Al’s Big Travel Book

Now that I’ve drawn the illustrations for my two latest books, I’m emboldened to try it again for the next one.

AL’S BIG TRAVEL BOOK will tell the story of airline fees in pictures. That won’t be easy because fees are just abstractions until you actually hand over the money – so nobody knows what they look like.

Then there’s this. Once airports became cesspools of human aggravation, I stopped traveling to any destination that is farther away than I can drive; so what do I know about airlines? Ah well, it’s humor.

Besides, it’s not just me. Airlines have a history of troubled relations with illustrators in general. Look at the wretched renderings on their seatback safety cards – walking-stick mannequins jumping out of emergency doors onto canvas chutes, their faces blank and their arms pointed straight in the air. The dregs of the illustration industry.

The airlines probably paid undocumented freelance artists $8 an hour and then charged them easel and palette fees by the color.

But back to the task at hand. The first drawing problem I have to solve is for a tableau that shows all the exclusive benefits of a US Airways Dividend Miles MasterCard.

As they teach at summer writers’ conferences, Show – Don’t Tell. So I want to picture myself and four companions “enjoying our first eligible checked bags FREE on domestic US Airways operated flights.” As if that weren’t head-scratcher enough, my traveling companions are on the verge of desertion – sick of striking poses so that I can picture them enjoying their fee-free bags.

Still, the mightiest challenge lies ahead. The most dramatic scenes in AL’S BIG TRAVEL BOOK will show me and two friends reveling in US Airways’ $99 companion tickets.

What a deal! Heck, my kid could illustrate that!

Actually, I have four kids, but this is tough enough without invidious comparisons (“invidious” comes from the Latin for “You can’t make a movie out of that”).

Since the $99 partner ticket offer is the book’s dramatic climax, I want to get it just right – especially the taxes and fees and special charges that have to be added to the $99.

How do you illustrate foreign departure taxes, customs and immigration fees, airport improvement fees, U.S. security fees, passenger facility charges, federal excise taxes, Canadian VAT/GST, and September 11 security fees? Or, for that matter, “additional government-imposed charges composed of a U.S. immigration fee of $7, airport fees of $10, Canada air traffic security charge of $9, and specific fees and charges that vary with itineraries and exchange rates and may be changed without notice.”

Oh, and then I have to draw a picture of 75 blackout dates when the offer doesn’t apply.

After my BIG TRAVEL BOOK, I may do one on mathematics, another subject in which I’m purportedly ignorant. We’ll see about that. I’m going to delineate the mathematical map of a $99 companion ticket, including all taxes, fees, special charges, and whimsical add-ons.

Simple arithmetic suggests a cost for each person of $65,000-plus, so I guess I can’t use simple arithmetic. I’ll have to use calculus, in keeping with airlines’ custom of confusing and ultimately out raging every last passenger. (“calculus” is Latin for the coating of plaque that forms on your teeth if you don’t floss.)

Fortunately, I have those four kids to help me with my homework.

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Dark Pigeon Skies

We should all be grateful for the Endangered Species Act — passed in 1973 under Richard Nixon of all people, back before Congress had turned over the legislative function to lobbyists – and upheld by the Supreme Court before that august council had become an extension of the Republican National Committee.

In fact some of us would like to strengthen the act, for example by adding humans to the endangered list so that we can be saved like the Peregrine Falcons, Bald Eagles, and California Condors. Also, we’d like to require that large farms leave large grass buffer zones untilled, both as wildlife habitat and to keep silt-laden runoff from clogging our rivers and sticking our barges in the resulting mud.

Finally, a death penalty should be added for frackers who report (as EQT Resources did in Pennsylvania) that they had sent 21 tons of fracking fluids and drill cuttings to landfill when the actual number was 95.000 tons.

To err is human, but stretching the truth by 50 million percent is unacceptable.

Yet despite all these virtuous impulses, there are other environmental reflexes that are simply absent from my genetic kit. One such dubious pontification popped up this month with the 100th anniversary of the day Martha died in a Cincinnati zoo. She was the last living Passenger Pigeon.

Failing to lament Martha’s demise makes me a pariah, I gather, at least judging from the dirge penned by Cornell ornithologist John Fitzpatrick for the New York Times this past Sunday. He thinks Martha would ask if she could – “Have you learned anything from my passing?”

