I'm reminded of the spring of 1980 when the economy nosedived (nosedove?), but then suddenly pulled out of it into modest prosperity. It didn't save Jimmy Carter in November, and we ended up getting hammered by a major recession in 1981-1982 that painfully wrung the inflation of the 1970s out of the economy.
May 15, 2008
I'm reminded of the spring of 1980 when the economy nosedived (nosedove?), but then suddenly pulled out of it into modest prosperity. It didn't save Jimmy Carter in November, and we ended up getting hammered by a major recession in 1981-1982 that painfully wrung the inflation of the 1970s out of the economy.
Cinque Henderson writes in The New Republic:
It's also not terribly true -- Obama wants you to believe that, but his life story suggests that he'd be more moderate about race if he was black on both sides and thus didn't have to keep proving he's black enough. (Something similar is true for the Bob Bar-lookalike Rev. Wright.)
Ninety percent of black Democrats support Barack Obama. So that might leave an observer wondering: What the hell is up with that other 10 percent? Are they stupid? Do they hate their own race? Do they not understand the historical import of the moment?
I can shed some insight on this demographic anomaly. In gatherings of black people, I'm invariably the only one for the Dragon Lady...
I disliked Obama almost instantly. I never believed the central premises of his autobiography or his campaign. He is fueled by precisely the same brand of personal ambition as Bill Clinton. But, where Clinton is damned as "Slick Willie," Obama is hailed as a post-racial Messiah. Do I believe that Obama had this whole yes-we-can deal planned from age 16? No, I would respond. He began plotting it at age 22. This predisposition, of course, doesn't help me in making the case against Obama, especially not with black people. But, believe me, there's a strong case to be made that he isn't such a virtuous mediator of race. And it's this skepticism about Obama's racial posturing that has led us, the 10 percent, into dissent. ...
But, once you stare past the radiant glow surrounding Obama and begin to study the exact reasons for his so-called racial transcendence, you can't help but conclude that it is mostly hokum. Why do black people love Obama? In large part, it's because of the dark-skinned woman on his arm. Black people (especially black women) are nuts for Michelle. Had Barack married a white woman, his candidacy would've never gotten off the ground with black people. And would whites really be so into him if he hadn't had a white mother? Based on U.S. political history, you would have to conclude: not a chance. My suspicion is that people are ultimately comfortable with Obama because a member of his family looks like them--and, if you think about it, that's not terribly transcendent.
This is really not a complicated concept to grasp about the frontrunner for the Presidency, but since we've all been indoctrinated to be childishly simple-minded about race, very few get it.
It is Obama's biography, we are told, that will govern his behavior. He was raised by a mother who supposedly didn't see color, so he doesn't see color. He was born into tolerance and multi-racial understanding, so he will practice tolerance and multi-racial understanding. Except, that is, when it's not useful to him.
Which brings me to South Carolina, where I was born and raised. I was there before and during the primary. Recall the moment. Obama was gaining on Clinton--but had also just lost New Hampshire and Nevada. A loss in South Carolina, and he would have been done for.
It's worth remembering that the majority of blacks still think O.J. Simpson is innocent. And, in times like these, when a black man is out front in the public eye, black people feel both proud and vulnerable and, as a result, scour the earth for evidence of racists plotting to bring him down, like an advance team ready to sound an alarm. Barack needed only a gesture, a quick sneer or nod in the direction of the Clintons' hidden racism to avail himself of the twisted love that rescued O.J. and others like him and to smooth his path to victory, and, therefore, to salvage his candidacy. After Donna Brazile and James Clyburn started to cry racism, Barack was repeatedly asked his thoughts. He declined to answer, allowing the charge to grow for days (in sharp contrast to how he leapt to Joe Biden's defense a month earlier). But, while he remained silent about the allegations of racism, he gave speeches across South Carolina that warned against being "hoodwinked" and "bamboozled" by the Clintons. His use of the phrase is resonant. It comes from a scene in Malcolm X, where Denzel Washington warns black people about the hidden evils of "the White Man" masquerading as a smiling politician: "Every election year, these politicians are sent up here to pacify us," he says. "You've been hoodwinked. Bamboozled."
By uttering this famous phrase, Obama told his black audience everything it needed to know. He was helping to convince blacks that the first two-term Democratic president in 50 years, a man referred to as the first black president, is in fact a secret racist. As soon as I heard that Obama had quoted from Malcolm X like this, I knew that Obama would win South Carolina by a massive margin. ...
As the son of a Baptist minister, I can attest that Wright is and was an extreme aberration from how the overwhelming majority of black Christians worship. In church, black people hear about Peter, Paul, Mary, and how to get into heaven. How to forgive. How to love. Not how to vote.
Well ... you don't have to fully believe that to realize that Rev. Wright is to the left of the black church mainstream.
But here was Barack suggesting that Wright's behavior was commonplace in black churches: "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community." He generalized Wright's ridiculousness to distract from his individual choice to worship under a buffoon for two decades. I have a cousin who attended Wright's church for three weeks and then left, never to return. She had no interest in hearing his nonsense from the pulpit.
