Category Archives: Social comment

Women’s History Month: Sergeant Joan Mortimer, MM

When I was in college, attempting to be my own editor on my own college papers and not notably succeeding, my country was in the pioneering days of women expanding their roles in the military outside the nursing field. Many went through very difficult times cutting and widening that path, including some I know well and respect. One thing they had going for them was that the path was at least trodden and visible, thanks to true stories of predecessors like Sergeant Joan Mortimer of the WAAF.

A political organizer from London, Joan Mortimer was twenty-seven when she joined the relatively new Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in early 1939. The war clouds were plain on the horizon, and war indeed broke out for Britain in September 1939. After the Nazi forces mauled the Benelux countries and France, it was the turn of the United Kingdom. The goal was to break the island’s resistance through a sustained air campaign, periodically inviting the British and their allies to just give up. They rejected this offer, of course, answering by force of arms–and thus developed the Battle of Britain.

RAF Biggin Hill was a frontline outpost of the air war over the UK. Located in what are now London’s southern outskirts, the base was an early responder to any incursion into UK airspace. That made it imperative for the Luftwaffe to pound it at every opportunity. Assignment there was hazardous duty, and on 1 September 1940 Sergeant Mortimer was among three WAAF enlisted women on communications duty when a major airbase strike came in. Along with Corporal Elspeth Henderson and Sergeant Helen Turner in the HQ, she maintained vital communications from her post at the switchboard (in the armory, surrounded by high explosives one might well hope avoided a direct hit). But that was not all.

Henderson and Turner remained at their posts doing their duties when a bomb struck and set ablaze the headquarters building. Only when the fire reached their room, and under direct orders, did they leave their work. The bombs sometimes didn’t explode upon landing, but that didn’t make them safe. As for Mortimer, she realized that no one had yet red-flagged the unexploded bombs on the runway, and that the base’s fighter complement would be at greater risk as it attempted to land and re-equip. Pilots could usually spot craters, but dud ordnance sometimes not so much. With the Luftwaffe still making runs on the airfield, Sergeant Mortimer ran out to mark the danger spots in disregard for her own life and safety.

No one can tell me that’s not a warrior.

The three women each received the Military Medal, which only six British women earned throughout the war. Sergeant Joan Mortimer’s citation described her actions thus: “This airwoman displayed exceptional courage and coolness which had a great moral effect on all those with whom she came in contact.” Boy howdy it must have. His Majesty the King himself had the privilege of decorating her.

Let her country, and its then and later wartime allies such as my own country, take a moment to remember Sergeant Joan Mortimer, MM, and her fellow airwomen whose valor earned the respect of those who served with them.

Black History Month: the first on each team

One opportunity I would never pass up would be the chance to edit a baseball book on the Negro Leagues. Hope springs eternal. What talents, what characters, what baseball.

For now, let’s celebrate Black History Month by highlighting a part of the history not everyone understands: the ultimate integration. Until 1961, the white major leagues comprised sixteen teams, eight in each league. Their integration didn’t all happen at once just because Jackie Robinson showed up, kept his temper for a year, and excelled in the face of every form of disrespect anyone could send in his direction. It actually took twelve years, and some teams made themselves look pretty bad by the length of their dawdling.

Twelve years? Seriously. Yet it’s true. Children born the day Jackie Robinson first took the field for Brooklyn were near puberty by the time the Boston Red Sox finally caved.

I do not think that most baseball enthusiasts today stop to consider what it meant that, six years after Jackie Robinson and with talents like Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, Don Newcombe, Larry Doby, and Roy Campanella sparkling on the field, only half the teams in the white major leagues had fielded a player of sub-Saharan African heritage.

(A note on terms. Many Cubans, Dominicans, etc. are of African heritage, but calling them African American is not correct unless we’re defining everyone on both continents as American. So if you would define a black Falkland Islander or Ecuadorean or Canadian as ‘African American,’ be my guest and replace every use of “black” with “African American” as you read. My point is that most people don’t think as they replace one term with another. I once heard Nelson Mandela described as “a brave African American.” Brave, no doubt–but Mandela was an African African, for pete’s sake, and the speaker’s mindlessness was unbecoming the subject.)

No disrespect to Moses Fleetwood Walker and the other black ballplayers of the late 1800s, who played and then were barred as the whole country tilted toward discriminatory practices. The subject matter here is the integration, or re-integration on some level, of the sixteen modern pre-expansion-era (1903-1960) AL/NL teams begun by Jackie Robinson.

Let’s pay tribute to those pioneers, some famous and some not, and talk a bit about their careers and outcomes. Some are familiar only to baseball buffs, but each was a groundbreaker and deserves our respectful memory. The question is not always straightforward because, well, define “black.” If it means a single drop of subsaharan African heritage, well, that’s a lot of really white-looking people including me–but had I lived then and been able to throw like Satchel Paige, I don’t think I’d have had any trouble getting a legit shot at making a 1930s AL/NL roster. As lots of Afro-Caribbean folks will tell you, it’s quite possible to be black and Cuban, black and Dominican, black and Bahamian, and so on. At times, some Afro-Caribbean players were able to sort of “pass” in the US baseball world. The entire distinction shows up the inherent silliness of stressing over people’s racial origin, degree of skin color, and so on. The main distinction, the one society tries not to draw because it brings into focus an uncomfortable truth, is that you’re considered black if you’re treated like you’re black. Makes me wonder what sort of hassles Rachel Dolezal endured before she came out as white.

Of these seventeen (we will get into why there are not sixteen), four are in the Baseball Hall of Fame: Robinson, Doby, Irvin, and Banks. I think one can make a great case for Miñoso; Howard, perhaps and perhaps not. Still, four out of seventeen is quite the haul–testimony to the level of talent of which the white major leagues had deprived their fans for decades. If you wanted to win ballgames, and knowing nothing else, you knew there was a one-in-fourish chance your new guy would become a legend, you’d give him a try yesterday. Of tens of thousands of big league ballplayers who have taken the field since the game went professional, some 300+ are Hall of Famers–maybe one in a hundred. Even if common sense told you that one out of four of those who might follow your rookie wasn’t going to be Ernie Banks, they would still have your fascinated attention. It doesn’t take very many great players to transform a baseball club.

