Snow and Memory

We had a lovely snow last night. It was powdery, there was lots of it, and it was piling up instead of being smooshed, sloshed, and smeared. The slight wind and nature of it made for that lovely smothered quiet where you can hear small layers of it building up and being flown about. My wife and I walked to the grocery store in a delightful quiet with few others about. Most years, when these snows happen, I find myself thinking back to a short film we watched in elementary school. It was an adaption of the story ‘Silent Snow, Secret Snow’. As far as I could tell or remember, it was about a young boy who sort of gets drawn in and mentally engulfed about snow. A little mentally disturbing but just pleasurable to engage in.

I never did actually read the story (I think it was from Ambrose Bierce) and there’s a part of me that wonders if my memory of it is related to the sort of nostalgia-laced memories we have for other things we were fond of in school. I wonder about the times when we find the fondness does not repeat when given a chance. For instance, I think a lot of us have had the experience of revisiting a food we loved as a child but it’s not quite the same when we try to re-engage as an adult. I’m thinking about things like Macaroni and Cheese. Now that could be related to our taste buds but the memory thing is weird, more broadly. It reminds me of the Oliver Sacks material I recently read.

Elitism

I read Aisha Harris’s piece in the NYT (Dec 29) – a decent read, but I wanted to get some thoughts down on a subject that was referenced there, elitism. The word is usually used in a pejorative sense, suggestive of a group that feels they share a set of qualities to those who are not in their group. When I reflect on it, I think there are some subtleties to the definition that I suspect matter a bit in considering its impact on us.

I would constrain the definition further to say it means a group who consider themselves to have innate qualities that make them superior to others. As an example, think about the stereotype of a group of highly accomplished high school students who get into a selective college. They could be displaying elitism in the sense that they regard themselves as having the qualities to have accomplished what was required to get into that college. They might think it is because they are innately more intelligent or innately better at working hard,  but there is a notion that most people not in their group could not have similarly succeeded because they lack the innate talent. One sees that in thinking about that example, the idea gets caught up in understanding people’s motivations for aspiring to something and the idea that what one chooses to do is often obviously desirable to other people.

The idea of elitism is not confined to a self-reference to that idea of an innate superiority though – people can confer an elite status on others as well. Those same students who regard themselves as elite are not surprisingly considered as such by many in society as well.

These ideas of identifying people who have some superior abilities has a practical effect on how we construct our society, specifically on to whom we give the ability to influence or make decisions for the larger group. A good example of this is laid out in David Halberstam’s ‘Best and Brightest’ on the Vietnam War. ‘Wise Men’ were regarded as elite by looking at accomplishments and considering them to be reflective of superior abilities that would translate to the mission of our country around the world in the challenging times of the broader Cold War. That’s a good example to sketch out some of the risks that come with how elitism is used. Specifically, because elitism conveys an idea of inner traits, it is not usually something that can be explicitly seen and therefore is ascribed by means of interpretation.

By interpretation, I mean that someone sees all these impressive things that happen in someone’s life and infers, or interprets, them as emerging from that person’s innate talents. It has some similarity to Calvinism which is maybe why it seems to me to be more pernicious in our society.

Interpretation is a messy business in most contexts, but in identifying elites who should make important decisions for society, it can be shaped by the uglier parts of ourselves. It’s not a coincidence that elites in our society have historically been groups of white men. There is a feedback that takes place there too. Having identified who we think are elite and give them power, we, as a society, go to some length to justify the view and start to believe our own case for innate superiority and make it that much more difficult to be honest about why individuals get to where they are. I like to think of Molly Ivins reference to George H.W. Bush: ‘Born on third base and thought he hit a triple’. But society sits in the stands and claps away as though they believe the story too.

