Quotulatiousness

December 26, 2014

A close encounter with an almost-kinda-sorta hate crime

Filed under: Media, Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:54

Mark Steyn on how the brave and timely action of a “special-events employee” in Riverside California just barely averted a horrific hate-ish crime-ish:

I passed through Shannon Airport in Ireland the other day. They’ve got a “holiday” display in the terminal, but guess what? It says “Merry Christmas.” The Emerald Isle has a few Jews, and these days rather a lot of Muslims, and presumably even a militant atheist or two, but they don’t seem inclined to sue the bejasus out of every event in the Yuletide season. By contrast, the Associated Press reports the following from Riverside, Calif.:

    A high school choir was asked to stop singing Christmas carols during an ice skating show featuring Olympic medalist Sasha Cohen out of concern the skater would be offended…

I hasten to add this Sasha Cohen is not the Sacha Baron Cohen of the hit movie Borat. The Olympic S. Cohen is a young lady; the Borat S. Cohen is a man, though his singlet would not be out of place in a louche Slav entry to the ice-dancing pairs. Likewise, the skater-puts-carols-on-ice incident seems as sharply satirical of contemporary America as anything in Borat, at least in its distillation of the coerciveness of “tolerance”:

    A city staff member, accompanied by a police officer, approached the Rubidoux High School Madrigals at the Riverside Outdoor Ice Skating Rink just as they launched into ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’ and requested that the troupe stop singing…

The cop and the staffer — “special-events employee Michelle Baldwin” — were not acting on a complaint from the celebrity skater. They were just taking offense on her behalf, no doubt deriving a kinky vicarious thrill at preventing a hypothetical “hate crime.” The young miss is Jewish, and so they assumed that the strains of “Merry Gentlemen” wafting across the air must be an abomination to her. In fact, if you go to sashacohen.com, you’ll see the headline: “Join Sasha On Her Christmas Tree Lighting Tour.” That’s right, she’s going round the country skating at Christmas tree lighting ceremonies. Christmas tree lighting ceremonies accompanied by singers singing Christmas music that uses the C word itself — just like Sasha does on her Web site.

Nonetheless, the Special Events Commissar and her Carol Cop swung into action and decided to act in loco Cohenis and go loco. Many of my fellow pundits find themselves fighting vainly the old ennui when it comes to the whole John Gibson “War On Christmas” shtick, but I think they’re missing something: The idea of calling a cop to break up the singing of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” would strike most of the planet as insane.

December 25, 2014

Canadian Pacific Holiday Train 2014

Filed under: Cancon, Railways — Tags: — Nicholas @ 05:00

A critical view of the Star Wars Holiday Special

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

The poor bastards at Red Letter Media sit through a full showing of the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special so you don’t have to.

Repost – “Fairytale of New York”

Filed under: Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

Time:

“Fairytale of New York,” The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl

This song came into being after Elvis Costello bet The Pogues’ lead singer Shane MacGowan that he couldn’t write a decent Christmas duet. The outcome: a call-and-response between a bickering couple that’s just as sweet as it is salty.

Repost – The market failure of Christmas

Filed under: Economics, Government — Tags: — Nicholas @ 00:02

Not to encourage miserliness and general miserability at Christmastime, but here’s a realistic take on the deadweight loss of Christmas gift-giving:

In strict economic terms, the most efficient gift is cold, hard cash, but exchanging equivalent sums of money lacks festive spirit and so people take their chance on the high street. This is where the market fails. Buyers have sub-optimal information about your wants and less incentive than you to maximise utility. They cannot always be sure that you do not already have the gift they have in mind, nor do they know if someone else is planning to give you the same thing. And since the joy is in the giving, they might be more interested in eliciting a fleeting sense of amusement when the present is opened than in providing lasting satisfaction. This is where Billy Bass comes in.

But note the reason for this inefficient spending. Resources are misallocated because one person has to decide what someone else wants without having the knowledge or incentive to spend as carefully as they would if buying for themselves. The market failure of Christmas is therefore an example of what happens when other people spend money on our behalf. The best person to buy things for you is you. Your friends and family might make a decent stab at it. Distant bureaucrats who have never met us — and who are spending other people’s money — perhaps can’t.

So when you open your presents next week and find yourself with another garish tie or an awful bottle of perfume, consider this: If your loved ones don’t know you well enough to make spending choices for you, what chance does the government have?