In order of the date of first appearance, here are the first black players to take the field for each AL or NL team:

Brooklyn Dodgers (NL): Jackie Robinson, April 15, 1947. He is perhaps the player least needing introduction for the most obvious reasons, but the thing to realize is that he was 28 in 1947. He did everything well, enough to make one wonder what his .311 lifetime NL batting average might have been had it included seven more of his prime playing years. He did everything at an All-Star level except pitch. For many aspiring black American ballplayers, the Dodger jersey would become a revered symbol of everything Robinson and integration meant to them, and to grow up to wear that uniform onto a ballfield would be a motivational dream. I remember when Robinson passed away (1972, age 53), entirely too young, and one could feel the sense of loss throughout the game.

Cleveland Indians (AL): Larry Doby, July 5, 1947. As the first black player in the American League, Doby deserves more notice than he tends to receive. He deserves better. Breaking in at 23, his AL career lasted until 1959 and included seven All-Star selections. Hitting .283 with good power over that timeframe, he was an asset to three AL teams over his tenure. Not only was he the second black player in the AL/NL, but he later became the second black manager. Doby lived to be 79, standing his ground to the end of his days.

St. Louis Browns (AL; today, the Baltimore Orioles): Hank Thompson, July 17, 1947. A veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, Hank debuted at the age of 21. Thompson was a capable if unspectacular contributor to the New York Giants of the early 1950s, hitting .267 for his career and having a number of notable moments; for example, very few players have hit two inside-the-park homers in a single game. By 30 he was out of baseball, and he died of a seizure at the untimely age of 43. The Browns would be the last team of 1947 to begin integration, and the last until 1949.

New York Giants (NL; today, the San Francisco Giants): Hank Thompson (previously mentioned) and Monte Irvin, July 8, 1949. Yes, they both played on the same day, making Thompson the only player to be the first African American on two different teams. (The Giants were visiting Brooklyn, so they batted first, and Thompson hit leadoff; Irvin appeared as a pinch hitter in the top of the eighth). Monte Irvin, another former combat engineer veteran of the Bulge, was 30 that day he got his NL chance, but he made the most of his time with an NL career batting average of .293 and a frightening clip of .458 in the 1952 World Series. A famously pleasant man, Irvin remained close to the game for most of his very long life (96 years).

Boston Braves (NL; today, the Atlanta Braves): Sam Jethroe, April 18, 1950. “Jet” broke in at the age of 33 after a long and impressive Negro Leagues career. He played only three full seasons for the Braves, showing the logic behind his nickname by twice leading the NL in stolen bases. A better hitter and runner than he was a fielder, he was nonetheless a groundbreaker in Boston in that Boston’s other team, the Red Sox, would gain infamy by being the very last integrated AL team. Jet passed in 2001, living to be 84.

Chicago White Sox (AL): Minnie Miñoso, May 1, 1951. One of the steadiest ballplayers of the 1950s and 1960s, the Cuban-born Miñoso’s .298 lifetime batting average barely begins to tell the whole story of this remarkable ballplayer. He got his first taste of AL action at 23 with Cleveland, but became a regular with the Sox in 1951 (hitting .326, making Cleveland’s trading him look awful). He led the AL in hits once, doubles once, triples three times, stolen bases three times, and being hit by pitches ten times. Three Golden Gloves, an award that only began when he was 31. A fan and teammate favorite, he remained a steady hitter in the Mexican League as late as the age of 47. He lived to be 89, remaining close to the game and the White Sox for the rest of his days.

Pittsburgh Pirates (NL): Carlos Bernier, April 22, 1953. On this list, he was the first man I’d never heard of until I began this project. A career minor leaguer who played only one statistically unremarkable year in the NL, Bernier might be more famous for the controversy that came to attend his trip to the bigs, in that–in a classic case of “who decides who’s black?”–MLB doesn’t recognize the Puerto Rican-born Bernier as a black man. Evidently Bernier identified as black. If you want to go with MLB, the first black Pirate would be Curt Roberts (1954), but I mean no slight to Roberts or his accomplishment when I say that I’m not buying MLB’s arbiter-of-blackness authority. Bernier died at age 62, sadly by suicide.

Philadelphia Athletics (AL; today, the Oakland A’s): Bob Trice, September 13, 1953. By now, note well, it had been six years since Jackie Robinson who–like everyone else previously named on this list except Jethroe–was still active in 1953. At this point, even the most die-hard illusionist had to admit that keeping black players out of the NL/AL was not merely bigotry but self-sabotage. Trice was also the first first-timer on this list to enter as a pitcher, though he would turn out to be a better hitter (.288) than pitcher (9-9, 5.80) in a three-year AL career that began when he was 26. He didn’t set the league on fire, but neither did anyone else on the A’s staff (if one did, they farmed him up to the Yankees). A sore shoulder was a downer; not long after that, he actually asked to return to the minors. His mojo never really came back for keeps. Trice passed away at the age of 62.

Chicago Cubs (NL): Ernie Banks, September 17, 1953. Well, this one’s pretty easy. Everyone’s heard of Ernie Banks. His only detractor ever was Leo Durocher, who had a detractor or two of his own. In Chicago the churches relax their idolatry rules a little bit for Banks. Entering the National League at 22, he played until he was forty. A power-hitting shortstop (rare find, that), he rarely missed a game until his last couple of years. One Gold Glove, two NL home run crowns, two MVP awards, 512 career homers…well, it’s not hard to see why Chicago so loves this career Cub. Ernie’s talent is testimony to the kind of baseball the white major leagues could have enjoyed watching much sooner had they not been merely the white major leagues. He passed in 2015, aged 83.

