Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Friday, March 21, 2014 11:16 pm

An educator unworthy of the name

Long story short, a high-school publication in Fond du Lac, Wisc., is, in the words of regular contributor Doc at First-Draft.com, “being punished for pointing out that RAPE IS REAL and it SUCKS WHEN IT HAPPENS TO HIGH SCHOOL KIDS.” And, more specifically, that at Fond du Lac High School, lots of people make jokes about rape, which REALLY sucks for those students who have been, you know, raped.

The school system is imposing a sweeping prior restraint on student publications because a student magazine dared to make an issue of this. Here’s the issue in question; the story at issue begins on page 11. Read the article — indeed, read the whole issue, or at least skim it to get a feel for the kind of publication it is trying to be — and then judge for yourself who’s being responsible here and who is not.

Doc, who works with student journalists in some capacity elsewhere in that region, and his First Draft companions who are scattered around the country, are keeping the heat on, with subsequent posts here, here, and here.

I weighed in with my own missive to the school system’s superintendent, Dr. James Sebert:

Dear Dr. Sebert:

I write as a lifelong red-state Republican, the father of a high-school daughter about to turn 16 — and a former journalist who won a lot of awards for publishing unpleasant truths. And I have one very simple question for you:

What in the pluperfect hell do you think you’re doing?

It is not your job to ensure an environment full of nothing but rainbow-colored unicorns. It is not your job to try to shield students from life’s unpleasant realities because they might somehow interfere with the educational process.

In fact, the very idea that you could is laughable. By the time they cross Fond du Lac’s thresholds for the first time, nontrivial numbers of students at the high school will already have endured more unpleasantness than most U.S. adults could possibly imagine, including but not limited to starvation, bullying and other physical abuse (including from family members), sexual abuse and incest, date rape, stranger rape, psychological abuse, drug abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, and pretty much anything short of a mass murder. Are you seriously arguing that those aren’t already interfering with the educational process? And if not, then why don’t you want to talk about them? Certainly we won’t stop them from interfering with the educational process until we do talk about them.

Are you seriously arguing that students shouldn’t talk about these issues, issues that are a real, and damaging, part of their lives, issues that are harming and will continue to harm their educational processes whether Cardinal Columns discusses them or not? Because if you are, you forfeit all moral claim to the title of “educator.”

It’s that simple. Sure, a misbegotten Supreme Court ruling might give you the right to censor student publications. But keep a couple of things in mind. First, this is basically the same Supreme Court that more recently has stated as a fact that campaign finance does not cause corruption, which is on an intellectual par with the high court’s declaring that the sky is chartreuse with purple polka-dots. Second, having the right to do something is not the same thing as saying you must, you should, or that it might not be a bad idea.

Anyone who seriously considers himself an educator and engages in prepublication review ought to presume news items publishable unless they are proven otherwise, and ought to require no more than the minimum change necessary to make unpublishable items publishable. Topics in general shouldn’t be reviewed at all because high-schoolers are high-schoolers: They’re going to write about what’s important to them, whether or not you like it and maybe even because you don’t. What should you do about that? Nothing. Let. It. Go.

I reviewed the article in question and found it not perfect, but excellent for high school journalism, with due consideration obviously given to the journalistic imperatives to report the truth while minimizing harm. And if you want to argue that the article was not necessary, you need only consider the results of the accompanying poll, which is about as rigorous as polls of students at a single high school can get. Rape jokes are everywhere at Fond du Lac High — and so are the rape victims who have to listen to them and are degraded by them. As an educator, you ought to find THAT intolerable, not a piece of journalism about it.

You’ve still got a chance to make this a teachable moment — for yourself, the school system, the high-school faculty and administrators, and the students. If you’re truly an educator, then that’s what you’ll do. If you need to consult outside experts — rape-crisis experts, clinical mental-health counselors, whatever — for context and advice, swallow your pride and do it.

The kids at Fond du Lac High deserve better. So do their parents. So does their community, whose taxes pay your salary. How you handle this situation going forward can make a nontrivial number of students’ lives easier than they are now — and, oh, by the way, improve the educational process. So get going.

Sincerely,

Lex

Obviously, I don’t expect either a response or a change of heart. But this sorry excuse for an educator is now all over the Internetz as a stick-up-his-butt censor, which may well give pause one day to any larger school system that might consider hiring him. And I think it’s important for reporter/editor Tanvi Kumar and her fellow student journalists, who performed admirably not only in their original journalism but also in how they have handled themselves so far in the resulting dispute, to know that there are people out here watching them with pride and admiration.

I’m sharing the story of these kids with my own high-school-age daughter. I want her to know that the adults in her life (other than me, of course) are fallible, and that this is what one very important kind of fallibility looks like. But I also want her to understand the merits of what these student journalists were trying to do, and why, and how well they went about it, and to learn from them as well — things like responsibility and curiosity and courage and judgment that to date have been utterly absent from the people running that high school and that school system.

I want her, in short, to learn very quickly at least as much as these Fond du Lac student journalists already know about how, when, and why you speak truth to power. Because everything I see in our society suggests to me that we need more of that, not less, and will need more for many years to come. I want her and her generation prepared, for one small and simple reason: The future of the country and the well-being of their fellow citizens depends on it.

Thursday, May 9, 2013 7:29 pm

Maybe Allie’s little piece of corn can explain it all to you

For those of you who don’t know me well and have occasionally wondered what in the pluperfect hell is wrong with me — other than being a jackass, I mean — I have struggled with chronic, severe depression on and off since age 13 and continuously for about the past 20 years. (There have been some other issues, too, such as manic episodes, during which I spent money I didn’t have and behaved in risky and hurtful ways that haunt me to this day, and generalized anxiety disorder, more on which in a minute, and even a touch of post-traumatic stress disorder. But depression, like The Dude, abides.) So, if you’ll keep in mind that her experiences and mine are not identical but are alike in many, many ways, I invite you to read Allie’s graphic (which is to say that it includes not only details but also cartoons) explanation of her depression at her blog, Hyperbole and a Half.

