threat assessment

Joseph Houseman, sixty-odd years old, staggeringly drunk, with a semi-automatic rifle over his shoulder, wandering around a busy commercial area, shouting obscenities, threatening revolution. Several frightened people called the police.

The police arrived, as they’re required to do when called by the public. They spent forty minutes talking Houseman down. Houseman eventually surrendered the weapon and was allowed to stagger home. The following day he reported to the police station, where his firearm was returned to him. No charges were filed. Michigan, after all, is an open carry state

Tamir Rice, twelve years old, playing with a pellet pistol in a nearly empty public park. One person reported “a guy with a pistol” at the park, telling the dispatcher twice that the gun was “probably a fake.”

The police arrived, as they’re required to do when called by the public. They shot Rice after approximately two seconds. They neglected to administer first aid. Rice died. Ohio, after all, is an open carry state.

What? You think race might have had something to do with the police response? Race? Are you crazy? How could it be about race? We have a black president. What, are you some sort of race-baiter? It’s about…you know…threat assessment.


We fucked it up again. As a society, we took yet another ‘teachable moment’ and we found a way to fuck it up. We fucked it up because we’ve abandoned the notion of a nuanced world. We fucked it up because we wanted Michael Brown to be a completely innocent victim, because we wanted Officer Darren Wilson to be a villain, because we wanted Michael Brown to be a thug, because we wanted Darren Wilson to be a hero, because we wanted Michael Brown to be a racist, because we wanted Darren Wilson to be a racist.

We fucked it up because we didn’t even bother to look at them as people. We immediately made them into symbols. For the most part we didn’t bother to look at what little evidence was available to us. When we did look, we only talked about the evidence that supported what we wanted to believe.

We fucked it up because we’ve become a society eager to be offended. Eager to be outraged. Eager to blame others. Eager to justify our own particular position and eager to malign those with whom we disagree. We fucked it up because we weren’t really interested in what actually happened, or why it actually happened. We fucked it up because we insisted on packing what happened into specific narratives.

Was Michael Brown a ‘gentle giant’? Yes, sometimes. Was he also a thug? Yes he was, sometimes. Was Darren Wilson a villain? Yes, sometimes. Was he also a hero? Yes, sometimes he was. Were they both racist? Yes, of course they were, sometimes. Because ALL of us are complex, because none of us is just one thing.

What happened in those few minutes in Ferguson was a cascade of spontaneous escalating events shaped by years of experience. What’s happened in the days and weeks following those few minutes has been shaped by people trying to wedge what happened into inflexible ideological storylines.

But there was a period — a few hours, maybe a couple of days, maybe even as much as a week — when it might have been possible for us as a society to try to understand Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. To understand each of them as people, not simply as symbols of what we fear. To understand why each of them acted and reacted the way they did.

We’ve had a lot of those ‘teachable’ moments in the last few years. We’ve fucked up most of them. We fucked them up because our immediate instinct is to polarize, to defend our position and vilify the other, to justify our view and make the other view illegitimate. We fuck them up because we refuse to acknowledge the possibility that we might be even partially wrong, because we refuse to accept the others may be partially right. We’ve fucked them up because we believe winning is more important than understanding

I’m pessimistic about the future of society. I’m also optimistic. (ALL of us are complex; none of us is just one thing.) I’m pessimistic because of Ferguson, because of Newtown, because of Ukraine, because of the mid-term elections, because of Syria, because of Ebola fuckwits, because because because of so many things. But I’m optimistic too, because same-sex marriage is now legal in 35 states. Because Dr. Matt Taylor made a complete and sincere apology for wearing a stupid, sexist shirt to announce a major scientific achievement. Because the guys behind Gamergate have failed. Because the Pope blessed a male stripper’s parrot. Because despite all the unrest, the Ferguson Municipal Public Library remains open today. Because as awful as things are, they’re not as awful as they could be — and because they’re getting slightly less awful all the time.

