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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.

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.

Live Long And Prosper…

A few days ago,  Republicans in the House voted to kill Obamacare by taking its money away. If you think this is stale news, you’re right. And also wrong. Stale and not stale, because although House Republicans voted to get rid of Obamacare just this month, this most recent vote was the 37th time they’ve tried.

The United States — the greatest free-enterprise country on the planet — has tried to get along on private health insurance plans for half a century after national plans became common in Canada and the nations of Western Europe. The results haven’t been so good. In fact, the US spends more on health per person than most industrially advanced nations, and generally gets poorer results. Here below is a table by the World Health Organization.  It lists nations according to the life expectancy of their citizens. Longest life expectancy at the top of the list, a shorter life as you go down the list. See if you can find the United States.

Rank Country Overall life expectancy at birth Male life expectancy at birth Female life expectancy at birth
1  Japan 82.70 79.45 85.82
2  Switzerland 82.59 80.30 84.69
3  San Marino 82.56 81.98 83.28
4  Italy 82.38 79.83 84.74
5  Singapore 82.35 80.12 84.58
6  Iceland 82.30 80.30 84.00
7  Andorra 82.22 79.03 85.36
8  Australia 82.16 79.99 84.33
9  Spain 82.10 79.00 85.15
10  Qatar 82.08 81.31 83.27
11  Israel 82.05 80.19 83.76
12  Monaco 81.89 78.57 85.09
13  France 81.77 78.46 84.95
14  Sweden 81.74 79.79 83.62
15  Canada 81.54 79.50 83.50
16  Luxembourg 81.52 79.06 83.77
17  Cyprus 81.48 79.39 83.68
18  Norway 81.40 79.27 83.45
19  New Zealand 81.30 79.42 83.09
20 Netherlands 81.20 79.18 83.06
21  Austria 81.10 78.39 83.65
22  Greece 80.94 78.27 83.64
23  Ireland 80.73 78.64 82.78
24  South Korea 80.72 77.35 83.86
25  Finland 80.71 77.59 83.78
26  Germany 80.66 78.29 82.99
27  United Kingdom 80.49 78.50 82.40
28  Belgium 80.40 77.79 82.92
29  Malta 80.38 78.78 81.98
30  Slovenia 80.12 76.60 83.42
31  Portugal 80.08 76.96 83.10
32  Kuwait 79.86 79.54 80.37
33  Denmark 79.46 77.38 81.50
34  Chile 79.28 76.17 82.34
35  Costa Rica 79.14 77.02 81.34
36  Bahrain 78.72 77.67 80.09
37  United States 78.57 76.12 80.93
38  China 75.56 74.05 77.17
39  Brazil 74.33 70.97 77.75
40  Russia 68.85 62.97 74.82
41  India 65.46 63.81 67.30

Yes, the United States is 37th in life expectancy among the nations of the world. The CIA ranks us 33rd in its list based on UN member states.

Another way of looking at the health of a country is to look at its infant mortality rate. The infant mortality rate is calculated simply by figuring the average number of infant deaths in every one thousand live births. The United Nations Population Division lists the United States as 34th.

Easter Eggs

Easter EggsSociety finds it easier to give up religious belief, than to abandon the traditions and symbols of religion. Eggs have symbolized fertility, birth and rebirth, for a long, long time. And, as you probably know, you can find eggs used symbolically that way in a number of religious traditions.  Here and now we’re celebrating Easter and what we have here are Easter eggs.  Much of Christian lay society makes a greater celebration and display at Christmas, Christ’s birthday, but clearly in the sacred drama of Jesus’ life his rising from the dead on Easter morning is far, far more significant than his birth.

If you wish, the egg represents the stone that was rolled against the entrance to the tomb to seal it and was found rolled aside on the third day after his death. Or, if you wish, the egg being empty — and all those painted eggs are first punctured and drained — symbolizes the empty tomb of Christ on Easter day. But for many people, contemporary Easter eggs, as bright and colorful as flowers, simply call to mind springtime, fertility and that awakening we feel when we have come through another dark winter and are looking forward to more light and warmth.Easter Eggs

Death And Other Possible Side Effects

Medieval cure for head cold

Medieval Cure For A Head Cold

The people who sponsor network TV programs do so because they know who is watching those programs. And they figure they have the products that those people want to buy. People from all walks of life might watch the Super Bowl or a weekly comedy show. But only a certain kind of person is going to be a steady viewer of the evening news broadcast on network TV.

