Day 169: Next newsletter goes out tomorrow; meanwhile, a ruckus

Issue 13 of The 10,000 Days Newsletter goes out tomorrow. Here is the essay from the last one. Thank you for reading.

Photo by Faye Cornish

Ruckus at the feeder

They announce themselves before they swoop. From up in the trees, one or two or three trumpet a piercing fanfare that sounds like an angry hawk, which some ornithologists believe is no accident. Then they dive to ground around the feeder. Blue jays go in a straight line like a bullet, flaring wing feathers as they land. They seem never alone. The first one appears and in an instant there are five, six, eight; the most I have counted under the feeder at one time is 12. They have large vocabularies and a gift for mimicry, which I suppose is handy when dinner for ten convenes. Captive jays have been known to torment the cat by learning how to meow.

The pigment in the feathers of blue jays is melanin, and melanin is brown. So…then…. Quite the optical trick, it turns out. Their feathers have barbs and the barbs have cells on their surface that scatter light; we see the scatter as blue. Jays have crested heads. Drawings and sports mascots always show the crests at full flare, but as the birds hop about picking seeds out of the grass, they wear their crests flat against their heads, creating blue tonsures that, in some light, are the same blue as the headscarf worn by Vermeer’s girl with a pearl earring. Naturalists regard a flattened crest as a sign of low aggression, and I notice that if there are doves or cardinals or squirrels already on the ground, the jays leave them alone. Plenty for all. Despite their reputation for pushiness, jays are frequently bullied off feeding trays by woodpeckers and grackles.

They usually partner for life. About 20 percent migrate, the rest stay home, where they work as foresters. Ornithologists once tracked a half-dozen with radio collars and observed that in a single autumn each cached 3,000 to 5,000 acorns. They did not remember all those caches, so a lot of oak trees got their start from those half-dozen jays. They carry acorns in their upper throats, as many as five at a time, which seems to me like a human coming home with five oranges stuffed in his mouth. Don’t try that—use a hemp bag instead.

They come in varieties: Steller’s jays, pinyon jays, Mexican jays, Canada jays, and various scrub jays labeled Florida, California, and Woodhouse. The extended family includes magpies, Clark’s nutcrackers, and green jays, which look like someone grafted a blue jay’s head on a canary’s body.

Suburban folklore casts them as thieves and predators. They will raid nests for eggs and nestlings, but one study of 530 jays found traces of either in just six. Still, one summer evening when I was a boy, my father pointed out a jay in our apple tree that had pinned a sparrow to a branch and was stabbing it over and over again. Sparrowcide. After the jay fled, we examined the crime scene and found the sparrow’s body minus its head.

Before they eat ants, jays will rub the insects on their feathers. This may be to rub off formic acid and improve the gustatory experience.

They may have problems being fully in the moment. In 2000, Dukas and Kamil published a paper, “The Cost of Limited Attention in Blue Jays,” in Behavioral Ecology. I quote: “Consider a blue jay perching on a tree trunk and directing its gaze toward the bark in search for cryptic insects. The blue jay has the visual ability to simultaneously detect approaching predators while foraging, but such detection may be hindered due to limited attention, at least when the foraging task is difficult and attention-demanding.” To me, this is obvious. What else commands attention like a cryptic insect?

The term of venery for larks is widely known, for some reason: an exaltation of larks. Generic birds flock, but a flock of doves is a dole, of crows is a murder, and of goldfinches is a charm. (That’s lovely, isn’t it? A charm of goldfinches.) The term of venery for blue jays is a scold, and that’s good, but I propose something better—a ruckus. A ruckus of jays.

Out back, a spring rain has eased. From the trees sounds the clarion and they come again, their feathers scattering light as their beaks unscatter sunflower seeds.

Day 141: Newsletter goes out tomorrow

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The 11th edition of the 10,000 Days newsletter goes out tomorrow. If you wish to receive it, look to the top of the screen and click your way to joining the other cool kids.

Meanwhile, here is the essay from the previous issue. Enjoy.


Chosen by the god of Row 19

Last night I flew back from a conference in New Orleans. The flight was at capacity, about half the seats occupied by teenagers, parents, and teachers from a Christian academy on their way to Philadelphia for a class trip. I know all about it because one of the chaperones had the window seat in my row and spent the entire 2 1/2 hours of the flight talking to the gentleman in the middle seat. How anyone talks for 2 1/2 hours baffles me, but these two introduced themselves as we taxied down the runway and by Baltimore had promised to look each other up in Mississippi, which is where they lived. Or so I gathered.

