Tuesday, November 03, 2015

A Memory of Falling Once in Leaves

A memory of falling once in leaves
And then again in leaves and once more falling
Only again to rise, and risen run
That fall, to spring, and springing once be gone
'Til fall, and fall again and rising
'Til spring be
spring again, and once more rising
'Til fatal fall of dark and dinner time.

And gone away and gone again that falling
That leaving, leafing, budding and be gone
All gone, and now, but given once to die
And then to know, and shiver dark and evening
Given once to go, and no more rising.
Given once, and only once to go.

And God, if there be God, be that day with you;
And God, if there be God, be going too.

-- Stephen K. Roney

Keeping up with the Wilsons

The Wilsons, who formed the core of the Beach Boys, are a good example of a dysfunctional, abusive, family. Because they are famous, a lot of unfiltered data is available to us.

The second son, Dennis, despite all the money he had made, ended up alcoholic, homeless, and an apparent suicide at 39. The youngest, Carl, also had struggles with alcohol, and died at 52 of lung cancer. He had been a chain smoker since age 13. Brian, the surviving son, had a nervous breakdown in his early twenties, and became permanently schizo-affective, a severe form of “mental illness” that combines the worst features of depression, manic depression, and schizophrenia. All three were obviously suffering from what we would now call post-traumatic stress (PTSD) as a result of their upbringing.

You might say that rock stars often come to bad ends. True; it may also be true that they often come from such dysfunctional families. But here we have a control: the four early members of the group who were not Wilsons. Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, and David Marks all seem to have avoided any of the same nervous problems.

How do you drive three sons mad? Papa Murry Wilson gives us a bit of a tutorial, thanks to a surviving tape from the recording session for “Help Me Rhonda.” Brian Wilson seems to have deliberately kept the recording tape running as his father showed up and tried to take over the session. One can easily imagine why. He wanted a record for posterity.

The common claim about Murry is that he had a terrible temper. When he got mad, in Brian's words, you felt the devil was there. He once hit Brian with a 2x4, causing him loss of almost all hearing in one ear. This certainly cannot have been good for their peace of mind, but I doubt it was sufficient to cause the range of their suffering as adults. The terrible temper was symptomatic of something deeper: Murry Wilson say himself as the centre of the universe, and his sons as existing, like everyone else, for the benefit of Murry Wilson. As a result, he could be merciless when he was angry, and he used them to vent his anger regardless of their own actions.

This is what drives you mad, because you cannot avoid the rage. A merely stern parent is easy to live with in peace, simply by following the rules. No cause for any free-floating stress in that case.

Murry demonstrates the true problem in the recording tape. He has been invited to come down, he says, “relax,” and listen to them record. But this he cannot stand to do, because it leaves them, not him, the centre of attention. So he tries to take over the recording session, until he is finally taken up on his threat to leave. He is not smart enough to cover up his envy: at one point, he says, “I'm a genius too,” and then “Brian, forget who you are.” The sons are fairly obviously made to feel guilty for their very success: “your damned Capital records.” “Made enough money, buddy?” “So you're big stars...”

Brian is producing the record, and there are about twenty people working under him. Murry begins by attacking Brian directly: “Brian, you’re coming in shrill.” Brian's voice is too strong. Implicitly, Brians should shut up. That presumably slaps him down, publicly humiliating him. To Murry's mind, it must be clear to everyone present that he is the greater man.

Then he makes the rounds, slapping down everyone else in turn. We can’t hear Al, Al is not syncopating, we can’t hear Mike, we can’t hear Carl. Dennis is flat, Mike is flat, Carl has been “loafing for two hours.” That’s everyone; everyone is doing it wrong.

More importantly, for driving someone mad, note that Murry sets things up as a double bind, so that nobody actually has the option to do it right. Having systematically set everyone on edge and made them self-conscious, he then harangues them for not being relaxed enough. “Loosen up. You’re so tight, I can’t believe it.” “Happy, happy, happy.” He does everything he can to shake their confidence, then demands that they “sing with confidence.” He tells Jardine to sing the phrase, and then, as soon as Al starts singing, shouts “no” -- three times in a row. Stop means go; go means stop. He tells Mike to get in closer to the microphone, then tells him he’s too close to the microphone. He warns the boys to never sing for the money, and then says they must fight for their success.

