How Pretty Much Everyone Got the Texas Textbook Story Wrong

Sep 07 2015

So if you’ve been following the Texas textbook scandal, you’re aware that, beginning this fall, Texas children will learn that slavery didn’t cause the Civil War. You also know that their state-approved books will contain no mention of Jim Crow laws or black codes. This probably makes you outraged — as indeed it should if any of it was true, which it is not.

The way the Texas textbook story was covered is a mini-lesson in how one misleading story can spread across the web, getting progressively more wrong as it goes along.

Let’s start with The Washington Post:

Five million public school students in Texas will begin using new social studies textbooks this fall based on state academic standards that barely address racial segregation. The state’s guidelines for teaching American history also do not mention the Ku Klux Klan or Jim Crow laws.

This is from a Post story that ran on July 5. There’s nothing about that lead that’s technically untrue, though I would argue that it creates a false impression. Before I explain why, let’s go to a Post editorial prompted by that story:

THIS FALL, Texas schools will teach students that Moses played a bigger role in inspiring the Constitution than slavery did in starting the Civil War. The Lone Star State’s new social studies textbooks, deliberately written to play down slavery’s role in Southern history, do not threaten only Texans — they pose a danger to schoolchildren all over the country.

Nope. All of that is demonstrably false.

I wrote a brief, front-of-the-book story about the textbook controversy for Texas Monthly, in which I explained what’s going on. I’ll quote myself:

In 2010 the Texas State Board of Education adopted curriculum standards—essentially instructions for publishers—that did, in fact, downplay slavery and discrimination. Scorn and ridicule quickly followed, even from unlikely sources such as the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which excoriated the state board for displaying “overt hostility and contempt for historians and scholars.”

Here’s the thing: textbook publishers appear to have mostly disregarded those ridiculous standards. The textbooks I looked at — ones that will be used by millions of Texas students — say that slavery is what led to the Civil War. There is absolutely no evidence I’ve seen that they were, as the Post asserts, “deliberately written to play down slavery’s role in Southern history.”

Other outlets piggybacked on the WaPo. Here’s Salon’s summary:

Millions of Texas schoolchildren will be learning about American history via a social studies textbook that locates the cause of the Civil War in Northern aggression against Southern states’ rights and never mentions the Ku Klux Klan or Jim Crow, the Washington Post’s Emma Brown reports.

Nope again. The textbooks totally mention the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow. And we already went over the slavery bit.

Then a blogger for Slate wrote the following:

I grew up in Texas; I love the state deeply. But I am not raising my children there, in part because I want them to get a solid public education undistorted by the partisan fictions that are inundating Texas’ textbooks.

So let’s review. The initial Post story is confusing but not actually wrong. Then we get an editorial and a Salon story that are both wildly incorrect. Now Slate is suggesting, on the basis of these false stories, that people should avoid the state entirely because the textbooks are essentially white-supremacist propaganda masquerading as history and will transform your precious little ones into Confederate flag-waving bigots.

But we’re not finished. Bobby Finger at Jezebel then writes a piece that nods at my Texas Monthly item — acknowledging that some of the criticism may be overstated — but goes on to argue that the state’s textbooks, while perhaps not as terrible as some originally reported, are still pretty racist and awful.

Finger writes:

… after examining copies of the 7th grade, 8th grade, and high school-level books obtained by Jezebel, it was clear that this curriculum is riddled with omissions, making frequent use of convenient, deceptive juxtapositions of slaveholder violence and the slave resilience. Sure, Texas’s new textbooks aren’t an outright travesty. But that doesn’t mean they’re anywhere close to good.

Finger singles out this line from one of the textbooks for particular scorn: “To achieve these goals, the Klan and other groups killed perhaps 20,000 ​​men, women, and children.”

He objects because the sentence doesn’t state that these 20,000 were African-American. That actually seems clear from the context to me, but let’s go ahead and agree that it’s a problem. This line has zero to do with Texas’s state board: It’s from a history textbook that has been around for more than a decade. Schools all over the country use it. It has nothing, whatsoever, to do with the subject at hand, which is whether Texas’s textbooks were written to conform to the blinkered views of slavery apologists.

He has other examples too. He really dislikes a paragraph about lynching that contains this line: “African Americans and others who did not follow the racial etiquette could face severe punishment or ​​death.”