Now, Allie kind of implies that what I’m about to say about myself is also the case for her, but I may be reading too much into what she writes. At any rate, for me, the difference between depression and GAD is that the former makes me wish I were dead but the latter makes me actively want to do something about it. GAD is a relatively new development for me, at least to this extent. When it got really bad for the first time, last fall, I had done enough reading at least to know what was going on. Unfortunately, the psychiatrist I was seeing at the time prescribed medication that is the exact opposite of what I should have been getting for the condition, so I fired his ass on the spot. (In my own mind. All he knows is that I haven’t been back or been in contact. Interestingly, his office has never once tried to contact me.)

Problem was, the only way to get to see a new p-doc quickly was to go to the emergency room and thence to the local loony bin for a few days. That was bad, but not as bad as you might think if your only exposure is “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” For one thing, the food was actually pretty good. For another, the staff was quite nice. And I did get to see a p-doc who referred me to a new p-doc out in the real world whom I could see reasonably quickly (more on whom in a minute).

The down side, and this really was a downer, was spending several  hours a day in group. For one thing, I didn’t need group; I needed medication that would make my skin stop crawling and make me stop wanting to kill myself. For another, I am an introvert. For another, the dayroom TV was tuned to USA, which was running an NCIS marathon of which I only got to see bits and pieces. I love NCIS. and watching NCIS would have helped me a lot more than listening to the unrelated problems of a bunch of weird strangers whose problems weren’t like mine. Instead, they included everyone from recovering substance addicts to active psychotics, the kind of people who see sentient, carnivorous piles of Jell-O in the corners that no one else can see.

Me: “You know it’s not real, right?”

Him (not at all offended): “It’s not real to you, sure. And that’s OK. It doesn’t want you.”

(In hindsight, I sound like some of the people in Allie’s piece who were trying unsuccessfully and cluelessly to be helpful. But I actually asked the question out of curiosity; I was trying to understand. I neither knew nor cared whether asking would help.)

Long story short, the new p-doc got me on a pharmaceutical regimen that keeps both depression and anxiety in check. I haven’t been badly anxious but a time or two in the past couple of months; I haven’t been suicidal in many weeks, except once for, like, 20 minutes or so. I know I need adequate sleep, which I’m generally getting, and I know I need exercise, which I was getting up until I started grad school two years ago and will resume getting after comps next week.

Depression is kind of a big deal. In any given year, almost 7 percent of adult Americans have it, and of them, 30% have severe cases. No treatment works for everybody. It took me a year to find an optimum treatment, which worked right up until it didn’t; now, I’m on a medication that didn’t exist when I began taking depression medication more than a decade ago.

But, anyway, go read Allie’s story. Odds are, you or someone you know can relate.

Monday, April 15, 2013 5:57 pm

Quote of the day, James Madison just-because edition

This isn’t, as they say on Twitter, a subtweet. It’s not intended for anyone in particular. It’s not related directly to anything in the news (although it could relate to almost everything). I just read it at Charlie Pierce’s place — he concludes each day with a Madison quote, which is a nice and thoughtful way to conclude a day, and this one is from Friday — and I liked it and thought you’d like it, too:

In the latter sense, a man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them. He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them. He has a property very dear to him in the safety and liberty of his person. He has an equal property in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them. In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.

– James Madison, Papers, March 29, 1792.

Monday, April 1, 2013 7:35 pm

Got a female friend about to turn 50? Is she Southern?

Then, boy, have I got a gift for you to give her: The Official Southern Woman of a Certain Age Certificate:

50OldEnglishForm

Customizable, printable on a variety of papers or skins, and suitable for framing. You’re welcome.

Saturday, November 24, 2012 5:16 pm

Health alert: generic Lipitor recall

If you take generic Lipitor (atorvastatin), STOP RIGHT NOW. The generic version has been recalled because it might have bits of ground glass in it.

Do I have your attention now? Good. More info here.

OK. As you were.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012 6:42 pm

American IP law: Where ingenuity goes to die, RSC edition

A sensible solution to a vexing and expensive intellectual-property problem? By God, we can’t have that!

For a brief moment last week, a House Republican group that serves as an idea shop for the party was on record proposing a remarkably far-reaching reform of American copyright law. The memo (PDF), written by a young staffer named Derek Khanna, was released Friday afternoon by the Republican Study Committee and noticed by The American Conservative’s Jordan Bloom.

Khanna’s memo begins by laying out the original constitutional purpose of copyright protection and how the current legal landscape has strayed from it. It then proceeds to challenge several widely-held beliefs about copyright law, including the claims that it promotes the greatest possible levels of productivity and innovation and that it represents free market ideals at work:

[A]ccording to the Constitution, the overriding purpose of the copyright system is to “promote the progress of science and useful arts.” In today’s terminology we may say that the purpose is to lead to maximum productivity and innovation.

This is a major distinction, because most legislative discussions on this topic, particularly during the extension of the copyright term, are not premised upon what is in the public good or what will promote the most productivity and innovation, but rather what the content creators “deserve” or are “entitled to” by virtue of their creation. This lexicon is appropriate in the realm of taxation and sometimes in the realm of trade protection, but it is inappropriate in the realm of patents and copyrights. […]

Today’s legal regime of copyright law is seen by many as a form of corporate welfare that hurts innovation and hurts the consumer. It is a system that picks winners and losers, and the losers are new industries that could generate new wealth and added value. We frankly may have no idea how it actually hurts innovation, because we don’t know what isn’t able to be produced as a result of our current system.

But by Saturday afternoon the RSC had pulled the memo, citing an inadequate review process and apologizing for the “oversight.” …

The memo lists several specific examples of the damage done by copyright law: Stifling the DJ and remix markets in the United States, making the creation of public libraries — and in particular Project Gutenberg — more difficult, and penalizing legitimate investigative journalism. It concludes with suggestions for reform such as significantly shortening the length of copyright claims, expanding “fair use” doctrine, and reforming statutory damages. (Those damages can currently rise as high $150,000 per infringement.)

