Saturday, January 28, 2023

Performing Arts Forum 劇場閱讀, Macao Theatre Culture Institute
via:

Salvatore Fiume, Afternoon at Bali, 1970
via:

Chee-Hu

De-Stigmatizing Hawaii’s Creole Language

“You don’t know how happy this makes me,” I wrote a colleague after she casually sent me a link to a recent news story reporting that the U.S. Census Bureau now recognizes Hawaiian Pidgin English as a language. “Oh really?!” the colleague responded, surprised at my excitement.

After all, how could a seemingly silly decision to include the local, slang-sounding vernacular on a language survey listing more than 100 other options cause so much delight? It’s not like the five-year American Community Survey gleaned accurate data on how many people in Hawaii actually speak Pidgin at home. (Roughly 1,600 of the 327,000 bilingual survey respondents said they speak it, while other sources—albeit imperfect ones—have suggested that as many as half of the state’s population of 1.4 million does.) So why was I reverberating with a sense of, to borrow a Pidgin phrase, chee hu!?

The significance of the gesture is symbolic, and it extends far beyond those who are from Hawaii and/or those who speak Hawaiian Pidgin. It shows that the federal government acknowledges the legitimacy of a tongue widely stigmatized, even among locals who dabble in it, as a crass dialect reserved for the uneducated lower classes and informal settings. It reinforces a long, grassroots effort by linguists and cultural practitioners to institutionalize and celebrate the language—to encourage educators to integrate it into their teaching, potentially elevating the achievement of Pidgin-speaking students. And it indicates that, elsewhere in the country, the speakers of comparable linguistic systems—from African American Vernacular English, or ebonics, to Chicano English—may even see similar changes one day, too.

I reported extensively on the disputes over Pidgin and its role in classrooms when I was an education journalist in Hawaii, where I’m from. It was through this reporting experience—the interviews, the historical research, the observations of classrooms—that I realized how little I understood the language and what it represents. Until then, I didn’t even consider it a language; I thought of it as, well, a “pidgin”—“a language that,” according to Merriam Webster, “is formed from a mixture of several languages when speakers of different languages need to talk to each other.” It turns out that “Hawaiian Pidgin English” is a misnomer. And it turns out that resistance to the misunderstood language helps explain some of the biggest challenges stymieing educational progress in the state.

Pidgin, according to linguists, is a creole language that reflects Hawaii’s ongoing legacy as a cultural melting pot. Hawaiian Pidgin English developed during the 1800s and early 1900s, when immigrant laborers from China, Portugal, and the Philippines arrived to work in the plantations; American missionaries also came around that time. The immigrants used pidgins—first one that was based in Hawaiian and then one based in English—to communicate. That linguistic system eventually evolved into a creole, which in general develops when the children of pidgin-speakers use the pidgin as a first language. To give you a sense of what Pidgin sounds like, this is how a project about of the University of Hawaii known as Da Pidgin Coup describes this history using the language:
Wen da keiki wen come olda da language wen come into da creole dat linguist kine people call Hawai‘i Creole. Us local people we jus’ call um “Pidgin.” Nowadays kine Pidgin get all da stuff from da pas’ inside. Plenny of da vocabulary for Pidgin come from English but plenny stuff in da gramma come from Hawaiian. Cantonese an’ Portuguese wen also help make da gramma, an’ English, Hawaiian, Portuguese, an’ Japanese wen help da vocabulary da mos’.
It may read like a phonetic interpretation of a really broken version of standard American English, but linguists insist it isn’t. It has its own grammatical system and lexicon; it doesn’t use “are” or “is” in sentences, for example, and incorporates words from an array of languages like “keiki,” which means children in Hawaiian. The renowned linguist Geoffrey Pullum offered a helpful way of thinking about the difference between a language and a slang in a 1999 paper criticizing a New York Times editorial for describing ebonics as the latter:
We call an expression a slang when it represents a vivid, colloquial word or phrase associated with some subculture and not yet incorporated as part of the mainstream language. No subculture’s slang could constitute a separate language. The mistake is like confusing a sprinkle of hot sauce with a dinner. Slang is by definition parasitic on some larger and more encompassing host language. It has no grammar of its own; it is a small array of words and phrases used under the aegis of some ordinary language and in accordance with its grammar.
According to linguists, the many people in Hawaii who speak both Pidgin and conventional English—whether it be 1,600 people or 700,000—are actually bilingual. “If you don’t treat it as a language, then you get all kinds of problems that come with the stigma,” Kent Sakoda, a professor of second language studies at the University of Hawaii who’s written a book on Pidgin grammar, has explained.

But critics didn’t—and don’t—see it that way. They say allowing it in school undermines kids’ prospects in a globalized workforce, with many citing Hawaii students’ below-average writing and reading scores. This has been a long-standing view, and the state Board of Education even sought to outlaw Pidgin in schools in the late 1980s, though pushback from the community prevented that from happening. “If you use Pidgin, it can really affect your grammar,” former Hawaii Governor Ben Cayetano, who spoke the language growing up, once told me. “I think it does the kids a disservice if you allow them to continue to speak Pidgin.” (...)

When I asked Laiana Wong, a Hawaiian languages professor, whether speaking Pidgin puts kids at a disadvantage, he said that, given the way I had “couched the question, it’s obvious that we recognize that Pidgin is the subaltern language and English has got superiority.”

“Now,” he continued, “if we turn that around and say, well, what about the person who speaks a more standard form of English who cannot speak Pidgin—are they handicapped in Hawaii? And I say yes.”

by Alia Wong, The Atlantic |  Read more:
Image: Jennifer Sinco Kelleher/AP
[ed. Most local folks speak Pidgin but to varying degrees depending on the circumstances/situation.]

Friday, January 27, 2023

Rush Limbaugh’s Toxic Legacy

Radio’s Greatest of All Time is a new book credited to conservative radio broadcaster Rush Limbaugh, who began compiling it from transcripts of his program before his death from lung cancer in 2021. The final published version, which lists his widow, Kathryn, and his younger brother, David, as coauthors, serves as the definitive collectible tribute to the man described in the book’s publicity material as “a modern-day Founding Father—the George Washington of Radio.”

Those kinds of superlatives appear throughout the book, a 500-page “timeless collection of Rush’s brilliant words” and “authoritative body of Rush’s best work,” interspersed with pictures from various stages of his career and tributes to him by Ron DeSantis, Ronald Reagan, Ben Carson, Mike Pence, Benjamin Netanyahu, Clarence Thomas, and Donald Trump. The illustrations include a full-page photo of three of the crystal-obelisk award trophies that Limbaugh received from the National Association of Broadcasters, several full-page photos of his Presidential Medal of Freedom (given to him by Trump in 2020), a double-page spread showing Limbaugh’s Palm Beach mansion, another showing his private plane, another with screen grabs from his appearances on The Tonight Show and Family Guy, as well as covers from his monthly Limbaugh Letter (including photos of Rush as a boxer, Rush as Captain America, and Rush behind a presidential desk in a mock-up of the Oval Office). We see Rush in a tuxedo, flanked by uniformed Marines; Rush by his signature golden microphone with an American flag behind him; and Rush on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, smoking a big cigar. There is also—because why not?—a full double-page spread devoted to a photograph of Margaret Thatcher sitting next to Ronald Reagan. It must be conceded that the book is a slickly produced homage that will delight Rush’s fans, and that there are many dads “across the fruited plain” (to use a favorite Limbaugh phrase) who will be pleased when they get it as a birthday or Christmas present. Perhaps for this reason, it has already debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times’ nonfiction bestseller list.

For the nonfans among us, all of this might be a bit comical; few of us would consider Limbaugh “the greatest radio broadcaster the world has ever known.” But he was certainly one of the most successful broadcasters of all time. Limbaugh appeared on 650 stations, reached 30 million listeners, and was at one point the highest-paid person in the entire field of journalism. (Although one can dispute whether this is the best description of Limbaugh’s “field.”) He was a pioneer in talk radio, spawning an entire genre and a generation of insufferable conservative chatterboxes. It can be argued that Limbaugh deserves significant credit for both the 1994 “Republican Revolution” and the Trump presidency.

