Archive for the ‘life’ Category

Trump’s death rallies

June 16, 2020

Many Trump supporters still think covid-19 is a hoax.* Now he invites them to stake their lives on that.

He’ll hold a rally June 20 in Tulsa, Oklahoma; later in Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina. The main thrust is to show America back in business. Evoking Admiral Farragut — “damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

For the Tulsa rally, the New York Times reports, Trump campaign officials foresee no social distancing or mask wearing, because Trump doesn’t want to be seen with people doing that. And because such precautions “would be unnecessary because the state is so far along in its reopening.”

Most states are reopening. Some, like New York, cautiously, keyed to falling infection and death rates. Others — mostly red states like Oklahoma — willy-nilly, actually disregarding the disease’s trends, rising in many of them.

In Oklahoma the virus is not receding. And remember that Trump supporters are the most likely to ignore the threat, to have already heedlessly exposed themselves to it, and hence are the most likely to be walking covid bombs.** A rally with thousands of such people crammed closely together, indoors, with no protective masks, is called, in the lingo, a “super-spreader” event. Or let’s just call it insane.

That epitomizes Trumpdom.  Here we see this con man’s narcissistic vanity trumping even the very lives of his fans. Plumbing new depths of depravity, he draws them  literally to their deaths. (They’ll be required to sign waivers, promising not to sue.) And still they love him.

Insane.

But this is Trump’s political strategy in the face of the health and economic apocalypse his fecklessness surely worsened. Act like it’s all over with. Even as the death toll rises. Damn the torpedoes!

And even this may not be a bridge too far for Trumpsuckers already cocooned in the alternate reality he spins with Fox News’ help. If Fox simply stops talking about covid carnage, it won’t be happening. Except to those actually dying. It’s said doctors bury their mistakes. Trump is trying something similar.

* Coin World reports a widespread conspiracy theory that Australia’s $10 bill proves it’s a hoax, orchestrated by billionaires and governments to force vaccinations on the public. Pointing to design features they say picture the virus, and show Bill Gates at his desk. Those actually, Australia’s Reserve Bank says, show the country’s wattle plant, and the writer Mary Gilmore, so identified on the note. Also, it was introduced in 2017!

** The big annual national coin show slated for Pittsburgh in August has not (yet) been cancelled and organizers promise plenty of precautions. But I will likely skip it, sadly, because it will draw Trumpsters who blow off precautions and thus irresponsibly endanger others.

Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?

May 29, 2020

That’s the title of a book in the Edge series edited by John Brockman, each containing short essays by a wide range of leading intellects answering a question.

The internet clearly changes how we behave, and live. But think? A much harder question because how we think is not, to begin with, well understood. But the answer is probably closer to no than yes, because our brain function is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history. And it’s increasingly clear that much if not most of what we think of as thinking takes place on a level below conscious awareness. What you think you think and what you really think can differ.

Humans have developed ever more sophisticated tools to facilitate thought. First, language; then writing; both really huge add-ons to our pre-installed neuronal thinking apparatus. Then disseminating written language via printing. The internet, important though it is, must be seen as yet one more such tool, like an external hard-drive appended to our basic thinking machine. Which still remains basically unchanged.

But it bears noting that Edge asked a cultural elite about their thinking. Not “the man in the street.” Naturally many Edge responders emphasized benefits in terms of pursuing their intellectual, research, collaborative, scientific endeavors, etc. I was reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr’s saying religion is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people. Smarter people aren’t necessarily better people. But in some ways the internet is a good thing for very smart people and a bad thing for the rest.

Those writing Edge essays can use it very advantageously. Some did bemoan being distracted by extraneous stuff. Cat videos? But cat videos are harmless. What very smart people don’t get waylaid by is all the internet’s toxic crap, all the stuff reinforcing pre-existing misconceptions, the political craziness, all the conspiracy theories. They’re too smart for that.

Notice I’m saying very smart people. Unfortunately being just “smart” isn’t enough. The anti-vax hysteria shows this. Anti-vaxxers are actually, on average, smarter than average. But not as smart as Edge contributors, who would never fall for such harmful nonsense — spread mainly by the internet.

The difference is that Edge writers and their sort tend to have a deep grounding of knowledge and understanding about the world, to vet things like anti-vaxx, creationism, new age fads, Trumpism. Too many others lack that: blank slates onto which rubbish sticks as well as truth. Suckers for hucksters, charlatans, and demogogues.

Roger Schank’s essay put it thus: “The intelligentsia may well be getting smarter because they have easy access to a wider range of good thinking, but the rest of the world may be getting dumber because they have easy access to nonsense.”