QotD: Reactionary views on American Progressives

Filed under: Britain, History, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

In America, progressivism focuses on pointing out how terrible American culture is and how much other people’s cultures are better than ours. If we celebrate Columbus Day, we have to spend the whole time hearing about what a jerk Columbus was (disclaimer: to be fair, Columbus was a huge jerk). If we celebrate Washington’s birthday, we have to spend the whole time hearing about how awful it was that Washington owned slaves. Goodness help us if someone tries to celebrate Christmas – there are now areas where if a city puts up Christmas decorations, it has to give equal space to atheist groups to put up displays about how Christmas is stupid and people who celebrate it suck. That’s … probably not the way to maximize cultural unity, exactly?

We are a culture engaged in the continuing project of subverting itself. Our heroes have been toppled, our rituals mocked, and one gains status by figuring out new and better ways to show how the things that should unite us are actually stupid and oppressive. Even the conservatives who wear American flag lapel pins and stuff spend most of their time talking about how they hate America today and the American government and everything else associated with America except for those stupid flag pins of theirs.

Compare this to olden cultures. If someone in Victorian Britain says “God save the Queen!”, then everyone else repeated “God save the Queen!”, and more important, they mean it. “England expects every man to do their duty” is actually perceived as a compelling reason why one’s duty should be done.

It would seem that the Victorian British are more on the Mormon side and modern Americans more like the Unitarians. And in fact, the Victorians managed to colonize half the planet while America can’t even get the Afghans to stop shooting each other. While one may not agree with Victorian Britain’s aims, one has to wonder what would happen if that kind of will, energy, and unity of purpose were directed towards a worthier goal (I wonder this about the Mormon Church too).

Reactionaries would go further and explore this idea in a depth I don’t have time for, besides to say that they believe many historical cultures were carefully optimized and time-tested for unifying potential, and that they really sunk deep into the bones of the populace until failing to identify with them would have been unthinkable. The three cultures they most often cite as virtuous examples here are Imperial China, medieval Catholicism, and Victorian Britain; although it would be foolish to try to re-establish one of those exactly in a population not thoroughly steeped in them, we could at least try to make our own culture a little more like they were.

Once again, the Reactionary claim is not necessarily that we have to brainwash people or drag the Jews kicking and screaming to Christmas parties. It’s just that maybe we should stop deliberately optimizing society for as little unity and shared culture as humanly possible.

Scott Alexander, “Reactionary Philosophy In An Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell”, Slate Star Codex, 2013-03-03.

December 24, 2014

The Christmas Truce of 1914

Filed under: Britain, Europe, History, Military — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 10:06

Britain’s Royal Mail Group has released a hand-written letter posted by a participant in the Christmas Truce on the western front in 1914:

Christmas Truce Letter 1 Credit Royal Mail & Simon ChaterOne hundred years ago tomorrow saw the historic truce between soldiers fighting in the trenches in the First World War and Royal Mail is a releasing a poignant letter recounting the moment.

Christmas Day 1914 saw a break in the fighting between allied forces and German soldiers on the Western Front.

It was the moment where troops on both sides put down their weapons, climbed out of the dug-outs and met in no man’s land, where they exchanged cigars and souvenirs, and where a historic football match was played.

In the letter, Captain A D Chater of the 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders, describes the extraordinary moment where the men stopped fighting to wish each other happy Christmas:

“Dearest Mother,

I am writing this in the trenches in my “dug-out” — with a wood fire going and plenty of straw it is rather cosy, although it is freezing hard and real Christmas weather.

I think I have seen today one of the most extraordinary sights that anyone has ever seen. About 10 o’clock this morning I was peeping over the parapet when I saw a German, waving his arms, and presently two of them got out of their trench and came towards ours. We were just going to fire on them when we saw they had no rifles, so one of our men went to meet them and in about two minutes the ground between the two lines of trenches was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas…”

Captain Chater’s letter illustrates how regiments on both sides used the opportunity to bury their dead, referring to it as “lying between the lines”. It was also a rare moment they could simply go for long walk in the open without being shot at.

Captain Chater also describes another meeting in no-man’s land that further illustrates the unexpected good humour between enemy forces:

“We had another parley with the Germans in the middle. We exchanged cigarettes and autographs, and some more people took photos. I don’t know how long it will go on for — I believe it was supposed to stop yesterday, but we can hear no firing going on along the front today except a little distant shelling. We are, at any rate, having another truce on New Year’s Day, as the Germans want to see how the photos come out!”