The email announcing the removal came from RSC executive director Paul Teller, who said the memo “was published without adequate review within the RSC.” …

However, a source “with knowledge of the RSC’s operations” told Tim Lee at Ars Technia that content industry lobbyists had brought pressure to bear on the RSC’s leadership to disavow the memo.

Among the many manifestations of genius in the United States Constitution is its provision for ““promot[ing] the progress of science and useful arts” by giving an innovator a fair early share of the benefits of his creation, but then later allowing others to build on that innovation without prohibitive legal or financial obstacles. It’s that second part that has come under attack, primarily via industry lobbying (so much so that not that long ago Greensboro’s Rep. Howard Coble’s political affiliation was being mocked in some quarters as “R-Disney,” after one of the primary offenders).

This is both bad public policy and, if you’re a Republican, bad politics. Coble sits on the Judiciary subcommittee that oversees intellectual-property law and chairs the subcommittee that oversees commercial and administrative law (as well as the courts).  Peeps in the 6th District might want to drop him a line on this subject.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012 6:30 am

Go annoy someone today

The polls are open, so if you haven’t already, go vote. It annoys the bastards.

Monday, August 6, 2012 8:08 pm

What’s in your printer?

How about a whole new life?

Between what’s in this video and the Mars landing* this morning …

… I think maybe we need to remind ourselves that amid all the horrible news about the economy and politics and climate change and nuts with guns, we live in an age of wonders, and that, if we can avoid killing ourselves and throw off the short-sighted, greedy bastards now dampening our affairs and blinkering our vision, we may yet achieve even greater wonders, on this world and beyond.

*UPDATE: My online friend John Burns, a fellow Davidson alum, posts on Facebook:

Hey, rest of the world. Nice job in the Olympics, really. You’re doing great. Great to see all countries competing in the spirit of harmony. Hey, that reminds me, how did YOUR landing of a 2,000 pound robotic vehicle on another planet go? What’s that? You don’t have one? [Drops mike] 

Saturday, April 28, 2012 12:02 am

Product review: Sol beer

What with Cinco de Mayo coming up (a/k/a Amateur Night for gringos), if anyone offers you a choice between a bottle of Sol beer and a bottle of horse pee, take the horse pee. And then hit the guy in the head with the Sol bottle. The horse pee has substantially more character than the beer.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012 9:23 pm

They. Just. Lie. (And how to stop them.)

I mentioned some time back about how Rachel Lee of Vote for Marriage NC flat-out lied to the Greensboro City Council when she spoke in favor of Amendment One, which voters will decide on May 8.

Now, via Southern Beale at First Draft, comes this interesting anecdote:

Economist Arthur Laffer, a leader in the private efforts to eliminate Tennessee’s inheritance tax, told a state legislative committee Monday that FedEx president, chairman and CEO Fred Smith told him last week that “he’s gettin’ out of this state” if the bill repealing the tax doesn’t pass the legislature.

Laffer, who gained fame as a supply-side advocate in the administration of former President Ronald Reagan, moved a few years ago from California to Nashville, where he is chairman of Laffer Associates, a consulting firm, and Laffer Investments, an institutional investment management firm.

He made a 25-minute talk to the House-Senate Fiscal Review Committee Monday in support of legislation that phases out Tennessee’s inheritance and estate taxes by 2016.

Laffer has been a world-class bullshitter for more than 30 years. He lied about the “benefits” of the Reagan tax cuts and he’s lying now.

So here’s my proposal: Everyone who speaks before an elected body, in any capacity, has to be put under oath that he or she will tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, on pain of five years in prison for perjury. And then start locking some liars up.

It won’t fix everything that ails our politics, Lord knows. But it will end some of the most egregious abuses and provide some salutary examples of what happens when you try to screw your fellow citizens and the system of government our ancestors died to create and defend.

 

Friday, April 13, 2012 5:50 am

Vote Against Amendment One

For those of y’all who aren’t from around here, North Carolina will vote May 8 on a proposed amendment to its constitution that would define marriage as between one man and one woman, and refuse to recognize any other type of civil arrangement. Not only does this push the state even farther into the marriage business, a place I’ve believed for years it has no business, it also would undo arrangements some localities have here that allow for domestic partnership benefits and would eliminate the possibility of civil unions. (Same-sex marriage already is banned by statute.)

It’s bad business, it’s facially violative of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, and it’s bigots and bullies being mean just because they can. (In a state with double-digit unemployment, this is how our GOP-controlled legislature chose to spend its time.) I was born here, I”ve lived in this state all but 18 months of my 52 years, I’ve been listening to this shit my whole life, and I am sick and tired of it.

A lot of my friends and neighbors took part in this video. It calls North Carolina to be its best self, something with which this state has struggled all my life, and the victory, when it comes, will be all the sweeter for that struggle.

And here, recorded just yesterday, is a cover by Triad musician Jeffrey Dean Foster, whom those of you of a certain age will remember as guitarist/singer for the late, lamented The Right Profile:

http://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=http%3A%2F%2Fapi.soundcloud.com%2Ftracks%2F42915177&show_artwork=true

UPDATE: I do not entirely agree with the sentiment my friend Fec expresses here, but I know where it comes from and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally feel this way myself:

It is obvious to those of us who value all our brethren that the Christian fundamentalists give us no choice but leave them behind in the pursuit of a more just society. I’m going to keep saying this because it is true: just as they seek to demonize those not like them with hatred and lies, so then must we judge the social retards as evildoers. Life is hard and we have difficult choices to make. The easiest one is to disregard those who go out of their way to unnecessarily make life harder, especially for those who are already suffering the most.

It isn’t just states that struggle to be their best selves. It’s also you and I.

