Archive for May, 2009

Space Control: a Thought Experiment

May 18, 2009

This is an exercise I like to think of as “womanthink,” even though I know there are men who do it very well, and lots of women who don’t do it at all.  It asks three questions: What do we have lots of?  What do we need more of? How do we turn what we have into what we need?

For instance, the foreclosure crisis.  What it actually means is that we now have lots of unoccupied houses. At the same time, there is a shortage of rental housing, especially affordable rental housing.  How do we turn unoccupied houses into affordable rental housing?

In fact, this one is easy compared to, say, spinning flax into gold, or turning dog manure into transportation fuel.  Why don’t the banks, who own these unoccupied houses, get together with realtors, who at the moment have almost nothing to do with their time and no way to make a living, and have them rent out the houses, preferably on one- or two-year leases, so the tenants would stick around a while and take care of the property?

Yes, of course, most of those houses will have to be rehabbed before they are rentable.  Unless, of course, you want to take the thought experiment a bit further and rent them to people who are willing to invest some sweat equity into making them livable in order to live in them.  Say, in exchange for a waiver of the first month’s rent.

Which brings us to the next question: why isn’t it already happening?  Mr. Wired thinks it is because the banks, having been conglomerated to within an inch of their lives (and sometimes beyond) have absolutely no sense of local demand, because they no longer have any location.  So they simply don’t see any relationship between their “toxic assets” and real houses in which real people could be living and paying rent, if only somebody had the wit to see it.

You heard it here first.


The Sexual Revolution Keeps Going Around

May 15, 2009

That Other Blog keeps harping on the evils of the Sexual Revolution and why Our Culture will wither up and die if we don’t reverse it. I guess it’s time for a review of the facts, at least from the point of view of a history major-turned-lawyer who has spent a lot of time in divorce court and juvenile court:

v The Sexual Revolution didn’t start in the 1960s. In fact, it wasn’t a one-time only event at all, except to the extent that technology played a role. The Romans had one, which Augustus Caesar deplored big-time, while of course, like almost every other opponent of his era’s sexual revolution, playing a major role in it. The French had several, one in the Middle Ages, one during the Second Empire, and one in the late 19th century. The Brits had at least one per century beginning in the late 1500s. And the good old USA had one in the early 1800s and one that began in the 1920s and is arguably still going on.

v As is obvious from the previous paragraph, no Sexual Revolution is irreversible.

v The current Sexual Revolution may be different from its predecessors because of the contribution of contraceptive technology. But even that doesn’t make it irreversible, since even in societies where contraception is readily available, not every sexually active person chooses to use it, or even considers it a matter of choice at all.

v The Good Old 1950s weren’t all that good. There was at least as much teenage sex as there is today, and somewhat more teenage pregnancies per capita. That phenomenon was cloaked by frequent resort to Shotgun Marriage.

v These days, even our most upstanding citizens (Bristol Palin, for instance) consider that an undesirable compromise. In fact, the Catholic Church ordinarily will not perform a marriage while the prospective bride is pregnant. Obviously they consider unwed motherhood preferable. Some personal anecdotal stats: in the year before I was due to start high school, half the girls in the graduating class of the public high school I would ordinarily have attended were pregnant. Including my cousin. Which undoubtedly had something to do with my spending the next four years at a convent boarding school. So far as I know, all of the young women in question got married well before their due date.

v But I suspect that the Sexual Revolution is responsible for the decrease in math skills of our younger generations. My classmates and I, all the way through high school and college, got to exercise those skills quite regularly calculating just how premarital our friends’ sexual activity was, by subtracting 9 months from the birth of the baby, and then subtracting that date from the wedding date. Probably none of the current younger generation could work that out even with a calculator.

v Not to mention, of course, the fact that today’s youth are a seriously lost generation, at least in terms of geography, since most of them can’t even find their own state on a map. Before Playboy, young men had no place to look at nekkid wimmen except National Geographic. Yes, we can blame that on the Sexual Revolution too.


v Back in the Good Old Days, when a young woman was found dead of non-natural causes, the first thing the coroner checked for was pregnancy. Because pregnancy was an equally plausible motive for either suicide or homicide.

v Those shotgun marriages ended in divorce far more often than marriages contracted under less precipitous circumstances.

v Even current data tells us that such marriages are more likely to involve abuse.

v That doesn’t even begin to deal with the issue of homosexuality as a cause of blackmail, homicide, and suicide (and divorce and infidelity.) Yes, that still happens today, but not nearly as much as back in the Good Old Days.