St. Louis Cardinals (NL): Tom Alston, April 13, 1954. Seven years into integration, it was starting to get awkward for the holdouts. Those who owned breweries, like Gussie Busch, stood to lose a lot of business if black customers voted with their wallets. The result was the Cards signing 28-year-old Alston, a rangy first baseman. While he didn’t set the league on fire, he did play about half of 1954 and had brief returns to the Cardinals over the following three seasons. Alston lived to be 67, passing on in 1993.

Cincinnati Redlegs (NL; today, the Cincinnati Reds): Nino Escalera and Chuck Harmon, April 17, 1954. I actually had to go back and dig up which entered the game first; both were pinch hitters, with Escalera hitting for catcher Andy Seminick (singled) and Harmon batting next for pitcher Corky Valentine (made an out). A 24-year-old Puerto Rican utility player (and a rare left-throwing shortstop), Escalera saw sparing action in what would be his only major league year. Hitting .159 probably explains that. He is still with us at age 91. Harmon, now, was already 30 by the time he stood in to hit for Valentine. His .238 lifetime average for three teams over four years was unspectacular but good enough to keep him ready for the call-up. He lived to be 94, passing on in 2019.

Washington Senators (AL; today, the Minnesota Twins): Carlos Paula, September 6, 1954. Breaking into the AL at 26, this Havana-born outfielder played parts of three years for the Senators. 1955 was his best, with part-time roles leading to a more than respectable .299 average. Not sure why he slipped to .183 the next year, but it was his last at the highest level. Seven years into integration, considering the demographics of the DC metro area and the team’s historic underperformance, I see only one reasonable explanation for that long delay and it’s not comforting–especially considering the later racist attitudes of then-owner Clark Griffith’s son Calvin. Paula passed on in 1983 at the untimely age of 55.

New York Yankees (AL): Elston Howard, April 14, 1955. He was 26 when the Yankees finally integrated, a catcher who did many things well–except run, which I mention here because of a horrible comment attributed to manager Casey Stengel about having finally ‘gotten’ a (person of color; you can guess the actual word that was used) and complaining that he wasn’t fast. While it’s true enough about Howard (nine stolen bases in a fourteen-year career), it testifies to the stereotypical thinking still with us today. Howard was a mainstay of the great Yankees teams of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and was with them as they declined into irrelevancy in the Vietnam years. Once the AL MVP, twice a Gold Glover, Howard’s best showing at the plate was his .348 monster year on that great 1961 team. Little-known fact: he is credited with inventing the batting donut. Howard died younger than he should have (51) in 1980.

Philadelphia Phillies (NL): John Kennedy, April 22, 1957. Ten years and one week before, when Jackie Robinson had broken in, the Phillies and arch-bigot manager Ben Chapman were the league’s coarsest bench jockeys. Now, finally, they would become the last NL club to integrate–if you want to call it that. Kennedy, a compact shortstop, participated in five games with two times at bat for the Phils, which is more opportunity than the Giants had given him after signing him in 1953. That ended Kennedy’s AL/NL career at 30. Never a tremendous star in the minors, the choice of a fairly unpromising player raises its own set of questions. Surely they had, or could have chosen to have, more promising prospects of color given what others had been accomplishing for the past decade. John Kennedy died in 1998, aged 71.

Detroit Tigers (AL): Ozzie Virgil, Sr., June 6, 1958. The first Dominican in the AL/NL, Virgil joined the Giants for the 1956 season at age 24, but he was not their first black player. When Detroit acquired him, he became the Tigers’ first. Anyone who can catch has a good shot at a career, and Virgil mainly caught and played third, so he would remain mostly in the majors until 1966 with a single appearance in 1969. A combined .231 career average tells us he was not the next Roy Campanella, but he was the one who brought down the second to last team’s wall, and he did spend another twentyish years as a coach. Virgil is still with us, 88 at this writing, and is no doubt proud of a son who became a two-time All-Star catcher.

Boston Red Sox (AL): Pumpsie Green, July 21, 1959. And then there was one, twelve years later. Robinson was actually retired by the time racist Boston owner Tom Yawkey gave a black ballplayer a chance. Green, who was 25 at the time, at least got a chance to show what he could do. A part-time middle infielder for five years (four with the Red Sox, the last one with the Mets), he finished with a career average of .246. Much later, his place in the game’s history received some recognition as the Red Sox inducted him into the team’s hall of fame. The last man to be the first black man on an AL or NL team had a long life, passing away in 2019 at the age of 85.

Some became legends. Some are forgotten today. Most are now gone. Not a one of them had it easy. It is simple justice for fans of the sport, which becomes more global each year even as African Americans seem to drift away from it, to stop and give respect to seventeen ambitious athletes who helped to make our national pastime much more national and inclusive.

2021 Prediction #3: Get ready for more GameStops as hedge funds are no longer the only bullies in town — I, Cringely

JK here: this I found to be a useful take on the GameStop/Reddit situation we had recently. It might not have much to do with editing services, but that’s okay with me sometimes.

Today is my birthday. Thirty-five years ago today I was drinking coffee in my Palo Alto kitchen when the Space Shuttle…

2021 Prediction #3: Get ready for more GameStops as hedge funds are no longer the only bullies in town — I, Cringely

Ten pros and ten cons of living in Beaverton/Aloha, Oregon, USA

This area, which is part of Washington County, Oregon, represents the first suburb to the west of the Portland metropolitan area. Portland mainly makes the news when there is some form of protest or other confrontation, or in listings of places with good food and drink. Just as Everett and Tacoma are not Seattle, Portland’s burbs are not Portland. They just share a border.

