Later On

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Archive for March 25th, 2012

Intriguing theory: GOP destroyed by outsourcing

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Interesting thought from Kevin Baker in the NY Times:

Who speaks for the Republican party? The answer is that everyone does — and therefore, no one does.

Much air time and many trees have been wasted trying to explain the division, rancor and lethargy that have beset the Republican nominating campaign, now into its second year and threatening to run all the way to the party’s national convention in late August. But it’s no great mystery. Republicans have fallen prey to one of the favorite tactics of just the sort of heedless, improvident, twenty-first century capitalism they revere. Their party has been outsourced.

For decades, Republicans have recruited outside groups and individuals to amplify their party’s message and its influence. This is a legitimate democratic tactic that they have carried off brilliantly, helping to shift the political spectrum in the United States significantly to the right.

When Republicans came to believe in the 1960s that they were up against a “liberal biased” media that would never give them a fair shake, they began the long march to build their own, alternative information establishment. As chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Mark Fowler, led the fight to abolish the “Fairness Doctrine” in 1987, further empowering what was already a legion of right-wing talk radio programs.

In 1949, drawing on a long history of court decisions; on public hearings; and on legislation mandating “equal time” for political candidates, the F.C.C. ruled that holders of radio and television broadcast licenses must “devote a reasonable percentage of their broadcast time to the presentation of news and programs devoted to the consideration and discussion of public issues of interest in the community,” and that this must include “different attitudes and viewpoints concerning these vital and often controversial issues.”

The Supreme Court repeatedly upheld the F.C.C.’s power to make such a rule — but never gave it the power of law. In 1986, a pair of Ronald Reagan’s judicial appointees on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia, ruled that the Fairness Doctrine was not “a binding statutory obligation.”

Armed with this verdict, Fowler, who insisted on viewing television, in particular, as not a finite and supremely influential broadcast medium but “just another appliance — it’s a toaster with pictures,” persuaded his fellow commissioners to abolish the Fairness Doctrine. Furious Democrats in Congress passed legislation to codify the doctrine into law in 1987 and 1991, but these attempts were vetoed by Reagan and George Bush, respectively; Democrats have gone on trying to make the Fairness Doctrine law to this day, but have always been stymied by adamant Republican opposition.

Right-wing radio was dominant on the airwaves before the Fairness Doctrine was abolished. But now it had the field of public discourse virtually all to itself. It provided conservatives with a direct outreach to the public, free of any intercession by the “elites” Newt Gingrich is still denouncing in this season’s debates. Right-leaning media networks such as Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcast Network and especially Clear Channel Communications soon became major media conglomerates, with no obligation to broadcast any conflicting views.

The biggest media coup of all for the Republican party, though, was the advent of nakedly partisan Fox News, created by Roger Ailes, former media advisor to the Nixon, Reagan and George Bush administrations. It was Ailes who thereby managed to throw the entire weight of Rupert Murdoch’s worldwide media empire behind the party — and it was Ailes, reportedly, who kept it on the conservative straight-and-narrow when Mr. Murdoch toyed with the idea of putting the empire behind Barack Obama, the new Democrat, in 2008, much as it had backed Tony Blair’s New Labour for a time in Great Britain. Instead, thanks to Ailes, conservative politicians and advocates saw both their ideas amplified and their wallets fattened by a dizzying array of Murdoch television shows, books and newspapers.

But it wasn’t just in the media where the Republican party proved ingenious in outsourcing its rhetoric and shifting the national dialogue. In 1971, during Richard M. Nixon’s first term in office, . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

25 March 2012 at 6:56 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life, GOP

James Cameron dive is underway

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Wow. William Broad reports in the NY Times:

James Cameron, the filmmaker whose credits include “Avatar” and “Titanic,” plunged on Sunday in a minisubmarine of his own design to the bottom of the planet’s deepest recess, sinking through the dark waters of the western Pacific to a depth of nearly seven miles.

The National Geographic Society, which is helping sponsor the expedition, said he reached the bottom at 5:52 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time and promised updates on the risky endeavor, the first in 52 years to descend so deep.

