Category Archives: Uncategorized

Voting With A Porpoise

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A new book to help educate our small fry on the importance and meaning of voting: Voting With a Porpoise by Russell Glass, Sean Callahan and Daniel Howarth (illustrator).

It is a whale of a book:

A pod of dolphins (and their porpoise friend, Petey) is in trouble. Their reef no longer provides the food they need to survive. The pod can’t figure out what to do until Petey suggests they hold an election to decide.

2018 Parent and Teacher Choice Award winner, Voting With a Porpoise is a fun, timeless, and beautifully illustrated story that teaches children how elections and voting have the power to solve hard problems.

The authors created this book to help change the culture around elections and voting. To that end, 100 percent of the profits for Voting With a Porpoise will be donated to 501(c)(3) non-partisan voting-related causes focused on getting more people of all backgrounds to the polls, such as Rock the Vote,, TurboVote, and others.

This book is the next best thing to lowering the voting age to 16! Or lower!

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Is Blackface Ever Racist?

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In order to answer this question, we have to talk about Jim. Jim Crow.

The term “Jim Crow” can refer to the set of laws based on the claim that black people in America are inferior to whites, are to be kept from opportunity, and segregated. Lynching is an option. The law implements this philosophy by codifying segregation and repression.

But Jim Crow was also an actual person. Well, not really a person, but a character played by a person, prior to the Civil War, that war that ended slavery.

After that war, the law, society, and politics changed, giving free blacks, most of whom were former slaves, opportunity and meaningful freedom. This change was widespread, rapid, and dramatic. Suddenly, there were black elected officials, for example. Black kids went to schools with their elders, and African American literacy rates rose rapidly. African Americans voted and actively participated in the political process. African Americans began to accumulate some wealth, and to own land, and were free to use public accommodations.

But the Federal government dropped the ball and these changes were not supported or enforced, and the northern white establishment quickly gave sway to the southern racists. There was a rapid fire series of events often associated with mini battles involving police, troops, and angry townspeople, that pushed African Americans back down. In some counties or cities, even at the state level, there were two sets of ballot boxes during elections. The legal one where everyone could vote, and the whites only box. Generally, the white only ballots were the ones that were counted.

This is when the Jim Crow legal philosophy emerged. White America oversaw the dismantling of most of the post war advancements, using the Jim Crow laws.

Besides the Jim Crow laws, another part of that regression was the widespread construction of civil war monuments across the south, honoring southern generals, troops, etc. Also, monuments were erected to celebrate the white victories in the post Civil War battles mentioned above. These monuments were explicit acts of oppression of black Americans.

Those are the very same monuments that have been coming down lately in the south, the center of protests bringing white supremacists out of the woodwork, the great people on both sides, according to Trump. (See: Taking down New Orleans’ monuments: Not what you think)

So, where does the original Jim Crow fit in? Before the war, Jim Crow was a character played by actor Thomas Dartmouth Rice. He had started playing the role by 1832, probably with blackface from the beginning, but if not, black face was soon added. Jim Crow was an absurd, ignorant, negative depiction meant to denigrate African Americans, mostly in those days slaves. But the black face Jim Crow continued after the Civil War and became the basis for later ministerial shows. Those shows were also meant to denigrate blacks. Stepin Fetchit was a latter day version of this, played by African American actor Lincoln TMA Perry. Perry was the first African American actor to make it big, and he had a long career as a fully co-opted player in 20th century racist Hollywood. Being already black, he did not wear black face, but he played a role fully cognate with Jim Crow.

In fact, post modern revisionists have taken both the original racist Jim Crow image and Stepin Fetchit, made the link with colonial African tropes, to call it all an embodiment of the “trickster” archetype. That’s also racist, that revisionism.

Jim Crow was a very offensive and hurtful parody of black people. Jim Crow was an absurd character meant to entertain racist whites. Jim Crow is where black face began, back in the 1830s Blackface was never not racist.

Blackface Halloween costumes are blatantly racist. Blackface has always, always, been racist. Blackface has been a racist, denigrating, part of white society in America since the early 1830s, when Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice invented this horribly offensive persona. Blackface has never been anything but racist.

And everyone knows this, except Megan Kelly.

NBC, maybe you need to take out the trash. Hey, NBC, thanks for taking out the trash.

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Willa Grows To Cat 5 Unexpectedly, Republicans Rejoice, Twitter Backs Haters

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Willa the Hurricane, poised to make landfall in Western Mexico, has suddenly grown to a Category 5 storm. This has surprised forecasters.

Jeff Masters has a writeup here.

