Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Unembracing Connectivity

The scam artists who've been plaguing me over the past year have actually done me a great favor. That's how my life has usually worked -- a curse morphs into a blessing, or vice versa. In this case, they call several times a week, often more than once on a single day. They spoof phone numbers so that I can't simply block a single number from ever getting through. My only recourse was never to answer an unknown number, even and especially from my own area code, because they'll spoof a local number to increase the chances I'll answer.

As much as I love Apple and the iPhone, there's no good way to deal with this problem. It was getting highly frustrating. I finally resorted to creating a sound file of several seconds worth of total silence, and then setting that as my default ring tone on my iPhone. My contacts, on the other hand, were assigned actual ringtones. That was a fine compromise, but my problem was that I also have an Apple Watch. There didn't seem to be any way to stop it from notifying me on my wrist any time I had any phone calls, even from strangers. After trying and failing to research a way to turn off my phone functions completely yet still retain continual connectivity to the Internet for text messages and email notifications, I realized I'd have to do something quite drastic by contemporary standards: go dark.

I extended my daily "Do Not Disturb" period from its original 1:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. (to prevent any accidental awakenings or disturbances at night or in the early morning), to 1:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., a total of 16 hours per day that my phone would not be notifying me with sound or vibration that someone had been trying to contact me. I chose 5:00 p.m. as the quitting time because the scammers didn't seem to call after then (I'm guessing because it hadn't proven to be remunerative). By the way, the one and only time they ever left a voice mail, they informed me in a call from "California" and in an Indian accent that a "Treasury enforcement action" was underway. I would be arrested if I didn't return their call immediately and discuss payment. I didn't give them the courtesy of a callback. And I'm still waiting, arms outstretched, for the cuffs to be put on.

Possible Treasury Agents Hard at Work

A couple of people very close to me who are classified as "Favorites" still have the power to call me on the phone or to FaceTime and get through 24/7. But their texts, and the texts, phone calls, and emails of everyone else now will land in the appropriate app without any notification coming to me other than what I might see when I go to my computer or phone and light up the screen.

This has weakened the use case for the Apple Watch enormously. I was wearing it every day, and only after I went to Do Not Disturb for 16 hours per day did I realize my perceived need for the Watch had declined drastically. I put back on my old mechanical watch for the first time in a year to see what it would be like. It was fine. So is going without any watch at all.

What has been restored is a sense of what my life was like before I carried a cell phone at nearly all times, which was beginning in about 2007. Back then, if I wanted to know whether I had any email, I went to my computer and turned on the monitor. If I wanted to know if I'd had a phone call, I looked at my answering machine. I wasn't texting then, so texts weren't even an issue. Now I feel much more autonomous and alive despite disconnecting myself a bit from the world and those closest to me. The quiet is exhilarating. The slight bit of jumpiness at the prospect of being interrupted at any moment is gone. In its place is a renewed ability to be aware in the present moment, to see what's before my eyes and hear what's taking place around me. This has been much more than a fair trade.

So thank you, Bangalore Treasury enforcement agents. You've given me a wonderful gift for Christmas, and to reciprocate I promise never again to waste any of your time answering your calls.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

All the Evils, Election Edition

Lack of spoiler alert: you won't discover from reading this entry for whom I plan to vote, if anyone. Nor will I select a least among evils.

Yet I want to record my views on why there are insufficient reasons to feel good about voting for any one of the two major or two minor presidential candidates.

In alphabetical order by last name:

Hillary Clinton has both symbolic and real problems that outweigh any benefits she might bring. She represents, as her opponent all too often reminds us, thirty years (or more) of attempts to mold the American people into a shape she finds more rational, just, fair, and pleasing. To her, the idea that others might disagree with her is not a sign of a healthy debate, but of a selfish conspiracy of idiots. Meanwhile, she's broken the hypocrisy meter by earning tens of millions of dollars along with her husband since his term expired in 2001. They did so not by making anyone's life better in starting a company or inventing a product or process that helps people, but by giving speeches. Sure, they also started a foundation whose putative purpose is to do good, but we find out more every day about how its bank accounts were swollen by those seeking Clinton's favor while she was Secretary of State and hoping for continued favor when she one day became president. The same can be said for the speeches: the speaking fees were a stealth form of bribery, to be cashed in via access later should she become president.

The related email scandal illustrates her most Nixonian character flaw: she has perhaps committed political suicide in an effort to conduct the people's business in a secret and unaccountable fashion, even to historians who should have had access to all her official communications years down the road. As someone who's used State Department records to write history, I find this particularly offensive. I strongly suspect the FBI probe was halted in July solely due to the FBI director's desire not to influence the outcome of the election, yet re-opened in October because that same director realized he'd been lied to and duped by Clinton and others during the original investigation. Had the probe not been stopped in the summer, had traditional investigative means such as grand juries, warrants, subpoenas, and properly designed immunity deals been employed, Clinton likely would have been charged with crimes associated with mishandling of classified material and would have been replaced as the Democratic Party's candidate. I won't go so far as to wish her in prison, but she is appallingly unqualified in a moral sense for any position of leadership where the primary task is to faithfully execute the laws.

Gary Johnson has two terms of executive experience as governor of a small state. He's the most physically fit of the candidates, apparently, despite smoking things from time to time. He's likely correct that most Americans are fiscally conservative and socially liberal, as he says he and his Libertarian Party are. But he's as goofy as Clinton is hypocritical. And goofiness is not a desirable leadership attribute. He doesn't seem to be able to adjust his persona to a changing environment, i.e., to display appropriate affect. For instance, he babbled incoherently to a reporter in a flaky attempt to demonstrate that he could literally hold his tongue while talking. He is allergic to donning regular trousers, tucking in his shirt, or wearing a tie. I'm far less bothered by the alleged "Aleppo gaffe," because that city's name does, in fact, sound like an acronym to me, as Johnson also maintained. But his inability to get his running mate on board with him in a disciplined campaign is deeply troubling -- just today Johnson said Clinton is unqualified due to the email scandal and investigation, while his running mate, William Weld, said he'd vouch for Clinton and didn't care if he disagreed with Johnson. Voting for these two men would be a sheer act of protest only slightly different from not voting at all.

Jill Stein has nothing whatever to recommend her, other than some random agreement with many voters on a few issues. She has no practical experience leading large bodies. She has flaky and impractical positions. Her VP candidate is an utter unknown, as she was before she gained the Green Party nomination. In interviews she's seemed undereducated about important matters. Voting for her would also be a mere protest vote, no better than skipping the election altogether.