Barack obscured the true nature of black religious life because, to do otherwise, he would have had to answer the question, "Why are you a member of a church that is this racially divisive and such a sharp aberration to how the rest of black people worship?" When Barack beautifully suggested that the beliefs pronounced from the pulpit of Trinity in Chicago are not uncommon, he was feeding us garbage. But Barack needed to protect his reputation as a race-healer and unifier, so he told a lie about black religious life to help keep the glow of his own reputation alive. And now the evidence suggests that Barack didn't, in the end, break with Wright over his outrageous racial claims, but over his suggestion that Barack is just a politician.
That so many people have a stake in ignoring these real concerns is troubling. At least the Hillary supporters I know seem to be aware of her more unsavory traits: that she carries a knife with her that she could pull out at any minute. Not so with Obama's fans. It's nearly impossible to get them to admit any wrong in him. Given the choice, I prefer to side with the group that knows their candidate can be a jerk, rather than the group that believes their candidate is Jesus.
Cinque Henderson is a TV writer, working on a book about Abraham Lincoln.
"The enterprise was a huge international success, with its kosher meats exported even to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The Jewish population grew to 150, and they were rich. The town was saved, and the people were grateful. All's well that ends well? Not quite. The Hasidim kept to themselves, did things their own way, and basically had no interest in integrating into Postville. And why would they? Their laws are strict, their mission clear, their community defined by race and religion. They are not interested in watermelon socials or coffee klatches at the diner. Their little boys do not swim with their little girls, are not educated together, and do not go on play dates with goyim. Small-town Iowans, on the other hand, are very friendly. They know each other's news, they support each other's businesses, they wish each other Merry Christmas, they want you to feel at home. They don't like that the new townspeople stomp up the street hunched over, talking in a foreign language and looking straight through them when greeted. They really don't like it when one of the newcomers drives around town with a 10-foot candelabra strapped to his car playing music at full volume for eight consecutive winter nights."
The point is not to pick on the business practices of ultra-Orthodox Jews. The bigger issue is that this kind of in-group morality is not at all restricted to Lubavitchers. In-group morality and sharp elbowed business practices are the norm among mercantile minorities across large swathes of the world, the great majority of them non-Jewish. (In fact, many are notoriously anti-Semitic.)
It's the nature of low trust societies: you have the peasants and you have the business people, and never the twain shall marry. An American-style society where it's not surprising when a farm boy like Henry Ford or Philo Farnsworth goes on to big things is a rarity in this world. (Here's Tom Wolfe on Robert Noyce of Intel, co-inventor of the silicon chip, who grew up in Grinnell, Iowa, a small town much like Postville -- except now it has an extremely rich college, due to getting in early on the companies started by Noyce and another Midwestern boy named Warren Buffett.)
Not surprisingly, lots of mercantile minorities want to emigrate to the rich pickings in America. What's in it for Americans is less clear.
There has been a giant immigration raid in Postville, Iowa, a town that has been taken over by a Hasidic Jewish sect, the Lubavitchers, and the third world illegal workers from Mexico and Eastern Europe that they have imported to work at their meat processing plant and are dumping on the community:
There is so much more to the story easily available on the internet. Rabbi Rubaskin, Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the Lubavitchers, Federal Prison, arson in Pennsylvania (see Failed Messiah, below), Secret PETA video tapes, fraudulent kashering, attempted bribery of the police, non-assimilation in America, self-isolation of Jews, Man! The story has everything. Read reviews of Stephen Bloom's book, "Postville: A Clash of Cultures in the Heartland" in which he challenges the melting pot ideology of the open borders crowd.
Failed Messiah a Jewish blogger, has blog entry after blog entry on the crookedness of the Rubashkin family and how they screw the gentiles and the Jews, including articles on Federal prison time for defrauding their gentile workers:
Here is a two-year-old article from the Jewish Daily Forward on the exploitation of third-world workers:
This is a "clean" interview with Stephen Bloom on his book about Postville and the Lubavitcher invasion:
This is Luke Ford's long unexpurgated interview with Stephen Bloom. Positively scathing and well worth a read.
Here is a bogus suckup article by the Jewish womens group called "Hadassah" on the wonderful diversity and multiculturalism of Postville:
Hallmark did a ditzy show called "The Way Home: Stories of Forgiveness" about the (nonexistent) touching reconciliation of the Postville locals and the third world illegals and Lubavitchers that took over ... It was narrated by Glen Close." In Postville, Iowa, residents were forced to reevaluate their way of life after the local meat packing plant closed, only to be reopened by Hasidic Jews from Brooklyn, N.Y. The Hasidic Jews' value of a tight-knit community seemed to clash with the openness of many in Postville. The town's story continued when workers from Mexico and Eastern Europe flocked to Postville to take advantage of the plant's ample job opportunities, and residents faced further challenges embracing diversity. Gradually the communities came to understand and respect each other's differences."