Another prominent technique is to say highly critical-sounding things, ominous things, then pause, then soften them. This seems to be a subtle form of “gaslighting”--in its severe form, maintaining things that are plainly false, or saying or doing something, then later adamantly denying you ever said or did it. It is a way to maintain absolute control over someone, because once you get them to accept the basic premise that your word and will supercede their sense perceptions, there is no remaining check on your control over them. They are forced to depend on you for everything. It is known to be a common technique among sociopaths.

An example: “For the first time in my life …” (pause) “… Brian said come down, relax, so I did.” That makes no sense as spoken. The first words, spoken with emotion, are calculated to jangle the nerves, and set in memory like cement. Then the follow-up allows Murry deniability if challenged.

More examples: “Fellas, I have three thousand words to say…” (pause to wait for shoe to drop) and he says a few. Non sequitor. “We need help...” (pause). “…we need the honest projection that we used to have…” “You can’t compete…” (pause) “… with the brains that are trying to hurt you.” “I’ve protected you for 22 years, but I can’t go on …” (pause) “… if you’re not going to listen to an intelligent man.”

Does Murry know what he is doing? Plainly he does, for when Brian tries something that sounds vaguely similar, he explodes. Brian says, “Let me ask you this...” And before the pause has a chance to register, let alone the question be asked, Murry takes extreme umbrage: “that is an absolute insult.”

And, at this, he storms out of the studio, saying he will “never help you guys mix another song.”

There was no insult. Murry is pre-emptively gaslighting.

Note that, the better to manipulate, and the better to gaslight, Murry encourages an “us against the world” family solidarity. Everything outside the home is dangerous. So, when Brian formed the group, Murry insisted that all three brothers had to be in it, even though Dennis was not really interested. The other three original members were a cousin (on Murry’s side, of course) and two neighbours. Murry became the manager.

“I am protecting you,” he says here, “from many people who are trying to hurt you.” This, of course, preserves his autocratic role as the father. His sons remain his appendages and minions. It would be intolerable for them to move out on their own.

Notice, too, that Murry commonly affects to speak for others was well as himself--a standard bullying technique. He speaks for his wife, their mother, repeatedly, and once claims unsolicited solidarity with the sound technician.

As M. Scott Peck observes, it takes two bad parents to make an abusive family. The second parent must be prepared to enable the first, to allow him or her to speak for both of them, to back him or her up in the bullying sessions. Clearly, this was the case in the Wilson home. Mrs. Wilson, Audree, was an alcoholic. Murry could have his way so long as he kept her supplied.

This enables Murry to threaten the boys at will with the withdrawal of all parental love. Everything must go through him. He uses the implied threat here, when he begins a statement, apparently again non sequitor, “your mother loves you...” and then leaves it incomplete. He is the one who decides whether she loves them or not. 

According to those who knew the family, Murry bullied and persecuted Brian the most, then Dennis, and Carl the least. Why? Because Brian was the gifted one, a prodigy, his musical talent apparent from a very young age. He was bound to provoke envy for it. Dennis was the best-looking brother, and no doubt provoked envy on this score. He then proceeded to justify the abuse by becoming the “black sheep” of the family: a standard survival mechanism for the second (sometimes third) son in a dysfunctional family.

The most heart-breaking thing about the clip is seeing how much the boys still love their father. Murry threatens early on to leave the recording session. This would probably be the best solution for everyone but Murry. Yet Brian's immediate reaction is to ask him to stay. It takes quite a bit before Brian finally loses his temper.

It's a wise child who knows his own father. It is hard-wired into all of us to love and to look up to our parents. And to believe that, deep down ,they love us. 

