Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Sweet, Sweet Snobbery

It would be very easy for me to be a snob on a lot of levels. Academics are notorious for looking down at people and finding the tastes and opinions of the hoi-polloi quite horrid and distasteful.

Luckily enough, I am not that sort of person. I am of the "regular guy" faction in academia, a movement that I hope grows. Academics have a bad enough reputation as it is.

So, when I notice people trying to use knowledge (or the semblance of it) to try and make people feel bad or inferior, it usually makes me pretty mad.

Especially when the entity doing the belittling is a business. Money, as I see it, can be the great equalizer...if I got the cash, I gets to play. Simple as that.

We all know that it is not as simple as that, but dammit, it should be.

Anyway, the commercial enterprise in question is a candy shop on Capital Square in Madison. Click here and you will immediatley see what sort of place this is.

A small box of their chocolates would keep me in beer and pizza for three weeks, that's what sort of place it is.

This snooty chocolate place recently had a sign out in front that read something like this:

"Fifteen kinds of chocolate and none of them are named after a baseball player."

Well, aren't we grand?

I assume they are referring to the fact that the Baby Ruth candy bar is supposedly named for Babe Ruth. Because it is, right?

Well, maybe.

The story that is told by the original makers of the Baby Ruth bar (the Curtiss Candy Company of Chicago) was that it was named for the daughter of President Grover Cleveland, who was apparently called "Baby Ruth." Uhh, ok. I guess. Seems a bit obscure.

This was the story that I always heard and, given lack of better evidence, believed. Well, it turns out that the Curtiss Candy Company might have been trying to pull a fast one over on the Sultan of Swat and then feeding people a line.

It seems that the Baby Ruth was introduced in 1920, just when a certain New York Yankee named George Herman Ruth was starting to shine and get really popular. In a lot of ways, Babe Ruth can be seen as one of the first real celebrity spokesmen; he lent his name to everything from chewing tobacco to underwear...for a fee.

Well, the Curtiss Candy Company didn't want to pay that fee apparently, so they named it something like Babe Ruth but not quite so that they could capitalize on his popularity.

So why is the story about Grover Cleveland's daughter not really plausible? Ruth Cleveland died of diptheria in 1904; her father left the White House in 1897. So, in effect, they say that they were naming a viable new product after the long-dead daughter of a former president? Really?

Back to the snooty candy shop in Madison. Bearing these two stories in mind, they either are flat out wrong (the apocryphal story about Ruth Cleveland) or mistaken (Babe Ruth never consented or was paid to promote the Baby Ruth Bar).

In either case, I can tell you what they are not: a place I would ever spend a plug nickel. Any place that in adverts talks to their customers like that deserves no business at all. Insulting your customer's intellect is just about the worst way to get their business.

Luckily, there is a Walgreen's next door where last time I checked, Baby Ruth bars (among others) were on sale three for a dollar...and they came from a pharmacy, so they are prescription strength Baby Ruth bars.

Nice try, though, snotty chocolatier. Just get your facts straight before you try to use them to make people feel stupid.

(Thanks to these sites for the Baby Ruth and Grover Cleveland info).

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Page 23, Line 5

This exercise, admittedly, is not of my own devising. It is based on a MySpace bulletin that I was sent not too long ago.

What it asked you to do was to grab the nearest book, whatever it was, go to page 23, line 5 and relate the sentence found there. I did this and found this idea to be somewhat interesting.

We can tell a lot about a person by the books that they read (or by their motivation for doing so), and I thought that I would extend this exercise and post it here.

Why, you ask?

Well, when I first got this bulletin, the book that I quoted from was atop a stack of books next to my desk and I thought that it might be interesting to extend this notion vertically to many page 23, line 5 citations from the nearest books of one person.

Is this high Dada weirdness, a window into the intellecutal life of one person or a way to kill time in front of the computer. I suspect a bit of all three.

So, without further ado, here are the page 23, line 5 quotes for the stack of books nearest my desk. They will be presented in narrative form with ellipses connecting the quotes; the numbers at the end of each section refer to the book list at the end of the post.

O.K., really now, here we go...