I think he misreads the tone, but it doesn’t matter: This is from a textbook — The Americans: Reconstruction to the 21st Century — that’s used across the country. It was in print *before* the Texas standards. That book, with that exact language, is being used in (to pick a random example I found with 30 seconds of Googling) a public high school in Olympia, Washington. It is not evidence of a state board twisting history to make it seem less shameful. It just isn’t.

Now, if you want to have a larger conversation about whether textbooks generally do a good enough job explaining the country’s history of racial violence and white supremacy, by all means let’s talk. I think high school students should be required to read Ta-Nehisi Coates or Bryan Stevenson. Let’s really grapple with our ugly, racist past. Let’s grapple with our ugly, racist present while we’re at it.

But none of that is specific to Texas. And acting like it is lets the rest of the country off the hook.

Web Junkie

Jul 16 2015

The documentary “Web Junkie” is about Internet addiction among teenagers in China. It’s filmed inside a boot camp of sorts where parents send children they believe are wasting their lives playing video games online. There is no narrator. We watch young Internet addicts get lectured about how they should live up to their obligations as citizens. In one scene a middle-aged instructor in a depressing classroom draws a brain on a chalkboard then draws a circle inside that brain to represent the amount of intellect required to play “World of Warcraft” or whatever. The instructor tells the teenagers, all boys, that they don’t know how to relate to each other, a message belied by the insightful conversations we later see them having while locked inside their prison-nightmare dorm rooms.

The most compelling scene takes place during a counseling session. The counselor is meeting with a teenage boy and his parents. During the session the boy’s father says that he has given the boy so much over the years, and asks what the boy has ever done for him in return.

The boy, with the blankest of expressions, says he will give his life back to his father if his father needs it.

The father says nothing.

The boy begins to shake with anger. This is real, scary anger. The boy stands and asks his father if he — the father — wishes to die. The other people in the room, including a woman who is presumably the mother, restrain the boy, who is clearly hellbent on attacking his father. The camera focuses on a metal stool in the boy’s left hand.

That moment isn’t about the phenomenon of Internet addiction. It isn’t about family dynamics in China in the first part of the 21st century. Or at least it isn’t only about those things. It’s about how emotional violence begets physical violence. It’s about a child’s deep need for love and the unholy consequences when that need goes unmet. It’s about the look on that boy’s face.

I can imagine a crew from some news show visiting this boot camp and presenting a story about treating Internet addiction or the struggles of the new middle-class in China. It would be nicely packaged with additional context and expert opinion.

But this is different. This transcends all that. There’s no safe journalistic sheen. It’s ugly, memorable, genuine.

Good god, the look on that boy’s face.

On Being Thought a Creep

Jul 01 2015

I was at a park. Worse, I was near a playground.

It was late afternoon on a weekday. My wife and my son wanted to walk to the little park not far from our house, and they asked if I wanted to come along. Because I work at home and my hours are flexible, I am often faced with this choice: of course, I could take a break. But if you can always take a break it’s hard to know when or whether you should.

“Sure,” I said, “I’ll come.”

I brought my laptop with me. While they played, I would sit at a picnic table and type away, thus neither getting anything done or actually engaging meaningfully with my spouse and offspring. I am the modern mobile father, forever connected and distracted.

That is what I did. My wife and my kid spent quality time building memories while I stared at a laptop nearby. Because I was staring at the laptop, I did not notice the woman approaching me.

She didn’t approach me. She sneaked up behind me.

“You must be brave,” she said.

“I’m sorry?” I said, turning to face her.

“You must be brave.”

I had no idea what she meant.

“I have no idea what you mean,” I said.

“You must be brave, a man here alone,” she said.

“I seriously don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“A man alone here in the park with all these children.”

She gestured toward the slide. She actually gestured directly toward my wife and son, who were going down the slide together, grins on their faces, joy in their hearts. There were other children around, too, one clinging to the side of the plastic climbing wall, several others caught in the giant pyramid net contraption that’s a million times cooler than the monkey bars of my own sad youth.

Let’s look at it from her perspective. I was a 30-something guy, dressed in jeans, a collared shirt, tennis shoes, sitting at a picnic table. I was focused intently on my laptop. I was wearing glasses. I had a beard. A beard! I might as well have been sporting a trenchcoat and holding a fistful of lollipops. I was like a wanted poster come to life.

