Random Ramblings On Sports Fandom

SportsIt’s that magical time of year when Minnesota’s city park employees turn tennis courts and baseball diamonds into hockey rinks.

How do they perform this amazing transubstantiation? (H/T: Catholicism!) Well, there are several complicated steps. I shall endeavor to describe them as best I can.

  1. Remove tennis net or baseball bases. Put in storage.
  2. Get fire hose. Attach to fire hydrant.
  3. Spray court or field with water.
  4. Wait a day.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 as necessary.
  6. Get hockey goals out of storage. Place in park. Number of goals depends on size of park; however, number must be divisible by 2.
  7. Empty park trash cans weekly.

How to Make Friends Through Sports

I am from Oregon, originally. So I grew up playing baseball, basketball, and football. Hockey? Not so much.

When I was about to move here, I stopped at Powell’s Books, a wonderful store in Portland. I found a book titled “50 Ways To Make Friends In Your New City” (or something like that).

I am terrible at making friends (largely because I don’t trust humans, which is a prejudice, but not an unjustified one). So I picked up and read the book. In Powell’s, it’s completely acceptable to grab a book, sit at the cafe, have coffee, and read the whole book. Pay for your coffee. And put the book back where you found it. These are the rules.

The book had lots of advice I couldn’t use. “Join a local church.” That’s a fine notion for some, not really my speed. “Change your political views.” For example, if you’re moving to Houston, become a Republican; if you’re moving to Seattle, become a Democrat. Well, I’d rather join a church than switch my party loyalty. My cultural background is quite mixed: Québécois, Irish, English Catholic, and some Native American. All have different traditions. One thing they have in common: they don’t switch political sides. That’s a no-go.

But this was a piece of advice I liked, “Root for the home team.” Yes! I can do that! And I did.

Minnesota Sports Are Cool

I had many fun evenings cheering along with Minnesota sports fans, in stadiums and bars. The Twins were quite good for a long while, and rekindled my childhood love of baseball. The Timberwolves are never good, but it’s kind of a shared misery thing.

Even the Vikings were fun. At least they were until I heard one too many fans complaining about “Culpepper & Moss”: a quarterback and wide receiver “team.” Daunte Culpepper, the quarterback, had a crazy strong arm. Randy Moss, the receiver, had the eyes of a wary small mammal. They’d glower out from under his facemask. He had a bizarrely balletic mid-air grace.


Imagine a clever chipmunk watching two dogs snarl at each other over some piece of meat. As they pace around and bristle their fur, our chipmunk friend dashes in, grabs half the meat, and disappears up into its tree before the dogs know what hit ’em. The dogs, furious, bark like mad. Tough luck, guys! Dogs can’t climb trees!

This was Culpepper-to-Moss. It was, as one writer put it, the pro football equivalent of every kid’s favorite football play drawn up with sticks in dirt, “You go long, and I’ll hit you.” The skinny kid runs as fast as he can. The quarterback throws a bomb. The skinny kid jumps in the air, and, even if about to get tackled by three guys around him, he corrals the ball with one hand and cradles it to his body.

This happened almost every Vikings game! And it was fantastic! But Vikings fans started complaining about “Culpepper & Moss.” I didn’t get why, at first. Then I did: they were both black. Football fans are pretty damn racist. So I stopped watching football.

(The Vikings also gave me one of my favorite sports memories. Another receiver, Cris Carter, had a contact lens pop out. As Carter was one of the football’s most respected players, referees paused the game. For two full minutes, giant behemoths from both teams were crawling around, looking in the turf for a contact lens. This was a wonderful thing to watch.)

But Not Hockey

I’ve enjoyed the Minnesota Wild, too. Or enjoyed other people enjoying them. Because, honestly, I don’t “get” hockey.

Not that I don’t appreciate the sport! It’s full of skill, drama, tension. Players do amazing things while skating at high speeds — even while skating backwards!

(My favorite hockey players are the goalies. People are hurtling a harmful projectile at you. Your job is to go “No! I can’t be hurt! Stop, projectile, stop!” For similar reasons, my favorite baseball players are catchers.)