Sunday, March 4, 2012 10:04 pm

Hitting Rush where it hurts, cont.: local stations, local advertisers

In the past 72 hours, while I’ve struggled with work, school, my kids’ schedules and a migraine, a great exodus has taken place among Rush Limbaugh’s national advertisers after his abuse of law student Sandra Fluke for trying to stand up for basic health-care rights for women. I won’t rehash the merits of the issue, which by now are pretty well settled among those with ears to hear. (I’ve tweeted about it a bit if you want to go look.)

The question now is: What else can we do to put pressure on Rush and his parent corporations? One thing we can do is pressure the local advertisers on the stations that carry his show. Commenter “Jager” at Balloon Juice provides instructions on how to go about this [I've added a few clarifications in brackets], and as a former radio guy I can say he’s more or less on the money:

Go after the local advertisers on his show. There are very few local advertising [slots] on Rush’s show and they sell at a premium. Monitor the Rush station, make a list of the local advertisers and do the following:

1. Call the advertiser; be polite.
2. Write a letter to the advertiser; be polite.
3. Copy the station and the Federal Communications Commission with the advertiser letter.
4. Politely call the General Manager of the station, tell the GM what you are doing and why, tell them you have contacted the advertiser and copied the FCC.
5. If the local advertiser uses an agency, contact the agency, as well. Just ask the local business [whether] they use an agency.

[It's not clear to me why the commenter thinks calling the agency will help, unless you're also threatening to boycott any of the agency's other advertisers, or any other stations with which the agency places advertising, or in some other way putting pressure on the agency's revenue stream. -- Lex]

It won’t take many letters and phone calls to get their attention and remind the station that the letters need to be placed in the station’s public file. (the public file is an FCC requirement)

Local stations don’t get many local [advertising slots] in Rush’s show and many [stations] pay a huge fee to Premiere [Radio Networks, the Bain Capital/Clear Channel Communications subsidiary that syndicates the show] to run the show. If they start losing business because of that [expletive], they will raise hell with Premiere.

Although I don’t think there’s any guarantee of that because I think 27% of Americans would be happy if Rush killed infants and ate their entrails live from noon to 3 weekdays, I do think the commenter’s suggestions are about the likeliest approach of any to get results. So if you want to apply financial pressure to Rush to at least start behaving like a civilized member of society, target the local advertisers on your local Rush station. I’ll update this post when I’ve had the time to even figure out who that is in this market — that’s how out of it I’ve been lately.

UPDATE: Well, duh, it’s Rush Radio — WPTI (94.5 FM).

Mailing Address
2-B PAI Park
Greensboro, NC 27409

Phone number – 336-822-2000
Program Director – Angie Vuyst – angievuyst@rushradio945.com
Sales Manager – Tom Hennessey – tomhennessey2@clearchannel.co

Sunday, October 23, 2011 3:24 pm

More on Lisa Simeone, “World of Opera,” NPR and WDAV

When last we spoke, Thursday evening, NPR had said that it was going to have a “conversation” about the fact that Lisa Simeone, the freelance host of “World of Opera,” her political involvement in her spare time and WDAV’s relationship with the network in supplying “World of Opera” for syndication by the network.

I emailed the general manager of WDAV, who promptly informed me that he and the college already had had their own conversation about Simeone, determined that what she did on her own time was her own business and were going ahead with business as usual.

And if things had been left to lie there, all would be well. But NPR being NPR, it ignored the First Rule of Holes: When you are in one, stop digging. Instead, it found a way to make itself look even stupider by announcing that it would stop syndicating “World of Opera” to 60 stations nationwide.

In stark contrast to that behavior, WDAV and Davidson College simply and quietly did the right thing yet again, announcing that if NPR didn’t want to distribute the show anymore, they would do it themselves. Station general manager Scott Nolan emailed me yesterday to specify that the new arrangement would take effect Nov. 11.

We’ve already established that Lisa Simeone has no formal relationship with NPR, as employee or as freelancer, which means NPR has no legal, moral or ethical justification for attempting to regulate her political involvement on her own time. Given the pontification of NPR news staffers — news staffers, not producers of opera showson Fox News and other outlets, it is difficult for anyone with half a brain to think that NPR cares about the ethics or appearance or bias of its news people in general and quite easy to believe that something altogether more sinister is at work, whether right-wing political conspiracy or simple petulance.

NPR never should have tried to make an issue of Simeone’s off-duty political involvement in the first place. And once it did, it certainly never should have expected WDAV and Davidson College to do its intellectually dishonest and journalistically unethical dirty work for it. It is difficult to understand NPR’s decision to stop distributing the program as anything other than a childish act of pique, the raving of a clueless dinosaur as it sinks into the tar pits of its own irrelevance and oblivion.

But we need to ask a question: Why is it OK with NPR for NPR employees Mara Liasson, et al., to do what they do and be paid for it, but not OK for Lisa Simeone, a freelancer, to do what she does on her own time for no money? What is the moral or ethical difference in the behaviors? Why is the NPR’s response to the differing behaviors so dissonant? And what does that dissonance tell us about NPR’s news credibility, ability to navigate ethical questions and overall common sense?

The honorable behavior of my alma mater and former employer stands in stark contrast to that of NPR. It is, yet again, a good day to be a Wildcat.

But it’s a bad day, and has been a bad decade, to be an American in need of smart, credible news and information programming produced by insightful, ethical people. Those Americans are screwed, and the Occupy movement of which Lisa Simeone has been just one small part is one big sign that a lot of Americans aren’t going to stand for it. If they Occupy enough voting booths, some things will happen on the political front, but I suspect the only thing that will change NPR will be extinction. The network certainly hasn’t demonstrated an ability to learn from experience.

Thursday, October 20, 2011 8:57 pm

Letter to Scott Nolan, general manager, WDAV-FM, re: Lisa Simeone UPDATE: … and his reply

UPDATE 2: Please click on the link below and join me in thanking President Quillen for doing the right thing. If you’d also like to thank her for making Davidson look good in the process, that’s fine, but I won’t insist on it. ;-)

UPDATE: DAMN. I had no sooner hit “send” on that email and begun copying and pasting it into the blog here when Scott Nolan called me.

