Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Decca Aitkenhead on Grief

Via Peter Hitchens I stumbled across this heart-wrenching essay from Decca Aitkenhead. It’s a touching story of trying to cope with the loss of her mother, and the ways in which our best intentions can go awry. But the passage that touched me the most was the following:

This new way of looking at life was made easier to adopt by the fact that I was finding it increasingly difficult to remember my mother. When anyone dies, the bereaved take comfort in a degree of posthumous deification. When someone dies young, the revisionism can get completely out of hand. In no time at all, the woman grown-ups described when remembering my mother had turned into a total stranger – a fairytale creature of mythical virtue. Old women would stop me in the village shop, and grip my hand. “Your mother – your mother was an angel.”

The deification, rather like a video recorder, taped over my own memories until they were all gone, and replaced them with a technicolour memorial to somebody else altogether. I could hardly miss someone I didn’t even know, so it became increasingly implausible to consider myself bereaved. If I found myself feeling inexplicably sad, I would think about their loss, and feel terribly sympathetic.

Memory is a singularly tricky and deceptive phenomenon. Our memories feel so solid most of the time. Memory can convince us of “facts” that are false and recall for us in intricate detail events that never actually occurred. Our memories are eager and skillful liars.

And to be honest, that’s not a problem most of the time. Our memories are “truthy” enough to get by. They maintain sufficient accuracy for us to recall the truly important functional details that help us survive day to day. But the fact remains that our memories can’t really be trusted.

Kids These Days, 1901 Edition

Scene: The author, William A. Dutt, is resting at the edge of a wheat field in rural Norfolk. He’s been speaking to the son of one of the farmhands, when the farmhand comes over to say hello. Emphasis and peculiar spellings in the original.

“He has been at work, he tells me, since half past five this morning; but was abroad an hour earlier, for his home is three miles away, and he has to walk to and from the meadow every day. Such a walk, however, is ‘nowt to speak on’: as a lad he worked on a farm five miles from his father’s cottage, and except when lucky enough to get a ‘lift’ in a waggon or tumbril had to make the daily journey backwards and forwards on foot. … Boys nowadays, he goes on, with an impressive glance at his own offspring, …, don’t know what work is; if they have to get up before daylight they think they are ‘hard put upon.’ They are taught at the schools all sorts of things that he never learnt, but not how to work as their fathers did when they where lads. All the ‘young ‘uns thowt on now’ was to get away from the land and into the towns. I suggest that a better remuneration for labour in the towns has something to do with this; but he only shakes his head and says that living costs a ‘sight’ more in towns than in the country. He is not, however, against ‘a chap’s goin’ to sea, for there his livin’ costs him nowt.” W. A. Dutt, Highways and Byways in East Anglia, 1901

“Night on the Marshes”

“As dusk deepened the river surface assumed the appearance of a breath-blown mirror, and a faint mist marked the courses of the dykes. Gradually the mist grew denser, until it wholly enshrouded the water-meadows. A slight breeze arose, but was only sufficient to make the mist what the marshmen call a ‘patchy roke,’ and scarcely stirred the dark-plumed reeds. Soon the wide marshland entirely vanished, and I could almost believe that the lowlands were again submerged– that the sea had won back its ancient bed. I listened for the lapping of waves against the foot of the slope; but the only sound that came up from mist-mantled marshes was the plaintive cry of a restless water-bird. Like the voice of some wanderer lost in the fog, the cry came at irregular intervals for a while; and then silence, unbroken and intense, brooded over the lowlands.” – William A. Dutt, Highways and Byways in East Anglia

H. L. Mencken on Washington

If George Washington were alive today, what a shining mark he would be for the whole camorra of uplifters, forward-lookers and professional patriots! He was the Rockefeller of his time, the richest man in the United States, a promoter of stock companies, a land-grabber, an exploiter of mines and timber. He was a bitter opponent of foreign entanglements, and denounced their evils in harsh and specific terms. He had a liking for forth-right and pugnacious men, and a contempt for lawyers, school-masters and all other such obscurantists. He was not pious. He drank whiskey whenever he felt chilly, and kept a jug of it handy. He knew far more profanity than Scripture, and used and enjoyed it more. He had no belief in the infallible wisdom of the common people, but regarded them as inflammatory dolts, and tried to save the Republic from them. He advocated no sure cure for all the sorrows of the world and doubted that such a panacea existed. He took no interest in the private morals of his neighbors.