However, I don’t “get” hockey: for the same reason anyone “gets” anything, whether it be a religion or cuisine or whatever. I didn’t grow up playing hockey! If you fire-hose-spray a city park in Oregon, you have a muddy park. In Minnesota, in winter, you have a hockey rink. So everyone plays hockey. That’s one subject in the fine Pixar film, Inside Out, directed by Minnesotan Pete Docter.

I don’t ice skate, and never will. I’m not training for any hobby which includes, as a practice requirement, “falling down repeatedly.” Fallen on ice lately? It’s very hard. It kills people! No ice skating for me. So I’ll never “get” hockey. (Or sadly, curling, which is much more up my alley, but still requires ice skating.)

Other Ways To Enjoy Sports

I used to work helping take care of disabled adults, and there was one guy I’d bring to Twins games. The guy didn’t talk and didn’t sign ASL. It was virtually impossible to communicate with him. He’d allow you to help him with some things, resist other attempts to help, that’s pretty much all the feedback you’d get.

He’d agree to let you load his wheelchair in the van for a Twins game. I don’t know why. With people who don’t talk or sign, I’d still talked to them. My reasoning was that it doesn’t take any effort to do so, and I have no clue what they’re picking up on the other end. It may be pure syllabic gibberish. They might understand every word. Or something in between. If they want me to stop talking, they can push me away.

So we’d go to Twins games, and who knows if this guy actually liked baseball. But there was one thing he clearly liked. (Keep in mind, this guy had a grumpy expression 99% of the time.)

If the Twins scored — and the crowd went wild — this guy would crane his neck around, look at all the cheering people, and start laughing. Belly laughing. He didn’t make laugh sounds, because he didn’t make sounds, but his chest would heave and his mouth would smile and tears pour from the corners of his eyes.

I suspect, though I do not know, that he found sports fans hilariously ridiculous. As, indeed, we are.

Nothing At The End

Now’s when I’m supposed to wrap this all up and make it come together, right? Nope. That’s for real writers. I’m posting on a blog!

There’s a local minor-league baseball team, the St Paul Saints. Yes, uninspired name, but they have a long history of inspired promotional gimmicks. At one, Mascot Night, there was a mascot from a pre-employment screening clinic. The mascot was a pee cup. Cup-shaped, yellow on the lower half. This was one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever seen.

Some years, the Saints do Atheists Night. It has various skits in-between innings. One had two random fans racing around the foul territory, with obstacles to overcome. As they raced, the PA announcer described what symbolic meaning each obstacle represented. Such as, for a mudslide, “it’s the primordial ooze!”

When one was first to the finish line, our PA announcer said, “The winner gets…” and froze. For 15 seconds. Then intoned, “What?! Did you think there was a reward at the end? It’s an atheist race! There’s nothing at the end!”

Nothing at the end here either, I’m afraid. Enjoy sports if that brings you closer to others. Remember, they are a bit silly. (But most hobbies are. Nothing wrong with that!)

Skate in the park if you live in a frozen place — if your home is warmer, enjoy it being not so damned cold. And have the merriest New Year you can.

Happy Year’s End From Emily Dickinson

Emily DickinsonBecause I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school where children played,
Their lessons scarcely done;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then ’tis centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.

–Emily Dickinson
“The Chariot”

Julian Assange and How Power Corrupts

Julian AssangeIt’s like we’ve gone back to the days of the Cold War. Yesterday, The New York Times reported, Obama Strikes Back at Russia for Election Hacking. To be honest, I’ve been skeptical about all this certainty that Russia hacked John Podesta and the DNC in order to stop Hillary Clinton from becoming president. Note: I’m not saying that they didn’t do it. It’s just that it is so hard to say. Sam Biddle’s article in The Intercept is the first thing that I’ve read that has made me think that there may be some real evidence that this is the case. But I don’t much care, regardless. The truth is, I’m more angry at Julian Assange than anyone.

Think about it. The Russians are trying to affect our elections. And they have been as long as they have been around. Before that, it was the Soviet Union that was trying to do it. The United States does the same thing to Russia. I’m not suggesting that we should just accept all of this and move on. But it is certainly true that the issue is no more important now than it was four years ago. And if the Russians did have an anti-democratic affect on our presidential election, it is nothing compared to our Supreme Court and the Electoral College system itself.