Or Mark Twain (supposedly) said: a lie can run around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on. That was before the internet really got going. And the book was published in 2011, before a lot of the worst net-instigated problems became evident — before anti-vaxx really exploded, and of course before we became aware of the pernicious aspects of social media, especially in relation to the 2016 election.

Changing topics, I’ll quote Alun Anderson’s essay: on the net, “[i]n a few hours, an innocent can see more of the pleasures and perversions of sex . . . than an eighteenth century roué could experience in a lifetime devoted to illicit encounters.” It really was so challenging back then. I’ve written previously about online porn’s ubiquity profoundly affecting this most elemental aspect of human life. In advanced Western societies, at least, sex has become a lot more open than it used to be, for a long time already, and we’ve grown somewhat jaded. This moderates the impact of widely available porn. But consider societies that remain more traditional. Anderson, with some experience of them, does so. He believes this aspect of the internet (a very big aspect indeed) will ultimately shake their foundations.

Stay tuned.

Harvey Havel: Dealing with rejection

May 23, 2020

This big fat book showed up unexpected in my mailbox. Harvey Havel is a fixture in the local literary scene. Chatting with him at a recent author talk, it had emerged that we’d both published blog essay collections. So he sent me his. He’s a sweet person. Also tormented.

The book starts with political essays (a decade and more old). Perhaps unusual for a professional writer of color, his viewpoint is determinedly centrist. And Olympian, looking past the issues of the day, in a larger perspective, trying to see the tectonic forces shaping our politics. As a professional writer, Havel has a glib command of the relevant lingo. Yet I found his analyses somewhat oversimplified, falling short of profundity. (Sorry, Harvey.)

So after reading some of this I decided to skip ahead to the later sections dealing with more personal matters, and stuff like sexual politics. This was much more engaging. Havel speaks from the heart with unsparing candor.

Like about his alcoholism. It nearly destroyed him; he believes it’s actually necessary to sink that low before one can overcome. He’s apparently been off the stuff for a good long time now, but alcoholism still looms as a big presence in his life.

He was also ruined, he says, by money. Given a big lump sum by his father upon college graduation, he lived the high life, as though it would never run out. Of course it did, while turning him into “a man of low morals and character,” blocking his capacity to grow. Thus he says he remained a child (as of 2005 anyway). He had to learn the meaningfulness of earning what one has. He feels his “relationship with money now is the happiness and satisfaction that I have somehow rid myself of it.”

Here, and elsewhere, he brings in belief in God, crediting that for positive change in his life. I know many people feel the same. But Havel never really analyzes this (as he analyzes so much else). I have no such belief. For me, divorcement from reality cannot be the basis for an authentically meaningful life.

One 2009 piece starts off, “read this poem and then we’ll have a discussion about it.” Titled “Qualm” it ostensibly debates pushing an airplane alarm button, and Havel does discuss it at length. Finding this in the book was a nice surprise, as the poet is Therese L. Broderick (my wife).

Havel is not one of those many people who write as a sideline or hobby. Instead, he decided out of college to make this his career. Now approaching 50, he’s been at it for decades. With little reward. He has self-published many books (including this one), but his indefatigable efforts with established presses have met with constant rejection. Publishers tend to be very picky; selling printed books that make money is extremely hard; so a stream of rejection letters is inevitably part of any writer’s life.

But, having indeed devoted his life to this, Havel cannot just shrug off the disappointment. He has quite a lot to say about it. Mostly he discusses this as a sociological/cultural phenomenon. But one essay tells of his reading a terrific short story. Bringing on an attack of FAS — “Failed Author Syndrome” — and its corrosive resentment of others’ literary success. (He doesn’t mention dissecting that story to tease out what made it so good.)

I am no stranger to literary rejection myself. I spent years struggling to get my magnum opus (The Case for Rational Optimism) published. UntiI finally remembering the press that, over 30 years prior, had reissued my Albany political book. I’ve had ten book publications and made money on all but one. But the loss on that one exceeded all the gains. So I guess I’m no literary success either.

Havel also writes about rejection by women. This too resonated with my own history.

He has a “thing” for white women. Who, he says, generally refuse to view him romantically because of his color. For me it was height (or its lack). One guy’s recent radio essay related how he’d meet women for dates and see their “libido drain away” when he’d stand up, revealing his shortness. I was clueless in my own younger days (part of my problem), but in hindsight being 5’4″ explains a lot.

Back to Havel and his attraction to white women. One entry in the book is actually titled “In Defense of White People.” I was expecting something sardonic. But no. Havel explains that at one time he did share the stew of negative feelings toward whites that some non-whites hold. However, he says, he joined a white family for a time — what he means by this wasn’t clear to me — but anyway, he received acceptance and love, leading him to reject, as simply incorrect, the standard indictment of whiteness.