Yes, there are things I don’t like about post-1960 attitudes toward sex:

v The fact that young girls get pressured into it to please other people (boyfriends or girlfriends or occasionally even parents) and often get absolutely no pleasure or reward from it.

v The fact that most of those young girls cannot imagine using contraception, and in fact consider pregnancy a highly desirable outcome, at least in comparison to ordinary high school life.

v The dangerous intersect between drugs and sex (although not much different from the link between alcohol and sex in the Good Old Days.)

v The fact that the major cause of death among pregnant women these days is homicide (probably an unintended consequence of our more stringent enforcement of child support laws.)

v The child support laws themselves, which seem to expect happy young couples to include in their repertoire of pillow talk an inquiry into the male’s date of birth and Social Security Number.

v The declining prestige of marriage, except among lesbians and gay men. (It enjoyed a brief boom among Catholic priests and nuns, but that population has now aged beyond marriageability and dwindled almost beyond recovery.)

So the Sexual Revolution was neither an unmixed blessing nor a universal curse. Like many other social phenomena, it is both cause and effect of our culture as a whole. It has affected some people much more than others. And we still haven’t figured out all of those effects, or how to modulate them. We certainly haven’t figured out how to repeal it. I don’t dream of trying.

Red Emma

Mother’s Day

May 10, 2009

Yesterday I went to services and got conscripted for some cantorial assistance.  Felt good, felt like my voice was behaving itself, which especially in the spring allergy season it sometimes doesn’t.  And then, near the end of the service, the young woman who was chanting the latter section pulled me aside and asked me for a tune (for the final hymn) suitable for Mother’s Day.  I spent the next ten minutes, while she finished up and announcements were promulgated, trying to think of one.

A musicological note here: contrafaction is the process of setting a lyric to a tune previously used for something else.  The final hymn of a Jewish Sabbath morning service is a 10-stanza piece in iambic tetrameter.  Which means it can be made to fit almost any tune, either in 3/4 or 4/4 time, provided the line has (or can be contrived to have)  the proper number of feet.  Anything from the Star-Spangled Banner to the choral movement of Beethoven’s Ninth to My Darling Clementine.  It’s a game musically literate Jews enjoy playing.

A tune for Mother’s Day?  I’ve played the game for 40+ years and never had to come up with that.  Finally, I got it, just in time.  After I gave Abby the hairy eyeball for not sending me an e-mail on Friday, we launched into Adon Olam to the tune of Will the Circle Be Unbroken.

Look it up.  The narrator is watching his mother’s body being carted off for burial.  I didn’t bother explaining, for fear of weirding out the people whose mothers are still living (and even, in many instances, standing beside them.)  But for me, and a lot of the others whose mothers are gone, it wasn’t bad.  Will the circle be unbroken?  If I still can’t think of my mother without a twinge, like an aching tooth, from 40 years ago almost exactly, then, yes the circle is still whole, though not exactly sound.  She and I had our differences, and there wasn’t time to patch them up the way those things usually get patched up as the child matures and finds herself stepping through the same markers as her mother, and remembering the warnings, or pointers, or jokes, about them.  I had looked forward to being my mother’s friend, once I had gotten past merely being her daughter, and I never got that.  It wasn’t fair.  Dammit.  But yes, the circle is unbroken, and it rolls on and on.  And my daughter calls me, and we walk through the markers, and we can be friends, while I edit her stuff and she sends me book titles she knows I’ll be interested in.  Yes, the circle is unbroken.


The Rising Price of Freedom

May 8, 2009

and Other Oddities

Just heard that Drew Peterson, alleged Bluebeard of the western Chicago suburbs, has been arrested and is being held on twenty million dollars bail.  I think that’s a record. At any rate, I googled “bail set at” and got nothing higher than a million.  Talk about inflation!

Re: language degeneration—the latest stage is the re-nouning of nouned verbs.  Like “de-accessioning,” which is what a lot of art museums are doing with stuff that’s worth more to some private collector than to the museum that owns it.  And one I just heard today—a “decisioning table.”  Many years ago, BTW, a friend of mine who worked in the IT section of some department store’s charge card division told us about doing “bonification runs,” presumably to ascertain whether charge card applications had been “bonified.” And now a major chicken perveyor (sorry, that’s purveyor) claims to be producing “bona fide” chicken tenders.  I’m just waiting for K*C to start advertising Bona Fried Chicken.

O tempura, o mori, as my favorite Asian restaurant would say.


Where Does Superman Change?

May 6, 2009

In one of the more recent Superman films, there is a lovely scene in which Clark Kent becomes aware of a pressing emergency requiring the services of Superman. He looks around, sees a couple of the phones-on-a-stick, but nothing remotely resembling a booth, looks bewildered, and finally ducks into the far end of an alley, from which Superman almost immediately emerges.

For the last 20 years, phone companies have been trying to get rid of pay phones, on the premise that they are expensive to maintain and collect from. Often, the neighborhoods in which those phones are placed collude with them and actually demand that pay phones be removed, on the premise that pay phones are mostly used by, and therefore tend to attract, drug dealers and other criminals.

