Saturday, November 03, 2012

It's The Weekend, Right?

The past week has been bad for tens of millions of Americans.  The next week, with the pending national election and the inevitable nonsense that will follow, regardless of who wins (and the odds keep going up for a second Obama term; that's probably why Romney has decided to resort to blackmail for his "closing argument"; a candidate only does this kind of thing if they know they're going to lose) will be a freak-fest of epic proportions.

It's Saturday.  My daughter is in her high school production of The Music Man.  We went last night, and I must say the music and arts program at Burlington Central High School continues to impress me with its ability to offer the public fantastic performances from students who are dedicated, talented, and work very hard.  The school managed to find these marvelous checked sport jackets and bow ties for some of the young male characters that I just have to have.  Not that any of the ladies in my household would ever allow me to wear them in public, mind you.

There's football on Sunday.  There's no hockey, but there are some college football games today.  Me, I've got praise team rehearsal at 10:30 - yes, our church has a praise team, and yes, I play acoustic guitar with them; there's a part of me that weeps at the thought, as I would much prefer to worship in a medieval cathedral, complete with castrati choir than some auditorium with a rock band on stage, but I serve as I can - then it's off to get a long-overdue haircut.

I do have some interesting things to read and ponder over the next couple days.  One is that Congressional Research Service study on taxes and the economy (.pdf) the Senate Republican leadership demanded be withdrawn because all that math hurt their feelings.  I downloaded it so it's mine forever!  Then there's Steven Pinker's The Better Angles of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  He's been taking some heat from people at various places on the political spectrum, which is always fun.  As I have to read what he says, I have no idea what to think about what he has to say.  The work has received quite a bit of attention, in particular during an election year when both major party candidates seem to believe our world is teeming with danger, danger it is incumbent upon America and America alone to face down.  That Peter Singer likes it makes me wary; Singer is the ethicist who believes in euthanasia for the elderly and infirm, all the while spending vast sums of money to keep his Alzheimer's-effected mother comfortable contrary to every claim he's ever made about what the best thing to do in such cases renders anything he has to say irrelevant.  All the same, it is important to take some things on the merits.

Relax.  Enjoy.  Here's a variety of stuff that helps me relax while I sit and peruse the variety the internet provides.

I discovered a whole new sub-genre.  It's called "Djent", which is the onomatopoeiadic for the sound made by a kind of palm-muting guitar-playing technique preferred by some guitarists.  Some of the most interesting stuff is done by one-man bands, such as by the Polish performer known as "Gru":
And whose weekend would be complete without an extended psychedelic jam?  I sometimes wonder if people think I'm sitting around tripping on 'shrooms because I enjoy contemporary psychedelic music.  I don't need any chemicals, though.  The music is enough to alter my consciousness; I slip on the headphones, turn up the volume, and close my eyes, and I'm gone.
This last track is a half-hour long jam.  I dare you listen to all of it.

Enjoy the day.  That's an order.

Friday, November 02, 2012

The Complaint Department

It's all I can't stands, I can't stands no more! - Popeye
I'm sure you've encountered the whining.  Whether it's on Facebook or in person, some variant of, "Why should I have to press '1' for English when I make a phone call?"  Of all the things to get on my last nerve, it's this.  The answer is simple: Because not everyone speaks English.  Businesses get more business when they accommodate as many people as possible.  There are millions of Americans for whom English is not even a third language.  Since you don't have to listen to menus or instructions in any other language, press "1" and shut the hell up.

The same goes for people I hear complaining about laws requiring election ballots in Spanish.  Or signage in Spanish.  Or anything in Spanish.  Last time I checked, the United States didn't have an official language.  If you don't read Spanish, you don't need to pick up a ballot in Spanish or do anything in Spanish.  Having our public institutions function to serve the millions of Americans who are far more comfortable using Spanish than English is a good thing; it demonstrates that we can be a bit more broad-minded than the "If English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me!" crowd.

Sure, English is the de facto  language for getting along in the United States.  That doesn't mean either that it should be or always will be.  And there's nothing wrong with that.  Of all the things wrong with our country, moving toward including non-English speakers more fully in our common life doesn't even come close to being on the list.