Says Fitzpatrick: “It seems that whenever humans discover bounty, it is doomed to become a fleeting resource. The fate of the cod fisheries in the late 1900s mirrors that of the Passenger Pigeon a century before. Pacific Bluefin Tuna may be next in line.” He might have added that another characteristic shared by all three species is that they’re edible.

But the tuna and cod never flew over your house three billion at a time, blotting out the blue skies and sunshine and coating your picnic table, windshield, tricycle, clothesline, and grotto of the Virgin Mary with three to five inches of bird droppings.

When the pigeons flew over a northeastern U.S. city, they would darken the sky for days on end.

To me, that state of affairs – not the subsequent extinction – was the real environmental calamity of its time. It ended with the ultimate eradication of Passenger Pigeons by the millions in their northern breeding grounds and at huge southern roosts – and shipping them by the trainload to processing plants, finally to dinner tables and restaurants as low cost “city chicken.”

It’s good to be an environmentalist. But let’s pause to note the ingenuity and resourcefulness of us true-blue, red-blooded Americans.

What do we do when engulfed in a plague of biblical proportions? We eat it!

Would that mosquitos and locusts were as tasty as city chickens.

Mything Links

Since we publish a fair number of scientific reports here at The Horse (usually under the rubric, “Front Ears of Science”), we like to think we’re keeping up with the latest discoveries.

Hardly a week goes by, however, that some spoilsport doesn’t publish some new study that claims to turn previous findings inside out.

Nine years ago, in the Author’s Preface to my book of light verse, I urged readers to try writing some of their own:

“You may discover that writing light verse is a good way to shift gears in your brain – to let your neurons know (which is what neurons do) that you appreciate their versatility, and to let your left brain take a sabbatical from problem-solving to have some fun rummaging around in your right brain’s tool boxes and toy chests.”

So of course this week a professor of cognitive science at UC Irvine publishes an article calling the whole left brain/right brain model a myth. Gregory Hickok says the two hemispheres are pretty much alike and that they work together in most tasks that involve any complexity to speak of.

A myth? He can speak for himself. Most of us keep our myths in the right brain and our data in the left brain, at room temperature.

Prof. Hickok also pooh-poohs the idea of mirror neurons, which were supposed to explain how you know what I’m thinking of doing and vice-versa – the basis for learning by imitation and for empathy.

Even worse, he disputes the popular notion that we humans use only 10% of our brain power (See the current film, Lucy. On second thought, don’t – it wouldn’t engage anything close to 10% of your brain). Lucy starts using greater portions of her mental capacities and acquires a violent repertoire of computer animation and sound effects.

Next, the professor will no doubt attack one of my most cherished secrets of intellectual potential. I had learned from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time that the total amount of energy in the universe is zero. The positive energy visible in light, heat, and matter is cancelled out by the negative energy of gravity.

Zero! Can you imagine?

That’s how much energy you have in your own brain on a bad day. I realized then that you or I could start our own universes at will, using zero energy, if only we could find the right trigger mechanism.

For me, that turned out to be looking sharply to the left and yelling, “FRP!”

Of course I can’t prove that this works (nor can the Professor prove it doesn’t) because it’s impossible to communicate with other universes, but I know for a fact that my latest creation is a universe in which myths about the brain are legally protected as endangered speciousness. But idiotic puns are perfectly legal.

Obviously, you have to use your right brain to create a wild, messy thing like a universe. Your left brain would decline the honor, rolling your eyes without even bothering to raise your eyebrows.

Front Ears of Science

Our exclusive science feature usually reports from the far corners of human knowledge – new discoveries in research and new atrocities in pseudoscientific and antiscientific mandates from officials of church and state, talk radio, and Fox News.

This time we ignore all that and report on questions instead of answers.

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Holly looked up the other day from an article in the Times Science Section and asked,

“What would a dinosaur need with feathers?”

What indeed! A splendid question to incite class discussion at any grade level from kindergarten to graduate school.

But there it was – paleontologists have unearthed yet another fossil of yet another feathered dinosaur species – this time in Russia – yet another proof that dinosaurs are the ancestors of modern birds. That would seem to indicate that feathers conferred some evolutionary advantage to the survival of the species – which is Holly’s question.