No doubt I had come to the park with malicious intent. No doubt my laptop contained more than just half-finished essays and never-completed to-do lists.

Even with her helpful clarification it took a second for my brain to process the implication. Oh, I appear to be a threat to the children. I’m guessing she has 9-1-1 on speed dial and is already mentally taking notes for when she testifies in court.

“That’s my wife over there,” I said, pointing at my wife, who was over there. “And that’s our kid.”

She looked at them. She looked back at me. She looked at them. She considered the information.

It didn’t seem like she believed me. This was just the sort of thing a wily kidnapper might say when pressed. She may have even seen a ruse like this on Dateline NBC. A predator with a fake family! The perfect cover.

My wife saw me talking to the woman and yelled “Everything OK over there?”

“Everything’s good,” I yelled back.

The woman looked hard at me. Then she turned and walked back to a gaggle of mothers standing near the swings. When I saw the mothers I realized she was not acting alone; rather, she was an emissary sent to challenge the interloper. They had spotted me, decided I was trouble, and taken swift action.

There was no apology. There was no explanation. There was no lighthearted “Well, you never can be too careful! Sorry to have bothered you!” There was nothing. She just walked away.

“So we’re cool?” I called after her.

The woman did not reply.

“Glad you’re patrolling the area,” I called, making sure my voice was loud enough for everyone in the park to hear.

I don’t know whether she detected the sarcasm in my tone. She might have taken it as a compliment.

The Retch of the Wretch

Jun 27 2015

[first published on popmatters]

In the now-infamous climactic scene from the HBO documentary series The Jinx, the alleged triple murderer and confirmed creep Robert Durst mutters into a still-live mic that he “Killed them all, of course.” That line has justifiably received a lot of attention and will no doubt receive more when he eventually stands trial for the murder of his friend and apparent confidante, Susan Berman.

But another muttering from Durst deserves some scrutiny. The line is this: “And the burping.”

What he’s probably referring to here — though no one can be entirely certain what’s going on behind that man’s oil-black eyes — is what happens when director and deft interrogator Andrew Jarecki shows Durst that his handwriting perfectly matches that of Berman’s killer. That’s when Durst burps. His cheeks puff, his lips part, his already-narrow eyes narrow even more.

At that moment Durst is attempting to wave away the damning evidence Jarecki has placed under his nose. When the interview ends, Durst makes small talk — of sandwiches, the time, whether he can keep a photo of the woman whom he most likely shot to death — acting like a carefree soul rather than a guilty man who has just held in his hands the documents that could at last undo his lies.

His body, however, won’t let him get away with it. In the bathroom that mic also captures a series of foul throaty noises that sound like the prelude to losing one’s lunch.

Another recent documentary likewise concludes with an episode of intestinal upheaval. The protagonist in The Act of Killing is named Anwar Congo, and during the so-called communist purges in Indonesia during the mid-‘60s Congo personally carried out as many as 1,000 executions. For much of the film, Congo appears to be in a state of giddy denial. He smiles. He dances. He jokes around. He dresses like a tacky dandy and carries himself like a cartoon dignitary.

In the final scene, Congo returns to a weedy cement courtyard where, decades earlier, he oversaw the mass slaughter of innocents. He explains, as if it’s a great DIY tip, how looping wire around the neck is an efficient way of dispatching a human being. Congo doesn’t deny enthusiastic participation in the long-ago carnage, though neither does he quite accept responsibility, clinging instead to the self-absolving notion that he is as much a victim of history as the parade of captives he so callously slew.

“I was wrong,” he says, “but I had to do it.”

What follows that half-assed admission is an extended sequence in which Congo wordlessly and utterly falls apart. He doubles over and bellows pathetically. He leans over a half wall as if to empty his guts. He spits and coughs and wipes his mouth.

His affected nonchalance is replaced by spasms of sincerity.

The sins of Durst and Congo differ vastly in context and scale, but both are guilty of deeds unthinkable for anyone still in full possession of their humanity (even if you believe Durst is somehow blameless for multiple murders, the man did admit to chopping up his buddy’s body and tossing the plastic-wrapped parts into the ocean). They are both confronted with the reality of their egregious past behavior and they are both forced to cope on-camera with that information. What they’ve done and the image of themselves that they wish to project do not align, and that cognitive dissonance produces an unpleasant physiological response.