The storm will make landfal somewhere south of Mazatlan, or vicinity, in the wee hours of the morning on Wednesdy. For hours before that, probably starting Tuesday afternoon, there will be dangerous winds hitting the region.

The storm is likely to make an eyewall replacement, which takes several hours and reduces the strength of the storm enough to knock it down a category, temporarily. If the timing of that is just right, Willa may be a Category 4 rather than a Category 5 as it slams into Mexico.

The National Hurricane center does not make storm surge estimates for Mexican Eastern Pacific storms, but the area it is likely to hit looks to me to be very susceptible to flooding of this type.

I note that on Twitter, a very large number of Republicans are rooting for the hurricane to hit the human caravan coming up from Mexico. It won’t, but one might say that any one of those deplorables wishing death and misery to the men, women, and children, in that group of refugees should themselves be slapped hard upside the head. Figuratively, of course, one would not want to incite violence, would one?

I told a few of them (three, exactly) that wishing death to these poor people was inappropriate. Twitter banned me for doing that.

Anyway, good luck everyone in Mexico.

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A variety of cheap books: Lovecraft, Gaiman, Holmes, Bees, Michener, Bass (bones)

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All cheap on the Kindle:

Lovecraft Country: A Novel by Matt Ruff.

The critically acclaimed cult novelist makes visceral the terrors of life in Jim Crow America and its lingering effects in this brilliant and wondrous work of the imagination that melds historical fiction, pulp noir, and Lovecraftian horror and fantasy.

Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, 22-year-old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George—publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide—and his childhood friend Letitia. On their journey to the manor of Mr. Braithwhite—heir to the estate that owned one of Atticus’s ancestors—they encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.

At the manor, Atticus discovers his father in chains, held prisoner by a secret cabal named the Order of the Ancient Dawn—led by Samuel Braithwhite and his son Caleb—which has gathered to orchestrate a ritual that shockingly centers on Atticus. And his one hope of salvation may be the seed of his—and the whole Turner clan’s—destruction.

A chimerical blend of magic, power, hope, and freedom that stretches across time, touching diverse members of two black families, Lovecraft Country is a devastating kaleidoscopic portrait of racism—the terrifying specter that continues to haunt us today.

A Book of Bees by Sue Hubbell:

A New York Times Notable Book: “A melodious mix of memoir, nature journal, and beekeeping manual” (Kirkus Reviews).

Weaving a vivid portrait of her own life and her bees’ lives, author Sue Hubbell lovingly describes the ins and outs of beekeeping on her small Missouri farm, where the end of one honey season is the start of the next. With three hundred hives, Hubbell stays busy year-round tending to the bees and harvesting their honey, a process that is as personally demanding as it is rewarding.

Exploring the progression of both the author and the hive through the seasons, this is “a book about bees to be sure, but it is also about other things: the important difference between loneliness and solitude; the seasonal rhythms inherent in rural living; the achievement of independence; the accommodating of oneself to nature” (The Philadelphia Inquirer). Beautifully written and full of exquisitely rendered details, it is a tribute to Hubbell’s wild hilltop in the Ozarks and of the joys of living a complex life in a simple place.

The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, edited by John Joseph Adams and including an entry by Neil Gaiman:

The game is afoot! Night Shade Books is proud to present the fantastic adventures of the world’s greatest detective — mystery, fantasy, science fiction, horror, no genre can escape the esteemed detective’s needle-sharp intellect and intuition.
This reprint anthology showcases the best Holmes short fiction from the last 25 years, featuring stories by such visionaries as Stephen King, Neil Gaimen, Laura King, and many others.

Flesh and Bone: A Body Farm Novel by Jefferson Bass:

Anthropologist Dr. Bill Brockton founded Tennessee’s world-famous Body Farm—a small piece of land where corpses are left to decay in order to gain important forensic information. Now, in the wake of a shocking crime in nearby Chattanooga, he’s called upon by Jess Carter—the rising star of the state’s medical examiners—to help her unravel a murderous puzzle. But after re-creating the death scene at the Body Farm, Brockton discovers his career, reputation, and life are in dire jeopardy when a second, unexplained corpse appears in the grisly setting.

Accused of a horrific crime—transformed overnight from a respected professor to a hated and feared pariah—Bill Brockton will need every ounce of his formidable forensic skills to escape the ingeniously woven net that’s tightening around him . . . and to prove the seemingly impossible: his own innocence.