Our current president has managed to take advantage of our relationship with elitism in two ways. First, he looks to re-enforce those uglier aspects that got caught up in our understanding of who has great innate talent. He turns nativism and white superiority into reflections of an idea of what success ‘looks like’. Making America great ‘again’, means re-ascribing power based on the superficial, magical way of thinking about talent. There are many people who really do think that a white male is likely to be inordinately better. It’s a very slightly different thing that simply stating they ‘hate’ non-male, non-white people and I think I can see how it emerges from a place that is not evil, per se, but can drive us to evil as we look to continue to be defensive about our own inability to understand what happens to individuals in our society.

The second way the president has leaned on elitism is to inveigh against another set of elites. It would be a mistake of oversimplification to think that Trump is striving to speak for the common man as a populist and against elites. He is doing that, but the targets are more specific – they are identified as fraudulent elites, easily seen as such by lacking the markers that a common man would use to pick out a true elite. Part of the reason he is so effective at this is though timing having applied it on the heels of our first African-American president and at the doorstep of our first woman president. He’s not alone in this regard. As much as I love Maureen Down, I always felt there was a waft of this in her pieces about Barack Obama as well. 

The challenge for ourselves, I think, is to better frame meritocracy and understand how we can formulate a place for it in our society as a way to replace elitism. Meritocracy is not elitism. It is not without it’s own risks similar to those of elitism but I think it has the potential to better serve all of us. I’ll defer thoughts on that for other posts.

Voting

With less than 20 months to go until the presidential election and maybe 7 until the first primaries and caucuses roll around, ones thoughts go increasingly to political topics. I think I’m a bit of a political junkie and I certainly love the storyline of political campaigns – even as I’m unsure whether that aspect is healthy for our society. I’ve told folks, and I think I’m not far off, that this election reminds me of the 1976 election primary. At that time I collected Newsweek magazines as my parents finished them (they had a weekly subscription). The magazine format was a much more important part of the social fabric than today of course. 1976 was the first presidential election since the Nixon resignation. Nixon’s resignation wasn’t the only thing that had happened in the previous 4 years of course – society was something of a big muck of ‘stuff’ and lots to be remembered for could come in any year. One 1976 Newsweek cover touted the score or so democratic candidates lining up for a shot to be nominated. The Watergate debacle made Dems the team to beat for November. Jimmy Carter really came out of no-where (still not sure how) but there was Frank Church riding in from the Church CIA hearings, Mo Udall, Jerry Brown, Scoop Jackson (remember the term Jackson Wing of the democrats?), Birch Bayh, Sargent Shriver, and others. One of the things that strikes me is how many of these have progeny who’ve continued in their wake. Nepotism? A strong thread in US politics. It’s a topic that makes me start thinking about our wealth gap in the US but I feel I’m going off on another topic.

I’m pretty worried with how our world writ large is evolving. I have a small sliver of hope. That worry seems to overshadow how I feel about the elections – do I go for the candidates that reflect where I want us to go now or the ones that optimize the chance of getting small changes done. I feel like Obama was right at the sweet spot and accomplished about as much as can ever be feasible in our (American) political era.

Fear, Anxiety, and Chit-Chat

A person was fired at work today. I hesitated before writing the noun down, since at times they’ve felt like a friend, at times like a colleague, and at times a person with a personal backstory. It’s incredibly sad to me. I can make comments about it’s reflections on our want to be needed and how that might be something we get out of a life of work, but it’s hard to think about some of the particulars that I’d like to speak for themselves. His wife was diagnosed with Cancer not too long ago. His kids are entering the danger years of adolescence and uncertainty about the future, he has to wonder who values him. Who values any of us?

I’ve spent a fair number of  evenings when we both worked late, just chatting a late night at work. There was a fair amount of griping – doesn’t that word convey just a real pejorative sense? – on his part about how his role at work was perceived and the (my read) powerlessness he had to do anything about a system that just didn’t want him around any more. I use the word ‘system’, but he usually personalized it. I think that’s normal. It’s not normal or right for anyone, and I mean anyone, to have a life turned from anxiety to outright fear. What’s wrong with us?

