Archive for the ‘ Thoughts & Musings ’ Category

Sleepytime

We need a word for that last little bit of sleep, after you’ve woken up and said “fuck it” and gone back to sleep.

I like that part.

Language Learning and the Words That Escape You

There’s a whole genre of “How to Learn a Language in X Days” webpages out there, and they’re surprisingly entertaining.

Not useful, mind you, but entertaining. Something about the juxtaposition of phrases like “it’s easy!” and “you can too!” with advice like “practice with a tutor for at least four hours a day” and “travel to a country where this is the majority language” just tickles me.

Like…yeah, absolutely. Anyone can learn a new language, if they don’t have to work, and can travel at leisure. I could do a lot of things if I had that kind of time and money.

So like most people, I ignore the scammy and/or over-enthusiastic webpages out there, and just bumble along with some language software and recorded lessons, which does well enough for an unpaid hobby.

And I’ve noticed something over time: no matter what the language is, or how I’m learning it, there are always a handful of words that just will not stick, no matter what I do.

I’m trying to pin down the rhyme and reason. I am deeply curious to know what combination of sounds, parts of speech, and god knows what other factors it is that makes a few specific things constantly impossible to memorize.

Or maybe it’s just psychological: my most recent bugbear has been the Dari word for “friend.” I can remember everything else I’ve learned since I started, just about, but that one is always a gaping hole in my memory whenever I reach for it. Says something about my subconscious priorities, doesn’t it?

And the Banks are Made of Wood Veneer

I had the odd experience of visiting a Chase bank location today (odd, because I’ve been at a hippie-ass local credit union since moving to Wisconsin, and occasionally need reminders of how most of America does its financial business and how shitty that is).

The whole place seemed like the love child of a low-rent dentist’s office in a strip mall and the prison cell from Star Trek Into Darkness: fake wood counters with inch-thick glass windows above them. Guns wouldn’t do robbers much good, but a decent Sawzall could probably have them in and out in five minutes, with a cheap reproduction of a Monet in the trunk as an added bonus.

dum-dum-popsFor me, though, the encapsulating image was the bowls of lollipops behind the bulletproof glass.

Yes, behind. Each teller had a bowl of Dum-Dums at her workstation, generally backed up against the glass and hidden from her view by stacks of envelopes or manilla folders.

The wrappers had dust on them. The bowls were clearly not seeing a lot of use.

But they were still there, so that you could gaze at them through the inch-thick glass and fondly remember the days when everything was open-air and you just snagged a lollipop out of the bowl while your check was being cashed (or snagged five or six, if you were a little kid putting pennies in your first savings account and/or a stoned college kid with some munchies to feed).

There was something very telling about the whole thing, no pun intended. It’s not like some Chase official sat down somewhere and decided to cut the bowls of free lollipops. Some of the tellers might even occasionally remember that they’re there and throw a couple Dum-Dums under the slit in the glass along with your receipt. Like customer service in general, they’re still something the company thinks is probably a good idea — just not at the expense of other, higher-priority issues.

If only we might own those banks of marble, with their guards at every door, and share the bowls of candy that we have sweated for:

Obamacare in Wisconsin: Competitive, Market-Based Solution Seems to Lack Competitive Markets

obamacareRemember how, for a brief shining moment back in the early 2000s, there were a few Congressfolk pushing for a universal, government-run health care system?

And remember how instead we got Obamacare, a center-right blueprint dreamed up by the conservative Heritage Foundation as a market-driven reform?

It turns out that competitive markets only keep prices down when there is, you know, competition, which Wisconsin’s exchanges are currently lacking.

Individual purchasers (like yours truly) have their choice of one “bronze” plan, three “silver” plans, three “gold” plans, and no “platinum” plans on Healthcare.gov — all offered by the same insurance provider. And yes, they’re considerably more expensive than the pre-exhange plans offered by that same company (one of which I’ve held for the last year or so, in the interests of full disclosure).

But thank god I don’t have to face a government monopoly on my health care. That private monopoly might still be a monopoly, but at least I have my FREEDOM!

