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Horizontal line This week the Pope and the President of the United States said that it was time we paid attention to the great inequality of income among people. The Pope was speaking in a favela in Brazil, the President in Galesburg, Illinois. The papacy doesn’t have the military power it once had — Joseph Stalin once derisively asked, “How many divisions has the Pope?” — but the Pope is assumed by around 1.2 billion Catholics to have powerful friends in high places. And President Obama is Commander in Chief of the most powerful military machine on the planet. So maybe something will get done about economic inequality. Possibly….. OK, maybe never.Horizontal line

Messy Flower Garden (2)

Messy flower gardenReaders of Critical Pages may recall that we believe in messy gardens — messy vegetable gardens, messy flower gardens. The gardens at Versailles give us a splitting headache, and as we pointed out in our previous post on this subject, the people who delighted in the gardens of Versailles got their heads split from their necks. French aristocrats liked the idea of Nature tamed, contained and obedient to the Gardener. The gardens at Versailles reflected the aristocracy’s ideal on how to rule not only unruly Nature, but also the unruly lower classes. But we at Critical Pages are believers in fair democracy, so we let our garden grow any which way it pleases. If one flower gets watered, all flowers get watered.  No  one percent hogging 80 percent of the nutrients in this garden. And the flowers appear to be happy.

Egypt, the Mobs & Democracy

On the evening of July 3 and long into the night, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians celebrated the Egyptian military’s ouster of their democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi, who had been in office for about a year.

We old sourballs at Critical Pages have never liked President Morsi. His party, composed primarily of the Muslim Brotherhood and a sprinkling of conservative Islamic groups, was the last to take part in the grassroots uprising that overthrew the autocratic Hosni Mubarak — an uprising that succeeded when the military withdrew their support of Mubarak, forced him out of office and took him prisoner. And when the Muslim Brotherhood did begin to participate in the move against Mubarak, they said they were not interested in political power and would not field a presidential candidate.

That was merely the first in a long list of lies and stealth maneuvers that brought Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to power. And after getting into office President Morsi behaved like a man who, having won the election, believes he has an intrinsic right to do whatever he pleases.  And what pleased him was to acquire more and more power. At one point in 2012 he granted himself unlimited powers to “protect” the nation and the power to legislate without judicial oversight or review. Yup, he was a rotten president.

But we old sourballs don’t feel like celebrating the overthrow of a democratically elected president, even a rotten one, by a military junta acting in the name of “the people,” by which they mean the mobs in the street. That mob is made up of secularists, yes, and liberals, yes, and also by lots of supporters of Mubarak and by religious zealots more backward than the Muslim Brotherhood. But even if those cheering in Tahrir Square had been saints and angels, it’s still a lousy way to remove a president from office.

So the military powers have rolled out the armored personnel carriers, arrested the president, arrested the leaders of his political party, suspended the constitution and announced to the cheering throngs that they, the generals, will present them with a roadmap to the future. The last time this happened was at the fall of Mubarak and after the military had been in power for a while the mobs discovered they didn’t like it.

Maybe this is what Egypt needed to do. Maybe the political system had failed — it certainly looked that way — we know the economy was failing and maybe the society as a whole was sliding toward failure. Now, this time, maybe the secularists will get their act together, get organized, field one candidate and not three. Maybe Egyptian society will get around to the concept that people have certain rights regardless of which party wins an election. Maybe the idea of live-and-let-live will spread everywhere.

Take Your Camera To The Bank

Bank vault 470Let’s have some fun with privacy.  But first of all, let’s be reasonable. We don’t expect privacy when we take a walk down town or drive into the city. That’s important, because a “reasonable expectation of privacy” is often the basis for judicial decisions on privacy.

But do reasonable people expect to be followed continuously by a policeman?  That’s what happens whether you’re a pedestrian on the sidewalk or a driver in a car. Police departments have access to municipal cameras posted all over town and they can follow a person or a vehicle quite nicely. And don’t think you’ll escape surveillance because they’ll fall asleep from boredom. They have excellent software that takes the drudgery out of finding and trailing you.  Furthermore, they can make arrangements to be connected to commercially owned cameras positioned in stores or outside or in parking lots.They have you covered.

But the invasion of privacy is all in one direction. Have you noticed? Your government and the commercial enterprises that surround you, such as your bank,  are permitted take your photograph and invade your privacy, but you’re not supposed to  invade theirs in return.

The next time you go to the bank, take a camera with you and photograph the employees and the interior of the bank. After all, the bank is run by reasonable people who don’t expect their customers to be blind and not able to see their surrounding. So take a camera along and start taking photographs. If you take photos with your smartphone, you’ll be able to upload them! Work fast.