Who Care Who Stole the Email?

Regardless of who stole the Podesta and DNC email, it ended up in the hands of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. Overall, I’m a supporter of WikiLeaks. That’s because I’m a supporter of open government. I think the people have a right to know about 99 percent of everything the government decides needs to be classified. So I’m entirely in favor of WikiLeaks getting all this data and releasing it to the public. But that is not what Julian Assange did. What he did had almost nothing to do with open government. What he did was use the information he had as a political weapon.

Truthfully, I don’t know enough about how WikiLeaks deals with such matters generally. But as much as I’ve paid attention, they mostly do large dumps. This is not what was done with the DNC and Podesta hacks. The information was released slowly as to give it the greatest negative impact on the Clinton campaign. And it isn’t hard to see why that was: there was no smoking gun. It was all innuendo. It was one month of trickling innuendo with absolutely no payoff. That is: no payoff if you don’t count Donald Trump being elected President of the United States a payoff.

How Julian Assange Used the Email

On 7 October 2016, WikiLeaks could have simply released all 20,000 pages of John Podesta’s email messages. Instead, it released a little each day. And given the way that our media system works, that meant that every day, there was more coverage of how Hillary Clinton was a corporate tool. This was so, even while the fact that a corporate con man was running for president was largely ignored. Donald Trump defrauded thousands of students who attended his “university,” but that was just a story — not something that made headlines every day for the month before the election.

Ultimately, I can’t help but remember the old gem, “Power corrupts.” Yes, WikiLeaks is a good idea. There should be a way of getting information out to the public. And let’s not forget that Chelsea Manning first went to The Washington Post and The New York Times — neither of which were interested in what she had to offer. But when it came to these recent hacks, WikiLeaks wasn’t interested in informing the public. It’s well known that Julian Assange hates Hillary Clinton. And he used the power that he gained by doing good to swing an election.


There are lots of people to blame for “President Donald J Trump.” And I don’t doubt that the Russian government is somewhere on the list. But at the top of my list is Julian Assange. He went from being a hero to a villain — not because Clinton lost but because he abused his power. What he did casts a shadow on everything he did before.

From USA to Hungary in One Election

Miklos Haraszti - View of USA From HungaryHungary, my country, has in the past half-decade morphed from an exemplary post-Cold War democracy into a populist autocracy. Here are a few eerie parallels that have made it easy for Hungarians to put Donald Trump on their political map: Prime Minister Viktor Orban has depicted migrants as rapists, job-stealers, terrorists and “poison” for the nation, and built a vast fence along Hungary’s southern border. The popularity of his nativist agitation has allowed him to easily debunk as unpatriotic or partisan any resistance to his self-styled “illiberal democracy,” which he said he modeled after “successful states” such as Russia and Turkey.

No wonder Orban feted Trump’s victory as ending the era of “liberal non-democracy,” “the dictatorship of political correctness” and “democracy export.” The two consummated their political kinship in a recent phone conversation; Orban is invited to Washington, where, they agreed, both had been treated as “black sheep.”

When friends encouraged me to share my views on the US election, they may have looked for heartening insights from a member of the European generation that managed a successful transition from Communist autocracy to liberal constitutionalism. Alas, right now I find it hard to squeeze hope from our past experiences, because halting elected post-truthers in countries split by partisan fighting is much more difficult than achieving freedom where it is desired by virtually everyone…

The world is looking at the United States now in a way that we never thought would be possible: fretting that the “deals” of its new president will make the world’s first democracy more similar to that of the others. I wish we onlookers could help the Americans in making the most out of their hard-to-change Constitution. We still are thankful for what they gave to the world, and we will be a bit envious if they can stop the fast-spreading plague of national populism.

–Miklos Haraszti
I Watched a Populist Leader Rise in My Country. That’s Why I’m Genuinely Worried for America.