Monday, November 02, 2015

The CNBC Peacock Shoot

Maybe he can get a job with the Trilateral Commission, establishing the New World Order? Maybe he can be president of Skull and Bones? Maybe he can run his own Fantasy Football team?

Until now, due to health problems, I have missed commenting on the recent CNBC Republican debate. Apparently, they went on without me. Unfortunately, at this late date, I have little to add to what others have said. Darn.

Partly, this is because the results of this debate were uncommonly plain and clear cut. This one was historic. This is the sort of debate that everyone remembers for many years to come.

Usually, when this happens, this is because somebody blew up their candidacy in front of the cameras.

Yes, it was a disaster for Jeb Bush. I doubt he recovers, in this campaign or the next. His attack on Rubio was obvious old-style hack politics, which nobody is ready to tolerate any more, and Rubio described it accurately as just that, on the off-chance anyone had missed the point. Worse, because he was repeating a charge just made by the moderators, it looked as though Bush was of the moderators' party. Given that the bigger story of the night was the bias and incompetence of the moderators, this was disastrous. Then Bush managed to reinforce the impression of being in cahoots with the moderators (was he?) by agreeing with them on their silly and trivial fantasy football question. It even looked as though it was planted for him as a soft pitch. Christie then crushed both of them on it.

I'm sorry. I actually like Bush. It's over.

The other big story—indeed, the bigger and more historic--was, as mentioned, the moderators. It was not just that they were biased, but that they injected themselves into the story, interrupting and arguing with the candidates. That was sheer ego; they cannot have believed it was proper. The moderators behaved with visible arrogance and contempt, so obvious that the audience booed them. In the meantime, craving the job of political candidate, they had not done their own job, so that when Trump denied saying something, Becky Quick had no idea of her own source. And—invincible sense of privilege—she immediately decided it was Trump's responsibility to tell her where she read it. Their questions were juvenile and unimaginative. It's not as if they ran out of ideas; they never had any. The very first question was embarrassingly puerile and obvious: as they said themselves, it was a cliché from every job interview ever. How was that helpful to anyone? Many of them were the same questions asked at previous debates, thus wasting everyone's time. Or they were about fantasy football—as if they were just the first thoughts that came into fundamentally frivolous heads.

Lastly, and worstly, the moderators were caught several times lying. Moderators, not candidates. That's really gratuitous, isn't it? John Harwood made claims against Marco Rubio's tax plan that he had previously made in a column, and which he had already beeen required to retract. So he knew he was lying when he made them again, and then he lied again by denying he had retracted. At the end, when Trump took credit for negotiating the time for the debate down to two hours, Harwood interjected to insist “for the record” that it had always been planned for two hours. Another lie, and all of us who had been following the news knew it was a lie. Among other things, such lies show contempt for the viewing public.

We learned just how bad mainstream journalism has become. These, after all, are people who have reached the top of that profession. That means the entire barrell is rotten. My guess is that from now on, it will be axiomatic that journalism as we know it is a problem that needs to be fixed. Or removed from the process.

Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina, who had dominated previous debates, did not dominate this time. I do not think this was their fault. This too was due to the moderators, who asked them mostly the same questions they had been asked before. Given that everyone got only three questions, this gave them no opportunity to say anything new, and so froze them out of the debate. Nice going, moderators.

Rubio was the biggest winner by clearly besting Bush, his main rival for the support of the party establishment. Cruz got the single best moment and sound bite, in being the first to clearly call out the moderators, and in calling them out in a masterful way. Implicitly, he made himself the chief spokesperson for all the candidates, modelling a leadership role. Christie, Kasich, and Huckabee all were impressively articulate and appealing. Carson, I think, probably did himself a favour by admitting that he had changed his views, and was simply wrong in the past. That helps his image as an honest man, not a dishonest politician. Even Paul came across as more sensible and less doctrinaire this time. His pip stopped squeaking.

So, ironically, it was a good debate for most of the participants, despite all the failures of the moderators.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

One Flew East

Nurse Ratched.

