All We Want for Christmas

 

As much as we may see signs posted on residential and church lawns reminding us that “Jesus is the reason for the season”, for many of us Christmas remains a season for getting stuff, giving stuff, and receiving stuff, among other reasons for the season, like visiting friends and family and engaging in charitable works.

 

In the last 20 years, getting, giving, and receiving electronic stuff has particularly taken off because of the accelerating pace of improvements in technology, some of which are real improvements while others are invented or hyped by marketers. When it comes to electronic devices like smartphones and flat panel televisions, last year’s model is outmoded, and a model from two years ago is obsolete. That is the perception marketers would like us to have, and many of us are willing to go along with it. Whether that is because of a real need for the latest technology or merely as a way of signaling to others about oneself is anyone’s guess.

Paonroue
A Peafowl flaring his feathers. Photo by Jebulon.

Or it could be purely for one’s own gratification and sense of identity. All of us are what we eat, but some people are also what they own. It’s nice to have good things that work well, doing what they are supposed to do. The point of demarcation toward excess is relative to every individual, of course, though as a culture we can detect roughly when enough is enough, either in quantity or quality. That is, after all, what makes conspicuous consumption worthwhile to conspicuous consumers consuming conspicuously. If no one noticed or cared, there would be no point to it.

Certainly it can be necessary at times to replace broken or malfunctioning stuff, and the occasions for doing so with electronic devices like computer printers seem to pop up more frequently with each passing year. Any other reason, such as an obsessive desire for acquiring the latest and greatest, seems suspect, maybe not to the person doing the acquiring, but perhaps to observers. Some of those observers may even be the recipients of a latest and greatest type of largesse at Christmas.

A routine from George Carlin’s appearance at Comic Relief USA in 1986. What makes this piece poignant satire is Mr. Carlin’s presentation of it at a charity event focused on helping the homeless, who of course have very little stuff. Warning: foul language.

Do they need more stuff? Maybe not. Do they want more stuff, or stuff of better quality than their current stuff? Maybe. When it comes to pricey electronics particularly, most of which are troublesome to recycle or to dispose of responsibly, maybe it’s best to ask before giving, or to buy something else altogether. Marketers of electronic products won’t like to hear of that sort of attitude, but who cares what they think? Their only interest is in generating excitement about the latest developments in their products, and if that leads to multitudes of genuinely unnecessary purchases of new products and dumping in landfills of products only a few years old, well then that’s none of their concern as they see it. It’s nice to have good things that work well, and even nicer to understand that is enough.
— Techly

 

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The Level Playing Field

 

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

— Barack Obama, speaking at a July 2012 campaign appearance in Virginia. Republicans quickly jumped on his comments, taking them out of context in order to convince business owners he was insulting them and their hard work and initiative.

If anyone needed a reminder there is no such thing as a level playing field, the recent college admissions scandal ought to have brought it home. There was no surprise about wealthy parents greasing the skids to get their children into prestigious universities, and no surprise about the willingness of those institutions to bend their own rules to the breaking point in order get more money in their coffers. The admissions dance between wealthy patrons and their preferred institutions of higher learning has never been particularly secret, either, as can be seen with the admission of Jared Kushner to Harvard in 1999.

 

There’s enough hypocrisy and corruption in this latest scandal to go around many times, equal in its way to college admissions standards being contorted for the benefit of the athletic program and wealthy and amoral alumni supporters who want top athletes for the school no matter how deficient their academic qualifications. Any sober scrutiny of that boondoggle would cause the implosion of most major athletic programs at schools large and small. Poorly qualified students have always entered the doors of academia, whether the ticket they or their parents proffered was wrapped in large amounts of currency or in the promise of athletic prowess.

The Education System in Britain, 1914-1918 Q30858
Eton schoolboys digging potatoes from an allotment allocated for wartime vegetable production on the school playing fields during the First World War. Photo by Horace Nicholls (1867-1941) archived in the Imperial War Museum. Unfortunately, times of dire emergency and full mobilization are required to get the rich and their progeny to pitch in and work like everyone else.

The interesting aspect to examine after the latest revelations is the idea of meritocracy, which seems to offer a delusion of an open society to the poor and the unlucky. Rich, successful people want everyone to believe they achieved their exalted station entirely through their own merits. Many of them fervently believe this themselves. They take little account of the advantages afforded them by the society at large, and especially by dumb luck. This society’s adherence to the tenets of meritocracy results in rich, successful people giving themselves too much credit for their good fortune and poor, working people accepting too much blame for their abysmal circumstances. Meritocracy serves the purposes of the rich in allowing them to excuse their selfish behavior and to have disdain for the poor.

