Recent Comments List Increased

Frank MoraesThis is just a brief note to update you on the happenings here. I’m working a lot away from Frankly Curious, so it’s been a bit difficult to keep up on comments. I am glad to see that some of you are talking to each other, which doesn’t require my response (not that I don’t stick my nose in anyway). So I’ve upped the number of comments that display on the sidebar at the right from 10 to 20. I found I was falling behind by more than 10, and it can be difficult to find old comments.

By the way, if you haven’t discovered the comment list on the right, you should check it out. It is really handy! I used to depend upon it. But I have since learned that I can manage comments from within the administration area for the blog. This is really convenient for me. At the same time, I often have to go over to the page to see what you all are talking about. So if you could provide a bit of context, it would be really helpful — but hardly required.

And now that I’ve written this, there probably won’t be any comments for the next month. But for the record, I really do appreciate comments. In fact, I might feel bad about them if I made any money off this site. But as it is, I consider commenters collaborators. And so I try to take them serious and respond when appropriate — even when people are yelling at me. (FYI: I tend to yell back in those circumstances; I’m the only fool I suffer gladly.)

“Clever” Writers Counting Words Drive Me Crazy

Lucy: Clever WriterI’ve got to get something off my chest. It’s about writing and writers. Why do writers suck so much? Clearly, my standards are not very high. I started this article with an annoying idiom “off my chest.” All I ask for is a bit of clarity and a healthy dose of content. I don’t require David Foster Wallace. Yet I find myself working with writers who turn in embarrassing stuff. Really: embarrassing.

In the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, the first act ends with a number called, “A Book Report on Peter Rabbit.” And the characters all approach the assignment in different ways. Linus over-intellectualizes it, “In examining a work such as Peter Rabbit, it is important that its superficial characteristics of its deceptively simple plot not blind the reader to the more substantial fabric of its deeper motivations.” Schroeder insists upon writing about Robin Hood, “It reminded me of Robin Hood in the part where Little John jumped from the rock…” Charlie Brown procrastinates, “If I start writing now, when I’m not really rested, it could upset my system, which is not good at all.”

But Lucy takes an approach that is well known to English teachers everywhere. The book report must be 100 words long, and so Lucy approaches the book report as an engineering exercise. For example, she specifically lists some two dozen different vegetables that were in the garden. And she finishes the report with, “The very very very end.” I think this is just fine coming from an eight year old — especially one who is a cartoon. But one would think that such would not be the case with professional writers. Even when they are being paid by the word (which they mostly are), it seems to me that there would be a sense of honor about this. You just don’t do it!

What’s more, it really doesn’t work. The effort that goes into padding would be far more lucrative if the writer just thought up something interesting (or engaging or absorbing or refreshing or…) to add to the article. But okay, they can’t all be like me. (It is a point of both pride and disease that I write roughly a million words on this blog every year — roughly a novel a month.) The bigger problem is not that these people pad their writing. It is that they can’t throw anything away. They’ve written a hundred words and that’s ten bucks and by God, they are not just going to throw that money away!

The fundamental issue here is that these people do not have a broad enough vision of what they are writing about. Generally, one idea will get you 300 to 500 words. But these articles need to be longer than that. So that requires that the writer come up with more than a single idea. Songwriters understand this — choruses and bridges are among the basic building blocks of a song. But mixing things up is not so clear in the prose writing world. So they write things like, “When you download individual files, those files will also automatically be stored in your default folder for storing downloaded files.” You got us! You made an extra 40¢. One more time and you’ll be able to buy a candy bar!

I really do think the whole thing comes down to love. I can’t say that I love everything that I work on, but I grow extremely attached to the content for as long as I’m writing about it. This is a talent, I know. But there is no more important skill for the nonfiction writer. If you find the subject interesting, you will think of things to write about. If you don’t, then you will end up trying to engineer your way to a set number of words. And you will waste the reader’s time while being really boring.

The very very very end!