But the Rubashkins who run the Postville facility [aren't so nice] to their fellow Jews as well. Brutal animal slaughter is a way of life at the Lubavitcher Jewish plant in Postville. It is so nasty (ripping the tracheas out of cows) that many Jews won't even eat the food because it is a violation of Jewis shechita (ritual slaughter rules). The slaughter is so brutal that [the famous high-functioning autistic animal sciences professor] Temple Grandin (her fascinating life story is worth a read, too!) condemned the practices several years ago when shown the PETA tape. [She's a leading designer of animal slaughter yards.]
This is what Stephen Bloom, the author of Postville (see the Luke Ford review above) has to say about the feel-good sales pitch of happy-diversity that Hallmark and the Jewish media are pimping:
"The [Hallmark] video is an embarrassment. It's contrived. It's an audio-visual Hallmark card. It's cheery, upbeat, positive.
"Ever since Postville has come out, I've been interested in what the Japanese call Wa -- how Japanese society is run. It means harmony. In Japan, Wa is very important. It's rare in Japan for a vote in a corporation or the parliament that is not unanimous. All the differences are aired in private. By the time the public is clued in, everyone is on board, even the most vociferous critics.
"It's most important to live in a harmonious society where disagreement is eliminated. In America, journalism is generally opposed to the Wa. We journalists look at issues and we don't say, 'George Bush is doing a great job.' That is not a news story. We say, 'George Bush is screwing up big time.'
"There seems to be a tremendous attempt by the Jewish community, as prompted by the Hadassah piece, JTA, Forward, and this Hallmark presentation, to say that two different communities can flourish in America today. Postville is an example of that. There's a tremendous sense that readers and viewers need to come away with a feel good response. 'That stuff that Stephen Bloom did is water under the bridge. That was a long time ago. That was terrible. But now there's been forgiveness, reconciliation and harmony.' That's what the [Hallmark] show is all about.
"They make up a story line that when the Gentile head of the slaughter house, Donald Hunt, who's in my book, I call him a Caesar Romero lookalike, died about a year ago. His death brought together the distinct factions in Postville and began to heal the wounds. There's footage of Hunt's funeral and locals as well as Lubavitchers at the funeral. They use that as a point of entry for establishing a premise that things are going along just great.
"The people I talk to in Postville say things are not going along great.
"This latest skirmish is the slaughter house dumping some 30 tons of salt a week into the aquifers of ground water... There seems to be a journalistic mandate to remind everyone that Postville has reached Wa status. That's not what journalists do. Journalists are supposed to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.
May 14, 2008
The American Dream Love Story: Barack Obama's mom was 17 when Barack Sr., a 24-year-old married man, knocked her up
Here's the beginning of that famous speech, following a few introductory formalities:
With that, he tapped into a load of powerful sentimental fantasies rampant in America today, many of them contradictory, but all of them self-congratulatory about how this could only happen in America! For example, Harold Meyerson claims today in the Washington Post:
Tonight is a particular honor for me because - let's face it - my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely. My father was a foreign student, born and raised in a small village in Kenya. He grew up herding goats, went to school in a tin-roof shack. His father - my grandfather - was a cook, a domestic servant to the British.
But my grandfather had larger dreams for his son. Through hard work and perseverance my father got a scholarship to study in a magical place, America, that shone as a beacon of freedom and opportunity to so many who had come before.
While studying here, my father met my mother. She was born in a town on the other side of the world, in Kansas. Her father worked on oil rigs and farms through most of the Depression. The day after Pearl Harbor my grandfather signed up for duty; joined Patton's army, marched across Europe. Back home, my grandmother raised their baby and went to work on a bomber assembly line. After the war, they studied on the G.I. Bill, bought a house through FHA, and later moved west all the way to Hawaii in search of opportunity.
And they, too, had big dreams for their daughter. A common dream, born of two continents.
My parents shared not only an improbable love, they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation. They would give me an African name, Barack, or "blessed," believing that in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success. They imagined me going to the best schools in the land, even though they weren't rich, because in a generous America you don't have to be rich to achieve your potential.
They are both passed away now. And yet, I know that, on this night, they look down on me with great pride.
I stand here today, grateful for the diversity of my heritage, aware that my parents' dreams live on in my two precious daughters. I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible.
"Now, I mean to take nothing away from McCain's Americanness by noting that it's Obama's story that represents a triumph of specifically American identity over racial and religious identity. It was the lure of America, the shining city on a hill, that brought his black Kenyan father here, where he met Obama's white Kansan mother. It is because America is uniquely the land of immigrants..."
Where to begin? First, Barack Obama Sr. was not an immigrant and didn't conceive of himself as one -- he was a foreign student, who acquired a bachelor's and master's degree in the U.S. in order to immediately return to Kenya and grab for the brass ring of political power as a Big Man.
There was nothing uniquely American about providing scholarships to Kenyans. Barack Obama Jr.'s kinsman and sometimes political ally, Raila Odinga, Luo warlord and Kenya's new Prime Minister, got his degree in communist East Germany at about the same time.