The way the system really works on behalf of well-off individuals and organizations is that they are made to believe a successful business or investment is all their own doing, and therefore they immodestly grab the larger portion of the profits for themselves, while unsuccessful endeavors are the fault of others, usually the workers, who need to accept blame and financial losses in the form of wage cuts or termination of employment. Privatized profits and socialized losses – that’s the American Way. Top executives sit on the boards of companies to look out for the interests of other top executives, members of what has largely been an Old Boys’ Club for as long as elites have dodged responsibility to the greater society, which is to say forever.

An excerpt from the “Dumb Americans” section of George Carlin’s 2005 Life Is Worth Losing performance. Warning: foul language.

If the minimum wage had kept pace with Wall Street bonuses – not pay, but bonuses only – over the past generation, it would stand at $33 an hour today. The people on Wall Street do provide the necessary economic service of concentrating investment capital, but that service is not as vital nor the work as important as portrayed in the 1980s television advertisements for the investment firm Smith Barney, in which the actor and producer John Houseman pompously announced “They make money the old-fashioned way. They earn it.” Hogwash! And it has only gotten deeper since the 1980s, to the point we’re all drowning in it, and Wall Street investors would have everyone believe they are the driving force of the economy, not the workers who actually produce useful things. Better education is needed, starting with teaching that rich does not necessarily equate with deserving, and that money is not a measure of worth beyond its contribution to the common good.
— Ed.

 

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Know Your Privileges

 

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) employees have been detaining journalists and immigration lawyers at checkpoints in Arizona and Texas and questioning them about their political beliefs. These are nothing more than intimidation tactics by government employees who don’t appear overly concerned that they work for all citizens of the United States, not merely the current presidential administration and its far right supporters.

 

CBP has long had too broad an authority, and particularly after World War II when Congress passed laws giving the agency the ability to regularly trespass on citizens’ rights under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. In 1953, without public review, the Justice Department specified the zone within which CBP could operate fast and loose with the Constitution at 100 air miles of the United States border. That’s 100 miles within the United States, all around the perimeter, an area encompassing nearly two thirds of the populace.

Oh America -WomensMarch -WomensMarch2018 -SenecaFalls -NY (38908982905)
A sign at the January 2018 Womens’ March in Seneca Falls, New York. Photo by Marc Nozell.

It’s incredible these laws and rules have stayed on the books as long as they have and have withstood review by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has often interpreted the Constitution with an eye toward sustaining the power of the government over the citizen, however, despite the recent miraculous lapse in its ruling on Timbs v. Indiana, which rescinded civil asset forfeiture, also known as cops’ legalized stealing of citizens’ property. That ruling can best be considered an anomaly, at least from the Court’s five conservative justices, who with an even more recent ruling, in Nielsen v. Preap, are back to their usual shoring up of police state encroachments on the Constitution.

George Carlin performing in 2008 in Santa Rosa, California, just months before he died. “You Have No Rights” is the closing bit, and for the album made from this Home Box Office (HBO) special, It’s Bad for Ya, he was awarded a posthumous Grammy. Warning: foul language.

Supposedly these laws are meant to be enforced against illegal immigrants, who after all are not citizens. In practice, their overly broad authority allows enough room for CBP employees with a political agenda to harass and intimidate anyone they care to, citizens and non-citizens alike. The CBP employees can always claim some legal rationale for their capricious actions, and even after offering the flimsiest excuses, they know legal redress of their abuse of power will take years, if it comes at all. This is what happens when fear guides the writing of laws, giving too much authority to law enforcement agencies, and then a lawless presidential administration grasps the reins of all that power. Meanwhile the nation’s courts have too often upheld police prerogatives over citizens’ rights, eroding the meaning of those rights and mocking their supposed inviolability.
— Vita

 

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The War on Economic Disadvantage

 

12 Then said he also to him that bade him, When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbours; lest they also bid thee again, and a recompence be made thee.
13 But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind:
14 And thou shalt be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee: for thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just.

— Words of Jesus Christ quoted in Luke 14:12-14, the King James Version of the New Testament.

The current presidential administration has declared an end to the War on Poverty, and a victory for someone or other, certainly not the poor. Perhaps the rich, who can now go on plundering the nation without any nagging concerns for the poor. Not that the poor were ever a great concern for the rich, a disconnect that has been made easier over the past half century with sociological euphemisms like “economically disadvantaged” and “low income”. Sociologists and others with a bureaucratic and academic inclination to their thinking supposedly applied euphemisms for the words “poor” and “poverty” out of consideration for the feelings of people mired in “low resource” neighborhoods, among other things, but really they were doing those folks no favors. Good intentions merely made it easier for everyone in the “upper income brackets” to look the other way.