What advantage?

I could think of half an answer. In the case of pterosaurs — flying species such as pterodactyls – feathers had the same advantage they have for birds.

But a number of feathered species turn out to be in the same group as T-Rex. In a rare burst of paleontological humor, lead researcher Pascal Godefroit of the Royal Belgian Institute mused:

“Maybe T-Rex was some kind of big chicken.”

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Barb has long been troubled by a related question—Why aren’t we finding bird beaks all over our back yards? Their hard chitin is not readily compostable (as feathers usually are – which is why it took so long for science to discover them on dinosaurs).

As Barb concludes her doctoral dissertation on the subject,

“Why aren’t we up to our asses in bird beaks?”

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The youngest inquirer on today’s panel, eleven year old Elena, has the rare talent of reducing a hundred questions to a two or three word essence.

Worried because she had heard her grandfather was sick, Elena asked him if his heart had gotten better. After getting an evasive answer, she looked at him closely, then asked:

“Can you run?”

ISMISM

I’m sure I’ve seen this quotation (and most others) attributed to Yogi Berra or Mark Twain, but I just saw it laid at the feet of theoretical physicist Neils Bohr:

“Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.”

In the days of oracles, animal sacrifice, and rain dances, dealing with the future was a fairly straightforward though stubbornly frightening project. The emergence from that era is a story well told in a book I’ve often recommended, the late Peter Bernstein’s Against the Gods.

His special focus is the measurement of risk – unknown, except intuitively, until the 13th century, as far as European and Western Hemisphere people were concerned. Bernstein shows how humans discovered that although they could not predict what would happen, there was much they could figure out about what is likely – and how likely – or unlikely to occur.

Quantifying risk began shortly after Fibonacci introduced Arabic numbers to replace hard-to-calculate Roman numerals.

Innovations in risk-assessment proceeded through the centuries, mainly through the efforts of a few highly motivated genius gamblers, then to Pascal, Fermat, and on to the computer models of today. Which leads – among other things – to government foreshadowings of events such as unemployment, GDP, and inflation forecasts that have to be revised repeatedly after the fact – sometimes revising their methods of calculation as well.

But at least they have methods to revise, and they strive to pin down elusive facts, as do the Weather Bureau, NIH, CDC, OMB, CBO, and other agencies staffed by professional analysts.

Some new research out of Canada – just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – studies 1500 military intelligence forecasts prepared between 2005 and 2011. They found, as noted by The Economist, that the old joke about “military intelligence” being an oxymoron is unfair.

The findings: the intelligence analysts were right three-quarters of the time.

As a class, intelligence analysts are cautious, systematic, largely logical, and held accountable. Though it’s their mistakes we tend to remember, they’re most often on target — consistently outperforming media pundits who play prognosticator and often leave a trail so littered with mistakes that no-one can possibly clean up after them.

If you’ll excuse the self-indulgence, I have a personal theory that reinforces these conclusions.

I don’t know how to make the world’s best predictions, but I do know how to make the worst – start with a rigid ideology, and predict that reality will unfold according to your personal “ism.”

My name for that tendency is ISMISM, and there are a myriad of isms to choose from – Communism, Socialism, Capitalism, Buddhism, Veganism, Catholicism, Islamism, creationism,and hundreds more.

There is no factual basis for an ideological ism. It’s a belief system, pure and simple. If reality clashes with one of the beliefs, then reality must be wrong. Change it. Make up some lies and teach them to your kids.

The rest of us have to be careful – some isms are camouflaged by the lack of “ism” at the ends of their names. Supply-Side Economics, for example (and its fraternal twin, Trickle-Down), is a fact-free, 100% foolish ism, except for the cynical smirk from its perpetrators because the false promise of free money works so well politically.

Think of Dick Cheney or Paul Ryan and their high priestess, Ayn Rand. Or Larry Kudlow, who has been wrong about every major economic turn for 35 years (When Bill Clinton was elected, Kudlow predicted that the 1990s would turn into a calamitous 1930s-style recession), yet he still holds forth as a TV pundit on every subject in which he’s earned an F.

Or think Torquemada.