Solving Sudoku Puzzles the Easy Way

Sudoku MeaningI think of myself as someone who likes Sudoku puzzles. But that’s not really true. I never sit at home solving these puzzles. Instead, I do them when I am somewhere else where I don’t have the ability to concentrate on anything. I can solve a Sudoku puzzle 5 seconds at a time. Compare that with reading a newspaper, which I can’t do at that level of interruption. I probably shouldn’t say it, but if I’m doing Sudoku around you, it doesn’t speak well of my keenness to be around at that moment. And this may explain why I don’t do really hard puzzles.

Most Sudoku puzzles can be done purely deductively. That is to say that simply by looking at the numbers, you can directly deduce what some empty boxes must be. When I first started solving these puzzles, I found that there were harder puzzles where only a couple of empty cells could be filled in. Eventually, people learn that they can solve these puzzles by going one or two steps deep: since these cells can’t contain the number 5, that means these other cells must contain the number 5, and that means some other cell must be the number 3 — or whatever. That might sound complex, but it’s really very easy.

Difficult Sudoku Puzzles

Where things get difficult is where you really have no choice but to guess. Once you guess, you move forward deductively until you uncover an inconsistency or you finish the puzzle. Of course, most of the time, it is worse than that. After making a guess and trying one path, you may be forced to make a guess on that path — and maybe one after that. This is a complete pain. But there is an obvious way to use this method. Start doing the puzzle with a pen and then switch to a pencil for your first guess.

Now if you are lucky and your guess is wrong, you can then erase everything and fill in the non-guess with pen. Then you can continue on from there. But what about if you run into double or triple guesses? Colored pencils? They don’t erase well. And I don’t keep any around anyway. I only use pens. But I came upon a simple computer solution the other day, that works really well.

An Easy Solution

I was reading, Sudoku Meaning on Labor Day 2016. For that article, I used an unsolved Sudoku puzzle for the image. It occurred to me that I really should have solved it (it’s a very easy one). So I brought the image into Paint.NET. I added a layer and entered the solution in red. A thought occurred to me: if I needed to do any guessing, I could just create another image layer and change the ink color (though it is not strictly necessary).

Of course, I will never do this. I don’t have a computer in front of me when I am playing Sudoku. But if I ever decide to tackle the “Beware! Very Challenging” puzzles in Will Shortz’s The Little Black Book of Sudoku, that may be the way to go. And yes: of course the book was a Christmas gift. I would never buy such a book for myself.


Note: I’m sure there are programs written just to help people solve Sudoku puzzles. Of course, I could just write a program that simply solved Sudoku puzzles. It’s a question of how much help you want to get.

Could Trump Overturn the US Israel Resolution?

Donald Trump - HopeTrump could theoretically repeal the resolution by introducing a new resolution at the UN that completely revokes this one. He would then need to get at least eight other countries to vote for it, as well as ensure that none of the Security Council’s other permanent members — Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China — veto it.

Trump’s pick to be the next US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, would almost certainly support such a move. Haley is perceived as being staunchly pro-Israel: As governor of South Carolina, she passed legislation against the so-called BDS (boycott, divest, sanctions) movement — an international campaign aimed at punishing Israel economically for its actions and policies toward the Palestinians.

She also publicly supported Netanyahu’s objections to the Iran nuclear deal when she delivered the Republican Party’s official response to Obama’s last State of the Union back in January. Haley said that if the GOP were to control the White House, “we would make international agreements that were celebrated in Israel and protested in Iran, not the other way around.”

But it is extremely unlikely that Haley and the Trump administration would actually be able to get eight other countries on the Security Council to support a measure revoking this most recent resolution. That’s because, as mentioned above, the notion that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law is widely held by UN member countries.

Finally, even if the Trump administration did manage to get eight other countries to support such a measure, a permanent member veto would be likely, as Russia, China, Britain, and France — all of whom have veto power — all supported Friday’s measure, which passed 14-0.

–Jennifer Williams
9 Questions About the UN Vote on Israeli Settlements You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask

How We Can Resist and Defeat Cheeto Jesus

Cheeto JesusBecause I am a big fan of action over just talking, I have been looking for stuff to do with the coming resistance to Cheeto Jesus’ lame agenda to destroy all of America and replace it with shoddy versions of good things.