Donald Trump might also belong in jail with Hillary Clinton -- his "Trump University" is a fine example of how his whole life has been about branding rather than reality, and about keeping his eternal Ponzi scheme going through one more reckless new enterprise after another with his name emblazoned in gold across the top. He convinced millions of disaffected people to vote for him in the Republican primary and to support him now. As an expert in media manipulation, he did show some skill in outmaneuvering all his Republican opponents while spending far less per vote. Yet this is not a skill we need in a president, since the press is always willing to cover anything a president says or does, even if it's only mildly controversial. He has flushed out the very worst elements in our society, and they're scurrying like roaches across the cracked green linoleum of a kitchen floor after the pantry light's been turned on. They will vote for Trump in huge numbers, in the process shredding the polling methodologies used to determine who's a likely voter.

No one knows what Trump would do as president, because he has demonstrated neither loyalty to past pledges nor a core philosophy other than eternal self-aggrandizement. He might not be as risky as we fear or as his opponents claim; but he might also be more risky than even they dared to paint him. He seems desperate for affection, which would always make him manipulable by the results of the latest presidential job approval polls. This might be bad, or it might be good, depending on the issues currently under consideration. A vote for this man is a vote for radical change not only from Obama, but from the entirety of American political history. We would have to rely on the Congress, the civil service, the military, and the courts to safeguard our traditional system and our civil rights. It would be the bumpiest of rides for a nation that needs a rest, not more turmoil. How I wish Obama had never taunted him at the 2012 White House Correspondents' Dinner and led him to heal his bruised ego by means of a romp through the Republican Party nominating process and a campaign that has brought him to the cusp of being the one to escort Obama out of the White House next January.

* * * * * *

As it looks today, six days out, momentum is shifting strongly to Trump. He has resisted saying anything outrageous that might distract us from considering Clinton's likely criminality. The prospect of a Trump presidency is the most appalling thing I've ever had to contemplate in my lifetime of observing American politics. But if you were to ask me whom to vote for instead, I couldn't tell you. That is the greatest tragedy of all, and the real source of our impending nightmare.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Friend Departed

Richmond Brown died today at the age of 54.

I first made the acquaintance of Richmond Brown in January 1991. It was during my interview for the job I've held for the past 25 years at the University of South Alabama. At that time, Rich occupied that uniquely vulnerable yet exhilarating position: a one-year faculty appointment prior to finishing his Ph.D. dissertation. He was 29, I was 28.

In my memory of that initial meeting there seems only to be a smile. I can't actually see the face with my mind's eye, but I know he had to be smiling because that's what he always did when he met you for the first time or saw you again. He and I would not begin to grow into professional and personal friends until the following autumn, when I moved to Mobile and his one-year appointment was extended for a second year. As he continued in that ostensibly temporary position, our department searched for a permanent historian of Latin America, Rich's specialty, and it wasn't surprising that he prevailed in the search.

Richmond Brown, to the far left. Others in this photo, from left to right: Michael Monheit, Mel McKiven, Aaron Fogleman, and me (Photo taken in the fall of 1992 by Michael Thomason)

We shared the distinction of having been born about a year apart in Alabama, and having grown up in the state (or mostly, in my case). We both went to college in Alabama before leaving for graduate school out of state. We both had one-year jobs before South Alabama at big state schools (he at Kansas, me at Maryland). And we were both Atlanta Braves and Alabama football fans (Rich rooted for Alabama from conviction, me from duty to my undergraduate alma mater and my family's long-time preference).

I knew that over the years and decades I was unable to give as much to our friendship as he did. I wasn't ungrateful, just very quickly exhausted by prolonged social interaction. It's a classic case of introversion, when it's properly defined as quick energy depletion in social settings rather than as shyness. Thus he was a much better friend to me than I ever was to him. That goes into my Regret column.

As a native of Mobile, Rich had a varied set of social contacts from the university and his ongoing high school friendships. As an introvert, I confined mine to the university -- to those I likely already knew wouldn't mind if I left early or didn't say yes to every social invitation. There would be long periods when Rich and I did little to nothing together. Yet he invited me to an evening of drinking and celebrating when his Ph.D. dissertation was finished just under the deadline in 1993, for instance. And I helped him move a few times as well, as he went from apartment to house to apartment to house. He was the one I asked to go with me as I test drove my first new car, to see if he could spot any dealbreaking problems. And we played together on a history department softball team for two years, after which I left (because I couldn't play without sliding, and I always hurt myself when I slid). He continued on for a couple more years as the team gained victories and renown on the intramural fields; and he slid no matter the consequences.

The 1994 version of our softball team. Rich to the far left, me kneeling front and center below Mike Monheit. Rich has hiked up his shorts and jutted out his right leg to proudly display his bloody knee from sliding. We had just won our only victory of the season. Photo by Rachel Baswell.

We were involved in some contretemps at the departmental, college, and university level that would have made us friends for life if nothing else had. Confronting a commonly perceived threat is a great way to bond, and we were fortunate that the feelings of solidarity endured long after the difficulties had subsided. Rich was a great help to me as I served as Faculty Senate chair for two years, and he as a senator. I thought he might be the one to immediately follow me as chair, but it took a couple of years. While on the senate he played a key role in making sure everyone understood exactly what bringing football to campus would mean and cost, and in representing the faculty before an administration that saw faculty as pesky and entitled rather than as the heart of the university.

By the late 1990s, our personal paths were diverging. I had decided to get married, and Rich was seriously involved at the same time, too. He would marry in 2002 himself, which entailed many weekends on the road to and from his wife's residence in New Orleans. By 2006 they'd found a way to be in the same city and each have a good job, but it meant that they would move to Gainesville, Florida. After 15 years, we would no longer be both colleagues and friends, but only distant friends. Rich came back to his native city many times, and I'm sorry to say that I wasn't always available to see him each time or able to offer him a bed. After I got divorced, I had very little room to offer houseguests, although after I did eventually buy another house he would stay with me several times.

Me, Rich, and Mike Monheit, October 2014. Photo by Martha Jane Brazy.