After seven years of planning — done with a team in Australia and largely in secret — Mr. Cameron strode up to his sleek 24-foot-long craft, folded his frame into a steel personal capsule just 43 inches wide and plummeted through miles of icy darkness into a trough known as the Challenger Deep. Rough seas had delayed his dive about two weeks.

“He’s just made it to the bottom,” Ellen Stanley, a National Geographic spokeswoman, said late Sunday in an interview. “This is awesome. He said: ‘All systems are O.K.’ That’s it.” She added that Mr. Cameron’s descent took more than two hours.

“Just arrived at the ocean’s deepest pt,” Mr. Cameron said in a Twitter message, according to National Geographic’s Web site. “Hitting bottom never felt so good. Can’t wait to share what I’m seeing w/ you.”

Mr. Cameron’s vehicle is unique among submersibles, its vertical axis meant to speed its descent and maximize time on the bottom. His goal is to explore the dark seabed for six hours, taking pictures and extracting samples of the fauna, before returning to sunny realms. Mr. Cameron, 57, practiced yoga to train for what is likely to be about nine hours of keeping his knees bent and body largely immobile.

Five people have died in submersible accidents over the decades, and Mr. Cameron said the risks he faced were acceptable given the testing that his craft’s parts have undergone and its backup gear for such critical systems as electrical power and life support. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 March 2012 at 6:52 pm

Dangerous side-effects of wealth

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I’ve blogged about this someplace, but just saw it in a new light. First note this column about a series of experiments:

Wealthy individuals may be more unethical than those lower on the socioeconomic order, according to a new study by the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Toronto.  A series of experiments by a University of California psychologist indicates the rich are more prone to lie and cheat compared to the less well-off.  The study contradicts the belief that poor people are more likely to behave in an unethical manner out of financial necessity.

The findings were drawn from several experiments that included more than 1,000 people from all rungs of society.

“Elevated wealth status seems to make you want even more, and that increased want leads you to bend the rules or break the rules to serve your self-interest,”  said Paul Piff, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Berkeley and lead author of the report.

In one experiment, . . .

Continue article…

I think when people of wealth act corruptly a sense of “I deserve this” comes often to mind, which again shows the danger of relying only internal cues (the sense of deserving it) and ignoring the actual behavior — the objective action (embezzling funds or whatever). The focus on the reason they’re doing some immoral or unethical act (the reason being generally some combination of “I deserve this” and “they leave me no choice”) blinds their conscious judgment about what they’re doing.

Before doing the actual act, it’s good if you’ve made a practice of observing your behavior objectively, as others might view it. It’s helpful in developing this skill to keep a journal written from the point of view of an on-looker, a journal that ignores entirely your internal monologue of reasons and judgments. Record in the journal only the behavior and words that a person at your shoulder would witness. This works best if you write the journal in third person, referring to yourself as “he” or “she,” which maintains some psychic distance and makes it easier to enter the mindset of being an outside observer. Such a journal can act as a moral mirror. Just as a wall mirror lets you see your appearance as others will see it, the journal of your actions (without including your internal rationalizations and justifications) enables you to view your behavior as others will view it.

[In reading over this, I wondered whether an ideological blindness to inconsistent facts (the attitude that what’s “right” is more important than what’s true, when for a pragmatist, what’s true is always primary—cf. conservative opinion about climate change, anti-vaxxer opinion about vaccinations) is related to the way our beliefs about our motivations blind us to what we’re actually doing — that is, what an on-looker not distracted by our (internal) motivations would see us doing. For example, the crooked businessman’s initial response to discovery/arrest seems to be surprise—like he had no idea that what he was doing was wrong—and then he commonly says, “I know this looks bad…”, sort of waking up to how it looks/what it is, and thumbing through his internal motivations for reassurance that what he did was not actually wrong, it only looks wrong (to everyone in the world). – LG]

At any rate, my immediate thought was that wealth is like physical exertion or vitamin A or food itself: if you get too little, you’re badly damaged or can even die, but if you get too much, you also are badly damaged and can even die. The middle ground is the safe space—even with wealth.