To those who know Limbaugh only as a right-wing blowhard, Radio’s Greatest of All Time helps explain some of what made him appealing to listeners. Many of the transcripts printed in the book are from callers who claim that Limbaugh changed their lives in one way or another, by encouraging them to take control of their destinies and reject “victimology.” Limbaugh haters may be surprised—I certainly was—by how many of the included transcripts are more like self-help or life-coaching sessions than the crass diatribes Limbaugh was better known for. One listener tells Rush: “The message that you’re giving us every day—self-sufficiency, self-reliance, get out there, do what you love, be aggressive, be bold—if we live our lives by the principles that you are espousing, we’ll all be successful.” One of the show’s guest hosts describes Limbaugh as “that voice in our head when perhaps we debuted ourselves, faced a fear in life, or just needed some encouragement and motivation.” Radio’s Greatest of All Time presents Limbaugh as someone who inspired listeners to be their best selves, who offered a positive and uplifting vision of America (as opposed to liberals and leftists, who hate their country), and who believed in beautiful, noble, patriotic things. He loved the Bill of Rights and the spirit of individualism and believed that the American dream was attainable by all. An entire section of the book is devoted to chronicling Limbaugh’s “generosity,” with his philanthropic contributions enumerated in a bullet-point list.

No matter his supposed philanthropy, Limbaugh never really concealed the fact that he was far more interested in making money than in effecting social change. Asked by 60 Minutes what he was trying to do with his show, Limbaugh replied that he was ultimately “trying to attract the largest audience I can and hold it for as long as I can, so I can charge advertisers confiscatory advertising rates. This is a business.” Asked by the host if he was therefore “in it for the money,” Limbaugh replied that of course he was in it for the money. In Radio’s Greatest of All Time, he similarly notes that when his critics “examine this program, none of them do so in terms of the career aspect of it” but instead “look at me as a political figure who happens to be on the radio.” Limbaugh was selling a product, not waging a policy crusade. (...)

There is one thing the left can learn from Limbaugh: not how to tell lies or make bigoted jokes but how to communicate effectively to a broad public. Limbaugh promised to make his listeners “the go-to guy in your circle of friends who has the answers” by putting them through the “Limbaugh Institute of Advanced Conservative Studies.” In the book, his listeners recount how he served as both an educator and a voice of reassurance.

An obituary in the American Thinker asserted that Limbaugh “managed to convey what conservatism is about to a mass audience better than any teacher ever could.” Indeed, Thom Hartmann has written in The Nation that the left is making a big mistake by not competing effectively with right-wing talk radio, which is still an important force. The rumors of radio’s death are greatly exaggerated: 83 percent of Americans still listen to terrestrial radio in a given week, and almost all of the top-rated political talk show hosts are conservatives. Hartmann notes that in conservative talk radio, “there’s a mentoring system, there are people coming up through it on the right. And there’s nothing like that on the left.”

by Nathan J. Robinson, The Nation | Read more:
Image: Photo by Jim Watson / AFP)
[ed. Never understood why anyone would embrace the term 'dittohead", ie., not smart or articulate enough to express their own thoughts/feelings. Parrots gotta parrot.]

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Good Luck

Kaitlyn, age 32, applied for a spot at Hope Center Ministries near the end of 2021 because it seemed like her best option at the time. She had pleaded guilty in February to one count of criminal endangerment related to reckless driving and, after being released, violated her probation by reportedly failing to show up for check-ins and possessing drug paraphernalia. Court records say she had told her probation officer she’d been using methamphetamine, even as she denied having a problem with drugs or alcohol. The women’s sober living home in Clancy, her attorney advised, would help her get out of jail and give her a structured environment to recover from substance use.

“I didn’t really know a lot about it,” Kaitlyn said in a December interview. “He just told me that it was a treatment center and that I could benefit from it.”

The residence in Clancy is one of two Hope Center Ministries locations in Montana, including a men’s program in Butte, and 36 nationwide. Though it’s described as a “drug addiction treatment center” on its Facebook page, the national admissions coordinator who testified at Kaitlyn’s November 2021 hearing in Boulder described it as a “long-term faith-based drug and alcohol recovery program.” On its national website, Hope Center Ministries says its purpose is to “lead addicts and their families to become fully devoted followers of Christ.”

According to a court transcript of the hearing, Kaitlyn’s public defense attorney told District Court Judge Luke Berger that Hope Center Ministries’ 34-bed women’s home would provide her with some recovery support and help her maintain compliance with the terms of her probation.

The prosecutor on Kaitlyn’s case, Jefferson County Attorney Andrew Paul, argued for a different route, telling the judge he thought Kaitlyn needed clinical addiction treatment. He asked Hope Center’s then-admissions coordinator, Ashley Drake, what kind of doctors the organization had on staff at the house where Kaitlyn would be going. None, Drake replied. But she said the program would transport residents off-site for any necessary mental health care needs, medication or diagnoses.

“But you would agree with me that medical staff would be appropriate for somebody who is chemically addicted to substances, wouldn’t you?” Paul asked.

“Well, that would really depend upon which recovery approach that you choose,” Drake answered.

Unregulated Recovery

Hope Center Ministries, which opened its Clancy home in 2020, is one example among many of unlicensed and unregulated sober living residences currently operating in Montana. The programs can offer housing and support to people coming out of jail, prison, or clinical treatment, but there is no state oversight of the services they provide. Like most states, Montana doesn’t require sober living facilities to be licensed by the state in order to operate. Unless they provide clinical services that merit licensure as a residential treatment facility, sober living homes in Montana are also not required to employ licensed addiction counselors, social workers, or psychologists. (...)

During Kaitlyn’s hearing, Hope Center Ministries’ admissions coordinator, Drake, explained that the year-long program includes 24-hour supervision, Bible study and a mandatory “vocational training program” in which residents work at local job sites that hold staffing contracts with the ministry. Eventually, she said, residents gain more privileges around the home to help them prepare to transition back into the community. Drake said the income residents generate through their work placement helps pay for the cost of their stay in the home, and also serves as a main source of revenue for the program.

Sam Martin, Kaitlyn’s attorney, told Judge Berger that releasing Kaitlyn to the Clancy home would help keep her in compliance with the terms of her probation and give her the advantages of a supportive environment.

“Their program focuses on providing not only recovery aspects for addiction, but also life supports and general betterment of someone, if you will,” Martin said, adding that the program would help Kaitlyn “get out of the cycle that she is currently in.”

Paul, the county attorney, disagreed.

“Judge, to call this treatment is quite a stretch since they don’t have any sort of medical personnel that are available to assist somebody with their chemical addictions. It’s basically a kumbaya. ‘We’ll take care of you for money.’ And that’s all it is,” Paul said. “It is simply a place where Hope Ministries is making money.”

Berger eventually sided with Martin and agreed to refer Kaitlyn to the Clancy program as a condition of her continued probation. He stressed that he did not have the power to mandate her attendance at Bible study or to complete any religious service, but affirmed that she was agreeing to abide by the rules of the program to which she had applied. (...)

After about six weeks at the home, Kaitlyn began working roughly 40 hours a week at one of Hope Center Ministries’ contracted vocational training job sites, a burrito restaurant on the Carroll College campus in Helena operated by Sodexo, a national food service company. Sodexo did not respond to MTFP’s questions about its work agreement with the ministry.

Kaitlyn and two other former residents who worked at different Helena businesses told MTFP they did not receive paychecks from their job placements and weren’t scheduled to receive payment until the last eight weeks of the program — a phase, Drake had testified, during which residents learn financial responsibility and companies can “actually add them on” as employees.

“You weren’t paid,” Kaitlyn said of the ministry’s vocational training program. “It got sent to the Hope Center.” (...)

