Friday, January 30. 2009
Shameless plug for my wife's (literal) fifteen minutes of fame:
On our local NPR station, WUNC, my wife Janet performed live today with some select members of the Women's Voices Chorus on "The State of Things". The Chorus is performing a concert tomorrow at Duke Chapel of music inspired by Jewish poets. You can hear her radio debut here. Marvel at the fact that someone you know has been heard by hundreds of thousands of people.
Thursday, January 29. 2009
Since the House passed the nearly $900 billion stimulus package yesterday, I've been trying to figure out what constitutes an "economic stimulus." Here's what I've learned so far:
Saturday, January 24. 2009
Gender pay equity has been back in the news lately, as the Senate passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which starts the clock on the statute of limitations on inequitable treatment at the time of the last paycheck. I include the link to original text, because it does turn out that the Wall Street Journal's warnings of a trial-lawyer bonanza are somewhat exaggerated – under the law, someone could recover for back pay for up to two years, instead of twenty or more. But the Paycheck Fairness Act, which supposedly seeks to revive the notion of "comparable worth" and set wage guidelines on abstract notions instead of market demand, does seem to me to be a little more disturbing.
Pay equity is one of the most vexing social issues ever to plague a policy wonk. It's thornier than even healthcare. Everyone agrees they want a level playing field and equal opportunity for all. But knowing whether particular outcomes are fair challenges every other principle that supports a free economy. In the real world, wages are not set by bureaucrats but by a labor market – that is, negotiations between buyer and seller. Research suggests that the wage gap may not be due to sinister employers trying to keep women down, but rather the fact that men are more aggressive than women when it comes to negotiating pay. The U.S. General Accounting Office research demonstrates that the majority of pay discrepancies between men and women are due to what they cautiously refer to as "work patterns" – namely, women are more likely than men to place their family obligations ahead of their career ambitions, which inevitably leads them to make decisions that diminish their earnings. As a general rule, the people who care more about money get more of it . . . and those who care about other things, get less. That might be frustrating, but is it unfair?
Ok, time out for mandatory PC disclaimers. Yes, bona fide cases of unfair gender discrimination in pay exist. Yes, women should have legal protections against such abuses. I do think, however, it is flat-out wrong to assume that differences in pay are automatically a moral offense. A difference in outcome does not necessarily mean a difference in opportunity.
Friday, January 23. 2009
This week the New Yorker had an article about the resurgence of Scrabble in American and world culture. I have been silent on my relationship with the game for a while. Like many addicts, I went from pursuing an innocent pastime to nursing a disruptive habit. When my kids took to referring to my Treo 650 as my "Scrabble phone," I knew I had taken it too far. I realized that I probably looked no different than the eight year olds I have seen zombified by Game Boys, trailing silently behind their parents in department stores in an unseeing stupor. I swore off the game for several months, then tried (with partial success) to enjoy it in moderation. I stopped playing in front of my family; I squeeze in games in private moments, in the bathroom, between tasks during the day. The pattern is not unlike someone who smokes.
The article's author described Scrabble as "both mindless and cerebral, which may account for its appeal to writers…" It's quite true – it creates the illusion of mental accomplishment without undue strain. Its effects are like nicotine, simultaneously creating a relaxed feeling while increasing your heart rate.
You might think that I would be pleased that millions of other players and a respectable pantheon of celebrities (including our new president) enjoy the game and aren't ashamed to say it. It would be nice if an ability to play were socially useful, like knowing how to play golf or tennis or bridge. And yet, the resurgence is mostly happening online – stolen moments of goofing off from millions of students and office workers. I have yet to be in any social situation where Scrabble skill was more an advantage than a goofy sort of shame. Unless Barack Obama calls me up and invites me to a game on the White House lawn, I'm not likely to get any sort of recognition for this skill, except from those equally marginalized for their geeky hobbies.
Of course, that only betrays my bias. I have a hard time acknowledging anything as being valid use of time unless it has a direction and a purpose. Games are to be enjoyed; there is no other purpose. But where does my personal enjoyment fit into the grand scheme of things? Some people forgive simple pleasures if they sustain a person and enable them to continue work: words like "recharge your batteries," "clear your mind," and "rejuvenate" are all common justifications, purposes assigned to purposeless pleasures. But this only leads me back to tail-biting loops and contradictions: we work so we can play so we can work so we can play, etc. ad infinitum. A life without personal pleasure seems meaningless; all work and no play does indeed make Jack a dull boy. But a life lived with one's own personal pleasure as its goal seems equally pointless and empty of meaning. All that points back to vocation – the only way to resolve the contradiction is to remove it, so that your idea of fun and your idea of work become one and the same thing.
Thursday, January 22. 2009
You have probably heard the feminist slogan, "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." (It has been mistakenly attributed to Gloria Steinem, but actually originated with Irina Dunn.) I had not given it much thought before, but it came to mind unexpectedly as I was staring at a cracker box in my cabinet:
What do you know? A fish on a bicycle. What could it mean?