A second thought stemmed from an earlier post about what the Christian God said when He came to town, and how strongly He (Jesus) spoke out against wealth. He explicitly stated that it was to be avoided, and I wonder whether the findings mentioned above show why. (It’s worth noting that Jesus spent almost all His time among the poor and marginalized, not among the wealthy and powerful. I think that fact is worth pondering.)

I can’t help but note that our track record when God Himself commands us NOT, under ANY circumstances, to do something, is not good. We pretty much hop to it and do whatever it is at the first opportunity. … Hmm. Just flashed on the quotation “By their fruits you shall know them,” not even recalling context but linking that to the “fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil” — having eaten it, the fact cannot be hidden: we cannot help making statements that show that we have moral knowledge and a moral sense. The effects of eating the fruit reveal the fact of its consumption. “By their fruits you shall know them.” And that brought me back to wealth: those fruits are quite obvious: the wealthy consume more, and better, than anyone. But the study suggests that a serious side-effect seems to be (on average) a marked decline in moral and ethical standards — the very sort of thing Jesus would be concerned about. And by their fruits you shall know them. By their actions their moral values are revealed.

But that came to me just now as I typed. What I intended to blog in thinking about the effects of wealth on one’s moral character is that wealth corrupts our character. That’s not really a surprise: wealth is power, and power corrupts. And indeed the wealthy do seem to be a major subset if not an outright majority of the powerful — naturally enough, come to think of it, since one of the first signs of being corrupted by power is to start using that power to increase one’s wealth, and that (as we now know) sets off a vicious cycle: increasing wealth results in decreasing moral and ethical standards, which leads to more political and personal corruption, bringing in yet more money/wealth, and that further lowers one’s moral and ethical standards, repeat until it blows up, often fairly quickly.

I can think of governments on every continent that have exemplified this cycle, some very exactly.

So the study findings merely provide experimental verification of a fact long since known — and about which God Himself quite explicitly warned us. The detrimental effects of wealth on a person’s character is observed repeatedly and is evident to any student of history. It’s a sad cycle, but it seems to be inescapable because of the self-reinforcing nature: the further it goes, the faster it goes — thus the short life spans, I imagine (though “short” is relative: both Hitler and Stalin were around far too long).

This process of the positive feedback loop of wealth and moral corruption is so common it needs a name, like (for example) the Carnot cycle in engineering. Certainly this cycle — rags to riches to rags/death — is reliable in that the same sequence is repeated across a wide range of cultures and epochs and on a range of scales: individual, family, tribe/corportation, nation. The wealth/corruption cycle seems to be based on basic human responses and predilections and catches us in a self-reinforcing trap, much as modern manufactured foods exploit our natural predilections for (say) salt, sugar, and fat to make us fast-food addicts.

You know, I bet it would be very easy to construct a finite Markov chain of this process.

UPDATE: It occurs to me that some readers might disagree with the studies’ findings, arguing that the findings are false. They can look upon the above as an attempt to refute the findings by exploring the logical consequences, hoping for a reductio ad absurdum. But so far the thing seems to pan out and be consistent with what we observe. The things we see happening and having happened would follow inexorably upon the truth of the findings, and lo! there they are. No reductio here.

Update 15 Dec 2019: The article “How a Society Dies” sets out in grim terms the endgame. And the news article “Purdue Pharma Payments to Sackler Family Soared Amid Opioid Crisis” provides a good example of the wealth/corruption cycle and serves also as a reminder that it’s not just the wealthy who are thereby damaged: “Suicide, opioids tied to ongoing fall in US life expectancy: Third year of drop.

Update Easter Sunday (4/4) 2021: Michael Mechanic has an excellent article on this topic in the Atlantic. Do read the whole thing. Here’s just a part of it:

Piff’s popular TED Talk, “Does Money Make You Mean?” But his observations were consistent with a large body of social science finding that people of higher socioeconomic status, compared with those lower down the ladder, are more prone to entitlement and narcissistic behavior. Wealthier subjects also tend to be more self-oriented and more willing to behave unethically in their own self-interest (to lie during negotiations, say, or to steal from an employer). In one study, Piff and his colleagues stationed a pedestrian at the edge of a busy crosswalk and watched to see which cars would let the person cross. Suffice it to say that Fords and Subarus were far more likely to stop than Mercedeses and BMWs.