Stopping Cheeto Jesus

So I have been doing a number of things. One is that I’ve been nagging Frank and James about a podcast to go with this blog. We’ve done quite a bit of work on that, but we are (hopefully temporarily) stalled. I’ve also found great things like this: Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda. Print it out, because eventually it will be taken down in Cheeto Jesus’ America.

They looked at what worked to harm so much of the Democratic Party in the first two years of President Obama’s first term. We all remember the Tea Party, of course. So they looked at it and other groups that were successful. But it was mainly the Tea Party.

So if you are staring at the future with horror in mind and need something to take your mind off of what is about to happen this is a great way to help cope. Will it do anything? Maybe not at first, because the backlash is going to be incredibly fierce.

Democrats vs Republicans

Democrats believe in institutional norms. They respect process and they listen to the other side.

Republicans don’t. They have no interest in anyone who isn’t willing to do what they want. And they will do whatever it takes to hold onto power — even for just second more. I am certainly a partisan, but I think this is objectively true: Republicans lie, cheat, steal, deflect, project, and never admit error.

A Plan to Resist

But part of the reason that the Republicans are trying to cling to power is because they lost in North Carolina thanks to things like Moral Mondays. This guide is part of using that same tactics locally to get Republicans out of power until they learn to behave like civilized members of society.


Start showing up at local congressional events that your congress-critter will be at, and hold them accountable. When they start hiding (and Republicans will), start showing up at their office. Work out details to get access to the fundraisers they need and confront them. Be sure to bring the media.


Be polite but firm about the questions on representatives’ support for Cheeto Jesus’ plans to destroy America. This is where it is going to get tricky. Republicans are authoritarians and that means they will be quick to call the cops on you and anyone else. To them, citizens demanding answers are criminals. The question is how this will play in the media. Thus, a little old lady who doesn’t look like she will harm a fly is the best person to ask the pointed questions. Because then it makes the media want to show how mean the congressperson is for arresting a little old lady who just wanted to have her questions answered. Even better if it was the lady who just handed him cookies right before she asked her question about why he wants to kill her grandchildren.


If you can’t show up because the fuzz is on you (well okay, only a few people are like that), organize phone banks that target the offices with the same polite but pointed questions. And record the responses from staff. One person bitching you out is priceless because the media adores that kind of thing.


Keep up the pressure. And if need be, run against them in a primary. Don’t do this to the Democrats. Do this solely to the Republicans. We are way, way too quick to pile on our side for not being sufficiently pure. At this moment in time, the idea shouldn’t be “Joe Manchin needs to support our view on coal” but “This Republican should be terrified about his re-election chances.”

Beyond “Indivisible”

The Indivisible guide doesn’t mention this, but I think it is important: all this work needs to be long term. Don’t expect victories right away. It takes a while to build up enough momentum on the Democratic side. Consider my own experience: I ran for Congress in 2004. I did okay: 38.2 percent of the vote. That was with next to no money (I am a terrible fundraiser). My performance caught the attention of the national party. As a result, the next election, the DNC found and worked closely with a serious candidate. And my Congressional district turned from red to blue.

It just took a little bit of time.

So there is no reason this won’t be the case this time if all of us work on doing this. If you can’t do these specific things, there will be others in the days to come. It’s time to get to work to defeat Cheeto Jesus.

Blank Stares in the Real World

Blank StaresAs I write this, it is the day before Christmas. So I’m looking forward to how Christmas will go. What I know is that in as much as a talk about anything of substance, no communication will go on. I will get a lot of blank stares. This is one of the reasons that I do my best to stay busy cooking on holidays. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten to the point where I find very few people are able to understand what I have to say when I am talking about anything that matters to me.

I’ve heard this about this blog. “I checked out Frank’s blog, but I really couldn’t understand what he was talking about” — virtual blank stares. And the first time I heard that, I was shocked. Frankly Curious is hardly filled with deep subject matter. And I go out of my way to write in a simple style. But over time, I’ve come to understand it. And it concerns me greatly, because it isn’t just about me.