Hope Center’s vocational training program serves two primary purposes, according to the organization’s national website. It’s meant to help residents bolster their work ethic during recovery while providing “additional income for the ministry.” In federal tax filings from 2019, the last year for which the Internal Revenue Service has a complete filing publicly available, Hope Center Ministries reported that “work therapy” accounted for more than $3.3 million of the organization’s nearly $6 million in total revenues that year. 

Reports of unethical business practices are not uncommon in the recovery industry, including work without pay, financially motivated patient referrals, and profiteering from gratuitous drug testing. Without oversight, the prevalence of exploitative and unethical conduct in Montana has been impossible to quantify. But local authorities and state lawmakers have recently begun pushing for more regulatory mechanisms to keep pace with the industry. (...)

"Good Luck'

Whatever recovery industry reforms Montana may advance in the coming months, countless residents have already cycled through sober living residences operating without any standards for quality assurance, best practices or efficacy. While some residents may have left programs with months of sobriety and a vision for their future, others gained much less.

Kaitlyn was discharged from Hope Center Ministries in the spring of 2022 after being fired from her job at Sodexo and accused of violating the residence’s rules. She told MTFP she felt sabotaged and unsupported by the program, despite her efforts to graduate. One night, she said, Belling, the program director, drove her away from the residence, bought her a phone from Walmart, and dropped her off at God’s Love, a downtown Helena shelter. Kaitlyn said there was no invitation to come back.

“It felt really shitty, honestly,” Kaitlyn said. “She just said ‘good luck.’”

by Mara Silvers, Montana Free Press |  Read more:
Image:Melissa McFarlin/ MTFP

Fort Walgreens

Just about any booster hanging around the Diamond District a few years ago knew Roni Rubinov’s pawnshop, New Liberty Loans. Rubinov wasn’t the only fence who would buy stolen goods and resell them online, but he had a reputation for taking pretty much anything a shoplifter could bring him: Rolexes, baby formula, condoms, boxed chocolate, prom dresses, K-cups, Amazon gift cards. He’d even buy food stamps. Once, a booster offered him a box of pens he’d found in a trash can. Rubinov bought it.

Most often, though, boosters sold Rubinov cosmetics pinched from pharmacy chains. On any given day, they would head to Duane Reade or CVS or Rite Aid, sweep an armful of creams — L’Oréal, RoC, No7 — into a pillowcase, and leave. In and out in 60 seconds. Occasionally, some poor sales associate or “loss-prevention specialist” would attempt to scare the culprit, but company policy often prevented their doing much more. Cosmetics in tow, boosters would head to 47th Street near Sixth Avenue, where they were greeted by New Liberty Loans’ soot-stained marquee: WE BUY GOLD & 💎. 2 FLOOR. Up the stairs, past Rubinov’s pawnshop, through a room cluttered with gold testers, money counters, and precision scales, and up a back staircase, they would arrive at Rubinov’s second office, a room he kept for the bounty his legion of thieves brought him. Sometimes there would be a line because boosters came back two or three times a day. (...)

Rubinov’s operation thrived in an era that tabloids have labeled a golden age of shoplifting. The NYPD says that retail-theft complaints have gone up 66 percent since 2019, and the problem isn’t confined to New York: 54 percent of small-business owners polled in a recent survey reported a rise in shoplifting with 23 percent claiming their stores were robbed on a daily basis. In April, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board declared that America was battling a “shoplifting epidemic.” (...)

Even if you’ve never purchased steeply discounted perfume from a guy on the street who claims he knows Madame Sephora, you have almost definitely trafficked in stolen goods. If you’re a New Yorker, you might have bought a cup of coffee from a midtown cart that brews exclusively stolen beans or have eaten an Italian sub from a bodega that uses pilfered salami. If you shop online, the likelihood that you’ve purchased stolen merchandise is even higher. Amazon, eBay, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and others have made it easier than ever to anonymously set up shops like Rubinov’s Treasure-Deals-USA. Fences have never had it so good.

To the extent that there has been a nationwide spike in shoplifting, it correlates to the growth of online retail. As one cop told the Journal, Amazon “may be the largest unregulated pawnshop on the face of the planet.” The problem likely got worse during the pandemic, as more people relied on online shopping and the number of sellers using online marketplaces grew.

The rise of e-fencing has turned some shoplifting operations into big businesses. In Tulsa, Linda Been managed a 29-person crew until she was busted by local and federal agencies in 2021. Been allegedly dispatched her boosters with lists of merchandise that noted how much she would pay for each item. Compared with Rubinov, Been appears to have been a generous fence: She would sell the merchandise to other fences and give half of whatever she earned to the booster. She also reimbursed her boosters’ expenses when they traveled out of state, bailed them out when they were jammed up, and topped off their commissary accounts if they couldn’t make bail. Her operation cost retailers more than $10 million in losses. (Been pleaded guilty to conspiracy and wire fraud in July.)

Or consider the case against Steve Skarritt, a former housepainter in Katy, Texas, who allegedly fenced $5 million worth of stolen goods, mostly power tools, in just two years. In 2018, a Black+Decker employee noticed an Amazon user with the name Painting SBS selling the company’s tools. The company did a “controlled buy” of a drill to determine its provenance and notified Home Depot loss-prevention investigators of its suspicion that someone was trafficking tools stolen from its stores. Home Depot investigators then worked with local law-enforcement agencies in Colorado and Texas to build a case against Skarritt, the account’s owner. When authorities arrested Skarritt in 2020, later charging him with money laundering and engaging in organized crime, they found an estimated $1 million worth of power tools in his house; he had reportedly installed an elevator to move them between floors. (Skarritt has yet to go to trial.)

Large retailers, aware that petit larcenies aren’t a top priority for police, have beefed up their loss-prevention departments in the past two decades. Many have specialized units that build cases against organized-retail-crime rings like those operated by Rubinov, Been, and Skarritt. Target has its own forensics lab near its Minneapolis headquarters, CVS recently bought a high-tech surveillance van, and Lowe’s invested in radio-frequency tags and blockchain technology to record legitimate sales of its products.

Online marketplaces have been slow to address the crime wave hiding on their platforms, but last month, just as the congressional session was ending, lawmakers approved legislation as part of the $1.7 trillion spending bill that will require such platforms to verify information about sellers who make at least 200 sales and earn at least $5,000 a year. For its part, Amazon has said it was already taking steps to cut down on e-fencing in recent years, including the requirement that all new selling accounts in the U.S. pass in-person verification.

The problem, though, is only growing. In 2022, the Prosecutors Alliance of California estimated that $500 billion worth of stolen or counterfeit goods changes hands online annually. Fences aren’t the ones galvanizing people to become professional boosters — consumers are. Boosters will continue to steal and fences will keep reselling goods as long as consumers jump at suspiciously steep discounts. The showcases may make all of us feel like a suspect, but maybe that’s what we deserve.

by James D. Walsh, Curbed |  Read more:
Image: Joe Darrow; Photos: Marcus McDonald, Getty Images
[ed. I have a friend who worked at Home Depot for a while. He said employees were instructed to never, ever confront a shoplifter - even if they were trying to wheel a refrigerator out the front door. Unbelievable.]

Tesla Gigafactory - Nevada

Elon recounts the journey of Giga Nevada (The Verge)
Video: YouTube
[ed. One of the richest and most influencial people on the planet. I don't usually pay much attention to what Elon Musk is doing (or says he's doing) so perhaps it's not surprising I've never seen one of his business presentations. Call me underwhelmed. The factory's pretty impressive though.]

Everything That Matters

“Did you ever replace that SxS (SxS refers to a side-by-side shotgun)?” I asked my buddy.

“No. Prefer over/unders primarily,” he responded.

Then, “SxS are cool, though.”

I knew he preferred over/under shotguns, just as I knew he hadn’t replaced the SxS he had tried some years back, and seemed to be fond of, and shot well. But mechanical issues ensued, and he was never able to get it to work to his satisfaction. But I had to double-check.