The Right to Privacy

Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren  were friends and classmates at Harvard Law School. They graduated in 1877 —

Samuel Warren, 1875

Samuel Warren, 1875

Warren was second in that class, second to Brandeis who not only was first, but also had the highest grade average in the history of the school, a record that lasted for 80 years.  In 1879 the two young lawyers founded the Boston law firm of Nutter McClennen & Fish. At the end of 1890 they published their famous law review article “The Right to Privacy.” It has remained a landmark in American legal history. What follows is a brief excerpt from  that famous article:

Brandeis, Louis

Louis Brandeis, 1900

The common law secures to each individual the right of determining, ordinarily, to what extent his thoughts, sentiments, and emotions shall be communicated to others. Under our system of government, he can never be compelled to express them (except when upon the witness stand); and even if he has chosen to give them expression, he generally retains the power to fix the limits of the publicity which shall be given them. The existence of this right does not depend upon the particular method of expression adopted. It is immaterial whether it be by word  or by signs, in painting, by sculpture, or in music. Neither does the existence of the right depend upon the nature or value of the thought or emotion, nor upon the excellence of the means of expression. The same protection is accorded to a casual letter or an entry in a diary and to the most valuable poem or essay, to a botch or daub and to a masterpiece. In every such case the individual is entitled to decide whether that which is his shall be given to the public.

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In 1916, Louis Brandeis — by that time a well known advocate of progressive causes — was confirmed by the Senate and became an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.  His nomination by President Woodrow Wilson was controversial; there was opposition from some because of his “radical” views and from others because he would be the first Jew on the Supreme Court. The vote was 47 to 22. Forty four Democratic Senators and three Republicans voted in favor,  21 Republican Senators and one Democrat voted against.

Adopt-A-Cat Month

Bucky, the catJune is Adopt-A-Cat month. Maybe we were absent from school the day they taught about that. Or maybe Adopt-A-Cat month wasn’t created until recently and we’re getting the news late. No one around here knew about it until a week and a half of June had gone by. Although we at Critical Pages don’t plan to adopt a cat, we’ll certainly appreciate all month long anyone who does. The feline pictured here is from the comic strip, Get Fuzzy by Darby Conley. The cat’s name is Bucky,  a clever but often annoyed animal who enjoys insulting his amiable,  simple and non-confrontational housemate, a dog named Satchel, and his owner,  Rob. We nominate Bucky as the iconic figure for  Adopt-A-Cat month because he’s not cute.

NSA vs. The Fourth Amendment

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Yes, that’s the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, the fourth item in the Bill of Rights. But a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post reveals that our government is collecting information directly from the servers of  Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.  And that’s searching and seizing without probable cause.

 It’s too early to say that our National Security Agency is tracking every email we send or receive, and every phone call we make or receive, how long we spoke and to whom.  After all, we only found out about the program today. What do we know, right?

 On the other hand, we do know the government doesn’t have probable cause to believe that all citizens with telephones and/or  email accounts have committed a crime. Nor has a judge issued two or three hundred million warrants based upon probable cause.

 Some defenders of the National Security Agency say that the agency doesn’t violate the Fourth Amendment by gathering all this metadata  — data about data — because it isn’t actually listening to your phone conversations or reading your texts or examining the sites you visited or the photos you posted or received. It’s only tracking, only recording who you talk with and for how long, only recording what websites you visit, and so forth. The NSA gathers this metadata so it can sift through it, sift through all of it, to uncover patterns which may or may not look suspicious. So all those people, those people referred to in the Fourth Amendment, they have nothing to worry about. Except their privacy.

Student Loans – the Cost of Borrowing

Belushi & college jerseyThe House of Representatives recently passed legislation which gives college students a hand up and also slaps them in the face. On one hand, the legislation stops student loan interest rates from doubling, but on the other hand it ties the interest rate to the rate on 10-year Treasury notes – a rate which is already rising. This is a Republican bill, and it passed largely along party lines.

Currently, 7.4 million students with federal Stafford loans pay 3.4 percent interest, but the rate will double to 6.8 percent if Congress doesn’t do something about it. Democrats nailed the rate to 3.4 percent when they controlled the House. Republicans tried to raise the rate last June, but the public outcry was so loud that they backed down and extended the old rate for one year.

Well, here we are a year later and Republicans have decided it would be dandy to allow the interest rate to be reset annually. Interest would be the same as on a 10-year Treasury note, plus an additional 2.5 percent for the Stafford loans. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office projects rates on Stafford loans will rise to 5 percent in 2014 and 7.7 percent in 2023. Stafford loans for college kids would be capped at 8.5 percent, and loans for graduate students and parents would have a top of 10.5 percent.

TransUnion, the credit information company, estimates that on average students graduating this year will leave college with a $24,000 debt along with their new diplomas. Fidelity, the financial services corporation, estimates the average student loan debt is closer to $35,000 per graduate.