Thomas Benjamin Kennington - Orphans
Orphans, an 1885 painting by Thomas Benjamin Kennington (1856-1916).

The War on Poverty is over then, and up is down and wrong is right. Two plus two equals five. “Just remember, what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening,” saith Supreme Leader. None of that rhetorical nonsense fills the bellies of the poor with nutritious food. It’s all sophistry. Anyone with eyes that see and who acknowledges the world as it is can attest there are poor people everywhere in need. Those poor people are more than “food insecure”, they are hungry, even starving. Academics, bureaucrats, politicians, and the wealthy can argue forever about how best to deal with the problem of the “economically disadvantaged” or “underprivileged”, and in the end they will only increase their own advantage and scrupulously preserve their own privilege. Stop the jibber jabber and get down to a soup kitchen and start dishing.
— Ed.


George Carlin talks about how euphemisms erode meaning in his 1990 concert Doin’ It Again. Warning: foul language.

 

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Separated at Birth

 

“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
― Jesus Christ, quoted in Matthew 22:21 (King James Version).

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . “
― excerpt from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

 

The two quotes above seem straightforward in their meaning, even if some people with self-serving agendas insist there is room for interpretation in both. Some religious groups, but by no means the majority, chafe at the straightforward interpretations and would rather see the federal government allow them to get involved in partisan politics while maintaining their tax exempt status. They applaud any effort to roll back enforcement of the Johnson Amendment to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) code, which forbids charitable or non-profit organizations with tax exemptions from directly endorsing political candidates. In May, the current president signed an executive order relaxing those restrictions, essentially directing the IRS to use discretion in enforcing the Johnson Amendment. Since the law would have to be changed by Congress, court challenges to the executive order will probably crop up, though none have as of yet.

 

The simple solution for religious groups who want to submerge themselves in the American political process is to forgo tax exempt status. That appears not to be an option they care to consider. They want their cake, and to eat it, too. The Johnson Amendment, added to the IRS code in 1954 by Lyndon Johnson, at the time a Democratic senator from Texas, has always been laxly enforced by the IRS, revoking the tax exemptions of only the most egregious violators. That’s not good enough for some people. They want the wall separating church and state torn down.
LBJ and Diaz Ordaz
President Lyndon B. Johnson hosts the President of Mexico, Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, at his Texas Ranch in 1964; photo by Yoichi Okamoto.

 

But not necessarily torn down completely. Muslims, in the view of the Christian Right, should probably not be included in a law respecting an establishment of religion by allowing them to funnel their congregants’ money to chosen political leaders, just like their Christian counterparts. Not so sure about the Jews, either. Catholics? We’ll have to think about that one. Once we start making exemptions for the exemption, we have to decide who gets it and who doesn’t. What would Jerry Falwell do? His son, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Liberty University President and leader of the evangelical Christian Right, believes the Johnson Amendment has to go because it infringes on the free speech rights of religious leaders.

In this scene from the 1980 film Caddyshack, Bishop Pickerling, played by Henry Wilcoxon, plays golf during a thunderstorm, with groundskeeper Carl Spackler, played by Bill Murray, serving as his caddy. The Bishop exercises his free speech rights at the end, with consequences. Note that the music quotes the score from the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments.

That argument ignores the reality of religious leaders already expressing themselves freely, just not being allowed to funnel money to candidates while maintaining their own tax exempt status. What religious leaders like Jerry Falwell, Jr., really appear to mean is that the Johnson Amendment is an infringement on their free speech rights in the sense that was addressed by the Supreme Court in the 2010 Citizens United decision, which found that the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) was violating the free speech rights of corporations, both for profit and non-profit, when they limited campaign contributions. Money talks. Now some religious groups, such as Mr. Falwell’s, want the same kind of special dispensation, while also maintaining their exemption from paying taxes. That’s called the Sweet Deal!

George Carlin, a man who really did “tell it like it is”, in a bit from his 1988 performance What Am I Doing in New Jersey? Warning: foul language.

For the week beginning August 21, Americans United for Separation of Church and State is organizing what they call Hometown Congressional Visits to express support for the Johnson Amendment. This is a country of many faiths and to allow one vocal minority – regardless of it’s billing of itself as “The Moral Majority” – to usurp the voices of the many would be not only wrong now, but unconstitutional from the founding of the republic.
― Ed.