Important note: Beaverton is an actual city with its own government. Aloha (pronounced uh-LO-ah) is simply the name of a region of unincorporated Washington County between Beaverton and Hillsboro (the county seat). In combination they house maybe 150,000 people. The only practical distinction is which police respond to emergency calls (city police vs. county deputies) and whether one is misgoverned and overtaxed by city or county officials. I have come to designate this area as Aloverton, and to go by the local chuckles, I might just be one of the first to assign it. Anyway…

Pros of living in Aloverton:

  1. Powell’s. This famous downtown Portland bookstore has branches in Beaverton and eastern Portland. While our branch isn’t as cavernous as the one downtown, it’s still the size of a Costco and much more fun than going out to buy a 5-gallon bucket of grape jam or enough paper towels to absorb a small lake. Every editor reads, and every reader enjoys bookstores.
  2. Max. This is Portland’s light rail network linking Aloverton with the rest of the metro area. It’s efficient, generally safe, and reasonably priced. You can live out here and get to Gresham (the extreme eastern burb), the airport (north, along the Columbia), as far south as Clackamas (in a different county), and to the Expo Center (way up north). Ride all day for five bucks.
  3. Great Korean food. This is Portland’s main concentration of Koreans and Korean-Americans, and the result is a very high standard of Korean dining. Nak Won (downtown Beav) is always at the top of the metro area’s Korean restaurant listings, and there’s a reason why people line up to get in when it first opens in the evening. I never knew how much I loved Korean food until I moved here.
  4. Diversity. While it is true that Oregon was founded as a racist Utopia, and still has a lot of ugly racial history to confront, I regularly hear Spanish and other languages in my local travels. I see kids in my neighborhood playing with toy cricket bats. It is not strange to meet a variety of races, faiths, and outlooks.
  5. Industries. Nike’s world HQ is about three miles from me, and many tech companies (Intel, Tektronix for example) have local presences. There tend to be jobs in Aloverton, sometimes pretty good ones, and we have lots of business parks.
  6. Coast. If you want to show that you’re a visitor, refer to “going to the beach.” Most people here say “going to the coast.” Aloverton is about seventy minutes from Cannon Beach (which I am always tempted to call Cannon Coast, just to mock the trend). Close enough to get there in an hour and a half, but not so close as to be swamped with coastgoing tourists–nice location.
  7. Beaverton library. This is large, nice, adjoins a pleasant park, and has almost enough parking plus a friends-of-the-library bookshop across the street. Comfortable, easy to use, doubles as a ballot drop box area at election times, well organized, not too many riff-raff using it to get out of the rain. I like.
  8. Nearness of natural areas. I don’t have to drive more than about fifteen minutes to see nothing but farmland. While that might get more difficult, I remember living in Seattle’s northern burbs where the countryside felt like it might as well be in Idaho. This area has a number of water control wetlands that remain undeveloped, and some very pleasant local nature trails. You can get out into the woods.
  9. Mt. Hood. While we are not physically close to this dormant andesite volcano, some urban planner had a great inspiration. Two major east/west arterials flow through town. For a short stretch, the southernmost one shoots right at Mt. Hood; the northernmost one does so for a very long stretch. So it’s a sunny day, you’re coming home from one of Hillsboro’s many strip joints or car dealerships, and you’re just watching out for the speed limit changes. And in the distance, you can see that you’re aimed directly at a beautiful snow-capped mountain set against the blue sky. Yes, please.
  10. Coffee and cannabis. If you like legal stimulants and relaxants, it’s easier to find a coffee place or dope/CBD store than it is a gas station. I’m not exaggerating. If you drive at random, you will find coffee or dope before you will find vehicle fuel. Most of the coffee is all right and some of it is great, especially a couple of the non-chain downtown Beav places. While a number of the dope places are staffed by kids who obviously qualify to work there mainly through product experience, there are enough that one can find a place with people who know more about the products than “whatever kind you want, dude.”
  11. Bonus pro: friendliness. While it’s still a suburb of a large city with the associated distancing and space bubble tendencies, there is a certain easy, polite friendliness about the area. It’s that general Western US friendliness that one finds most places, a sort of relaxed outlook. Yeah, we have some amazing jackasses, but not many. If you can’t figure out where something is, most people will be glad to direct you.

Cons of living in Aloverton:

  1. Bad Chinese and Thai food. As well represented as are many Asian demographics including Chinese and Thai, most of the local restaurants in these specialties are…forgettable. We knew of one Chinese place we thought was good, but it closed. We know of one good Thai place and we help keep it afloat. You’d expect better here.
  2. Mediocre Mexican food. We lived in former sundown town Kennewick for sixteen years, where the population of Hispanic origin was considerable (more so across the river in Pasco). Beaverton’s best Mexican restaurant in our experience would be about the sixth best in Richland/Kennewick/Pasco, which makes no sense given that absolute numbers here are greater. We know one rather good place and one street taco place, and we help keep them afloat. Most would not be missed, ranging from “okay” to “not doing that again.”
  3. Rats. A decades-old problem, significant new construction has stirred up many squadrons of varmints. Worsening the problem are people who feed birds and feral cats, and who keep chickens in their back yards (quite common here). The result is Too Much Mickey. This year we had to get serious about the battle, but not enough locals take it seriously for us to make progress against the problem. It’s the same old thing: people can’t be bothered to change anything just because it might help the community as a whole.
  4. Police. During my first week here, I had a shakedown attempt from the deputies in the form of a certified letter accusing me of a false alarm without a permit (the spot for a date of infraction was blank) and strongly suggesting I buy an alarm permit. I investigated and found there had been no monitoring here for five years. I didn’t even get an apology. Beaverton is infamous for traffic ticket cameras, traffic stings, and fascist enforcement of even the most minor laws. Speed limit changes are frequent and seem designed to encourage infractions.
  5. Property crime. Mail theft, porch piracy, petty burglary, car break-ins, illegal street races, and the like are quite common here and one should probably expect them to get worse. The police have their hands full setting up stings to catch people not stopping for pedestrians at unmarked crosswalks, I guess. When it comes to protecting your property here, you’re on your own.
  6. Downtown. Aloha, not being a town, does not even have a pretense of downtown. Beaverton tries so hard to have one, but there just isn’t much to it. The area’s two main east/west arterials roar through such downtown as there is, which contains a few interesting places and more uninteresting ones. It only gains any ground during Saturday markets, which one learns about from all the signs warning against parking in business lots on market days.
  7. Street disposal. In this area, getting rid of large junk is not simple or cheap. Very often, people’s solution is to just put the old washer or computer hutch on the sidewalk, assuming someone will snap it up; failing that, eventually the city/county will come get it. I understand this with a box of books or something else of rational value, but not with a dead refrigerator. Jeez.
  8. Street name changes. One of this area’s civic pastimes is changing street names in mid-run for no evident logical reason. I’ve alluded to two main east/west arterials, Oregon State Highways 8 and 10. OR-8 is called the Tualatin Valley Highway until the edge of downtown Beav, when it becomes Canyon Road. No sane reason. OR-10 is Farmington Road until the center of downtown, where it changes its name to the Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway. Got it. Why? Who does this help? Another example? All right: There’s an arterial named SW Allen Street. Then it’s SW Davis Street. Then it’s SW Oak Street. This all happens within one mile. That’s some fine naming work there, Wally.
  9. Transportation infrastructure. The road system and Max park-and-ride lots have not nearly kept pace with the speed at which developers throw up apartment buildings. Combine that with a street system in which you often can’t really get there from here, and it can be annoying and difficult to navigate. While the growth is goosing our property value, it’s not making the area more livable. Or more walkable. I live in an area where there is not one single business within one mile. It’s as burby as a burb can get.

I note that I can find eleven strong pros and nine solid cons about Aloverton. I guess that fits my view, which is: While big cities just fundamentally do not appeal to me, if I have to live in or near one, this will work.

A way of examining religion and its aspects

One of the blindest, most irritating bicker-fest categories I see is that over what constitutes religion. A good example involves Judaism, where some people who do not embrace the religious principles still identify as Jewish. I know people who don’t follow the LDS faith, and who even identify as jack (or jill) Mormons, but the point is they still consider themselves Mormon on some level. We have people who actively pray for spiritual beings to do their will, yet are careful to toss in the caveat that they hope their own will to be that of their spiritual being.

None of it would entail bickering if it were not for people trying to exclude one another from a given religious tent. I think these are akin to the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, typically an appeal to purity. It does matter to writers, and not only from a philosophic or cosmological standpoint. If a writer is going to incorporate any form of religion or spirituality into fiction, that writer must surely have a sense of the components of faith and practice that combine to form what we refer to as a religion. The subject has fascinated me ever since taking Sociology 349 at UW with Prof. Rodney Stark, one of the foremost scholars in the field of sociology of religion.

Let’s look at the various components of a belief system, some of which not all belief systems may address. As I see it, it is possible for a given individual to embrace some aspects but not others. Does that make that person not of that religion? That’s where the bicker-fests come in. Rather than have another such fest, we can take steps at least to create a belief system parfait of sorts:

Cosmology: Most religions propose to explain origins. Where did the universe come from? Where did people come from? Some embrace scientific explanations but venerate specific mythos. Some will insist that their own mythos constitute science.

Divinity: If there are divine beings, what is their nature? How many might there be? Do we know? Can we ever know? Or is it all a creation of the human mind? Faiths run this gamut, but whether or how a belief system addresses divinity is key to understanding it. The question of afterlife, if any, seems to straddle the worlds of cosmology and divinity. If there is an afterlife, it seems, a cosmology defines it and a divinity performs triage.

Magic: Most religions teach that people can influence their environments and outcomes. Some teach that this is done through appeals to divine beings (prayer, ultimatums, etc.); others teach that the power is within ourselves. Some would wet themselves over the application of this label to some forms of prayer, but to my eye those are simply another form of magic: the statement that one’s own judgment or desire should prevail.

Such are the perpetually unprovable factors. Their unprovability has never stopped people from fighting about them, naturally. Agnosticism doesn’t know whether or not there’s anything to any of those. Atheism asserts that there isn’t. But there are more:

Philosophy: How should we live our lives? What acts and perspectives are morally acceptable? Which are abhorrent? Into this category falls all definition of what Judaism calls a mitzvah (good deed) or what many religions call a sin (bad deed, ranging from minor to unpardonable). This one came into focus for me because most of us at times will face ethical dilemmas. I asked myself: “If my religion doesn’t help me figure out a right and valuable handling of these situations, what the hell good is it?” I might not be the only person who ever asked him/herself that.

Ethnicity: In many cases religion defines ethnicity to a degree. In the Serbo-Croatian-speaking world, Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs share a slightly varied common language in which one’s religious identification is part and parcel of one’s ethnic identity. Judaism considers Jewish anyone born to a Jewish mother. There are those professing Asatru who allege that only those of Germanic heritage may be Asatru. (There are Asatruar such as myself who reject this notion as bigoted and ridiculous.) This matters because it’s one thing to profess a faith; it is quite another to join an ethnicity, and in some cases problematic.

Culture: If religion is not necessarily an ethnicity, I find that it always develops a culture and a sense of cultural identity. Let’s take the Latter-Day Saint movement as mentioned earlier. Someone raised in the LDS church will surely gain some cultural overlay from it; same is true of Wicca, or the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, or Chasidic Judaism. Someone not raised in a religious culture may seek to embrace it as an aspect of embracing that faith.