Of course that doesn’t mean all whites are good. But white people are, mainly, just people, and most people are good. Yet it almost seems as though Havel puts whites on a pedestal.

Perhaps this partly explains his attraction to white women. Then again, a majority of American women are white, so Havel may actually be conflating an attraction to women with one for white women. But he does feel his color is a barrier with white women in particular.

I found this odd. No doubt some racist women would manifest this, but in my observation, many if not most females are sexually receptive to nonwhites, many indeed positively attracted to them. Secondly, while Havel is slightly brownish, his ethnicity is far from evident visually. In fact, being of Indian ancestry, he is caucasian. Also, while I’m no great judge of this, I would rate him pretty good looking.

So what, really, was the trouble? Relating an actual romantic debacle might have helped elucidate this, but Havel includes none. The book makes it sound as though he never actually had a relationship (despite a lot of sex). However, there are some clues in the book regarding his mindset about women. It smacks of that old stereotype, “objectifying” women. He wants one not just white, but beautiful, well-educated, and affluent; it’s very much a package. He seems to believe the ideal way to get such a woman is to fight for her — literally. Physically fighting other men. His writing so often of “winning” women does make it sound like a competition. And he posits that what a woman most wants from a man is to be protected by him.

How about just relating to a woman as a fellow human being?

The accusation against Biden — Who are the hypocrites?

May 5, 2020

Republicans call Democrats hypocrites for believing charges of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh but not Joe Biden.

Most women making such accusations are truthful. A lot of men behave like pigs. Especially powerful men with a sense of entitlement and impunity. Like Weinstein, Cosby, Trump, with proven patterns of behavior and numerous victims whose stories taken together lend credence.

The #metoo movement, calling them to account, was long overdue. Much justice was done. But women as well as men are fallible, and facts matter. Here is my assessment of the facts.

Kavanaugh had a clear history of major alcohol abuse, if nothing else, that gave credibility to the accusation, by a woman whose own reputation was stellar.

Biden’s case is entirely different. The alleged conduct would have been totally out of character. His open physical demonstrativeness toward women is not remotely comparable. As David Brooks commented, Tara Reade’s story entails not only lasciviousness but cruelty. That just is not Joe Biden. No similar accusation has ever previously surfaced, and nobody who knows him well believes it.

Having hormones myself, I understand the attraction of illicit sex. But mature, sane people control their impulses. The alleged behavior would have incurred huge risk for meaningless momentary jollies. That doesn’t sound like Biden either.

Reade, who briefly worked in Biden’s Senate office before being terminated, says she filed complaints at the time (1993), but no record of them has been found. People on Biden’s staff who would have known of it remember no such complaints, which they say would have been very memorable.

A few of Reade’s acquaintances, and her mother, have said she spoke of the incident at the time. That does not corroborate the story’s truth. Meantime, just months ago, her public story was totally different, claiming merely that Biden’s physical demonstrativeness made her uncomfortable — a far cry from the crude sexual assault she now describes.

This new story reeks of being contrived, pasting together stereotypical parts. Especially quoting Biden, “You mean nothing to me.” That’s the cruelty Brooks mentioned. It loudly rings false.

Why is Reade doing this? Who knows what demons can motivate people. Reade may actually now believe her tale. Memory plays tricks on us — particularly in the fraught realm of sex. The documentary film Capturing the Friedmans showed one young man literally writhing in anguish over his memory of sexual abuse. Which in fact never occurred.

One clue about Reade: She’s been quoted extravagantly gushing over Putin. I wouldn’t suggest she’s part of a Russian plot. Just nutty.

It is reasonable to believe Biden rather than Reade. At the very least, to give Biden the benefit of the doubt.

Now about those Republican taunts of hypocrisy. They not only defended Kavanaugh but of course disregard all women making accusations against Trump, well into double digits, up to and including outright rape. “Grab them by the pussy” is on the record. Likewise illegally paying off women to silence them regarding sexual transgressions. Amid all his innumerable other corrupt deeds (Trump University, charitable foundation fraud, etc., etc.), lies, and offenses against public decency. Yet these Republicans point fingers at Democrats? Who’s hypocritical?

But this is not about principle. For Republicans, all that matters is power. No ploy is too cynical if it might help keep them in power.

Biden has proven himself a thoroughly decent human being, an honest, responsible, public-spirited man, with deep regard for other people.

Everything Trump is not.

Reopening? Your money or your life

May 2, 2020

Jack Benny’s famous bit: A mugger demands, “Your money or your life!” Benny hesitates. Then says, “I’m thinking it over!”