The Inquisition was an ism within an ism. As in dozens of organized religions, purity of belief – no matter how cockeyed or ignorant – has been deemed worth torturing and killing for. When the doctrines involved are academic rather than theological, then heresy is punishable by denial of publication or tenure or a parking place.

One thing puzzles me. I have a whole shelf of books prognosticating coming events trends, or epochs, all of them authored by admitted “futurists.”

Surely the future itself can’t be an ism. It’s too variable, versatile, and real – unlike, say, Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh, pounding away on their one-key pianos. If you so much as say “Happy Holidays” during the Christmas season, you’re on their Enemies List.

A Merry Ismness to all — and to all the most narrow-minded, a Merry Isthmus and good night.

Folk Wisdom vs. Punditry

I come from Pennsylvania, whose political map has been described as Philadelphia at one end, Pittsburgh at the other, and Arkansas in between.

Lately, that’s also been a rough portrait of the U.S. as a whole, a schizophrenic Jekyll/Hyde that’s about to be tested once again this November.

This morning an analyst on CNBC recited the common wisdom – that Democrats are vulnerable in a number of states, stretching their resources, while Republicans are sitting on mountains of cash surrounded by gloating Supreme court conservatives and ferocious billionaires; so they are bound to take over the Senate as well as the House this fall.

It could all be true – especially in red states armed with gerrymandered districts and racist, anti-minority, anti-democracy voter suppression laws cloaked as anti-vote-fraud measures.

The only vote frauds in sight are the voter suppression laws themselves, which in a perfect world would be punished as treason.

But wait a minute. This week results of the latest (January) Pew Research Center poll were crisply summed up by Charles M. Blow in the Times, and those sentiments seem to hint at a different story. If voters are speaking the truth to pollsters, the nation may no longer be so easy to mislead as Republicans are assuming. To wit:

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Asked which party is more willing to work with the other party, 52% of respondents said the Democrats. Only 27% said Republicans.

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Which party is more concerned “with needs of people like me”? Again, 52% said Democratic, 32% said Republican.

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Which party governs in a more honest and ethical way? 41% Democratic, 31% Republican.

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Do Republicans outscore Democrats on anything? Oh, yes:

Which party is more extreme in its positions? Republican 54%, Democratic 35%. Which is more influenced by Lobbyists? Republican 47%, Democratic 30%.

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Underscoring the voters’ disgust, the most recent Gallup poll asked them what should be done to fix Congress, and the most popular answer was to throw the rascals out — fire every one of them. Another favored choice: term limits.

What should be done about the Supreme Court? It’s a good thing nobody asked.

As folk wisdom has always advised, hope for the best but plan for the worst.
We’ll soon see how folk wisdom fares — after running a gauntlet of three more months of lying, smearing TV ads — when next the folk go to the polls.

Lemmas in Your Domicile

Some years ago, Dr. Steve and I took a couple of years of Latin in high school, partly because teachers said it would expand our vocabularies. If you know a little Latin, you get the meaning of “agriculture” or “ domicile” even if you never heard of them.

As it turns out, everyone has heard of agriculture. And domicile? I’ve yet to encounter a situation where you could speak the word without sounding like a pompous ass. Now, then:

Our word for today is “lemma,” which does not refer to a small northern rodent falsely accused of suicidal migrations off seaside cliffs.

“Lemma” comes from the Greek (for “husk”) rather than Latin. In publishing, it means a subhead or subject title, as distinct from “Boldface Italics,” which refers to an unruly mob in Palermo.

In forensics, polemics, and bickering, “lemma” means an assumption accepted for the sake of argument – ie, a proposition assumed to be true in order to test the truth of another proposition.

So nobody uses that, either.

Like domicile, lemma is a word you never say whose sole purpose is to make people feel ignorant.

True, one often finds oneself on the horns of a dilemma. I’m not sure where the horns came from, but a dilemma presents exactly two choices, both of them bad. And as if that weren’t sufficiently discouraging, this week’s Economist is talking about “trilemmas.”

Wise-Ass Oxford exhibitionists.

Their current issue carries an article about currency exchange systems, like the gold standard, the Bretton Woods agreement, or floating exchange rates. In preparing that essay, the editors realized that no such system will ever quite work. All attempts seek three goals – a fixed exchange rate, free movement of capital, and sovereign independence of monetary policy – but the fact is, you can achieve any two of these but not all three. (eg, under a gold standard you meet the first two criteria but not the third.)