It’s Surprisingly Hard to Make a Compelling Case Against Bestiality

So, this one popped up on a “most popular” sidebar yesterday, which is not even a little bit surprising. If ever there were a click-baiting headline, “North Carolina Soldier and Wife Charged with Making Dog Porn” would be it.

leda-and-the-swan-in-the-palace-of-fesch-ajaccioBut in clicking past the Huffington Post piece to some actual journalistic coverage, I noticed that the couple was charged with “crimes against nature,” an ominously euphemistic phrase that prompted some unsettling reflections on my part, and, eventually, an equally-unsettling conclusion: the people in question probably shouldn’t be punished for involving a dog in their sex life.

The biggest problem for me is that North Carolina’s crimes against humanity statue is short, old-fashioned, and almost hopelessly vague: “If any person shall commit the crime against nature, with mankind or beast, he shall be punished as a Class I felon.”

So, wow, okay. Yeah. You can tell that one was written in 1868, back when people just nodded grimly and knew exactly what you meant when you said “the crime against nature.”

But given that North Carolina case law has, at varying points in the state’s history, upheld that definition to include both giving and receiving heterosexual anal or oral sex, all forms of homosexual intercourse, cunnilingus, analingus, and “the inserting of an object into a person’s genital opening,” you can see where enforcing it — and defending its constitutionality — might be a problem in this day and age.

Which brings us to an interesting pass, with this little local interest story out of Raeford, NC. The distribution of pornography charge is one matter, but did a “crime against nature” occur? If so, what was it?

Because let’s be blunt here — if sticking an animal’s willy into something is a crime against nature, our entire farm industry has some serious problems. We jerk animals off, we stick big turkey-baster looking things into their vaginas; if we’re feeling old-school we lock them in a pen together and force them to mount one another. Consent does not really come into it, because hey, they’re just animals.

Khajuraho-Lakshmana_Temple_erotic_detail3For that matter, we don’t usually ask their consent before killing and eating them, either.

So it’s tough to make a case against bestiality based on the idea that it’s wrong to treat the animal that way. I’m sure there could be zoophiliac interactions that were so traumatic they constituted animal abuse, just like there can be human sexual interactions that are so traumatic we call them abuse or assault, but that’s a question of force applied, not of the inherent act itself — and it would be an animal abuse charge, not a crime against nature.

Which leaves us with what — that it’s squicky that people enjoy doing something like that?

Sure. I’m on board with that — it is squicky. I am discomfited by the idea. But I don’t think it’s hard for any of us to see the problems with punishing private acts just because they make us uncomfortable.

If everyone involved is consenting (all the humans, that is, because we obviously don’t give a rip about the consent of animals in any other situation involving our power over them) and there’s no money changing hands, is there really a case to be made that bestiality is a “crime against nature”? Pretty much the only thing you’re legislating at that point is what people should and shouldn’t enjoy.

And sure — enjoying sex with a dog is pretty gross. But people feel that way about lots of other, more popularly defensible sex acts, too. You can’t really go around stopping harmless behavior just ’cause it’s gross.

Or you can — but you just might have to resign yourself to being a bit of a hypocrite.

Awkward to think about, isn’t it? Thanks, North Carolina. The news out of you always makes me feel a little weird.

What a Losing Side Looks Like

I wandered over to a Madison Pride Fest event this weekend, which I think is different from just plain Madison Pride, and also other queer things like Fruit Fest — it’s hard to keep them all straight these days (hur hur hur, get it, straight?).

Anyway, this one was less of a glitter-strewn rally with floats and nipple tassels, and more of a neighborhood potluck in a park by one of our lakes. It was maybe a little more colorful than your average block party, and there were a few pamphlet-and-petition tables for various good works groups, but all in all it was a pretty low-key, suburban-whitebread kind of scene.

And then there were the six old guys standing in the sun a few hundred yards away, holding up oversized “GOD HATES HOMOS” signs.

Six of them. Total. Not a one under the age of fifty. Silently sweating their pure, manly balls off wearing blue jeans and work shirts in the August sun, while a couple dozen queers in comfy slacks and dresses danced and ate picnics and chatted with their neighbors in the shade.

I didn’t have a camera capable of capturing the whole scene, or for that matter even just the spread-out line of creepy churchy dudes, but taken as a whole it made about the best illustration I can imagine of what it looks like to be on the wrong side of history.