Hence the primary axiom in moral disciplines which look at the subject from the point of view of the human court is held to be: a man may be held accountable for those actions which it is in his power whether they are to be done or not (1)...Internal cultural divisions between social groups ran much deeper than they do today, when the differences are as much between generations as between classes (2)...The church did not simply leave nuns to their own devices in the face of the Protestant campaign (3)...Because the visual variables match the measures portrayed, these maps are straightforward and revealing (4)...Indeed, to focus too much attention on demographically based comparisons is to miss many of the most important changes in the ways in which family and kinship function in particular societies (5)...Once a systematic grid was adopted for the earth, serious study of map projections was possible (6)...Again, God showed His opinion when he endured not only men, but all creatures
, with a natural propensity to monarchy (7)...In the 26th verse, where God declares his intention to give this dominion, it is plain that he meant that he would make a species of creatures that should have dominion over the other species of this terrestrial globe (8)...Aggression is therefore synonymous with invasion (9)...Writers in the tradition of Max Weber treat having a monopoly on the use of force in a geographical area, a monopoly incompatible with private enforcement of rights, as crucial to the existence of a state (10)...All of this enhanced to an enormous degree the power and mobility of artillery and gave the owner of such weaponry the means to reduce the strongest fortresses-as the Italian city-states found to their alarm when a French army equipped with formidable bronze guns invaded Italy in 1494 (11)...No one agreed more heartily that George III, who never wavered in supporting the rights of Parliament (12).

So, what does this fractured narrative say about me, my mind, my tastes and the fact that I took the time to do this?

Oh, the books are:

1. Samuel Pufendorf, On The Rights of Man and Citizen.
2. Lawrence Stone, Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800.
3. Steven Ozment, When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Renaissance Europe.
4. Mark Monmonnier, How To Lie With Maps.
5. Michael Anderson, Approaches to the History of the Western Family, 1500-1914.
6. Norman J.W. Thrower, Maps and Civilization.
7. Sir Robert Filmer, Patriarcha.
8. John Locke, The First Treatise of Government.
9. Murray N. Rothbard, For A New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto.
10. Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia.
11. Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict, 1500-2000.
12. Pauline Maier, American Scripture: The Making of the Declaration of Independence.

Now, aren't you glad you read that?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Pet Peeve (In More Ways Than One)

I just have to get something off of my chest that bugs me every time I hear it and, seeing as blogs are the accepted new format for spouting ichor at the world, here goes...

Do you know what I hate and what makes me furious every time I hear it?

When people refer to their pets as their "children."

I hate, hate, hate, hate this.

Why does this piss me off so much? It's actually quite simple.

These people are, in their minds and actions, equating human beings to property.

To put it another way, a child is a person while a pet is a possession.

But Will, you say, people consider their pets to be companions, members of the family and should be accorded the same level of respect, love and deference as the human members of a family.

I could not disagree more.

Let's engage in some thinking here, shall we? If I were to steal, injure, or kill your child, I would be guilty of a felony. If I were to steal, injure, or kill your pet, in most places I would be guilty of a misdemeanor in the same lines as those for the destruction or forced alienation of property. For one, I would go to jail and possibly be sentenced to die; for the other, I would most likely pay a fine, restitution and lose you as a friend.

This distinction, however, goes beyond the mere strictures of criminal and civil law. Think about this: is a child the possession of its parents in the same way that a pet is the possession of its owner? I think not.

Parents are regarded, whether the children are born to the parents or adopted, as custodians of these children. That means that they are responsible for a reasonable level of care and caution, but this does not imply ownership. For, unless you have forgotten this, most countries in the West decided in the nineteenth century that allowing people to own other people was a bad idea.
(Incidentally, I believe that you should be able to sell yourself into slavery, be a prostitute or sell your organs on an open market, but that discussion is for another day).

So, where does that leave us? Some may say that people become attached emotionally to pets and this is reason that some consider them as their children. Give me a break. People become emotionally attached to all kinds of property. Have you ever seen how some people treat their cars?

