Saturday, April 22, 2017

Marching for Science. In 2017. No, Seriously.

Galileo Galilei was born in 1564, at a time when the Renaissance was giving way to the Scientific Revolution.

Neither of these things were very popular with the Catholic Church, which was an institution that, in the middle of a century of Reformation, Counter-reformation, and religious warfare, had any number of ways to make its displeasure known and every incentive to do so.  And, perhaps inevitably, his scientific views brought him into conflict with the most powerful institution in what is now Italy, where he lived.

In particular, it was Galileo’s defense of the Copernican theory of heliocentrism – that the earth moved around the sun rather than remaining stationary while the heavens spun around it – that bothered the Church.  Oddly enough, Copernicus’ work wasn’t all that controversial in the late 1500s – Pope Gregory XIII used it to help him create the Gregorian calendar in 1582, the calendar that all of Western Civilization uses now – but in the 1600s religious opposition to heliocentrism became more pronounced and vitriolic.  The Church declared heliocentrism “foolish and absurd” in 1616 and declared it to be heretical, and Pope Paul V ordered Galileo to abandon his position that heliocentrism was physically true, though he could discuss it as a theoretical idea.  

When Pope Urban VIII, a friend and admirer of Galileo, came to power in 1623, Galileo resumed writing about heliocentrism.  Unfortunately, his writing angered the pope, and in 1632 he was brought to the Vatican for trial.  He was forced to recant heliocentrism, committed to house arrest for the rest of his life, and saw his book banned.

According to tradition, after being forced to deny the science behind heliocentrism and affirm that the Earth was stationary, Galileo muttered under his breath, “E pur si muove.”

“And yet it moves.”

Deny science all you want, but the facts don’t care.

This is a valuable lesson for modern America, as we find ourselves saddled with an administration whose assaults on science are only just beginning.  Indeed, the GOP war on science has been ongoing since the administration of Bush Jr.  Here in Wisconsin, as in several other GOP strongholds, all mention of climate change and other ideologically inconvenient facts have been scrubbed from official websites and documents and further investigations banned.  It’s gotten so bad at the federal level under der Sturmtrumper that federal scientists are copying data and storing it in hidden places to avoid years of taxpayer-supported research being destroyed in the name of partisan politics.

Deny science all you want, but the facts don’t care.

So today, across the nation, we marched in defense of science.  Americans who understand the importance of acknowledging reality, of investigating facts, of basing policy on data rather than wishful thinking, and who recognize the critical importance of science to our economy, our military strength, and our future took to the streets to protest the debasement of American civil discourse and the ongoing GOP war on science.

Kim and I went up to the march in Madison, since that was the one that was close by.  Naturally we brought signs.

Kim’s was a bit more straightforward than mine, of course.  On the back it said “Science = National Security,” and between the two messages one would hope some light would go on in the heads of the science deniers, though I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Being the historian, I went with the Galileo quote.  I was pleasantly surprised at how many people got it – Madison is a university town, after all – and at how many people who didn’t get it took the time to ask me the story behind it.  The back of mine requires a bit of explanation.

The Catholic Church long ago made its peace with heliocentrism.  And the current Pope – Francis – has repeatedly made public statements confirming the reality of climate change, evolution, and the Big Bang, statements that have angered the American right wing.  If there is anything more grimly amusing than listening to right-wing hucksters lecture the Pope on religious doctrine I’m not sure what it might be.  

This is why the back of my sign simply said, “The Pope is now more enlightened about science than the US government.  Think about that.”

I can’t tell you how many people stopped me for photographs of that.  It warmed my heart, it did.

It took us a while to find the park where the march started, since it’s not one we usually go to, but we ran into someone who was headed in that direction and he was happy to walk with us.  The park was nicely crowded, and there was a band playing.  Of course they ended up playing Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me With Science."  Don't be silly.

I even ran into another Galileo fan.

Eventually we found a couple of friends.  One of the local tv stations interviewed the lot of us briefly, and it will be interesting to see if we end up on the news.

We lost them when the march began, as Kim and I were waylaid on the way out of the park by someone from the student radio station who wanted to interview her.  I got a few comments in as well, so that was nice.

The march wound its way through the streets for a while – there were several thousand people marching, so it took a while.  Most of them had clever signs and there was a festive air to the whole thing.  Madison is perhaps the politest place in the world to have a demonstration.

Eventually we ended up at the Library Mall, where there were speakers who were no doubt interesting but frankly it was mid-afternoon and my blood sugar had crashed an hour earlier so we headed up State Street and found some lunch.

I have no illusions as to the effects of this march.  Der Sturmtrumper will not magically gain an appreciation for the crucial role that science plays in making this country great, in promoting our economy and our society, and maintaining our strength.  He will not back off his attacks or stop promoting the aggressive ignorance that got him elected.  His party won’t make any of those changes either, since their base finds reality inconvenient and won't reward them for acknowledging it.  There has to be more than just marches to make these changes.

But we march anyway.  And the message is simple.

We are here.

We outnumber you.

We are coming.

You are on the wrong side of history, morality, and American values.

We will see you fail.

We will make sure you are forgotten.

Sleep well.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Continued Stray Thoughts on the Current Political Climate

With the cascade of stupid, immoral, illegal, subversive, un-American, and possibly treasonous things emitted by der Sturmtrumper, his pet Congress, his supporters, and his administration reaching levels that make it nearly impossible for any sane person to keep up with, I’ve started just keeping a running list of observations on the matter.  Every time the list reaches critical mass, I suppose I’ll post it and start a new one.  Can’t hurt; might help.  Here’s the most recent list:


1. Anyone who doesn’t actually know what country he has just ordered bombed should not be allowed to order countries to be bombed.  This goes double if chocolate cake is mentioned anywhere in the reveal.

2. Way down in Alabama (“Boldly striding forward into the 13th century!”) the GOP has apparently voted to allow churches to create their own police forces, complete with all of the statutory enforcement power of the Actual Police.  Leaving aside the obvious problems with this as far as the separation of church and state are concerned – the GOP has made it fairly clear that they support theocracy for white evangelical Protestants, and the Constitution and the Founders be damned – there is also the question of what, precisely, a modern nation state is.  One of the quintessential features of a modern nation state is that it reserves both institutional violence (military and police forces) and justice (police and courts) to the central government rather than parsing them out to private militias or vigilantes.  It is one thing to have a private security firm to patrol and turn over alleged violators to the state for action.  It is quite another to allow privilege – “private law” – in its rawest form to be given to non-state actors.  It is also of a piece with the GOP’s continued refusal to address, let alone solve, the irresponsible proliferation of high-powered weaponry in this country, of course, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at this usurpation.  It’s not a good sign for the future of the republic, though.

3. Apparently der Sturmtrumper is so desperate to distract the nation from the ever-tightening noose of his Russian collusion that he is seriously working to get us into a war in Korea.  Because that went so well the first time, even before the North Koreans acquired nuclear weapons.  There must be a whole lot of meat in that Russian thing for him to go to these lengths.

4. If you tell me you are a Christian and then tell me you voted for the GOP in any election in the last decade, I will know you for the Pharisee you are. 

5. Like most thin-skinned authoritarians, der Sturmtrumper isn’t a great fan of protests.  They do tend to highlight the criminal and/or merely immoral things he is up to, and that is just not good for business.  Unfortunately the Founding Fathers put that right into the Constitution – a document der Sturmtrumper and his minions, lackeys, and cronies really ought to read someday – so what he is or is not a fan of is irrelevant. 

6. Of course, he could just do what every other president and presidential nominee has done for decades now and release his tax returns to the general public – we are, after all, his boss – and bring that particular protest to an end.  That would require transparency, however, and that’s not something that thin-skinned authoritarians are noted for either.

7. And on that note, is anyone surprised at der Sturmtrumper’s decision to withhold the visitor logs to the White House from public view?  Makes you wonder who’s coming to visit, doesn’t it?

8. So according to Business Insider, this will be a year for “staggering” numbers of retail bankruptcies.  And why this is considered news is an interesting question.  Wal-Mart was reporting years ago that their customers were running out of money at the end of the month, and that hasn’t changed.  This is what happens when you have people with a fanatically ideological commitment to supply-side economics imposing their will on a demand-side economy.  The net effect of that is to take wealth out of the hands of the poor and middle class and give it to the already wealthy who, not being stupid, just hoard it since there is no point building factories or hiring people to make things that nobody can afford to buy.  In other words, you get the Kansas Miracle, currently making that state an economic and societal basket case, also now in its fifth year here in Wisconsin and, despite a moderate slackening of pace during the Obama years, barreling down the national pike to your town courtesy of the GOP Congress even as I type.  Say it with me, folks: supply-side economics does not work in a demand-side economy.  Never has.  Never will.  The fact that there is an entire party dedicated to this kind of rapacious plundering of the majority and it hasn’t been lined up against a wall come the revolution is nothing short of astonishing, though probably for the best as far as peace and stability are concerned.  The signal achievement of the modern American right wing has been to convince 47% of the American people that slitting their own economic throats is their patriotic duty.