The failure to indict Officer Wilson is actually another ‘teachable’ moment. Most people have no idea how a grand jury works, or the purpose it serves, or why grand juries exist, or how they’re flawed. Maybe people in Ferguson can go to their public library today and learn about grand juries.

Of course, all across the nation library funding is being cut. Libraries are cutting hours, cutting staff, closing branches. That’s another ‘teachable’ moment we’re almost certainly going to fuck up.

The only good thing about all these ‘teachable’ moments is that each of them forces a few people to actually learn.

Did he have a flag on his lapel?

This morning I’m oddly pleased that Democrats lost so many of the mid-term elections. It’s not that I think the Republicans will govern well — or at all, for that matter. It’s just that President Obama, having been spanked so badly, has sort of been liberated. For far too long he’s moderated himself to placate timid Democrats who, for reasons entirely beyond comprehension, believed their re-election depended on appeasing conservative white male voters.

Last night the president gave the speech he should have given two or three months ago. Or two or three years ago. And, of course, Republicans are outraged and in an uproar. Sure, they’d have been outraged and in an uproar about something else if Obama hadn’t given the speech. Outrage and uproar is their default position. So this morning I decided to take a dip in the fetid sinkhole of conservative outrage and uproar: FreeRepublic.

King Barry Soetoro’s actions to accelerate the collapse of the United States may portend that the US will collapse.

This is really a classic example of FreeRepublicanism. It’s dismissive of the President of the United States, it’s mocking, it’s angry, it’s inaccurate, it’s badly-written, it’s misleading, it’s paranoid, it’s insulting, it makes no sense, it’s pretentious, and it’s profoundly stupid. It’s very nearly perfect. Ninety-five points.

What's that on his lapel?

What’s that on his lapel?

So King Putt, a well-known Islamic Marxist, has the audacity to reference the Bible to support his illegal agenda? CONGRESS MUST REIGN HIM IN OR THIS NATION IS DONE!!! What kind of country will we leave our children and grandchildren?

DONE!!! That’s what the nation is. So says the guy who doesn’t know the difference between ‘rein’ and ‘reign’. Also, King Putt. Get it? King Putt? You know, because The Bamz thinks he’s a pharoah like King Tut, and he’s an African and Africa is where Egypt is, and he likes to play golf while Americans are beheaded in Syria. So King Putt. Hilarious! You have to wonder how many hours of the day these guys spend trying to come up with clever names for The Bamz. So, points for ALL CAPS, points for clever name, points for the Muslim and Marxist bit, points for extra exclamation marks, points for fretting about the suffering of future generations, points for bad spelling. But low marks for style. Ninety points.

Not watching the end of America. O’Bola, rot in hell.

It’s totally the end of America, you guys! Those five million undocumented aliens will cause America to completely collapse now that they’ll have to get legitimate jobs and start paying taxes! Or something like that. Plus, they have accents and their food smells funny. Also too, O’Bola. Get it? Obama Ebola. See, it’s funny. So, points for the end of America, extra points for the O’Bola stretch, but this guy loses points for the absence of exclamation marks. Seventy-three points. Worthy effort.

He must be impeached now. A precedent such as this cannot be allowed to stand.

Okay, now he must be impeached. All those other times he must be impeached, they don’t count. This time, seriously, impeach. I’m sorry to say, this is a pathetic effort. It’s embarrassing, really. Sure, the precedent comment was a nice pump fake (since, of course, there are LOTS of precedents), but all around, pathetic. Thirty points, tops. I mean, c’mon…not even a clever name.

What the HELL is that...there on his lapel?

What the HELL is that…there on his lapel?

Don’t know, I am not watching the dictator. Cleaning my guns.

