies and mules are not necessarily sterile. Well, all males are. But there are 60 documented cases of a female mule giving birth. Again, though, hinnies are much less fertile, with only one documented case of a female giving birth.

Regardless, I’m not sure how I feel about the breading of mules and hinnies. It strikes me a bit like something that Dr Josef Heiter would have done. I know: because of hybrid vigor, these mostly sterile animals are smarter and stronger than either horses or donkeys. Still, isn’t it kind of lonely, both in a personal and evolutionary way? Maybe I’m a hybridist, but I think it is best to let donkeys be with donkeys. (As for horses, they should stick together too — and as far away from me as possible, because horses are evil.) It is a very good thing that Napoleon and Antosia are back together!

[1] Antosia is the name of a town in Ukraine, but between the two world wars, it was in Poland.

The Once Exalted Crank Ben Carson

Ben CarsonI’ve been hearing a lot of people talking about the possibility that Ben Carson might run for president. Why not? I’m sure he will have another book out that he wants to sell. Perhaps, “One Nation: We Can Save America’s Future by Killing the Poor.” But a presidential run by him would be very typical of the Republican Party, in that they think one doesn’t need to know anything about governing in order to govern. And Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bush the Younger proved that in a technical sense, you don’t need to know anything, even if it is really bad for the state and country. Carson has no experience in government whatsoever. This, of course, in Republican circles makes him a great candidate. It is much the same as the way that the emotionally immature are most in love with people they know least about.

But thinking about this got me reading about Carson. He’s an interesting guy. He is clearly a brilliant neurosurgeon. But apart from that, he has long been a crank. And I mean that in a good way. He had many ideas that were all over the place. In a saner time, he just would have been one of those odd guys (Like me!) who publish their marginal ideas and mostly no one really notices. He could have been a modern Iganatius Donnelly. And that would be super cool!

To give you an example, in the 1990s, he was pushing for the elimination of for-profit health insurance, “The first thing we need to do is get rid of for profit insurance companies. We have a lack of policies and we need to make the government responsible for catastrophic healthcare.” So what he’s calling for is single payer healthcare above a certain level. Depending on that level, that could be a very liberal policy. But as I’ve seen, the definition of “catastrophic” has gone up and up and up over the years as far as conservatives are concerned. Of course, now he compares Obamacare to slavery.

Carson is also an evolution denier. I have no problem with this! It goes right along with his crankery. Of course the neurosurgeon believes this. He is the same man who said of his political party, “If I were part of one, it would be called the Logic party, and it would be dedicated to commonsense approaches we all should be able to see.” Ah yes, logic! He decided that evolution is wrong because the universe is just too complex to be explained. Just the same, evolution is such a big deal because it is a simple idea that explains that complexity. I’m sure it all comes down to the fact that he is a Seventh-day Adventist and they don’t believe in evolution. But, you know: logic!

The shame is that Carson has now become cause célèbre in the conservative movement. This has destroyed his ability to be the crank that he was clearly born to be. There’s just too much money to lose with even the smallest of apostasy. So even when he says that people have no right to semi-automatic weapons in a city, he moderates it with, “There’s a reason for the Second Amendment; people do have the right to have weapons.” Of course, who cares what people do in cities? They are just a bunch of liberals anyway. (What’s more, conservatives like Ben Carson are in cities, and they don’t want gun toting idiots running around any more than anyone else!)

But when it comes down to it, I can’t say that the Republicans won’t nominate Ben Carson. It’s interesting that everyone talked about what terrible candidates the Republicans ran in 2012. But was that really true? Mitt Romney was a perfectly acceptable candidate and he did as well in the general election as any Republican would have. There were also people like Jon Huntsman and Tim Pawlenty. But the Republicans didn’t like these more reasonable guys. If it hadn’t been for his sexual transgressions, Herman Cain might well have been the nominee. I think that Carson doesn’t have his baggage, and is a hell of a lot smarter. So why not?

I don’t think Carson would have much of a chance in a general election, even if the economics were clearly favorable a Republican. Most Republicans would be thrilled to vote for an African American. But there is still a sizable part of the party (I’d say 20%) who absolutely would not vote for a black man. Many of them would not vote at all, but many others would go with Clinton. But Carson has already lost his soul, just as Ronald Reagan did before him. Both men were cranks, and they traded that exalted state to be nothing but conservative ideologues — doing the bidding of their billionaire betters.