 

Election(s)

With less than 20 months to go until the presidential election and maybe 9 until the first primaries and caucuses roll around, ones thoughts go increasingly to political topics. I think I’m a bit of a political junkie and I certainly love the storyline of political campaigns – even as I’m unsure whether that aspect is healthy for our society. I’ve told folks, and I think I’m not far off, that this election reminds me of the 1976 election primary. At that time I collected Newsweek magazines as my parents finished them (they had a weekly subscription). The magazine format was a much more important part of the social fabric than today of course. 1976 was the first presidential election since the Nixon resignation. Nixon’s resignation wasn’t the only thing that had happened in the previous 4 years of course – society was something of a big muck of ‘stuff’ and lots to be remembered for could come in any year. One 1976 Newsweek cover touted the score or so democratic candidates lining up for a shot to be nominated. The Watergate debacle made Dems the team to beat for November. Jimmy Carter really came out of no-where (still not sure how) but there was Frank Church riding in from the Church CIA hearings, Mo Udall, Jerry Brown, Scoop Jackson (remember the term Jackson Wing of the democrats?), Birch Bayh [ed: as I followed up writing this, Birch Bayh has died. Boy I take my time completing this no?], Sargent Shriver, and others. One of the things that strikes me is how many of these have progeny who’ve continued in their wake. Nepotism? A strong thread in US politics. It’s a topic that makes me start thinking about our wealth gap in the US but I feel I’m going off on another topic.

The topic that was banging around in my head today was how does one figure out who one should vote for? Or hope should win? This is part of the old topic of whether to vote straight for who sees the world and the problems to solve as you do or go for the one likeliest to win or the one likeliest to achieve part of what interests me? In the past there have been elections where I voted for someone based on wanting to be idealistic. For instance, I voted for (gasp) Ralph Nader in the 2000 election.

I’ve gone back and forth. I’ve made argued vociferously that my particular vote simply does not have the likely ability to make any changes. That is something that is absolutely true. Voting is something of an act of faith – or maybe a giant Monte Carlo. So does focusing on how I should vote become a shiny ball? In other words, the variance in the outcome according to the variability in how I do it is negligible compared to the intent which is to gauge public sentiment.

There’s also a (I think) new component to all of this – the public pressure that is there by virtue of electronic media. Think about the increasing number of close electoral results where people are castigated by voting for a fringe candidate because the small perturbation was enough to be a decisive factor overall. Note that I said ‘a’ decisive factor. It feels like a peer pressure thing and I’m not sure I’m comfortable with it. I’ve given in to it as well and felt anger towards Jill Stein voters for instance. A messy, see-through bowl it is.

Arizona

It’ll take a while to get all I want to get down about our trip to Arizona. This was our 3rd consecutive trip to the desert, timed in part to coincide with part of professional baseball’s ‘Spring Training’. It’s a period of a month or so where teams will play practice games against one another to get ready for the regular season and to give some last thoughts as to who should be part of the team going forward. We will spend the other half of our time in another part of the state just enjoying the outdoors – mainly  some combination of hiking and biking.

Too many of our trips start off with some pre-trip crisis (a topic for another post!) and this one did as well. D and I definitely were high strung going into the last minute before the cab came for us but by the time we were at the airport all was cop acetic. (Spelling check, is that word really two?).  Odd factoid, I tend to drink less when I’m on trips and vacations, though this time I had 3 good shots at 9:30 AM. Also, I tend to sleep like a baby on airflights. Not so much this time. Connected?

Phoenix was wonderful to us again. An interesting town where I can again sense a big gap from the haves and have-nots. The terrain is absolutely not to be missed though. In our 7 days, we hiked with increasing ardor every day and then on the next to last day capped it off with a 45 mile bike ride (in Tucson). I know we’re getting older, but damn, it felt good to be physically alive.