Oh, it was a nice start, that dictator business…but a sad failure to follow through. He’s cleaning his guns because…Mexicans are coming? Or The Bamz is planning to take them away? Or just in case Texas secedes from the Union? Or because there will be international race riots after that Ferguson police officer is indicted. Or not indicted. Or maybe he’s cleaning them because the Second American Revolution is just around the corner? Or maybe somebody is playing music he doesn’t like?  All of the above? Points for ‘dictator’ and guns, but significant loss of points for lack of gun-cleaning specificity. It could have been so good…but forty points.

On his lapel, it's sort of fuzzy, is that...what IS that?

On his lapel, it’s sort of fuzzy, is that…what IS that?

My loathing of the illegitimate, bisexual, Marxist Kenyan Muslim Usurper requires medication.

Now this is more like it. His loathing requires medication. Medicated loathing, you guys! Major stupidity points there. And bisexual? Big points. Usurper? Really big points, both for the term and for not understanding what it means. No exclamation marks, which is a shame., and let’s face it, Marxist Kenyan is a tad trite. We’ve all heard that before. But still, seventy-eight points for medicated loathing and Bamzish bisex.

Did he have a flag on his lapel? It didn’t quite look like one, it looked blurry on my tv.

That fucking Obama! There it is! No flag on his lapel! Impeach! ONE HUNDRED POINTS!!!

It's an America flag, you fucking idjit.

It’s an American flag, you fucking idjit.

corn cribs, beer caves, kids on fire, taxi-leaping

I like a Sunday newspaper. Any local Sunday newspaper. I’m talking about an actual newspaper. A physical, hold-it-in-your-hand, lay-it-on-the-table. turn-the-page newspaper. There’s something uniquely pleasurable about the weight and heft of a Sunday paper.  Every other day of the week I’ll read the news online; I’ll weave my way through a couple dozen different news sources, national and international. But on Sundays, I go traditional.

It’s not entirely the physicality of the local newspaper that draws me. It’s the localness of the news. Since the Des Moines Register is Iowa’s only statewide newspaper, they have local stories from all over the state. Events that are important and/or meaningful to people who live in those communities. Here are some examples (these are all actual headlines and ledes from the first section of the newspaper):

Corncrib-Gazebo gets on neighbors’ nerves
Some residents of Carroll are annoyed when they look into a neighbor’s backyard and see a corncrib that’s been turned into a gazebo.

A neighbor said the gazebo ‘would look nice on an acreage or a farm, but just doesn’t fit the character of the subdivision.’ So he started a petition to have the gazebo removed. The city, however, informed him that the corncrib met municipal building and zoning codes since ‘it’s being used for outdoor entertainment, not to store or dry corn.’ Another neighbor stated the corncrib-gazebo was more attractive “than junk cars or an old boat.”

Better than junk cars or an old boat.

Better than junk cars or an old boat.

Or, as Buckminster Fuller said:

Let architects sing of aesthetics that bring
Rich clients in hordes to their knees.
Just give me a home, in a great circle dome,
Where stresses and strains are at ease.

And then there was this:

More investigation ordered of beer caves
More investigation has been ordered for the 150-year old beer caves recently rediscovered under Interstate Highway 380.

That’s right, beer caves. During the summer, a routine inspection of a highway bridge revealed a small sinkhole nearby. An examination suggested there might be a couple of caves below the highway. Some geologists were called in. Using some sort of imaging device, they found at least 11 caves, and maybe as many as 14. The caves turned out to be storage for the Christian Magnus Eagle Brewery and Bottling Works. Back in the 1850s a pair of German immigrants established the brewery, and at one point were producing around 25,000 bottles of 4.5% beer annually. The brewery was built by Cedar Lake, and during the winter months the brewery workers harvested ice from the lake, which they put in the beer caves where the beer was stored.

Christian Magnus Eagle Brewery and Bottle Works (circa 1870)

Christian Magnus Eagle Brewery and Bottle Works (circa 1870)

The brewery was shut down during Prohibition, and then demolished in 1937. People forgot about the caves, and eventually a highway was built over the area. After the discovery of the caves, the Office of the State Archaeologist was called in to explore them. An archaeologist who went into the caves described them as “impossibly dangerous.” After fifteen minutes in the caves, he returned to the surface with a few photographs. The caves will most likely be filled in to stabilize the highway and bridge.