Economic Success Is Not a Matter of Character

Lucky Ducky PanelI spend more time than a sane man would thinking about bloodletting and leeches. You may be aware that Mozart was likely killed by his doctors who bled him to death in the name of curing what was probably a minor problem. We look back on this and think, “How could they be so stupid?!” I don’t do that. I look around the world and wonder what it is we are doing today that future generations will look back on and think, “How could they be so stupid?!” Although in our case I don’t think it will be as much “stupid” as “cruel.” Take, for example, the way we treat drug users — although there is a whole lot of stupid in that too.

The main thing that I think about in this regard is free will — or rather the lack of it. We humans are a smug lot. And the more successful we are, the smugger we are. The CEO with a high paying and interesting job is eager to go to work each day. He sees himself as having a strong work ethic. But this is like a king thinking he has a good work ethic because he wakes up each day. Most people would consider the most wonderful vacation ever to be fawned over and asked their opinions about the work that other people would do. It is just icing on the cake that they would know that no matter how badly they performed, they would be given tens of millions of dollars when they were fired.

Paul KrugmanI was thinking about this because Paul Krugman wrote, The Show-Off Society. He started it with this well known observation, “Liberals talk about circumstances; conservatives talk about character.” Here’s the thing: conservatives are simply wrong. And in a hundred or two hundred years of intellectual development, people will think about our economic policies the way they think of Medieval doctors and their collections of leeches.

But there is a difference. Most of the time that people were being bled to death, no one knew any better. When it comes to economic and social policy, we do know better. And it isn’t mysterious. It doesn’t require a PhD in sociology to see children raised with every possible advantage will do better than other children. But to the conservative mind, that isn’t it at all. It is about “character.” And how do they know? Because Daymond John is a multimillionaire! You see, he is black and he wasn’t born rich. Of course, he wasn’t exactly poor. He managed to start FUBU with a $100,000 mortgage on his mother’s house.

This explains all the “cultural dysfunction” talk among conservatives when talking about African Americans. They have to, or otherwise they have to come right out and say that white men have more character than anyone else. But that isn’t real argumentation; it is just apologetics. The “cultural dysfunction” argument is just a way to say the current racist and sexist make up of power in the country is right and proper. (There is much more than racism and sexism, but we don’t have handy names for them.)

There are differences in people’s abilities, of course. But there are various problems with this. First is that intelligence has basically no correlation to financial success in this country. When I talk to rich people, I am as shocked by their stupidity and ignorance as I am when I talk to poor people. I’m sure if I took a collection of rich and poor people and taught them vector calculus, they would both do as well. (That is: they would both do very well because I’m a brilliant and inspiring teacher.)

Second, is that we have monetized certain skills to the exclusion of other skills that are as important or more so. I think humans are fundamentally decent. When living in small groups, they tend to get along rather well. But the structures we have created to allow large groups to live together have brought out many of our worst characteristics. I still think most people are decent. But what we value as a culture is mostly terrible.

The fact that we all have different intelligence and skills allows those who want to (conservatives mostly) to justify the status quo. Regardless of how we oppress one group and pamper another, there will always be a few people who crawl out of poverty and a few who fall into it (although this latter case is becoming unheard of). And it is on the basis of this that people claim it is all about “character.”

Lucky Ducky

Now, I said above that in a couple hundred years, people will look back at the cruelty and stupidity of our current situation with horror. But that doesn’t mean that I think things will have much changed. Today, roughly three million children starve to death every year. We think it is outrageous. We don’t think it is the children’s fault. But we don’t do anything about it. In the case of our nation’s shocking lack of equality and, most of all, “equality of opportunity,” it is very much in the interests of the power elite to ignore the problem. And so they will. Although I suspect by then, we will at least have some kind of guaranteed minimum income. And hopefully, it will be worldwide so that three million children aren’t starving to death each year.

We humans spend a good deal too much of our time patting ourselves on the back about how much better we are now than we used to be. In many ways, we are better. But it doesn’t help us to become better to tell ourselves we have arrived. I hear this kind of stuff all the time. The US Constitution is the greatest constitution in the world! No it isn’t. We have the best healthcare system in the world! No we don’t. We may not be equal but we have equality of opportunity and live in a meritocracy! No we don’t — not even close.

The whole “character” canard is just a way of making the power elite feel even better about themselves. They aren’t just rich and powerful; they are noble! This is the same nonsense we’ve gotten from hereditary kings for millennia. And we still haven’t gotten over it.