Biases, Literature and Computers

I take a fair amount of pride in what I deem to be an ability to communicate well through speaking or writing. The math and science of the world has always come second nature to me and I’ve probably taken it for granted, but I can point to a few milestones in my life with regards to speaking and writing: in high school, I very vividly remember writing a paper as a Junior (I think) where the purpose was to take a position on something. In my very egocentric way, I wrote a paper arguing why reading was important but in a style which was very self-centered and really a stand-in for why I am just better than everyone else for seeing how cool reading is. My teacher at the time, Ms. Alwood, was somehow able to get through to a part of me that was able to put aside the part of me that was convinced of my being right and to re-think what I was doing. The technical change was just to reconceive the paper with regards to who the audience was. Okay, that wasn’t hard, the challenge was to get me to re-evaluate what I was doing. I’m not entirely sure, but I sense that there’s a connection there between that ability to communicate and having to weaken one’s sense that one is always the arbiter of truth. It’s a weird notion given how some people, lawyers for example, are explicitly trained to do the very opposite – be artful at explaining why you are correct (at least in an adversarial judicial system). A second milestone was in college where, at least in the first 2 years, I felt like my literature courses were the ones I enjoyed most.  My freshman literature course was cool – taught by a very nearly-hippie, stereotypical boomer dude (this was 1982 after all). The class was very wide ranging and able to connect extremely disparate ideas into a cloth of literature that left one feeling that you really learned something. For example, we read Dante’s ‘Inferno’ and we also read the book of Job from the bible. The portion on the Job and the bible was neat because it raised the idea that Christianity and Judaism are at their hearts more ‘Eastern’ religion than one realizes in their attempt to give very non-material, meditative answers to questions about life. The perspective on God in Job is one that posits an entity that is very ‘apart’ from us and leaves us in a continual meditative posture with asking the question about why bad things happen to good people.

Now, what does this have to do with computers? Well, in my inbox was another set of links from a computer/programming-oriented website. The ability to assemble blogs and articles is so omni-present these days that I think it has done good in adding some literacy to many such parts of life. This article included a link to ‘books you have to read in 2018’. But my reaction as I read them was a mix of ‘I know better than to enjoy this one’ and ‘Over-rated’ and ‘can you justify this with anything other than claiming one is better for having read it?’. I think my fur rises in part because I deem the source to be someone who I stereotype as likely good at technical things, but surely they don’t have the literature/arts chops that I do.  I have similar feelings though even when people who I know recommend books. And I’ve been wrong! When I lived in a condo in Oak Park in the first years of our marriage, I was loaned a book “Ahab’s Daughter” by our neighbor downstairs. I started it and instinctively wanted to disparage it. In fact, when our neighbor asked me what I thought,  my first response (I was about 1 chapter in) was to openly criticize it – I think I said it seemed okay, but there were no male characters, to a fault. I was not only boorish, but possibly misogynistic and I was wildly wrong as well. It ended up being one of  my favorite books I’ve read in the past 20 years. Ugh indeed.

 

Book and Film Reviews

I really enjoy book reviews as a literary form in themselves. I really only discovered the New York Review of Books within the last 15-20 years but it is probably one of my favorite sources of reading material now, even if it takes me a month to get through an issue. It does provide reviews of books, but really each piece is so in depth and places the material in such a rich context that you can forget they are addressing a particular book. The breadth of topics is superb. I’m a complete layman when it comes to understanding things like art or architecture, but I can become completely engrossed in an article which is ostensibly a review of a ‘book’ such as a compendium of art pieces which are featured in a special showing at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, or a book about 1960’s and 1970’s ‘brute’ architectural styles. I think more than half of the novels I’ve picked up over recent years have come from what I’ve gleaned from the NYRB pages.

Sometimes I wonder if the reviews are a way of cheating on the fact that I simply can’t read fast enough or find enough time to read what I want to or ought to. That feeling is stronger, I think, when I read film reviews where I want to know the story without needing to see the film. It’s a bit ironic that film, which is such a shortened sugar-high-like version of entertainment compared to literature, seems to offer a comparatively higher cost in terms of invested time. To see a film, you need to sit for 2-3 hours in addition to setting up (either at home or at a cinema). If I want to read, I can do it for 15-20 minutes or an hour or more if I want to. Yes, it takes a lot longer (for me) to get through it, but it has that built-in flexibility around when, where, and for how long.