And, for the love of God, Obama Jr. wrote a 442 page book about his pursuit of a racial identity (black); there's not a word about him pursuing a non-racial "specifically American identity." The subtitle of his autobiography is "A Story of Race and Inheritance," and he ain't kidding about that.
But, let's leave aside Meyerson's irrelevant obsession with romanticizing immigration and examine the warm romantic glow that surrounds this and so many other accounts of Obama's parents' relationship. When examined carefully, their affair turns out to be a sordid one, with disastrous long-term consequences. That's hardly uncommon, but what is uncommon is successfully positioning your parents' squalid, catastrophic relationship as a major reason for electing you President!
Let me ask a question that I haven't seen asked before:
How old was Ann Dunham when Barack Obama Sr., an already married 24-year-old, impregnated her?Barack Obama Jr. tells us that he weighed eight pounds, two ounces when he was born on August 4, 1961 (p. 22 of Dreams from My Father), so we can assume he went close to full term, or nine months.
His parents' bigamous marriage is said to have taken place six months before his birth on 2/2/1961, when she'd be about starting to show.
Nine months before Obama's birth would be early November 1960, about three to four weeks before Ann Dunham's 18th birthday on November 29, 1960.
So, Barack Sr., a married man of about 24 (he was born in 1936), almost certainly impregnated a 17-year-old girl.
Recall how the big scandal discovered in the raid on the Fundamentalist Mormon town in Texas was all the girls ages 13-17 who were pregnant by polygamous older men? So, the much admired All-American love of Obama's parents turns out to be basically the same as the FLDS scandal -- underage pregnant girl, older man, and polygamy -- just done freelance-style.
Barack Sr. then bigamously married Ann, then soon abandoned her and her tiny son because the scholarship offer from the New School of Social Research that would have paid for the whole family to move to New York City wasn't as prestigious as the scholarship offer to Harvard that paid just his own living expenses.
The candidate's father then married another American woman bigamously, took her back to Kenya, but carried on polygamously with his original Kenyan wife, until wife #3 divorced him. There was another kid by a fourth woman. Somewhere along the line he killed a man in a drunk driving incident, then got himself killed in another.
Meanwhile, the candidate's mother married an Indonesian guy who tried to bring home the bacon for her and another man's kid, but she got tired of the poor sap, had a baby with him anyway, then abandoned him, but then lived most of the rest of her life in Indonesia ...
It's the American Dream!
|Ann Dunham Dates||Date||Her Age||Barack Sr. Age|
|Conceived Barack Jr. (approx)||11/3/1960||17.93||24|
|Barack Jr.'s birthweight||8.125|
You don't hear his name mentioned much anymore, but it just occurred to me that George W. Bush is still President of the United States. In fact, he will be president for another eight months and a week.
Yet, if he was looking for something to do, I've got an idea for him. Obviously, he can't do anything domestically with Congress in the hands of the Democrats. So, that leaves foreign policy. But he doesn't have any more troops to play with, so it would be hard for him to start any more major wars.
I see in the news today that Cuba's forward-looking elderly Sibling-in-Chief Raul Castro is trying to bring the Worker's Paradise up into the later 1970s:
And a week or two ago, Raul allowed the first PCs to be sold in Cuba! It can't be long now until Betamax VCRs are in all the Havana shops.
Cuba's Communist government has allowed microwave ovens to go on sale to the general public for the first time ever.
Anxious Cubans gathered at an electronics store in Havana to purchase a microwave.
Few in Cuba can afford to buy a PC or microwave, however, because Cuba is poor. The CIA World Factbook says the Purchasing Power Parity per capita income is $4,500. In cash terms, Cubans are much, much poorer than even that -- the State Dept. says the average monthly salary is $16! (The majority, however, get some hard currency from relatives in America.)
Therefore, how about Bush trying to bring a little peace and prosperity, Nixon goes to China-style, by trying to negotiate an end to America's half-century conflict with Cuba?
There's a lot of money to be made by both Americans and Cubans if Bush could work out an end to the American embargo in return for opening up the Cuban economy.
Let's just use Cuba's per capita GDP PPP number of $4,500. The Cuban per capita income is less than half of the Dominican Republic's $9,200. (For comparison, Cuba is about an order of magnitude below the U.S. GDP per capita).
Back before the Castro Bros., Cuba was wealthier than the Dominican Republic.
So, it's reasonable to imagine that Cuba, which is a fairly well-educated country, could catch up to the Dominican Republic in not that many years if Cuba now followed the Chinese path and de-Communized. It has a population of 11.5 million, which means that a lot of money could be made bringing the place up to the 21st Century.
It's easy to catch up economically if you haven't been allowed to buy any new technology for the last few decades. Think how much of productivity gains you can get just from microwave ovens. And in March, Raul announced that ordinary Cubans would be allowed to buy cell phones for the first time. Typically, cell phones do more economically for Third World countries than any other piece of technology.