We find such research amusing because it jibes with our stereotypes of rich people. But there’s nothing frivolous about asking how having an abundance of money affects our psychology. After all, the ranks of the rich, and the wealth they command, have exploded in the United States since the end of the Great Recession. Not even a pandemic could stop this avalanche of assets. The ultrawealthy—Americans with $30 million and up—suffered a brief setback, but by September 2020 the markets had rebounded and the rich were very nearly whole again. Even as the poor and middle class reeled from job losses and the threat of evictions and foreclosures, scores of new billionaires were minted.

Early in his career, Piff had observed that people were studying the causes and effects of poverty ad nauseam, but nobody was addressing the questions he wanted to ask. Namely: What are the social and psychological ramifications of being on top of the economic food chain, of occupying positions of privilege? Wealth-related differences in attitudes and behavior are particularly important wherever the rich have an outsize sway over politics and policy. If, for instance, wealth makes people less compassionate, then a government that believes that the rich should behave in the interests of the populace may have to force them to do so.

Political scientists such as Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens have found notable differences in the policy preferences of affluent versus middle-class Americans, not only on purely economic matters like taxation but also on public-education funding, racial equity, and environmental protections, all of which the rich have been significantly less likely to support. This matters because of the influence the rich have over government officials. In one study, Gilens, now a professor at UCLA, combed through thousands of public survey responses and discovered that, on issues where the views of wealthy voters diverged significantly from those of the rest of the populace, the policies ultimately put in place “strongly” reflected the desires of the most affluent respondents—the top-earning 10 percent. Those policies, the study concluded, bore “virtually no relationship to the preferences” of poorer Americans.

Wealthy people are less likely than poor ones, in lab settings at least, to relate to the suffering of others. When people experience compassion, it turns out, our hearts actually slow down. In 2012, Piff’s then-colleagues Michael Kraus and Jennifer Stellar hooked volunteers up to ECG machines and showed them two short videos: a “neutral” video of a woman explaining how to construct a patio wall and a “compassion” video of children receiving chemotherapy treatments for cancer. Relative to the wealthier participants, the poorer ones not only reported feeling greater compassion for the kids but also exhibited a significantly larger slowdown in heart rate from one video to the next.

If affluent people are less moved by the suffering of others, they should be less likely to help those in need, and this too seems to be true both in the lab and outside it. While wealthy families donate significantly more money to charity on average than poor families do, they tend to give away a smaller share of their income. “As wealth goes up, the stinginess seems to increase,” Piff said.

Raymond Fisman, a behavioral economist at Boston University, has found tha

Written by LeisureGuy

25 March 2012 at 1:43 pm

A grilled cheese sandwich is good, but a grilled-cheese sandwich is better

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I just recently discovered halloumi, a cheese that when heated softens but does not melt, so can be grilled, fried, etc. It does brown nicely, and then a squeeze of lemon over it: heaven. So I got some with a loaf of olive oil & rosemary bread, which I’ll slice for a grilled-cheese sandwich at lunch, with roasted asparagus. Lemon juice on cheese and on asparagus.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 March 2012 at 9:31 am

Posted in Daily life, Food

All the facts, organized and accessible

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Fascinating project, though reading it somehow immediately brought to mind the Laputans, from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels—the image was quite strong, totally from some unconscious associations.  (If you’ve not read Guilliver’s Travels for a few years, it’s a good time to return: Swift was one well-educated by life…) Quentin Hardy reports in the NY Times:

AT 7 years old, Gilad Elbaz wrote, “I want to be a rich mathematician and very smart.” That, he figured, would help him “discover things like time machines, robots and machines that can answer any question.”

In the 34 years since, Mr. Elbaz has accomplished big chunks of these goals. He has built Web-traversing software robots and answered some very big questions for Google, along the way becoming a millionaire several hundred times over.

His time-machine plans, however, have been ditched for something he finds more important: trying to identify every fact in the world, and to hold them all in a company he calls Factual.