Beer cave

One of the many beer caves hidden below the highway

In non-beer-related news:

Man catches fire, gets help
Dave Allison heard a boom inside his business’s building. “Then I saw this young kid rolling out on fire.”

Allison said “I just did what anybody would do.” And what, you ask, would anybody do when faced with a kid rolling out on fire? “I took off my coat and went over there and smothered the flames.” Obviously. Who was the kid? What caused the fire? Who knows? But the kid caught on fire and he got help. What more would you want to know? Happily, Allison did not take photos of the flaming kid before helping him. Not every news story has photographs.

Not every story in the first section of the Sunday newspaper was local. The Des Moines Register recognizes that important news takes place outside of Iowa. Which accounts for this (presumably beer-related) story:

Nebraska fan hurt after hurdling Wisconsin taxi
A Nebraska football fan is nursing an injured face after he tried to hurdle a taxi early Saturday.

So the headline is misleading. The Nebraska fan did NOT actually hurdle the taxi. He only made the attempt. I declare, modern journalism is in a sad state. Still, it’s a story worth reporting.

Mr. Bryce Consbruck, 22 years old and apparently a fan of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, was in Madison, Wisconsin to watch his team play against the Wisconsin Badgers. Seriously. Cornhuskers and Badgers are the actual names of two college football teams. At any rate, young Mr. Consbruck decided, at around two o’clock in the morning, to…well, let’s read the newspaper account:

[H]e ran into traffic and tried to leap over the taxi. He missed and hurt his face.

Madison police described Consbruck as “intoxicated.” Quelle surprise! When the police officers spoke to Consbruck, he “responded with a profanity-laced statement expressing his hope that the Cornhuskers would defeat the Badgers.” He also apparently promised not to attempt any taxi-leaping in the future.

Consbruck was cited for (and I swear I am not making this up) Sudden Pedestrian Movement. He was taken to a local hospital for treatment. Also? The Badgers beat the Cornhuskers 59-24, thereby completely ruining young Mr. Consbruck’s weekend.

There you have it. All the news that’s fit to print. I knew you’d want to know.

yay engineers, mostly

Okay, if we’re so amazingly smart that we can land a spacecraft on a comet (You guys! We totally landed a spacecraft on a comet!), why can’t we convince guys that wearing a “fun shirt” with “illustrations of glamorous women” is…well, completely fucking stupid? Let me amend that. At best it’s completely fucking stupid.

The European Space Agency just accomplished one of the coolest engineering feats ever. All over the world, men and women and boys and girls who love space and science were watching this astonishing event. And Dr. Matt Taylor, the Rosetta Project Scientist with the cool tattoos, shows up on live television wearing a shirt that basically says “I place great value on women who have big tits and wear skimpy outfits.”

Dr. Matt Taylor

Dr. Matt Taylor


I mean, yeah, they didn’t make him the Rosetta Project Scientist because of his sensitive social awareness. They made him Rosetta Project Scientist because he’s an expert in space plasma physics (whatever the hell that is). He’s clearly good at his job, and yeah, that’s what counts when it comes to landing spacecraft on comets. Nobody would dispute that. But lawdy, wasn’t there anybody at the European Space Agency who might have said “Dude, maybe change shirts”?

And if the shirt isn’t bad enough, what does Dr. Taylor say about the spacecraft’s mission to lad on the comet? He says:

“This is sexiest mission there’s ever been. I said she was sexy, but I never said she was easy.”

Taylor’s stupid sexist shirt and his stupid sexist comment doesn’t minimize what ESA accomplished. They landed a spacecraft on a fucking comet! But this sort of bullshit has to be discouraging to women and girls who might also want to work in a field where they’d have a chance to land spacecraft on various orbiting objects. It’s got to be disheartening for women and girls who want to be engineers and scientists to see that the Rosetta Project Scientist — the person in charge of this really amazing enterprise — has the emotional age of a 13-year-old boy.