Cuba has three times as much coastline ( 3,735 km, or about 2100 miles) as the Dominican Republic. It's a long skinny country with a lot of beaches. And it's closer to the U.S., barely half as far from the big airline hub in Atlanta as the DR. I imagine American hotel companies have contingency plans locked away for turning Cuba into a tourist paradise. And cruise ship companies would love to make the Miami-Havana run.
If Cuba caught up economically to the Dominican Republic, which is about 10-15% smaller in population, it could buy a fair amount of stuff from the U.S. The D.R. buys 46% of its $13 billion in total imports from the U.S. each year. That's not big money, but it adds up over the years.
How could Bush get started? The first public hint of the Nixon-Kissinger-Chou opening was the "ping-pong diplomacy" of 1971. What would be more natural than for Bush, a former baseball team co-owner, to start Baseball Diplomacy with Cuba, a font of baseball talent not allowed to play in America?
There are currently 88 Dominicans in the major leagues (plus far more in the minors). The average major league salary is approaching $3 million, so that's a quarter of a billion dollars paid annually to Dominican major leaguers.
Cuba only has $3.2 billion in annual exports at present, so if Cuban big leaguers could make, say, $200 million per year in salary, that alone could boost national exports by 6%. So, if Bush offered to broker a deal with his old baseball owner colleagues, I suspect Raul would be very tempted.
From there, a more general settlement that would let American businesses into Cuba might be negotiable.
A baseball player deal could set a useful precedent for a sticky problem. The Communists presumably don't want all their talented people, such as their doctors, racing off to America for big salaries as soon as totalitarianism is lifted, but before the economy starts to get into gear. The Cuban government's view will be that they paid to train the baseball players and doctors, so they are entitled to a cut. And America doesn't need a new huge immigrant influx into Florida. (The special "Ollie Ollie Home Free" treatment of Cuban immigrants as refuges would have to be changed once Cuba opens up.)
This is similar to the Japanese baseball league's view that they don't want all their players dashing off to higher pay in America without them getting a cut. So, Major League Baseball has agreed to a "posting system" with a Japanese league where an American team pays the Japanese team to let a player out of his contract so he can come to America. For example, the Boston Red Sox paid $51 million to the Japanese team that held Daisuke Matsuzaka's contract. The Red Sox also had to negotiate his salary with the pitcher himself, with him getting a six year contract totaling $52 million (plus incentives). So, the star and his Japanese team basically split his value on the American market 50-50.
So, it might make sense for the U.S. to recognize the Cuban government as having legal employment contracts for some number of years into the future with skilled Cubans. Thus, the U.S. firms would have to pay Cuba for hiring its doctors and other skilled workers. This would reduce the rush to the exits that could otherwise leave Cuba even more economically prostrate than it is now.
The bottom line is that the current situation in Cuba is ridiculous. Somebody is eventually going to make a lot of money fixing it, and Americans might as well get in on the action.
May 13, 2008
I'm a fan of ultra-ambitious History of Everything books that try to explain the whole world in terms of the author's pet ideas, such as Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, Michael H. Hart's Understanding Human History, and Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms.
So, I was surprised to stumble upon one such book that I'd never heard of: Raymond D. Crotty's When Histories Collide: The Development and Impact of Individualistic Capitalism. The lesson appears to be: don't die before your book tour. Crotty died in 1994 with the manuscript unfinished, and it took his son until 2001 to get it published. It was barely reviewed anywhere and doesn't appear to have been released in the U.S.
Still, the fragments that are available through Google Books are thought provoking, to say the least. Crotty presents in the early chapters what could be called a lactose tolerance theory of why capitalism arose in Europe.
Is he correct? Beats me, but from what little I've seen of the book, it stands comparison to Jared Diamond's huge bestseller.
Crotty was an Irish farmer in the 1940s and 1950s, who then became an economist. He's best known in the Republic of Ireland for having filed a landmark lawsuit as a private citizen protesting the Irish legislature's assumption that it could vote to join and further give up sovereignty to the EU without referendums. The Irish supreme court agreed with Crotty's case, and ordered that referendums be held on EU treaties.
As a historical theorist, Crotty resembles Victor Davis Hanson, whose experience as a warm-weather farmer in California gave him important insights into the development of warfare among Ancient Greek farmer-soldiers. Crotty's similar troubles making a living as a cool weather farmer in Europe gave him insight into the development of Northwestern Europe's unique historical accomplishments. After all, most people down through history have been farmers, but not many recent books have been written by farmers.
As an economist, Crotty's experience as a farmer made him a fan of Henry George, the late 19th century American economist whom contemporary economists seem to assume has been decisively refuted, but nobody can ever remember just how George was debunked. Crotty tried to bring capital intensive farming to rural Ireland, but he never seemed to make any more money, despite working twice as hard, as his neighbors, who just let some cows graze on the fields while they saved their money to buy more land. To "encourage agriculture," the Irish government taxed everything except land. So, as Henry George would have pointed out, it didn't pay to invest in your land. It just paid to buy more of it. And, as real estate salesmen point out, they ain't making anymore land, so aligning all the incentives to encourage buying land didn't create more of it, it just meant the Irish economy stagnated decade after decade.