9. Not surprisingly, thanks to a steady diet of these policies since 1980 – a diet only partially reversed by the Clinton Administration in the 1990s and barely slowed under Obama thanks to the rigidly partisan fanaticism of the 21st-century GOP controlling Congress for much of his administration – we are now at a level of economic inequality that we have not seen since 1929.  That didn’t end well the first time.  It won’t end well this time either.  Remember folks – when the poor have nothing left to eat, they will eat the rich.  I don’t advocate this.  I merely predict it.

10. How exactly do you lose something as big as an aircraft carrier?  Also, isn’t the front end of one of those things fairly easy to distinguish from the back, so you can tell which way it’s headed?  This is what happens when you elect amateurs and ideologues instead of qualified people.

11. Remember when it was the North Korean leadership that was unstable, authoritarian, and a threat to world peace?  Good times, man.

12. Wouldn’t it be nice if I were actually wrong about all this?  That der Sturmtrumper and his minions, lackeys, and cronies were actually doing all this as a ruse to distract from their sneaky competence and how the US will see a new golden age of equality, leadership, and prosperity when all is said and done?  Yeah, I’m not holding my breath either.  But you have to admit it would be nice.

13. Oh, who am I kidding?  When people show you who they are, you should believe them.  The modern GOP has spent the last quarter century conclusively demonstrating that it is a cesspit of greed, cruelty, misogyny, hatred, rigid authoritarianism, ideological blindness, and aggressive stupidity all dressed up in expensive suits and a thick layer of blasphemy.  I do miss having opponents I could disagree with and not fear for the survival of the republic.

14. Well, add South Korea to the list of allies der Sturmtrumper has managed to alienate – and you have to admit it’s pretty impressive to be at odds with both Koreas at once.  That takes talent.  It’s hard to be this staggeringly incompetent by random chance.  At this rate we’ll be back to isolationism and reduced to a backwater in world affairs by the end of the year.  This is of course about where we were in 1875, so at least it’s consistent with the GOP domestic policy agenda that way.

15. We’re now roughly at the 100-day mark in this administration, and there remain hundreds of Senate-confirmed offices left to fill.  You can take this as a sign of the grotesque levels of incompetence displayed in most areas of der Sturmtrumper’s administration, or you can take it as a power grab, since those functions are increasingly being exercised by family members or directly by 45.  Or both, really.  Why choose?

16. Our Confederate Attorney General is apparently flummoxed at the idea that Hawaii is an actual state.  How, he asks, could a judge on “an island in the Pacific” overrule der Sturmtrumper?  Dude, read the Constitution, learn some post-1865 history, count the stars on the American flag that you claim to worship in your idolatrous and vapid way, count the islands that make up Hawaii while you’re at it (hint: more than one), and try not to make such an utter ass of yourself next time.  Remember folks – this is the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.  Read it and weep.

17. Closer to home, the Wisconsin GOP is working feverishly to make judge-purchasing legal by getting rid of a law requiring judges with obvious conflicts of interests such as, oh, being on the receiving end of massive amounts of cold hard cash from defendants, to recuse themselves from those cases.  Because justice is simply another commodity for the GOP, just like health care – something the rich can buy and the poor will never have access to – and why this even surprises me beyond the sheer brazen arrogance of it I cannot tell you.

18. Canada too?  My, my, but der Sturmtrumper is determined to piss off and/or piss on every single one of our allies, isn’t he?  Prepare to be invaded by angry moose wielding hockey sticks, my fellow Americans.  But if you think that’s laughable, just remember – the last time the US tried to invade Canada we got our ass handed to us.

19. Apparently Wisconsin’s own Senator Ron Johnson – the Dumbest Man in the Legislature now that Rick Santorum has retired – thought he could get away with an easy time in front of high school students in Madison after hiding from his constituents for the last few months.  And, predictably, he got fried.  They had real, substantive questions.  They pressed him for answers when he tried to give them party line bullshit.  And how did he respond?  He lied to them, he ducked questions, and he generally acquitted himself with all of the aplomb of an airsick ferret.  Score one for the youth of America.

20. Number of times President Obama went golfing in his first three months in office: 0.  Number of days Obama spent at a golf course overall during his first three months in office: 0.  Number of times the current occupant of the Oval Office has gone golfing in his first three months in office: 13.  Number of days said occupant spent at a golf course during his first three months in office: 19.  Percentage of Trump voters who think Obama spent more time at the golf course than their candidate: 53.  It must be nice to live in a hermetically sealed bubble where truth is whatever is most convenient for your prejudices.

21. For comparison, Bill Clinton spent 3 days on golf courses during his first three months, while George W. Bush spent 0.  Just another reminder that the current administration is Not Normal.

22. I wish we had a sane government I could ignore and then write about other things.  I could use the break.  And so could we all.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Easter Eggs

It’s coming up on Easter, and you know what that means?

No, it probably doesn’t mean we’ll actually get to church.  If there is an attendance requirement to get into heaven we are pretty much boned.  I suppose I could make an argument that at least we’re not being Pharisaical about it all, only showing up on the High Holidays and preening to the world about our virtue even though we don’t come on the regular days, but I’m not sure how much weight that carries either.

We just try to be good people and hope that is enough.

Instead, it means we’re about to be inundated with sugar.  Easter Sunday is the one day a year where it is socially acceptable to eat chocolate for breakfast.  We load up the baskets beforehand and then chow down in a frenzy of glucose that would be enough to give entire villages diabetes in the Old Country except that this is MURCA, the land of the 44-oz “medium” soda with free refills, so our pancreases (pancreii?) are tough as burnt leather and can handle it, at least until we explode from obesity.

You have to have life goals.

We’ve pretty much conceded the whole Easter Bunny thing except as a rhetorical device now – it was fun while it lasted, but everyone is old these days and understands the concept of “two-for-one sales down at Walgreens” – so we can be pretty open about the process now.  Kim and I will set up a basket for each girl and then let them have at it.  There will, of course, be a tax.  Those who set up get paid, after all.

This is a far cry from what I remember as a kid.

My parents were never big on the Easter Bunny.  To be honest, my dad wasn’t all that big on Santa either – “you bust your ass all year to be able to afford some nice things for your kids and then some fat guy in a suit gets all the credit,” I believe was his basic position – so the idea of a rodent breaking into our house and leaving stuff for us was just not going to fly.  So on Palm Sunday we’d all gather around and spend the afternoon dyeing eggs and filling the baskets with candy.  

And then the baskets would go on the dining room table, where they would sit.  

All week.  

There in the open.  

It was maddening.

A certain amount of jellybean attrition was acceptable, within limits, but none of the big stuff was allowed to disappear.  It was as close as I got to Lent, I suppose.

And then Easter Sunday would dawn and we’d go to church, and once we got home all bets were off.  My brother and I would fall on those baskets like locusts on a wheat field, and it would be glorious.  The highlight, of course, would be the big egg in the middle.

The big egg in the middle was usually about the size of a baseball, more or less.  It was dark chocolate on the outside and a sticky coconut filling on the inside, and there was a sugar icing flower perched delicately on top.  Back in the day there was also a silver foil leaf stuck in the flower.  You’d peel off the flower and eat it, saving the foil leaf as a souvenir or just tossing it, depending on mood.  And then you’d slice the egg crosswise, each quarter-inch-thick slice to be savored and drawn out as long as possible.  Sometimes you could get the egg to last an entire week, although that generally took more self-restraint than I had.

I’m a sucker for chocolate-covered coconut, what can I say?

I tried to explain this to Kim once and she looked at me as if I were more deranged than usual.  Apparently these big eggs did not exist here in the midwest.  Maybe they were a Philadelphia thing, but they certainly were not a Wisconsin thing.  We’re usually in Wisconsin for Easter these days, and it has been so long since I’ve seen one of those eggs that I started to think I had just hallucinated them.

I spent some time in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago, however, and on one of my grocery runs I found a display rack full of those eggs.

Of course I bought one.  

I haven’t eaten it yet.  I put it on my desk right where I could look at it every day while I worked, because Tradition, that’s why.

On Sunday, I am going to eat the sugar icing flower (pausing momentarily to mourn the missing silver foil leaf, which has apparently not survived into the 21st century), and slice off a few bits to savor.  I will toast the Old Days.