Inhabiting These States today, George would be ineligible for any office of honor or profit. The Senate would never dare confirm him; the President would not think of nominating him. He would be on trial in the newspapers for belonging to the Money Power. The Sherman Act would have him in its toils; he would be under indictment by every grand jury south of the Potomac; the Methodists of his native State would be denouncing him (he had a still at Mount Vernon) as a debaucher of youth, a recruiting officer for insane asylums, a poisoner of the home. And what a chance there would be for that ambitious young district attorney who thought to shadow him on his peregrinations– and grab him under the Mann Act!” –HLM, Damn! A Book of Calumny, 1918

“Shadwell Stair”

by Wilfred Owen

I am the ghost of Shadwell Stair.
       Along the wharves by the water-house,
       And through the cavernous slaughter-house,
I am the shadow that walks there.

Yet I have flesh both firm and cool,
       And eyes tumultuous as the gems
       Of moons and lamps in the full Thames
When dusk sails wavering down the pool.

Shuddering the purple street-arc burns
       Where I watch always; from the banks
       Dolorously the shipping clanks
And after me a strange tide turns.

I walk till the stars of London wane
       And dawn creeps up the Shadwell Stair.
       But when the crowing syrens blare
I with another ghost am lain.

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”

“Howl” by Alan Ginsberg came up in conversation at a party this past weekend and it made me want to go back and listen to this excellent recording of it. So I figured I’d post it here in case anyone else hadn’t yet had the pleasure.

H. L. Mencken on Morality and Honor

Two Quotes:

“It is a commonplace of moral science that absolute morality is impossible — in other words, that all men sin. What is often overlooked is that the same fallibility shows itself upon the higher level of what is called honor, which is simply the morality of superior men. A man who views himself as honorable usually labors under the delusion that his honor is unsullied, but this is never literally true. Every man, however honorable, occasionally sacrifices honor to mere morality behind the door, just as every man of morals sacrifices morality to self-interest.”


“Don’t tell me what delusion he entertains regarding God, or what mountebank he follows in politics, or what he springs from, or what he submits to from his wife. Simply tell me how he makes his living. It is the safest and surest of all known Tests. A man who gets his board and lodging on this ball in an ignominious way is inevitably an ignominious man.”

Both are from A Mencken Chrestomathy, (Vintage Books, 1982) pp. 111 and 20, respectively.

All Value is Subjective

An elegant proof, via William Gibson:

“[Timothy Leary] was really great to have at your table. Kept the evening in flux. And people would come up to him and give him drugs, which he’d give to someone else, usually a perfect stranger, as soon as the gifter was gone. He said that this was a win-win proposition, as the first person could now say that he’d given drugs to Timothy Leary, and the second person that Timothy Leary had given him drugs. I never saw him look to see what was in the envelope.”

“Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg”

by Richard Hugo

You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.

The principal supporting business now
is rage. Hatred of the various grays
the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,
The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls
who leave each year for Butte. One good
restaurant and bars can’t wipe the boredom out.
The 1907 boom, eight going silver mines,
a dance floor built on springs—
all memory resolves itself in gaze,
in panoramic green you know the cattle eat
or two stacks high above the town,
two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse
for fifty years that won’t fall finally down.

Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss
still burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat
so accurate, the church bell simply seems
a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?
Don’t empty houses ring? Are magnesium
and scorn sufficient to support a town,
not just Philipsburg, but towns
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?

Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty
when the jail was built, still laughs
although his lips collapse. Someday soon,
he says, I’ll go to sleep and not wake up.
You tell him no. You’re talking to yourself.
The car that brought you here still runs.
The money you buy lunch with,
no matter where it’s mined, is silver
and the girl who serves your food
is slender and her red hair lights the wall.

Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times Should Lose Her Job

Now before you object that I’m being harsh, Ms. Kellaway and I agree on this point. Of course, we differ vastly in our reasoning. Ms. Kellaway insists that she should lose her job (or more accurately quit it) to make way for younger people wanting to enter the journalism profession.

I think she should quit because her article displayed shockingly poor reasoning, fundamental ignorance of the labor economy, and a total blindness to radical new trends in labor and workplace dynamics.

You see, Ms. Kellaway’s thesis is that, what with unemployment being so high, folks over 50 should quit their jobs to make way for younger folks. To wit:

“The young can’t advance because everywhere they find my complacent generation is in situ. Thus the only way of solving the problem is to make everyone of a certain age, say over 50, walk the plank.”

This is absolute idiocy for a few reasons. First of all, in the sort of white-collar jobs that Ms. Kellaway is suggesting get the Logan’s Run treatment, employees are not interchangeable and experience matters. Contrary to the brush-off she gives the suggestion, there are real benefits to having done a job or been in an industry for forty or more years. The senior and principal engineers in my workplace are incredible sources of information, guidance, and leadership, in large part because they’ve been perfecting their crafts for a majority of their lives.

This seems blindingly obvious to me, but Ms. Kellaway brushes this aside by asserting that “15 or 20 years’ experience, … is surely just as good as 30 or even 40.”