She doesn't mean much to me personally, but, objectively, Meryl Streep is one impressive person:
"Where did the years go?"
Middle-age people often ask that plaintive question as time seems to accelerate, the days blur together, and children grow up in a flash.
But it's not a question 42-year-old Jill Price ever asks, because she can recall in vivid detail every day of her life since age 14, and many earlier days, too.
'The Woman Who Can't Forget' (Free Press), her new book with writer Bart Davis, tells the story of the first person ever confirmed by scientists to have such a superior autobiographical memory. She was studied by memory experts at University of California-Irvine for six years before they reported the feats of "AJ" in an esoteric professional journal in 2006.
Now "AJ" has decided to reveal her identity. She lives in suburban Los Angeles and works as the administrator of a religious school. ...
Two other "bona fides" came forward after the journal report in Neurocase, says James McGaugh, the neuroscientist contacted by Price eight years ago because she was bewildered and tormented by her non-stop barrage of memories.
McGaugh, with colleagues Elizabeth Parker and Larry Cahill, gave Price a battery of memory and cognitive tests. She'd kept a diary from ages 10 to 34, so the researchers could verify Price's recollections with pages randomly selected from 1,460 diary days, he says.
But that wasn't all. You could give her a date, "and within seconds she'd tell you what day of the week it was, not only what she did but other key events of the day," McGaugh says. Aug. 16, 1977? A Tuesday, Elvis died. May 18, 1980? A Sunday, when Mount St. Helens erupted. She also quickly could come up with the day and date of noted events: the start of the Gulf War, Rodney King's beating, Princess Diana's death (Aug. 30 or 31, 1997, depending on France or U.S. time, she told McGaugh).
I probably could have placed Elvis, Mount St. Helens, and Princess Di within two days. Those aren't so tough. I've always found dates pretty easy to remember because they fit into long chains of cause and effect, so they aren't very arbitrary.
One possible clue to Price's condition is that she scored poorly on abstract reasoning; it was hard to grasp concepts and see analogies.
"Most of us extract generalities. We get the gist of things, so we can navigate in similar situations," Levine says. "But if you have trouble seeing generalities, every instance becomes a unique instance, interesting in its own light."
It's like focusing extra-hard on individual trees but not seeing the forest. Because she's swamped with details, Price may find it easy to store and retrieve specific memories but hard to see the bigger picture, he speculates.
This fits with what Jorge Luis Borges speculated in his famous 1942 short story "Funes the Memorious," a bittersweet story of a boy who remembers everything and can abstract nothing:
On the other hand:
He remembered the shapes of the clouds in the south at dawn on the 30th of April of 1882, and he could compare them in his recollection with the marbled grain in the design of a leather-bound book which he had seen only once, and with the lines in the spray which an oar raised in the Rio Negro on the eve of the battle of the Quebracho. …
The voice of Funes, out of the darkness, continued. He told me that toward 1886 he had devised a new system of enumeration and that in a very few days he had gone before twenty-four thousand. He had not written it down, for what he once meditated would not be erased. The first stimulus to his work, I believe, had been his discontent with the fact that "thirty-three Uruguayans" required two symbols and three words, rather than a single word and a single symbol. Later he applied his extravagant principle to the other numbers. In place of seven thousand thirteen, he would say (for example) Máximo Perez; in place of seven thousand fourteen, The Train; other numbers were Luis Melián Lafinur, Olimar, Brimstone, Clubs, The Whale, Gas, The Cauldron, Napoleon, Agustín de Vedia. In lieu of five hundred, he would say nine. Each word had a particular sign, a species of mark; the last were very complicated. . . . I attempted to explain that this rhapsody of unconnected terms was precisely the contrary of a system of enumeration. I said that to say three hundred and sixty-five was to say three hundreds, six tens, five units: an analysis which does not exist in such numbers as The Negro Timoteo or The Flesh Blanket. Funes did not understand me, or did not wish to understand me. …
He was, let us not forget, almost incapable of general, platonic ideas. It was not only difficult for him to understand that the generic term dog embraced so many unlike specimens of differing sizes and different forms; he was disturbed by the fact that a dog at three-fourteen (seen in profile) should have the same name as the dog at three-fifteen (seen from the front). …
Without effort, he had learned English, French, Portuguese, Latin. I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes there were nothing but details, almost contiguous details.
But one of the other two subjects, Brad Williams, 51, of La Crosse, Wis., skipped a grade in elementary school and won his state's spelling bee. Williams hasn't had the thorough neuropsychological testing yet that Price had, so his abstract and rote memorizing abilities aren't known, but he says school never gave him any trouble.
A radio reporter for WIZM-AM in La Crosse, Williams got intensive testing for autobiographical memories in 2006 by McGaugh's team and was found to be in the same league as Price. But he's different from her in many ways.
"The memories surface on their own, but I also can submerge them," he says.
While Price says her memories control her, and they tilt toward the negative, "it's no big deal in my life, and bad memories don't come up very often," Williams says.