Not only does Captain Chater’s letter paint a vivid picture of goodwill in the middle of “a war in which there is so much bitterness and ill feeling”, it reminds us that the conflict was not personal between the men on opposing sides. “The Germans in this part of the line are sportsmen if they are nothing else,” he writes, underlining the sense of uneasy trust that inspired the Christmas truce.

H/T to MilitaryHistoryNow.com for the link.

Repost – Hey Kids! Did you get your paperwork in on time?

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Humour — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:03

If you hurry, you can just get your Santa’s Visit Application in before the deadline tonight!

Jim Geraghty calls for “Regime Change in Christmastown”

Filed under: Humour — Tags: — Nicholas @ 00:02

Something is rotten in Christmastown, and Jim Geraghty demands regime change to fix the problems:

I lament that for all of the warm feelings [the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Christmas special] stirs … this children’s classic makes almost no sense.

First, I get that this is a parable about tolerance of those who are different, and appreciating “misfits” who “don’t fit in.” Perhaps that was a particularly powerful message in 1964. But the story’s need for an intolerant society to depict means that a lot of previously-beloved characters associated with Christmas get turned into absolute quasi-fascistic villains.

Donner, Rudolph’s dad, is one of the worst. He’s horrified by his son’s shiny nose, literally from the moment of his birth. Everyone just accepts that because of the shiny nose, Rudolph will never be able to pull the sleigh. Nobody ever explains why. They treat this as some sort of horrible genetic mutation. In the entire story, no one in Christmastown other than Clarice and Rudolph’s mother — who never even gets a name! — can tolerate it. Everyone else instantly reacts with shock, horror, and disgust.

Santa comes across as even worse. He’s a jerk who doesn’t care about the elves’ musical number. The first sign of snow — in the North Pole, where he really shouldn’t be that shocked — and he’s ready to cancel Christmas. He’s got one job!

Finally, when Rudolph is exposed at the reindeer games, Santa tells Donner, Rudolph’s dad, he should be ashamed of himself. For what? His son’s nose? A birth defect? For polluting the gene pool? Is this Nazi Christmastown?

QotD: The Christmas card

Filed under: Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Is the Christmas card obsolete? I suppose the answer depends on what function you think the Christmas card is intended to serve, if any at all. Surely it is no longer intended to convey information. Email and social networks do a more efficient job, and including a Christmas newsletter or family photograph (I do both) will earn you only scorn from any self-respecting British snob.

Some believe that the Christmas card list, where we keep track of old favours and slights, is a sort of passive-aggressive vendetta. There is truth in this. Late in 1974, two sociologists, Phillip Kunz and Michael Woolcott, posted more than 500 Christmas cards to people they did not know. Some of them were “high status” cards, using expensive materials and signed “Dr and Mrs Phillip Kunz”. Others were from “Phillip and Joyce Kunz” or used cheaper stationery or both.

The Kunz family received, along with a complaint from the police, some rather touching replies: “Dear Joyce and Phil, Received your Christmas card and was good to hear from you. I will have to do some explaining to you. Your last name did not register at first … Please forgive me for being so stupid for not knowing your last name. We are fine and hope you are well. We miss your father. They were such grand friends.”

But what is most striking is that more than 100 strangers felt obliged to send a signed card in response. That is the power of reciprocity. (Response rates were particularly high if “Dr Kunz” had written on a fancy card to a working-class household. That is the power of status.)

If this is what Christmas cards are all about — mindless reciprocal obligation coupled with some social climbing — then I think we can all agree on two things: we could do without them; and we’ll never be rid of them. Thomas Schelling, a winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics, once advocated a bankruptcy procedure — wiping clean the list of people to whom we “owe” a Christmas card. If only.

Tim Harford, “The Christmas card network: ‘It is not clear new technologies are expanding our number of genuine friends’”, TimHarford.com, 2014-12-09.

December 23, 2014

Creepy Christmas “traditions” – Elf et Michelf

Filed under: Cancon, Government, Liberty — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:06

Published on 14 Dec 2013

Foucault’s take on the elf on the shelf through an imagined conversation by @DrLauraPinto

H/T to Anthony L. Fisher for the video link:

Dr. Laura Elizabeth Pinto, a digital technology professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, thinks Elf on the Shelf poses a criticial ethical dilemma. In a paper for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Pinto wonders if the Elf is “preparing a generation of children to accept, not question, increasingly intrusive (albeit whimsically packaged) modes of surveillance.”