Janis Ian’s “Watercolors”

Janis IanOne of my favorite songs is Janis Ian’s “Watercolors” off here Between the Lines album. That album was released in 1975 when Ian was only 24 years old. And it boggles my mind. A 24 year old wrote this album?! That’s especially true of “Watercolors,” which tells the story of a very adult situation. It is a conversation between a man and woman as they jockey for power in their relationship.

A lot of people have given me a lot of flack about my belief that all relationships are power struggles. But there is no question that this is how it works. People want to be loved but they also want space, and we are always navigating in our relationships to get the right balance. It doesn’t help that the right balance is constantly changing. And so you get these situations where one person says, “I need my space!” But when they get that space, they find that they didn’t want quite that much space.

I don’t pretend to know exactly what this song means. Ian has written it in a way that is supposed to leave it vague. But my take on it is that the man is having difficulty dealing with the woman’s success and celebrity. But it isn’t even clear if she is just reflecting on a relationship that is now over or one that is in the process in real time. The former is the more interesting interpretation, as the song starts with:

I remember photographs
Watercolors of the past…

Now it could be that she is just sitting thinking about these things when she is interrupted from her reverie. But “watercolors of the past” implies the mixing of life events. Regardless, whether it is remembered or it is a thought interrupted by this reality, the song continues more clearly:

He turned and said — You ask much of me
Then, when we’d made our peace,
We lay between the sheets
He turned and said — I set you free.

This is very efficient verse. They fought, made up with the requisite makeup sex, and he’s still not happy. He offers a gambit. This leads to the chorus that is his angry rant:

Go on, be a hero, be a photograph
Make your own myths
Christ, I hope they last
longer than mine
Wider than the sky
We measure time by
Go on, be a hero, I set you free
Your stagehand lovers have conquered me
They’ll send you carnations,
While smiling faces
Look on and applaud
Go on, go on
Go away from me.

With the second verse, she responds. She is the one with the power in this relationship. So she accuses him of trying to possess her:

I said – Do you wish me dead?
Lip service to books you’ve read?
Articles on how to bed a bird in flight?
You called it love — I called it greed
You say — You take what you want
I say — You get what you need.

And now is her chance to get angry. She tells him literally to go to hell. She takes his gambit. He wants her to go? Then she’ll go.

Go on, be a hero, be a man
Make your own destiny if you can
Go find a fence, locate a shell
and hide yourself
Go on, go to hell
Go away from me
I need no charity

But then we get to the bridge. And here he relents. He backs down. He entices. He argues that they can muddle through. At least for now. And that’s about right. Some people muddle through for 70 years. Others muddle through for 70 days. But it is always a muddle that we negotiate for that perfect balance that we will never find.

He said — Come unto me
I am beauty, I am the light
Come unto me
Hold the darkness, and stay the night
I am wonder, I am the heart’s delight
Tomorrow we’ll fight.

Come on come on
Come near to me
Come be my fantasy
We’ll talk it over again sometime
I’ll send you some flowers to change your mind
but for tonight, turn out the light
Hold me — come on, come on
Set me free
Lend me your charity.

Discarded American Hero Lewis Hine

Lewis HineOn this day in 1874, the great documentary photographer Lewis Hine was born. He did important work for the first three decades of the 20th century. After college, he became a teacher in New York City. But in his early 30s, he started working as a photographer for the Russell Sage Foundation and the Pittsburgh Survey, which was formed to document living conditions in industrialized areas. According to the New York Public Library, “Following this he became a staff photographer for the National Child Labor Committee and traveled across much of the southern and eastern states documenting the working conditions of factories, fields, mines, mills and canneries which made use of child labor. The results of Hine’s photographic pursuits eventually led to the establishment of child labor and safety laws for all workers.”

Midnight at the Glassworks - Lewis Hine

His most famous work is doubtless the collection of photographs he did from 1930 to 1931 to document the construction of the Empire State Building. You have probably seen this incredibly famous photo, which still makes me nervous:

Empire State Building - Lewis Hine

What I find astounding about Hine’s work is that it isn’t just documentary. It does tell compelling stories. But it is above all gorgeous. And that is extremely impressive. But in the mid-1930s, he found it almost impossible to get work as a photographer, either in the private sector or in the government. This was at a time when a younger generation of photographers were discovering and cherishing his work. But he died in poverty at the age of 66 in 1940. Yet another great man that our country simply turned its back on, even while people like John D Rockefeller got their boots licked.

I highly recommend checking out the Art Plus Photo page on Lewis Hine. It contains over 50 of his photographs: beautiful, sometimes funny, often heartbreaking, work.

Happy birthday Lewis Hine!