I’ve long held that intelligence is a kind of myth. Indeed, my major takeaway from the Flynn effect is that IQ scores tell us about the way people think — not their absolute abilities. So “intelligence” is more a function of how we were raised to think about thinking than anything else.

The Intellectual Blueprint

But it still scares the hell out of me. To most people, I must be an unbelievably boring person. I’m very interested in ideas — maybe because they are the only things I feel I can control. But if I think about something enough, I can get to the point where I have a kind of intellectual blueprint — a map of what there is to know, what I feel fairly certain I do know, and what is foggy or worse.

I seem to live in a world of people who are only vaguely aware that such blueprints exist. Instead, they have intellectual index cards — and even the space on them seems to be daunting. My father has been reading articles about people who were exonerated after being on death row. And he seems to be trying to change his mind to be against the death penalty, after being for it for almost 84 years.

He keeps approaching me on the subject, and I’ll admit: I’m not very nice about it. I’ve reached a point in my life where I don’t have the patience to teach remedial moral philosophy to adults. I’m pleased that he’s struggling with the issue, but I don’t think we are even involved in the same kind of intellectual endeavor.

The Intellectual Index Card for the Death Penalty

My father’s thinking on it (and like I said: he is really struggling in an admirable way) goes like this:

  1. An eye-for-an-eye is common sense
  2. But so much evidence shows it doesn’t work
  3. Polly Klaas.

In other words, it’s just a muddle placed on top of his “common sense” that the right response to murder is murder. It’s probably this effort to find a practical reason to be against the death penalty that makes it hard for me to be helpful. Yes, just from a practical standpoint, the death penalty is wrong. But that is not why I’m against it. And it is not the reason that I want anyone to be against it.

Intellectual Canvas Size

But the broader issue is the size of the intellectual canvas that any of us are going to work on. I always thrill to the experience of seeing a problem in a larger context. Currently, I mostly see the death penalty in the context of free will — or rather the lack of it. That’s not to say that I have found the ultimate context. But it’s a context that easily includes the other issues that people talk about the death penalty.

So yes, I can have a conversation with people about our flawed criminal justice system — and our racist society. And I can have a conversation about two wrongs not canceling each other. I can have a conversation (Gladly!) about mercy. But if we are talking about the death penalty, I will eventually get to free will. And that means blank stares in most cases. And when not, I get misunderstandings about nature versus nurture.

No Blank Stares at Frankly Curious

I don’t mean to flatter my readers, but one big reason I continue to write this blog is that the regulars around here don’t give me blank stares. We constitute a group that can communicate. And I say that knowing full well that we don’t communicate at a particularly high level. But each of our intellectual cutting edges are compatible.

Around here I neither need to put on airs nor talk about things at a level I don’t care about. Too bad it isn’t that way in the real world. Of course, the truth is that I don’t change in the real world. That’s why I get all those blank stares.

No Country for Jewish Liberals

No Country for Jewish LiberalsPolitically, the city is somewhat more liberal than Israel at large; over the years local voters have given pluralities to centrist parties — Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert’s Kadima, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union — ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud. This is in line with the residents’ high educational level and general middle-class prosperity as well as their secular bent. But liberal is a relative term; based on the parties and politicians they vote for and the news media they absorb, the people of Modi’in sit very comfortably within the Israeli “security hawk” consensus: unhappy with the “isolated, ideological” West Bank settlements, but untroubled by the expansion of the large “settlement blocs” closer to Israel proper, not to mention the Jewish neighborhoods in occupied East Jerusalem. The majority of Modi’in residents are theoretically in favor of the two-state solution, but suspicious, at best, of even the most moderate Palestinians and resentful of foreign pressure on any Israeli government.

–Larry Derfner
No Country for Jewish Liberals

Not a Society for Walking

No WalkingRain brings out the worst in drivers. It’s curious. You would think it would be otherwise. They are, after all, inside warm and dry cars. And the roads are slippery. So it is the time when drivers should slow down and take it easy. But they do just the opposite. They drive faster — more recklessly. A storm is the worst time to be walking around — because the drivers are so awful.