Just out from four days in the hospital. During that time, I was under the care of a total of eight nurses. Five of them were wonderful. Two of them were incompetent. One of those two meant well, and was suffering only from inexperience. The other I suspect did not have nursing in her. She saw only things she had to do, not a human needing care. The fact of a human being there was clearly an annoyance.

And one of them was a sadist. A night nurse, of course.

I do not mean that humorously, and I do not mean it as hyperbole. It is simply an observation. Every little thing she was called to do, she did in such a way as to cause maximum inconvenience and, if possible, pain. She spoke only in one- or two-word commands. A couple of times, I felt it necessary to push her away physically. It was subtle, of course; she did not want to lose her job.

We should expect this. If you are a sadist, what profession is going to be most attractive? Maybe prison guard, if you're a man. But few other jobs give you a greater opportunity at gratuitous infliction of pain on the defenseless than nursing. I'm guessing one nurse in eight a sadist is quite a plausible proportion. It seems lower than the proportion of bullies among teachers.

But the bigger problem is that we have no apparent awareness of this issue. Nor do we have any structures in place to prevent it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

On the Night We Held the Moon for Ransom

I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the beach,... now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me. 

- Sir Isaac Newton

As we arose in bedroom clothes and toed along the beach
And casting out past dark and doubt, past stones in common reach
A net we threw of gold and dew returned us something rare
A thing long known, cold and alone, above--we thought--all care.

And homeward bound through hilltops crowned with silence and with snow
The way was high, the way was steep, the way was far to go;
And riding down through sundark town, the captive moon our guide,
I laughed until I could not laugh, and, sick from laughing, cried.

We called our feat from street to street, as lamp to lamp caught fire;
'Till some crank called out "Mountebank!" and others echoed, "liar!"
And casting off the swaddling cloth, to show old friend new prize--
We found the stone we'd found was only water and God's lies.

And all we knew we were, could be, or someday might become
Melted like that ice and left us naked in that sun;
And all we knew we were, had been, or someday still might be
Fell back and fell away, like foam, stone-broken, to the sea.

-- Stephen K. Roney

You Can Fool All of the People Some of the Time

Vote for me! Presents for everyone!

Politicians are prone to solemnly intone, especially after an election loss, that “the people are always right.”

This is of course a humbug. Unfortunately, some people believe it. It is the ad populam fallacy. The people possess no special wisdom; you should not ask someone standing on a street corner how to balance the federal budget, or which doctoral program to take. Taken together, all men are, on average, only of average intelligence.

Keeping it strictly with politics: Adolf Hitler was popularly elected. So were all those Jim Crow governors of the pre-civil rights US South.

This is not why we have democracy. It is for two reasons: first, because, smart or stupid, every man has the God-given right to manage his own affairs. When this is not directly possible, when there must be a government, it is only decent to regularly seek his consent. Second, democracy is an objective check on a government deciding for itself how good it is, and how long it ought to stay in power. The government itself has an obvious conflict of interest.

But there is no magic to it. One can often see electorates making bad mistakes. Their worst tendency is to look for a man on a white horse, who will solve all their problems.

I think, for example, of Jimmy Carter. Granted that, after Watergate, it was a good idea to remove the Republicans from the presidency. Still, there were probably a half-dozen candidates on the Democratic side who had a better claim to be on the ticket: Scoop Jackson, Lloyd Bentsen, Jerry Brown, Frank Church, Birch Bayh, Terry Sanford. Jimmy Carter, a virtual unknown, won on a cloying smile and a pledge that “I will never lie to you.” There were posters saying “J.C. will save America.”

The antichrist.

Barack Obama was another “fairy tale,” in the words of Bill Clinton. We even know the name of the fairy tale: it is “the magic negro.” A lot of people got caught up in the fantasy of rainbows and unicorns, seeing Obama as a “lightworker” who would “heal the nation.” “Hope and change.” “This was the moment the oceans stopped rising.” What a waste—we could have had John McCain or Mitt Romney.