And then, well, no doubt I will spend the rest of the day in a sugar coma.  I’m sure that’s in the Easter liturgy somewhere.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Continued Stray Thoughts on the Current Political Climate

With the cascade of stupid, immoral, illegal, subversive, un-American, and possibly treasonous things emitted by der Sturmtrumper, his pet Congress, his supporters, and his administration reaching levels that make it nearly impossible for any sane person to keep up with, I’ve started just keeping a running list of observations on the matter.  Every time the list reaches critical mass, I suppose I’ll post it and start a new one.  Can’t hurt; might help.  Here’s the most recent list:


1. I’ve been out of the loop for a while, but der Sturmtrumper and his minions, lackeys, and cronies are the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to malevolent stupidity and catastrophically short-sighted power-hungry subversion, so there’s never a shortage of material whenever one chooses to begin paying attention again.

2. So the GOP has shoved Justice Gorsuch down the collective throats of the nation.  Let me be clear about this – the Supreme Court has been vandalized.  That seat belongs to Merrick Garland, a Supreme Court nominee who – for the first time in American history for a nominee who was not withdrawn by the president – was not even granted a hearing, let alone a vote.  Gorsuch’s entire nomination was illegitimate, and the fact that he sits on the Court today is a sign that the GOP cares nothing about the Constitution, the norms of civilized society, or anything other than raw power and partisan advantage.  Every GOP Senator who had any part to play in this should be removed from office, preferably on a rail, and forced to read The Federalist Papers until they have it entirely memorized and can recite it, verbatim, from memory, in a public forum.  All of it.

3. The modern Republican Party: above the law and beneath contempt.  But then this is a party whose standard approach for the last couple of decades has been that if they can’t win fair, they will change the rules until they do win.  Voter suppression.  Gerrymandering on a national scale, at levels so brazen and arrogant as to be without precedent.  Midnight legislation sessions where the opposition isn’t notified of bills or even the fact of the session itself.  Vandalizing the Supreme Court, as above.  Remember, kiddies – rules are for other people, not Republicans.

4. So after years – literally years – of der Sturmtrumper saying we should stay out of Syria, that Syria was not our fight, that Obama was some kind of idiot for even considering getting into that quagmire, and of the GOP Congress refusing even to think about it and rejecting calls to do something that might have actually prevented this madness when it was still feasible to have any positive impact whatsoever, we’re throwing random cruise missiles into that country in order to bounce the rubble a bit.  It’s kind of sad when Wag the Dog turns out to be so utterly prescient, but then we live in an era where The Onion is hard news and Fox “News” is black comedy, so there’s that.

5. Apparently it took the Syrians almost a full day to put that airport back into operation, so we can count that mission as being about as successful as most of der Sturmtrumper’s initiatives.  Just for perspective, 59 Tomahawk missiles at about $1.1 million apiece (the mid-range of the figures I’ve seen) comes to just about $65 million, not including the cost of actually launching the attack.  I wonder how many Meals on Wheels we could have purchased for that 24-hour pause in Syrian airstrikes.  This is what happens when you have amateurs in charge.  If you’re going to employ the resources of the United States military, the deadliest and most effective combat force in the world at the moment, you need to know what you want to accomplish, how you plan to accomplish it, and what you will do once you have accomplished it.  This “make shit go boom!  make uninformed voters feel good!” approach is just nonsense.

6. “I think we’ve had one of the most successful 13 weeks in the history of the presidency,” said der Sturmtrumper, 11 weeks after he was inaugurated.

7. How animalistic do you have to be to be afraid of having a meal with a friend of the opposite gender?  The message that Mike Pence is getting across here is that he views women as purely sexual objects whose entire purpose is to be the objects of his hormonal attention, and he wants us to think he is virtuous for not putting himself into that situation.  Hogwash.  Maybe if he started viewing women as Actual Human Beings, with ideas and interests entirely separate from his penis, he would discover that such meals are both appropriate and rewarding.  I have a great many female friends, and I enjoy their company because they are interesting and worthwhile human beings.  Mr. Pence needs to grow up.

8. The other problem with Pence’s position is that it effectively shuts out an entire gender from consideration for positions, promotions, or contributions to the republic.  If you’re that much of a middle-school boy that you can’t even talk to girls, you’re not going to hire them or listen to them.  You could not ask for a better summation of the modern Republican Party’s attitudes toward women.

9. “Those who ignore history are condemned to retweet it.”  (David Brooks)

10. Out here in the hinterlands, many of the public school districts in southern Wisconsin were closed this past Friday because some white male domestic terrorist (Query: is it terrorism if the perpetrator is a white male?  Discuss) knocked off a gun shop, stole more than a dozen high-end firearms, mailed a 161pp manifesto to der Sturmtrumper, and threatened to “shoot up a school.”  Meanwhile, the Wisconsin GOP has introduced bills into the legislature this year to allow people to carry guns without training or permits, and to allow them to carry those guns onto school grounds without notifying the schools or the police.  Can we just cut to the chase and call the GOP the Party of Terrorism now?

11. Although, let’s be real here.  One more asshole with a grudge and an arsenal who threatens to murder the innocent over some imaginary grievance in order to make up for his many shortcomings?  In the United States we call that “Tuesday.”  Thanks, NRA!

12. Apparently the Koch Brothers have been replaced by Robert Mercer in the coveted role of “Shadowy Right-Wing Billionaire(s) Pulling the Strings of the GOP.”  One wonders how they will take this demotion.  I’m hoping for platinum-alloy dueling pistols at three paces.  Even the solid gold bullets they will no doubt use could do damage at that distance.  Or perhaps they’ll just throw poor people at each other using trebuchets.  They could sell tickets.

13. And while they’re at it, maybe they can divvy out the other members of der Sturmtrumper’s team to each side as well, and make it a pitched battle.  I’d pay money to see that.

14. Have you ever listened to Sean Spicer and wondered whether he believes anything he says or if he actually knows that everything that falls out of his mouth could be used to fertilize crops?  Does he even understand that there’s a distinction to be made here?  Does he think that it doesn’t matter because the people who support der Sturmtrumper can’t be bothered to care one way or the other?  Enquiring minds want to know.

15. Seriously – I have no idea what he was trying to do with his defense of Hitler or his trying to make Assad seem worse than Hitler (both of which are ludicrous positions) or whatever that was, and I strongly suspect that neither does he.  All I do know is that he managed to enrage pretty much everyone with more than six working brain cells while not actually accomplishing his mission in any substantive way.  And if that isn’t a perfect symbol for the Sturmtrumper Administration, what is?

16. Our Confederate Attorney General wants to bring back the War on Drugs – an open-ended conflict against a poorly defined enemy with no clear vision of what victory will look like, very much like the Wars on Terror and Poverty, and thus similarly doomed.  Of course the War on Drugs did do a bang-up job of putting a whole lot of poor dark-skinned people in jail and then denying them the right to vote once they got out, so I suppose it fits pretty well with the overall GOP sensibility.

17. The civil war within the GOP over who gets to own the slow-motion train wreck of der Sturmtrumper’s administration is one of the most grimly amusing things I have ever witnessed.  What do you call it when a bus half full of white nationalist alt-right neo-Nazis and half full of wealthy right-wing libertarian corporate apologists drives full speed over a cliff?  2017!

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Meet the Author!

One of the nice things about living in Wisconsin is that I’m not all that far from Madison, so whenever they have interesting things to do up there I can always just drive there and do them.

Not that I actually do them most of the time, of course.  I’m much more likely to sit quietly at home and think to myself, “Huh, that would have been an interesting thing to do” than I am to actually go and do the thing, and why Kim remains married to me in light of this is an interesting question that I hope she does not spend too much time considering.  But the option is there, and that’s important.

I liked living in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh for much the same reason.  It’s always nice to be surrounded by interesting things, even if you actually get to only a small fraction of them.  It’s good to have options.

Especially free options.

Every year all kinds of authors come to Madison – a university town, after all – for readings and such, and every year I don’t actually go to many of them, if any.  I’ve seen Patrick Rothfuss, for example – and if you ever get a chance to do that I highly recommend you do so – but most of them slip on by me.

But it’s been a hectic couple of weeks for any number of reasons, only some of which involve the sorry prevalence of domestic white male terrorism in this country, and when I saw that John Scalzi was coming to Madison today I thought, “That might be something worth actually doing rather than just thinking of doing.”  It would be fun.

I first stumbled into Scalzi as a blogger, actually.  Back in 2007, another blog I was reading at the time posted a link to his visit report to the Creation Museum – an epic account that remains worth reading even now – and I was so taken by his writing that I read through all of his old posts.  In order.  And when I got to the end of those and realized that there were still older posts elsewhere, in an internet archive, I went and found those and read them as well.  In order.  Because that’s the kind of nerd I am.

He’s been writing that blog since 1998, by the way, often posting daily.  And I’m still reading it.  In order.  This has been much easier since 2007, actually, as I read the posts as they come up instead of binging them long after the fact.  I'm sure there's a lesson in there somewhere.