You gotta wonder about people who don’t have anything better to do with their time.

In an interesting footnote, about half of the aforementioned pamphlet-and-petition tables were churches advertising their gay-friendly bona fides. Having seen a couple churches’ attendance struggles firsthand, I can’t blame ‘em for reaching out, but it was another moment of recognizing just how incredibly out of place the guys with the “SAVE TRADITIONAL MARRIAGE” signs were. I dunno what church they all belonged to, but it’s a little outnumbered.

Maybe just go home and work on your marriages, guys. I bet the wives would enjoy a Saturday outing that doesn’t involve signs and scowling.

Air Travel: The Free Market Microcosm

When I headed out to California last week it was the first time I’d boarded an airplane in five years or so.

The visuals have gotten a lot slicker. Our whole airplane was dimly lit in cool blues and purples, sort of like a jazz bar, right down to the frosty glass (well, plastic, but you know) partitions dividing First Class from the rest of us.

Everything looked very new and shiny, with lots of smooth white plastic (very WALL-E, especially with the screens mounted in front of everyone’s faces). The seats weren’t actually all that padded, but did have contours in the shape of pads.

wall-e-chairs

But visuals aside, the big thing I noticed flying was this: everything is for sale.

No, really. Everything.

Want an exit row seat? Get there early and ask — and hope that the rows haven’t already filled up in advance with people who paid extra to be seated there. Also maybe hope that the people who paid extra to be seated there are capable of opening the doors in case of an actual emergency, because it’s not like the internet checked.

Entertainment in-flight? Rent a pair of headphones and then choose from on-demand movies, some of which are free and some of which (the good stuff) you pay for.

WiFi in flight, $10 an hour. Enter your credit card number on your phone, laptop, or tablet.

Drinks and food, available full service. Order on the screen in front of you and — I’m not making this up – swipe your credit card through the built-in slot. You could even buy a drink for someone else, using their seat number, which, creepy.

And maybe my favorite part of all of this — you of course watch a video these days instead of a real person telling you to buckle your seat belts and put your breath mask on before helping others with theirs, which fine; no one pays attention anyway. And during that video you can’t turn your screen off, which also fine — the airline is required to at least pretend that they made you watch this. So no manual override (during the rest of the flight you could turn the screen entirely off, which I did, apart from occasional map-checks for fun).

But immediately following that safety video, during which the screens are locked on, the airline showed three commercials, which you also couldn’t turn off. You literally had to watch Crate&Barrel and Prudential Financial shilling their wares, as if it were federally mandated. Only after those (and an invitation to shop some sort of weird EBay/SkyMall hybrid) did you regain control of your screen.

It’s all a little terrifying. We have some things which would be nice if they were complimentary, but if the airline wants to sell them fine — drinks, entertainment, etc. That’s their business choice.

But we also have some things that really shouldn’t be for sale, like safety features and airtime shared with government-mandated viewing.

It’s all very capitalism-run-wild, and the result isn’t something I like very much. And that’s all before you take into account the usual hassles of screaming babies, late flights, and so on (we ended up delayed for an hour and a half because we had a plane, but our airline didn’t have a flight crew for it, and had to fly one in from a nearby airport).

Summary: if it’s another five years before I fly, it’ll be too soon.

Generation Y Doesn’t Buy Houses Because Houses Have Been a Giant Con All Our Lives

evacuation-sale-1930s-signNow, I realize I read The Wall Street Journal and therefore have a very warped view of what people older than me are thinking, but seriously, can we stop pondering what it’s going to take to get my generation buying homes to stoke the ol’ housing market?

Because there is a lot of time and ink going into this problem, let me tell you, and the answer is none of the things you might see in the pages of, say, The Wall Street Journal.

People my age are not renting longer and avoiding home ownership because we like to move more, or enjoy urban lifestyles, or are lazy little shits, or whatever.

We’re renting because buying a home is a big fat con that will devour your life savings and leave you homeless. From Reuters this week:

Six former Bank of America Corp employees have alleged that the bank deliberately denied eligible home owners loan modifications and lied to them about the status of their mortgage payments and documents.