In the tradition of complaining about complainers, and with the holidays rushing toward us, may I just put in a word to every single person who bitches about people saying "Happy Holidays"?



I worked for Walmart for five years, until just about a year ago, in fact.  I was never instructed how to speak to customers during the holidays.  I never saw a memo.  No manager came to me and told me what to say and what not to say.  Yet, from just before Thanksgiving until after the first of the year, I always said, "Happy Holidays" to customers.  Because I'm polite.  Looking at someone, I have no idea if they celebrate any of the holidays, let alone which ones they might celebrate while others they pass over in silence.  For some reason, being rude, insisting others accept our demand they have a merry Christmas, even if they don't celebrate it, somehow makes us more Christian or something?  Really?  Because, see, I always figured being polite, not pushy, respecting other people were all things that we should do.  You want me to wish you a merry Christmas, well, for crying out loud, "Happy Holidays!" kind of includes that, last time I checked the English language.  If some folks say, "Merry Christmas!" that's OK, too.  It just isn't anything to get upset about.

Which brings me to another thing.  Before Hurricane Sandy arrived in New Jersey, it passed over Haiti.  Now, Haiti has some experience with natural disasters.  There are still hundreds of thousands of Haitians who have no homes as a result of the earthquake over two years ago.  After the earthquake, and partly a result of the Haitians forced to live in squalid camps because rebuilding and recovery efforts have been slow, cholera ran rampant through the country, and still lingers.  On top of the AIDS pandemic that still lingers.  Sandy managed to take what rickety structures were still there and destroy them.  54 people died.

If I read people complaining because they had to wait two days or three days for their electricity and - horrors! - internet connections to return, I think I'll have a brain hemorrhage.  For all the death and destruction Sandy left in its wake, in no small part thanks to the wisdom of various Congresses and Administrations we have an emergency management infrastructure that can respond.  Before the storm hit, we had public officials making clear what steps needed to be taken to prepare.  We had various agencies putting the pieces in place so that once the storm passed, they could get to work rebuilding.  It isn't so much that Haiti doesn't have the desire to create such things; ravaged by neo-colonialism and the kleptocracy of pirate governments, it doesn't have the basic resources to build such institutions.  Combined with a history of corruption, and despite the best efforts of various NGOs, it is difficult to create the kind of institutions capable of responding to a crisis if there just isn't the money and Administrative competence present to do so.  So, you know, when you toss a buck or two in the kitty for relief efforts here in the States, why not give up that second latte from Starbucks and give to relief efforts in Haiti, too.

Finally, for reporters out there who moan about the internet and what it's done to newspapers, journalism, and the professional prerogatives of an entire group: I have no tissues for you.  Considering the largest news outlet in the United States is almost pathologically dedicated to presenting falsehoods, why should I have sympathy for a profession willing to tolerate fundamental incompetence and professional failure?  While some shed a tear or two when newspapers shut their doors, either completely or switch to online services, one would think by now it's obvious that all that "market" stuff that so many in this country seem to love is working quite well.  When the public editor at what is arguably America's national newspaper can chastise one of her employees for "making the paper look bad", all the while carrying the preposterous fraud David Brooks' columns two days a week says everything anyone needs to know about what's wrong with journalism in America today.

I feel so much better getting this off my chest.  Thanks.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

It Isn't About The Church, Either

N.B.: If you aren't a United Methodist, you might want to skip over this one.  Then again, it does have importance beyond our denomination, as the title suggests.

A cornerstone of my own thinking about pretty much everything is that most of the Universe has little to nothing to do with me.  The world doesn't exist for me; other people are not the source either of my misery or happiness; things that occur in the world do so without either my consent or my approval.

I extend this idea to other areas as well.   Speaking as a United Methodist Christian, I cannot help but wonder why it is people seem to insist our Church exists to fulfill their needs.  It doesn't.  The Church is the gathered, called people of God, those who believe the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has meaning for the world, and want to share that with everyone.  For all its faults and failures, the UMC is still an effective tool used by God to spread the Word that Infinite Love is more powerful than death.