A fellow in Fairbanks, an ADN reader who often corresponds regarding these columns, offers thoughts and observations that often provide food for thought. Such was the case recently when I wrote of accumulating things. Being around my age, he wondered what he might do with the equipment he has accumulated, now that he and his dogs have retired from sprint skijoring.

I didn’t have an answer. But the exchange reminded me of some things I had promised myself not long ago.

Certainly, there are places to donate things like that. A venue exists for the disposal of most anything. But, when it comes to things that one has invested their heart and soul in, you don’t really want it to go into a pile where folks can pick through it and maybe use it, maybe not.

Organizations like the Salvation Army may put it to use, and for some things, that’s great. But I, for one, would like some of the things that are dear to me to go to someone I know who will “get it,” who understands the intrinsic value, and who will use it in good faith, carry on the tradition if you will. I don’t want the backpack I hunted so many mountain miles over to become someone’s diaper bag.

Perhaps this has become an old-fashioned sentiment, from the time I remember thinking about how cool it would have been to be able to keep all of the old saddle and tack from my grandparent’s days when horses were a part of life. The world is a much different place than many of us older folks grew up in. Carrying on traditions may even be an unrealistic sentiment today. At times I have trouble sorting it out.

Standing before a home full of things that composed my father’s life, and not knowing how to connect with all who might have wanted to share some of those things frustrated and even angered me. Being responsible for those things, I couldn’t reduce my father’s life to 50 cents at a time in a yard sale.

Last spring, on the wind-blown prairie of North Dakota, I decided that I didn’t want my end game to be like that. Which, given mainstream culture’s awful predisposition to reduce things to possession and never let go, it is not as easy as it sounds. 

by Steve Meyer, Anchorage Daily News |  Read more:
Image: Christine Cunningham
[ed. Not just guns. Anything with personal or family history. The flip side is dealing with accumulated junk. My dad left 70+ years of it for my brothers and I to dispose of - old rusted tools, broken useless sports equipment; old dried paint cans in the hundreds; dead appliances, water damaged furniture, moldy luggage, everything. Old folks, do your kids a favor - cleanout and downsize while you still can. You don't want your legacy to include a lot swearing.]

Tuesday, January 24, 2023


Book Play 11 - A Day In The Life

LeBron’s Career Has Been a Quiet Rebuke to Michael Jordan’s

LeBron James’s 20-year NBA career has generated its fair share of memes—my favorite has to be him scolding J.R. Smith — but I think this one sums up the man best:

The image, which James posted to his Instagram page just hours after Fox host Laura Ingraham infamously told him to “shut up and dribble,” encapsulates him perfectly. There’s a little lack of self-awareness, some charming awkwardness, a dash of braggadocio, and, more than anything else, an understanding that, no matter what happens, everything’s going to turn out fine for LeBron James. Perhaps more than any other megawatt top-shelf superstar in recent decades, James seems … if not quite normal, at least content. Jordan was miserable even when he was winning championships and has grown only more embittered; Tom Brady simply cannot fathom a world where he isn’t the NFL’s top dog; Tiger Woods was as great at golf as he was bad at, well, anything that wasn’t golf. (Stephen Curry seems at peace with himself, but he still isn’t quite at James’s icon level.) The inner-circle legends are often tormented, driven to win at an almost psychotic level and largely unequipped to handle anything resembling real life. It’s their curse: brilliant on the field, forever lost off it.

But James has also carried himself as a man who, as much as he wants to win, knows deep down that he already has. He is known for diving head first into whatever endeavor piques his interest — finance, entertainment, politics (until recently anyway) — and, while you don’t become a global superstar like he has without minimizing at least some risk (witness his recent retreat from the political sphere), he has always spoken his mind about off-court endeavors in a way that that would have been unfathomable for Jordan. The never-ending, forever-exhausting Jordan-James “greatest of all time” debate has always rested a little bit on this dynamic. James’s career numbers dwarf Jordan’s in most ways (yes, he’s two titles short), but Jordan’s obsessions shaped the way a whole generation framed nearly every sports endeavor: Winning is the only priority, and to lose is to die. Jordan won, and he cut your heart out while doing it. He was so good at being ruthless that he made us all think that’s what you were supposed to do.

James’s career has served as a quiet but refreshing rebuke to this philosophy. To be clear, he is hardly comfortable with, or even all that familiar with, losing. He has won four NBA titles and reached ten NBA Finals, including eight in a row from 2011 to 2018, and he recently groused about the subpar roster that surrounds him in Los Angeles right now. (A roster he’s partly responsible for constructing, it should be noted.) But even when LeBron loses, even when he’s playing for a team as middling as the one he’s on right now, he doesn’t have the vibe of a man who needs the world to burn because he’s not getting what he wants, the way Jordan might have: His vibe remain very Smiling Through It All! Can’t Believe This Is My Life! about it. The all-time scoring record is perhaps the NBA’s most sacred: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has held it for nearly 40 years. (Since Jordan’s rookie season!) But LeBron’s chase for it has been almost low-key. His run at the record has felt less historical and more a logical inevitability.

by Will Leitch, Intelligencer |  Read more:
Image: LeBron James/Instagram
[ed. Yep. No contest.]

Monday, January 23, 2023

Is Tipping Getting Out Of Control?

Across the country, there’s a silent frustration brewing about an age-old practice that many say is getting out of hand: tipping.

Some fed-up consumers are posting rants on social media complaining about tip requests at drive-thrus, while others say they’re tired of being asked to leave a gratuity for a muffin or a simple cup of coffee at their neighborhood bakery. What’s next, they wonder -- are we going to be tipping our doctors and dentists, too?

As more businesses adopt digital payment methods, customers are automatically being prompted to leave a gratuity — many times as high as 30% — at places they normally wouldn't. And some say it has become more frustrating as the price of items has skyrocketed due to inflation, which eased to 6.5% in December but still remains painfully high.

“Suddenly, these screens are at every establishment we encounter. They're popping up online as well for online orders. And I fear that there is no end,” said etiquette expert Thomas Farley, who considers the whole thing somewhat of “an invasion.”

Unlike tip jars that shoppers can easily ignore if they don’t have spare change, experts say the digital requests can produce social pressure and are more difficult to bypass. And your generosity, or lack thereof, can be laid bare for anyone close enough to glance at the screen — including the workers themselves.

Dylan Schenker is one of them. The 38-year-old earns about $400 a month in tips, which provides a helpful supplement to his $15 hourly wage as a barista at Philadelphia café located inside a restaurant. Most of those tips come from consumers who order coffee drinks or interact with the café for other things, such as carryout orders. The gratuity helps cover his monthly rent and eases some of his burdens while he attends graduate school and juggles his job.

Schenker says it's hard to sympathize with consumers who are able to afford pricey coffee drinks but complain about tipping. And he often feels demoralized when people don’t leave behind anything extra — especially if they’re regulars.

“Tipping is about making sure the people who are performing that service for you are getting paid what they’re owed,” said Schenker, who’s been working in the service industry for roughly 18 years.

Traditionally, consumers have taken pride in being good tippers at places like restaurants, which typically pay their workers lower than the minimum wage in expectation they’ll make up the difference in tips. But academics who study the topic say many consumers are now feeling irritated by automatic tip requests at coffee shops and other counter service eateries where tipping has not typically been expected, workers make at least the minimum wage and service is usually limited. (...)

The final tab might also impact how customers react. Karabas said in the research he did with other academics, they manipulated the payment amounts and found that when the check was high, consumers no longer felt as irritated by the tip requests. That suggests the best time for a coffee shop to ask for that 20% tip, for example, might be on four or five orders of coffee, not a small cup that costs $4.

Some consumers might continue to shrug off the tip requests regardless of the amount.

“If you work for a company, it's that company's job to pay you for doing work for them,” said Mike Janavey, a footwear and clothing designer who lives in New York City. “They're not supposed to be juicing consumers that are already spending money there to pay their employees.”

by Haleluya Hadero, Yahoo News |  Read more:
Image: AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
[ed. Glad to see this latest little irritant getting some traction. Sometimes there's not even a no-tipping option.]