Between economic sacrifices and sacrificing lives, we really had no choice. Couldn’t tolerate seeing hospitals overwhelmed and people dying for lack of care. We opted to accept the economic pain, and it’s proving to be immense. Now we’re confronting the issue of reopening. The federal government no longer endorses shut-downs. In fact, an America that once would have led a global response now won’t even lead its own states. Some (mostly Republican) are already relaxing restrictions, others planning for it.

I have a bad feeling about this.

In many places, notably New York, the restrictions succeeded in flattening the curve, with illnesses and deaths trending downward. Elsewhere they’re actually still rising. Many states aren’t testing much, so are flying blind. In any case, relaxing invites a new virus explosion. At the outset, The Economist foresaw repeated cycling between lockdowns and disease spikes until either there’s a vaccine or until something like 80% of a population has experienced infection. Creating “herd immunity,” where the virus dies out for lack of enough infectable victims.

We’re nowhere near that. On the other hand, reopening could make sense if the number infected were low enough that testing and contact tracing could feasibly contain new outbreaks. Unfortunately we’re in between those two infection levels. Ours is sufficiently high that to reopen safely would require testing and contact tracing on a massive scale, well beyond existing capabilities. Ramping that up enough could cost hundreds of billions. It would actually be worth it, as against the cost of economic shutdown in the trillions. But the Trump administration is not biting this bullet; hardly even tonguing it.*

A compromise approach might conceivably be reasonable: relaxing hard lockdown restrictions while still urging carefulness — masks, social distancing, hand-washing, etc. Perhaps gaining much of the benefit while avoiding much of the cost.

This resembles Sweden’s approach. They never locked down, but did push social distancing and the like, while also taking more rigorous measures to protect the most vulnerable. The idea was to arrive at herd immunity at limited cost in both lives and economic damage. Sweden’s death rate does exceed that in otherwise comparable countries, but it’s not out of control, and may actually represent a reasonable balance between fighting the virus and protecting the economy.

But America is not Sweden, whose citizens have a very high level of social consciousness and trust their government. America’s government is widely viewed with hostility. Certainly its president inspires zero trust in anything he says. He’s even issued lockdown guidelines while encouraging people rebelling against them. Protesting with their “Trump 2020” banners, guns, and Confederate flags — and no social distancing. These nitwits may be a small minority. But even if most Americans act more sensibly, too many (thanks to Trump’s inconsistent messaging) are irresponsibly complacent about Covid-19. Relaxing restrictions will exacerbate that. Enough foolish people and the virus can spread like wildfire.

So the danger of a big resurgence is very high. What’s our Plan B for that? Lock down again? The public’s willingness will be limited, having suffered it once and relishing their escape. And closing the economy again is the last thing Trump will want as the election nears.

During tough wars voices always say we should just declare victory and go home. Trump’s strategy may be something like that. Reopen the economy, swagger about his imaginary tremendous victory over Covid-19, and basically ignore its recrudescence. The administration may use various wheezes to actually avoid reporting infections and deaths. Even now they’re much undercounted. Trump and his dupes are masters of reality-denial. Many Americans will avert their eyes.

Coronavirus coming here was not Trump’s fault. But the human and economic damage would have been much less had he not refused to listen, in January and February, to repeated cogent warnings urging action. Since then his response has been shambolic in every way. He is directly guilty for tens of thousands of deaths and trillions in economic loss. (Talk about “American carnage.”)

And if we reopen too soon, those sacrifices will have been for nought. We’ll have paid the price without getting what we thought we were buying. “Your money or your life” — we’ll have forfeited both.

* At every stage, lying about our testing capability. Claiming it exceeds that of any other country is blatantly false. In fact we’re nowhere near having testing and tracing capability to reopen without a virus resurgence.

The American Crisis

April 13, 2020

These are the times that try men’s souls. “Try” meant “test” when Thomas Paine wrote those words.

We’re having an extraordinary economic crisis, entwined with an extraordinary health crisis. While America was already undergoing a crisis of the soul. A political and leadership crisis that was also a moral one, testing the very principles this nation stands for.

All this will end. But the world will be different.

We’re not hearing much now about limited government. I’m no government-loving “progressive,” but even libertarians recognize a need for government to protect us in situations like this, organizing and mobilizing a societal response. But unfortunately we’re also seeing why the big modern bureaucratic state is distrusted. It’s not size that counts so much as how you use the thing.

China’s authoritarian regime sneers at governments hamstrung by democratic accountability. China was indeed unfettered in imposing draconian measures to contain the virus. On the other hand, it wouldn’t have been such a big problem if they hadn’t started out silencing doctors who raised the alarm. China also failed to properly alert the world. Thus its regime is very culpable.

So is ours. Even given China’s guilt, the disaster here did not have to happen. Had we done what South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore did — merely acting competently. Instead, America’s government bumbled and fumbled in a disorganized manner for almost two months because Trump refused to heed experts ringing alarm bells. This tragic fact is now well documented by multiple responsible sources. It cost us many thousands of lives, untold other human suffering, and trillions of dollars.