Rich's encounters with cancer began before he left Mobile. He was treated for three different sorts between 2004 and 2016. What amazed me and everyone else was the lack of bitterness, self-pity, or embarrassment with which he approached his treatments. He let us all know where he stood whenever there was a change in his status, which lately meant only when there was not-so-good news. During my last trip to see him, just one week ago, he was already in a hospice. He was being given the sorts of medications that hospices are good at, ones that reduce both pain and anxiety. He offered a few quick snorts of laughter at one or another reminiscence, but very little strong emotion. If he realized that we were saying goodbye for the final time as I prepared to return to Mobile, he didn't let on. I couldn't tell as I reached over his bed to hug him and tell him I loved him whether he was affected in any way. I was sniffling and eager to leave his room even though it meant never seeing him again, because I was not keeping it together. A visitor arrived just at that moment, making my exit a lot easier as Rich, ever the good host, introduced us and I could plausibly leave them to speak in private. His last words to me were "safe travels."

Rich is universally loved and admired. A world without him in it makes no sense, and it's going to be a long time before the heaviness of his death is lifted from me and those who knew him well. This is a measure of how well he lived, and of what an example he set for us all.

Monday, September 5, 2016

On Litter

Contempt -- Taking along grocery bags -- Beer -- Fast food -- Cigarette butts -- Social proof -- Entropy and punishment

It may be that we can tell a lot about a community or society by what they casually discard. These things (and sometimes sentient beings as well) are not only viewed as being worthless; they are also regarded either as hindrances or as source material for making a statement about the contempt in which the surroundings are held.

A few weeks ago I decided to begin taking plastic grocery bags along with me as I walk my dog through my neighborhood. These would augment the smaller plastic bags I already carried to remove my dog's poop from my neighbors' lawns. I would begin to pick up most litter I encountered. I'd started really paying attention to the streets, lawns, and sidewalks, and instantly the vast amount of litter even in my relatively tidy surroundings became apparent. My previous obliviousness must have meant that I'd regarded the presence of a certain amount of litter as a given.

The three chief offenders are beer containers (cans and bottles), fast food containers (styrofoam cups and take-out boxes, sandwich wrappers and boxes, and aluminum condiment pouches), and cigarette butts. I'm guessing that the beer bottles and cans are tossed because it's illegal to have an open or empty alcohol container in a car. Those consuming as they ride toss them, but often relatively politely on grass or on landscaped traffic calmers (obstacles in the street to make cars slow down in order to go around). I don't find a lot of broken glass, although there is indeed some.

Found in a Virginia park
The fast food refuse is a far more pervasive and serious problem. We make it easy to buy food for people in cars, and the consumers decide it's better to have a clean vehicle immediately than throw the refuse away later. I think they're also expressing their disdain for the neighborhood they're passing through. In my mind I can't help but think these are people cutting through rather than residents who would be only a minute or two from their own trash cans at home. It's a little fuck-you to the people who live there and must think they're better than the litterer, or else why would they have such neat streets?

And as for cigarette butts, our society is only slowly transitioning from one in which cotton wrapped in paper can be tossed indifferently out of a car or truck window (sometimes while on fire) to one in which this item is regarded as litter, as Q-Tips would be too (also made of cotton and paper). I think lawn service people are the main offenders here, based on the location of the butts just next to the curb in front of people's houses. There aren't a lot in the middle of the street.

I realize that I can never keep the neighborhood spotless. Some new litter will always back fill what I've cleaned up. I am hoping, however, that my neighbors will get subconsciously accustomed to more pristine surroundings and will immediately pick up offending candy wrappers or cigarette butts in front of their houses. I'm also hoping that I can remove some of the social proof that makes it easier for those who are inclined to casually violate the law to imitate those who have already littered. The ultimate problem is a failure to enforce the law, to regard litter as harmless as minor speeding or a parking violation. That view, however, misses the cumulative effect of litter and the unconscious encouragement to regard one's immediate environment as lawless and chaotic.

If I could catch litterers in the act and assign a condign punishment, it would of course be to spend hundreds of hours picking it up. They might not learn the lesson I hoped, but they would at least be doing something to spread the idea that the entropy they had been helping to foster was not inevitable.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016


I have plenty of things I'm ashamed of. Some I can share publicly. Details of others are reserved only for those very close to me, whom I can trust never to share them. Still others I keep entirely to myself.

In the first category are things that seemed appalling at the time, but later were revealed as being no more or less shameful than things others do in the course of their everyday lives. I often share a story with my students of how I dumped out an entire gallon of water I'd lugged along on a Boy Scout trip rather than let the troop confiscate it for making Kool-Aid. My Boy Scout career didn't survive that, but it was something I'd done in a fit of pique with consequences no more severe than my social isolation and the prevention of some tooth decay among a group of South Alabama early teenagers. I tell my students the story to illustrate the spirit moving poor farmers in Stalin's Soviet Union who destroyed their tools and crops rather than let the state confiscate them.

This kind of shameful memory, as well as the others that still seem so severe that they must be kept close, are all the part of the price of learning. If you never had done something you were ashamed of then or now, you must be pretty alone and despised, because social interaction puts us to tests that we can never score 100 on. If you were perfect in your shame-free state, you'd be seen as putting on airs. No one wants to be reminded of their flaws by being near a flawless person all the time.

Obviously, some conduct is so gravely harmful that criminal penalties attach as well. People who are willing to routinely engage in such behavior have no sense of shame, so the law must step in to restrain them. This tendency on their part represents a grotesque failure in their upbringing, or perhaps a combination of being taught poor social skills and mental illness.

But for the rest of us, myself included, when we've committed shameful acts, we were experimenting with our boundaries and discovered they weren't as far away as we had imagined. It's the price of living. Especially careful parenting and wide reading on the part of children can mitigate much of the potential for later shame, but not all of it. This is because appearances can be deceiving -- we think we're acting selfishly but harmlessly, and then get caught or realize the harm only after the fact. And sometimes others (whom we've harmed in a shameful way) can tell us one thing but then quickly change their minds or realize they were lying, and in the meantime we've done them wrong based on a faulty picture of them.

The painful memories of shameful acts help us never to repeat them, provided we were susceptible to shame in the first place. I know I'll never, ever do certain things again even if I were offered all the money in the world. Recidivist criminals are cut from different cloth and may not recognize any morality except their own momentary advantage or pleasure. But for the rest of us, shame is the ultimate teacher. We have to be glad it's there, even as we recoil from its reminders.

Oh, do I remember doing that....