Sunday, January 22, 2023

All My Relations

It’s been so long.

I look at the stringer of fish: some weke nono, an uku, a scattering of kole. The weke’s vibrant stripes contrast with the uku’s darker colour. Out in the water, I said the ritual words. Then I feasted. Even a predator recognises those above him. I devoured two bright green uhu before I came in, making short work of their thick scales. The edge of my hunger is dulled, but still cutting. Gnawing. Whispering. Insisting.

I walk across the grass, stringer and spear in one hand, the rest of my gear tucked under my arm or balanced across my chest. I stash the rest of the fish in the cooler in the back of my truck for later, and head towards the hose.
 
A young boy splashes his slippers idly in the puddle on the asphalt by the spigot. This is the beach I dive at most and I see him around with his dad and some other folks. I’ve even traded fish with the father a few times.

The boy’s wearing a stained and tattered pair of red surf shorts. Someone, maybe his mom, has added elastic to the waistband to make it fit his skinny brown frame better. As I approach, he turns and stares at me unashamedly, as children do.

My breathing quickens and my muscles tense. I force myself to relax. His stare is not a challenge. I flick my eyes over him. He’s a little runt, hair turned ‘ehu from the sun. He might be twelve. Maybe he’s eight. I don’t know his age, but that’s more because I can’t be bothered to pay attention to the developmental stages of your whelps rather than some ageless quality about him.

“Uncle, my dad says that you should never dive alone.”

And now he’s talking to me. “I’m not your uncle, boy,” I grumble, brushing past him to get to the hose. Uncle. As if we could be related.

I am a glorious kupua, a niuhi even. A ravening killing machine, sending your ape-descended ancestors into the never-ending night. Leaving their entrails to twist in the salty currents of the sea. I am the tax your people pay for living by the shores of the great sea Moananuiākea.

“My dad said you can get shallow water blackout if you hold your breath too long!”

“I’ll be careful next time,” I snort, not mentioning that I can breathe underwater. That the feel of water rushing across my gills as I chase down prey is one of my greatest pleasures in life. That if this was two hundred years ago, I would already know what his liver tastes like.

“Plus my dad said that the sharks feed at dawn and dusk!”

Feed. My irises widen and my heart begins a relentless thudding. My feet pace out circles, with the hose in my hand, one eye fastened on the boy.

Some of my shark kin feel that fear spoils your flavour, taints your meat, so they strike quickly, from the murky depths. But me? I love the actinic savour that bowel-chilling terror imparts to your flesh. So I let you see me coming. Dorsal rising like the sail of a voyaging canoe as I circle. The whites of your eyes before you turn and try to scratch for shore. “Ka liu o ka pa‘akai,” as we used to say, the savour of the salt.

I sluice the cold hose water over my face, feeling slightly diminished as I wash the salt water from my skin. Less like me and more like one of you. I peel out of the sleeves and torso of my green camo wetsuit and continue to rinse off.
  
“Ho, Uncle, that’s a nice tat on your back! What is that? Shark teeth? I like get one like that too, but my dad said I too young yet.”

I don’t answer. Godsdamn, that fucking kid does not shut up. I shake my head and chuckle to myself, giving in a little bit.

“It’s a family design. Everyone in my family has it.” I turn my back to him so he can see the stylized black triangles stretching between my shoulders in an oval, a lei of teeth. I’m a little puzzled at myself. Maybe I’m being nice to him or maybe I’m just a little vain. (...)

Two hundred years ago, the sharks of Hawai‘i had a great battle at Pu‘uloa. A place you people so brilliantly renamed Pearl Harbor… because it was a harbour with pearls in it. Skin-sack ingenuity.

Ka‘ahupāhau and her brother Kahi‘ukā were amongst our most powerful leaders. But they betrayed us. They refused to be what they are: Predators. They wanted to be more like you soft dull-toothed ape-children. So they led a group of sharks who had forsaken eating people.

Against their own kin.

The battle was terrible and glorious at the same time. The sea of Pu‘uloa was filled with flashing teeth and blood and death. As we fought, we shifted through shark, and human, and in-between, but death found us no matter our form. When the fighting ceased, the dead on both sides lay bloated and rotting in the sun, and we niuhi, the maneaters, had been defeated.

Ka‘ahupāhau and Kahi‘ukā were the protectors of Pu‘uloa, and after their victory, they declared that no shark shall eat human flesh in the seas around O‘ahu ever again. And do you know how your chimp forebears repaid that boon? Your leaders built a military base on their home. They even built a dry dock right atop Ka‘ahupāhau’s cave.

Though no one has seen Ka‘ahupāhau or Kahi‘ukā since the base was constructed, I follow their mandate. Even though they broke with our traditions to defeat us, I still adhere to our traditions and our hierarchy. They were victorious, and I will obey the law they decreed. When I am a shark and the hunger hits, nothing can stay my jaws. There are none of the weaknesses brought by your flabby human form to hold me back. I stay in this lowly human form so the hunger does not overwhelm me.

Two hundred years. 

Anger flares when I remember the last time I swam as a shark. Entangled by Ka‘ahupāhau’s net, held still and slowly suffocating. Battle hunger fading, my powerful fins separating and shrinking into these willowy little ape paws. But I burn at the thought that some mob of flesh sausages thought it would be okay to build on top of the home of Ka‘ahupāhau and Kahi‘ukā. Yes, they were my enemies but there is no justice in that.

I shove the weke’s head into my mouth, biting down and feeling skull crunch. Fishermen say that if you eat the head of a weke, you get nightmares. But I am the nightmare: That feeling on the back of your neck. The movement out of the corner of your eye. The shadow in the sea.

Now I have been relegated to eating only fish. Sometimes, your ancestors used to sacrifice ulua to the kini akua in place of people, a fish standing in for a man. Let me tell you though: fish are no replacement for a sawn femoral and the long slender thigh of a kanaka. Eating all this fish, I may as well start eating vegetables too, like a godsdamned sea cow or some idiot pescatarian in Kaka‘ako obsessing over coffee and asking if his golden tilapia filet was harpooned or line-caught.

My knuckles are white, clutching my threeprong. It would be so easy to use it to put a hole in one of these meat sacks lounging on the beach around me and drink the life from them. To say the ritual words and then tear them to pieces. I feel my pupils dilating to let in more light, more information for the hunt, my foot twitching, wanting to propel me into action like a sweep of my giant tail.

“Uncle, you doing okay?”

My eyes snap to the boy, unrecognising, seeing only flesh and vulnerable spots to drive my jaws into. Belly. Throat. Face. Anywhere on this whelp actually.

“Uncle!” Instead of retreating, the boy hurries closer. “You okay or what, Uncle?”

Most prey runs, rather than approaching. I cock my head and he starts to separate from the background, coming into focus from the frenzy.

“Eh, boy,” I say slowly, words thick in my mouth. “Yeah, I’m fine. And stop calling me Uncle. What’s your name?” I ask, starting to feel a little calmer. I grudgingly appreciate that the boy is bringing me back. “You know what, never mind. I’m just going to call you Uncle so you know what it feels like.”

The boy giggles loudly and comes closer. “So what are you doing here, Uncle?” I ask, eliciting another giggle. (...)

The boy’s eyes glitter as he eyes my spear, maybe even a spark of hunger. Once more, I look him over, with an appraising eye, not as meat, but as something else. He’s not much to look at. More like a trumpetfish or a fence pole than anything, but perhaps this boy is a hunter too.

“Next time I come, ask your father if you can come dive with me. We’ll get some fish for them throw on the grill.”

“Uncle” beams. “Shoots!”

I walk past him to get in my truck, flicking his hat off his head, ‘‘kay, Uncle.’ 

He giggles again as he catches his hat against his chest before it falls to the ground. My engine coughs to life and I drive off, seeing him in my rear-view walking towards the little flock of tents.