In 1969, Seymour Hersh tracked down and interviewed William Calley, a lieutenant in the United States army who had been charged with the murders of 109 men, women, and children in Vietnam — a horrific incident that became known as the My Lai Massacre. Soldiers recall Calley giving the order to shoot unarmed villagers and, in one memorably horrific instance, seizing a toddler who had crawled out of the ditch where his dead mother lay and shooting him to death, as well.

Calley hardly seemed satanic. He was a slight, nervous man in his mid-twenties, with pale, almost translucent skin. He tried hard to seem tough. Over many beers, he told me how he and his soldiers had engaged and killed the enemy at My Lai in a fiercely contested firefight. We talked through the night. At one point, Calley excused himself, to go to the bathroom. He left the door partly open, and I could see that he was vomiting blood. (”The Scene of the Crime: A reporter’s journey to My Lai and the secrets of the past.” by Seymour M. Hersch, The New Yorker, 30 March 2015)

Calley tried to seem tough. Durst attempted to appear casual. Congo pretended to be happy-go-lucky.

Then their stomachs revolted.

The catch-all term for this reaction is psychogenic vomiting, which a 1973 paper in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics defines as vomiting that is “the result of an emotional upset or of a more profound psychic disturbance.” There’s a lot of buzz lately among microbiologists and neuroscientists about the gut-brain axis; that is, the multiple pathways that connect our lower and higher regions. In short, it’s wrong to think that everything below the neck simply carries out orders from a gelatinous three-pound dictator. It’s more like behavior by committee.

According to Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences and therefore must be right (right?), our minds have two systems: System 1 and System 2. System 1 is what’s going on below the surface: emotional, intuitive, immediate. System 2 is our conscious mind, the thoughts we know we’re thinking: slower, logical, verbal. It’s probably stretching Kahneman’s metaphor, but perhaps what we’re seeing in Durst, Congo, and Calley is a clash of those two systems. System 1 already accepts what System 2 is desperate to deny. Kahneman writes that a person “cannot prevent System 1 from doing its thing” and, while he wasn’t referring to uncontrollable upchucking, it seems to apply.

There’s something oddly reassuring about this repulsive phenomenon. It’s not repentance, or even acknowledgment, but at least it’s a sign that, deep down in their very viscera, they know what they’ve done and that knowledge, at some level at least, makes them sick.

The Rules for Judging Music

Jun 13 2015

I read this in a review of Death Cab for Cutie’s new album:

It’s slightly unrelatable in its specificity, but the album is a testament to writing what you know, and when Gibbard sticks to specific and personal lyrics, he is at his best.

It’s a reference to the first song on the album, called “No Room in Frame” — which I think is pretty good. The reviewer seems to think it’s pretty good too and lists it as one of the album’s “essential tracks.”

But whatever. I’m not really interested in whether it’s a good song, or whether the reviewer thinks it’s a good song. What I want to know is this: Is it true that specificity in lyric writing is a quality to be avoided?

OK, so what does “specificity” mean here? The song mentions places like “Coalinga” and the “cliffs of the Palisades.” Those are specific places. I don’t know where Coalinga is (or I didn’t — I looked it up just now, and it’s a a city in Fresno County, California). I have heard of the Palisades. I haven’t been to these places. Maybe if I had been to these places I would find these references more relatable.

Is that a problem? Is that where it becomes too specific?

In the song “Famous Blue Raincoat,” Leonard Cohen mentions Clinton Street. He also mentions people like “Jane” and “Lili Marlene” — people I don’t know. Cohen has said that he actually owned a blue raincoat. I have never seen that particular blue raincoat. I do not own a blue raincoat.

And yet I have managed somehow to relate to that song.

The Death Cab song, as I interpret it, is about someone who feels pushed aside. From the chorus:

Was I in your way
When the cameras turned to face you?

That line will probably be read by fans as a reference to Gibbard’s ex-wife, Zooey Deschanel. I have never been married to a famous actress. Nor has a famous actress ever divorced me because she was only interested in fame. The chances of this ever happening in my life are exceedingly slim.

And yet I kind of do understand the emotion being expressed there. Or at least I imagine I do.