The first public phones, patented in 1891, were in actual walk-in closets, equipped with a desk, seat, paper, and pen. This was fairly quickly downgraded to a confessional-style bench and ledge, but still with a door and a flat surface suitable for taking notes on. More recently that was downgraded to a 3-sided, or 2-sided triangular, cubicle, with no door, in which privacy could be preserved only by facing into the corner. Flat horizontal surfaces were removed, leaving only the top of the telephone itself, which however was acutely slanted, apparently to discourage using it for taking notes. Now even the open-sided cubicle is gone, to be replaced, as noted above, by the phone-on-a-stick, or, more often, by absolutely nothing.

Well, not exactly nothing. First, there are still a few pay phones in public places, mostly for emergency use or calling a cab. They are mostly set up and maintained by small local companies, rather than any of the Baby Bells and their offspring, and they are virtually unregulated. As a result, a friend of mine, a couple of years back, had occasion to be stranded at her hair stylist’s in a bad storm, so she used the pay phone on the premises to call home to ask for a ride. Not having any quarters available, she charged the call to her home phone. Later that month, she got the bill: nine dollars for a two-minute phone call to her home, four blocks away. “It would have been cheaper to take a cab,” she wailed.

The public phone has now mostly been replaced by the mobile phone. We presume that everybody has one. Indeed, an increasing proportion of the population has only a cell phone. Some of the younger generation may never even have used a “land line,” as the regular home-and-office phone is now retronymically called. It has even been replaced, for the purposes of anonymous and untraceable criminal communications, by the disposable prepaid cell phone, often used once or twice and then discarded and replaced by yet another. Sooner or later, no doubt, someone will pass a law requiring photo identification for purchasers of all such phones, but it hasn’t happened yet. So closing down phone booths did not solve the crime problem, it only made it harder for impecunious citizens to call the police, and gave the police a different criminal communication problem.

Well, now I’m noticing yet another area in which a public sector benefit is being privatized, at the expense of poor people—water. It was inevitable. First the great fascist-capitalist conspiracy convinced people that tap water, since it is provided by government, can’t possibly be good for you. Then they started bottling water (often, BTW, tap water) and selling it. The bottles are mostly plastic, and non-biodegradable. The water often comes from places that really can’t afford to export it, and is often sold in places that have more than enough of their own. ( See Holy Hydration, Batman! Florida’s Exporting Water!)

We have moved on to step #4. Public water fountains, in most public places, are no longer being maintained, and are often being removed altogether. Many otherwise cheap eateries are no longer serving water with meals, except when purchased in the bottle. Often, the excuse is given that water fountains attract homeless people. That is, people who cannot afford to buy water often quench their thirst at a sanitary public fountain, rather than waiting until it rains and then drinking out of the gutter. The nerve of some people!

Once again, this is the sin of Sodom. (See Panhandlers and the Jewish Tradition.) It is also the sin of the unhygienic late 19th century. Public water fountains were first installed around that time, to prevent the spread of disease from less sanitary water sources, such as mud puddles. We are likely to find out, fairly soon, why our ancestors made this decision, just as we are about to find out (due to the spread of antibiotic-resistant TB) why they made laws forbidding spitting on the sidewalk. Sometimes I think we should all just read a book about the Reformers of that period, since we are in the process of undoing most of their work.

What’s next? We have not yet figured out how to privatize air. And despite a great deal of work on the project, we have not yet made the Internet a completely pay-per-use resource. We haven’t figured out how to charge for the use of escalators and elevators, much less sidewalks. The Wired family welcomes any other bright ideas about public resources which can easily be privatized. Watch this space.

Red Emma

Escape from Gradgrindery

May 4, 2009

Hankfox, who may well be a distant relative of mine, worries about referentless concepts taking up valuable space in the human mind.  From what we seem to know about the human brain, I think he is barking up the wrong tree.  The mind is not a finite bounded space, it’s a network.  And a network gets more effective as it gets more complex, which happens every time it adds a new node.  If some of those nodes lack concrete referents, so what?  They give us more, and more interesting, ways to understand concrete realities.  If all we know is what impacts our immediate senses, we are all prisoners in the solitary confinement of our own skulls.  Perhaps because I have a client who is currently in jail, this gives me the squeams.

Limited to the input of our own senses, we have no way to make contact with other beings, human and otherwise.  That way likes psychopathy.  Imagination is the moral faculty.

Imagination has obvious evolutionary origins.  I think it comes from the way predators teach their young to hunt.  A mother cat shows her kittens, “make believe this vine, or that stick, or my tail, is your prey.  Watch it.  Follow it.  Pounce on it.  Subdue it.”  She also shows them, quite vividly, the difference between imagination and reality—“but don’t bite my tail too hard or I will slap you upside the head and swat you into next Monday.”

From this they learn to chase their daily meals, and also how to behave with critters whom they do not regard as dinner—do as you would be done by.  From this, we learn what was first taught to us in Deuteronomy: imagine that other people have insides, like yours. Imagine that they feel pain, and fear, and hunger, and pleasure, and joy, just like you.  Imagine, that is, that your neighbor is like you.  And then, love.

Jane Grey