So a key lesson is the importance of competent, intelligent, responsible, sane leadership. That’s up to voters. So far I don’t see that lesson sinking in.

COVID-19 threatens our national security. Trump fetishizes the military, imagining this conveys strength. Actually the bulk of our giant defense budget is oriented toward re-fighting WWII (all those costly aircraft carriers, etc.), not the real threats of the modern world. Like pandemics. Wasting all those resources on useless “defense” actually weakens us. Spending a tiny fraction of that money on defense against threats like COVID-19 could have made all the difference. We didn’t do it.

This American failure is not invisible to other countries, who are suffering in consequence. They expected better. A real blow to our international standing.

Meantime, big government is getting bigger. The crisis prodded Congress into the kind of bipartisan action that seemed unimaginable just weeks ago, expanding government’s role in both size and scope to support the economy in ways also unimaginable weeks ago. We may think this is just a temporary emergency response. The bipartisanship already is fading. But expansions of government don’t have a tendency to reverse themselves. The idea of government relieving businesses of downside risks, and subsidizing paychecks, may stick around, with large implications. Not socialism, exactly; more like state capitalism. And the bailouts seem more accessible to big businesses than small ones, accelerating a trend toward consolidation, as against the more dynamic small-firm end of the business spectrum.

The government is throwing around trillions of dollars very fast and without preparation or forethought. A massive program like this ought to have been preceded by a careful legislative process with input from divergent viewpoints. Of course this is an emergency situation. But oversight is definitely lacking. In fact, Trump’s already fired the inspector general who’d been tasked with keeping tabs on the handouts. Why? It’s hardly paranoid to foresee massive abuse and corruption. Surely there must be an investigation of where all the money is going. Trump will foam at the mouth screaming “witch hunt.”

This is also changing us as a society. Sociologist Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone pointed up a trend toward atomization. That preceded the smartphone era, which has prompted vast handwringing about growing solipsism. Strangely, on one level, it’s all about human connectedness, with people fixated on their phones mainly for stimuli from others. Yet while our Facebook “friend” rosters grow, real friendships contract. (I’m baffled by people obsessing over online content concerning others they hardly know.)

Now we have “social distancing” — as if that hadn’t already been an apt way to describe what was happening. In-person communication being supplanted by virtual communication. If this were a battle between the two, the former has just suffered a devastating strategic reverse. Now it’s actually wrong for us to socialize in person, it’s bad for public health!

Our society is built upon our webs of human interconnectedness, embodied in the term “social capital.” A key element of that is social trust. It’s the very basic understanding that you can walk down the street with no expectation that a passer-by will bash you on the head and grab your stuff. Or, more prosaically, that when you buy packaged food it won’t be poisoned. Et cetera, et cetera. A vast range of ways we trust that society will work as it should. This can’t be taken for granted, it was built up over thousands of years.

Countries where social trust — and, in particular, trust in government and other institutions — is high (like South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore) have seen commensurately high levels of citizen cooperation with public health directives.

But polls have shown that Americans’ social trust is eroding. It’s not that people are actually becoming less trustworthy. It’s that more of us believe others are less trustworthy. This can become self-fulfilling if we act in ways that exhibit less trust. The decline in social trust may be partly due to reduced face-to-face interaction. And it’s aggravated by having two political tribes each believing the other consists of bad people who threaten everything that’s good and holy.

And now, we look at other people we encounter in the street, in stores, etc., and view them as literally potential threats to us. “What if that guy has the virus?” What if this kind of distrust becomes ingrained, even after the crisis ends?

Our everyday heroes

April 8, 2020

Medical personnel are the heroes of the moment. On the front lines, working flat out, under great emotional stress, literally risking their lives. Deserving all the praise they’re getting.

But there are many other heroes.

“Grocery Workers Beginning to Die,” read a newspaper story’s April 7 headline. Hardly surprising. The article said many stores delayed providing or even allowing face masks and gloves for employees dealing with the public.

A previous report quoted a woman that she’s looked down on as a supermarket worker. It’s not considered a prestigious occupation. Like mine frankly was. I didn’t see myself as better than people like her, just more fortunate, benefiting from circumstances I didn’t create. Handed a good life on a platter. Others truly have to work for what they get, which is often a lot less. Now they must risk their lives for it.

“Essential” business are kept open, while we’re cautioned to avoid close contact. Many workers hardly can, serving a stream of customers.