No. It’s not. This is so wrong that I can’t believe a grown woman who ostensibly thinks Very Seriously about things even thought it, much less wrote it.

Want to know how much better 30 years experience is, rather than 15? I can tell you. It’s twice as good. You know, being in that 30 years of learning about the industry and the job and developing skills necessary to do the work effectively is twice as many as 15.

This is not some subtle argument from ideology or my own personal suspicions about the vagaries of the labor economy. It’s math. And not even very hard math at that.

But even if her anti-experience argument weren’t crashingly, obviously wrong, it would still be a bad argument. Even if we assume that white collar workers top out magically after 15 years of experience, why would you fire half of your most productive workers? The people best able to do the jobs would be the ones with 15+ years experience and, even if they’re all doing the same level of work, it’s the highest level of work available. Why fire the best?

Kellaway has a number of other stupifyingly bad arguments for her stupendously bad idea. Take, for instance, her assertion that:

“Shifting from old to young would bring down wages and would also solve the executive pay problem in one shot. Almost all the people earning grotesque amounts are over 50 – getting rid of them would mean CEO pay would come thumping down.”

This so clearly displays not only a fundamental ignorance of labor and economics, but also such terribly sloppy thinking, that I’m starting to question that Ms. Kellaway is arguing in good faith. I mean, she clearly has a passable command of written English, and shows no signs of disordered thinking other than poor logic, so it doesn’t seem that she’s psychotic or obviously mentally impaired.

And yet here she is trumpeting that a benefit of her scheme is that it would drive down wages. This means that she sees lower wages as a desirable outcome. She also implies that high pay for executives is a serious problem. Ms. Kellaway is, in the above-quoted passage, basically saying that everyone should be paid less and, to the end of that noble goal, we should hobble our economy by firing off the best and most productive workers.

From that passage, I’m left with the conclusion that Ms. Kellaway has intense personal hatred for either logic or economic prosperity. The only other option that I can see at this point is that she suffered a traumatic head injury at an earlier age and that I’m in the uncomfortable position of mocking the disabled.

(If that is indeed the case, and Ms. Kellaway got kicked in the head by a horse during her youth, then I would like to apologize profusely and commend the BBC on their extremely ambitious work-study program for the disabled.)

More seriously, though, Ms. Kellaway is writing about a topic that she clearly hasn’t thought through. The labor economy is an interesting and important part of modern society, and there are a few fundamental facts about it that Ms. Kellaway seems to have missed.

First, the labor pool is not of fixed sized. Ms. Kellaway was, by her own admission, presented with this argument before writing this article. She either dismisses it out of hand or failed to understand the argument. I can’t tell which because immediately after she mentions it, she tries to refute it by talking about experience. It’s one of the most quickly executed non sequitors I’ve ever seen.

The other thing she misses is that supply and demand work in labor as well. Skilled workers are in shorter supply and higher demand than lower skilled ones. Ditto with experienced workers. That is why they get paid more. If less-experienced, lower-paid workers could do the jobs currently done by older, better-trained workers, then they could be competing for those same jobs and getting paid similar wages.

The reason older workers tend to have better jobs, is because they tend to have more valuable skills and experience than younger workers. This is such a fundamental part of the traditional labor economy that the fact that Ms. Kellaway is clearly unaware of it, is the single best piece of evidence that she’s unqualified for her current position.

(Speaking of which: if anyone from the BBC News is reading this, drop me a line. I’m pretty obviously much more qualified than Lucy Kellaway to write about the job market. And on the off-chance you’ve adopted her policy, I’m only 28, so you’ll get another 22 good years out of me.)

The final thing that Ms. Kellaway misses, is that the salaried-position-driven labor economy that she axiomatically assumes, is changing pretty dramatically. We live in a world where huge numbers of people are working for themselves as free-lancers, selling their skilled labor directly to consumers. Similarly, the cost of starting a new business is dropping dramatically and many young people starting their own companies, rather than working for an established firm. There is absolutely no mention in her article of contract work, free-lancing, self-employment, or entrepreneurship and yet these are increasingly how a huge number of young people are making their living.

That Ms. Kellaway ignores these trends and simply assumes a world of large, pre-existing organizations doling out a fixed number of salared positions is probably the best evidence that it’s not just her arguments about wages and labor that are flawed, its her very understanding of the labor economy.

So go on, Lucy. Have the courage of your convictions. You’ve admitted that you feel you should quit, so follow your conscience and do it. You’ll make way for a young, aspiring “commentator on office and workplace life”.

As a side benefit, you’ll spare the rest of us your hack commentary. (And seriously, BBC News. Call me.)

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Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.