It isn’t a news flash that we live in a society designed for cars. But unless you spend a little time walking around, you will no see just how bad it is. Watching drivers as they often literally tap their fingers waiting for you to cross the street, you would get the impression that they are the ones being pelted with rain as they move down the road at three miles per hour. Really: I live roughly a half hour’s walk from the nearest store. It takes roughly two minutes to drive there. But most drivers are deeply annoyed that they can’t cut it down to a minute and a half.

Walking Near Construction

In downtown Santa Rosa, Court House Square is completely fenced off — apparently being remodeled or something. Today, I was doing some Christmas shopping and this required that I make my way to the bank in that area. But absolutely no concern was given to walking. I found myself in what was very much like the worst maze ever designed. In addition to endless unmarked dead-ends, there were numerous areas where I had to backtrack because a sidewalk simply ended on a busy street without a crosswalk.[1] In order to walk two blocks, I ended up walking at least eight.

I run into this kind of thing quite a lot. When construction is going on, little if any thought is given to how it will affect those walking. If a car has to go around the block, big deal. But today, what would normally have taken me three minutes to walk took more like a half hour — just to get from where the bus dropped me off to the bank that used to be two blocks away but that is now blocked by the post-apocalyptic no man’s land of “Coming soon!” urban renewal.

The Speed of a Worthless Life

The other issue is the speed of life. I just don’t have hours and hours to run errands. We’ve created a society that is the worst that it can be. No one has any time. And everything takes forever because our lives are designed around the idea that oil companies need to make a lot of money. So it’s not surprising that in addition to things being designed to be bad for walking, they are even worse when any construction goes on.

This is no way to live a life. But it probably does explain why I avoid going outside most days.

[1] I never jaywalk for two reasons. First: I always assume that drivers are trying to kill me because they are. Second, I don’t want to give some psychopathic police officer a reason to harass me.

The Liberals Are Enemy of World’s Poor Myth

Rigged - World's Poor - Dean BakerIn winter 2016, near the peak of Bernie Sanders’ bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, a new line became popular among the nation’s policy elite: Bernie Sanders is the enemy of the world’s poor. Their argument was that Sanders, by pushing trade policies to help US workers, specifically manufacturing workers, risked undermining the well-being of the world’s poor because exporting manufactured goods to the United States and other wealthy countries is their path out of poverty. The role model was China, which by exporting has largely eliminated extreme poverty and drastically reduced poverty among its population. Sanders and his supporters would block the rest of the developing world from following the same course.

This line, in its Sanders-bashing permutation, appeared early on in Vox, the millennial-oriented media upstart, and was quickly picked up elsewhere. After all, it was pretty irresistible. The ally of the downtrodden and enemy of the rich was pushing policies that would condemn much of the world to poverty.

The story made a nice contribution to preserving the status quo, but it was less valuable if you respect honesty in public debate. The problem in the logic of this argument should be apparent to anyone who has taken an introductory economics course. It assumes that the basic problem of manufacturing workers in the developing world is the need for someone who will buy their stuff. If people in the United States don’t buy it, then the workers will be out on the street and growth in the developing world will grind to a halt.

In this story, the problem is that we don’t have enough people in the world to buy stuff. In other words, there is a shortage of demand. But is it really true that no one else in the world would buy the stuff produced by manufacturing workers in the developing world if they couldn’t sell it to consumers in the United States? Suppose people in the developing world bought the stuff they produced raising their living standards by
raising their own consumption.

That is how the economics is supposed to work. In the standard theory, general shortages of demand are not a problem. Economists have traditionally assumed that economies tended toward full employment. The basic economic constraint was a lack of supply. The problem was that we couldn’t produce enough goods and services, not that we were producing too much and couldn’t find anyone to buy them. In fact, this is why all the standard models used to analyze trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership assume trade doesn’t affect total employment. Economies adjust so that shortages of demand are not a problem.

In this standard story (and the Sanders critics are people who care about textbook economics), capital flows from slow-growing rich countries, where it is relatively plentiful and so gets a low rate of return, to fast-growing poor countries, where it is scarce and gets a high rate of return.