Friday, August 12, 2016

Free with Sale of Your Life

There's a good chance you may be seeing advertisements on this page, dear reader (and the singular may be correct here). I don't know, because I use an adblocker. But since this is a site owned by Google and "free" (monetarily) for me, that means somebody else has to pay. That would be you, using your eyeballs or other information which can be employed later to sell you to advertisers.

Advertising is, and for some time has been, a metastasizing cancer in American public life. You can follow its spread by looking at old photos of baseball parks. Take a look at this series of three photos from my former home, Pittsburgh:

Forbes Field, ca. 1960
Three Rivers Stadium, ca. 1980s-1990s

PNC Park, nowadays
It's simple enough to try to blame this on free agency in baseball, exploding player salaries, and the need to monetize expensive new stadiums. But there has also been a growing cultural tolerance and acceptance of ever-intrusive advertising. The Internet has benefited from and fueled this process. I can remember about 2009 when there was a viral post on Facebook saying that Facebook was about to start charging for membership, and if so, the poster was out of there. People only wanted it if it didn't cost them cash. They didn't mind paying with their time, the very stuff of life, which they normally trade for cash (calling it "work" or "a job"). Yet ask them to make the more indirect trade of money that they had previously earned with their time, and they refuse.

Whatever psychological pattern or tendency may underlie this mental fog, the Internet giants knew that asking for cash was a loser. Instead they asked for time, and during that time they also requested and received the most intimate of personal details, such as who your friends are, what time you use your computer, what you like and dislike, what words or images captivate you the most, and, most importantly of all, how you interact with advertising.

I despise knowing there's an ad in front of me that I can't flick away. I installed adblockers early and am their champion. If any given site makes its own use too difficult if I have adblockers installed, I just stop going there. I pay for a couple of Internet services (one newspaper and one VPN service), and rely on adblockers to keep me free from distraction anywhere else I go.

When Facebook recently announced it had decided to wage war on adblockers on its desktop site, I was more amused than bothered. I deleted my Facebook account over a year ago because I'd grown weary of its pretense, its wasting of my life, and its invasion of my privacy. I wasn't surprised when the adblocking community quickly posted a work-around for the new ad-generating code, and when Facebook quickly worked around the work-around. Its irrelevant to me, because Facebook never started charging for its services in exchange for giving me more privacy, so I was out of there.

To twist an old advertising slogan, of all things, I'd rather switch than fight.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

A Sip of Water in a Spirtual Desert

When I was in my early 30s, now some 20 years ago, I had my only direct encounter with what we might call the mystical or numinous. If there had been flashing lights, or at least a lingering sense of connection with everything and everyone, it would have been far easier to consider it a transformative event for me, and to reshape my daily life, my circle of friends, or my definition of success and failure. It was only a few words in the ocean of words that makes up my life, so it was easy to move beyond. But those words were so powerful that I remembered them always.

"All numbers other than the number one are an illusion." This is what I heard in my head as I was waking up from a nap. Was it a random, but this time hypnagogic, subvocalization such as we experience throughout the day (like "what is my dog up to?" "I really need to exercise more," or "why are there security cameras all over this store?")? Or was it a voice from outside, speaking to me to give me the only kind of courage and assistance (i.e., faith) that I was capable of accepting: language? Obviously I don't know.

What does it even mean? I took it to be a pithy restatement of things I'd been reading about in eastern spirituality at the time: we are fooled by the illusion of duality into thinking there is "me" and "you," or "me" and "everything else." In fact, this captivating semblance of multiplicity is the source of all human drama. And drama is bad for you. If you could walk in the assurance that you were only in a dream, then the indispensable virtue -- courage -- would be your defining characteristic. This would not be the courage of "fuck you money" that leads to incivility, selfishness, and megalomania. It would rather be a serene sovereignty at each moment that you could both plan for the future and react to the moment with impunity from "mistakes." You can look a stranger in the eye and say hello. You can call a bully on his bullshit, but without making it personal. You can say "no" when people request your time, money, or energy for a cause that doesn't strike your fancy. You can be alone, or you can be in a crowd. You can support the status quo, or you can lead a rebellion. It doesn't matter. It just doesn't matter. It's all the same thing anyway. So be kind.

A very few people get the kind of spiritual kick-start that can change their lives outwardly as well as inwardly and lead them to insights that are continually unfolding and of great interest to spiritual seekers. Eckhart Tolle springs to mind. The rest of us do without, or we ignore them when they come slightly obscured in wrapping paper (like my experience, so easily dismissed as brain noise while coming back to consciousness from a deep sleep). After all, to accept them means to discard the life you've known and to follow the logical implications of the experience wherever they might take you.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Taste as a Creative Spur

For some of us, the spur to creativity comes from an assault to our aesthetic sensibility. We see or hear or feel something ugly (and perhaps it's that worst ugliness of all, a void), and we must make it right. Nothing else matters as we begin, and only with effort can we be made to pause. This external motivation might not be as reliable or salable as the internal drive felt by those we consider artists. Yet we usually make the world every bit as beautiful as they do, even if our work won't be seen on a museum wall, read on a Kindle, or heard in an auditorium. (A thought that originated as I was putting down mulch over a large, chaotic spot next to my house just now).

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Google, I'm Playing the Field Now

I was a fairly early adopter of Google's stuff. In the fall of 2004, I received an invitation to Gmail from my brother. In those days, being invited was the only way you could get a Gmail account. It came with an unbelievable 2 GB of storage space. Both with their new email platform and their search engine, I trusted in Google's "Don't Be Evil" corporate shibboleth. They seemed cleaner, cooler, and more fun than Microsoft. I had no reservations about starting this blog here in 2006 on Blogger, a site then already owned by Google and subsequently integrated more fully into its "ecosystem." In 2011 I eagerly abandoned Facebook for Google+, hoping that it would provide a way to remain somewhat social while cutting me loose from the noise and inanity of having over 200 alleged friends on Facebook. My affections were also enhanced by a new form of self-interest: at this same time I was buying individual stocks for the first time in my life, and I'd purchased some Google shares.

Something had changed by earlier this year when I learned that Nest, the maker of my home thermostats, had been bought by Google. Instead of welcoming the further ease and convenience the acquisition might mean for me, I was creeped out. Google would know how I was setting my thermostat, in addition to everything else about my life that could be gleaned from scanning nearly a decade of my emails. I delayed any further consideration of installing Nest's new smoke and carbon monoxide detectors as a result. And a good thing, too, because not long after Nest stopped selling them when they discovered it was very easy for homeowners to accidentally turn off the smoke detectors. I was quietly gleeful at Nest's discontent.