Only after all that did I end up reading his novels.  Agent to the Stars remains my favorite, though The God Engines – an altogether atypical work – is right up there.  I have enjoyed the Old Man’s War series, as it is light and well written and has some good ideas worked in there to make me think a bit.  Redshirts was a lot of fun, in a “Six Characters in Search of an Author” kind of way, though it is the codas that make it really worth reading.  And so on.  I’m actually a bit behind now, since he publishes books more often than I get around to reading them, but I always enjoy his stuff and I’ll get to it all in time.

So tonight Kim and I went up to Madison to catch John Scalzi on his latest book tour.  He has a new book out entitled The Collapsing Empire, which looks like fun and which I will no doubt read in short order.

We had a lovely time.

He read from a couple of pieces, neither of which was the book he was supposed to be promoting – as he pointed out, that crowd already has the book, either purchased earlier or, like my copy, purchased at the table on the way in, so promoting it would have been kind of redundant.  Instead, he read the first chapter to the sequel to Lock In, a book I still haven’t read but will now move up toward the top of my to-read pile.  And then he read a marvelously funny piece from his blog – one of the Christmas stories that he writes some years.  There were questions afterward – notably whether he considers NASCAR drivers to be athletes (the question made sense in context) and what books of his are currently optioned for movies or television (spoiler: a lot of them).  

And then came the book signing.

I love book signings.  

For one thing, I get to hang out, however briefly, with someone whose work I enjoy, and authors are usually happy enough to see you that they will spend a few sentences talking with you before you have to move on and give the next person in line a chance.  It’s nice that way.  I told him that I’d read his entire blog archive, and I’m not really sure he knew what to make of me after that.  I’m not really sure either, sometimes.  I guess we’re even.

For another thing, you get to show these authors that they do in fact have fans, which seems to cheer them up and encourage them to write more, so that’s win all around, I say.

He was gracious and personable, and he signed all three books that I bought as well as the one I brought with me.  He talked with me and Kim and even posed for pictures.

So it was a good night.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Proper Pretzels

There is a lot going on my world that, frankly, I have no intention of discussing here in this space.  So instead I will drop some Truth on y'all.


Midwesterners should never have been let in on the invention of the soft pretzel.  They just don't do it right.

This thought occurred to me a few weeks ago as I sat in just about the only place in Our Little Town where you can get one of those delights, the Giant Megabox Retailer That Ate Main Street.  I have a membership card there that I got when the girls were little and I needed to buy diapers by the pallet, and every once in a while I still head over to pick up a few things.  You can't beat them for tires, for example.  And it tickles me to walk into a store like that and buy one small item, because I'm just contrary that way.

It was around lunchtime when I was there, and the glorious thing about the GMRTAMS is that you can get a hot dog that could feed a small Bulgarian village and a soda big enough to have its own weather for about two bucks (free refills!), and for an additional buck you can get a soft pretzel. 

I love soft pretzels.  They are perhaps the grandest form of carbohydrate there is, and in Philadelphia they are an art form.  If you haven't gotten a row of them fresh from the Federal Pretzel Bakery at some point in your life, you're missing out.  But there are a few rules that need to be followed.

For one thing, they are not to be dipped in melted butter.

I'm not sure when this idea became popular.  Probably right around the time the rest of the culture went straight to hell, so it fit right in.  People vary as to the exact date this occurred, but most people are sure it happened at some point and it's as good a guess as any.

There are many things that are good with melted butter.  Toast, for example.  Corn on the cob.  Steaks, if you're so inclined.  But nobody should get greasy from picking up a pretzel.  It's just Not The Order of Things.

You find this all over, though.  While it is against nature, it is not specifically a midwestern sin.

Nor is the idea that you have to ask for salt on your pretzel.  This is probably due to all the various Diet Mavens complaining that health care costs are going up because people eat poorly and should cut down on salt in order to live longer, and that's a national phenomenon.  Phooey, I say.  People should put more salt on their pretzels, and then they can die happy but quickly and in the long run this surely saves money for everyone.

Really, it's the same argument that the tobacco companies should have made all along.

No, the specifically midwestern problem with soft pretzels is that they insist on putting cheese sauce on them.

Maybe this is just a Wisconsin thing.  Wisconsinites will put cheese on anything, up to and including more cheese.  You can't buy a pretzel in Wisconsin without getting a giant cup of cheese sauce to dip your pretzel into, and this is just an affront to all that is decent and holy.

My children disagree with me, but then they are Wisconsinites, so really how can you trust them on this?

No, as every Philadelphian knows pretty much from the moment we enter the world naked and booing the Dallas Cowboys, the only acceptable condiment for a soft pretzel is mustard.  That is what God and Nature intended for soft pretzels.  There is no grey here.  There is only the vinegary tang of Truth.

Just try to find mustard anywhere near where people in Wisconsin sell soft pretzels, though.  Try!  It's like they're deliberately thwarting the pretzel's true destiny out of some misguided dairy-influenced ill will.  Although that seems like a lot of effort, so perhaps it's just because they know no better.  Father, forgive them.

I am in Philadelphia right now, though, and I have been enjoying the easy access to properly dressed soft pretzels.  Except of course that I am a clod and have somehow managed to baptize nearly every available piece of clothing and hard surface within arm's reach with mustard in the process.

It's a sacrifice I am willing to make.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Continued Stray Thoughts on the Current Political Climate

With the cascade of stupid, immoral, illegal, subversive, un-American, and possibly treasonous things emitted by der Sturmtrumper, his pet Congress, his supporters, and his administration reaching levels that make it nearly impossible for any sane person to keep up with, I’ve started just keeping a running list of observations on the matter.  Every time the list reaches critical mass, I suppose I’ll post it and start a new one.  Can’t hurt; might help.  Here’s the most recent list:


1. Apparently the new Secretary of State, Wayne “Exxon” Tracker, can’t be bothered to stay awake long enough to do his job.  That’s okay, though.  It’s not like der Sturmtrumper is threatening to get us into a land war in Asia anytime soon.  Wait, what?

2. Sometimes I wonder if the GOP has an actual ideology or whether they’re just into cruelty for the sheer fun of it.  In any given situation, if you want to know what the Party of Values is up to, just ask yourself what the most asshole thing to do would be and wait for the confirmation.  I’m getting tired of using this method, to be honest, but the old baseball truism still holds: “Keep throwing that pitch until they hit it.”  I’ll stop when they do.

3. Didn’t der Sturmtrumper have a secret plan to defeat ISIS in his first thirty days in office?  That expired on February 19th, by my math, and the world still waits.  What is it with Republicans and secret plans to end failing wars?  Didn’t end well for the last guy; won’t end well for this one.

4. You know, for a party that had been out of power for as long as the GOP has, at least on the national level, with a pent-up agenda and full control of the federal government, they actually haven’t managed to get all that much done in the last couple of months.  For which all of humanity should be very, very grateful, of course, but it is something of a surprise.  It’s not like they’re not throwing all kinds of excrement against the wall – it’s just that not much of it seems to be sticking.  This is what happens when a party that has no positive program suddenly has to learn how to govern instead of merely poking sticks into the spokes of society.

5. Dude – if your first reaction to graffiti proclaiming “No to Fascism!” is to take it as an attack on der Sturmtrumper, maybe the problem isn’t the graffiti.

6. Let me get this straight – der Sturmtrumper’s advisor on international terrorism is an actual, card-carrying Nazi?  That the Nazi group in question openly claims him as a member and that he may have lied about this to get his citizenship papers here in the US?  Well, I suppose he’s found a congenial place to work, at least.

7. Meanwhile out in the hinterlands, the GOP war on democracy continues.  Apparently New Hampshire went full-batshit-GOP in the last election, and the net result of that is a new wave of voter suppression laws working their way up through the bubbling mire of GOP sewage, some of which involve law enforcement coming to people’s houses to intimidate them.  Yet another subversive “solution” to a problem that doesn’t actually exist.  It’s not actually difficult to tell the difference between a party that thinks it can win a free and fair election and a party that knows very well that it can’t – the former works to make voting easier and more widespread, and the latter does everything it can to make voting harder and restricted only to those it can count on.

8. The US spent about $97 million on extracurricular activities for Obama and Biden and their families during the entire eight years of the Obama Administration.  Here, about two months into der Sturmtrumper’s reign of terror, the US has already spent $75 million.  Yet strangely there is no uproar from the GOP over this use of taxpayer money now that the rich white guy is doing it.  I wonder what the difference is.

9. It’s fascinating to read that der Sturmtrumper is so worried about the loyalty of his subordinates that he has appointed Kommissars to keep watch on them.  Every cabinet agency now has a political appointee ostensibly there to act as a go-between on policy issues for der Sturmtrumper and his agencies, but who actually functions in much the same capacity as the old Soviet political officers, there to ensure that subordinates are keeping to the official Party line.  This has not made those cabinet agencies happy – the one assigned to the EPA made such a nuisance of himself that Scott Pruitt won’t invite him to meetings anymore.  Good thing the GOP stands for FREEDOM, because otherwise this would seem rather creepily totalitarian.