Long story short, I am delighted to report that he, the station and the college are doing all the right things here for all the right reasons. They’ve reviewed the terms of their contract with NPR to provide content — i.e., the opera show Simeone produces. They have concluded that the college is in compliance with every stipulation of that contract, and they’re going to ignore the national media and keep doing what they’re doing.

It is a good day to be a Wildcat.

(As you might expect, I bcc’ed a lot of people on that email. I’ll be letting them know about this conversation immediately.)

* * *

cc: Dr. Carol Quillen, president, Davidson College

Scott:

As a Davidson College alumnus and former employee of WDAV-FM during its critical early years as a high-powered broadcast outlet, I was more than a little dismayed to learn that NPR was “in conversations with WDAV about how they [sic] intend to handle” Lisa Simeone.

Here’s some free advice from someone with decades of experience in media and PR: You don’t. You listen politely to NPR, you then tell its representative to take a flying flip at a rolling doughnut and you let Ms. Simeone keep doing what she’s doing for WDAV without interruption or hassle. (If nothing else, I’m sure my late father, Class of ’52, founding member of the WDAV advisory board and a board member at Opera Carolina for about two decades, would appreciate it. He’d have loved her show, I think.)

There are so many things wrong about this situation that it’s difficult to know where to start. Fortunately, that’s exactly the kind of situation where I’ve eaten, professionally speaking, for the past 30 years.

First, if I understand the situation correctly (and I might not; I’ve seen conflicting reports in major media outlets), Lisa Simeone is a freelancer for WDAV and has no direct, formal relationship whatever with NPR anymore. That being the case, then absent any written agreement between the station and her with respect to how she will conduct herself off the air, the station simply has no jurisdiction — no moral, legal or ethical standing to tell her what she can and cannot say, what groups she can and cannot participate with, whom she can and cannot represent besides WDAV. If, going forward, the station finds it valuable to control that conduct, it is welcome to attempt to reach a contractual arrangement with her on that point and to attempt to compensate her accordingly. She, of course, is free to tell you to go to hell, and if you’re foolish enough to try to achieve that goal, then for reasons that have nothing to do with politics and everything to do with my having been a freelancer off and on for much of my career, I sincerely hope she does.

Second, although there are no true First Amendment issues here as no government agency is involved so far as I know, Davidson College and every college and university worth the name has a strong interest in defending freedom of expression, particularly unpopular expression. One of the unfortunate side effects of the evolution of the American economy from one based on manufacturing to one based on knowledge — and, therefore, frequently on relationships — is that otherwise rational people can and do sever perfectly productive professional relationships because overentitled jackasses get a bad case of butthurt over something someone said or wrote or blogged or tweeted about them. The academy, of all our institutions, ought to be the one that stands up and points out both the impracticality and the immorality of shutting down unpopular speech. If you have a problem with that, you’re welcome to seek employment in the for-profit sector. I hear it’s hiring. Oh, wait.

Third, moving from the general to the particular, what, exactly, is it of which Ms. Simeone stands accused? Depending on which news account you read, she’s guilty of being a “spokeswoman” or “organizer” for Occupy Wall Street — again, on her own time, separate and apart from her work for WDAV. Unfortunately, neither NPR nor anyone else has bothered to explain exactly what that even means, let alone why it’s a bad thing. Moreover, from everything I’ve read or heard about Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots (including first-hand accounts from my brother and sister-in-law in Raleigh, friends here in Greensboro, friends in New York and other participants), one of its defining characteristics is that anyone who wants to be can be an “organizer” or “spokesperson” for the movement. It’s a consensus movement, not a hierarchical one. While that might not bode well for its political effectiveness, it also makes defining moral and ethical transgressions on the part of any one participant problematic when we’re talking about an act of speech as opposed to, say, defecating on a police car. Put another way, the terms are meaningless. Two nights ago, as a joke, I created the Twitter hashtag #LWS — Liquidate Wall Street. (This was before Bloomberg Business News broke the story that Bank of America intends to try to stick taxpayers with a looming $53 TRILLION loss on its derivatives; in 24 hours, Liquidate Wall Street evolved with no effort on my part from joke to logical policy proposal, but that’s a different subject altogether.) Does my having created that hashtag make me an “organizer” or “spokesman” for the Liquidate Wall Street movement? If so, neither I nor the movement appear to be deriving much benefit.

Finally, I would point out something that I hope already has become obvious to you in your dealings with NPR: In matters relating to politics — a subject on which its news coverage purports to have some expertise — NPR cannot find its own ass with both hands and a flashlight. It has mishandled every major story of the past decade related to important political issues, from war crimes to the economy, health care to regulation. Probably not coincidentally, it has failed to recognize that it is facing ongoing, coordinated political attacks from one and only one side of the aisle that are bent on destroying it because they are bent on destroying accountability journalism entirely. I have been a registered Republican since 1978, but even I am not blind to this phenomenon, nor do I care for the likely national consequences if this effort succeeds. NPR is blind, willingly or otherwise, but you need not let your affiliation with the network blind you, too.

What you do, or choose not to do, is up to you. But you need to understand that your actions and those of the college in whose name you operate will be watched carefully and interpreted in the context of the values for which this country and Davidson College purport to stand.

Best,

Hooper “Lex” Alexander IV ’82
Greensboro, NC
www.lexalexander.net

Monday, August 15, 2011 8:51 pm

Clean energy vs. the storage question

The problem with the cleanest forms of energy, solar and wind-generated electricity, is that some of that energy has to be stored against times when there is no wind and no solar energy (e.g., nights). So how would we do that, using what we now know about energy-storage technology (i.e., batteries)?

Tom Murphy, a physicist at UC-San Diego, explains in engaging, understandable fashion.