I'd long since lost my financial self-interest in Google, having sold the shares to raise some money for extensive home renovations. Those shares exploded in value shortly after I sold them, yet I couldn't see myself holding onto them because the corporate founders were splitting the shares in such a way as to hold on to their power, and they didn't seem to care about the accounting difficulties that meant for us individual shareholders. It was clear they viewed shareholders as an annoyance, so I beat it.

The other day, Firefox announced version 29. I'd all but stopped using Firefox in favor of Google's Chrome some time ago when Firefox started having difficulty rendering Java charts on a financial web site. Chrome syncs up quite nicely across platforms and computers; for instance, all my bookmarks are available on my iPhone, iPad, and my work and office computers. I decided to have a look at the new Firefox, however, and found it aesthetically quite pleasing (even if one of the major changes, rounded tab edges, mimicked Chrome's appearance). I don't have a good way of testing this, but Firefox does now seem faster at loading web pages than Chrome, which negates one of Chrome's initial advantages. So with a new sense of speed, and a belief that I can short-circuit some of Google's data mining, I'm enjoying migrating my web life back to Firefox.

It's hard to imagine leaving Gmail. Although Google will let me download all my email and leave any time, I can't see that it's worth it. I'm never bothered by ads in Gmail, for one thing. For years I've been using adblock extensions for Chrome and Firefox that allow me to defeat Google's raison d'être of serving up advertising relevant to me personally, and therefore much more likely to be profitable for Google. A web expert once reckoned for me that this use of adblockers cost Google about $25 per year per user. Instead of feeling a little ashamed that I was freeloading, I was pleased that I was saving myself from the distraction of all Google's ads (after all, as someone has so perfectly put it: on the web, if you're not paying for it, you are the product).

I'm playing the field now, Google. You're designing scary glasses that will allow an unprecedented invasion of privacy in everyday life, driverless cars, and any number of other wacky things because you're afraid your core business of serving up relevant ads is shrinking, as your recent quarterly earnings report has shown (clicks on ads are up, but the revenue per ad has declined dramatically). Your migration to mobile platforms has not worked out so well, although your Android operating system has made sure that Apple will be forced to remain innovative. And, as an Apple user and stockholder, I thank you for that.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Price Foraging

Recently I've had several experiences with service providers who quoted me what I thought were high prices for potential jobs. They all lowered their price once I declined by honestly stating that the price was more than I'd been expecting.

It became blindingly clear to me that for my whole life, and particularly in the past couple of years when I've owned a house, I've been paying more than I needed to because I didn't fly into a huff the instant the price was mentioned.

Theoretically, ever since I listened to a book on tape my father lent me about negotiating decades ago, I knew that the moment a price is mentioned you should react negatively -- at least you'll get something, if only a predilection for a lower price to come out of their mouths the next time they're bidding on a job. But you might get an extra, an add-on, or an upgrade at the very least. Or they might discover upon quick recalculation that they can "do better."

Yesterday, a health-care provider miraculously dropped the price for an optional, high-margin service when I refused it after previously (unaware of the price) having agreed to it. He cut his offer in half. Another service provider knocked 10% off a quote for his part of the work around my house when I decided to pull the plug on the project because the costs were too high.

You wonder why they don't give you their best price right away. And I know the reason is that they don't want to leave any money in my pocket that I might have been willing to hand over to them. Yet for someone of my temperament (think Butters on South Park, and you won't be far off), the negotiating process is one of fear, anxiety, and anger. I prefer the department-store, fixed-price model. And I don't mind paying a little more for something tangibly better (I shop at Target, not Wal-Mart).

The alternative scenario for service providers isn't a happy one for me. I can get them bidding against each other. But do I really want the low bidder? They're likely to resent the lengths they've had to go to in order to get the job, and cut corners. I can choose a bidder in the middle, but then I'm left wondering whether I'm making a donation to their bank account that could just as easily have remained in mine, since they, too, might be less concerned about doing a great job given that they were bidding competitively.

I have this sense as a professional that I should do my services for my clients (students, in my case) to the best of my ability for a fixed fee published in advance of their coming to me. There's no residual emotion left during the performance of services from the haggling and negotiating phase, which often involves shading the truth and downright lying.

Freedom -- in this case, the freedom to negotiate prices -- once more turns out not to be free.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Happy Day, June 1998

Photo by Michael Thomason

For now, this will have to suffice as my happiest memory of Lenny Macaluso, who died last week at the age of 71. He had been awarded the football, signed by all the members of the History Department, in honor of his just-concluded year of service as our acting chairman.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Toys and Other Killers

If you're going to worry about the potential harm from firearms in schools, nothing I or anyone else can say will help. But I'd like to make a plea for perspective. It's not even close to the top non-organic cause of childhood deaths in the U.S. These are, instead: automobile accidents (over 5,000 per year here alone); drowning; fires; pedestrian accidents; poisoning; toys.

So along with asking for as much attention on shoddy mental health care and for an end to stigma for mental illness, can I also request more righteous anger at cars, pools, household chemicals, toys, and careless drivers? This is yet another case where all our attention is being focused on the most dramatic and recent factor rather than the most important.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Why We Read All Manner of Stuff

Everyone's favorite Italian, Beppe Severgnini, answered this question the other day in the Milan newspaper Corriere della sera. It deserved to be read in English, at least somewhere, so I've translated it and included it below. I  intend to try to use it as a metaphor to help my students understand the need to be versatile with their reading skills. What he says about book length reading also goes for shorter historical passages using modes of thinking and expression we can find odd or dense today.

I'm 17: Did Your Generation Read?

Dearest Beppe,

I'm 17 and in the 11th grade. I'm always amazed when I notice how little room those of my age make for reading in their lives. I'm amazed and alarmed even more by the fact that in high school none of our teachers has ever made the reading of a book part of the lesson plan. Now, am I paranoid or is the fact that kids practically don't read anymore worrying? What do you think? Did your generation read?