Evolutionism: No, not that. By this I mean a sense of whether religion should evolve or remain unchanged. How conservative (in the philosophic meaning of the term, not the faction label) should religion be? Must today’s Lutheranism be precisely the same as that of Martin Luther? (Evidently there are several different notions of that, or where it should go. Having been raised in a branch of the Lutheran faith, I have some personal experience with this.) We might examine Islam and its varying views on the subject, and we would find that the two largest branches differ on the rightful mantle of leadership post-Muhammad, so they differ not just on evolution of the belief system, but the departure point for any such evolution. It is akin to racers who do not concur on the starting line and stance.

I find that this compartmentalization helps me to look at any belief system by removing the conflation tendency that runs rife through most such discussions. If one person is arguing philosophy, and another is arguing cosmology, and both are insisting that philosophy and cosmology cannot be separated, they can’t even agree on what they are discussing. Of course they will never find common ground, nor even understand each other. One is talking about soil chemistry and the other is talking about marketing harvested crops.

In editing, I use this outlook to develop perspective on clients’ religious presentations in fiction. While I can imagine it playing a part in non-fiction, I’m most likely to encounter it in fiction because most religious authors aren’t terribly comfortable with an editor not of their faith.

This perspective is evolving. I may feel differently two years from now.

As this is the last blog post of the 2020 Dumpster Fire of a Year, I want to thank everyone who has been a reader and commenter during this time. May you all have an excellent 2021.

Doing what we are told–or not

While this won’t see publication until mid-December 2020, and I admit it doesn’t have much to do with editing services, I wonder if there are others out there who think as I do. I write on November 30, at the height of what we are told is Cyber Monday.

For the US readership, and those of any other country with a lot of Christmas gift-giving, did you buy anything online today? I did not. Were you tempted? But how could I resist the bargains, bargains, bargains? I was not even tempted.

I’d be interested in knowing if anyone else is as cynical about commerce. My starting presumption was/is that the designation of this as A Very Special Commercial Day was an attempt to manipulate the herd into overspending. The logic goes: “Better hurry, or other people will get all our Very Great Deals.” I assume it’s all smoke and mirrors; that they just raised prices and then marked them down, like our grocery stores do; that it’s a con job.

Black Friday, as it has been designated in order to make it Another Very Special Commercial Day, held even less attraction for me–and had done so in the many years before the pandemic turned large gatherings into superspreader events full of maskholes. “But you won’t get all the good deals!” Oh, I bet most of them aren’t so good. I don’t resent the marketing industry for presuming that the public is stupid, because for the most part the industry is correct when the public is taken as a mass. I probably should, but I do not. After cracking a couple of Black Fridays Matter jokes with my wife–and reflecting on the unfortunate impact of language choices on perceptions–I stayed home and watched college football.

The point, I guess, is that the Designation of the Very Special Commercial Days by itself was enough to turn me off. It triggered automatic assumptions that following a large crowd would lead to me spending money I should not, spending more money than necessary for anything I might want, and jostling around arterial streets and stores or the online ordering platforms.

It was that way with Amazon Prime as well. Remember when that came out? To me, it seemed obvious that Amazon would not do this unless they expected it would draw people to spend money with them more often than they should, just to “take advantage.” I took one look and said: “What is to your advantage will occur at my expense. No thanks.” Am I the only person who sees it this way? I just saw an American corporation pitching a gimmick, assumed it was screwery, and moved along.

The same applies to investing. On any given day, one can read a ton of articles about Some Intensely Important Indicator having made a critical shift: a Death Cross, an Inverted Yield Curve, a 50-Day Moving Average, or some other bit of technical talk. About half the time it warns us that we should sell, sell, sell, in order to avoid losing money. The other half is spent telling us now is the time to buy, buy, buy or miss the boat. Each side is right about 50% of the time, which poses a greater problem than people generally realize because in order to achieve an outperforming capital gain, one generally has to be right twice (timing of buying and selling). No wonder people just buy index ETFs.

Speaking of which, if you want a very effective strategy for cutting out all that racket and ignoring the Cassandras and Candides of our precious financial media, seriously consider subscribing to Jason Kelly’s financial newsletter. It is not cheap, but if you are managing five figures or more of assets, you should earn enough on dividends alone to wipe out the cost. It is entertaining, consistent, and often supplemented with midweek issues that comment on major movements. I can also verify from our business dealings and contacts that Jason maintains the highest possible standards of integrity and value. Time and again I have seen him lean to the side of making sure people are fully informed, well updated, and well supported. That’s not true of every financial newsletter out there, something I paid a lot of tuition (in the form of dumb investing decisions) to learn. Jason takes care of his people.

Unlike most of the money wonks on MarketWatch, Jason can write entertaining English with a dry wit. I go back to the time of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and Jason (who lives in Japan), decided to seek sock donations to give to refugees. There’s always some negatory type who could find fault with free beer or a form of cheesecake that causes weight loss, and sure enough, one of them wrote in to question Jason’s qualifications to operate this process. With elaborate tact and patience, Jason reviewed what was required: use platform to request socks from community, assemble socks once arrived, load in van, take to refugee centers. Approximate quote: ‘Do I think I’m qualified to put socks in a van and give them to people? Yes, I think I’m qualified to do that.’ One of the highlights of my week is watching him point out what’s wrong with what the financial media are currently saying.

Of course, Jason’s guidance doesn’t tell people to do what most of the media are stirring them to do. That might be the greatest part of its early appeal to me. His method radiates indifference toward mass manipulation efforts.

Good holidays to all you who are observing holidays. Good fun to those who are just having fun. And great fun to all my fellow nonconformists; you aren’t the only ones.

Recent read: The Devil Drives, by Fawn Brodie

Having spent our Pageant of Democracy at the coast (in Oregon, that’s how we say “the beach”), I needed a good read. If I had been doing the ideal thing, I’d have finished reading the book about marketing editing services. Instead I brought along this book, a biography of Sir Richard Burton.