This past April, at our quadrennial General Conference, legislation was approved that removed "security of appointment".  Now, if you're not clergy, or worse, not UMC, this means that, prior to this legislation, once a person went through all the hoops and over the hurdles to reach full clergy membership as an Elder, the Bishop had to appoint you to a church.  Usually referred to as "guaranteed appointment", that system was overturned in Tampa.

Our Supreme Judicial Council has overturned that legislation, saying it violates what are known as "the restrictive rules" of our Constitution.  In other words, they took solace in legalisms, even as they made a clear statement that our denomination understands the many processes that lead to full clergy membership in an Annual Conference are not to be tampered with lightly.

I saw much commentary about this decision, both for and against.  I howled with laughter at the number of people who were outraged, because "something has to be done."  As John Meunier says in the simplest statement of this position, "I do fear that our systems are so dysfunctional that any solution would be impossible to actually implement."

There are many things wrong with the United Methodist Church.  The matter of security of appointment, however, just isn't one of them.  All those folks who carry on about "ineffective clergy" make me wonder - have you read an evaluation of your own ministry lately?  Are you willing, in prayer and humility, to be honest about the many faults and failures in your life of service?  Every single person moaning about "something needing to be done" about "all those other ineffective clergy" should really, really worry because these same sentiments might be harbored about their own ministry, then it's here's your hat what's your hurry.

Also, for John and others like him, what, precisely is "dysfunctional" about the United Methodist Church that could be fixed by some Administrative, Legislative, or Judicial Action (apart from removing the horrid language about "homosexuality", and opening ordination to all God's people)?  Everyone says that, you know: "The UMC is broken!"  All my life, most especially my adult life as a theologically educated clergy spouse, I've been hearing that, and I keep waiting for someone to tell me in what way, exactly.  How's our denomination different than any other, if the criteria is failure of faithfulness and top-heavy, maze-like bureaucracies?  You remove what we have, it won't be too long before it's replaced by something under another name that operates pretty much the same way.

The best argument for security of appointment isn't a practical one.  I've been around clergy for over 20 years and I'm waiting to meet one who became a United Methodist because of it.  I've known clergy who were outstanding, then moved to another appointment and flopped miserably.  I've known clergy who were lazier than my dog, yet still had effective ministries.

BECAUSE IT ISN'T ABOUT US, PEOPLE!  Effectiveness is a horrible word, one of those meaningless terms from management theory that can fit anyone's set of ideas about "what's best".  Except, alas, clergy don't serve "anyone".  They serve God by serving the people of God.  Sometimes they do it really well.  Sometimes they make a dog's breakfast of it.  They keep plugging away, and the denomination keeps sending them forth not because they're ideal.

Because they're called by God.

The things that are wrong with the United Methodist Church do need to be addressed.  We aren't as loving or open as we claim in our ad campaigns.  Our denomination still reeks of racism and sexism even as we struggle to be faithful to our members who are sexual minorities.  Our local churches can become toxic holes of bitterness over petty slights and money and bad interpersonal relationships.  These aren't things that are either unique to us or that can be "fixed".

Stop making it about us.  Stop thinking there's a solution out there.  Be faithful, serve as God calls us all to serve, in the way first set up by John Wesley who got people out in the streets and the mines and in to homes to read the Scriptures and be with one another to uphold one another in the faith.  

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

By The Numbers

As the pundits attack, the whole climate becomes more and more funny.
If you tell me you think you can quantify an event that is about to happen that you don't expect, like the 47 percent comment or a debate performance, I think you think you are a wizard. That's not possible.
That's New York Times columnist David Brooks,  who earned the nickname "Bobo" for his book of faux-sociology about some group he called "bourgeois bohemians".  Now, Bobo has a reputation among pundits for being smart, for being moderate, and for occasionally calling the crazy in Rightland by its real name.  Now, he has done this last, although all his smarts haven't allowed him to say, "Wow, all this crazy over here must mean something!"  By and large, Brooks is a middling intellect, displaying the kind of ridiculous analysis one should expect from someone who is the butt of jokes because he doesn't know Applebee's doesn't have a salad bar.