Actually they’ve always been essential. Our entire modern society is structured upon a vast interconnected web of people performing myriads of functions. I recall a flight where on the video screen the airline’s head talked about the great numbers of people doing all sorts of different jobs, mostly invisible to us, enabling that plane to fly. And I’ve read it takes twenty-odd people doing varied jobs all across the world just to get a cup of coffee to you.

Much of this is now under strain. One might easily imagine how removing one link in the chain could keep that coffee off your table — or that plane on the ground. Yet it isn’t really happening. My wife wanted to buy a survivalist pack, in case things fall apart, like electricity going out. I persuaded her our civilization is much more robust and resilient than that. People everywhere are rising to challenges. Not even in places worst hit by COVID-19 has the power grid been allowed to fail.

Thanks to millions of everyday heroes, who get up each day and perform their roles in that vast interconnected web that is modern society.

I have no time for cynics who prate about humanity’s dark side, all the evils of civilization. We are not angels, and in building civilization there was no free lunch. It took thousands of years of effort, but what we’ve built gives ever more people opportunities to live good rewarding lives. I salute all the heroes who continue making this possible every day. Like grocery workers.

* * *

A final word. I’d long been noticing just how many of these people, staffing counters everywhere, are African-Americans and other minorities. Seeing them I remind myself their forebears were mostly brought here as slaves. Yet here they are, living upstanding lives, performing all these vital jobs, integral parts of our great societal machine, often with cheerful smiles. Surely testaments to our civilization’s highest ideals.

I also think about those whites actually irked by it. Imagine granting their heart’s desire and making all those people of color disappear. I wonder how they’d like the world then.

Life in difficult times: German notgeld

April 4, 2020

We’re now seeing pandemic literature — personal accounts from people about coping with home confinement. My own normal life is much like quarantine anyway. Luckily my business of selling collector coins, by mail and internet, is largely unaffected (though I can’t buy at coin shows). Practically my only outings are to the post office.

Recently quite a few hours were consumed working on a lot of over 800 notgeld coins I got from a German auction. These were issued by thousands of towns and businesses during and shortly after WWI. (France also had similar local coins.) As a kid, knowing that “geld” meant money (my mother is German), I assumed “notgeld” meant something like “not real money.” Actually, “not” is a German word for “emergency.” So working on these “emergency coins” during our own national emergency seemed fitting.

Many sport interesting pictorial designs. One noteworthy series of 45 was from Nurnberg, showing all different local landmarks and historical personages. My grandparents were from Nurnberg and had a set of these. They’re common and inexpensive. Over the years I’ve handled many, sometimes in original albums (less common).

Some notgeld coins were issued in prisoner-of-war camps. “Camp” in German is “lager.” Prisoners “gefangenen.” War is “krieg.” Germans often make compound words — thus “kriegsgefangenenlagergeld.” There were also special issues using encapsulated stamps. Those are kriegsgefangenenlagerkapselgeld. One sees these words in German coin sale catalogs. I remember using this as an example, when telling my small daughter about German compound words. Afterward she danced around merrily chanting, “kriegsgefangenenlagerkapselgeld, kriegsgefangenenlagerkapselgeld.”

Most notgeld coins were made of iron or zinc, and often suffer from ugly rust or white encrustation. On many, a little work with a wire brush removes the crud. (I’ve made a board with round slots to hold coins in place for that.) But several hundred needed more drastic treatment. These I put in a rock tumbler (another useful piece of equipment) with some lemon juice (mildly acidic). After four hours nearly all emerged quite nice.

Happily this lot had come alphabetized by town in small envelopes. That saved some effort, but I did have to re-sort the ones I’d tumbled. Next, the real work: having handled thousands before, most of the common ones I could recognize as such, but many I had to research. There isn’t a good up-to-date catalog. I have two older ones that often disagree, but between them I can get an idea about scarcity, to price accordingly.

About 150 better ones I pulled out to sell individually. The rest in group lots. I learned this shtick early in my coin dealing, when I put out a price list including many common German coins at ten or twenty cents each. They didn’t sell. Preparing my next list, I didn’t feel like retyping all that (this was before word processing). So I just added up the prices and entered “Lot of X-number of German coins” at that combined amount. Guess what? Everybody wanted to order it! Collectors love to play around with coins in batches like that (I do too), and it’s a very effective selling tool. Also far more efficient than hawking them one-by-one.

So the bulk of the notgeld coins I carefully organized into nice big group lots, each with all different varieties but uniform quality. (Quality control is another watchword for my business.)

All in all, a lot of work. But having gotten this lot at a very nice price, little over a dollar per coin, I’ll wind up making a couple of thousand on the deal — while having had a lot of fun, and improving my notgeld knowledge. Though my hand is a bit sore from all the wire brushing.