The most non-specific song I can think of at the moment is “Bad Blood” by Taylor Swift. There are no place or character names in that song. There are no raincoats of any color. It is built to be vague. She is supposedly referring to an actual rift with another pop star, but there’s nothing that would qualify as detail. They used to have “mad love.” Now they have “bad blood.” They were friends and now they’re not. And no apology (“Band-Aids don’t fix bullet holes”) will change that.

So is it more relatable than Gibbard’s song? I’m not asking if it’s better — I like both of those songs just fine — but does it connect more or less deeply because of its universality?

I don’t know. I don’t think so.

Maybe I just don’t understand music reviews. I remember how in an old review of Pearl Jam’s album Vs a reviewer wrote that the song “Elderly Woman …” was very good but didn’t belong on the album. I don’t know what that means. I also remember a review of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot complaining that some songs had too many repeated words. Apparently that’s a no-no.

In addition, your songs shouldn’t be too specific or else they risk being unrelatable.

I wish there was a list of these rules somewhere. That way I could be sure not to enjoy anything that fails to measure up.

David Brooks on Poverty: Let’s Stop Trying to Help

May 01 2015

David Brooks wrote a column today titled “The Nature of Poverty.” I did not like it. Here is what I did not like about it:

Lately it seems as though every few months there’s another urban riot and the nation turns its attention to urban poverty. And in the midst of every storm, there are people crying out that we should finally get serious about this issue. This time it was Jon Stewart who spoke for many when he said: “And you just wonder sometimes if we’re spending a trillion dollars to rebuild Afghanistan’s schools, like, we can’t build a little taste down Baltimore way. Like is that what’s really going on?”

The audience applauded loudly, and it’s a nice sentiment, but it’s not really relevant.

I’d say rethinking how much we’re willing to throw down the bottomless pit of military spending versus what we’re willing to invest in social programs is, in fact, relevant. Is it the whole story? Of course it’s not. But that’s an applause-worthy line.

The problem is not lack of attention, and it’s not mainly lack of money.

Sure it is. The problem is mainly about attention and money. I can’t think of a problem in the world that couldn’t be, if not completely solved, then at least ameliorated with an infusion of thought and resources. What else do we have at our disposal?

Since 1980 federal antipoverty spending has exploded. As Robert Samuelson of The Washington Post has pointed out, in 2013 the federal government spent nearly $14,000 per poor person. If you simply took that money and handed it to the poor, a family of four would have a household income roughly twice the poverty rate.

Yet over the last 30 years the poverty rate has scarcely changed.

A couple things. One, we didn’t hand that money out — though there are serious people who argue that we should have a guaranteed minimum income. Instead we spent that on a range of social programs, some of which work well and some of which are complete busts. The conclusion to draw here isn’t that social spending doesn’t have any effect. It’s that we need to take a harder look at the data and spend money where it has the greatest impact. Talk to people who study inequality and you’ll hear over and over that the federal government often doesn’t examine data to see what’s working. Once a program starts, it’s hard to kill it. We need to be smarter and more nimble with our spending (see above point about attention and money).

As Peter Wehner pointed out in Commentary, in 2011 Baltimore ranked second among the nation’s largest 100 school districts in how much it spent per pupil, $15,483 per year.

I guess we get this figure here as further evidence that money doesn’t fix problems. Maybe we need to spend more than 15 grand per pupil to address the longstanding inequities in cities like Baltimore. You can’t attend a top-notch private school in the DC area for 15 grand. What if we spent the same amount on poor inner city kids as rich parents spend to send their kids to Sidwell Friends?

Is that worth thinking about? Or have we already concluded that money doesn’t matter?

Despite all these efforts, there are too many young men leading lives like the one Gray led. He was apparently a kind-hearted, respectful, popular man, but he was not on the path to upward mobility. He won a settlement for lead paint poisoning. According to The Washington Post, his mother was a heroin addict who, in a deposition, said she couldn’t read. In one court filing, it was reported that Gray was four grade levels behind in reading. He was arrested more than a dozen times.

All these efforts. We’ve tried so hard. We haven’t historically neglected these communities. Apparently, according to Brooks, we’ve done our very best — we’ve given all the attention and money we can possibly muster — and Gray’s life is still a wreck. Oh well. (Incidentally, if you’re poor, you’re more likely to live in a house or apartment with lead paint. Lead paint can cause cognitive impairment. Maybe we should have spent some of that aforementioned Afghanistan money on lead remediation in inner cities.)