The Drifters: A Novel by James Michener:

In this triumphant bestseller, renowned novelist James A. Michener unfolds a powerful and poignant drama of disenchanted youth during the Vietnam era. Against exotic backdrops including Spain, Morocco, and Mozambique, he weaves together the heady dreams, shocking tribulations, and heartwarming bonds of six young runaways cast adrift in the world—as well as the hedonistic pursuit of drugs and pleasure that collapses all around them. With the sure touch of a master, Michener pulls us into the private world of these unforgettable characters, exposing their innermost desires with remarkable candor and infinite compassion.

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Interesting House Races, Georgia to Kansas

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Among these states, there are 53 House seats, 20 held by Democrats, 33 by Republicans. There are probably two seats currently held by Republicans that are going to become Democratic. There are a few others that might change, but not likely. That is a closing of a 25% gap to a 17% gap, bringing Democrats closer to a majority, but with no cigars being handed out.

Iowa‘s 1st district is currently represented by Republican Rod Blum, who seems to be firmly behind Democratic challenger Abby Finkenauer, according to 538. Finkenauer has been ahead across several polls in this much polled race, since last February. That includes partisan polls both Democratic and Republicans, as well as the Siena NYT poll and Emmerson College.

This is a takeaway.

Republican incumbent Peer Roskam, in Illinois 6, is somewhat likely to lose to Democratic challenger Sean Casten. The numbers are not statistically separated, but Casten is pulling forward quickly, but mainly in Democratic leaning partisan polls. As recently as early September, the Siena College NYT poll put Roskam ahead by one point. Yet, 538 puts Casten at a slightly higher chance of winning. I’m going to hold off on this and suggest that Casten wins with a large Blue wave.

Illinois 12th district has a Republican incumbent, Mike Bost, with a strong Democratic challenger, Brendan Kelly, who is statistically almost identical, but slightly behind. There is a Green Party candidate, Randy Auxier, running in that race with 3 points. With the Green Party candidate there, I can’t give this race to the Democrats except in a strong blue wave which, hopefully, sinks the Green as well as Red.

In Kansas’s 3rd district, Democrat Sharice Davids seems highly likely to pull off a take away from Republican incumbent Kevin Yoder. The polling is strong, and 538 gives their odds at close to 8:2

Kansas 2nd district is currently held by Republican Lynn Jenkins, who is not running for re-election. Democrat Paul Davis is a tiny bit ahead of Republican Steve Watkins. Polling is sparse and the numbers are variable. This is not one to put in the takeaway list, but it could move there, and is definitely a race to watch.

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Warmaking By American Presidents

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This book is just out: Presidents of War by Michael Beschloss.

Ten years in the research and writing, Presidents of War is a fresh, magisterial, intimate look at a procession of American leaders as they took the nation into conflict and mobilized their country for victory. It brings us into the room as they make the most difficult decisions that face any President, at times sending hundreds of thousands of American men and women to their deaths.

From James Madison and the War of 1812 to recent times, we see them struggling with Congress, the courts, the press, their own advisors and antiwar protesters; seeking comfort from their spouses, families and friends; and dropping to their knees in prayer. We come to understand how these Presidents were able to withstand the pressures of war—both physically and emotionally—or were broken by them.

Beschloss’s interviews with surviving participants in the drama and his findings in original letters, diaries, once-classified national security documents, and other sources help him to tell this story in a way it has not been told before. Presidents of War combines the sense of being there with the overarching context of two centuries of American history. This important book shows how far we have traveled from the time of our Founders, who tried to constrain presidential power, to our modern day, when a single leader has the potential to launch nuclear weapons that can destroy much of the human race.

We are reminded, of course, of Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, by Rachel Maddow.

Speaking of Rachel Maddow and books on presidents and war, here is Rachel Maddow speaking with Michael Beschloss about presidents and war and books thereon.

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The Truth about the Oxford Comma

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The first thing you need to know about the Oxford Comma is actually a thing you need to know about Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a special place on the internet where the conversation the rest of us are having about many topics can’t actually happen. In this case, Wikipedia has determined that the Oxford Comma is actually called the Serial Comma, even though nobody in the whole world calls it this. Somewhere in the history of the current Wikipedia article on this topic, somebody discovered primacy of the word “serial” and insisted that since that word was used first, in 1121 or something, it beats “Oxford.” This silly sort of thing is common in Wikipedia, and I’ve discussed it before. But, I digress.

The Oxford Comma, also known as the Harvard Comma, is that last comma in a list before the “and” or the “or.”

You need it in sentences like this:

“I took a picture of my parents the president and the first lady.”

There are different ways to put commas in that sentence. In one version of this sentence, I am Chelsea Clinton. In the other version of this sentence, I’m a visitor to the White House and the President and First Lady are standing there next to my parents, and I snap a photograph.