Uncle runs up to my truck when I pull into the lot early in the morning. He has a three-prong in his little boy hand, and I can see his dad and the others by the tents yelling at him to stop running, ‘bumbye you fall and poke your eye out.’ He’s standing right outside my window, making shaka, bouncing up and down.

“You did come back today!

“I told my dad you was going come back!

“He had to go back home to get my spear!

“See, Dad, he’s back!

“When are we going to go diving?

“Do I need a wetsuit like you?”

I try to keep a look of disgust off my face. Regret surges for my lapse yesterday. What was I thinking? This wet paper bag a hunter? I get out of my rusty red truck and nudge Uncle toward the back, where I have all my gear stored. I lift the rear window of the camper top, hinges screeching. I reach in with one hand, using the other to pass gear to him, all the while trying to ignore his steady stream of conversation. (...)

“We probably just stay in the shallows today,” I tell the dad, beckoning to his son with my head. “We go.”

Uncle grabs all his gear excitedly and his dad takes a picture of him with his phone.

“Dad! Send that to me!

“I’m going to put it on Instagram!

“Are you on Instagram? You should just post pictures of your tat!”

If he asks me to take a selfie with him, I am going to eat him right now. 

by Brian Kamaoli Kuwada, Hawaii Review of Books |  Read more:
Images: Amelia Barklid, Alexander Kondriyanenko, and Laura Chouette.Portraits by Jocelyn Kapumealani Ng

Buzz Gets Married

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin marries longtime love on 93rd birthday (Yahoo News)
Image: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File
[ed. Geez... what a great outfit. To the moon (again).]

The Emptying Hourglass

You probably have that person in your life who is on the forgetful side.

The family member who might now and again leave the burner on after boiling water for tea. Now imagine if that person left the burner on, without fail, every time he used the stove. Now imagine that he doesn’t even need hot water, but just walks over, turns on the burner, and walks away. That’s my dad.

Ten years ago my father was diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset dementia known as Pick’s Disease. I was teaching on the Big Island of Hawai‘i at the time and my parents were in Washington State, the Pacific between me and his slow slide into dementia.

During the first two years following his diagnosis, the occasional video call left me acutely aware of the velocity with which I was losing my dad. He’d be mid-sentence and suddenly go quiet, forgetting a word or his train of thought. He’d ask about my baby boy, even though my wife had recently given birth to a girl. A curtain was closing over his mind.
 
My wife, Kristin, and I had fled the omnipresent grey of Seattle with the dream of raising a family in Hawai‘i. I’d found a job teaching at Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy, we had an apartment at the foothills of Kohala mountain, and our one-year-old, Matilda, was taking her first steps on soft sand beaches. The decision to move back to Spangle, Washington, the tiny farm town of my childhood, was not an easy one, but I felt compelled to squeeze in a little more time with Dad before his mind left him completely. We would trade in sunset beach dinners and volcano hikes for rodeos and wheat fields.

Waimea, Hawai‘i is no major metropolis, but it sure feels like one juxtaposed with Spangle and its 300 inhabitants. After nearly two decades of globetrotting and putting as many miles as I could between my small-town roots and me, I suddenly found myself moving into my deceased grandmother’s house and living a mere three blocks from my folks.

Presently, Mom has a professional caregiver at home with her seven days a week. She can no longer haul Dad up off the carpet herself when he has one of his seizures, can’t lift him from the toilet when he forgets how to straighten his legs, can’t coerce him into releasing the randomly applied vice grip to her wrist while attempting to feed him. But eight years ago, when we first moved to Spangle, and before things had gotten so bad, when Mom was off at work the TV was Dad’s caregiver. His days were dedicated to such reality show juggernauts as Man vs. Wild, Dirty Jobs, Deadliest Catch, and of course, Shark Week. I’d swing by in the afternoons, sit and watch some TV with him.

At that point he could still get out a few words before synapses crashed into a forest of plaque. He never finished a sentence, which made for a fun game of context clue. The old fill-in-the-blank. A shark would chomp a surfer’s foot and he’d say, “Now that’s a…”

And the game would begin. “...tasty appetizer?” He’d shake his head no. “...rough start to the day?” No. “...sign you should probably re-enroll in community college?” He’d laugh, but no.

With any brand of dementia things progress and regress at odd intervals, more ebb than flow, but with a strange sort of consistency nonetheless. Some days go well, some not so well, but it’s easy to slip into thinking you know where things stand. Yet, just when you think you’ve got it sorted out, and maybe you’re at peace with the current state of confusion and complexities, out of the blue something will happen, and you realize that your loved one has entered a new stage, more disturbing than the last.

Following a few months of afternoon pop-ins, I opened the front door and was met by a new stage: Dad, standing in a panic. Before I could get to the kitchen and turn off a burner, a wall of noise stopped me cold—the TV turned up to the highest possible volume. It blared something about a Florida boy and his sister dragged out from the shallows. Dad’s pallid face was more terror-stricken than that of the Shark Week siblings.

Completely overwhelmed, he tried, but could not, form a sentence. Holding the remote in his loose grip, he eyed the thing as if it were a coiled snake ready to strike at any sudden movement.

I grabbed it, pointed it at the TV, and turned down the volume.

He stared at the television, at the remote in my hand, then to me. Finally, he closed his eyes and sighed the long, empty sigh of a man lost to the woods, resigned to the likelihood of not being found.

I helped him back to his chair. Even with the television at a reasonable volume his hands continued to shake. A drop of sweat slid past his temple. That’s when I took note of another issue. He smelled of shit. In all the bedlam, he’d lost control of his bowels. It was another first. I hurried to the kitchen and turned off two of the four burners. They were bright red and the scorched metal smell, combined with that of his shit, left me struggling for breath. I stood there staring at the red stovetop for a long time, appreciating that, yes, we had just crashed into the next stage of his dementia. (...)

A particularly sinister aspect of dementia is that, over time, it begins to erode your own memories of the afflicted. A cloud of disquiet coats the rearview mirror, leaving you squinting for clarity. It took a concerted effort for my mind’s eye to travel back to when he was himself, to see past this fog, so pressing and ever present it left little room for the good old days. (...)

Roles shift. It’s part of the aging process. But when the dynamic flips too quickly it’s the emotional equivalent of quicksand. I wasn’t ready for this, and the more I struggled, the more his disease seemed to pull me down with it. I had imagined this day might arrive, someday, but not until my parents were in their 80’s or 90’s… certainly not in their 50’s. I shouldn’t be cleaning up after his incontinence, holding him up on walks, nursing cuts and scrapes.

The shift took place at a dizzying pace. No time to make peace with it. No time to prepare. I’d left a good job, a good life in Hawai‘i to sneak in this quality time with my hero, but there was little quality to this time. We weren’t communicating much. Not for lack of want. He just couldn’t anymore.

He wasn’t able to spend the time I’d envisioned with his granddaughter. She made him nervous. If Matilda toddled towards him he looked pleadingly at us, hoping we would stop her. If she sat in his lap, his hands shook. If she swiveled around to look at him, he turned his gaze out the window. He didn’t know what to do with her. He’d flinch and stiffen with her touch, seemingly afraid of accidentally injuring her.

Matilda would never know her grandfather. Not really. Not as himself. Rather, she would only ever remember this ever-nervous, confused version of a grandpa, a man whose once rich brown eyes had turned to grey. She grew fearful of him and they would never bond.

Following two years of small-town living, it was time for us to go. More to the point, it was time for me to go. Some people, like my mom, can caretake for a loved one for years on end with no finish line in sight. But I could no longer do it. Though she never spoke of it, she must’ve noticed the heaviness that I began to carry around with me; a heaviness that I tried to keep hidden from her. Of even greater concern, our own relationship began to grow strained. We no longer joked around or playfully gave each other a hard time, as was our way.

