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Leave It To the Grownups

The Gainesville Tea Party had an interesting idea: Treat the Federal budget like a family budget:

U.S. Tax revenue: $2,170,000,000,000
Federal budget: $3,820,000,000,000
New debt: $ 1,650,000,000,000
National debt: $14,271,000,000,000
Recent budget cut: $ 38,500,000,000

Remove 8 zeros and pretend it’s a family’s budget:
Annual family income: $21,700
Money the family spent: $38,200
New debt on the credit card: $16,500
Outstanding balance on debt: $142,710
Budget cuts: $385

Let’s take a serious look at this and add in some of the proposals being made to fix the budget.

But first, let’s think about that ‘outstanding balance’. What kind of debt that size do families usually have? Mortgage debt. So let’s say $110,000 of that is the mortgage.  So they’ve got $32,710 in credit card debt. Still a lot. Now let’s look at the new debt. What’s that from? Well, with an income that low some of it’s probably groceries. But let’s consider another possibility: let’s say their income is so low because Mom lost her job last year and Pop’s hours have been cut back. Mom thinks she can maybe earn more money if she gets some training, so she’s been taking classes.  So $8000 of that new debt goes to training.

So what are they going to do?
Papa Republican says: This is a catastrophe! Look at the debt we’re leaving the kid! We have to pay this all off NOW! We should sell the house. Let the bank take it if we can’t sell it. Quit your classes, of course- it’s crazy to be adding MORE to our debt! If we rent a single room in a house it will probably be a little cheaper than what we’re paying on the mortgage now. And at least we won’t have that horrible DEBT!

Mama Democrat agrees on some things: Of course, it really is a TERRIBLE debt. I don’t know why we were so irresponsible. And of course I see now that I’ve just been being selfish by wanting to take these classes – but I don’t care what you say, I WON’T give up my house! Be reasonable, dear, do you want our child to live on the street? We’ll just have to hold on- hope that I get another job and things get better.

The kid has been talking to her grandparents and has some ideas: Mom, Pop, you know you’ve still got a perfect credit score. And Mom’s really been doing well in her classes. I think she should go back for that degree in nursing she always wanted. And you know, the university’s only a few blocks away- there are always students looking for apartments. Let’s turn the basement and rec room into apartments. We could get an extra $2000 a month in rents that way.

Papa Republican rolls his eyes and mutters something about idiots. Mama Democrat smiles weakly at her daughter and says, “I think you have to leave this to the grownups, dear.”

The Economist Versus the Artist

Ludwig von MisesVirginia WoolfMarc Chagall

I have, for some time, had a considerable interest in economics while, at the same time, having a great antipathy to the ideas of many economists. It is partly that one of the most fundamental ideas of economics – that of the ‘rational’ and ‘self-interested’  man, is so obviously at odds- both intuitively and empirically – with what we know of humans and human psychology. But mainly it is that economists- as do we all- act in ways that reflect their beliefs about themselves and the world. Thus we have all kinds of theories and assumptions coming out of the economic world which tend to dismiss things and people who do not have any obvious or immediate monetary value as worthless.  Along with that seems to go a frequent ignorance of all other fields but their own. I could give examples of this kind of thinking even among those whose economic ideas I generally respect. However as it happens an excellent example presents among those that I find bizarre and repugnant. I give you, therefore, Ludwig von Mises, one of the so-called ‘Austrian School’ on the subject of artists and writers:

“The vain arrogance of the literati and Bohemian artists dismisses the activities of the businessmen as unintellectual moneymaking. The truth is that the entrepreneurs and promoters display more intellectual faculties and intuition than the average writer and painter. The inferiority of many self-styled intellectuals manifests itself precisely in the fact that they fail to recognize what capacity and reasoning power are required to operate successfully a business enterprise.

The emergence of a numerous class of such frivolous intellectuals is one of the least welcome phenomena of the age of modern capitalism. Their obtrusive stir repels discriminating people. They are a nuisance. It would not directly harm anybody if something would be done to curb their bustle or, even better, to wipe out entirely their cliques and coteries.”

Let’s see… von Mises lived from 1881-1973. Here are a few of the ‘literati and Bohemian artists’ active in that time whose ‘bustle’ he would have like to have seen curbed, if not ‘wiped out entirely’: Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, W.H. Auden, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Jorge Luis Borges, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Henry James, T. S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost, Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway, Marcel Proust, Toyen, George Braque… Just from his native Austria alone in that time we have a whole host of amazing artists and writers- Oskar Kokoschka, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele among the artists, Stefan Zweig, Max Brod among the writers.