Introductions are in order. Brodie was a UCLA history professor who wrote several biographies, notably one of Joseph Smith. I had read that one and thought it rather good, though the LDS Church doesn’t seem to have shared my opinion. In my estimation, she is credible. As for Burton, he was an 1800s English philologist, foreign service officer, explorer, and researcher of human sexuality. Some called him a cad, but no one called him dull.

Burton had a great natural flair for learning languages, eventually mastering about twenty-five with another fifteen dialects. He spoke Arabic well enough to infiltrate Mecca despite not being a Muslim, which would have gotten him a messy punishment in case of discovery. He quarreled with the British Foreign Office, fellow explorers, other researchers, and anyone who tried to boss him around. He visited Utah in the early 1860s, and Brodie (a native of Ogden) calls his book on the LDS community the best study of its time. I’d think she should know.

As for human sexuality, Burton picked an unreceptive time and place to discuss it. Wherever he went, he studied sexual practices and beliefs. Much of his work in that area scandalized much of his home country (in which he lived very little of his actual life), and much of it we will never see, because his fanatically religious wife incinerated a large amount of his unpublished work and diaries after his death. The effect was to attach to Burton an air of amorality, but his real sin was not to study sexuality and publish his findings. His real sin was not to appear properly ashamed and embarrassed about doing so. For that, the court of public opinion crucified him.

Brodie didn’t write nearly as many biographies as I wish she would have, probably thanks to her thoroughness and urgent need for a passionate interest in her subject. This one’s a winner. Recommended.

Print media aren’t being killed; they’re taking slow poison

At least, that’s how it looks and feels to me.

We used to take Portland Monthly, a print magazine of the titular subject matter and frequency. While it was very kombucha-Portlandy, with minimal relevance to us out in Burberton and especially to those of us who avoid downtown (and were doing so years before protests began), enough of its content had enough value that we enjoyed it. We’d learn about a few new places to eat, or local history, or something else fun. It was worth what we paid for it.

One fine day, my issue came with a flyer. It began by thanking us for our support of independent journalism and told us how wonderful we were. That’s when a thinking person begins to expect at least a four-joint bohica.* It then informed me that there would be a change to my subscription. In order to better meet subscribers’ needs, I’d now only get four mailed print issues per year. The rest would be available online. They urged me to give them my e-mail address, so that I would not miss an issue. There was nothing about a refund, either partial or full.

Now let’s examine this. Here’s my takeaway: “Hi. We heart you big time. However, we’re now quartering the amount of content we offer you under the terms of your original subscription. Why? Because fuck you, we think you are enough of an idiot to go along with getting 1/4 of what you paid for, and we really like cutting our costs.”

Canceling my subscription felt almost like a moral duty. I don’t want to read magazines on my computer or my flip phone (can’t anyway). If I had a more advanced phone, I wouldn’t want to read them on that either. However, they could have avoided this by offering me some form of refund, offering a subscription extension, just about anything–anything, that is, except what they did: “Because we think you’re an idiot, we will be giving you less content and no compensation; suck it.” They could even have begged: “We understand this is a major change in the terms for which you paid, and we hope you will consider that a small but valuable contribution to the cause of local journalism.”

It came down not to money (the $15-odd refund isn’t exactly enough to retire on), nor to questions about content and value. It came down to my recoiling from the tactic of first kissing subscribers’ asses, then insulting our intelligence.

They’re committing suicide. Deep down, these magazines don’t ever want to print another paper copy again, so they’re doing their best to drive away anyone who wants a physical magazine in their mailboxes.

It’s working.

Sometimes it feels like I’m the only one who stands up and objects to the constant messaging trend: “In order to serve you better, we are cutting staff, reducing hours, eliminating services, raising prices, decreasing portions, and trimming options. We want you to believe this is for your benefit. We think you’re enough of an idiot to buy this.”

 

* Slang of military origin, an articulated acronym for “bend over, here it comes again.” We used to measure them by joints involved, with three for example meaning the finger, four meaning the whole hand, and six meaning up to the shoulder. Up to twelve was a double bohica, and after that one counted vertebrae for the dreaded super bohica.

Current read: _Union Now with Britain_, Clarence Streit, 1941

One way to study history is through the writings of the times, including those writings that faded quickly from public notice. An old used bookstore is a wonderful source for these, and I found this one at an antique mall. I gather it’s at least a bit rare.

Streit was an interesting guy. From Montana, he had a passion for democracy as a concept. Might sound a little odd, since until recently the US hasn’t exactly had a large contingent of open fascists, but it’ll begin to make sense later in this post. After serving in WWI and observing the way the League of Nations floundered (usually attributed to us snubbing it), he developed strong feelings about the forward progress of human government. The start of World War II brought those views into urgent focus, and Streit wrote this book in an effort to awaken his countrypeople to a Federal Union of the primarily Anglophone countries: the US, UK, Canada, Union of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand.

Context is everything, and let’s establish it for this book. It was early 1941. Germany had absorbed Austria and half of Czechoslovakia (the remaining half becoming a puppet state). It had conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France (puppeting part of it, occupying the rest outright). Of all those, Norway had taken longest. The USSR and Nazi Germany seemed allied, or at least friendly. Nazi warplanes were bombing the UK on a regular basis, and Kriegsmarine submarines threatened to strangle British connections to the Empire’s resources. Italian forces contended with a British Imperial force in Libya. The US was not at war, but had become something of a non-belligerent ally. Japan occupied a substantial chunk of China and was going to have to find petroleum somewhere, or else.

Dark times indeed.

Streit felt he had the solution, which was to escalate the US system up one level. Just as the thirteen original US states had more or less put aside their plentiful quarrels to form a Federal government, Streit felt that a Federal Union of mankind could begin by associating the Anglophone countries as member “states” of a greater whole. If the Germans took Britain and got the Royal Navy, he reasoned, the danger to the rest of the free world would move from severe to mortal. But if all these countries united with the pledge of never quitting until all were free and at peace, Hitler would either have to exit the war or face the mobilizing industrial might of the United States. Membership could then be offered to other non-Anglophone states, including those occupied by the Nazis, with the pledge of “we won’t quit until you’re free.”