Conversations with Price and Williams are like experiencing day and night. Her recollections are suffused with sorrow; he's an inveterate wise-cracker who views the world through a light prism. In addition to his radio job, Williams performs with an improv comedy group. He says he has had super-detailed life memories "for as long as I can remember" and thinks it helps with reporting.
By the way, if you haven't read a Borges story, "Funes" is as good as any. They resemble what science-fiction would be like if it was written by philosophers instead of engineers. They're quite repetitious, so you don't need to read more than the best 10 or 12.
May 12, 2008
Back during the Clinton impeachment, when blacks loved the Clintons and hated Barr for helping get Bill impeached, black radio talk shows would be flooded with calls saying things like, "Barr is passing. My cousin told me he's his cousin's cousin." And if that's not proof, I don't know what is.
Barr must be kicking himself now over the fact that he didn't hop on this whole mixed race = racial reconciliator shtick decades ago instead of just positioning himself as another boring white guy.
From Scientific American's May issue:
Deep within our subconscious, all of us harbor biases that we consciously abhor. And the worst part is: we act on them
By Siri Carpenter
"There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life,” Jesse Jackson once told an audience, “than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery—then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”
Jackson’s remark illustrates a basic fact of our social existence, one that even a committed black civil-rights leader cannot escape: ideas that we may not endorse—for example, that a black stranger might harm us but a white one probably would not—can nonetheless lodge themselves in our minds and, without our permission or awareness, color our perceptions, expectations and judgments.
Using a variety of sophisticated methods, psychologists have established that people unwittingly hold an astounding assortment of stereotypical beliefs and attitudes about social groups: black and white, female and male, elderly and young, gay and straight, fat and thin. Although these implicit biases inhabit us all, we vary in the particulars, depending on our own group membership, our conscious desire to avoid bias and the contours of our everyday environments. For instance, about two thirds of whites have an implicit preference for whites over blacks, whereas blacks show no average preference for one race over the other.
Such bias is far more prevalent than the more overt, or explicit, prejudice that we associate with, say, the Ku Klux Klan or the Nazis.
Two distinguished anthropologists, Henry Harpending and John Tooby, squared off, in effect, over the human biodiversity perspective versus the evolutionary psychology perspective, which assumes a relatively uniform human nature, marked mostly by sex differences.
Allow me to wax philosophical:
So who is right? Is the human race uniform or diverse?
Well, they're both right. It all depends upon what you're interested in at the moment.
That's usually how it goes—the things that interest us the most, that get us the most worked up, are those that are on the knife edge, that look different when viewed from different angles.
Let's consider a similar question that's remote enough that we can think about it without political biases getting in the way: Is the universe empty or full?
- And yet, outer space is also famously full of "billions and billions" of stars, as Johnny Carson used to say when parodying astronomer Carl Sagan. In fact, there are a lot more than billions and billions. In 2003, a team of Australian astronomers estimated that there are 70 sextillion stars in the known universe. That's 70,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars.
Now, it's perfectly reasonable to conceive of the universe both ways, depending upon what you need to think about at the time. The incredible emptiness of space is terribly important to understand if you are, say, contemplating an interstellar voyage. Nevertheless, to be frank, once you grasp that fact, it gets kind of boring to think about. So, astronomers spend more time thinking about the tiny fraction of space that isn't empty, those 70 sextillion stars.
Well, that's not a very big number. Granted, 0.001 is not as tiny as 0.00000000000000000000000000001, but it's rather small.
Yet, Wikipedia goes on to say, "However, with a genome of approximate 3 billion nucleotides, on average two humans differ at approximately 3 million nucleotides."
Well, three million is a pretty big number. (It's not as big as 70 sextillion, but still …)
So, now we can see why, no matter what Steven Pinker said in 1994 about how boring are differences between individuals, the differences between, say, the African-American 7'-1" basketball player Shaquille O'Neal and the Lebanese-Colombian 5'-1" singer Shakira can be pretty interesting.
Of course, probably they would not at all be very different at all compared to space aliens possibly living on a planet going around one of those 70 sextillion stars.
And if those aliens showed up in hostile flying saucers to conquer the human race, no doubt Shaq and Shakira and everybody else would team up to fight them off. Ronald Reagan said exactly this to the United Nations back in 1987:
"I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world."[Address to the 42d Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, New York]
But, we're not facing space aliens. So the differences between humans are interesting—and important.
When it comes to thinking about race,—which is all about who your relatives are—it’s all, well, relative.
May 11, 2008
On Mother's Day, it's hard to get a brunch reservation; and on Father's Day, it's hard to get a tee time. So, just switch days and celebrate Father's Day in May and Mother's Day in June.
Interestingly, doing that violates Kant's Categorical Imperative, which is a sort of Teutonic philosopher's version of the Golden Rule ("Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law"). Yet, if everybody switched months, then we'd be right back where we started. But if you switch, then you're a lot better off and everybody else is a tiny bit better off.