But Will, you protest, cars, video game systems, baseball card collections, model train sets and barbecue grills, while possibly being the targets of people's affection, are not living, sentient life forms. Well, it would be hard to argue with you there. I have yet to see a PlayStation get up off of the table and fetch a cartridge.

To make that argument, however, I think that you must also agree that all life forms are equal in stature; that the rights of animals are no different from the rights of people. In this case, you should not eat, ride, own, wear, kill (intentionally or otherwise) any form of life whatsoever. If this is your stance, fine. Act like it. Free your pets, don't eat meat or meat derivatives and watch where you walk at all times. Same should, naturally, go for plants.

If you disagree with this, then you must agree to some hierarchy of life forms. How you define this is, I guess, up to you, but most people would put, well, people at the top, no? If people are not, then what is...I would be interested to know.

Do I agree that it is O.K. to torture or harm animals? In many ways, no, but not for the reason you might think. If I own a dog, and that dog gives me some benefit, then I should do my best to protect that dog so that it continues to give me that benefit. It would be wasteful and ineffecient for me to do otherwise. So, if I consider that dog's life to be worth preserving, I will take steps to see that that happens.

This is no different that any other form of property I might have. I own a DVD player. If I want it to continue to provide the service that it does, I will not bring it in the pool with me.

In the end, however, the dog and the DVD player are both my property and you have no right to tell me how I may dispose of my property, nor do you have the right to use coercion, laws and the state to do the same in your stead.

Just because my motivation and incentive for owning a certain sort of property (and the type of benefit I derive from it) are different from yours does not mean that I must make my behavior coincide with yours. Far from it. You should keep your laws and opinions to yourself where my property is concerned.

Does this mean, incidentally, that I think that dogfighting and cockfighting should be legal? Absolutely.

In closing, i might mention a historical note about pet ownership. Pets, until quite recently (certainly within 100 years) were an expensive status symbol. Pets are a non-productive animal. Yes, people kept animals that are now pets but for wildly different reasons (think of dogs herding and cats catching rodents). Having a pet used to say to the world "I am so wealthy that I can afford to feed and keep an animal that serves no practical purpose." This is somewhat less so today, but the origins are worth noting.

Are my positions cruel? To some, perhaps. To me, they are just a logical extension of property rights. Things tend to turn out better when people own things rather than through some notion of communal ownership. Will I roam the neighborhood looking for animals to harm? Certainly not; those animals don't belong to me. If I come to your house, will I kick your dog? No, for the same reason.

But, do be aware that if you refer to your dog, cat, ferret, fish, iguana, pot-bellied pig or other pet as "your child" or "a real member of the family," I might just kick you.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Laziness Into Nostalgia Into Reflection

Y'know, it's funny sometimes how some happenstance can lead one to think about something that has not come up for years.

Take me this afternoon...I got back to my apartment, sweating like Kim Jong Il's barber with the shakes, and I wanted to change shirts. Upon opening my armoire and rummaging through the contents, it became painfully clear that I have not done laundry in some time.

I found pillowcases of unknown origin, no less than two pairs of sweatpants with paint on them, polo shirts that I thought were lost to the sands of time and bathing suits that probably should have been.

Finally, I found a rolled-up thing that looked big enough to be a t-shirt that would still fit. When I unrolled it, I was a bit surprised to say the least.

It was a Saint Joseph's College Little 500 shirt from 1997...I honestly had no idea I still had it.

No, the only surprise was not the fact that a ten year old garment still fit.

It was mainly the happy surprise that finding an artifact of my past that I assumed was gone forever, quite possibly in the great purge before I moved to Madison in 2005.

Oh, the memories that came washing over me as I pulled the comfortably stretched neck hole over my head...for those of you out there who are Pumas, please forgive me explaining and reminiscing and explaining a bit about the wonder that is Little 500.

Basically it was a go-kart race/all-campus party-hearty weekend that for most people marked the social high point of the year (for me it did, at least). I was usually involved in the race, usually as pit crew member for #17, Joe Vorrier "The Puma Warrior." My junior and senior years, I also took a turn singing the Indiana state song "On The Banks Of The Wabash, Far Away," and I am not even from Indiana.