Thursday, July 14, 2011 8:56 pm

Are you a fan of efficient government? Want to improve the economy? Read on.

We all know that this country has an enormous backlog of infrastructure projects, from water and sewer to Internet, that we need to get to work on if we’re going to be globally competitive down the road. (And for those who don’t know, here’s a primer from those wild-eyed liberals at the American Society of Civil Engineers.)

Now, as with enormous backlogs of pretty much anything, paying for this stuff is going to be hugely expensive. Getting much of it done at any one time inevitably would require government borrowing. At the moment, that’s not a popular idea inside the Beltway. But if you really want government to be run like a business, what do you do? You identify current and likely future needs. If possible, you wait until the cost of borrowing money goes way down, and you put your jobs out to bid when high unemployment means wages are stagnant so you can get the most bang for your buck.

A time like now, in other words. Unemployment is high (and rising again). People need work and are more willing to work cheaply than they otherwise might have been. And the cost of borrowing? Well, here’s the real kicker.

Karl Smith, an assistant professor of public economics and government at UNC, makes a counterintuitive but deeply important point: Because the real (i.e., inflation-adjusted) rate of return on 5-year Treasury notes is currently negative, it would be cheaper to do the work now, with borrowed money, than it would be to pay cash later on:

… real rate of return on government 5 year  securities is now negative. You want to stop and absorb that because I think it’s a bigger deal than most people realize.

Suppose the government had two choices. It could either pay for infrastructure improvements as it went along out of tax revenue or it could borrow money build the infrastructure now and then repay the money with tax revenues.

Ordinarily the question would be, does the advantage of building quickly outweigh the cost of the interest.

However, right now the interest cost is negative. The government saves money by borrowing now rather than waiting and paying cash. Let me say again because I have noticed that this goes against so much intuition that its hard for many people to wrap around when I first say it.

The government will wind up paying more if it decides to pay cash for a project than it will if it decides to borrow. This is irrespective of the return on the project itself or the advantages of avoiding delays or anything like that. It is simply that the cost of borrowing is negative.

It is cheaper than paying cash.

Given that fact, plus the immediate stimulative effect to the economy that infrastructure would have and the foundation for future wealth creation that such projects would lay, we would be nuts not to borrow, and borrow big, right now, for infrastructure projects.

Unfortunately, as the ongoing debt-ceiling crisis has shown, a nontrivial percentage of the people who make these decisions really are nuts.

(h/t: mistermix)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011 8:54 pm

Potentially useful information: USA Today’s comments will not let you use the word “bastards.”

However, “douchenozzles” goes through just fine.

Thursday, May 26, 2011 8:06 pm

It keeps going and going …

I’m a little late to this, but Bill Egnor at Firedoglake reflects on the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl and raises a disturbing possibility of which I had been unaware:

Chernobyl is a bad as it gets. It was the fire the spread the radioactive materials so far. Graphite burns hot and it took days to put the fire out. In that time radioactive cesium was lofted to the high level winds and spread in a classic fall out cloud. It brought low levels of radiation to all Europe west of the plant. There were even detectable levels of the radiation all the way to the United States. [cont'd.]

Around the plant it was, obviously much worse. Large levels of radioactive iodine were released and exposed populations as far away as Kiev. The levels of thyroid cancer in that part of the world are 400 times the normal level. But radioactive iodine has a very short half live and is gone in a few weeks.

Of more concern is the cesium that was released. Most of it fell within 50 miles or so of the plant. Since that is a quarantine area, that has not been much of a problem. But it has not gone away by any means. It is in the soil or absorbed into the trees in the forest there.

Now Ukrainian forests are rather like the ones in the Western United States, they tend to grow then burn. There has been no major fire in the 25 years since Chernobyl. There also has been almost no forestry work there. This means that the forests around the plant are in the kind of shape where massive fires, the kind that last for months, can occur.

If one of these massive fires happens the trees which have absorbed the cesium will burn, and throw radioactive smoke, very similar to the smoke from the original accident, high into the air. Massive fires like that can create their own weather patterns, and that would mean that once again a plume of radioactivity will head west towards Moscow and the rest of Europe.

It would be dangerous to fight such a fire, again because of the level of radiation in the soil (which would dry and also loft) and the amount of cesium in the smoke. Inhaling that smoke would very bad for your health, to say the least.

This is the legacy of a major nuclear disaster. Buildings and areas can be quarantined but there is really very little that we can do to prevent the spread of long lived radioactive elements once they are in the environment.

I am not enough of an expert on either the nuclear industry or the health risks of radiation to know whether the scenario the writer describes is the kind of deal-killer he thinks it is. I am skeptical. But we’ve also seen, at Chernobyl and at Fukushima, that there’s a certain paucity in the human imagination regarding worst-case scenarios … and that that lack of vision has a body count.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011 6:36 pm

Why everyone ought to take a creative-writing course

True story: I’ve written for money for more than 30 years.

Equally true story: In more than 40 years of trying, I’ve never crafted so much as a single page of what I believe to be credible prose fiction. To the extent that I have any gifts, and to the extent that I have been able to hone my craft without breaking either the stone or the blade, my gifts and my craft lie elsewhere.

Nonetheless: If it were practical and affordable, I would drive down to Columbia, shove some ingrate undergrads out of my way and sign up right now for Elise Blackwell’s fiction-writing workshop (depending on your IP address, this may be behind a paywall). I have no idea how good a teacher of fiction writing, per se, she is, but I know for a fact she knows what she’s doing and why it matters:

As a form of world-building, fiction stimulates imagination, makes students ask “why? and “what if?” I’m not naïve enough to argue that writing fiction makes someone a better person—I know far too many misanthropic, narcissistic, besotted, and otherwise atrociously behaved writers to make that case—but the attempt to create original fiction encourages students to imagine in detail what it might be like to live another life. This form of role-taking can foster their capacity to engage other people with imagination, openness, and empathy.