Is Pepperidge Farm making a hidden misogynist statement? Is it saying that women really do need men, since fish (or, at least, Goldfish) need bicycles?
I keep trying to imagine the conversations of the marketing team:
"The fish . . . he's just not active enough. I mean, he's just sitting there. What does that make you think of?"
"Umm . . . sitting?"
"Right! Just sitting there, like the kids will be sitting there, on their duffs, watching Power Rangers and stuffing their faces. We can't let the Mom see that. We need something that says active and fun. Now, what can we have this fish doing?
"Ummmm . . . swimming?"
"No, no, no . . . swimming looks too much like doing nothing. Something suburban . . ."
"Right. Next you'll say we need to give him a black t-shirt and lip-ring. Think six-year-old, not sixteen-year-old."
"Hrmmm . . . kinda tough to kick a ball with fins."
"No, really, he could slap the soccer ball into the goal with his tail."
"Ok, have the animation guys see if they can do something with that for the commercial spot. But that's still not going to work for the box. We need something active but not too complicated."
"Right. A fish doing something but not really doing something. I mean – wait. I got it. I'm brilliant."
"A fish . . . on a bicycle."
"Yeah. He's just sitting there, so he doesn't have to do anything, but he's, you know, doing something."
"Ok. . . Bicycle it is."
"Oh, and don't forget the helmet. Gotta look safe and responsible."
Wednesday, January 21. 2009
What will I remember about the inauguration of President Barack Obama?
Tuesday, January 20. 2009
I had commented on the selection of Pastor Rick Warren to do the invocation at President Obama's inauguration, so it seemed only right to also comment on how it turned out. It turned out just fine. (You can see it here, or read the full text here.)
Many media outlets (U.S News & World Report and Newsweek, among others) had commented on the obvious gestures of inclusion: opening with the Jewish Shema ("Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.") and echoing the Koran ("compassionate and merciful"). I say "obvious," but actually it was subtle enough that the average rank-and-file Christian probably wouldn't even have noticed. (Heck, the average American Christian can't even list the Ten Commandments, much less recognize key phrases of other faiths.)
And most commentators congratulated Warren for navigating the trickiest bit of his prayer: invoking the name of Jesus, but in the most inclusive way possible. "I humbly ask this in the name of the one who changed my life: Yeshua, Essa (ph), Jesus, Jesus, who taught us to pray, "Our Father …" His invocation is clearly given as a personal testimony, rather than speaking for all present, and he names Jesus in the languages of the major religions, which all recognize him to some degree. Warren knew clearly that not to mention Jesus would be wussing out, and would lose the respect of his evangelical followers. But since Obama had set the tone of inclusion by inviting him in the first place, Warren was wise enough to keep the love-fest going.
Also notice that he invoked Jesus, not as the object of the prayer, but as the one "who taught us to pray, 'Our Father . . .'" This emphasizes Jesus' role as a teacher, rather than a divine being; a prophet rather than a Messiah. Most religious people are willing to acknowledge Jesus' status as a teacher of peace and humility. Thus, Warren stays true to his evangelical roots while staying within the bounds of the most universal aspects of his faith.
I was a little surprised to hear Warren roll into the Lord's Prayer at the end. The Lord's Prayer is pretty universal among all kinds of Christians, but it is also absolutely, undeniably Christian. No universalism here. Or is there? Stop and think about the text of that prayer. Maybe you said it in Sunday school a bazillion times, and you've come to think of it as uniquely Christian, but the actual text is about as inclusive as they come. It acknowledges the authority of a supreme being, asks for his blessing and guidance, and humbly acknowledges our sins and limitations. That's the essence of nearly every prayer. All the rest of Warren's prayer is just a gloss. So, again, Warren manages to be solidly Christian, not by subduing his Christianity, but by highlighting the inclusiveness of his faith.
Monday, January 19. 2009
The web is absolutely covered in reviews of consumer products. People write them for free because they are just dying to tell someone, anyone, about whatever outrage has beset them with their latest purchase. I have resisted the temptation for years, but I made a discovery today that torqued me off enough to warrant a post.
When I had kids, I went through my house doing all the baby-proofing things responsible parents are supposed to do. We bought boxfuls of gizmos that were supposed to protect our progeny from themselves: toilet seat locks, baby gates, wall socket plugs, window-blind cord roll-ups, and dozens of hidden hooks and locks to hold closed whatever could be opened. Most of these things were easy enough to install and use, but others required whole weekends of measuring, marking, drilling, screwing, screaming, cursing and random trips to the hardware store and/or pharmacy. The worst of these were the anti-tip brackets – hardware that would essentially tie big furniture to the walls, so a kid wouldn't pull a bookcase down on top of themselves by climbing on it. Our boys outgrew the need for most baby-proofing years ago, but the anti-tip brackets had to be reinstalled on everything when we moved four years ago.
When you've put that much effort into doing the "responsible thing," you feel entitled to a little smugness. You think: "At least this is one thing that will not hurt my kids. I've done everything I can."