What fun those weekends were...going out to "the Barns," tinkering with a contraption that was basically a lawnmower engine with a bicycle chain on a chassis with some fiberglass bodywork...realizing that "the Barns" were structures that, in a normal town with building codes, would have been condemned for inhabitation by most self-respecting rodents...seeing the Start/Finish line being repainted as the "roads" through campus were transformed (with the help of hay bales and snow fence) into our very own pint-sized road course (LeMans eat your heart out)...speculating over and over while walking the track about conditions on race day while trying to see where the "groove" was, left by carts during practice and qualifying.

Then came the big day...the bunting was up, the course was set, the bridges over the course were in place, the safety staff set along the route, the cars at the starting line. Then came the ceremonials...pre-race prayers, anthems, speeches. Then comes driver introductions, final instructions, "Gentlemen and ladies start your engines," the pace laps and then we're off.

The race was always a combination of careful planning and on the spot disaster control (sometimes quite literally), a lot like life in general really. Then, after three white-knuckled hours, the winners were crowned, the runners-up recognized and another race was in the books.

For me, a participant in the race, it was then when I could start boozing it up for real...they always said that we had to stay clean and I always did, but come the end of the race, oh brother...

It then went on to a typical SJC social evening, only moreso. Some moving around to see what everyone is up to, some staying put with stores of booze collected for the occasion, running into alums (more of whom came back for Little 500 than for Homecoming) all in an atmosphere of liquor-fueled jackassery. I dare you to come up with something that is more fun. That's right; you can't.

As I recalled these memories, it also occured to me that those weeekends had a certain feel to them, a sense of fun but also a sense of finality.

It was the last big event of the year before graduation weekend and it always struck me as being the beginning of the end of the year.

My first three years at SJC, these weekends meant that soon I would have to transition back to living at home mode; not bad, just different. I would have to search for boxes for all of my crap, finish any academic projects that were outstanding and buy the yearly pot of plaster to patch my walls up. The summer stretched out before me, I had three months of Bulider's Square to look forward (?) to, and it would be quite some time before I would see my beloved gang of cronies again.

My senior year, naturally, was different. I realized that this would be the last time that it would ever be like this. Oh, I returned for Little 500 as an alum (my brother still had three more years to go when I graduated), and recaptured a little of that magic, but there inevitably felt that there was something missing, something that was gone forever.

That last year, as the future spread before me, it was after Little 500 when I realized for the first time that this phase was coming to an end and a new one was beginning to show itself. I realized that the old gang would go their separate ways and, despite occasional reunions, would ever quite be the same again.

I guess a certain amount of this change is good, but I cannot help but get a bit meloncholy over that wonderful place and time being lost forever; finding this old beat-up t-shirt just brought a lot of that back.

I have not been to Little 500 since my brother graduated in 2002, and I have only been back to Rensselaer once since then. I guess that there would be no real reason to go back unless I knew some of my old crew would be around. Maybe that'll happen, maybe not. Who knows?

It is always interesting for someone like a historian to consider the story of one's own life. It does show the difficulty of "doing history" in that memory and fact often don't match up and that sometimes things as presented in the evidence are not as you remember them.

I say, given the situation, and that I am not exactly someone who is (or likely will be) crucial to the history of the human race, that I will keep my memories how I remember them and the truth be damned. They were good times in my life; I am not going to let some feeble attempt at "practicing what I preach" ruin something that is quite special to me.

Would you?

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

I Think It Was The Fourth Of July...

...fat guys swimmin', really loaded, eatin' pork products. (with my half-hearted apologies to Chicago).

Well, I wanted to do something profound for the Fourth of July, but I spent my profundity for today on the contemporary politics of the country we told to go and fornicate themselves 'lo those many years ago. Please read that post below.

Otherwise, here's what I'm up to for Independence Day.

Don't like it? Guess what? You are aiding the terrorists...would they want us to drink beer, eat pork and show off our hairy backs? I think not.

Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists; which is it gonna be, asshole (or friend, depending on how you answer)?

P.S. I think I was right about the Chavez-Ahmadinejad connection...they look like kids at camp here.