 

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Not a Piece of Cake

 

“All politics is local.” ― An old saying, most famously uttered by former Speaker of the House, Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill

This fall the Supreme Court will hear the case of Gill v. Whitford, a partisan gerrymandering case from Wisconsin, where redistricting lines drawn up by Republicans in the state legislature in 2011 after the 2010 census resulted in grossly unbalanced election results, such as in the 2012 election when, despite a majority of the votes statewide going to Democrats, Republicans nonetheless won sixty of the ninety-nine State Assembly seats. While the case is specifically about the redistricting lines drawn for state elections, there are implications for national elections because state legislatures also draw the lines for federal congressional districts. National election results have similarly tilted toward Republicans winning more seats in the House of Representatives than simple vote tallies warrant, and Democrats typically gain fewer seats than vote totals should grant them.


The Gerry-Mander Edit
“The Gerry-Mander”, a political cartoon by Elkanah Tisdale (1771-1835), published in the Boston Centinel in 1812. The district depicted in the cartoon was created by the Massachusetts legislature to favor the incumbent Democratic-Republican party candidates sponsored by Governor Elbridge Gerry over the Federalists.

Gerrymandering has been around since the founding of the Republic, ever since Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution specified that the states had the power to apportion congressional districts based on census results every ten years. There’s nothing in there about how the states should draw the lines, though the 14th Amendment, adopted 149 years ago on July 9, 1868, set guidelines for citizenship and equal protection under the laws for all citizens, and that has been invoked by the Supreme Court to overrule racially motivated gerrymandering. State legislatures have nevertheless taken the broad leeway left in Article 1, Section 2, and run with it, with both parties divvying up the cake as they liked if they had enough votes from their own members to push new district lines onto the books. Once one party or the other established districts in their favor, subsequent elections had the effect of consolidating their power.

There have been partisan gerrymandering cases brought before the Supreme Court in the past, but the Court has always been reluctant to step into what it has deemed politics as usual, and their rulings have always been narrow enough to have little effect on the practice of partisan gerrymandering. The Court has been more willing to rule broadly against racial gerrymandering by applying the equal protection principles of the 14th Amendment. It’s hard to see the ultimate ruling in Gill v. Whitford deviating from past rulings unless one or more of the conservative justices rule against the State of Wisconsin, and by extension the Republican party. The Court is currently split 5-4 along party lines, with Republicans in the majority.

A scene from the 1974 film The Godfather: Part II, in which the gangsters Hyman Roth, played by Lee Strasburg, and Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, discuss divvying up business in Cuba before the revolution.

 

This gerrymandering case is a reminder of how failure to pay attention to state and local politics can result in a minority party exercising disproportional power. There are more important elections than the presidential one every four years. The party that turns people out for local school board elections, for city council elections, and for state legislature elections every year, year after year, is the party that ultimately takes power in the national elections. Those seemingly insignificant elections lay the groundwork and set the rules for what follows on a grander scale.

Motivated people turn out for elections, and Republicans have done a much better job over the past thirty or more years of motivating their people than Democrats have done with their people. They have done so with with some dubious tactics, it’s true, mainly motivating people through fear and loathing of The Other, whoever or whatever that might prove effective at the moment. That was easily seen in the 2016 election.

On a national scale, where state boundaries do not change, the Electoral College has worked to gerrymander the presidential election result on behalf of the Republican candidate as Democrats lose strength in the small towns and countryside of the middle of the country. For instance California, the most populous state in the nation, and one with a strong Democratic party majority, has 55 electoral votes (53 congressional districts plus 2 Senate seats) to offer the Democratic presidential candidate whether that candidate wins the state with a simple majority of one vote or an overwhelming majority of three million votes.

This is from a network television appearance by George Carlin in the early 1990s. No foul language warning necessary.

 

In the language of gerrymandering, Democrats are effectively “packed” into California and other highly urban states, mostly on either coast. Getting rid of the Electoral College and deciding the presidential election with a simple nationwide majority vote would eliminate this gerrymandering effect, but with Republicans controlling the Presidency, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, 33 out of 50 governors’ offices, 31 out of 50 state houses, and 37 out of 50 state senates, that won’t be easy.

Magpie eating cake-rubens peale
Magpie Eating Cake, an 1865 painting by Rubens Peale (1784-1865).

It would take working from the grass roots on up instead of snoozing until 2020 and dreaming the current Republican president will be impeached along the way. It would also mean holding the Democratic party establishment to account for selling out the middle and working classes while they chased after financial and professional elites. Since the Democratic party establishment has shown no inclination to change in response to the 2016 election debacle, however, it appears the best course in the years ahead will be to discard the Democratic party apparatus altogether and form an entirely new major party. It’s not like that has never been done before.
― Ed.