10. So the FBI has been investigating Russian influence over der Sturmtrumper since last July, but just before the election chose to leak useless information about Clinton’s non-existent email “scandal” instead.  Someone should check to see who James Comey is working for, because my guess is it isn’t the people signing his paycheck.

11. Of course the main takeaway from his testimony is the fact that there is enough of a connection between der Sturmtrumper and Russian agents to warrant an ongoing FBI criminal investigation.  Remember when all the right-wingers were shouting about how nobody under such an investigation should be president?  Wasn’t that only last year?  I guess it’s different when it’s the rich white guy doing it.

12. The fact that der Sturmtrumper immediately shat out another tweet on the subject – one that was such a bald-faced lie that it was almost comical – is a disturbing sign that either he is deeply mentally disturbed or so far removed from human decency that his falling into a black hole would improve the human species immediately.  The fact that the US president is either psychotic or sociopathic is one of the most profoundly disturbing things in all of American history, right up there with the fact that so many people in this country see nothing wrong with that.

13. Apparently der Sturmtrumper’s approval ratings have sunk to an all-time low for new presidents, somewhere around 37%.  To which I reply a) where the hell were you people when this mattered in November and it was perfectly obvious that we’d get exactly what we have since gotten, and b) it’s kind of sad that more than a third of Americans never leave their bubble to visit this grand and colorful place called reality.

14. You know what else that 37% figure means?  It means a significant chunk of Republicans have gotten sick of that clown already.  I can’t imagine what it is like to be an actual, thoughtful conservative these days – to read the news knowing that there is no party that speaks for you except perhaps some of the more Eisenhower-ish elements of the Democrats (ironically enough, the ones best represented by Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton).  That 37% is pretty much the group that thought der Sturmtrumper was The Guy back in the primaries, when most Republicans were hoping that somebody – ANYBODY – else would end up as the nominee, and it isn’t going anywhere.  Well, unless they took the honorable way out and voted for Gary Johnson or Evan McMullin (or just grit their teeth and voted for Hilary) they either sat out completely or voted for der Sturmtrumper and deserve the blame for his increasingly erratic and dangerous regime as much as the diehard Trumpsters do.  But if they can get their act together and present a credible conservative party that isn’t a threat to the survival of the American republic – in other words what the GOP used to be as recently as 1991 – then it would be good for the rest of us to work with them.

15. What does it tell you that despite controlling Congress and the Presidency, the GOP couldn’t even get a vote on its big bill to replace the ACA.  Apparently Republicare is so divisively stupid that even the party that has spent the last six years in full tantrum mode about Americans actually getting healthcare is unwilling to approve the dog’s breakfast that was set before them by Wisconsin’s own Mr. Ryan – a law so morbidly dysfunctional that it would literally be better for the American people to replace the ACA with nothing at all.  While the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says that 24 million Americans will lose healthcare coverage under Republicare (and the White House's own numbers say 26 million) it notes that only 23 million will lose coverage if the ACA is simply erased with nothing further done.  This is a party that has no interest in governing.  They’d have been better off losing in 2016 and continuing their sticks-in-the-spokes approach to American life.  And so would have we all.

16. FFS, even the Koch brothers – the puppeteers who own Wisconsin’s governor and have done so much to make their home state of Kansas an uninhabitable libertarian ruin – think Republicare is a disaster.  In fact, they’re willing to put millions of their own dollars into a new fund to primary any GOP Congresscritter who votes for it.  Say what you will about the Koch brothers – and I have said plenty of rather uncomplimentary things, all of them sincerely – they do put their money where their mouths would be if they were ever to leave their secret lair and speak out.

17.  You know, hours after a nation suffers a multi-fatality attack on its seat of government is really not the best time to go onto Twitter and talk 7th-grade smack to the mayor of that seat of government.  But apparently the apple didn’t fall too far from der Sturmtrumper’s tree.  Seriously, I need to get a sign that says “I didn’t vote for this and I’m just as horrified as the rest of the civilized world that it’s happening.”

18. Der Sturmtrumper has decreed that his pet Congress will either pass Republicare today or he’ll take his marbles and go home.  Good thing he’s willing to let the political process sort things out and encourage a healthy debate on the issues, I suppose.  It’s actually kind of a win/win for the other side, in a grim kind of way.  Either the bill dies and the GOP splits widen, showcasing the utter failure of the Party of Cruelty even to be cruel in an efficient fashion, or the bill passes and the GOP splits widen, showcasing the success of the Party of Cruelty to be cruel in an efficient way and providing precisely the campaign fodder that will make 2018 so very, very interesting.  Tough on the people who are going to die unnecessarily if Republicare passes, but as so often is the case, they are the forgotten people.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Long Ago It Must Be

It has been a year.

The human mind keeps an astonishingly good calendar.  You can argue all you want about the artificial division of time into arbitrary units and how this doesn’t reflect the nature of reality blah blah blah blah blah, but when significant anniversaries come around you just know.  You don’t have to ask.  You just know.

It doesn’t seem that long, really.  A blink of an eye.  A warm time, a cold time, a few rainstorms, not much snow.  You wake up, you go through the day, you go to sleep again, you do it all over the next day and the next and the one after that and after a while it all blends together.  You’d hardly know any time had passed at all if you didn’t stop to think about it.

Because life is a liquid, after all.  You take Something out of it, and there isn’t a Something-shaped hole left over to stare at or to put that Something back into, even if you could.  The days slosh inward and fill the space until you’d never know there had ever been any Something there in the first place, not from the surface, not if you don’t know the story.

Knowing the story makes all the difference.  It always does.

Once you know the story you understand just how immense the gap is between Then and Now.  How much time has actually passed by, silently, irretrievably, and how you can’t really go back to Then except in memory.  It’s all just Now.

Sounds.  I remember the sounds most of all, of conversation and laughter and connections stretched over far too much distance that never seemed stretched at all because there was so much to fill that distance with and make it seem like nothing at all, as if we stood side by side.  I remember so many things.  That is the thing about being a historian.  You remember.  It’s your job.  There’s a reason I ended up in this field.  It’s who I am.  You remember what was, and how it is no longer.

As you get older there are more of these memories, more of these calendar events that slow you down and make you think of people who once were part of your everyday life but are now stories for you to tell to yourself and to others, stories you make sure to tell to keep them with you just that much more, just that much longer.

The time piles up and the stories surround you, and eventually it will all fade away into the background of larger stories.  But I’m not a large story.  My story is only my own, and those I hold dear.  I will tell those stories and remember.

It has been a year.

It is strange to live in a world so changed.  I’m not sure that strangeness will ever go away.  I’m not sure I want it to.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Changing of the Poultry Down at Cluckingham Palace

There has been a changing of the guard when it comes to the poultry in our house.

Add that to the list of things I never thought I’d say.  It continually amazes me how many of those things are poultry-related.

We’ve had the chickens in our house for a while now, and other than Ryland they were doing pretty well.  Even Ryland has mostly recovered – she’ll never be a show bird, but she looks like she’ll be good for a few years of happily clucking around and laying eggs.  But the thing about chickens is that they grow fairly quickly, and this can get really irritating really quickly.  So when one of the roosters started in with that “training crow” that they do when they first start to get their rooster on, the one that sounds like a dying accordion, we knew it was time to get them out to the barn.

We would not be having a repeat of last year, when every dawn was met by a chorus of profanity aimed at the crowing roosters in our basement.  That sort of thing is bad for morale.

Fortunately, we have had a pretty mild winter.  Hey – make climate change work for you, I suppose.  It’s actually been on the chilly side for a week or two, with highs below freezing even, but it’s March and that sort of thing comes to an end quickly.  We’re looking at seasonal early spring temperatures here for the foreseeable future, and since the chickens are now all fully feathered out that meant they could go to the barn.

Of course, that also meant that we needed to get the pen ready for them.  

You can’t just dump new birds into an existing flock.  That’s a recipe for disaster.  So tossing them in the pen with the birds we already have out there wasn't much of an option.  We usually try to keep the new birds in their own pen until after the fair and then merge the flocks for ease of winter maintenance.  And this meant going out and getting that corner pen ready.

It hadn’t been used since last fall, and it showed.

So yesterday Lauren and I headed over, armed with tools, brooms, chicken wire, and a willingness to excavate a chicken pen on a nice early spring day.  I spent much of the afternoon up on a ladder stapling chicken wire to the ceiling in order to cover the gap between our pen and the one our friend uses for her chickens (last year she left it empty so it wasn’t a big deal when our birds flew over – this year that would be problematic) while Lauren took the broom and wheelbarrow and cleaned the floor down to the concrete.  We discovered a soup bowl that had spent the winter there, buried in the pine shavings and general debris, so win for us.  And being a historian is good training for working in dusty spaces.