Fade To Brown

I wanted to wait to comment on the accession of Gordon Brown to 10 Downing Street until his cabinet was chosen, he had spoken in Parliament giving the "wish list" speech and also to see where this terrorist situation was headed.

First off, as one might believe, the "Brown bounce" was given, well, more bounce by the reaction of Brown (and especially his new Home Secretaty Jacqui Smith) in the face of more terror attacks in Britain. I don't think, however, that this is the whole story. Some of this bounce is doubtlessly due to people being utterly sick of the sight of Tony Blair and, if momentarily, happy just to see someone else smiling from the steps of No. 10. This usually does not last long...think of John Major.

In outlining his program to the Commons in his first speech in the House since becoming PM, Brown has outlined a slate of programs to make the British government "a better servant of the people." In that cause, he has offered to give up some the powers given to the PM by royal prerogative (such as the final decision to go to war). Brown would cede these powers to the Commons.

He would, in a more general sense, seek to increase the powers of MP's and decrease that of the PM, who in any parliamentary system should be more of a "first among equals" than a president is. Is this in response to accusations that Blair ran a presidential style government and ignored his cabinet colleagues? Perhaps, but in the wake of many decisions taken by Blair, presidential in nature or not, it seems that this might be a popular move.

In looking at his cabinet, it bears mentioning that it seems that Brown brought an awful lot of people across the street (literally) from the treasury to serve both in the Cabinet and as advisors (who often pull more influence than the Cabinet over a PM's thinking). As for the cabinet more generally, it can be seen that some old faces remain, but a lot more are gone or moved on.

What can be said of these new people and policy changes? Well, at the outset it seems to me to be a change in style but with similar substance. You know the old routine: people like what's being done (generally) but don't like who's doing it. Simple...change the faces, shift the ol' paradigm and poof! It seems there was a change without there being much of a change.

Oh, the personalities are different. Take the Home Secretary. It seems that Jacqui Smith, much in contrast to the combattive John Reid, has a cool head and a steady hand (we'll see how much of that survives the daily dose of terrifying security briefings that the Home Secretary gets). For more on this difference, read this commentary in the Telegraph.

What of the other parties? Well, in typical fashion, both David Cameron and Sir Menzies Campbell pulled off the shadow cabinet/front bench axe job to try and "rebalance" the issues and personalities that will be confronting Brown's new cabinet. While in the case of Campbell and the Lib-Dems it seemed pretty routine (bring some of the new people up and give them a go at Brown's new people), for Cameron and the Conservatives, it seemed to be a bit of a different move.

In a word, Cameron seemed more desparate. In his choices and what he is hoping to convey, it seems that this reshuffle is a bit more of a panic move than that of Campbell. It also shows a trend that seems to have been going on for at least the last few years. It seems that the Tories under Cameron want to remake their image in the same way that Blair remade the image of Labour beginning in 1994. What might this do, you ask? It might totally redefine what the Conservatives are all about. Is this good or bad? The answer is yes and no.

Cameron needs to realize that Brown is going to have his "honeymoon," perhaps lengthened by the terror attacks (as macabre as that seems), but then the holes will start to show. If Cameron is as adept a politician as I think he believes he is, he will take advantage and hopefully, come the next general election (which I predict will be sometime in early to mid 2009) he will have presented himself as the main opposition voice in Parliament.

What he could also end up doing, of course, is alienating the base, that core of Conservative voters that are like the religious Right in the United States for the Republicans. Like it or not, you have to keep them happy. Some say that Cameron is already doing this; for the broader swath of the party, I am sure they hope he stops.

In closing, Brown is still in the first weeks of his new government and the challenges to come are, well, still to come. I believe that along with the reforms that he is proposing, he will have to deal with the Euro question again, Northern Ireland (almost goes without saying) and the tricky constitutional issue wherein the House of Lords might become part elected and what that will mean for the constitutional framework of the nation and also the idea that he may call for a written constitution for the UK (something they have never really had).

For now, all we can do is watch him grimace and furrow his brow a lot...politicians, no matter what the party, love to do that. Makes you look like you are thinking about something.