Writing workshops also give lessons in group dynamics, self-control, delivering and receiving well-intended criticism, and building an atmosphere in which good work happens painlessly. Due to the relatively small class size and fact that the students themselves produce the texts under discussion, the students have one of their most intimate and interactive college experiences. It’s not just that the professor knows their names but that they know each other’s names—and much more. When students with divergent backgrounds and sensibilities respond to each other with generosity and intelligence, much is learned not just about fiction but about living well in a world populated by other people. (Potential employers take note: Students in workshops report a sense of responsibility to the group to show up prepared and meet their deadlines.)

Perhaps most valuable, if hardest to pin down, is this: Writing and discussing literary fiction can shake loose the conviction that life operates by clichés and that human behavior follows simple psychological formulas. Milan Kundera has argued that the novel is the art form best able to depict ambiguity and that its spirit of inquiry is its great value. The scholarly study of literature teaches ambiguity, too, and well, but writing students tend to engage with their own work and the unpublished work of their peers more personally and with a great sense of contingency. When I hear a student in workshop say, “But that’s not what I would do in that character’s situation,” it always means the student’s critical vocabulary needs sharpening and it often means the story up in workshop has an implausible plot or unconvincing characterization. But sometimes it also signals a nascent understanding of human difference and complexity.

When I hear a student point out where another’s overextended metaphor stumbles, I hear someone discovering that language can mislead. When another says, “So she got the guy, but isn’t the most interesting part of the story what comes next?,” I hear a student realize that  marriage is about more than wedding planning. And when I hear a student who is asked whether his narrator is “bad” or “good” answer “both,” I recognize an increased tolerance for answers that aren’t easy and a real effort to understand the human condition.

I’ve recently blogged, and engaged in some online discussion elsewhere, about the value of a liberal-arts education. That value? This stuff right here.

Friday, May 6, 2011 7:56 pm

Quote of the day, value-of-a-liberal-arts-education edition, with elaboration at no extra charge.

… from commenter “Jes St. Lawrence” on the Inside Higher Education website, where the value of a liberal-arts education is being hotly debated in light of movements in some states to tie college/university funding to job placement:

Yes, the job market is changing rapidly, so what we really need are more narrowly-educated people. Brilliant.

The Liberal Arts have always been a tough sell because the name of the degree isn’t the name of the job. Some people can’t get past that, and by “some people” I really mean “stupid people.” Recognizing the skill set involved in a major called “history,” for instance, and connecting that skill set to appropriate jobs, is apparently too complicated to explain to a governor.

Amen. When I was starting to look at colleges almsot 35 years ago, my parents told me that no matter what I thought I wanted to do when I got out of college (at the time, be a DJ), I ought to get a good liberal-arts education because, although it might not prepare me for that job, it would prepare me for a career.

And so it has. The job I wanted, I actually got well before I finished my bachelor’s; indeed, that DJing helped pay my educational bills and kept my student-loan levels manageable. But I’ve had, by my count, five distinct careers in the 29 years since I graduated from college, including one in a field that arguably didn’t exist for almost 15 years after I graduated, and that liberal-arts background has been valuable — no, invaluable — in all of them.

In my current line of work, I tell kids that a rigorous liberal-arts education will prepare them not only for the jobs they want to do but for the jobs they will want that don’t even exist yet. And I know it’s true, because that is exactly what my liberal-arts education has done for me.

I think it’s perfectly appropriate to discuss how well our colleges and universities are doing their jobs, and for public institutions to have their funding tied to that outcome. But for that process to achieve its desired outcome, we need define those jobs better. What do we expect our colleges and universities to do for their students — to prepare them for a job? A career? Citizenship? What are the criteria for assessing progress toward those goals?

And before we can do that, we need to decide what we want our kids to be — not do, be — when they grow up.

Here’s my vote:

Lots of people can, to use one example of a currently marketable skill, build, maintain and query databases. I want American kids to be able to do most of the following, find someone who can do the parts they don’t know how to do, and to understand the need for all of it: Query a database. Know which databases to query. Know where and how to get them. Know what kind of queries will tell them whether the college president, or the corporation president, or the U.S. president, is a criminal, and how to prove it. Know why it’s important to prosecute him if he is a criminal, and what bad things are likely to happen if he is a criminal and we don’t prosecute him. And be able to explain to someone else why all of this is important.

I want citizens in full, because the kind of country we chose in 1787 to be demands that we have them. And if we want nice things, we need to pay for them.

Now we just need to figure out how best to get them. Let’s get started.

Monday, December 13, 2010 8:27 pm

The genesis of IGMFY

I’ve talked from time to time here about the I’ve Got Mine, [Forget] You” crowd and how much trouble they’re causing. But many people ask me (and I’m pretty sure a lot who don’t have at least wondered), WHY do these people, who presumably have been brought up with the same religious/moral instruction and social mores as the rest of us, get it?

Psychologists think it might be because upper-class people are less adept at deriving meaning accurately from personal interaction than are people lower on the socioeconomic scale:

“We found that people from a lower-class background – in terms of occupation, status, education and income level – performed better in terms of emotional intelligence, the ability to read the emotions that others are feeling,” says Michael Kraus, co-author of the study and a postdoctoral student in psychology at the University of California, San Francisco.

In other words, if you’re looking for a little empathy, you’re more likely to get it from a poor person than a rich one (just ask Bob Cratchit).

So, rich people: You might want to become aware of people “looking daggers” at you lest you look at see a real dagger coming at you.

 

Tuesday, November 30, 2010 8:34 pm

In which I practice psychiatry/psychology without a license

I have no background or training in the field of mental health, but 25 years of journalism and 50 years of living have me convinced that if the field is going to remove Narcissistic Personality Disorder from the DSM and add introversion, then the appropriate medical term for the entire profession would be “whacked.”