The bank allegedly used these tactics to shepherd homeowners into foreclosure, as well as in-house loan modifications. Both yielded the bank more profits than the government-sponsored Home Affordable Modification Program, according to documents recently filed as part of a lawsuit in Massachusetts federal court.

The former employees, who worked at Bank of America centers throughout the United States, said the bank rewarded customer service representatives who foreclosed on homes with cash bonuses and gift cards to retail stores such as Target Corp and Bed Bath & Beyond Inc.

For example, an employee who placed 10 or more accounts into foreclosure a month could get a $500 bonus. At the same time, the bank punished those who did not make the numbers or objected to its tactics with discipline, including firing.

I’m told that, once upon a time, people used the phrase “safe as houses” to mean an investment upon which one could rely? If you are an American under 35 or so it’s just a punchline. Banks foreclosed wrongfully — not total foreclosures, mind you, just wrongful ones — on four million people in America in 2009-2010.

So why, assuming I’m one of the rare twenty-somethings who found a full-time job with benefits and amassed enough savings for a non-negative credit rating, would I ever want to go out and put that money into a house?

Maybe if the seller is offering it cash on the barrel, no banks involved. Beyond that, forget it.

At the point where banks are paying their employees to rob you, there’s not much reason to do business with them that doesn’t involve ski masks and getaway cars. But hey, on the bright side, a lot of us Gen Ys are looking for fallback careers right now…

The Laboratories of Democracy and the Luxury of Voting with Your Feet

wisconsin_mapIn theory, the American federal system is a fantastic political invention: it allows fifty different approaches to social and governmental issues to develop at the same time, with voters picking and choosing the ones they like best.

In practice, that only really works when everyone in the country has the ability to pick up and move to — and vote in — the states that are doing what they like. Failing that, most of your population are more test subjects than experimental designers in the laboratory of democracy.

I’m uniquely privileged in that I chose a self-employed writing career at a time when nearly all such business has moved to the internet. I can quite literally write from anywhere, so long as there’s an internet connection.

I’m also a little more literally invested in issues of state governance than a lot of workers in my income bracket — freelancers are taxed heavily at both the state and federal level (since we have no employer paying a payroll tax), so unlike the majority of my peers (who get tax refunds on the state level), I’m personally paying quite a bit for whatever my legislature has approved.

That makes me much more inclined than the average American to pick up and move stakes when I’m dissatisfied with my state.

I have no illusions about the practical difference this makes to anyone but me — mine is not the sort of business that states compete for. From a fiscal standpoint they could care less whether I go pay my couple thousand dollars of income taxes here or somewhere else.

But as Wisconsin continues a massive downward spiral under its ongoing Republican-controlled government (all three branches — Republican governor, Republican majorities in both houses of the legislature, and a Republican majority under a thin veneer of “nonpartisanship” on our dysfunctional supreme court), it becomes increasingly tempting to accept the disruption of a move just so I can feel a little bit better about where I live.

Because the reality is that I don’t like being part of this experiment. Since I moved here the government has functionally ended public sector unions, cut school funding and poured state dollars into shady voucher programs, layered dozens of new restrictions on abortion access, eliminated contraception-based sex education in favor of abstinence-only programs, and poured millions of taxpayer dollars into new “economic development” offices that generate nothing but indicted administrators.

The sales pitch for all this is that it will somehow help the state economy, of course, and so far it’s helped it right down into the bottom brackets of just about every economic measurement we have, where we’re competing with economic powerhouses like Wyoming — and, increasingly, losing.

There comes a point where it’s not worth staying and voting against the current anymore. If that’s really what Wisconsin wants to be, Wisconsin can be that. That’s democracy for you.

But there’s no reason for me to stick around and be a part of that. And I wish everyone else in the state had that freedom.

A Compelling Argument for State Parks

As regular readers know, I celebrated my birthday this year by vanishing into the woods for some quiet time, which all around worked very well.

While I was in Wyalusing State Park I happened upon this aging informational sign, which I thought might interest you all:

IMG_1549

For those not up on their Wisconsin geography, Wyalusing, Devil’s Lake, and Peninsula State Parks look like this:

wisconsin-state-parks

Wisconsin Dells looks like this:

wisconsin-dells

I call that a compelling argument for a strong state park system, myself.

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