After the era of notgeld coins, in the early ’20s, came the time of paper notgeld notes, from Germany and, even more prolifically, Austria. The varieties are endless, and you can buy them even cheaper than the coins. Sitting here I’ve also got a few thousand of those to work on. At least they don’t need cleaning.

Human social virtues in a time of crisis

April 1, 2020

Garrison Keillor once said, if the purpose of one’s life is to serve others, then what purpose is served by the existence of those others? This actually poses a deep philosophical issue. John Donne wrote that no man is an island. Yet each of us experiences existence only within the confines of our own skulls. Experiencing only one’s own feelings, not those of others.

It can be argued that we only ever do seemingly selfless deeds when it rewards us with good feelings. Evolution programmed us to have such feelings — and with empathy for the feelings of others, even if we cannot experience them directly — to make us do things for the common good. Hence even if pure selfishness might seem strictly logical, a degree of selflessness is a fundamental part of our human nature (barring sociopaths who failed to get that software installed). And we measure our virtue largely in terms of our interactions with others. Summed up pretty well by the golden rule. Nobody is perfect but most of us try.

And not just because of our programming. Your rational brain tells you that if you want to live in a society where people treat each other well, it behooves you to behave that way yourself. And if everybody does this, it’s good for everybody. We do what’s right mainly because we know it’s right, and why.

Holding fast to these standards of conduct is especially vital in a crisis like today’s, where the temptations for selfishness are heightened, and so is its ill effect. Where social solidarity is more needful than ever. Americans are largely meeting the test.

Acting rightly does make one feel good about oneself. But that may not be enough. We all have egos, greedy for such feelings, and one way to pump them up is through validation from others. This may seem strange because, again, you don’t have direct access to what others feel. But you’re affected by their behavior, which in turn is affected by their feelings toward you. And our social programming makes our position in society important to us. All this makes us crave the good opinion of others, and suckers for flattery.

Thus if we do good or are successful, we want others to know it. One way is to tell them. But that actually contravenes the golden rule. How so? Well, do you enjoy hearing others’ boasts? Saying “Look how great I am” implicitly tells the hearer, “and you’re not.” Even if unintentionally, self-aggrandizement forces the hearer to ponder the comparison. It’s not nice. That’s why bragging has a negative connotation, and modesty and humility are virtues.* A basic rule of living in society.

Much human behavior seeks to evade that rule. Successful, rich people cannot wear a badge announcing their net worth. But a lot of what they do (and buy) is mainly to advertise to others about their success. Boastfulness by other means.

But some are boastful by boasting. “I am very rich,” Trump has said. “I am very smart.” He’s even boasted of being the most modest person ever. And he tells us he’s doing a great job. Thus his coronavirus briefings (whose TV ratings he’s bragged about). Recently the word of the day, repeated like a verbal tic, was “tremendous.” Then he switched to “incredible.” Maybe tomorrow it will be “fantastic.” And not content to trumpet his wonderfulness himself, he trots out sycophantic flatterers to bubble about it.

What’s truly incredible is a president using a horrific crisis, with thousands dying, and millions suffering deprivation, as an occasion for sickening orgies of self-congratulation.

And contemptible as such braggadocio is, worse yet if the boasts are lies. It’s been factually documented how his failure of leadership delayed forceful action on testing to contain the virus. Doing what other countries did would have saved many thousands of lives and trillions in economic devastation. This reality might have brought forth some humility. A different reality can only be constructed out of lies. Like the simply false claim that we’re testing more than any other nation. (Our per-capita testing rate is certainly way below.)

I have pilloried Governor Cuomo in the past, but his coronavirus briefings are models of what Trump’s are not. No self-praise extravaganzas. No bashing the press and other critics, no demanding obsequious flattery. No lying. Cuomo gives us the unvarnished truth. He takes responsibility. He brings the situation home to us in a very human way we can all relate to. He tells us what needs to be done, what we all must do.

Knowing he’s being unfavorably compared to Cuomo infuriates Trump. But, incapable of learning from Cuomo, he resorts to pot-shots at him: “He had a chance to buy, in 2015, 16,000 ventilators at a very low price . . . he shouldn’t be talking about us. He should be buying his own ventilators.” But instead, said Trump, Cuomo goes for “death panels and lotteries.”

Albany Times-Union columnist Chris Churchill has deconstructed exactly how vile this Trump cheap shot is. It came (surprise) from the internet, a right-wing website, based on a 2015 state task force report on pandemic planning. Churchill read it and interviewed the task force leader — concluding that the attack on Cuomo was “blatantly dishonest.” The report discussed strategies for dealing with a ventilator shortage, but did not recommend buying thousands just in case. Let alone somehow present an option to buy 16,000 “at a very low price.”