On the business side, which he admired so much, we have the robber barons,  and the adherents of the lovely theory of ‘Social Darwinism’, the heads of copper companies, who tunneled under the streets of towns they controlled, causing their collapse, who hired the hit men to murder labor leaders, the scions of families who created enormous fortunes through monopolies and collusion, all leading up to the world wide financial collapse called the Great Depression. Of  course Mises refused to believe that criminality  of this sort had anything to do with the collapse. He was himself a wealthy aristocrat (though the family’s Jewish origin forced him to flee during World War II) with a characteristic lack of empathy for those of lesser origins.

Yes, he was right to hate Communism. But only a fool believes that the proper way to combat a horrible idea is to run to embrace its opposite extreme.

I take some satisfaction in knowing that bad ideas, while highly infectious and fatal to many until they have run their course never have any real staying power. Five hundred years from now the chances of von Mises being known and remembered for his work- either with love or hatred – are next to none. But as long as we are still around as a species I know that there will be people to look with awe and delight on Chagall’s windows, or lose themselves in Borges’ word labyrinths.

* * * * *

I wrote this last March. I don’t know why I didn’t publish it then… I think I was still suffering from a bleak fatalism that convinced me, in spite of myself, that rapacious financial interests were destined to take our world and all its soaring art- straight off the edge into a slow, painful disintegration of everything worthwhile- including, ultimately, life itself. This still seems all too possible, but how differently things appear after the Arab Spring, the Spanish summer, and an America now at least partially Occupied with considerably more interesting and hopeful ideas than I have heard expressed in a very long time.

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America’s ‘Stab in the Back’

Big Financial Lies – Paul Krugman The reality of the financial crisis was that deregulation — which was part of a broader rightward shift in policies that played a large role in creating rapid growth in income inequality — led to an economic catastrophe of the kind that just didn’t happen during the 50 years or so when we had effective bank regulation.

What we need to understand about the idea that Barney Frank and too much regulation actually CAUSED the financial meltdown is that this is America’s “Stab in the back.” For those unfamiliar with the story of how Hitler rose to power and turned a country noted for both its culture and tolerance into a watchword for tyranny, torture and genocide, it is important to realize that it would not have been possible with out this big lie gaining widespread acceptance in German society. The ‘stab in the back’ theory was that Germany had not actually lost WWI in a fair fight but had been betrayed by its democratic government. Originally the idea was concocted by monarchists, arguing against democratic rule, but the Nazis soon adopted and expanded on this idea, painting the Weimar Republic as a sinister blend of Jews, Bolsheviks and other ‘degenerates’. This is the end result of believing lies, however convenient or comforting they may be.

Write it and She Will Come

I wrote the first version of this note in answer to a young writer on the discussion board of my novel revision course. ( by fantasy writer Holly Lisle.) It was in answer to her- but it was really for me- to remind myself, as I go through this novel-writing and revision process again, all these years later, of what I know to be true, but still find easy to disregard.

When I wrote my first novel years ago I was just far enough into my twenties to start realizing that I really was an ADULT now, and get panicky over ‘not having accomplished anything in my life’. Although I’d always wanted to be a writer and had written constantly as a child and teenager now the prospect of writing something (and possibly failing, thereby ‘proving’ that I wasn’t really cut out to be a writer) was just too scary to me and I stayed safe by doing nothing. Finally, with the years ticking past, I mustered my courage, got some advice on how to actually finish something (always my downfall) and managed, by writing every day without fail, to get a complete first draft.. and then a second.

The thing about this was I really, really hated it! Every excruciating second. It was pure torture. And all kinds of ‘helpful’ people were telling me things like- ‘if you hate it that much, don’t do it’ and showing me articles where real (published) writers talked about how much fun writing was and how much they loved every second… And all I could do was repeat helplessly, “You don’t understand… I have to…”

And then… towards the end of this long process, while I was still finishing the novel I started to have the experience writers talk about- where characters show up and start telling you their story, where you dream whole scenes, wake up and madly scribble it down and find, in the morning, that it miraculously not only makes sense but perfectly fills in a gap in the story you hadn’t even noticed was there. Before long, with no pain, no forcing myself to work, I had a screen play written.

What I realized then is that you don’t attract a muse by being talented. You attract her by working. Makes sense, really. She doesn’t want to sit around twiddling her thumbs while you drown in angst. She wants something to play with. Show her that you’ll do that by writing regularly and she’ll be attracted like a moth to a flame. In other words, ‘Write it and she will come!’

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Ada and I

Ada Lovelace 1838

A wonderful article from Tim Kastelle: “Ten Great Women to Write About for Ada Lovelace Day” has gotten me started on reminiscences.