Sunday, June 27, 2010 2:55 pm

Eye on the ball

A lot of people — some of them sincere but misguided, others of them plotting to shred the safety net and give the proceeds to the wealthiest 1% — are arguing that the deficit is the biggest problem we face.

It is, no kidding, a big problem. But in the near term, unemployment is a far bigger problem. And here’s a memo to politicians of both parties: Americans get that.

So: More jobs, please. Now.

Monday, June 21, 2010 11:44 am

How do you keep banksters from engaging in irresponsible risk?

By making them responsible, duh — via joint and several liability, of the type incumbent upon partnerships in Wall Street’s (very recent) past.

Saturday, June 12, 2010 10:55 pm

One thing you CAN’T do on a Droid …

… is reliably read or interact with most Web sites. If I’d thought about it a bit, I’d’ve probably figured this out on my own, but mistermix spells it out: The resolution even on cheap newsprint is anywhere between 300 and 1,000 dots per inch. (At the paper, we told people submitting photos via e-mail to make sure they were at least 300 dpi.)

On a smartphone screen it’s less than 150. The letters have to be pretty big to show up at that resolution.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010 8:19 pm

So you want to be a journalist?

Then you are probably really screwed, financially speaking. But if you don’t care about the money, here’s some important stuff they hardly ever show in the movies.

Let’s say you’re a guy …

… or there’s one in your life whom you care for. And let’s say that you, a guy, are struggling to meet the demands of both your life and your faith. Well, hey, have I got a program for you.

It’s called Men in Balance. My stepdad, Jerry Hancock, started it. It’s sort of like Promise Keepers, only with 99% less  bullshit.

You can read more about Jerry and the program here. And unless your life and faith are already in perfect balance, you probably should.

Thursday, June 3, 2010 8:50 pm

How things work

Today at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York, Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake gave a speech called, “Can the Internet Fix Politics?” My answer is no. Her answer is, not surprisingly, more nuanced.

It’s a good speech, but I have to say my favorite part, and one of the most truthful parts, was her throwaway opening line:

I appreciate the opportunity to speak on today’s topic: “Can the internet fix politics?” Which raises the obvious question – who broke it?

I guess this is the appropriate moment to mention what an honor it is to follow Newt Gingrich.

Newt was the guy who popularized the campaign imperative of using language to distinguish yourself from your opponent in ways that are almost inevitably dishonest: using terms such as “sick,” and “out of the mainstream” to characterize your opponent, irrespective of his actual identity and platform.

That’s a small part of the whole speech, which focuses on how corporations leverage political tribalism to get what they want. It’s well worth reading.

(Full disclosure: I’ve gotten an invitation to every PDF since the original, probably because of my previous work with online communities. I’ve never attended.)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010 8:11 pm

We like to think of ourselves as rational, but we aren’t.

Not even close, in fact:

… even demonstrably false or irrelevant information can influence judgments, which in turn influence decisions. In such cases, Professors [Amos] Tversky and [Daniel] Kahneman wrote in 1981, “the adoption of a decision frame is an ethically significant act.”

Policy makers have long recognized the potential danger of false statements by advertisers. But in the belief that most adults are suitably skeptical about promotional puffery, Congress has tried to prohibit only the most blatantly false or explicitly misleading claims.

But what about merely irrelevant statements, or only implicitly misleading ones? Standard economic models say such claims are, well, irrelevant, so there should be no need to regulate them. But according to recent behavioral research, it’s a distinction without a difference.

Although cigarette advertisements, for example, typically portray smokers as young, healthy and attractive, smoking can make people look older and less healthy. Such ads make no explicitly false claims, but that doesn’t make them less misleading, even for informed consumers.

More troubling are instances in which politicians employ patently false statements to shift the terms of important public debates.

They lie knowing that we are nowhere near as well equipped to deal with those lies as we like to think we are. But this also suggests that some of our most prominent purveyors of falsehood are also lying to themselves — they are no less vulnerable to the phenomenon despite wielding it as a weapon.

What can we do about this? Well, arguably, nothing except be aware of the phenomenon and, to the greatest extent possible, try to account for it in our considerations. Government has a certain, limited role to play in limiting outright untruths in public discourse. But it is, and probably should remain, legal to put out irrelevant information. Accordingly, people need to learn to better ascertain what’s relevant and what isn’t, and to understand the concept not only of factual accuracy but also of contextual accuracy.

That’s a very basic thinking process our schools do not teach well. That must change.

Thursday, May 27, 2010 8:57 pm

Missed opportunity

I got to hear Lawrence Korb speak last night at the O. Henry. Korb was the Defense Department official during the first Reagan term who was responsible for manpower and other key issues — basically, 70% of the defense budget. To hear him tell it, Republican politicians have kind of left him standing on the Curb of Responsibility as they dashed out to play in the Six-Lane Boulevard of Madness. As a result, he advised the Obama campaign in ’08 and is now with the Center for American Progress, the moderate-to-slightly-liberal think tank run by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta.

He was an affable, entertaining speaker. He talks kind of fast, and his extemporaneous presentation involves a lot of self-interruptions and sidelong dashes down various interesting rabbit holes, so that you need to bring a fair bit of context with you to be able to follow him completely. As it happens, during his time at the Pentagon, the PR agency I worked with in New York did some work on defense issues (albeit from a different policy direction: our client was the Union of Concerned Scientists, which — aided by such luminaries as George Kennan, the pseudonymous “X” who created the policy of containment after World War II — was pushing the government to adopt a No First Use policy), so I had enough context to follow him OK.

He was talking primarily about America’s nuclear policy and why he thinks the recently signed START treaty and nonproliferation efforts are a Good Thing. But he invited questions on a wider range of defense-related issues than that. Because I am an idiot and/or my children have eaten my brain, I totally forgot to ask him what he thought about the Obama administration’s use of drones, particularly the potential targeting of U.S. citizens without due legal process.

What can I say? I suck. I admit it.

So I e-mailed him. If he responds, and if he permits his response to be published, I’ll publish it here.

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