Eventually it was done and we got their enclosures set up inside the pen, at which point Kim brought out the birds and we got them settled.  They’re in four sub-units now – one for Ryland, one for the most aggressive rooster (Arnold, apparently), one for the other two salmon faverolles, and one for the four small birds that Arnold was annoying.  They can all see each other and get used to each other, and in a couple of weeks we’ll let them mingle.

This morning everyone was fine.

So you’d think we were done with poultry in our house, but then you’d be wrong.  

On Wednesday we went over to our poultry dealer.  It’s like a drug dealer, only it’s legal, and they’re birds instead of drugs, and there’s nothing shady about it, so really it’s not like a drug dealer at all.  Forget I said that.

We came home with a dozen turkeys.

This is actually more than we’d thought we’d get.  Lauren usually sticks with the bronze turkeys, since they don’t show dirt (seriously – you only have to wash a bird for the County Fair once to realize that this matters) and we’d ordered ten, but since our poultry dealer had extra white turkeys he let us buy two of them.  Why not?  For a couple of bucks, we'll see what happens.

For a few days they were in our living room too, along most of the chickens (two were down in the basement, along with all six rabbits – the cats have the run of the place, so who knows where they end up is what I want to know).  One of the bronze turkeys has since passed on – they’re surprisingly fragile birds – but we still have nine of them and the two whites.

They’re already bigger than they were, and Lauren has had to move them from the red bin to the rather larger blue bin that Arnold and his chickens vacated yesterday.  In the picture below they’re about the size of baseballs, not counting their feet.  They’ll go out to the barn next month, probably.  They’re still a bit young for that, and we have some prep work to get their pen ready after the long winter too.  

I’m not sure when this became normal in my life, but there it is.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Continued Stray Thoughts on the Current Political Climate

With the cascade of stupid, immoral, illegal, subversive, un-American, and possibly treasonous things emitted by der Sturmtrumper, his pet Congress, his supporters, and his administration reaching levels that make it nearly impossible for any sane person to keep up with, I’ve started just keeping a running list of observations on the matter.  Every time the list reaches critical mass, I suppose I’ll post it and start a new one.  Can’t hurt; might help.  Here’s the most recent list:


1. It’s actually kind of refreshing how the GOP under der Sturmtrumper has decided not to bother hiding the thuggish core of racism that is at the heart of the modern right-wing movement.  Back in the day, of course, they’d dog-whistle it with code phrases like “law and order,” “welfare reform,” “school choice” or the like, but now it’s right out there in the open and they’re proud of it.  Iowa Congressman Steve King – always a reliable source of right-wing insanity – recently voiced his approval of Dutch embarrassment Geert Wilders, saying “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”  Whose civilization is he talking about here?  Whose babies?  What does he want restored?  In case the answers aren’t immediately obvious, you should know that King’s tweet was immediately retweeted with glowing approval by David Duke, whose previous claims to fame were leading a large branch of the KKK, losing a Louisiana gubernatorial election to a convicted felon (“Vote for the Crook!  It’s Important!”), and explicitly endorsing der Sturmtrumper as a man his agenda would be safe with.  Say one thing for racists – they recognize their own.

2. I’m not even going to go into the fact that anti-Semitic attacks have doubled since der Sturmtrumper has seized power.  Think of it, folks – actual, honest-to-God Nazism.  You know, there was a time when this country awarded medals to people who shot Nazis.  Just saying.

3. You’d think that people in political office would know better than to have Twitter accounts by now, but then you’d be wrong.

4. Microwave ovens?  Seriously?  I suppose it is true, after all, that you can’t wear a tin-foil hat inside one of them.  Maybe that’s part of it.

5. Do you ever get the feeling that der Sturmtrumper and his minions, cronies, and lackeys, are just making things up as they go?  It astonishes me just how stupid they think people are, and how right they seem to be.

6. So Republicare is going to be more expensive, cover fewer things, and kick 24 million people off health care coverage completely in the next decade or so if it is enacted in its current form – 26 million if you go by the White House’s own estimates – and this is the party of “values”?  As my dad used to say, “Hitler had ‘values.’  Talk to me when you have ‘morals.’”

7. According to PolitiFact – a non-partisan fact-checking source – of the 375 statements from der Sturmtrumper that they have checked, only 4% of them have been rated as “True.”  17% - more than four times that number – have been so outrageously false that they’ve been rated as “Pants on Fire.”  Even if you combine True, Mostly True, and Half True you still only get 32%.

8. This is why the modern GOP has been on such a rampage against fact checkers for the last two decades, going back to W’s criticism of the “reality-based community.”  It’s a pretty straightforward tactic, really – discredit the people who actually know what’s going on and you can get people to believe whatever you tell them, no matter how vile, immoral, deluded, or hallucinatory.  And this brings us back to the GOP platform, after all.

9. So der Sturmtrumper is now 0-fer-2 on Muslim bans, according the federal court system.  One more and he strikes out.  Of course, he could take the blatantly unconstitutional and criminally subversive stand that professional morality sinkhole Mike Huckabee, the man who keeps running for the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention instead of the US presidency because he can't seem to tell the difference, tweeted out in the wake of that decision (seriously – some grown-up needs to take away these guys’ social media accounts) and just ignore the direct order of the federal judiciary and go full-fledged tin-horn dictator.  Because FREEDOM!  I just love how the GOP pretends to love the Constitution right up until it keeps them from absolute tyrannical power, and then it’s just something to ignore.

10. Anyone who seriously complains of “judicial overreach” might as well staple a big sign to their forehead that says “I have no fucking clue how the US Constitution actually works and I will waste your time until you figure that out and walk away.”  It would save those of us who have actually read that document a lot of time and spare us the ordeal of cleaning spittle off of our clothing.

11.  So we’ve already had a miniature Saturday Night Massacre and der Sturmtrumper hasn’t even been in office two months yet.  It’s customary to replace US attorneys when an administration changes, but to fire the lot of them with no replacements ready to come in – and to go out of your way to fire the one who was investigating your own crimes, particularly after you explicitly asked him to stay on after meeting you in November – is rather unusual and frankly suspicious.  For an administration that doesn’t seem to care about the appearance of conflicts of interests – they have too many actual conflicts of interests to worry about appearances, really – I suppose this is par for the course, but it is disturbing nonetheless.

12. Say it with me, folks: “Fake news is not defined as ‘news you don’t personally want to hear.’  That’s called journalism.”  Things that provide comfort to preconceived world views without reference to reality are not journalism and may be labeled fake, but the fact that your ideological bubble is being punctured does not automatically qualify the sharp object doing the deed as fake news.

13. That’s not a budget.  That’s a declaration of war against the United States. 

14. What do you see when you look at that abomination of a budget unleashed into the world by der Sturmtrumper and his minions?  You see an attempt to keep Americans poor, sick, and ignorant.  You see an attempt to undermine American communities and strengthen the billionaire boss class who regard the rest of us as their property to be used and disposed of at their pleasure.  You see the logical culmination of the Republican Party’s ideological progression from conservative to neo-Fascist over the last quarter century.  You see that the New Freedom is just another name for serfdom.  And no doubt you’ll see a great many toxic people shouting about how lovely all that is and how much greater it makes their crabbed little version of America, because there is never anything so morally bankrupt that you can’t find support for it over on the right wing.

15. If you’re looking for a blueprint for how to destroy a consumer economy – an economy reliant on consumer spending to generate prosperity, create jobs, and provide wealth – you could do no better than to follow this budget.  This is a textbook example of taking money out of the hands of the poor and middle class, who would spend it and drive the economy forward, and giving it to the parasitical wealthy, who have many flaws but stupidity isn’t one of them and will simply hoard it rather than spend the money to build factories to create things that the poor and middle class can’t afford to buy.  The mechanics of economics are tricky, but the general ideas really aren’t that hard.  One of the signal victories of the American right wing in the last fifty years has been convincing 47% of the American electorate that slitting their own economic throats is their patriotic duty, and this budget is the logical product of that.

16. And as if on cue, der Sturmtrumper’s budget director gets up in front of the press and announces that they’re cutting Meals on Wheels because feeding the elderly and the shut-ins isn’t giving a high enough return on investment.  You know, if you saw this in a movie you’d be angry with the director because this level of cartoonish villainy is just too amateurish – no actual human being could possibly say such a thing and expect to walk out of the room without being stoned to death by nuns.  These people are actually evil, and they don’t care if the world knows it.

17.  Also, the GOP war on science is now effectively over and the ignorant have won.  We don’t need to understand the world around us.  We certainly don’t need economic progress, potable water, or cures for diseases.  All we need is to kowtow to the boss class and enjoy our shortened, impoverished lives. 