Who looks at network TV news? Who wants to be informed about US politics, foreign affairs, advances in science, terrible social situations here and abroad, wars or floods, important legal cases and, occasionally, at the end of the show, some minor,  whimsical event? Who are those people watching the evening news?

They’re people who suffer from head colds, allergies, dry eyes, badly fitting false teeth, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (they call it COPD for short), asthma, gas and bloating, heartburn, acid reflux, constipation, hard stool, arthritis, osteoporosis, erectile dysfunction (they call it ED, for short) low testosterone (low T, for short) and insomnia. And they’re really desperate. The cures advertised for those ailments have scary side effects, such as life-threatening allergic reactions, or cancer, or death due to the collapse of one or more body organs. At least one has suicide as a nasty side effect.

Yes, watching the news is hard. Watching the advertisements is harder.

Far Away Planets Just Like Ours! Sort of… Maybe.

Planets in Milky WayMaybe you’ve seen the curious painting just above here. It was released on January 7, 2013, by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. According to the caption that usually accompanies the painting, it  shows the different types of planets in our Milky Way galaxy detected by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft. The caption also says that a new analysis of Kepler data found there are at least 17 billion planets the size of Earth in the Milky Way.

New stories about the Kepler data are happy to suggest there’s a possibility, a strong possibility — there must be !—-other worlds just like ours out there. I mean, out of 17 billion there must be at least one beautiful blue-and-white planet like our earth, right? Old TV viewers may remember Carl Sagan, the brilliant  Cornell astrophysicist and his award winning TV series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.  Sagan often spoke of the billions and billions of stars in the cosmos, and if there were “billions and billions” of stars, then there must be only a few billion fewer planets to orbit those suns, and if there are billions of planets then surely there’s one, probably many, like our own.

Popular commentary on the recent Kepler data relies on the same statistical hope that there must be some, surely a few,  certainly at least one, just like our own. And if it’s just like our own, then it must have life, like our Earth does, and — oh, hell, let’s go all the way — there must be somebody on some earth-like planet out there looking at a computer screen, reading a post just like you are now!

The people who gather and present the Kepler data don’t make such claims.  As a matter of fact, a visit to the Kepler web site will be a cold shower for anyone hoping to discover there’s a world like ours out there.  In dull fact, the Kepler site counts 105 confirmed planets and 2740 candidates that might get confirmed someday.  Where did the news about 17 billion planets come from? It came from a press conference, January 7, 2013, at the American Astronomical Society Meeting in Long Beach, California. The first two panelists at the press conference spoke about Kepler:

  • Planet Candidates Observed by Kepler: Two Years of Precision Photometry – Christopher Burke (SETI Institute)
  • At Least One in Six Stars Has an Earth-size Planet – Francois Fressin (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

And why now? Maybe — is it possible? — because there are going to be severe cuts to budgets in all sectors of the United States government and even NASA will be on the chopping block. People, tax payers in particular, aren’t especially interested in paying for a space program that scans a bit of the Milky Way looking for a transient dip in starlight, which dip might indicate a planet coming between us and that star, and that’s what Kepler does. But even tax payers are curious about extra terrestial life. So now is a good time to hold a press conference and let the media do the rest.

The Flexible Flyer

Flexible Flyer sledWe thought the Flexible Flyer sled was gone forever. True, it remained in memory, but we thought the Flexible Flyer was a victim of indifferent history, tossed on the pyre of worthless junk like the Rosebud sled that closes “Citizen Kane.” But fortunately we were wrong! The Flexible Flyer in the cellar is no longer lonely — Flexible Flyers are being made and sold today

The S.L. Allen Company of Philadelphia patented the Flexible Flyer in 1889. It was revolutionary, because you could actually steer the sled.  Prior to that, sleds were built like small sleighs — they had immovable runners. But the Flexible Flyer was flexible; the front section of each  runner could be aimed left or right by pulling on a wood crosspiece that was pivoted at its center and attached to the front part of the runners. Soon the Flexible Flyer was the most popular sled in the United States. The next improvement came in the late thirties or forties when the straight back end of each runner was twisted up and around until it faced forward and was bolted safely to the underside of a wooden rail.  Prior to that improvement, the back end of the sled was simply lethal. Fortunately, thick winter clothing prevented most kids from getting impaled.