Joe Scarborough, like Brooks, trades on his reputation.  What lies at the beating heart of his reputation?  His viscera.
But my gut tells me there are two likely scenarios: (1) President Obama will squeak out a narrow Electoral College victory or (2) Mitt Romney will carry Ohio and be swept into office by a comfortable margin.
After practicing politics for 20 years, I suppose I would rather be in Mitt Romney's shoes than Barack Obama's. Incumbents who are under 50 percent two weeks out usually go down to defeat.
But who knows? Maybe Barack Obama will bend history once again.
While I realize it's difficult to parse, in fact, Scarborough isn't saying anything much different that Silver.  The difference between them is simple - guts versus numbers.

Silver isn't "predicting" anything.  He's only a "wizard" if you don't understand probability.  And Scarborough's competing scenarios, hedged by his, "But who knows?", really are little different from Silver's statistical model that gives Pres. Obama a 74.6% chance of winning in one week.  That isn't a prediction, but a probably outcome based upon analysis of a variety of polling data on a state-by-state basis.

Which is one advantage Silver has over the punditry.  Remembering the Presidency isn't a popularity contest, but determined by Electors from the several states (in the language of the Constitution so many people revere without actually reading, let alone understanding), Silver keeps his eye trained on the polling in the states.

What's really remarkable about Silver's blog at the Times is the way he tracks his analysis.  You don't like what he's saying?  Well, fine, take a look and see where he gets his data, how the different polls in each state vary, how they're weighed, then check them over time.

One of the things Silver's analysis reminds me of is this: Despite the big bounce Romney received from his first debate performance (and Obama's lousy performance in that same debate), the fundamentals of the race remained the same after as before.  Obama's slow and steady recovery after that first beating continue, particularly in the swing states (again, something the polls indicate, and Silver makes clear).

Again, to be clear: Silver's model isn't a prediction.  It is a probability model based upon a wide variety of data, controlled for inherent biases and limitations, and rooted in the reality that the Presidency is decided not by popular opinion but by the Electoral College.

I should note that Silver takes on the whole idea of "momentum" in a piece written last Thursday:
The way the term “momentum” is applied in practice by the news media, however, it usually refers only to the first part of the clause — meaning simply that a candidate has been gaining ground in the polls, whether or not he might continue to do so. (I’ve used this phrasing plenty of times myself, so I have no real basis to complain about it.)
But there are other times when the notion of momentum is behind the curve — as it probably now is if applied to Mitt Romney’s polling.
Mr. Romney clearly gained ground in the polls in the week or two after the Denver debate, putting himself in a much stronger overall position in the race. However, it seems that he is no longer doing so.
Take Wednesday’s national tracking polls, for instance. (There are now eight of them published each day.) Mr. Romney gained ground in just one of the polls, an online poll conducted for Reuters by the polling organization Ipsos. He lost ground in five others, with President Obama improving his standing instead in those surveys. On average, Mr. Obama gained about one point between the eight polls.
 What isn’t very likely, however, is for one candidate to lose ground in five of six polls if the race is still moving toward him. In other words, we can debate whether Mr. Obama has a pinch of momentum or whether the race is instead flat, but it’s improbable that Mr. Romney would have a day like this if he still had momentum.
Saying, "My gut tells me," and insisting one or another candidate has "momentum" without any reference to what's actually happening is about as relevant as looking at chicken entrails.  If a candidate isn't actually gaining ground against an opponent, a bunch of people standing around talking about how that candidate has "momentum" is just as accurate as looking out at the clear blue sky and complaining about the rain.

None of this is to say Silver is "calling" the election, or "predicting" an Obama win.  Again, this is about probability; Romney has about a one in four chance of winning, which really aren't shabby odds when you think about it.  It should certainly be more than enough to keep both men campaigning right up until the very last moment.

I'm far more fascinated by all the attention Silver's been getting from people who, by their words, demonstrate they have no idea what Silver's doing, or how he's doing it.  Of course, as with all internet phenomenon, the comment section, especially on the Media Matters piece, is comedy gold.

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More