Sadly, I fear Donald Trump falls into the same category. He’s a travelling salesman. It will all be “huge” and “fantastic.” You won’t believe how good it’s going to be.

Don’t do it, America. Two in a row may be the end of you.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Once Kingston in a Fog of Time

Something I wrote way back when I was an undergrad at Queen's University, Kingston, Canada, living in what was then Elrond College. My daughter calls Kingston "the abandoned grey city of ghosts."

"Good morning, Mr. and Mrs. North America, and all the ships at sea."

--Walter Winchell

The church bells toll like waves of sleep,
First sound in the smoky dawn;
The newsboys weave their way upstreet;
The greystone day goes on.

The radio plays a scratchy tune
So soft--and like a sigh it's gone;
Reflections in a coffee spoon,
The limestone days wind on and on,
The greystone day goes on.

And as the sleep falls from my eyes,
The dreams drop from my soul.
I jam and butter newborn lies,
And find a cigarette to roll.

And as the smoke rolls heavenward,
It orchestrates a ceiling song:
The newborn days die on and on;
The greystone day goes on.

-- Stephen K. Roney


JFK with his first cabinet.
It’s not just that the Republicans have more candidates running for president. Democratic presidential candidates seem to have thinner resumes. Bernie Sanders is a senator from a small blue state—the second smallest in the nation. Nor is Rhode Island all that big. Lincoln Chafee seemed to base his entire campaign on having once voted against the Iraq War. Then there’s Martin O’Malley, former mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland. Baltimore is now a very public basket case. Maryland is about the most reliably Democratic state in the nation. Even so, O’Malley’s two terms were so impressive locally that the state’s electors followed him with only their second Republican governor since the 1960s.

Baltimore on Homecoming Weekend.

Then there’s Mrs. Clinton. Hillary Clinton’s only obvious life accomplishment is to have married well. Thanks to name recognition and her husband’s connections, in the noble tradition of Lurleen Wallace and Isabel Peron, she has served her time in suitable office chairs behind big desks, in the Senate and at State. But while there, did she actually score any worthwhile accomplishments? It looks more like a record of failure. Given the brief to push through universal health coverage, she failed. In the senate, no important initiative or legislation bore her name. The most memorable thing she did was to vote for the Iraq War. At State, the reset with Russia, leading from behind in Libya, the Iraq pullout, the Mubarak sellout, the pivot to Asia, the red line in Syria, and whatever happened in Benghazi, all policy failures. It is hard to say how much was her boss’s fault, but there is nothing to inspire confidence. If it weren’t for the good work of Clare Danes, things would probably be far worse. 

Damascus on Homecoming Weekend.
The one guy in the race on the Democratic side who had any claim to distinction was Jim Webb. At least he was a war hero. And they mocked him for it.

On the Republican side, for comparison, let’s not use this year’s crop of candidates. Let’s assume the field this time is unusually good. Instead, let’s look at 2012, when the Republican field was, everyone said, weak. Even so, a weak Republican field included Rick Santorum, a two-term senator from a large, important, blue state, who had managed during his two terms to rise to number three in the Republican hierarchy. It included Rick Perry, the first man ever to have won three tenures as governor of Texas, the second-largest state, and who had a staggering record of job creation. It included Newt Gingrich, the acknowledged mastermind of the Republican takeover of the House in 1994, for the first time in forty years. We had Jon Huntsman, who had served in five different presidential administrations, negotiated the Doha round, left the governorship of Utah with an 80% approval rating, and spoke fluent Mandarin Chinese. And, of course, we had Mitt Romney. Two Harvard graduate degrees, incredibly wealthy as a corporate turnaround expert, savior of the Salt Lake City Olympics, and someone who managed to win the governorship of the bluest state in the union. Where he eliminated the deficit while introducing universal health care. 

Romney at the Salt Lake City Olympics.

Seriously, guys, the Democrats are in trouble. Nobody seems to be noticing—I keep hearing that demographics are moving entirely in their favour—but in reality, it looks as though they are living on fumes.