18. The United States has now officially had to apologize to our oldest and staunchest ally for some of the reckless, irresponsible, and hallucinatory things that der Sturmtrumper tweeted out from the White House shitter the other day.  When you elect a clown, you get a circus.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Of Wars and Rabbits

Every time I teach World War II we spent a couple of days on the home front.

I don’t spend a whole lot of time on the actual war itself – the battles and so on.  They’re fascinating, of course, and to be honest that was my gateway into American history – the first serious book of American history I ever read was a 500pp history of US naval operations in World War II, after all.  I was 12 years old at the time.  There’s a reason I’m a professional historian now, and it’s not for the money or fame.  But in the greater scheme of things – in the broad sweep that one must take in a survey course, where you have to fit a century and a half into twenty-seven class periods – the individual battles don’t matter as much as the end result, which is that the Allies won.  Someday I’ll teach a WWII class and then I’ll have all semester to go through things in detail, but today is not that day.  Tomorrow doesn’t look good either.

So we go through the lead up to the war and the actual fighting in a single class period and then we spend the next class or two on what life was like at home during the war, the specifics of which always come as a bit of a surprise to my students.

As one Red Cross worker put it bluntly at the time, “The war was fun for America.  I’m not talking about the poor souls who lost sons and daughters.  But for the rest of us, it was a hell of a good time.”  My students don't expect that.

The US home front was at least three thousand miles away from the fighting, though, and here in Wisconsin the front could be as much as six thousand miles away.  Other than a few balloon-launched bombs that managed to kill a couple of picnickers in Oregon, the 48 US states in the 1940s saw no damage whatsoever.  Also, the war did what the New Deal couldn’t – it ended the Depression.  Unemployment disappeared.  Real income per capita almost doubled, and net income (purchasing power after taxes and inflation) rose 50%.  People had jobs and money, and that's what good times means to most people.

All of this was paid for out of public money, by the way – the federal government spent roughly $250 million per day during the war, and that money then circulated throughout the economy, stimulating it and reviving a consumer economy that had been dormant since 1929.  The lesson here is two-fold.  First, that demand-side economics actually works in a demand-side economy and you should plan your politics accordingly.  And second, that the takeaway from the New Deal was not that it was misguided but that it was too small.  When you have to dig out from under a crisis as big as the Depression, you need a bigger shovel than the New Deal had to offer.  World War II was not small.

And the simple fact was that life got better for most Americans during the war.  Malnutrition – a serious enough problem during the Depression that the US actually had difficulty finding enough healthy men for the military at the beginning of the war (so don’t let people tell you that the lack of a social safety net isn’t a national security issue) – vanished, even as American farmers were tasked with feeding not only our military and civilian populations but large chunks of those of our allies.  People could afford health care for the first time in over a decade, and for those in the military free government-run healthcare was part of the deal.  The rates of chronic diseases such as typhus, diphtheria, and tuberculosis, all of which had become common in the Depression, dropped sharply, and infant mortality dropped by a third.  Even if you include combat and other war-related fatalities, American life expectancy rose by three years during the war, and if you take out the combat deaths 1942 has the lowest death rate in all of American history.

No wonder that 70% of Americans surveyed during the war said they had experienced “no real sacrifices” because of it.  They were good times.

This is not to say that there weren’t sacrifices to be made by those so far away from the actual fighting.  They weren’t great sacrifices if you didn’t have someone on the front lines to worry about, but they were there.  The most obvious of these, of course, was rationing.

The federal government effectively ran the US economy during the war and determined how much of what could be accessed by both military and civilians in order to devote as much as possible to the war effort.  When I teach my class on the atomic bomb we discuss this in the context of how the Manhattan Project managed to get the highest level of supplies possible – “Silverplate” – and could pretty much requisition anything it wanted, if it could be had.  Not everyone could do that, though.

And for civilians, at the bottom end of this, well, you made do.  A generation that had just passed through the Depression already knew how to do this of course, which is why it didn’t seem like much of a sacrifice to them, but to my students – accustomed to abundance on demand – it is a whole other world.

Rubber and gasoline were strictly rationed and civilian passenger cars were not manufactured at all during most of the war, so driving was something you had to think very, very carefully about.  Shoes and clothing were also rationed, which further restricted travel (even on foot!) but also had its little benefits for those so inclined – when the amount of cloth allowed for bathing suits was reduced, for example, two-piece bathing suits became patriotic.  Food in particular was also rationed – sugar, meat, butter, cheese, alcohol, and so on.  You got little coupon books with stamps to use, and you only got so much before the next round of stamps came to you.

It was a different time.

One of the things I use to try to get the whole idea of rationing across is an old Bugs Bunny cartoon called “Hare Conditioned.”  In this 1945 cartoon, Bugs is being chased through a department store by the manager, who has a shotgun.  Eventually he gets into the elevator and by the time the manager gets on he has put on an elevator boy costume, and the two of them peacefully ride upwards, staring vacantly as one does in elevators.   At the top Bugs says, “Sixth floor!  Rubber tires, nylon hose, bobby pins, girdles, alarm clocks, bourbon, butter, and other picture postcards!”

I never got that joke until I was in high school.  There’s a lot in those old cartoons that wasn’t aimed at kids.  Everything on that list was rationed during the war.  The only way you were ever going to find that stuff in a department store was on a postcard.

My students don’t even know who Bugs Bunny is.

They don’t really show Bugs Bunny anymore, not like they did when I was a kid, when you could be pretty much assured of finding a Bugs Bunny cartoon on one of the UHF channels at any time of the day.  My own children have only the vaguest notion of Bugs Bunny, and mostly because of this story (also, “Rabbit of Seville”). 

I suppose that makes sense.  World War II was a long time ago now.  It ended two decades before I was born.  For most of my students, that’s Jimmy Carter.  For some of them it’s Ronald Reagan.

It’s a strange old world sometimes.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

News and Updates

1. Ryland the chicken is doing much better and has pretty much recovered from her wry-neck.  She’s walking around, eating on her own, and generally keeping herself clean as well as chickens do.  Her head is mostly on straight these days, which is more than I can say for most people I meet.  She still has her head cocked a bit to one side most of the time, which gives her a bit of a quizzical expression as if she’s trying to figure out the joke without being too obvious about it, but that’s chickens for you in the best of times. 

2. The soft-serve ice cream joint in Our Little Town opened up for business today.  This is how you know it’s almost but not quite spring in Wisconsin.  People in this state eat ice cream in any form in any weather, but to stand around outside and eat it requires the calendar to be within shouting distance of something that isn’t New Year’s Eve.  It snowed yesterday and today’s high was about 27F, but the line of cars waiting to go through the drive through was down the block and there were people standing in line in front of the walk-up windows both times we drove by.  It’s kind of a shame it wasn’t open in February when it was 74F here, but that’s climate change for you.

3. My high school choir director passed away last weekend.  He was 103.  They forced him to retire due to his age the year I graduated high school, and my guess is he outlived half the people who made that decision.  And good for him, I say.  I sang in choirs at every school I ever attended as a student and in a few other places as well, and his choir was the peak of it all.  He had more energy than any of us, and he made the group something people wanted to join.  Fair winds and following seas, Dr. Giersch.  You made the world a better place.

4. The US Post Office now makes stamps that commemorate the Stamp Act of 1764.  Technically they honor the repeal of the Stamp Act, which took place in 1766, but still.  I like the fact that we have Stamp Act stamps, and the fact that the sheet they come in says right there on the front, “Taxation without representation is tyranny.”  I used them to send in my tax return documents, the ones I still had to send for the second straight year despite having e-filed.  It made me feel better about the whole thing.  My particular Congresscritters don’t actually give a damn about representing me, so the stamps felt pretty appropriate.

5. I am now a patron of the arts, like some Renaissance nobleman in sneakers.  You can do that with the internet these days – you sign up to contribute a couple of bucks a month toward a cartoonist (or someone else – I went with a cartoonist) and you get access to cool things and the warm fuzzies of knowing you’re helping support something nice in the world.  If you haven’t been reading Bug Martini, you should start now.

6. I spent a good chunk of Sunday cleaning out the pantry, since it had reached the point where nothing further could be stuffed into it.  It has a lot more room now.  There is something inexpressibly satisfying about removing things that expired during George W. Bush’s first term.  As George Carlin used to say about leftovers, it makes you feel good twice.  The first time, when you put the stuff away for future use, you feel good because you’re saving food.  The second time, when you put on the HazMat suit, grab the nuclear tongs, and send it off to be incinerated from orbit, you feel good because you’re saving your life.  I’m paraphrasing there, but that was the gist of it.

7. We have now put the cats on a diet.  I do feel bad for Mithra, since she really didn’t need it.  But she is more willing to eat her lysine treats now, which cuts down on her asthma, so that’s good.  Midgie, however, needed it desperately.  She’s getting more flexible now, which is good.  This makes her smell better, and cuts down on our laundry needs.