We decided to have our wooden floors refinished, which required moving all those big bookcases and cabinets and hutches that had been dutifully attached to the walls. So I walked around with my ladder and a pair of scissors, ready to cut the plastic straps that held the furniture in place. I grabbed one to cut it . . . and it shattered in my bare hand. Not just broke – shattered, as in dozens of pieces dropping to the floor. The strap that was supposed to keep a two hundred pound slab of pressboard from crushing my sons skulls just shattered in my bare hands. WTF?
I went around to the other straps, and found all to be exactly the same. Some had already broken on their own; others were intact, but would break with the touch of one finger. The plastic that once was supple and strong had someone fatigued and degraded, so it now had the tensile strength of a potato chip.
I could expect a plastic that was exposed to extreme heat, or constant light, or some other weird conditions, would eventually become brittle. But this was after a mere three years inside a climate controlled house, hidden from light behind big furniture. What could possibly have done in this plastic? And why in blazes would plastic like that be put into child safety devices?
So, for the record: Mommy's Helper brand Tip-Resistant Furniture Safety Brackets (#02263). Don't use 'em. I have written to the manufacturer.
There. Glad I got that off my chest.
I bought the collection of posthumously published Kurt Vonnegut stories, Armageddon in Retrospect, with low expectations. Unpublished stories are often unpublished for a reason – their creator didn't feel them worthy of seeing the light of day. No editor would ever turn down anything from Kurt Vonnegut – the New Yorker would happily print his grocery list, had he asked -- so I must assume it was Vonnegut himself who put these stories in the bottom drawer and forgot about them.
As I mentioned a couple days ago, the secret to pleasant surprises is setting the bar low. As his son Mark says in the introduction, the stories hold up well by themselves, with no more need of commentary. I enjoyed Mark's introduction – he clearly studied his father's style carefully, and attempted with sincere admiration to emulate both his caustic humor and his tender compassion for human suffering.
He said a few things that caught my attention:
The most radical, audacious thing to think is that there might be some point to working hard and thinking hard and reading hard and writing hard and trying to be of service.
The book opens with a photographed copy of a typewritten letter Vonnegut sent his family from Europe, telling them of his ordeals as POW in Germany. It's as beautiful and shocking and real as anything else he's ever written, and all the more telling because it's his life.
Most people will buy it for his last public address, the very last thing he ever wrote, which was actually delivered by his son Mark in his stead. It's . . . ok. I share Mark's estimation of it – sometimes you're asking, "How does he get away with this crap?" But it's very Vonnegut, and any of his fans will feel fondness for his ability to say plain truths simply with just enough twist to make them profound.
All of the stories have war as their theme. Nearly all are about hapless soldiers or other wise and miserable bystanders of destruction. One character, a Saxon peasant oppressed by Norman conquerors, sums up all their themes: "The wreckers against the builders! There's the whole story of life!" I thought that was a pretty workable, functional definition of Good versus Evil. I also was somewhat struck that almost exactly the same formulation comes from Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged, who is about as different from Vonnegut in style and attitude as you could possibly imagine. Both loved the builders, and had absolute, utter contempt for the wreckers. Hmmmm.
Sunday, January 18. 2009
When considering the meaning of one's life, many think about impact – how different is the world now, because of you? We would like to believe that we make a positive difference -- that "the world is a different place now, because of me." It's a Wonderful Life took its place in the classical American movie because it plays upon this secret sentiment we all have -- that somehow the world really does revolve around us, that we are the linchpin in its happiness and life would suck without us.
We don't always need a guardian angel, though, to answer the question objectively. Sometimes the world tells us. When Steve Jobs announced this week that he would be taking medical leave from Apple, the stock price dropped about 10% overnight. Analysts estimate the "Jobs premium" on the stock to have been as high as 25% at times. Obviously the world credits Jobs with Apple's past and future success . . . to the tune of about $8 billion. As much as I bristle at the self-righteously hip marketing of Apple products, it filled me with sadness to see a startlingly thin Jobs on the cover of the Wall Street Journal. As the economy implodes, everyone looks to people like Jobs to reinvent things, to pull us back from the brink . . . and now one of the big players is benched. A bad omen.
Of course, sometimes people make the opposite discovery – the world, or at least one corner of it, really doesn't need them. Sometimes the people who brag the most about how irreplaceable they are find that they are scarcely missed when they are gone. (As always, there is an Onion story that makes the point – "Incompetent Staff Feels Underappreciated.") Actually, come to think of it, it's the people who boast of their irreplaceable value who are most likely to be inconsequential – the really important ones don't have to boast, and are too busy getting their jobs done to think about such things, except maybe to try to make themselves less irreplaceable. Superstars like Warren Buffet and Steve Jobs spend many sleepless nights trying to find ways to make their legacies not depend on their constant involvement. They don't want their companies (and, by extension, their own personal significance) to disappear when they die.
I'm not sure where I'm going with this . . . just one more way to evaluate your life in a semi-empirical fashion. Maybe we should all take a forced vacation once in a while -- disappear for a while and see who notices.
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