My generation read, and in most cases, reads. You're right, Maria: it's a good habit, useful first in school and then at work. Extracting the substance from a long text, or the emotional essence from a novel, is an act of synthesis; and synthesizing is the key to understanding the world. Your generation is often wary of this long reading while it's amazing with short reading (texts, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, chat, etc.). Many people my age scoff at or play down your abilities in this regard; and they're wrong. Let's put it like this. You guys know how to run the 100 meters and need to find the stamina for the 10,000; we stick to the 10,000, but have to learn the release for the 100 meters. Whoever knows how to run both distances is a mental athlete, ready for all races.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Relative Superiority

Thanks to my recent entrance into Twitter, I read a story about the cultural context of the upcoming BCS national championship game between Notre Dame and Alabama. It explored the usual trope about backward Alabamians and their inferiority complex toward anything north of Kentucky. The alleged complex involves a standard defense mechanism: hypersensitivity regarding any real or perceived slights. Wrap this up with college football, and you have the makings of a story that will get noticed. As of this moment, the story has 1,865 comments.

There will always be cultural differences that give rise to mirth and self-satisfaction. The thrifty New Englander is one of our most enduring, for example. Yet the pokes at Alabama, and the reflexive counterattacks by Alabamians (myself included), are both especially strong and, in one important way, misguided.

Take away the image of Alabama and other Southern states as being especially poor and the stereotypes lose their heft. On an international level, no one makes fun of people from the world's richest countries (per capita) . Likewise, it's hard for me to believe if Alabama were regarded as being among the world's leaders in per capita GDP that it would have to endure so many mean-spirited slights. Yet the statistical tables tell us just that. If you don't believe it, you can Google it just like I did.

If Alabama were an independent nation, its GDP would rank it on a world list just slightly below France, and just slightly above Japan. There are all sorts of amusing images that people outside of France and Japan share about those two countries, but none of them are based on an alleged self-satisfied wallowing in poverty, filth, and ignorance. If there were a recognition that, to twist Popeye Doyle's famous phrase, it's better to be a fire hydrant in Birmingham, Little Rock, or Shreveport than to be well off in most places in the world, we might be a little bit more united and a little less defensive toward our countrymen.

Sure, you could still tease us about our drawls, as we might you about your flat tones, inability to pronounce the letter "r," or mania to complete one sentence and move onto the next. On average, we may move a little too slowly for your taste (but drive on the interstates of Birmingham, Montgomery, or Mobile at rush hour if you want to feel more at home). And as a group we assuredly don't eat very healthily. But the only way to feel truly superior to us is to ignore the rest of the planet and humanity, and you're way too smart to do that.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Long National Nightmare, Italian Style

We all have our versions of what Gerald Ford called "long national nightmares." For a colleague, it's the idea that Alabama will win another national championship in football. For me, it was eight years of recent American history, far longer than the two years of Watergate that Ford was ending.

Since 1994, Italians have been enjoying or enduring the political presence of one of their wealthiest and most colorful entrepreneurs, Silvio Berlusconi. He was espeically active in the first decade of our current century. To his followers and supporters, he appeared to bring a can-do spirit to the Italian Second Republic in its formative years. He stressed "liberty," lower taxes, and a live-and-let live attitude toward his personal and legal transgressions that mirrored many Italians' desire to be left alone by an intrusive bureaucracy and justice system.

To his detractors, at home and abroad, Berlusconi's endurance has been an Italian national nightmare as powerful as any since the Second World War. His wealth, based first on shady real estate holdings and then on a media empire including many national TV channels, is the means by which Berlusconi founds and controls political parties built around his personality. He is coarse, crude, and childish, attributes offensive to many Italians of style and discernment, but endearing to a vast swath of the populace that doesn't shop on the via Monte Napoleone or have an advanced education. He has turned the office of Italian prime minister into a way of stalling and staving off criminal prosecutions for corruption and soliciting a minor for prostitution. He is a buffoon at international gatherings, once keeping German chancellor Merkel waiting at a formal event because he decided to take a cell phone call in plain sight of her. She was just standing there for minutes, baffled.

Now he's back. But his popularity has faded dramatically, just as his make-up artists are having an increasingly difficult job of hiding his approach to his 80s. A French leftist newspaper ridiculed his decision to seek the prime minister's position with a headline proclaiming "The Return of the Mummy":

It would be surprising to see Berlusconi serve another term as prime minister. He may "persuade" his former allies in the Northern League (Italy's northern regional separatist party) to join in a coalition with his PDL, but it's hard to foresee the PDL-League alliance gaining more than a quarter of the vote at best under current conditions.

So what we have is not so much a full-length movie about a revivified mummy terrifying the helpless, but that brief moment at the end of so many thrillers when a villain earlier thought dead returns to provide the hero one last moment of righteous vengeance. Berlusconi will likely run out the clock on his judicial troubles without ever spending a day in jail, but will now have to do so without involving the entire national political system in his sad little dramas. The Italian national nightmare isn't quite over, but thanks to Berlusconi's decision to seek office again, it will be the voters who have a chance to play the hero in the ultimate scene.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Is this a blog, or a cemetery?

I dunno. Over the past year, the things I've had to say haven't required a blog in order to be expressed. So that I don't lose all hope of keeping these pages alive, here at least is a list of the ten favorite books or essays I read in 2012:

Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein
Theodore Dalyymple, Life at the Bottom and Second Opinion
William Poundstone, Priceless
Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist
Morgan Housel, 50 Years in the Making
Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler, Abundance
William March, Company K
Carlo Cipolla, Allegro -- ma non troppo (English: The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity)
Jeffrey Goldberg, "The Case for More Guns" (The Atlantic)

Saturday, May 26, 2012

One Year On: An Accounting of a Novice's Dive into Stocks

On May 27, 2011, I purchased shares of an individual stock for the first time. Previously all my investing had been through mutual funds.

I chose Apple. Several months prior to my decision to buy Apple's stock, I'd bought a fourth -- and, still today, latest -- edition of the iPod Touch. After years of incomprehension or ignorant nay-saying, I finally understood what the fuss concerning Apple was about. When I reached the point where I was ready to jump into the stock market via the shares of a single company, Apple was the one I felt most comfortable with.

It wasn't only because Apple makes good stuff. Their stock was, and remains, undervalued. I bought at the price of $334.80. As of yesterday, the price was $562.29, making for an annualized return of over 68% for that first block of shares. I've continued to purchase Apple shares, and good thing, that -- because other decisions I made in the name of diversifying my holdings didn't turn out so well (Northrop Grumman, CSX, Sanofi, and Chevron, I'm talking about you!). Yet one good decision, to begin buying Apple and to keep reinvesting in it if the price continued to seem good after looking at its earnings, made up for many poor ones. While the S&P 500 is up a scant 0.24% on an annualized basis, the stocks I bought over the past twelve months are up 23.64% on that same annualized basis. It's been a good year.