I first met Ada Lovelace sometime in the ’70′s. I was in my early 20′s and had begun a frantic scramble to escape the unwelcome recognition that I was not who I was supposed to be. I was growing older and older– impossibly old. I had passed 21 and was hurtling toward 25. The list of the things I had not done was growing longer and longer — and still I had accomplished nothing. I had gone through one major after another — Political Science, Sociology, Anthropology, Russian, History– without being able to settle on any. I had married, but my husband was not yet ready to agree to the eternal fall-back career for a woman– having children. At the time I met Ada I had embarked on the most improbable of my academic attempts: I was enrolled in Electrical Engineering at Northwestern University.

I came to both the university and the subject in a roundabout way. I had met my husband when I was 17 while was living with a group of older friends- students at Michigan State in East Lansing, Michigan. He was just finishing his Bachelor’s in Physics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. When he was admitted to grad school at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, I applied at Illinois Wesleyan, about an hour’s drive, in Bloomington. The following year we both applied to the Chicago Circle Branch of the University of Illinois so that we could finally be together in the same city.

In Champaign my husband had begun to work on a sort of early precursor of the internet: the Plato project. It arrived at the Chicago Campus at the same time we did. Plato was a dream wrapped up in an orange plasma bow for someone like me: it was filled to the gills with courses on every possible subject, all presented in fascinating ways. There was an electronic fruit fly laboratory where you could ‘breed’ flies with various characteristics and see the results in the offspring. There was a pattern recognition program where you could train yourself to recognize dot-matrix moths on electronic ‘trees’. There was a world population map where you could simulate various kinds of population changes- from an increase in the birthrate to a catastrophic plague- and see how quickly populations in various places would bounce back. There was a German language learning program which gradually substituted German words into a well-known English language story, testing you on vocabulary at each iteration until imperceptibly you found yourself reading the text entirely in German. And, of course, there were games. One in which you played the commander of a space ship showed you a display panel and gave you a crude look out into a galaxy of stars. And I can remember once pulling an all-nighter– not cramming for an exam but wandering through the electronic mazes of a dungeons and dragons game.
Continue reading Ada and I

The Care and Feeding of Twitter


It is hard to explain Twitter. It’s also hard to ‘get’ Twitter. To say it is a mini-blogging platform that lets you post a brief sentence or two on your own page– and also read the short posts of those you choose to follow, does nothing to explain its appeal. On the one hand the platform is simple: you can write anything — as long as it’s under 140 characters. On the other hand, it can be confusing– and unlike other social media, like Facebook or Stumbleupon, it is not easy for some kind soul to take you by the hand and show you the ropes. In Twitter, you have to ‘follow’ someone before you will even see what they write– and they will not see your pleas for help unless they ‘follow’ you back. Furthermore, 140 characters is far too limited to tell you all you need to know.

So here is a short guide to the Twitter basics:

First, of course, sign up for Twitter at The URL for your Twitter page will be Now set up your profile. Confusingly, you can’t do that by clicking on ‘profile’ at the top of the page: that just shows you what your Twitter page looks like to other people. No, instead, click on ‘settings’. Under the ‘account’ tab say something about yourself, your work, or your interests. (Something short, of course– this is Twitter!) Under the ‘picture’ tab, upload a picture of yourself or a graphic. Under ‘device’ you can put in your cell phone number and send in your updates by text message. Once you have this set up, you can also get the updates of any of the people you are following by cell phone. Some businesses and services are already using Twitter to keep their customers and clients informed. Washington DC’s metrorail, for instance, has each of it’s lines set up on Twitter. Follow them and switch the device update button to ‘on’ and you will get all notices of outages or delays by text message on your cell.

Next step: Find people to follow. This, unfortunately, is not as easy as it might be: the ‘Find People’ link at the top of the page which would be the obvious first step is all but useless. Instead use the much more powerful ‘search’ link which is at the bottom of the page. Search for topics that interest you and you’ll find all sorts of conversations going on. Another good way to find people: use This is a sort of Twitter yellow pages and searches people’s profiles, as well as their conversations and is a very good way to find people by profession and location. And one of the best ways to find people to follow is to find someone interesting and then click on ‘following’ in the upper right hand corner to see who they follow. Check them out, look at the webpage listed in the profile, if they have one, and if they seem interesting, follow them too. Very often people will follow you back if you begin to follow them. And check on your own list of followers every once in awhile. It’s generally a good practice to follow back your new followers. But check them out first. I usually follow back unless the person seems to be totally focused on trying to sell me something– whether a product or a belief.