Having advocated this solution for years well before the war broke out in Europe, Streit had thought through most of the issues and ramifications. Some he more or less glossed over as “to be dealt with later: A majority of the population governed by these states, perhaps, were not masters in their own houses; he did not propose to end apartheid and the British Raj immediately, and the colonialist chauvinism of the times is present in his outlook. He acknowledges that black Americans were not even nearly on an equal basis with whites, but doesn’t address changing that situation. He felt it quite possible that Hitler would back down rather than face such a Union (not an alliance, which Streit deprecated as temporary and fragile) alone. Japan’s intent was not known at the time, but I think he doubted Japan would square off with a united UK, US, Australia, and New Zealand. And if it came to blows, the Union would combine the best of all its sciences, locations, and populations to create a military juggernaut Japan could never overcome.

Was it viable? Perhaps, if one could get people to put aside all their comparatively minor conflicts and some major ones. With Britain standing to benefit most immediately from Union, I think Streit figured that a union with Britain looked attractive to our friendly former colonial overlords, and that the rest of the Empire would follow. He might have been right. In France’s darkest hour, Churchill offered them a political union, but the French rejected it. Churchill was still Prime Minister. Might he have advocated this, in order to assure the survival of the United Kingdom?

That telegraphs the basis of my own doubt: my cynicism about people’s willingness to put aside relatively small matters for the greater good. Every time I go to the grocery store and see a maskhole wearing it below his or her nose, or crowding me in the checkout line, I am reminded just how many people simply do not care about others. I felt that way before the pandemic and I feel more so now. Are some peoples better about it than the ones among whom I must buy food? Perhaps; perhaps not so much. I resist the tendency to imagine that people really differ at heart. Take former Yugoslavia, where not only have the former member peoples broken the country into a half dozen pieces–inflicting enormous damage and death upon each other before the matters became settled–but none of the underlying resentments and angers are gone. In fact, all have obtained new chapters of resentment and grudge. And all could join in shouting me down about it, that I misunderstand how their own people’s grudges are all legitimate and those of all the others so much noise, that I know nothing of their region and the Horrible Things Done Centuries Ago that remain unavenged. Maybe I don’t, but I do know they weren’t killing each other under Tito, and when he left, killing started. I think less killing tends to be a good thing. Prove me wrong.

The most essential key to understanding Streit’s perspective is remembering what had not happened when he wrote the book.

  • Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, or Singapore.
  • Neither the Soviet Union nor the United States were at war.
  • The public had not the faintest idea of the potential in nuclear weapons.
  • No nation had delivered the Nazi military any meaningful defeat.

A year after its publication, three of four of those ceased to be true. That’s how fast things were moving. No wonder Streit felt such urgency.

With outdated books, hindsight is an easy temptation; we have touched on some of it. Streit’s adoration of the US system as the perfect fundamental basis for Federal Union reads chauvinistic. Dismissing nearly 400 million Indians as unready to govern themselves was not calculated to please them, and glossed over the legitimate grievances of an aggregation of peoples who had done just fine until they became a “crown jewel” in someone else’s empire. We know that the war situation was about to change, and that Britain would survive the Blitz, but Streit did not. If one seeks to pick him apart, he’s no longer around to defend his proposal; he passed in 1986.

In any case, it’s worth the read not only for Streit’s take on the political and geopolitical study of it all, but for the view it provides of the way the world looked through one Montana son’s eyes in early 1941.

Shopping cart semi-abandonment

In recent months I have learned of a cruel, mean, horrible activity, never-to-be-done by right-thinking, community-minded folk. These persons have realized that if they load up an online shopping cart, then abandon it, they will be part of statistics over which the whole online vending world is weeping and gnashing its teeth.

Evidently the #1 cause of cart abandonment is that people on some level decide they don’t like the deal, so they bag out. Second commonest cause is they don’t want to have to set up an account. If you read down the list, though, nowhere on that list is the most devastating (and of course naturally discouraged with every fiber of my being) form of abandonment: wrathful, targeted semi-abandonment.

How’s that work? The awful, corporation-hating big meanies who do this terrible thing, who obviously don’t return their shopping carts and always flick their cigarette butts on the ground after smoking them only eight feet away from a window (in Washington, 25′), use a browser that will remember its past sessions. They do not close the shopping session tab before closing the browser, so when it wakes up the next day, the cart is still full. That full cart is still affecting the vendor’s inventory and sales, which is just dastardly. It’s the fundamental equivalent of going to the grocery store, filling your cart, and walking out without it–except that a) the online stuff won’t spoil, and b) with no existing login or password, the online vendor has no way to identify the culprit and punish him or her. It’s cruel and unusual, on a par with cat juggling and overdone steak.

That of course is bad enough, but at some point I believe most online merchants could get past that by dumping the abandoned cart themselves if it had no changes for some time. What if there were daily changes? That would be the most detrimental. Someone piles up, say, $300K of crap in the cart, then on a daily basis adds a votive candle or a $5 bar of soap or somesuch? Never checks out? Awful, I tell you. If someone does that, the cart never dumps, and keeps getting bigger. It could be very harmful to inventory control and their rightful profits. And worst of all, they have no real way to address it. It’s their worst nightmare.

I could never encourage anyone to be so unkind to an online vendor who means only to make honest profit by being truthful with consumers and treating employees well, while adhering to the corporate vision of ramping up actionable items and solutioning problems to create maximum shareholder value. And branding. Much branding. More branding than a cattle pen in springtime.

Remember: wealthy people’s increased wealth depends upon you never being mean to them, no matter how their companies treat you, the public, the land, the economy, and kittens.