If Pope Toed Republican Line, Catholic Republican Would Listen to Him

Paul GosarIf the Pope stuck to standard Christian theology, I would be the first in line. If the Pope spoke out with moral authority against violent Islam, I would be there cheering him on. If the Pope urged the Western nations to rescue persecuted Christians in the Middle East, I would back him wholeheartedly. But…

—Paul Gosar
Why I Am Boycotting Pope Francis’ Address to Congress

How Ideologues Poison Wikipedia

Bill McBrideBill McBride wrote a very interesting article that I want to expand on, Using Nomimal GDP to Mislead: a Bogus Reagan Wikipedia Sentence. Here’s the sentence, “[Reagan’s] economic policies saw a reduction of inflation from 12.5% to 4.4%, and an average annual growth of GDP of 7.91%; while Reagan did enact cuts in domestic spending, military spending increased federal outlays overall, even after adjustment for inflation.” I’m not that up on this kind of stuff, but I bristled at this bit of propaganda. Two things are clearly wrong with it: (1) Reagan should not be given credit for the reduction in inflation; (2) the GDP growth rate is just wrong — not that I knew what it was, but the US has never seen that kind of growth in my lifetime — no advanced economy does.

McBride pointed out three things. First, the decrease in inflation was due to Paul Volcker at the Fed. It it important to remember that Volcker’s work at the Fed is also probably the reason that Carter didn’t get a second term as president, since his policies really hurt the economy in the second half of Carter’s term. Second, the GDP growth rate is given in nominal terms — not adjusted for inflation. The real growth rate was 3.4%, which happens to have been the same as Carter’s growth rate. Reagan was no magician.

And third, the whole end of the sentence is wrong. Reagan did indeed raise domestic spending even after adjustment for inflation. This has been one of the most annoying things of the Obama era. Always before, during recessions, the federal government increased spending. But the Republicans have stopped Obama from doing this. So last year, we saw 2.4% GDP growth — which looks bad until you consider the drastic decline in government spending, because the Republicans know that their only way to power is to destroy the economy.

McBride is a pretty well known guy, so I was curious to see what happened to Wikipedia. His article was published on Tuesday in the afternoon. By late that night, the passage had been change. It was then technically accurate, while still providing the same basic impression, “During Jimmy Carter’s last year in office (1980), inflation averaged 12.5%, compared with 4.4% during Reagan’s last year in office (1988)… and unadjusted GDP growth averaged 7.4% with a high of 12.2% growth in 1982.” They’ve actually made it worse by adding a deceptive and unnecessary comparison: Carter bad, Reagan good. And it left the largely meaningless unadjusted GDP growth rate, but at least it labeled it.

By this morning, the information was better, but not good, “During Jimmy Carter’s last year in office (1980), inflation averaged 12.5%, compared with 4.4% during Reagan’s last year in office (1988)… and real GDP growth averaged 3.44% with a high of 8.55% in 1983, while nominal GDP growth averaged 7.4%, and peaked at 12.2% in 1982.” So they left in the deceptive comparison to Carter and the nominal garbage data, but at least added the data on the real growth rate.

Notice how there is a reference to Carter regarding inflation, because it makes him look bad. But there is no reason to include Carter in this at all. It could just say, as McBride does, that inflation was 11.8% at the start of Reagan’s term and 4.5% at the end — still deceptive in that it gives Reagan credit for something that he didn’t do, but not too bad. Notice also that when mentioning Reagan’s GDP growth, the writers appear to have not thought it worth comparing to Carter — for obvious (very partisan) reasons.

I like Wikipedia a lot, but it is very prone to this kind of nonsense. Wikipedia provides a way for true believers to literally rewrite history. And they do. You may remember back in 2011, Sarah Palin said that Paul Revere “rang bells” while he was “warning the British” — apparently they were unaware that they were attacking. As a result, Palin fans went to the Paul Revere page and added the necessary new postmodern Sarah Palin history about the bells and who Revere was warning. A change would be made, the editors would take it out. And on and on. Eventually, the editors had to stop changes to the page for a while to let the “controversy” settle down.

That’s all we are seeing with the Reagan Wikipedia page. There are people who have deified Reagan. If they see that Wikipedia is saying that economic growth under Reagan was no better than under Carter, and that Reagan shouldn’t get much if any credit for decreased inflation, these people are going to change it. As much as I like Wikipedia, when it comes to people and issues like this, you really have to be careful.

Bill Maher Fails on Ahmed Mohamed

Ahmed MohamedI wasn’t planning on writing about Ahmed Mohamed – the 14 year old boy who got arrested for bringing a digital clock he had built to school. The reason was that I didn’t think it needed comment. I pretty much was that kid, although I didn’t get into this kind of stuff until I was in college. But I built pretty much the same thing outside of class when I was taking digital electronics. It’s a lot of work even if it doesn’t take a great deal of creativity — a fact that I’m sure Mohamed would agree with. But actually getting it to work is totally awesome! And I showed it to everyone, even though no one was as thrilled as I was.