Likewise, in designing a healthcare system, you want to control the three C’s – Cost, Coverage, and Choice – and you can achieve any two of these but not all. People will be furious, and none of them will want to hear about trilemmas.

So chalk up another unusable word – trilemma. Feel free to forget it entirely.

Unless it shows up in the news. Larry Ellison might decide that a three-masted trilemma could win the Americas Cup.

Raise the Minimum Bribe!

Disgraceful. Just disgraceful.

Congressional junkets – paid for by lobbyists – are on the rise again. On hundreds of “fact finding” trips, congressmen and women and their aides and families and girlfriends and boyfriends find facts such as where the best beaches are and which luxury hotels have the fluffiest pillows.

It’s a privileged existence. And yet for some reason the congressmen still expect hard working taxpayers to kick in with generous public salaries and pensions on top of everything they get from their corporate sponsors. Are we to suppose that the special interests represented by lobbyists can’t afford to support congress in an appropriate lifestyle without yet another federal subsidy?

Last year the lobbyists came up with $6 million worth of junkets that we know about, plus whatever goes on in the dark. In exchange, we can be sure the special interests are getting $6 billion in benefits sneaked through congress – or $60 billion; who really knows? So why can’t they afford to pay their captive legislators a living wage?

There ought to be a law. If lobbyists insist on shaping the government to their own liking, they shouldn’t be asking for handouts from working Americans to subsidize their congressional payroll.

Admittedly, state legislators, especially the dumb ones, are worth much less to the lobbyists – no big military contracts, interstate highways, or free oil and gas leases – so they should be corruptible at less expense. Perhaps a lower minimum bribe could be allowed for ridiculously stupid, sanctimonious, flagrantly crooked creationist zombie state legislators (for certification, just get one to open his mouth).

You get what you pay for. Clearly, in one form or another, it’s time to raise the Minimum Bribe.

Let’s give corruption a chance to work.

Good-for-Nothings

Call it the Good-for-Nothing Government Caucus. For the past 35 years or so, it’s been a sacred article of the Republican faith that government is not much good at anything.

Government can’t innovate new technology, devout right wingers believe, nor create jobs, nor stimulate economic growth. Only the mighty private sector of free market capitalism can take us to the Promised Land. All the government can do is screw things up with useless regulations and wasteful entitlements to healthcare, Food Stamps, Social Security, Medicare, Fannie Mae, Freddy Mac, and polling places in black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

Dismantling all those programs (though not so far proposing any real alternatives) pretty much describes the Republican Holy Grail ever since Reagan promised to “get the government off our backs.”

It’s a stunning confession of guilt.

Republicans are roughly half the government they abhor. Since they’ve unanimously pronounced themselves useless, we’ll have to admit that we had noticed.

Democrats understand that government can do essential things well – except when its Incompetent Caucus stamps its feet in unison, holds its breath, and screams “NO!” to every initiative, even their own.

That’s settled, then. Nothing remains except for mass Republican resignations from state and federal office, and the refunding of ill-gotten salaries they collected but haven’t done anything to earn for the past 6 years.

Or not. Actually each time the Good-for-Nothing Government Caucus is again proven wrong, it just gets louder, repeating the same ignorant non-facts that have just been discredited.

A couple of examples.

Paul Krugman writes in Saturday’s Times about the state of Obamacare – not how bad it is, how good it is – how every doomsday/trainwreck prediction from right wingers has come crashing down around their ears.

No, the sign-ups did not fall short of quotas; they far exceeded them. No, the ratio of younger participants did not turn out to be too low. No, the insurance companies did not sharply increase premiums.

But you can still hear the same hollow proclamations of non-facts twelve times a day on Fox News, recited as if from the New Testament. Old dogs turning old tricks –speaking for treats.

Another example – perhaps the richest of all – is the commonly stated assumption that technological innovations never come from government, always arise from entrepreneurism and profit motives in the private sector.

On that subject, Mariana Mazzucato just published The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths (Anthem) – which the New York Review of Books calls “one of the most incisive economics books in years.”