Sensing that she might come off as a humorless paranoid crank, Pinto clarified her position to the Washington Post:

    “I don’t think the elf is a conspiracy and I realize we’re talking about a toy. It sounds humorous, but we argue that if a kid is okay with this bureaucratic elf spying on them in their home, it normalizes the idea of surveillance and in the future restrictions on our privacy might be more easily accepted.” (Emphasis mine).

One could argue that the millions of adults walking around with NSA-trackable and criminal-hackable smartphones in their pockets are far more influential than a seasonal doll in setting the example to the next generation that surveillance is inevitable and Big Brother is not to be feared. Still, Pinto has a point when she writes:

    What The Elf on the Shelf represents and normalizes: anecdotal evidence reveals that children perform an identity that is not only for caretakers, but for an external authority (The Elf on the Shelf), similar to the dynamic between citizen and authority in the context of the surveillance state.

James Lileks reflects on the 50th anniversary of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Filed under: Humour — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:02

Oh, he’s nostalgic enough:

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer special. For those remembering how they stared with wonder and awe at the jerky stop-motion animation and shivered with delicious fear at the perils faced by the plucky buck with the incandescent schnoz, the notion that this program occurred a half century ago would be a marvelous testament to the enduring power of the show’s appeal … if it didn’t make you feel so damned old.

If it does, that is. For young kids today it’s a cultural artifact from a time so remote it might as well be the Renaissance. The snowman’s resemblance to Burl Ives doesn’t make them think of a hefty folkie howling with alcoholic rage in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; the concept of a “misfit” doesn’t echo a decade of neurotic intellectual culture celebrating the outsider who couldn’t find his place in the grey-flannel machinery.

It’s charming and tuneful and justly revered. So let’s spoil it by overthinking the details and applying the corrosive idiocy of modern standards, shall we? Herewith a few points to consider.

[…]

– Kids today are appalled by the brusque coach who regards Rudolph as a freak and clearly sides with the normal reindeer youth. Nowadays the character would recognize Rudolph’s specialness right away, and the entire show would have been about his fight to get Rudolph on the team, culminating in an impassioned speech before a congressional committee and the passage of Rudolph’s Law.

By the way, when I was a kid we understood the coach character’s nasty reaction — not because we sympathized with him, but because phys-ed teachers were jerks.

The Abominable Snowman. Let us be frank: The moment when Rudolph sets out on a floe to draw the Snowman away from his friends is one of the more noble moments of childhood television, married with dismay: You know he had no chance. To a small child who has finally grasped the narrative, it was really scary, because Rudolph was going to die.

Parents watching along may have wanted to say “See what happens when you run off with your weird friends? This is what happens. You break your mother’s heart and your intestines are slurped up by a murderous albino.”

Repost – ‘Tis the season to hate the senders of boastful holiday letters

Filed under: Humour — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:02

Gregg Easterbrook receives the perfect, perfect holiday letter:

Don’t you hate boastful holidays letters about other people’s fascinating lives and perfect children? Below is one Nan and I received last week.

Dear Friends,

What a lucky break the CEO sent his personal jet to pick me up from Istanbul; there’s plenty of room, since I have the entire aircraft to myself, to take out the laptop and write our annual holiday letter. Just let me ask the attendant for a better vintage of champagne, and I’ll begin.

It’s been another utterly hectic year for Chad and I and our remarkable children, yet nurturing and horizon-expanding. It’s hard to know where the time goes. Well, a lot of it is spent in the car.

Rachel is in her senior year at Pinnacle-Upon-Hilltop Academy, and it seems just yesterday she was being pushed around in the stroller by our British nanny. Rachel placed first this fall in the state operatic arias competition. Chad was skeptical when I proposed hiring a live-in voice tutor on leave from the Lyric Opera, but it sure paid off! Rachel’s girls’ volleyball team lost in the semifinals owing to totally unfair officiating, but as I have told her, she must learn to overcome incredible hardship in life.

Now the Big Decision looms — whether to take the early admission offer from Harvard or spend a year at Julliard. Plus the whole back of her Mercedes is full of dance-company brochures as she tries to decide about the summer.

Nicholas is his same old self, juggling the karate lessons plus basketball, soccer, French horn, debate club, archeology field trips, poetry-writing classes and his volunteer work. He just got the Yondan belt, which usually requires nine years of training after the Shodan belt, but prodigies can do it faster, especially if (not that I really believe this!) they are reincarnated deities.

Modeling for Gap cuts into Nick’s schoolwork, but how could I deprive others of the chance to see him? His summer with Outward Bound in the Andes was a big thrill, especially when all the expert guides became disoriented and he had to lead the party out. But you probably read about that in the newspapers.