“The world is one big data problem,” Mr. Elbaz says from his headquarters, a quiet office 14 floors above the Los Angeles Country Club. He is a slim, soft-spoken man who weaves in his chair when an idea excites him. “What if you could spot any error, as soon as you wrote it? Factual is definitely a new thing that will change business, and a valuable new tool for computing.”

In the booming world of Big Data, where once-unimaginably huge amounts of information are scoured for world-changing discoveries, Mr. Elbaz may be the most influential inventor and investor. Besides Factual, he has interests in 30 start-ups, including an incubator in San Francisco dedicated to Big Data. Factual’s headquarters, in a high-rise on the Avenue of the Stars, hosts seminars for a data community he hopes to foster in the Los Angeles area.

Mr. Elbaz also serves on the boards of the California Institute of Technology, his alma mater, and the X Prize Foundation, which offers cash prizes to teams that meet challenges in space flight, medicine and genomics. The company he sold to Google, Applied Semantics, is the basis of Google’s AdSense business, which brings Google close to $10 billion in revenue annually. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 March 2012 at 7:38 am

Fathers and sons

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I probably should read the Turgenev novel again (the title of this post)—read it once, liked it as I recall.

I seldom read Maureen Dowd, but today she has a good column on the father/son relationship:

WHEN Mike Nichols had his dazzling comedy act with Elaine May, one of their sketches began with a Jewish mother calling her son and saying, “Hello, this is your mother, do you remember me?”

Over deviled eggs and beer at Bar Centrale in New York’s theater district, Nichols recalled that the routine was born when he was a young comic and his mother phoned him with that question. Still, he says, “the mother’s guilt production” is not the paramount force in families.

Nichols, who directed the agonizing wrestling match between Biff and Willy Loman in the hit revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” on Broadway, believes that the father-son wrassle is the central American relationship: “When the mother says, ‘I’m suffering because you don’t love me enough,’ that’s entirely different from the father saying, ‘This is what you’re going to do for a living? You’re not going to go into the family rug cleaning business that I’ve spent my life building?’ Or, ‘I’m going to have to spend the money I’ve saved up for you to learn how to be a writer or scenic designer or whatever the hell you want to do?’

“The following or not following in the footsteps of the father is a tricky and anxiety-producing discussion between fathers and sons.”

Presidential politics thrum with Oedipal loop-de-loops. Many candidates — J.F.K., Al Gore, Mitt Romney — seem to be running to fulfill their fathers’ dreams more than their own. Others, like W. and John McCain, are shadowboxing with fathers who cast a long shadow. Still others, like Jon Huntsman, are treated to a campaign by wealthy dads. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich have lived in the shadow of their fathers’ absence.

“I know so many people — actors, directors, writers — who can’t get their father to even acknowledge their accomplishments,” Nichols said.

As Michael Gurian writes in The Prince and the King, “The father-son wound is not the only source of troubles in a man’s life, but it is one of the most profound.”

The hero’s journey to find his father shapes epics from . . .

Continue reading. I find this interesting, for I’ve seen the father issues in my own life—and I’ve had two: my natural father until his death due to an oilfield accident when I was 7, and then a step-father from about age 10. Two very different men, and they have certainly had an affect on me.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 March 2012 at 7:24 am

Posted in Books, Daily life

Comparing what you’re taught with what you observe and experience

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We can quickly learn things we’re taught by others, but the lessons taught by the world—the lessons of experience and observing events over decades—well, that naturally takes longer. For one thing, the world is not organized as a lesson plan, and the principal points are not set out in bold-faced, bulleted lists. Everything is by implication.

Frank Bruni has a wonderful account in today’s NY Times of how the education the world provides illuminates and changes what we’re explicitly taught. Well worth reading:

I moved into my freshman-year dorm at the University of North Carolina after many of the other men on the hall. One had already begun decorating. I spotted the poster above his desk right away. It showed a loaf of bread and a chalice of red wine, with these words: “Jesus invites you to a banquet in his honor.”

This man attended Catholic services every Sunday in a jacket and tie, feeling that church deserved such respect. I kept a certain distance from him. I’d arrived at college determined to be honest about my sexual orientation and steer clear of people who might make that uncomfortable or worse. I figured him for one of them.