My wife, Kristin, remained saintly throughout our time in Spangle, assuring me that she would give eastern Washington as much of a go as I needed, but I’d come to the realization that a healthy space between Dad’s disease and my own family’s path was vital.

Through a former colleague, I was told of an opening at my old school, Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy. The teaching position came with a three-bedroom cottage on a breathtaking 26-acre campus.

I applied and got the job. We would be moving back to the islands in a month.

After putting off telling my parents for over a week, understanding that it would shatter my mom, I broke the news. Sitting out on their back patio, I struggled to explain why I would be taking my family back across the Pacific and landing on the same volcanic island from which we’d come.

“It’s a great school. With Matilda starting kindergarten soon, she’ll have access to a world-class education in a safe, beautiful place.”

“You know I won’t be able to travel as Larry gets worse.”

“I know. I’m sorry, Mom. But we’ll head back on breaks. Nice thing about teaching, we get months off at a time. We can still spend summers with you.”

She’d fiercely bonded with Matilda over the last two years. “You just miss so much over those long stretches. You miss everything.”

“We’ll Facetime every week.”

“Can’t hug a computer.” She began to cry.

At that stage, it was rare that my dad could get out more than a word at a time, if that. But there on the patio, he suddenly blurted, “I would! I would if I were you!”

Mom wiped her eyes and stared at him. Then, “Well, look who’s come to the party.” She leaned into him and with her fingers stroked his hair.

I was trying not to cry. “Thanks, Dad.”

He nodded.

“Love you, Dad.”

He looked at Mom and smiled. She kissed the stubble of his cheek.

He turned back to me. “Just…”

And dementia-Dad was back. I gave it a go. “Eat lots of pineapple?” It was his favorite fruit.

He shook his head no.

“Get Matilda into Hula lessons? Already looked into it.”

No.

“Watch out for sharks.”

He nodded, laughed. 

by Jeffery P. Mix, Hawaii Review of Books |  Read more:
Image: The author
[ed. Dementia (I hate that term). It erodes the memory of loved ones, and becomes a part of how you'll always remember them. Like the author, I was lucky to share a moment of clarity with my mother before she disappeared completely, I'll always treasure that.]

Media and Politics: Ezra Klein Interviews Nicole Hemmer

Let me state the question of this episode clearly. What the hell has happened to the Republican Party? When I began covering politics 20-ish years ago, the cliche was that Democrats were this barely organized collection of squabbling interest groups — barely a party. But Republicans — Republicans were this disciplined, ideological, unified political force. Their majority leader at the time, Tom DeLay, he had the nickname “The Hammer.” If that was ever true, it’s not now. (...)

Republicans aren’t a party anymore. They’re a riot, a movement. But they’re one that is often at war with itself. And that’s not normal. All political parties — they have internal dissent and conflict. What is distinctive about Republicans in this era is they have lost control. I date that to around 2010 with the rise of the Tea Party. But that’s just a moment the dynamics of the party tipped out of balance. It’s not the moment those dynamics began. So when did it begin and why? Who profits from this version of the Republican Party? Who perpetuates it?

Nicole Hemmer is a historian at Vanderbilt who studies the Republican Party, and she studies it particularly through the lens of its media. She’s the author of two great books about the conservative movement: “Messengers of the Right” and her new one, “Partisans,” which I highly recommend. And she’s a perfect person for this conversation. As always, my email ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com.

Nicole Hemmer, welcome to the show.

NICOLE HEMMER: Thanks for having me, Ezra. (...)

EZRA KLEIN: 1992 is so extraordinary to me. It’s one of these moments where the entire egg that is the Republican Party just seems to me to be hatching.

NICOLE HEMMER: Yes.

EZRA KLEIN: Because you have Buchanan, you have Limbaugh, you have Newt, you have Perot. But I want to go back to something you mentioned, which is this moment where Rush Limbaugh endorses Pat Buchanan. And the George H.W. Bush White House has a, I think, a fairly extraordinary response to that. Can you talk through that story?

NICOLE HEMMER: Absolutely. So the Bush administration is looking out over the political landscape in 1992. The threat from Pat Buchanan is much larger than they thought that it would be. Buchanan, even though he loses the New Hampshire primary to Bush by 16 points, he got a lot closer than any of the people in the Bush White House were comfortable with.

And as they were surveying the sources of Buchanan’s popularity, they lit upon Rush Limbaugh, who by 1991, ’92, was a juggernaut in right wing media. He was something that no one had ever seen before. He was making millions of dollars. He had millions of listeners. He was about to launch a new television show. He had best-selling books.

He was this very singular figure. And nobody knew how much influence he might have on the conservative base. But what the Bush administration knew was that Limbaugh liked Buchanan, and Buchanan was doing better than expected. And so they needed to harness some of that Limbaugh energy.

And so in order to do that, they tap the person who is going to be Limbaugh’s television producer and who has been a consultant to the Republican Party and to several Republican presidents — Roger Ailes. And they invite Roger Ailes, who would later become one of the founders of Fox News — they invite Roger Ailes and Rush Limbaugh to the White House to have a night at the Kennedy Center with George and Barbara Bush, to stay over at the Lincoln bedroom and really to court him.

And there is this one moment that Rush Limbaugh will talk about for the next 30 years where President Bush picks up his bag and carries it in. And in many ways, Limbaugh latches onto that moment not as Bush being this generous blue-blooded WASP from New England, but as the president carried my bags. I have the power in this situation. The president waits on me.

And that dynamic is going to define a lot of Limbaugh’s career, but also is pointing to some things that are shifting within the conservative movement and the Republican Party where candidates and presidents are becoming more reliant on the conservative media systems that people like Rush Limbaugh are building. (...)

EZRA KLEIN: I want to spend some real time here on the asymmetry in media structures because obviously it’s something that I’ve experienced to some degree. And I want to give some credit to the right-wing view that there is — I don’t exactly want to call it a bias, but there’s a liberal culturation in a lot of the media, that the people in major newsrooms are themselves much more liberal than they are conservative.

And there’s an integration, in a funny way, between what you might think of as liberal media, an MSNBC, or an “American Prospect,” which is a small magazine I started out at, and mainstream media. MSNBC is part of NBC. And I know, from having worked there, that if MSNBC is getting liberal in a way that NBC feels reflects badly on it, that the hammer comes down and people get very upset and it becomes a big internal political problem.

And there’s a way in which, of course, there is a liberalism, particularly a cultural liberalism in the mainstream media, but there’s also a restraint built around these business models and these organizations that at least have this self-conception of themselves as for everybody. The New York Times desperately wants to be a paper for everybody. NBC wants to be for everybody.

And they have business models, traditionally, from these local geographic monopolies and airwave monopolies, all the way up to these mass subscription operations, that put this pressure to try to be palatable to virtually every kind of consumer. And that’s become harder and harder and harder in recent years, but it is still a very, very present intention. And then as you go into the further reaches of liberal or left media, people who want to work at these organizations are somewhat restrained by knowing what it looks like to be in these organizations.

And I say all that to serve up to you the counterquestion, which is conservative media, because it isn’t intertwined, with the exception of maybe The Wall Street Journal, with these mainstream more establishment organizations that have these business models that are about appealing to everybody, develops a very different business model that I think helps create a different ideology instead of practices. How would you describe the business incentives of conservative media?

NICOLE HEMMER: I think that’s right. There’s both a difference in terms of the professional practices — ideas like objectivity are professional practices that have continued on at places like NBC News or at The New York Times, since the 1920s and 30s and 40s, that are not necessarily the same constraints on conservative media. But the economic question is really important, because in some ways, conservative media figured out the media landscape and the shifts that were happening in the business of media much better than some of these more mainstream institutions.

And that idea that if you have a devoted fraction of the potential viewing or listening audience, that that devotion means people are going to keep coming back, that they are going to trust the people who are speaking to them — so they’re going to trust somebody like Rush Limbaugh, they’re going to buy the products that are sold during the advertisements. And so you have this different conception of what it takes to make profitable media.