 

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Don’t Scalp It If You Can Help It

 

Grass mowing time is here and many folks like to save themselves time and trouble by cutting their lawn very short. They give their lawn a “two week cut”, reasoning that it won’t be much different than an extra short haircut which will look good in two weeks and stay that way for a while before it needs cutting again. Some people cut their lawn short frequently because that’s the way they prefer it. Those are the ones who are outside on the job at least once a week, all season long, mowing the grass to within an inch of its life. Others are elderly and want the lawn kept short because it feels safer to them that way, long grass being difficult for them to maneuver through since they tend to shuffle their feet along rather than lifting them up, and they are ever fearful of falling and breaking a hip.
Induction Day hair cut 150701-N-TO519-054
Tim Corcio, member of the U.S. Naval Academy’s incoming Class of 2019, gets his first military haircut on Induction Day, July 1, 2015. Induction Day marks the beginning of Plebe Summer, the six week indoctrination that transitions civilian students to military life; U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class Nathan Wilkes.

Roger Cook from This Old House talks about seasonal mower height settings.

Personal preferences aside, the cool season grasses which predominate in lawns in the northern two thirds of the country really should be mowed at a height of two to three inches at least for the health of the grass and the appearance and lushness of the lawn. The warm season grasses which predominate in the South can be mowed shorter, at about one to two inches, though St. Augustine grass should be mowed higher than that. Regardless of North or South, a good rule to follow is to start with a short mowing height at the beginning of the season, increase the height as temperatures increase, and then lower the height again going into autumn. The worst mistake people inflict on their lawns is to keep the mower at a short height throughout the year, and the worst damage occurs then at the hottest part of summer, when grass that is too short burns up in the heat, allowing weeds to proliferate in the gaps.


The late, great philosopher comedian George Carlin riffs on golf courses and cemeteries, two enormous, grassy wastes of real estate in a bit from his 1992 show, Jammin’ in New York. Warning: foul language.

A good thing to consider as you are either out in the heat yourself this summer mowing the grass or paying a service to do it for you, is how much lawn you really need and whether what you have is enough, or too much of a good thing, also known as a maintenance headache. Plenty of time to think out there. There is just about no entity other than a snooty neighborhood association or nosy, indignant neighbor that will blame you for turning over some or all of your lawn to garden bed or some kind of no mow alternative. The critters will love you for it. You yourself may enjoy more free time away from a fume-belching mower or the few extra dollars in your pocket saved by not hiring out the work to a lawn service. Of course, the increased garden bed space will require some more time for weeding. It’s a trade-off, though not necessarily one that doesn’t benefit you in the long run. Whatever grass you keep, let it grow so that you can feel it between your toes.
― Izzy

 

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Getting to Know You

 

Online Privacy and the Founding Fathers
“Online Privacy and the Founding Fathers” by Matt Shirk


The comedian George Carlin used to riff on oxymorons, phrases he found absurd such as “military intelligence” and “business ethics.” To that list we could add “online privacy.” The internet has always been a public place which gives people the illusion of private communication because of how they access it, from a handheld device or from their own computer. Recently in a ruling on a class-action lawsuit concerning Yahoo’s practice of scanning emails, a federal judge affirmed that online privacy is not for everybody.


In the lawsuit brought against Yahoo by email users who did not use Yahoo’s email service but corresponded with people who did, Judge Lucy Koh of the U.S. District Court for Northern California signed off on a settlement which allows Yahoo to continue scanning the emails of non-Yahoo users without their consent. The major change from Yahoo’s previous practice is that it must do so only while the emails are on its servers, rather than while they are in transit.

That satisfies the letter of the law while doing nothing to redress the grievances of non-Yahoo email users. The four plaintiffs in the lawsuit received $5,000 each. The Judge awarded the plaintiffs’ lawyers 4 million dollars in total. A  45 page PDF of the settlement is here, and the summary starts at page 40. Google is being sued in a similar class-action which is pending before Judge Koh.

Since most people don’t fully read the terms and conditions before signing up for online services, it’s doubtful whether many users of Yahoo, Google, or similar free webmail services are aware those companies are scanning their emails for the purpose of targeted advertising, as well as scanning the other half of the exchange coming from their correspondent. Other users who are aware of the scanning are resigned to accepting it as the price of free webmail. And the “price of free” is another oxymoron Mr. Carlin himself might have gleefully noted.

– Techly 

 

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