About two years ago, out of nowhere, he found me. His life, he wanted me to know, had taken interesting turns. He’d gone into medicine, just as he’d always planned. He’d married and had kids. But he’d also strayed from his onetime script. As a doctor, he has spent a part of his time providing abortions.

For some readers his journey will be proof positive of Rick Santorum’s assertion last month that college is too often godless and corrupting. For others, it will be a resounding affirmation of education’s purpose.

I’m struck more than anything else by how much searching and asking and reflecting he’s done, this man I’d so quickly discounted, who pledged a fraternity when he was still on my radar and then, when he wasn’t, quit in protest over how it had blackballed a Korean pledge candidate and a gay one.

Because we never really talked after freshman year, I didn’t know that, nor did I know that after graduation he ventured to a desperately poor part of Africa to teach for a year. College, he recently told me, had not only given him a glimpse of how large the world was but also shamed him about how little of it he knew.

In his 30s he read all 11 volumes of “The Story of Civilization,” then tackled Erasmus, whose mention in those books intrigued him. When he told me this I was floored: I knew him freshman year as a gym rat more than a bookworm and extrapolated his personality and future from there.

During our recent correspondence, he said he was sorry for any impression he might have given me in college that he wasn’t open to the candid discussions we have now. I corrected him: I owed the apology — for misjudging him.

He grew up in the South, in a setting so homogenous and a family so untroubled that, he said, he had no cause to question his parents’ religious convictions, which became his. He said that college gave him cause, starting with me. Sometime during freshman year, he figured out that I was gay, and yet I didn’t conform to his prior belief that homosexuals were “deserving of pity for their mental illness.” I seemed to him sane and sound.

He said that we talked about this once — I only half recall it — and that the exchange was partly why he remembered me two decades later. . .

Continue reading.

I was particularly struck by how much this guy learned from his experience in the world, and how (toward the end of the account) we see a person who learns nothing from her experience in the world. So it is obvious that learning by experience is in no way inevitable. As I once proposed in a toast to a graduating class: Treat life as a series of free-form seminars, and you must figure out the opening questions for the experiences you have. (The focus of the educational program at the college was the seminar, a two-hour (minimum) evening class, 20 students and two faculty members. We arrive having read, say, the first five books of the Iliad (the first assignment for freshman seminars—subsequent seminars go through the rest of the Iliad, the Odyssey, many of Plato’s works, Aristotle, Sophocles, Antigone, and so on—the freshman year seminar focuses a lot on the Greeks). One of the faculty members will ask an opening question, and then the seminar consists of the students trying to answer the question and following the chains of argument to wherever they lead, with the faculty members keeping order, prodding (a favorite comment to a student who’s just had a brilliant—or potentially brilliant—insight is, “Go on”—the insight being usually a flash of inspiration, a spontaneous thought, and making the student “go on” helps the student learn how to think on purpose, to deliberately think out things instead of awaiting spontaneous insight), and otherwise keeping the discussion alive and productive. The faculty member’s job is mostly to listen carefully, with comments and questions kept to a minimum. The idea is to get students to exercise and thus improve their skills, not let the faculty member display his or her erudition.)

UPDATE: Here’s a good example of being open to education by life: a very interesting interview with Benjamin Busch.

UPDATE 2: I was thinking about the woman on the ladder, who exemplifies a person for whom ideology (i.e., beliefs) outweigh facts (her experience in how abortions can indeed be necessary and desirable). She also shows clearly the result of judging others based on their actions but judging herself on her internal rationalizations and introspective approval, rather than looking objectively at her actions. She can only see how, for her, she had no choice but to get an abortion, but she cannot grasp that others might see their abortions in a similar light.

All in all, she presents an example of a person who cannot learn—or at least, will learn only slowly, with difficulty, and ultimately very little.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 March 2012 at 7:14 am

Posted in Daily life, Education

The young Willie Nelson

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From Constant Reader. (Isn’t everyone a big Willie Nelson fan?) This is 1965:

Written by LeisureGuy

25 March 2012 at 6:53 am

Posted in Music, Video

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