Now here’s where things begin to get a little tricky. You will quickly find, as you begin to follow more than a few people, that it’s almost impossible to follow conversations. My advice is, don’t try. If you see an interesting post and it begins with @something, that means that it is addressed to someone. Click on the name to see the other side of the conversation. If you want to respond to a post, go to the Twitter page of the poster by clicking on their name. Run your mouse over the post and click on the arrow that appears on the side. This will put their name in the reply box and you can post your response. Clicking on the star above the arrow marks that post as a favorite.

Another way to call attention to a post you particularly like or that has useful information is to ‘retweet’ it. Copy the text of the post, hit the reply arrow and paste the text in next to it. Add ‘RT’ for ‘retweet’ in front of the name and post. That way all of the people who follow you, but don’t follow the original poster, will also see the post. Retweeting is one reason information travels so quickly through Twitter. If you are following a lot of people the posts will run by so quickly that it’s easy to miss a response to something you have said. You can easily check for responses by clicking on the @Replies button to the right. Just under @Replies is the Direct Messages button. These are messages which no one but you can see. They will not appear on either your or the senders Twitter page. You will probably find that you get a number of these messages thanking you for following. This is because some of the Twitterers with the largest followings have their accounts set up to send out automatic direct messages to followers. You should check both your @Replies and Direct Messages frequently so you don’t miss any messages directed to you, whether publicly or privately.

One way to hold a conversation with a number of parties on a particular subject is to use the hashtag (#). People organizing conferences or events will frequently announce a hashtag code– for instance, #ideaparty, or #gov20. You can read everything posted in connection with this event by going to search and typing in the code. You can respond yourself by writing your post and adding in the hastag code. You can also follow the conversationby going to tweetchat or by installing tweetdeck. Instructions for using tweetchat are here.

So, that’s about it. I recommend giving Twitter a try. When you do, look me up. You’ll find me here: @Eclectopedic.

Can the Internet Rescue Art?


I have been looking at artists’ pages on the internet lately and wondering: Can the internet rescue art? Does art even need rescuing? Well, according to my artist friend Olga Grulichová it does. She says that cheap knock-offs from China and other low-cost locations are killing Czech art — especially high end art glass and porcelain which is energy-intensive and expensive to produce. She has had to give up plans for some porcelain pieces she designed because the porcelain manufactury she was using closed. Glass artist friends have been hard hit by closures of commercial glass furnaces. And she is nervous even discussing some of her designs, much less advertising them on the internet after some bad experiences with the theft of her ideas: one of her signature designs– quirky ceramic house facades based on the centuries old houses in Prague’s Malá Strana were quickly copied and mass produced for sale in all the tourist shops in town. These, I point out to her, are not really comparable to hers, which are much larger pieces, each with individual touches often specially designed for the future owner- down quilts airing in the windows, lace curtains, people standing in the doorways, symbols and names over the doors…

I tell her– and I believe– that these cheap imitations are no competition for her. That people who care about art will want her originals and not cheap copies. She has had considerable success as an artist, I point out, with exhibitions in Paris and large purchases by such companies as Movenpick. But even as I reassure and encourage, I realize that I don’t really know. It is all part, I think, of the larger question of how we will compensate original work of all kinds now that many of the old forms and norms are dying. Will artists be able to make a living in this new world? Will writers? Who will support them and how? Will micropayment companies such as Kachingle provide a new model? Or will we return to old ones like the 16th and 17th century patrons of the arts?

I am rooting, myself, for some combination of the new and the old: for people to begin once again to define themselves and achieve respect at least in part by developing their individual taste– and to do that through the new tools of the internet and social networks. I can imagine a world in which the same broad swathe of the middle class owns art and supports writers as used, in Victorian times, to have servants. I can see young people developing a sense of who they are by searching the world for one or two special artists whose work calls to them in a unique way– and then spreading the word about them among their friends and contacts.

This seems to me an attractive vision. I hope, for the sake of artists like Olga, that it one day becomes reality.

nov-08-048Photos by Sarah Shaw Tatoun, ceramics by Olga Grulichová

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Winter Salads, Winter Light


When John Dickson first met Rachel Shaw they were both living in small apartments and she was trying to satisfy her gardening bug with volunteer work and Master Gardening classes. Looking for ways to support his soon-to-be-wife’s passion, John turned his inventive mind to the problem of growing indoors, and later, when they had moved into a larger place and Rachel had signed up for a community garden plot, to growing seeds.