The Flexible Flyer sled gradually disappeared from  sight in the 1960s when the S. L. Allen Company was sold.  Just about then the two-steel-runner sled began to be replaced, first by aluminum saucers, which were lighter and maybe safer than sleds though they had no steering ability,  and then by sheets of sturdy, bright colored plastic that were much cheaper and even safer than metal saucers — and they went down a snowy slope faster. That’s pretty much what you’ll find on the snowy slopes today. Sure, kids fall off and even when they don’t they bump into each other, but the chances of their getting badly hurt are minimal compared to what it used to be like on those old fashioned sleds.

Today we learned from NPR’s “Only A Game” that the Flexible Flyer is back. The company that ended up owning  S. L. Allen Company’s patent went bust and sold the Flexible Flyer rights to an old, old sled making rival of the S. L. Allen Company, namely the Paris Manufacturing Company, now known as Paricon. (The business started in South Paris, Maine – not France.)  The excellent and informative Flexible Flyer article  at “Only A Game” is by Doug Tribou.  The Flexible Flyer sled in the photo above comes from our childhood, which was a long, long time ago.

The Light of St. Lucy’s Day

St. Lucy processionOur friend Jo Page,  fiction writer, essayist and journalist, is also a Lutheran pastor.  She’s more informed than many of us when it comes to the liturgical calendar, and in this Christmas season she’s written about the beautiful —and, as she notes, strange —celebration of of St. Lucy’s Day. Perhaps you’ve seen the procession of St. Lucy Day, at least in photographs. In fact, it’s extraordinarily beautiful; nowadays the young women wear crowns of electric candles, but not so long ago those were real candles — the youth, the beauty and the danger were all there together. Here’s Jo in her own words:

On Dec. 13th, St. Lucy’s Day, in many Scandinavian countries and in Lutheran communities in the United States, young girls wearing crowns of candles and bearing plates of saffron buns—to represent St. Lucy’s gouged-out eyes—come before their families to sing “Santa Lucia.” Originally this was a Neapolitan sailor’s song, but the words to the Scandinavian versions plea for the return of light and for the release from winter’s darkness.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. One of the weirdest things about the observation of St. Lucy’s Day concerns the legend of the saint and how then how this 4th-century Sicilian saint came to be venerated by Lutherans, who tend not to put much stock in saints.

St. Lucy was a 4th-century Christian martyr during Emperor Diocletian’s widespread persecution of Christians. St. Lucy’s crime was that she had consecrated her virginity to God and wanted her dowry to be distributed to the poor.

Well, when her pagan fiancé found this out, along with her refusal to marry him, he did the stand-up guy thing and denounced her to the Roman authorities. After she refused to burn a sacrifice of the Emperor’s image (this was done to show fealty to the Roman authorities and to reject Christianity), it was determined that a fitting punishment would be to stick her in a brothel where she wouldn’t be able to protect her virginity.

The legend says that when the guards came to take her away they found her so filled with the spirit of God that she was as stiff as a board and too heavy to move even when they hitched her to a team of oxen. In some traditions St. Lucy is tortured by having her eyes gouged out with a fork. In another legend, her fiancé comments on the beauty of her eyes and she gouges them out herself, declaring, “Now let me live to God”.

(This explains why she is seen in paintings bearing her eyes upon a plate and also why she is the patron saint of the blind and those with vision problems. It also explains the grisly custom of having saffron buns represent her eyes. Does put a damper on the appetite.)

Whether or not she was actually burned on a funeral pyre is unclear, but many martyrs under the Emperor Diocletian were. And in St. Lucy’s story, she continues to confess her faith in God’s love while burning to death. Even a spear thrust through her throat could not silence her.

So how does a 4th-century Sicilian martyr become the poster child for the mid-December tradition of putting candles into a crown and having a procession of girls in white robes with red ribbons come in singing a lilting Italian song that had originally been written to request favorable winds while sailing around the bay of Naples?

Well, it’s not clear.

But the lyrics to the Scandinavian versions all share in common the plea for the return of light amid winter darkness:

The night goes with weighty step
round yard and hearth,
round the earth, the sun departs
leaving the woods brooding
There in our dark house,
appears with lighted candles
Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia.

It is, indeed, a strange and beautiful tradition, but more than its strangeness is how it speaks to that common need for light to return and to outlive the darkness, not merely of winter and of night, but the darknesses we find in our lives. When Christina Rosetti wrote “In the bleak mid-winter, long ago/Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone,” I think she was talking about a lot more than just the climate. She was talking about existential isolation and the hope—the need?—for redemption, which for her came with her faith.