Thoughts around the Sunday NYT

I had more time than usual to plumb the NY Times this morning, so I’ll use that to put some thoughts down on what I found interesting or worth continuing to think about, etc. Some of my NYT habits have changed and some are a little embarassingly pedestrian, but I really do love that paper. I think it was while I was a post-doc that I really discovered it and contrasting it with the Chicago papers (there were 2 at that time) and the Detroit papers (there were 2 at that time), it was just so manifest that the writing was superior. I’m not talking about the opinions, just the writing. I grew up with the Washington Post (1970s and 1980s) but haven’t read it enough as an adult to compare. My pattern today with the NYT is to 1) go through Sports (gagh, but it’s a habit I won’t let go of). 2) Go through the Review section 3) Preserve the Book Review – as it’s my go-to for the rest of the week, 4) Look at what’s on the cover of the magazine issue 5) At least skim through the front section (international news) 6) Set aside other sections as time allows.

There were a bunch of interesting things today – current events about the shutdown, the editorial coming out with a full throat engagement with the threats from anti-vaxxers, and an interesting opinion piece about the role of rich people within progressive and liberal circles. The latter was one I wanted to debate and would like to come back to it at some point. But the first one I thought about was one on the topic of ‘fake news’ and the readiness with which it is engaged.

The NYT usually has one article in the op-ed section that is written by researchers of one flavor or another. They have an embarassingly similar way of starting out. “Problem X is important today. Could it have to do with Y or Z? Our research done recently shows …”. I know that this is the thrust of most research articles, but it’s jarring to see it in a non-scientific format and feels very plastic and in the interest of excessive self-promotion. Despite my own academic and research background, I cringe at these. Despite that, today’s was mostly interesting. The premise of today’s research article is that there is sense of an increasing willingness of people to accept fake news – information put into social media which is at best incorrect and at  worse a lie – and it would be beneficial to know why. The authors assert that there are two formulations into understanding this: 1) It’s due to greater tribal/partisan sensibilities and people will rationalize against facts to buttress their own associations; and 2) It’s due to people simply not opting to put in the effort to think about things, especially when they are broadcast in sensationalist bursts which is a feature of our era (think twitter). The article was pretty cool into what ways you can measure  these things: there’s a test known in psychological and behavioral circles which asserts falsehoods carefully chosen so that individuals who don’t think about them very hard will give wrong answers. It can thus provide a kind of measurement of how prone an individual is to go with ‘their gut’. They gave this example: in a race, you pass the 2nd place person. What place are you in now? Gut response tends to say ‘1st’ but the answer after thought is clearly ‘2nd’.

So, it was a nice read, not too didactic but lays out measures, premises, ways of thinking about the problem. The end is a little weak where they try to talk about how to reconcile the ‘two camps’ with what they clearly see as definitive results showing the latter. They fall into the tendency of drawing conclusions without having quantitative backing: effect A clearly exists is extrapolated into ‘effect a is important perhaps even mostly important’ into ‘effect A needs to be the prime driver in how we understand X’. That was at the end of the article and maybe I was getting analytically lazy though!

 

Moving from one universe into another and Rachel Cusk

Among the many pools of thought that I’ve thought about in Rachel Cusk’s ‘Outlines’ is the idea that a couple entering into ‘familyhood’ really becomes an isolated, frozen entity that is a different universe from the outside world and how odd it is when you ‘re-enter’ reality, so-to-speak. I feel pieces of this coming as our children start to amble out into the world. It’s going to be a little drawn out and maybe never gets ‘there’, but it’s odd. Sometimes I worry that we (myself and my spouse) feel aimless but that feeling is balanced by times when I feel a weird freedom that we can choose to do lots of things – go live in Portland for example! Travel, etc. I do find myself measuring that up against how much time we might have.