It is wrong to say federal efforts to tackle poverty have been a failure. The $15 trillion spent by the government over the past half-century has improved living standards and eased burdens for millions of poor people. But all that money and all those experiments have not integrated people who live in areas of concentrated poverty into the mainstream economy. Often, the money has served as a cushion, not a ladder.

MONEY DOESN’T REALLY HELP. How many times does David Brooks have to tell you this? No amount of money will help poor people. A lack of money — and the many, many opportunities that come with having more money — isn’t the problem. Because they buy cushions rather than ladders. They should totally buy ladders so that they can climb free of their current circumstances. We tried to help and they blew it. Way to go, poors.

Saying we should just spend more doesn’t really cut it. What’s needed is a phase shift in how we think about poverty.

Zero people are saying we should only spend more money. I bet if you interviewed the people clapping at the Jon Stewart line — the ones sniffed at earlier in the column — they would say it’s some combination of money and attention. I like how “phase shift” sounds, though. Fancy.

Jane Jacobs once wrote that a healthy neighborhood is like a ballet, a series of intricate interactions in which people are regulating each other and encouraging certain behaviors.

Stop rioting and start pirouetting, people. Get with it!

That’s happened across many social spheres — in schools, families and among neighbors. Individuals are left without the norms that middle-class people take for granted. It is phenomenally hard for young people in such circumstances to guide themselves.

Right. And you know something that middle-class people have that lower-class people do not? In fact, it’s the one thing that separates them? It starts with “m” and rhymes with “honey.”

Yes, jobs are necessary, but if you live in a neighborhood, as Gray did, where half the high school students don’t bother to show up for school on a given day, then the problems go deeper.

Zero people are saying lack of jobs is the only problem. Everyone thinks education is part of it too. Some of us even think spending more on education might help.

The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology.

No it’s not. It’s really not. We have lots of researchers — social psychologists, economists, historians — who describe poverty through an academic lens. David, if you’re reading this, I can email you a list. More of them would be great, but that’s not the key ingredient. What we need is more sustained attention and, yes, more well-spent money. We need to be willing to try new things rather than throw up our hands. And it doesn’t help when somebody writes a column that essentially lets the rest of us off the hook for problems we helped create. Not only does it not help: it actively hurts because it justifies the status quo and supports our continued complacency.

To reiterate, I did not like the column.

What I gleaned re: Jonah Lehrer’s implosion from Jon Ronson’s new book

Feb 28 2015

Jon Ronson devotes two chapters to the Jonah Lehrer implosion in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, his forthcoming book. There is a tick-tock of how the misdeed that brought Lehrer down — fabricating some Bob Dylan quotes — was uncovered by journalist Michael Moynihan, including how Lehrer pleads with him repeatedly not to publish what he’s found. Then Ronson hangs out with Lehrer, goes hiking with him, pushes him toward introspection:

“It was some toxic mixture of insecurity and ambition,” said Jonah. “I always felt like a fad. I felt like I was going to be hot for a second and then I would disappear. So I had to act while I could. And there was just some deep-seated … I sound like I’m on a couch with my shrink … some very dangerous and reckless ambition. You combine insecurity and ambition, and you get an inability to say no to things. And then one day you get an email saying there’s four [six] Dylan quotes, and they can’t be explained, and they can’t be found anywhere else, and you realize you made them up in your book proposal three years before, and you were too lazy, or too stupid, to ever check. I can only wish, and I wish this profoundly, I’d had the temerity, the courage, to do a fact check on my last book. But as anyone who does a fact check knows, they’re not particularly fun things to go through. Your story gets a little flatter. You’re forced to grapple with your mistakes, conscious and unconscious …”

That’s a very human stew of regret, self-pity and self-justification. If you wanted to seize on a line, you could say that doing a fact-check on your book shouldn’t require temerity; it should be a matter of course. Though I get what he means and anyone who interviews people and writes stuff for a living should sympathize at least a little bit.

What really struck me — and I love that Ronson focused on this — was what the takedown of Lehrer did to Moynihan, the person who did the taking down. Moynihan recalls the giddiness he felt when he realized he had caught Lehrer, that this was going to be a blockbuster story, and how that giddiness turns into a kind of horror after you “shoot the animal and it’s lying there twitching and wants its head to be bashed in.”