What can I say regarding our Emily? She’s just been reclassified as EVVSUG&T — “Extremely Very Very Super Ultra Gifted and Talented.” The preschool retained a full-time teacher solely for her, to keep her challenged. Educational institutions are not allowed to discriminate against the gifted anymore, not like when I was young.

Yesterday Rachel sold her first still-life. It was shown at one of the leading galleries without the age of the artist disclosed. The buyers were thrilled when they learned!

Then there was the arrival of our purebred owczarek nizinny puppy. He’s the little furry guy in the enclosed family holiday portrait by Annie Leibovitz. Because our family mission statement lists cultural diversity as a core value, we named him Mandela.

Chad continues to prosper and blossom. He works a few hours a day and spends the rest of the time supervising restoration of the house — National Trust for Historic Preservation rules are quite strict. Corporate denial consulting is a perfect career niche for Chad. Fortune 500 companies call him all the time. There’s a lot to deny, and Chad is good at it.

Me? Oh, I do this and that. I feel myself growing and flowering as a change agent. I yearn to empower the stakeholders. This year I was promoted to COO and invited to the White House twice, but honestly, beading in the evening means just as much to me. I was sorry I had to let Carmen go on the same day I brought home my $14.6 million bonus, but she had broken a Flora Danica platter and I caught her making a personal call.

Chad and I got away for a week for a celebration of my promotion. We rented this quaint five-star villa on the Corsican coast. Just to ourselves — we bought out all 40 rooms so it would be quiet and contemplative and we could ponder rising above materialism.

Our family looks to the New Year for rejuvenation and enrichment. Chad and I will be taking the children to Steamboat Springs over spring break, then in June I take the girls to Paris, Rome and Seville while Chad and Nicholas accompany Richard Gere to Tibet.

Then the kids are off to camps in Maine, and before we know it, we will be packing two cars to drive Rachel’s things to college. And of course I don’t count Davos or Sundance or all the routine excursions.

I hope your year has been as interesting as ours.

Love,
Jennifer, Chad, Rachel, Nicholas & Emily

(The above is inspired by a satirical Christmas letter I did for The New Republic a decade ago. I figure it’s OK to recycle a joke once every 10 years.)

December 22, 2014

Gift-giving, explained

Filed under: Economics — Tags: — Nicholas @ 01:00

Tim Harford recounts the surprising results of several studies on the very different views of gift-givers and gift-recipients:

Father Christmas might seek guidance from a set of studies conducted by Gabrielle Adams and Francis Flynn of Stanford, and Harvard’s Francesca Gino.

Gino and Flynn surveyed married people, asking some to reflect on wedding gifts they had received, and others to think about wedding gifts they had given. Gift givers assumed that gifts chosen spontaneously would be just as welcome as those chosen from a wedding registry. Recipients felt otherwise: they preferred the gifts that had been on the wedding list. Such lists seem charmless but they work.

Gino and Flynn found similar results from a survey about birthday presents: again, givers thought that gifts they’d chosen themselves were more appreciated but recipients preferred the gifts that they’d specifically asked for. The lesson: you might feel that it’s awkward and unnecessary to ask what gift would be welcome but the recipient of the gift sees things differently and would prefer that you asked rather than guessed.

Gino and Flynn conducted a third study in which people created wish lists. Other participants were asked to choose an item on the list to be sent as a gift; a third group were asked to peruse the wish list but then to choose some other present of equivalent value. It’s not surprising to discover that recipients preferred the items from their wish list — but what’s remarkable is that they felt the wishlist gifts were more “personal” and “thoughtful”. We think that picking an item from a wish list is lazy and impersonal but the person receiving that item doesn’t see it that way at all.

For good measure, a fourth study by Gino and Flynn found there was one thing people appreciated even more than an item from their own wish lists: money.

There’s more. Adams and Flynn surveyed newly engaged couples about engagement rings. The givers assumed that more expensive rings were more appreciated. The recipients felt differently. A similar result came from asking people to think about a particular birthday present they had received or given: recipients were just as happy with inexpensive gifts, to the surprise of givers.

In short, there is a vast discrepancy between how we see the world when giving gifts and when receiving them. The gift giver imagines that the ideal present is expensive and surprising; the recipient doesn’t care about the money and would rather have a present they’d already selected. We should spend less than we think, and we should ask more questions before we buy.

Repost – Happy Holiday Travels!

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Humour — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

H/T to Economicrot. Many many more at the link.

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