Oh, I'd be remiss not to also thank Google for doing so well. And Accenture -- well, at least you didn't go down.

I'll be back next May 27 to report on how it looks after two years.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Ah, Democracy

For Super Tuesday, a collection of thoughts on democracy and voting:
To govern according to the sense and agreement of the interests of the people is a great and glorious object of governance. This object cannot be obtained but through the medium of popular election, and popular election is a mighty evil. Edmund Burke 
An election is nothing more than the advanced auction of stolen goods. Ambrose Bierce 
The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. Winston Churchill 
Democracy is rule by the collective wisdom of those who believe, all statistical evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, that their individual votes make a difference. Or that their votes matter in some spiritual or ethical context, as if God or Immanuel Kant were watching on Election Day. And yet they complain when they get bad government. Me 
Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried. Churchill, again

Friday, January 13, 2012

Ten Memorable Books Read in 2011

The Black Swan, by Nassim Taleb
Willpower, by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney
How to Live, by Sarah Bakewell
Defying Hitler, by Sebastian Haffner
On Desire, by William B. Irvine
Strangers to Ourselves, by Timothy D. Wilson
Mindless Eating, by Brian Wansink
The Intelligent Investor, by Benjamin Graham
The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt
Spingendo la notte più in là, by Mario Calabresi

Saturday, November 19, 2011


The world is a mess. Always has been. Always will be.

I can't claim this as an original insight. I read it long ago and have enjoyed recalling it whenever politics, economics, the weather, scandals, and outrages combine in a particularly nasty way. I've been thinking about the idea a lot lately.

The Euro is hovering at the edge of a precipice. If it goes, it will take the world's economy with it. The Republicans have assembled quite a circus of potential presidents and are trying them out. A couple of them look like fine people; the rest can only scare anyone with a brain, or, as one of them said in a debate, a heart. The Democratic nominee-apparent, the incumbent, did not prove up to much of the hope placed in him (and evoked deliberately by his most famous campaign poster). He was said to have been reading about fellow-Illinoisan Lincoln in the days leading up to his inauguration in 2009. He's tried Lincoln's ceaseless patience with his political foes, and ended up with some accomplishments to show for it. But he's as reviled as Lincoln at the low moments of the Civil War. He may end up remembered more like another Illinoisan, Ulysses Grant, who squandered his promise and came to be regarded as a horrible president, one of the worst in polls of historians.

Alabama, my home state and birth state, has embarrassed itself badly with an immigration statute designed to reverse the rise in its Hispanic population. Yesterday, a visiting German manager from Mercedes was arrested for not having his papers with him while driving (oh, historical irony, thank you for that good chuckle). The governor's office called nearly instantly to try to fix the problem. I'm betting no Guatemalans will be extended that courtesy.

I could go on and on about the banking system, the world's climate and population explosion, the stagnant American economy, the collection of thieves and ignoramuses elected to the U.S. House and Senate, and the even worse crew in Alabama's government (I speak in a truly bipartisan spirit: Democrats pillaged for decades in Alabama while they were a monopoly and became a machine whose sole purpose was keeping itself in power and skimming money off the top of tax receipts; it's simply the Republicans' turn now).

On an everyday level, it looks much different. This is our salvation, and maybe a lesson about what's truly important. While the world is a mess, many people in it are wonderful. True, they have their quirks, lies, skeletons, and selfish moments. Yet most of them, most of the time, are a pleasure to deal with or can, if we choose, be pitied for what they're suffering rather than hated for how their pain manifests itself as fear and anger toward others.

The "news" is always going to be mostly bad. It's created, commoditized, and distributed in order to make a profit. Bad stories about particular incidents grab far more eyes, and thus money, than good stories about general trends at the micro level. We won't read or view reports about how usually people are going about their lives showing at least a modicum of respect for each other and not deliberately trying to inflict harm in order to please the false gods of money, fame, or power. Maybe that's why the stories about politicians are so fascinating. Their behavior is so aberrant compared to anything we witness, would practice, or could get away with.

That such people rule and do harm from selfishness is not truly "news" -- how could it be when it's not at all new? We just can't predict who exactly will act in such ways while we less assertive sorts are going about our daily business. The "news" is therefore but a freak show skewing rather than uncovering reality. I'll likely continue to read and watch, fascinated as I am by the fixation on destruction exhibited by the allegedly powerful. You might say I have my own fixation, on the blind and predictable choices made by those who can't or won't develop a meaningful and helpful philosophy of life and a long-term view on events. I'll also know they will, as they always have, botch their jobs and push us repeatedly to the brink. I'd like to hope for better, but I haven't seen that humans are capable of it.

That's the way of the world and of people. I don't see the point in being upset about it. Do you?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Is Europe Burning?

Much of Europe is on fire and can do nothing about it -- long ago they used all their water for swimming pools. Germany has lots because it saved its water for just such a contingency. It's proud of the sacrifices, but resents the implication that it should sacrifice even more by retroactively saving those who could have saved themselves. But will the fire make this moral distinction upon reaching the German border?

Who will buy German goods if all of southern Europe defaults on its loans because the European Central Bank is tied to an anti-inflationary policy at German insistence?

I say, print extra money just this once, kick the offenders out of the Euro, and then give up on the notion of a close political union between peoples with thousands of years of distinct cultural development. Free trade is good; the Schengen agreement on unrestricted travel is important; and a shared labor market helps everyone. Some cross-border issues like the environment require uniform regulation. But we've learned that fiscal policies cannot be harmonized, and thus a single currency cannot work.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sinite parvulos et nolite eos prohibere ad me venire

The revelations about Penn State's football program have stunned me as much as anyone. I can't understand how the chief witness, a 28-year-old member of the coaching staff, could have observed the rape of a child, done nothing to help, and then gone home to tell his father first and only then, the next day, speak with his boss/head coach rather than the police. How do you live with yourself for the next decade knowing that you didn't help that boy and that other boys may have subsequently been raped?