The art forger Eric Hebborn, who was murdered in Rome in 1996, is a rather interesting figure whom the art world has tried to forget. From the article "The Art of the Master Forger" in Quadrant by philosopher David S. Oderberg:
His introduction to the forger's art began around this time, at the premises of a mysterious Mr Aczel in London (though he is possibly a composite character). George Aczel, Picture Restorer to the Trade, had a thriving business "touching up" paintings belonging to the well heeled, and trained RA students in his workshop. At first the training was fairly standard -- filling in damaged bits of the canvas with suitably similar colours, repairing cracks, and so on. The objective was "to make the mend invisible". The students progressed to mixing all kinds of complex combinations of paint and handling more "delicate" repairs. Aczel noticed Eric's proficiency at "painting-in large areas of missing colour in the style of the original artist", and so passed more "large-scale" work on to him: "Thus it was that under Mr Aczel's guidance I began, little by little, to develop my abilities and improve my knowledge of the materials and methods of the Old Masters until I would one day be able to `restore' a whole painting -- from nothing at all."
At this point Eric comments:
The borderline between what is restoration and what is simply repainting is not always clear. Nor should it be thought that old pictures are necessarily spoiled by modern alteration. This attitude arises from a scientific approach devoid of any aesthetic judgment. Would we return the Sistine Chapel to what it was before Michelangelo exchanged the Perugino frescos for his own? Well, no, but it would be nice to have the Peruginos as well. Would we remove the retouching with which Rubens was in the habit of improving his collection of mediocre Old Masters? No. The truth is that age in itself is obviously no guarantee of quality, and many old pictures are bad old pictures, some so bad it would be difficult to make them worse.
Hebborn soon discovered what Mr Aczel already knew, that:[p]ictures that are unsaleable are bad business; and by some warped kind of logic become bad art. Nobody wants bad art, so dealers have it "improved" and that was how Mr Aczel made most of his money. Should a painting be unsaleable because it represented an ugly woman, the ugly woman would become a pretty young girl. If it represented a saleable young man contemplating an unsaleable skull, the offending skull was changed into a brimming glass of wine, or some other object with commercially viable associations. A cat added to the foreground guaranteed the sale of the dullest landscape. Dogs and horses enlivened otherwise unsaleable pastures. Balloons floated into commercially deficient skies at once became immensely important (that is, expensive) documents in the history of aviation. Popular signatures came and unpopular signatures went. Sullen-faced individuals left our easels wreathed in smiles. Poppies bloomed in dun-coloured fields. Unknown sitters transformed themselves into illustrious statesmen, generals, admirals, actors, actresses, musicians, and men of letters. So, like Gilbert's king whose heart was twice as good as gold, we "... to the top of every tree promoted everybody".
And here's a long, rather grim 2001 NY Times magazine article, "A Crisis of Fakes: The Getty Forgeries," about a long-drawn out brouhaha at the Getty Center museum in LA. The Getty is the world's best-endowed museum, and by law, it must spend 5% of its wealth each year, so it is the number one target of forgers, which has led to a number of scandals. In this one, a curator noticed that a half dozen Old Master drawings expensively purchased by his predecessors looked like original Hebborns, which eventually led to his firing and his lawsuit against the Getty. It's not that fun of an article, though, because there's not enough Hebborn in it.
The most famous forgery case was fought out right after WWII, when art dealer and portraitist Han van Meegeren was put on trial in the Netherlands for having collaborated with the Nazis for trading a national treasure, an early Vermeer, to Hermann Goering for 200 lesser Dutch paintings. Van Meegeren's defense was that he was a national hero because he'd painted the Vermeer himself. So, he proposed he paint another Vermeer, and he was ultimately convicted only of fraud and sentenced to a year in prison for the various "Vermeers" he'd sold to others.
The Goering painting is quite ugly. Van Meegeren justified this by claiming it was an early Vermeer, before he'd developed his exquisite mature style. Van Meegeren had succeeded in getting some of his work validated by the leading Vermeer scholar by making it fit the art historians' pet theory of the time: that the young Vermeer had traveled to Italy and studied Caravaggio's paintings and been influenced to paint large religious paintings, which might eventually turn up. So, van Meegeren painted pictures that looked like the hypothetical missing link pictures.
Philosopher Denis Dutton argues that forgeries of Old Masters look too much like the art of their own time to survive detection for long -- that one of van Meegeren's Vermeer faces looks like Greta Garbo. Of course, this assumes we've unmasked all the old forgeries, which is a big If.
There's been a theory for a long time that the 1911 theft from the Louvre of the Mona Lisa (which was recovered in 1913) was part of an elaborate conspiracy to pawn off forged copies of the Mona Lisa on American robber barons who would think they were buying the real thing. But, I can't find much confirmation for that cool idea.
You'll notice that the topic of art forgery is more interesting to philosophers than to art historians, who would prefer not to think about it. Philosophers like to ask questions like, "If this small sketch was so beautiful it was worth a million dollars when it was a Raphael, why isn't it worth anything now that it's a Hebborn?" Works of art are the modern equivalent of medieval saints' relics, the remnants left behind by secular saints. You are paying to own something that was touched by Raphael.