Partly, there are a lot more Republican politicians to choose from. Back in the sixties and seventies, when I was young, it was a given that, while Republicans might win now and then at the Presidential level, the Democrats were the majority party. They held the state legislatures. They held both houses of Congress. They held the solid South. They used to call them "yellow dog Democrats": they would vote for a yellow dog, so long as it ran as the Democrat. It all seemed baked in, inevitable.

The old Democratic solid South.

Since then, there has been a steady trend in the opposite direction. The Republicans now control the state houses. The control both houses of Congress. They hold the South. It may not look solid or inevitable, but that is the clear trend. Demographics be damned.

But there is, I think, a second factor: a comparison of the crop of candidates suggests that Democrats right up to the very top level are now, on the whole, unimaginative, intellectually unimpressive, and lacking in initiative. There are no more Daniel Patrick Moynihans or John Kenneth Galbraiths among them; the best and the brightest all gravitate to the other side of the aisle.

This is not the mark of a party of the future. These are the characteristics one expects for a conservative party whose raison d’etre was the defense of a dying privileged class. The last petty panjandrums of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; the last Soviet commissars; the lace-throated tax farmers of the ancien regime.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Mark Steyn on the Future

I disagree with Mark Steyn.

October 21 was Back to the Future day: the day to which Marty McFly and Doc Brown time- travelled in the 1989 movie Back to the Future II. Steyn points out all the many ways in which the future as forecast in the movie is more advanced than the reality we live with, and concludes that Western Civilization is running out of steam. The future, it seems, isn't what it used to be.

Wrong. First off, predictions, expecially by experts, are almost always wrong. This is because the most likely thing is always continuity, but nobody will listen to you or pay you as an expert if you do not predict major change. So the future is always more futuristic in the telescope than through the window. Remember monorails? Flying cars? Personal jet packs?

Given that the experts are wrong, it seems silly indeed to take your predictions from a popular movie. The purpose of this movie is to entertain, not to make accurate predictions. “Jaws 19”—very funny. Making the future as different as possible from the present is obviously the best option for entertainment value. How could anyone take the predictions as serious?

Steyn goes on to argue that, if someone were taken by a time machine from 1890 to 1950, they would be stunned by all the changes. Cars, planes, electricity, telephones, indoor plumbing, radio, maybe TV. But jump them another 60 years to 2010, and thinks would still look pretty much the same as they did in 1950. Cars, planes, electricity, telephones, indoor plumbing, TV.

He's right, but I'd say looks here are deceiving. Historically, the first things we tackled were the big machines, large engines such as are needed for transportation or manufacturing, because those were the easiest things to build. They did not require as much precision. But, being big, they were and remain the most visible.

Since about the 1940s, we have moved on to the small things: printed circuits, transistors, lasers, computers, software, nanotechnology, DNA sequencing, GMOs, and so forth. These are less immediately visible, being small, but they are probably more important. The green revolution is close to eliminating starvation worldwide. GMOs will go further. There is serious talk, at least, of extending lifespans indefinitely. That would be a big change, surely? The Internet and the accessibility of multimedia to everyone will probably be more significant than the invention of the printing press; quite possibly than the invention of writing. 

Videophone, as predicted in France circa 1900.

Last week I went to buy a new phone, and was surprised to discover that I no longer had the option to buy an “ordinary cell phone” of the old Nokia variety. All the phones on offer were smart phones, with touch screens, cameras, massive memories, Internet connections, and apps available of all sorts. But they cost less than the cell phone I bought two years ago. And when I was teaching IT just five years ago, “smart phones” were not even predicted by the text we used. It talked instead of “Personal Digital Assistants.”

When I went to put in my old SIM card, I found it no longer fit. For the new phone, I needed either a micro SIM or a nano SIM. When I brought my old SIM card to the connectivity provider, the clerk laughed to see something so old fashioned. But I was using it in a phone I bought only two years ago!

I agree with Steyn that there are bad signs for the future of Western Civilization. But I don't think technology is where the problem is manifesting.