But Trump’s gross distortion of the facts is kind of beside the point. He’s repeatedly shown he needs no facts at all to slime somebody. And keeping up such divisive dishonesty, even in this time of national trauma, is just ghastly.

Here is the real point, that all this leads up to. I started out talking about our most fundamental human precepts for living among others. How normal people have that software pre-installed, and how crucial it is in a crisis like we face now. When the leadership we choose is someone who has not had that software installed, we are in very deep trouble as a society.

* Certain commenters will jump to sneer about my own modesty. I was tempted to actually talk about it here. But that would be immodest.

As the virus goes viral

March 30, 2020

My first 3/9 post on coronavirus was mocked for underestimating it. That’s a misreading. But I was over-estimating the government’s response. Which could have greatly limited the damage, but failed to.

An in-depth 3/29 New York Times report* details how the Trump administration squandered the opportunity to identify hot spots by testing, and to confine the disease through targeted quarantines — avoiding what became a need for a nationwide lockdown with unfathomable human and economic costs. While other countries were already testing tens of thousands daily, we were still doing fewer than a hundred. We effectively lost an entire, critical month.

Trump’s claim that we’re testing more than any other nation is simply false. Even today, many Americans with symptoms cannot get tested. A Brooklyn ER doctor, in a radio interview Saturday, said her hospital was turning away hundreds daily. While many coming in for unrelated problems are actually testing positive for COVID-19. So it’s likely our count of known cases is just the tip of an iceberg.

The Times documents the leadership failure. The NSC’s pandemic response team, established under Obama, was disbanded under Trump. Bureaucracies acted like bureaucracies. As the crisis metastasized, the FDA was actually tightening restrictions on testing; we were using a test both slow and faulty; were slow to fix that; while refusing a better test on offer from the World Health Organization. (Trump disdains such international bodies.)

The Times report is sickening (no pun here), and makes a mockery of Trump’s daily self-congratulatory briefings. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” We now need megatons of cure because we didn’t test swiftly and widely. Even now, a massive crash testing program — which would cost a tiny fraction of the price tag for our economic shutdown — could pay off hugely in limiting the damage. We should test everybody. (At last we seem to have a test that’s cheap & quick.) Then quarantine those infected, and everybody else could resume normal life, knowing they’ll be safe.

We’re still doing nothing like that. The death toll is now projected to exceed 100,000. Trump tells us he’s a hero because it would have been 2 million if nothing at all had been done. But the whole story would have been very different with true, responsible, sensible leadership.

* * *

The Bible tells us those who have will get more, and for those who have not, even what they have will be taken away. (Biblical morality.) Coronavirus is taking from everyone; perhaps reducing inequality by shredding the investments of the rich; but the poorest are suffering most. They’re not the ones with jobs suitable for working from home. It’s mainly lower wage workers losing paychecks. The giant bail-out legislation indiscriminately spews cash, but won’t make whole those thrown out of work.

Our biggest inequality is in education. Born into a poor family in a poor neighborhood, your chances of surmounting are slim because your school likely stinks. Now even those schools are closed. Distance learning may help affluent kids in stable homes. Poor kids in dysfunctional ones, often without computers or even web access, will fall further behind.

* * *

Almost forgotten in the midst of this cataclysm is that we’re supposed to be conducting a national census right now. It isn’t postponed. The Trump administration was already trying to skew it for political advantage, by undercounting people in Democrat-leaning areas, to reduce their congressional representation and electoral votes. One way was to simply underfund the census, making it harder to count people on the margins. They tried to particularly target Hispanics by including a citizenship question to scare them off from participating. The Supreme Court slapped down this proposal, literally ruling it was based on lies.

Trump said the census should count only citizens. The (“phony”) Constitution actually says all persons must be counted. That includes even the undocumented. But despite the Court ruling, the “citizenship” gambit probably succeeded in scaring off a lot of them.

The virus surely makes a full accurate count even harder, with census workers confined to quarters and practicing social distancing.

* * *

Almost forgotten too is that we’re supposed to be conducting a national election. Many primaries are postponed. That might have been a mess had the Democratic race not already been effectively decided. Especially now, Bernie should end his candidacy and urge uniting behind Biden.

Some say Biden’s invisible. Actually he’s not silent, is acting very responsibly, and quite reasonably the media is currently giving little attention to the election. That’s fine. Our campaigns are too long anyway. Biden will be on the ballot in November. Is anybody still “undecided?”

Now, more than ever — now that Trump’s fecklessness has really and truly fucked this nation up — we need that vote.

* https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/28/us/testing-coronavirus-pandemic.html?campaign_id=9&emc=edit_nn_20200329&instance_id=17169&nl=morning-briefing&regi_id=60449143&segment_id=23230&te=1&user_id=0588054855cd59fb97458c82182d229e