And Rush Limbaugh is really an innovator in this front. The conservative media that I was talking about earlier, like National Review, like the “Smoot Report,” they had not cracked the business code. So it’s not just about messaging to conservatives, but it is about offering a political message that seems like it is going to have a real effect on how elections turn out and how people govern while they are in office, and that triggers a set of emotions and attachments that make people fervent fans. (...)

So that idea of microtargeting or understanding narrowcasting, that you want a small devoted audience and you can make a lot of money that way, the right figure that out much more quickly, in part, as you noted, because they weren’t necessarily constrained by those professional practices that a place like CBS News would have.

EZRA KLEIN: I think part of it is that they figured it out. And I wonder how much they were forced into it. And something I think about here is about what attracts people to a media organization. When they come to you, what are they coming for? And in a lot of conservative media and some liberal media, they’re really coming for the politics. If you watch Fox News, if you listen to, back in the day, Rush Limbaugh, maybe today Ben Shapiro, if you watch MSNBC, you’re coming for the politics.

And so if that politics is conservative, that’s really, really important. If it’s liberal, it’s really important. A lot of other kinds of media organizations, more mainstream organizations, I think something that often gets missed and is really important is that politics is one of the things they do, often not the main one, often definitely not the one that keeps people coming back.

In local newspapers, the sports section and the classifieds were really, really important. At “The New York Times,” how do you feel about our cooking content or recipes? What do you think of Wordle? It really matters. That’s a big part of the business. It’s not the only thing. The Styles section is important. The Book Review is important. These things that are really not in that way political.

It’s a reason, I think, The Wall Street Journal has always been a different kind of institution than a lot of what we think of as conservative media. It is conservative in the sense that it is a place where you have more conservatives working. It’s owned now by Rupert Murdoch.

But it’s a business newspaper first. And so it has this other set of things it is doing before it gets into the question of its own politics. NPR is another good example of this where culturally, I think it’s fair to say, it is a liberal. But is what NPR is doing, is it first politics? No. They’re trying to be a news organization and have these local affiliates. It’s a bunch of other things.

So I wonder how much one of the things that has also happened here is that a lot of the space of these organizations that are crosspressured in their missions, crosspressured in their offerings, and so a little held back from going all in on politics — those organizations had taken up a lot of that room. And so as conservative media emerges, it is more explicitly conservative. The market niche it is filling is not a counternews or media establishment, but an unfilled political conservative niche.

NICOLE HEMMER: It’s such a smart observation, Ezra, because that’s exactly right. The kinds of stories that make their way into conservative media, they’re not always about electoral politics. But the hump that you have to get over to talk about a story on, say, Fox News, is that it has to have a politics to it, right? It has to fit into a broader narrative about politics, about the right, about conservatism and culture. (...)

If that is your identity and your mission from the start, that shapes why people come to you, but it also shapes the content that you put on. And if you stray too far from that, people might go with you a little bit if they are really attached to a particular host. So I think you’re exactly right about looking at the mission and the purpose of these outlets in order to understand why they function so differently.

by Ezra Klein, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Ezra Klein, NYT
[ed. Sorry Republicans.... but nuts is nuts. Not saying Dems don't have their own baggage to deal with, but this is next level. Well worth a read. As usual, this will help with paywalls (including NYT).]

Saturday, January 21, 2023

How Smart Are the Robots Getting?

The Turing test used to be the gold standard for proving machine intelligence. This generation of bots is racing past it.

The Turing test is a subjective measure. It depends on whether the people asking the questions feel convinced that they are talking to another person when in fact they are talking to a device.

But whoever is asking the questions, machines will soon leave this test in the rearview mirror. (...)

ChatGPT, a bot released in November by OpenAI, a San Francisco lab, leaves people feeling as if they were chatting with another person, not a bot. The lab said more than a million people had used it. Because ChatGPT can write just about anything, including term papers, universities are worried it will make a mockery of class work. When some people talk to these bots, they even describe them as sentient or conscious, believing that machines have somehow developed an awareness of the world around them.

Privately, OpenAI has built a system, GPT-4, that is even more powerful than ChatGPT. It may even generate images as well as words.

And yet these bots are not sentient. They are not conscious. They are not intelligent — at least not in the way that humans are intelligent. Even people building the technology acknowledge this point.

These bots are pretty good at certain kinds of conversation, but they cannot respond to the unexpected as well as most humans can. They sometimes spew nonsense and cannot correct their own mistakes. Although they can match or even exceed human performance in some ways, they cannot in others. Like similar systems that came before, they tend to complement skilled workers rather than replace them. (...)

“These systems can do a lot of useful things,” said Ilya Sutskever, chief scientist at OpenAI and one of the most important A.I. researchers of the past decade, referring to the new wave of chatbots. “On the other hand, they are not there yet. People think they can do things they cannot.”

As the latest technologies emerge from research labs, it is now obvious — if it was not obvious before — that scientists must rethink and reshape how they track the progress of artificial intelligence. The Turing test is not up to the task. (...)

ChatGPT is what researchers call a neural network, a mathematical system loosely modeled on the network of neurons in the brain. This is the same technology that translates between English and Spanish on services like Google Translate and identifies pedestrians as self-driving cars weave through city streets.

A neural network learns skills by analyzing data. By pinpointing patterns in thousands of photos of stop signs, for example, it can learn to recognize a stop sign.

Five years ago, Google, OpenAI and other A.I. labs started designing neural networks that analyzed enormous amounts of digital text, including books, news stories, Wikipedia articles and online chat logs. Researchers call them “large language models.” Pinpointing billions of distinct patterns in the way people connect words, letters and symbols, these systems learned to generate their own text.

They can create tweets, blog posts, poems, even computer programs. They can carry on a conversation — at least up to a point. And as they do, they can seamlessly combine far-flung concepts. You can ask them to rewrite Queen’s pop operetta, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” so that it rhapsodizes about the life of a postdoc academic researcher, and they will.

“They can extrapolate,” said Oriol Vinyals, senior director of deep learning research at the London lab DeepMind, who has built groundbreaking systems that can juggle everything from language to three-dimensional video games. “They can combine concepts in ways you would never anticipate.” (...)

The result is a chatbot geared toward answering individual questions — the very thing that Turing envisioned. Google, Meta and other organizations have built bots that operate in similar ways. (...)

Turing’s test judged whether a machine could imitate a human. This is how artificial intelligence is typically portrayed — as the rise of machines that think like people. But the technologies under development today are very different from you and me. They cannot deal with concepts they have never seen before. And they cannot take ideas and explore them in the physical world.

ChatGPT made that clear. As more users experimented with it, they showed off its abilities and limitations. One Twitter user asked ChatGPT what letter came next in the sequence O T T F F S S, and it gave the correct answer (E). But it also told him the wrong reason it was correct, failing to realize that these are the first letters in the numbers 1 to 8.

At the same time, there are many ways these bots are superior to you and me. They do not get tired. They do not let emotion cloud what they are trying to do. They can instantly draw on far larger amounts of information. And they can generate text, images and other media at speeds and volumes we humans never could.

Their skills will also improve considerably in the coming years. (...)

In the months and years to come, these bots will help you find information on the internet. They will explain concepts in ways you can understand. If you like, they will even write your tweets, blog posts and term papers.

They will tabulate your monthly expenses in your spreadsheets. They will visit real estate websites and find houses in your price range. They will produce online avatars that look and sound like humans. They will make mini-movies, complete with music and dialogue.

“This will be the next step up from Pixar — superpersonalized movies that anyone can create really quickly,” said Bryan McCann, former lead research scientist at Salesforce, who is exploring chatbots and other A.I. technologies at a start-up called You.com.

As ChatGPT and DALL-E have shown, this kind of thing will be shocking, fascinating and fun. It will also leave us wondering how it will change our lives. What happens to people who have spent their careers making movies? Will this technology flood the internet with images that seem real but are not? Will their mistakes lead us astray?

by Cade Metz, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Ricardo Rey