Most style guides for writers, including the Oxford Style Manual, the APA, Chicago Manual of Style, MLA, Strunk and White, the USGPO and others mandate the use of this ultimate comma. It is less often used in the UK, but the Oxford guide does require it. Overall, the total number of words printed under stylistic guidance use it, though the Oxford comma is not accepted stock and barrel.

The AP style guide eschews the Oxford comma, and generally, journalistic style guides recommend against it.

The reason a style guide would require it is simple, in my view. A missing Oxford comma is an abomination. You can really screw up the meaning of a sentence by leaving it off. But it is hard to mess up a sentence by using it when it is not needed. Most of the time, the only reason to not use it is because you are short of commas. In the old days, when commas were an actual thing, made out of lead, maybe it was worth having a rule that helped conserve them. Perhaps that is also why American spelling tends to diverge from British spelling in the use of fewer letters per word. They had lots of lead type in Great Britain because of a longer history of of type use, or because they shifted to fighting all their wars overseas.

The point is, if you tell your writers to always use it, mistakes will rarely be made.

There are, of course, times when the Oxford Comma adds, rather than subtracts, ambiguity from a sentence.

“I am going to say a prayer for my dog, Jesus, and my cat.”

Am I praying for three entities (two of which exist), or am I praying for my dog, named Jesus, and also, my unnamed cat?

Which brings us to my own personal conclusion about the Oxford-Harvard comma. Which, by the way, is not too different from what each and every style guide actually says.

Most style guides say, “Use/Don’t use the Oxford Comma, unless you must, to make your meaning clear.”

My preference is to say, “Use/Don’t use the Oxford Comma as you please, just make sure your meaning is clear, unless, as a writer, you chose to be unclear.”

This sort of approach is true with punctuation generally. You really should start your sentences with Upper Case letters, and end them with periods. But, you don’t have to. You can be e E cummingS. How does a writer handle quotes within quotes? Up to you. According to many style guides, when you shift paragraphs within dialog, normal quotation rules fly out the window. But, you can do it differently if you want.

Some writers use a lot of semicolons; others do not. There is no rule that forces you to do so, but there are guidelines for when you could. Which you can ignore; I don’t.

Is your text meant to be read aloud, even if just in the head of the reader? Is there cadence that affects the way the words feel? If so, you might find yourself using, as needed, commas that technically should not be there. Or you might leave some off to change the sound your words make in someone’s head. That is your choice as a writer. Seriously. That is your choice, as a writer.

Non fiction that is actually published almost always has to pass through the style guide process, so writers are advised to know the guide they are working under, and adapt accordingly, even if it hurts. Fiction, even if processed by a publishing system, is more personalized. You should be able to argue for your own style because that is the whole point of getting a writer to write something instead of just doing it yourself. Right?

The truth about the Oxford, Harvard, or Serial comma is that there is always optional but usually recommended. Saying you can’t use it unless necessary will cause people to err on the side of caution with their editor, but against caution with their readers. Saves you commas, but in the long run, causes you more trouble than it is worth.

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Clicky and sticky: The secret to creating viral content

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Twenty five centuries ago, long before the start of the common era, the written record about the spoken language began. The ancient Greeks were not likely the first to study speech and communication, and they certainly were not the first to write stuff down, but among the early writers, they were probably the first to write about how we construct messages and stories with words.

Joe Rom's Book How to go viral and reach millions. Greg Laden's BlogToday we are engaged in a great battle between those who respect, even demand, the truth, and those who care more about partisan power than advancing or even using knowledge.

Perhaps this is why we tend to quote the dead more than ever. During the current election season, I’ve heard the late great Senator Paul Wellstone (1944-2002) quoted at nearly every meeting of loyal Democrats. “We all do better when we all do better.” “The future will not belong to those who sit on the sidelines. The future will not belong to the cynics. The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” “I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.” “I’m short, I’m Jewish and I’m a liberal”

We remember the inspiring words of JFK. “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” “A child miseducated is a child lost.” “Those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly.” “Ask not what your country can do for you… ask what you can do for your country.”

To turn to the living for one moment, Gloria Steinem. “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” “Some of us are becoming the men we wanted to marry.” “Childbirth is more admirable than conquest, more amazing than self-defense, and as courageous as either one.”

What do these memorable, moving, or emotive missives have in common? They all rely on rhetorical practices that have been part of language since, possibly, some ancient early stage of this unique human ability. Alliteration, Allusion, and Analogy are to language what a good set of planes and saws it to a carpenter. Parallelism, balance, and anaphora are used repeatedly. It is not hyberbole to suggest that metaphor underlies all of these statements. Human language, when used well, can shape minds, steer conversations, and cause more change than any military weapon.