That being said...I seriously doubt pedophilia has increased as drastically in the last decades as the media would make it appear. It must have been far more prevalent when it could be hidden in a fog of shame and humiliation that authorities were reluctant to try to penetrate. Yet, as this clip by my favorite comedian, Bill Burr, makes plain, the cost is borne also by children to whom the rest of us may feel we can no longer be nice:

Women don't face this problem. A few years back, I saw what looked like a lost child in the hallway outside our classrooms. He (or she, I can't remember now) was just standing there by the window, a place where young children shouldn't have been loitering unsupervised. I wondered if the child was in trouble. Rather than approach myself, I asked one of my female co-workers to see if help was needed. It wasn't -- the child's parent had irresponsibly left him or her in the hallway while attending a class and had simply told the child to wait there. By then maybe I'd seen this riff by Burr, or perhaps I already knew the score: an unknown man approaching a child was likely to encounter from the child not the truth, but the stunned silence and averted gaze of one ingrained with the fear of stranger danger.

I like to think that I would have rushed into that shower to help that boy. Or called the police. Or both. It's too easy for me to ponder the issue when I didn't face it. Yet I do know for certain that I only rarely speak to children I don't know, and when I do, I usually encounter reflexive defensiveness rather than the curious wonder I think I always projected in my youth. I can't recall being warned often, or at all, about not talking to strangers. Maybe my parents gave me the standard talk about not going away with people I didn't know. If so, it had no impact on my view of adults. I think I was so flattered by their attention and so eager to learn from them that I wouldn't have recoiled if one spoke to me, rubbed my head, or gave me a smile.

I wouldn't want to grow up today.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Laudat venales qui vult extrudere merces

A good number of years ago I was part of a group making a hiring decision. The choice came down to a few applicants we interviewed in person. One we could scratch because his written application had fooled us; he was clueless in person. But we had a very difficult time choosing from the others. As I believe is bound to happen in these group decisions, each of our intuitions made our decisions for us. Only then the reasonable parts of our mind began to concoct a story to justify our intuitive reaction.

One of the people I liked most was distrusted by another of our group. She said this applicant had too often been vouching for his own integrity and honesty. At the time, this was a new one on me. I couldn't see a problem. All these years later, though, I know I would react just as my colleague did.

Unlike my colleague -- who carried her point in the discussion -- I hadn't been fooled enough yet by people who talked themselves up. The honest person knows how difficult it is to be honest. He or she realizes that dishonor and disgrace, at least in our own minds, are but a single moment's lapse away should we misbehave. Telling someone you're honest is to spout words you may quickly have to eat.

The dishonest person, the one who doesn't actively think about the fine line to be trodden between right and wrong, has no problem constructing and narrating a story about his or her honesty. They'll fool people like the me of many years ago who never see through the deception, and they'll fool a lot of dishonest people in the bargain, because they're blind to their own problem. That leaves those of us who try hard, but sometimes fail, to be upright to watch out for themselves and those close to them. If you vouch for your character in front of me, don't be surprised if I put my hand on my wallet and start walking backwards, never taking my eye off you.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Nimium ne crede colori

I'm no more skilled at avoiding the deception of good looks than anyone else. Yet even as I've beheld thousands of people who appear physically attractive to me, I've come to feel sorry for them if they also seem equally attractive to everyone else. We've all heard how people who are perceived as good-looking get better jobs, faster promotions, more unsolicited offers of assistance, etc. No good-looking woman in search of a drink ever has to pay for it. No good-looking guy has to do more than say "hi" to pique the interest of someone he's interested in.

It's all unearned -- and that's the problem. They learn nothing from alleged successes that have required no work, no sacrifices, and no mistakes along the way. Think of the supermodel who claims that modeling is "hard work." How would she know? How would she fare if her looks vanished for some reason?

Bette Davis explored this dilemma in one of her lesser known films, "Mr. Skeffington." She obtained all she thought she wanted, and got away with mistreating everyone around her, because she was seen as ravishing. She hadn't understood her husband, a man she'd married only for his money, when he'd told her "A woman is beautiful when she's loved, and only then."

An illness destroys her good looks overnight, just as she's entering middle age, and she's abandoned by everyone who had sought her out solely to enjoy the aesthetic pleasure she radiated. I won't spoil the movie any further. I think it should be required viewing in high school: it gives a warning to the good-looking, and hope to the rest.

It's only natural to want to stare at something you perceive as beautiful. There must be a chemical signal in the brain rewarding us intensely, telling us that we want to mate with that (or at least benefit from being close to it). So I've begun to deliberately look away on some occasions, just for practice. I also want to do them a favor in any interaction by being a little more demanding than usual, so that they experience what it's like to have to use reason and empathy to guide their relations with the less aesthetically advantaged.

I know they must be terrified inside to consider what life will be like once the good looks fade and ultimately vanish. By not looking or by being a little brusque and businesslike, I'm giving them a foretaste so that they can realize it won't be all that bad to have to earn, minute by minute and success by success, everything they achieve.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

I've seen the future, and it's ugly

An article in today's New York Times makes plain that Greece should have defaulted on its government debt long ago. Three things kept this from happening. (1) Jean-Claude Trichet, head of the European Central Bank, refused to believe that a Euro state could be allowed to default. He was influenced toward his view by the increasing amount of Greek debt the ECB had purchased to stem the growing crisis. (2) Many European and American banks were holders of the debt, and in their still anemic state, might collapse if forced to write off most or all of the loans, leading to worldwide recession/depression. (3) Many of the loans were hedged (insured) using the infamous credit default swaps familiar to us from the mortgage debacle still underway. If Greece goes into a state of default without the permission of its creditors, the swaps are triggered. No one seems to know who all has sold the swaps, and who has bought them, with the result being fear of a panic if they're triggered and the solvency of major financial players is put into doubt. As in 2008, credit would stop, and our system, which depends on credit to continually roll over short-term debt, would collapse.

The only reasonable, if still painful solutions left are these: (1) The Euro states that can afford it buy a lot of the debt. This would be a political and moral disaster. Wealthier and more productive states that took difficult steps to rein in their debt years ago would have to bail out the Greeks, who lied repeatedly in order to keep the loans coming and not face the political consequences of reducing their borrowing. Or (2) the European Central Bank buys the debt by increasing the money supply ("printing money") in order to fund the purchases. It is currently forbidden to do this, so a rule would have to be changed or ignored. The price would be a drop in the Euro, inflation in Europe, and a transfer of wealth from those with assets denominated in Euros to those holding other forms of real wealth (land, real estate, stocks, etc.). 

This means either German taxpayers would pay quite openly and would likely rebel, or Europeans in general would pay with a bout of inflation. Such an inflation would also make it more difficult for non-Europeans to sell their goods in Europe, since the Euro would fall relative to other currencies, making European goods cheap elsewhere, and imports more costly.

Welcome to Our New World.