8. Lauren found my old guitar in the basement and convinced me to let her play it.  It took her all of about half an hour to work out Smoke on the Water.  She’s ready for college now.

9. There is not enough whiskey in the barrel to get through these modern times.

10. It’s the middle of the semester, which means that the roof is caving in for students everywhere.  It’s a busy time for advisors.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Continued Stray Thoughts on the Current Political Climate

With the cascade of stupid, immoral, illegal, subversive, un-American, and possibly treasonous things emitted by der Sturmtrumper and his administration reaching levels that make it nearly impossible for any sane person to keep up with, I’ve started just keeping a running list of observations on the matter.  Every time the list reaches critical mass, I suppose I’ll post it and start a new one.  Can’t hurt; might help.  Here’s the most recent list:


1. Watching der Sturmtrumper rage-Tweet at people from the safe confines of the White House shitter really, really makes me wish we could bring back dueling.  Seriously – we could solve this problem with a quickness.  Broadswords at 3 paces and I’ll take pretty much anybody over him.

2. Presidents can’t order wiretaps.  Either der Sturmtrumper has descended even further into paranoia-fueled madness or a federal judge found probable cause of a crime.  Either way this clown is unfit for office and needs to be removed for the safety of the republic.  Not that this seems to bother his supporters, though.

3. You know, I’d be more likely to believe it wasn’t a Muslim ban if he’d stop calling it a Muslim ban.

4. With every passing revelation, the likelihood of a Trumpian Reichstag Fire event grows higher.  Watch your back, my fellow Americans – the made-up emergency designed to get you to give up your rights willingly instead of fighting back may not be long in coming.

5. Do these people not understand how health care actually works?  Or do they just not care?  Discuss.

6.  To the best of my knowledge, only one other time in American history has a major federal investigative agency ever flat out declared that a sitting president was an outright liar.  That president resigned in disgrace.  Grab your popcorn, folks.

7. At this point I’m just hoping my children can get through school before the public education system that generations of Americans across the political spectrum have devoted their time, money, energy, resources, hopes and dreams to creating is destroyed by an administration and a party determined to rule over a supine and ignorant peasantry.  It will be a tight race, from the looks of it.  They’ve already introduced a bill to gut public education and give the money to fly-by-night for-profit charter schools – schools that have been fairly conclusively proven to be worse than the public schools they’re starving of funds.  But then when did reality ever matter to these ideologues anyway?

8. So far it seems that nobody other than Paul Ryan actually likes the new and improved Republicare legislation.  The Teabaggers hate it because it’s “Obamacare Lite.”  The libertarians hate it because it’s got too much Obama Care in it.  The AARP hates it because they have correctly deduced that it is essentially a tax on senior citizens.  Sane conservatives (lawsey, there still seem to be a few of those around…) regard it as incoherent and poorly designed.  Hospitals hate it because it just foists the costs of health care onto them.  70% of the American people are no doubt not going to like it since that’s the approval rating of the current ACA.  The Congressional Budget Office, well, we don’t know if they like it or not because they haven’t even been given a chance to evaluate it.  But then why should the American people know the actual cost of anything when they can just take Paul Ryan’s word for it? 

9. Part of this could just be the fact that after six years of whining about the ACA and promising that they had a replacement plan ready and waiting for repeal it’s fairly obvious that they’re just making this up as they go along and have no actual clue what they’re doing.  As predicted, they’re trying to follow the Wisconsin GOP playbook and just ram it through the legislature before anyone gets a chance to object, but the US Congress is a bit trickier to do that with.  They may yet succeed in ramming this through – the modern GOP is nothing if not willing to sacrifice actual humans in the name of greed and partisan ideology – but it will be known and it will come back to haunt them.  I do hope every single member of Congress who votes for this contracts a painful and uncovered chronic illness.  It’s not becoming of me to admit that, but there it is.

10. If I could buy a decent health insurance policy for the price of an iPhone, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

11. To answer a friend’s question, der Sturmtrumper’s continual paranoid ramblings about Obama are in fact a new low, and largely without precedent.  Partisans continue to snipe; journalists continue to complain – for Fox News to blame Obama for everything that’s happening now would be entirely within character and without any hint of novelty in American history.  But for a sitting president to take continual swipes at his predecessor is unheard of.  These guys are members of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, and for that if nothing else they tend to be fairly respectful and even downright friendly, even across party lines.  Obama rarely ever mentioned George W. Bush and when he did it was often positive, and W. returned the favor.  W – a catastrophic president, but from all accounts a decent human being – treated Bill Clinton that way, and Clinton returned that favor for both W. and Bush Sr., and so on back to the beginning.  Even Andy Jackson – a notorious hothead and the center of his own universe – generally left his predecessors and successors alone.  Underlings fight those battles.  The press fights those battles.   For der Sturmtrumper to sling random mud the way he does is just another sign that this is someone who neither understands nor respects the office he holds.

12.  Does der Sturmtrumper even know that the campaign is over now?  That he won?  Someone should let him in on this.

13. Oh sweet dancing monkeys on a stick, they didn’t really entitle the new Republicare bill “World’s Greatest Healthcare Plan of 2017” did they?  They did?  Quick, somebody should check if these halfwits ever graduated from fourth grade.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Further Stray Thoughts on the Current Political Climate

1. Holy break-dancing fuck, what a bunch of cowards we have running the government these days.  They’re afraid of immigrants.  They’re afraid of Muslims.  They’re afraid of their own constituents.  They’re afraid of the law.  They’re afraid of the press.  They’re afraid of education.  They’re afraid of beer commercials and Broadway plays.  They’re afraid of anyone who doesn’t look exactly like them, think exactly like them, worship exactly like them, or vote exactly like them.  They’re afraid of their own shadows.  And they want me to be afraid too.  To hell with that.  Man up, grow a pair, and learn how to be goddamned Americans, you morons.  These colors do not run.

2. So apparently “not actively drooling” is the new standard for “presidential” these days?  That was a thoroughly embarrassing performance by der Sturmtrumper standing before his captive Congress this week, and listening to his punch-drunk minions proclaiming how presidential he is these days has been an exercise in lowered expectations worthy of a junior high prom.  Seriously – 320 million Americans and this is the only president we’ve got?  The problem with democracy is that everyone is stuck with the government that the winners deserve.

3. The Russian noose continues to tighten, as it now seems the Confederate Attorney General lied under oath about meeting with their agents during the campaign.  This is the same guy who proclaimed that lying under oath was such a serious offense that any public official caught doing so should be removed from office.  One wonders if he’s changed his mind on that.

4. Apparently der Sturmtrumper’s PR Barbie will not be punished for her violations of law and ethics for plugging the family business on government time, because reasons.  I’m not at all surprised to hear this.  It’s pretty much the standard GOP position, as I’ve learned from years under Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) here in Wisconsin – rules are for other people, not Republicans.

5. Although in her defense, the fact that she had her feet up on the Oval Office couch hardly strikes me as anything to get the vapors over.  Eyes on the prize, people – remember Bowling Green!

6. We seem to be rapidly descending into a “papers, please” kind of society.  How this squares with the rabid calls of “freedom” from der Sturmtrumper’s supporters I don’t know.  I suppose it’s just ironic that all of the things they accuse the left of doing in their paranoid fantasies are now being enacted by their heroes without word one of complaint.

7. They’ve already introduced a bill to abolish public education as we know it.  Because education just makes the peasants uppity, after all.  Nate Silver published some interesting data back in November which outlined the clear relationship between education levels and voting patterns – the more educated you are, the less likely you are to vote Republican.  I suppose getting rid of education seems easier than adjusting their policies to reality.

8. None of this is normal.  None of this is acceptable.  And anyone who pretends otherwise is kidding themselves and bullshitting you.

9. After seven years and more than five dozen attempts to repeal the ACA under the previous Administration and over a month after der Sturmtrumper declared that repealing the ACA would happen on day one of his regime, nothing has yet happened.  They don’t actually have anything to replace it with, have never had anything to replace it with, and someone may have finally gotten it across to them that the vast majority of Americans (70% last time I checked, which means a whole bunch of Republicans are on that side too) don’t want it repealed.  They may do it anyway, because if there is anything that sums up the modern GOP it is the willingness to blindly follow extremist ideology at the expense of actual human beings.  Remember folks, “access to healthcare” is not the same thing as “having healthcare.”  In theory I have access to a lot of things I will never be able to afford or use.

10. Is there anyone surprised that under a president whose campaign was publicly endorsed by every major neo-Nazi organization in the US and the KKK, whose main puppet-master and first major hire after being elected is the guy behind the white supremacists of the alt-right, and who lives in a fantasy land where false-flag operations occur whenever they are politically convenient for him, we are now seeing a phenomenal rise in hate crimes in this country?  If there are any such surprised people, should they be allowed to walk the streets unmedicated?  Discuss.