I totally know that feeling. I’ve ruined people’s reputations, albeit on a smaller scale. Years ago one professor pleaded with me not to expose his plagiarism because he knew it would cost him his tenure-track job. The wife of a retired professor called and asked me how I slept at night after I wrote about her husband’s career of blatant plagiarism (page after page of uncredited verbatim copying over decades).

The connecting-the-dots part of discovering someone’s fraud is usually pretty damn enjoyable in an amateur detective sort of way. Delivering the death blow, less so. Moynhihan, in my view, did what he should have done, the only thing he could do, and yet the fact that he has mixed feelings says good things about the dude.

There’s a brief anecdote that I keep thinking about. At one point, Andrew Wylie, the literary agent for Lehrer and a lot of other big shots, calls Moynihan (or, rather, has someone ask Moynihan to call him). “Do you think this is a big enough deal to ruin a guy’s life?” Wylie reportedly asks.

What an odd question that is (assuming that’s what Wylie actually said; that’s Moynihan’s version, we don’t hear from Wylie directly). What is the alternative? Not say anything? Let the faux-Dylan quotes stand? Let Lehrer change them quietly for the paperback edition? What exactly was Wylie proposing? I’d be curious to hear him expand on that.

Overall what Ronson manages to do here is to humanize Lehrer without letting him off the hook. That’s something.

Grilles Kill

Dec 27 2014

I live in Texas, the land of grille guards, also known as bull bars. They look like this …


… and they are stupid and immoral.

While they’re marketed as safety devices, they actually make you less safe. Grille guards interfere with the crumple zones that absorb impact during a crash. Here’s an excerpt from a 2012 study:

The literature reviewed in this study indicates that vehicles fitted with bull bars, particularly those without deformable padding, concentrate crash forces over a smaller area of vulnerable road users during collisions compared to vehicles not fitted with a bull bar. Rigid bull bars, such as those made from steel or aluminum, stiffen the front end of vehicles and interfere with the vital shock absorption systems designed in vehicle fronts.

Rather than protecting yourself and your family, what you’re doing is making it more likely that you and they will be injured in a collision. That’s stupid.

They also increase the likelihood that you will injure other people. The grille guards I see — and I see them all the freaking time — are almost always attached to the front of enormous SUVs or tricked-out pickups. These vehicles sit higher off the ground than your average boring sedan, which alters the so-called point of impact. Here’s why that’s a problem:

SUVs based on truck platforms [...] can ride up and over smaller cars, rather than engaging a car where it can most protect its passengers.

Grille guards only exacerbate this issue. Your vehicle is higher off the ground and it’s weaponized with multiple steel bars on the front.

That’s terrible if you hit another car. It’s even worse if you hit a pedestrian. From that same 2012 study:

These devices therefore significantly alter the collision dynamics of vehicles, resulting in an increased risk of pedestrian injury and mortality in crashes.

You’re more likely to kill people that you hit. That’s immoral.

Bull bars were invented in Australia, where they’re called roo bars because, when people drive in the outback, they often run into kangaroos. If you’re planning to drive across vast stretches of wilderness, where you’re certain not to encounter children chasing a ball into the street or a nice old lady making a left turn in a Honda Accord, grille guards might make sense.

But come on. Every shiny Ford F-150 I see parked at the Whole Foods near my house has a grille guard. Just because you wear boots and listen to Blake Shelton doesn’t mean you’re a cowboy roaming the range. What you’re doing is grabbing a container of Nancy’s Organic Yogurt before picking up your kid from dance class.

Nothing wrong with that. Go ahead and accept it.

Here’s what a 2002 book on SUVs says:

Grille guards are almost exclusively fashion accessories, and they are killers.

The author of that book advocates banning grille guards in cities. I second that.

Europe has already banned grille guards, except for plastic kind which protect your bumper without disabling your vehicle’s safety features or increasing potential harm to others.

Sometimes Europe is right about stuff. This is one of those times.

To repeat: Grille guards are stupid and immoral. When you install one on your vehicle, it doesn’t make you more like a real cowboy. It makes you more like a real jackass.

So I call upon my fellow Texans, and everyone else everywhere, to remove your grille guards. No one is forcing you because they are (unfortunately) still legal in the United States but, as Blake Shelton once sang, it’d sure be cool if you did.