The economist Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate,  writing in the New York Times, pointed out a couple of  dismal distinctions between the United States and other countries: “America is distinctive among advanced industrialized countries in the burden it places on students and their parents for financing higher education. America is also exceptional among comparable countries for the high cost of a college degree, including at public universities.”

Print Books versus E-books

Joyland bookcoverStephen King has decided to publish his forthcoming book as a print publication, not an e-book. This is news in the book biz. It’s news because e-books are surging and publishers are wondering out loud whether the old fashioned books — you known, the kind that are printed on paper and bound in covers, sometimes in real cloth covers — are going the way of the quill pen. Furthermore, and most important,  Stephen King was one of the first best selling authors to sell a fresh work as an e-book.

Stephen King has sufficient star power to make those kinds of decisions. Usually, it’s the mega-publisher who decides which way to send a book to market, but King is a mega-mega-author. Way back in 2000, when e-books were a new phenomenon, King let Riding the Bullet  come out as the first mass e-book. It was so popular, the servers hosting the book crashed. In fact, it was so successful that he released his next book from his own website and let his readers pay on the honor system. Not all his readers were honorable. King is big enough to sustain that kind of hazard.

And now Stephen King is releasing Joyland exclusively in print  as a $12.95 paperback. Does this signal a change of heart about e-books on the part of the writer? Probably  not. The new Joyland  is  an old-fashioned, hard-boiled mystery novel and he choose to publish it through Hard Case Crime, which has been publishing hard-boiled crime stories since 2004, issuing them in retro covers. It’s the kind of book that you’d want to publish the old-fashioned retro way, without intending to make a statement about e-books and the future of publishing.

The Case of Jorge Medieros

You never know what you’ll find on these pages. This time it’s a quick bit of quirky short fiction. “The Case of Jorge Medeiros” is by Francesca Forrest, an editor who is also a writer of young adult novels and short stories which deal in the fantastic. We came across  her tale of a man and his book of random numbers at askiyume.livejournal.com. And we found it a welcome relief from some of the grimly serious news coming from all directions these days.  No need to be rational all the time. In fact, it’s good to   enjoy the irrational now and then.


The Case of Jorge Mederios

A texting driver made a widower of Jorge Medeiros, and perhaps it’s not too far-fetched to say that it was the association of text—words—with death that pushed him in the direction of faith in numbers.

In any case, left with the care of his two elementary-school-aged children, Jorge’s indispensible aid became a book of random numbers, a souvenir from the middle of the last century that his wife had picked up at a yard sale as a curiosity.

He started out using it for household tasks: How long should he run the dryer for? Its serial number was 4214289, so he opened the book at random and ran his finger down the columns until he came to a number that began with 421. The next two digits were seven and six. Seventy-six minutes? Seventy-six seconds? Seven point six minutes? The dryer dial said “Max Dry” next to the 70, so he decided on seventy-six minutes. The clothes were very dry.

He used the number book to determine what temperature to set the oven to keep the pizza warm, how many rolls of wrapping paper to buy for the school’s fundraiser, and how much was an appropriate amount to spend when the kids were invited to birthday parties. The results were varyingly successful and disastrous: 512 (degrees Fahrenheit) resulted in thick black smoke, a visit from the fire department, and no pizza for dinner; 96 (rolls of wrapping paper) delighted the PTO at Linsey Elementary School.

He even used the book of random numbers for the kids’ bedtime stories, at first just reading off the numbers, only to be pressed by the boys to explain the what, who, where, when, and why. Four thousand fifteen whats? Grains of sand. Twenty who? Fishermen. Three hundred fifty where? Miles off the coast of New Bedford. Eighty-eight when? Years ago.

But why?

“Thirteen,” their father said, and then, by way of further explanation, “The twenty fishermen carried the 4,015 grains of sand divided between their—” (here he consulted the book) “—five boats to ward off the bad luck of the number thirteen, when they had to go out fishing on the thirteenth day of the month. It’s a bit of the shore with them in the boat, see? So they’ll never drown. They’ll always make it home.”

And so on.

This his sons have accepted as natural. Three months ago, for their father’s thirty-fifth birthday, they pooled their funds and bought him Pi to Five Million Places. He told me the gift brought tears to his eyes.

Since then, he’s abandoned his original book of random numbers and now relies entirely on pi for his number consultations, taking smaller or larger doses of it as needed, mining it from its never-ending, nonrepeating decimal tail.

“It’s a continuous stream, see? Go on, open to any page.” I opened to page 147 (of 588), and sure enough, nothing but row upon row of uninterrupted digits, zero through nine.

“Just like life . . . and irrational, too, just like life.”



More Notes

Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.