Really good job on the comet landing, Dr. Taylor. Fine work and congratulations on a truly marvelous engineering and scientific achievement. Now please, just grow the fuck up.

Addendum: Dr. Taylor truly seems to have had one of those learning moments. Today he apologized for the shirt, and seemed genuinely distressed by the furor he created. You can see the apology here at about 15:30 into the interview.

It also turns out the shirt was given to him by a women friend for his birthday. And yes, it was a clueless choice of clothing and words, but good on Dr. Taylor for learning from the experience and making a sincere apology for it. Having seen so many phony non-apologies, it’s gratifying to see one that’s genuine.

completely unexpected

So I’m at the supermarket on a Thursday afternoon, right? All the decent hard-working people are at their offices, or doing their jobs. It’s mostly old folks and young mothers pushing around carts. It’s the best time for shopping, because I can take my time and look at all the products, and not feel like I’m disrupting the shopping experience of the other people in the market.

I’m always delighted by how ridiculously large the market is, and how many variations there are of the same product. The cereal aisle, for example. There must be half a dozen different types of cinnamon-flavored cereal. Maybe twice that many chocolate-flavored cereals. And really, how different can they be? A dozen or so different types of macaroni and cheese in a box. The absurdity of it — and I’m torn between delight and horror. Is there really a need for twenty-five feet of shelves displaying so many mass-produced pickle variations?

And then there’s the astonishing cookie aisle. The Great Wall of Cookies. There was a period of a year or so when I was moderately young when my breakfast consisted of two Oreos and a glass of milk. But I couldn’t tell you the last time I’d bought a mass-produced sandwich cookie.

Until I saw these:


Watermelon Oreos. Watermelon. I don’t even remember picking them up. It was like my hand went all Dr. Strangelove on me and just snatched a package off the shelf and deposited it in the cart. Watermelon Oreos. No way I could pass them up.

The entire concept of an Oreo that tastes like watermelon — it’s a sort of genius. It’s like somebody sat down in the Oreo Factory and asked “What possible flavor can we come up with that will alarm the senses enough to draw attention but not so much that potential customers will vomit in the aisles?” Just think of all the possibilities they had to reject in order to come up with Watermelon Oreos. Tuna Oreos, Okra Oreos, Lima Bean Oreos. Liver and Onion Oreos. Fried Clam Oreos.

So yeah, I bought them. It was the happiest purchase I’ve made in a long time. Seeing the package in my cart was completely smile-making. I walked around the market beaming at everybody. Like post-Ghost-of-Christmas-Yet-to-Come Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning. I bought them with something akin to joy.

And I ate one when I got home. I didn’t expect it would actually taste like watermelon. In fact, I hoped it wouldn’t. Because c’mon, watermelon and Oreo? It’s an anomaly in the constellation of flavors. And, of course, it didn’t taste remotely like watermelon. First off, the cookie smelled like a floral dish-washing soap — something with a label like Lilac Breeze. It tasted like sugar filtered through fresh anti-freeze. It was really quite a remarkable flavor. I ate half a second cookie just to be sure I wasn’t hallucinating.

The cat was curious, so I offered her a small piece (the cat, I should say, doesn’t eat human food — never has — and I didn’t expect her to actually eat this, but I was as curious as she was and wondered how she’d respond).


She sniffed at it for a brief moment, then attempted to cover it up. It could have been worse. Mind you, this is an animal that spends a significant portion of every day splayed out like a Martha Graham dancer, and carefully grooming her butt.

I don’t recall what the cookies cost. Two or three bucks, I suppose. Worth every penny. Not as a cookie, but as an experience. I’d have happily spent that much just for the joy of knowing that something as unlikely as Watermelon Oreos exist. I mean, you can get a cookie any old day. But you only discover Watermelon Oreos once in a lifetime.