Philip Larkin and Push-Up Bras

Aug 23 2014

I like the poem “Aubade” by Philip Larkin. It’s one of the last poems he wrote, and it’s probably his darkest:

The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

He dismisses the false solace of religion in six words (“That vast moth-eaten musical brocade”) and the efficacy of a stiff upper lip (“Death is no different whined at than withstood”). It’s clear-eyed, devastating, and comforting, too, in a way, to acknowledge the reality that usually remains, as he puts it, “just on the edge of vision/A small unfocused blur, a standing chill.”

The second Google result for “aubade” is Larkin’s poem. The first result is the website for a brand of lingerie that goes by that name. Aubade sells an open-up triangle bra that features what is described, intriguingly, as a “magic button.” Another bra is somewhat mysteriously named “Woodstock Memories,” a reference to an event not normally associated with the wearing of undergarments in general, and certainly not with the frilly wonders offered up by Aubade.

The so-called moulded basque is a fascinating bit of business involving multiple straps and tiny clamps. Also for sale is an array of diaphanous kimonos that would be inappropriate to wear while, say, greeting the UPS guy at the door, unless you were interested in something more than timely receipt of your Amazon purchases.

I could go on. The point, though, is that on the way to what Larkin calls “unresting death” there are occasional distractions, some of which, like the discovery of a lingerie brand that shares a title with one of your favorite poems, are not entirely unpleasant.

What, Exactly, Is Being Shot At Protesters in Ferguson?

Aug 15 2014

The black cylinder on top is a .60 cal Stinger made by Defense Technology. Here’s a description from the company:

This Stinger® 37 mm 60-Caliber Round has a 8 in. casing and contains approximately 42 60-Caliber rubber balls. It utilizes black powder as the propellant which will usually disperse the rubber balls in wider patterns than its 40 mm counterpart. The Stinger® 37 mm 60-Caliber Round is most widely used as a crowd management tool by Law Enforcement and Corrections. This 37 mm round has a velocity of 250 fps/76 mph and has a maximum effective range of 50 feet. It is most suitable at close to medium ranges of fire.

The metal canister pictured is also made by Defense Technology. I’m not 100-percent sure, but I think it’s a Triple Chaser Grenade. Here’s the summary on those bad boys:

The Triple-Chaser® CS consists of three separate canisters pressed together with separating charges between each. When deployed, the canisters separate and land approximately 20 feet apart allowing increased area coverage in a short period of time. This grenade can be hand thrown or launched from a fired delivery system. The grenade is 6.5 in. by 2.7 in. and holds an approximately 3.2 oz. of active agent payload. It has an approximate burn time of 20-30 seconds.

Defense Technology is owned by Safariland. (Here’s some more background on Safariland.) In 2012, Safariland was sold to Warren B. Kanders who, according to the Rich Register, has a net worth in excess of $180-million. Defense Technology also makes an array of chemical projectiles and aerosols.

Defense Technology’s slogan is “We Are Your Force Option.” Not sure what that means, but it sounds tough.

Safariland’s slogan is “Together, We Save Lives.” Way more friendly.

Behold the 12-gauge Super Sock Beanbag Projectile made by the Pennsylvania-based and generically named company Combined Systems. Here’s the spec sheet. The company warns that “Shots to the head, neck, thorax, heart, or spine can result in fatal or serious injury.”

Here’s what The New York Times had to say about Combined Systems in 2012:

The company, which counts the Carlyle Group as an investor, describes itself as a “tactical weapons company” and has been accused by journalists and human rights groups of selling tear gas canisters and grenades to Arab governments.

Last year, Amnesty International said Combined Systems had shipped a total of 46 tons of ammunition, including “chemical irritants and riot control agents such as tear gas” to Egyptian security forces.

Good to know.

These are probably .40 mm wooden baton rounds. Defense Technology is one company that makes these, and here’s the spec sheet. They’re intended to be “skip fired,” which means that you shoot them at the ground in front of a person rather than directly at them. Though the company says they may “be direct fired at the discretion of the operator.” So fire them at the ground first unless you don’t want to.

When they’re fired at less than 30 feet away, getting hit with the projectile “may result in minor injuries.” I wonder how close they were when one of the wooden baton rounds struck this guy:

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