Yet progressives, Democrats, and others on the left, even with their deep respect for and love of education, can’t seem to create a message that serves the struggle of keeping civilization on track. Why? I might guess it is because the eschewing of rhetorical forms has become the style of the day. Or, it could be because learning the rhetorical forms that work is hard to do, and our school systems, burdened under the ever increasing weight of standards across a wide range of subjects, had to squeeze something out, so rhetoric had to go. Whatever the reason, we are paying a cost. We need to dedicate serious effort to changing this.

Maybe it is a difference between private and public schools. Maybe the people who write for Republicans are from Exeter and the people who write for Democrats are from Stuyvesant High. This is not necessarily a difference in quality of education, but perhaps the elite prep schools know to teach about metonymy, epizeuxis, and enumeratio, because they know to weaponize the young else the efforts of the ascending generation would be in vain.

And yes, those forms of speech do sound like JK Rowlings-conceived spells one would cast with a unicorn-core wand made of ash. And they are, in the sense that powerfully crafted words are the original powerful magic.

Everybody left of center would do well to embrace tried and true ways to communicate, else that side of the political spectrum becomes extinct.

In an effort to combat this problem, Joe Romm, trained as a scientist, a student of rhetoric, a long time communicator of politics and issues such as climate change, has written an excellent book: How To Go Viral and Reach Millions: Top Persuasion Secrets from Social Media Superstars, Jesus, Shakespeare, Oprah, and Even Donald Trump.

Notice that the title of the book is rhetorically structured to attract readers.

Joe’s book does the rarely done task of integrating, as I imply above, the thinking of the ancient Greeks, the practice of rhetorical greats like JFK and MLK, and the more recent battle over messaging between Republicans and Democrats. This is further informed by reference to modern social science and psychology research.

This is really more of a war than a single battle, and the Republicans famously win most of the battles. Romm provides key insight as to how they do this, and how those on the left can to better. And when we do better, any of us, we all do better. It is said.

I’ll have to go back to see if Joe Romm explains why most of our paragraphs are so short these days.

Romm’s book is informative and offers inspiration, but it also offers very specific advice and guidance. It is well researched, authoritative, accessible, and memorable. Unlike so many other books on communication, it is a good piece of communication.

As an added bonus, Romm talks about his own experience with the publication process, an excellent source of helpful advice and perhaps inspiration for potential self-published authors.

I am happy that you are reading this review, but I’d be even happier if you would listen to my interview with Joe, which you will find as an installment of Ikonokast Podcast: Episode 21 – What messages go viral and reach millions?

Our conversation goes far and wide, and is not a systematic treatment of the book, so you will want to to both: buy the book and also listen to the podcast.

Finally, a challenge to Joe Romm himself: If you come across this post, can you suggest a better headline than my original? (“How to put together a message that will be clicky and sticky”)? One of these days, I’ll install a headline tester plugin. For now I’m flying with the stick. Which is probably a metaphor that went out of style about the time they invented sliced bread.

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What about all those Nuke Plants in Florence’s Path?

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The US Southeast has a lot of nuke plants. Like this:

Operating Nuclear Power Plants in the US Southeast, courtesy of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

It is highly unlikely that a direct hit from the most energetic part of a hurricane would affect a nuclear power plant, as they are very well built. I don’t know what major flooding would do for any given plant. I suspect that most or all nuclear power plants in the region are not as well protected from floods ad they need to be, since a typical year now has flooding that no one ever thought would occur commonly. With climate change, 100-year and 500-year floods happen a couple of times a decade in some areas, and the hypercharged hurricanes we now have, with Houston style flooding (see how “Houston” replaces “Biblical” since we no longer have to imagine the epic flooding!), I think we simply don’t know what will happen at nuclear plants affected by three foot rainfalls in their upper catchments.

The biggest and most likely problem with nuclear plans is this. They need to be cooled. Cooling normally happens when they are operating and producing energy. But when the distribution and transmission grids they serve are obliterated, the plants have to shut down since they can’t send electricity out. They then have to cool themselves using alternative fuels. (I’m oversimplifying a great deal here but I assume people will chime in with plenty of distracting details).

Many, perhaps all, nuke plants in the US Southeast have over recent years (since the Fukushima disaster) upgraded their alternate cooling plans, which mainly involves big generators and supplies of liquid fuel for them.

This weekend may be the test of those upgrades.

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