He soon discovered a major problem in the design of seed-starting equipment: If the light was placed too high the seedlings grew quickly into tall, spindly plants, straining to reach the light. If it was placed too low, on the other hand, there was no room for them to grow. The solution equipment designers had come up with struck John as absurd: to place the light at an angle to accommodate the seedlings of different height. Instead, he came up with an innovative design of his own: seeds are placed in trays on shelves that can be moved up and down on a rack. He has a patent pending on the design, but all the parts are standard, everyday items that you can pick up at a Container Store, or build using lights and parts you already have at home. He is offering both kits (with a few tools which make setting up the racks to which the shelves are attached easy) and instructions on how to make your own on his business website, Daylight Design.

Standard Sun Station

Standard Sunstation (TM)

I am not much of a gardener, myself, but I did think having light and growing things indoors in the winter was a great idea– particularly if I could grow things to eat! Since I had a special ‘inside’ on this new business– Rachel is my sister– I began asking for something small, cheap and portable. John added other designs, including one table-top Sunstation (TM), but none of them was really suitable for my tiny room and peripatetic lifestyle. So John went back to the drawing board and came up with another design– this time not requiring shelves or any more space than a little room on a desk or table.

I brought my new ‘mini’ Sunstation (TM) home a couple of weeks ago.

Mini Sun Station

Mini Sunstation (TM)

It includes 4 ‘self-watering’ pots (another one of John’s inventions so you don’t have to worry about over or under-watering), humidity cups to protect the seeds before they sprout and a standard shop lamp.

Here they are today, with 3 healthy looking young lettuce plants and one laggard sprout.

Baby lettuce on mini Sun Station

Baby lettuce on mini Sunstation TM

Lettuce almost ready to harvest.

Lettuce almost ready to harvest.

And here it is today, about three weeks later, almost ready to eat!

I am still not interested in gardening, but I must admit, it is fascinating watching the seedlings sprout and grow as I sit here at my desk in front of my computer. And I am looking forward to some great salads!

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On Being an Evil Spirit


I was sitting in my room one day when a fellow-teacher who had rented a room in the same place called me. “Sarah! Come quick and bring your camera! You have to see this!”

I ran downstairs and watched open-mouthed as an amazing collection of costumed characters collected in the alley way that lead to our front door. There was face-paint and feathers. And there was a big devil’s head with a long tail. A fire was kindled the dancers assembled, and the ceremony began. We both watched breathless, snapping pictures as the big, grinning head bobbed, swooped and rolled. Afterwards we looked at each other, amazed at the privilege of having such a visual treat right outside our door.

I don’t know how much later it was that we learned the reason for this visit: among traditional people, foreigners were considered to be evil spirits, bearing bad luck. It seems that our landlord was a traditional man– or maybe he was just taking no chances. Since a number of us evil spirits were living on his property he had paid for a traditional cleansing ceremony to ward off the bad luck we were bringing him.

While a little dismayed at this view of ourselves from another perspective, we nevertheless felt, and I think, still feel, that it was a wonderful thing to see.

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Bring Back Good Day!

Americans are generally seen as being open and friendly. At the same time, we’re often viewed as rude and uncouth. How can that be? The explanation dawned on me when I was studying Hungarian. Our Hungarian teacher remarked at how off-putting she found it that she was greeted by total strangers with, “How are you?” Not only that, but after making such a presumptuous inquiry of someone they didn’t know at all, it was quite obvious that they were not listening to the answer! “We would have been severely reprimanded by our parents if we had done such a thing!” she said. “What do you say, then, in Hungarian?” We asked.

The answer, of course, was “Good day.” It almost always is. In fact, even in America the custom survives with, “Good morning,” and sometimes even “Good afternoon,” or “Good Evening”. And of course we still wish people “Good night.” But for some reason we have lost “Good day.” I wonder if people realize just how much of a loss this really is? It strips us of the ability to wish strangers well without prying into their private life. It renders that most basic of social glues, the inquiry that invites the sharing of feelings and experiences, an empty formulaic phrase, requiring an equally empty response: “Fine, thanks.”

Anyone who has ever suffered loss or severe illness knows that it can be a wrenching response to make. Our European friends are right: it is rude to make such an inquiry and then obviously not listen to the response– and to evoke such an automatic response in someone who has just lost a mother– or worse yet, a child– is downright cruel. Of course thoughtful, kind people will find ways of dealing with the dissonance– perhaps by making a point of actually listening– but this, too, involves an unnecessary burden: who really has the time or emotional energy to deal with the feelings and experiences of every single person they see in the course of a day?

Perhaps the problem does not seem big enough to some to waste time on, but when the answer is so simple, why suffer even a minor problem? Bring back “Good day”! If that’s too formal for our simple American tastes, we can borrow “G’day” from the Aussies.

However you say it, I wish you all a very good one. I won’t ask you how you are.

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