Mazzucato quotes various economists who should have known better – Milton Friedman, Lawrence Summers, Robert Gordon – as, in Gordon’s term, “extremely skeptical of government as a source of innovation.” He thinks real inventions come from entrepreneurs like those in Silicon Valley.

Mazzucato shows how misinformed such typical comments have been. Not only was the Internet itself developed by the Defense Department, it was also U.S. military contracts that gave rise to the flowering of Silicon Valley around Palo Alto.

Though Steve Jobs and others brilliantly designed commercial products, “almost all the scientific research on which the iPod, iPhone, and iPad are based was done by government-backed scientists in Europe and America.”

For example, research that resulted in touchscreen technology arose from government-sponsored science in the 1960s and 1970s.

In the medical sciences, much the same pattern holds true. Between 1993 and 2004, NIH was responsible for 75% of the major scientific breakthroughs – known as “new molecular entities.”

Despite all the credit commonly given to venture capital, the fact is that private firms typically invest only after innovations have come a long way under government’s much more daring basic research and more patient injection of capital.

In reality, less and less basic research is done by companies. Instead, they focus on commercial development of breakthroughs already achieved with the help of public money. Mazzucato cites government initiatives that engendered new technologies in completely new spheres such as information theory, information technology, nuclear energy, biotech, and nanotech.

Not bad for a good-for-nothing government.

Titular Traps & Trappings

This is one of those non book reviews you find only on The Horse, where we throw up our hands at the thought of reading, much less analyzing, the millions of books being published willy-nilly these days. It’s beginning to look like Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel, with an infinite number of books in random order.

So here are two novels, both by Tom Rackman: The Imperfectionists and The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. We’ll have to assume the novels are good because we don’t intend to read them, and we don’t want to be surly. What we wanted to note here were the titles, and the author’s explanations for them.

We’re wondering, why would anyone launch into reading a novel born in an aesthetic universe where these pass for acceptable titles?

Well, I’ll tell you why, says the author. He just penned a thousand-word guide on how to arrive at such brilliant names for your books that everyone thinks your fictions are nonfiction rehashes of the Cold War. To would-be novelists with too much time on their hands and too little imagination, here indeed are the keys to the kingdom.

Rackmann explains how he kept a separate sheet for possible titles as he wrote his latest novel. By the time he finished his first draft, he had two possibilities. After the third draft, the sheet was “crammed with contenders.”

No, Dear. On your best day ever, it might have one, conceivably two “contenders” along with three dozen feeble stabs, fleeting epiphanies, and neurological spasms.

And good reasons marshaled in defense of a bad title don’t help. Rackman gives three “levels of meaning” for The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, each one worse than the others, but the fact is,

Titles can’t be written, certainly not reasoned out. They happen.

The more reasons you can give for your title, the fewer its embers in your Kindle. The more explanations you have for its virtues, the more your publisher (if any) will insist on an alternative.

Rackman concedes that his publisher was uncomfortable with the repellent non-fiction titles he had chosen for his fictions. He’s also aware that some of his elders and betters have accepted title changes – that The Last Man in Europe became 1984; Trimalchio in West Egg became The Great Gatsby; and Atticus became To Kill a Mockingbird. But he’s not going to be bullied out of his reasons and his levels of meaning.

Think of some of your own favorite titles.

One of mine appeared on the cover of an oral history about Jews immigrating to Pittsburgh early in the 20th century. Volunteers set about interviewing the old timers while they were still around to interview; and one of the immigrants , a grandmother bursting with reawakened memories, exclaimed:

By Myself, I’m a Book!

You can’t write that title. It has to happen. And imagine Lynne Truss’s problem, trying to concoct a gripping title for a book on the importance of punctuation in the English language. She didn’t write it; her genius was to recognize what she had stumbled upon in a description of the panda. Then all she had to do was mispunctuate it:

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

I don’t lay claim to hall of fame titles for any of my books, but one of the better ones appears on a volume of light verse – and it’s not easy to find a name for a hundred or so poems in a bunch. Its title:

If instead of apes we had come from grapes, we wouldn’t just yet be wine.

That was simply the last two lines of a poem called “There’s the Bell,” which thus became the book’s title poem. Good or bad, for me it was a breakthrough – I never had a title poem before.