In the Santa Lucia processions, almost pagan in their evocations of nature and the spirit of St. Lucy, I think we find that same deep yearning for restoration, for light and for renewal. Because the storied St. Lucy, bearing her eyes on a plate, represents a vision for more than what our eyes, in this darkness, can see.

Jo’s blog is at jo-page.com. For a poem about St. Lucy, visit jo-page.com

What Didn’t Happen

Inhofe, JIm Senato

Senator Jim Inhofe

Something didn’t happen in the Senate last week, so you may not have heard about it. What didn’t happen? The US Senate didn’t ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. The Convention, including its goals and some of the wording, was modeled on the Americans with Disabilities Act. That pioneering legislation was guided through the Senate a couple of decades ago by Republican Senator Bob Dole, Senate majority leader at the time. One of his arms was all but useless due to injuries suffered in World War II.  Bob Dole himself, 89-years old and now in a wheelchair, was brought onto the floor of the Senate to bolster support for passage.

Ratification of treaties and conventions of this sort requires a two-thirds majority, but 38 Senators – all Republicans – refused to ratify the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. The Convention bans discrimination against people with disabilities and promotes their full participation in Society. It’s been signed by 154 nations and ratified by 126 and entered into force in 2008.  Senator Jim Inhofe, Republican from Oklahoma, is typical of those opposing the Convention. “The treaty threatens U.S. sovereignty,” he said.

Hysteria

Hysteria with Maggie Gallenhaal and Hugh Dancy

Hysteria with Maggie Gallenhaal and Hugh Dancy

You probably didn’t see Hysteria, the movie directed by Tanya Wexler.No great loss, as it’s a very silly comedy. On the other hand, if you’re facing a blank weekend and a lonely evening, a silly comedy will do. Maybe we should say right now that Hysteria is about the invention of the massage-vibrator. Yes, that one, the one used primarily by women for sexual relief. As the movie begins it announces that it’s based on “true events. Really.” Yes. Well. Sort of.

Hugh Dancy plays handsome Mortimer Granville — an enlightened doctor of the late 1800s who believes that germs exist and that washing your hands is a good thing to do if you’re a surgeon. In fact, his advanced ideas cause him to lose his job. Fortunately, he finds work as an assistant to Dr. Dalrymple, an upscale physician who caters to women diagnosed as having hysteria, a Victorian female problem with a collections of symptoms: insomnia, fatigue, sexual frustration and general nervousness.

Dalrymple’s successful cure consists of a discrete massage (masturbation is the word we’d use today) of the patient under something like a fancy red shawl that conceals what’s going on down there. Dr. Dalrymple happens to have two daughters: passive & conventional Emily, who lives with her widowed father, plays Chopin and studies phrenology, and feisty Charlotte, dramatized by Maggie Gallenhaal,  who has left home to work in an impoverished settlement house, educating children of the poor, taking care of the sick and injured, a bright energetic woman with advanced ideas about medicine and women’s rights and sex.  OK, you’ve got the setup.

But handsome Mortimer abruptly loses his smarts and, encouraged by his mentor Dr. Dalrymple, begins to court passive & conventional Emily! Young Dr. Mortimer becomes quite skilled at the massage cure for hysteria, so skilled that his patient list grows and he develops carpel tunnel syndrome. As it happens, his very rich young friend, Edmund St. John-Smythe, an inventor, is at work on a hand-held electric fan. It doesn’t work so well as a fan— it vibrates! OK, you get where the movie is  going with this.

Viewers can enjoy being aghast at the hypocrisy and willful ignorance of Victorian society (as portrayed in this cartoonish movie) and can anticipate with pleasure Dr. Mortimer’s last-minuet recognition that smart, cheerful Charlotte, who looks terrific in a strapless gown, and who believes in germs and the washing of hands, but doesn’t believe in hysteria, a woman who is vibrantly sexual and who will take a husband as an equal, yes, our Charlotte is the one he admires and loves —why, he’ll even go down on one knee in the snowy courtyard of the settlement house to propose to her! And she’ll accept.

♦♦♦

There was a doctor Joseph Mortimer Granville who is credited with inventing the electric percussive massaging instrument, but he refused to use it to cure women suffering from “female hysteria,” an affliction which rose to prominence in Victorian times and was, indeed, treated as portrayed in this movie.

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.