So the United States, Japan, and the European Union should be running large trade surpluses, which is what an outflow of capital means. Rich countries like ours should be lending money to developing countries, providing them with the means to build up their capital stock and infrastructure while they use their own resources to meet their people’s basic needs.

–Dean Baker
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Commerce, Cremation, and the Rituals of Death

CremationI spent much of yesterday making arrangements for the body of my dead brother. The death of a loved one is not a time when most people are up for comparison shopping. But I actually think it is the perfect time for it. I deal best with my brother’s death when I’m managing practical matters. When I think of our past and the things that we aren’t now going to be able to do is when I tend to fall to pieces. But dealing with getting his body moved from the facility where he died and managing the details of his cremation have been easy — and a welcome respite from the feelings of loss.

It turns out that there is a huge variation in the cost of such services. We choose Adobe Creek Funeral Home in Petaluma. The reason was simple: they are inexpensive. A basic cremation costs roughly $1,200 there. At another facility about 15 miles away, the cost was almost twice that amount. And I can’t imagine that we could have received better service. My fear in such matters is that the people I deal with will be too accommodating — something I would find fake as if they were pretending to feel something they weren’t. Instead, we dealt with a young man who respected the solemnity of the occasion without a hint of co-opting our experience.

What Is Cremation, After All?

When it comes to the technical matters, well, I can’t say. I don’t wish to be coarse, but I see a funeral — when it comes to the technical side of things — as really just a matter of garbage disposal. That corpse is not my brother. So it’s hard for me to imagine why anyone would care about the technical side of things. Are there better or worse ways to cremate a dead body? Maybe. But they certainly don’t matter to my brother. Funerals are for the living and their memories of the departed. So what mattered yesterday was the experience that my sister and I had. And it was a dignified and solemn experience that honored our brother. It definitely was nothing like the scene in The Big Lebowski.

The Business of Death

But a funeral home is a business. I assume that there are business aspects to funerals in all forms — even sky burial. But it is a business much in the same way that medicine is a business. We all feel that it is more than just a business. It is something people make money doing but is also something that we can’t help but consume. Thus we expect that practitioners are in it for more than just the money. I think this is another reason for doing comparison shopping at this most difficult time: an inexpensive funeral home is not a place where you likely to be preyed upon.

Just the same, if you did want to spend a lot of money at Adobe Creek Funeral Home, you could. (And don’t get me wrong: I don’t see anything wrong with people spending lavishly on a funeral if they find it helpful in their grieving process.) You could spend anywhere from $995 up to $9,000 for a coffin. A basic urn was included in the price of the cremation, but they had a very nice wooden urn for $150 and you could spend up to a few hundred dollars on more fancy models.

A Very Special Cremation

Of more interest to me was the selection of coffins that are for sale for the cremation process itself. This too is included in the price of the cremation. But because our brother was a very large man, he would not fit into the standard box, so we had to pay a bit more for a special box. That made sense. But I was shocked to see that one could spend as much as $2,195 for a cremation coffin. Clearly, these coffins are for something else. And I think it is a beautiful thing.

If you pay extra, you can take part in the cremation. This involves either just watching the coffin enter the incinerator, or being present for the whole procedure. I’m sure many people would find this ghoulish. I think that I would find it edifying — certainly much more so than going to a burial.[1] And I like the idea of following my brother as most of his body is vaporized and then taking his shredded bones and personally scattering them. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, indeed! It strikes me as a final act of love — taking him by the hand and walking him to the edge of eternity.

Where Commerce Meets Spirituality

But to do this would have cost us another thousand dollars. It strikes me as a bargain, actually. But there are a number of reasons why it simply is out of the question — one being that something can be a bargain and still be out of your price range. Still, its an interesting nexus of commerce and spirituality. Indeed, the whole experience was like that. But I’m amazed that I don’t feel soiled by it. Our family has no expert on such matters. So we hired people to help us with the final step of turning my brother from a living part of our lives to a pure memory in our hearts. And that seems entirely fitting to me — even beautiful.

[1] I say this not least because everyone always leaves before the burial has really even begun. When the burial is “over,” there is just a coffin in a ditch.