So I totally get the kid. But it didn’t seem worth talking about him because of course everyone would see this as an obvious injustice. It’s like the dentist who killed the lion: everyone agrees so it is really meaningless. It would be like writing an article, “Everyone Is Right: Hitler Was a Bad Guy” or “Mothers Are Necessary for the Continuance of the Species.” But apparently, I was wrong to assume that everyone would be in agreement that the treatment of Mohamed was totally wrong. I hadn’t remembered that Bill Maher existed.

Heather at Crooks & Liars wrote, Bill Maher Justifies 14-Year-Old Being Arrested for Bringing Clock to School. And the video she provided (below) is amazingly vile. Maher is making the argument that this is not racism or even bigotry against Muslims because it just so happens that the last 30 years Muslims have been blowing stuff up. Maher seems totally unaware that bigots at all times and in all places had reasons for their bigotry. Southern segregationists were certain that African Americans were less intelligent and more violent. They had to be kept away from “our women folk.”

But it was worse than Maher. Mark Cuban made repeated mention of something nefarious supposedly going on because during his phone call with Mohamed, his sister was in the background giving him answers to questions. Now this means nothing, other than that maybe a 14 year old nerd isn’t the most media savvy, and mostly feels comfortable talking tech. And that might have something to do with why he wasn’t (by the standards of Mark Cuban) communicative enough with his teachers. But his comments blow apart Maher’s notion that Mohamed is owed an apology. Cuban is implying that there is something behind this all — maybe a test to see if the school was properly guarded against an attack that Mohamed’s sister plans in the future?!

Maher seems totally unaware that bigots at all times and in all places had reasons for their bigotry.

George Pataki was also there talking about “zero tolerance.” But they had already established that this never would have happened to a white kid. And the idea that this looks like a bomb is ridiculous. When I was a kid, my friends and I made bombs — although it might be more accurate to call them glorified firecrackers. But the thing about a bomb is that you need some material to explode. This was an empty case with a couple of circuit boards. If it “exploded,” the worst it would do is burn the hands of the person holding the box.

Heather pointed out something that gets to the very heart of this. She asked of the teachers and administrators, “If any of them actually believed that this kid brought a bomb to school, why wasn’t the school immediately evacuated?” And the answer is obvious: because none of them actually thought that. And rather than arresting Mohamed, why didn’t the police get a bomb expert while they simply detained the boy?

The problem here is exemplified with Maher, Cuban, and Pataki: they all find reasons to suspect a particular minority group. It wasn’t at all surprising that Jorges Ramos was the only one who made any sense. He has direct experience with the way the white majority makes up its own myths to justify its hatred of minority groups. History will not judge Maher as the brave truth teller he fancies himself on this issue. He will be seen as having a major blind spot about Muslims — kind of like Thomas Jefferson and slavery.

Anniversary Post: Checkers Speech

Nixon and CheckersOn this day in 1952, Richard Nixon gave his famous Checkers Speech. It stands out to me for the power of nonsense. It was about a special fund that was set up to pay for his expenses as a Senator. It doesn’t seem that he did anything wrong with regard to it. But it does strike me as rather typical Nixon — in the sleaziest sense. So he spent a half hour on television talking about it and the fact that he didn’t get any of the money or other special favors. But there was one thing he did get: a dog that his daughter named Checkers. He said, “Regardless of what they say about it, were gonna keep it.”

That’s a brilliant bit of political theater. Nixon was apparently unhappy that the speech had been named for that half minute bit. But that’s really all that anyone remembered: Nixon got a dog for his girls! The beginning of the speech is just him going over the allegations and defending himself. Then he gets into his finances and it is boring. That’s 18 minutes. Then there’s a good line about Pat not having a mink coat and the kids now having a dog. That’s just over a minute. Then we get ten minutes about how much Adlai Stevenson sucked. And he tops it off with an a capella rendition of “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” — or close enough.

What’s more remarkable about the speech is that it worked. Nixon actually tells the Checkers part of the story awkwardly and blows the punchline. But I think for most people it was: blah blah blah puppy blah blah blah. How could a man who got his daughters a dog be a crook? Of course, I continue to have a soft spot for Nixon precisely because he’s so awkward and seems so uncomfortable in his skin. Ultimately, I think he was a lost soul who thought that political power would give his life meaning. The Nixon we see in this speech is definitely the Nixon he thought the people wanted to see. And he was largely right.