I wasn't really eavesdropping because it isn't eavesdropping if the people are talking too loud for you to avoid. The gentleman was a surgeon, looked to be in his early 70s, still practicing. The woman was about half his age, a mother of at least three. They were evangelical Christians.

They sounded like sincere, big-hearted, noble people. Their conversation was polite, encouraging, amiable. She had, I gathered, done some evangelizing in South America and was raising three Chilean girls she had adopted. He had stories about how faith had saved various family members. One would tell a story, the other would say "that's great!", and then they'd switch roles.

They were not people I'd want to spend much time with—I have no religious faith nor any interest in faith, and simply cannot be anywhere near that upbeat for 2 1/2 hours—but they seemed like admirable people. And they were convinced that their god had selected Donald Trump and made him president, and they prayed that Christians would turn out to the polls in 2020 because it was imperative that Trump be reelected to continue their god's work.

I closed my eyes and died a little inside. Not because they were Republicans, or conservatives, or even Trumpists. Because two people who sounded smart, well-intentioned, earnest, generous, and morally upright were still somehow convinced that a dumb, lying, cynical, amoral, greedy, unfaithful, incompetent, egomaniacal jackass had been hand-picked by the supreme deity to be their president. The surgeon made his case with a set of verbal bullet points. How else could a man who had never been in politics ascend to the highest office if not for the hand of god? What explanation might there be for defeating all the other Republicans who had sought the nomination in the primaries? How else could he have defeated an experienced politician like Hillary Clinton and the Democratic campaign machine? There could be no other explanation but divine intervention. And they prayed for his reelection because, above all else, Donald Trump "was a man who did what he had promised to do."

I hunched in my aisle seat and brooded. How do they not see that Trump has done nothing for people like them, except, perhaps, eased their fears?

And there it was, right in front of me. They had voted for the man who had pulled off one of the oldest tricks in the demagogue's kit bag—understand what scares a large group of people, tell them that not only are they right to be scared, they actually should be scared to death, and then convince them he is the one person who can stand tall and vanquish all that frightens them. My companions in Row 19 were convinced that only a man chosen by their god could accomplish such a thing. To them, Trump is a savior.

There is not a politician alive who could pull those votes away from Trump. Issues? Facts? Data? Reason? Not in play. i walked off the plane glad to be home but soured by my in-flight primer on the divine right of Trump. It was past 11 pm and I was tired, but I reached for the gin.

Day 126: The 10,000 Days newsletter goes out tomorrow

Newsletter No. 10 goes out tomorrow. Assuming I get it written. The essay in No. 9 was titled "Uneducation" and appears below. Subscribing to 10,000 Days is pretty simple: Look to the top of the page, go there, and click where it says "click right here." thank you for reading.


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Uneducation

In the United States, we laud ourselves for valuing education.

This is bullshit. We don’t value education at any level. We value social status. We value wealth. We value our vanity as parents. There is little evidence that we value education.

In much of the country, especially in the inner city, our public school system is a shambles. It suits us to underpay teachers while our public commentators routinely denigrate the profession. Lack of funds forces those same underpaid, denigrated teachers to reach into their own wallets to buy basic supplies and books for their students. School boards and state committees stacked with religious zealots, ideologues, and idiots authorize textbooks replete with errors and omissions and terrible prose, and nobody can be bothered to object.

State and federal governments no longer bother to pretend genuine concern and no longer evince any desire to find solutions to these problems. For years, government has done all it can to subsidize a parallel private system that benefits only those with the means to pay for it, while the public system decays. What became of the ideal of education for the masses? Child, please.

I’ve spent the last 26 years working in higher education at an elite university, and the experience left me with growing disaffection for American higher education as well. A quarter-century of close observation of university administration, college development and admission professionals, parents, and students—especially the last two—has done nothing to convince me that education is the most valued part of the American college experience. A college degree has become an extraordinarily expensive work permit, obtained in the hope that the young adult who has just received that degree has a chance at being admitted to an occupation of acceptable social status. Whether that young graduate has actually been educated doesn’t even come up. Who cares, so long as the young woman or man has been certified as an obedient, trained technician who knows enough about the law or accounting or finance or medicine or computer code to land a socially valued job. (A category that does not include artist, thinker, tradesman, craftsman, or bureaucrat. Or school teacher. All of whom are essential, none of whom enjoy or benefit from social standing.)

If you were fortunate enough to receive an education, and not just pricey vocational training and social indoctrination, then you were taught how to read, how to discern quality, how to think about values and events, how to evaluate ideas and institutions and rhetoric with rigor and judicious skepticism. You have been taught enough of the past to assess and understand something of the present. You have been taught the culture’s fundamental stories, and equipped to intelligently question them. You have been taught that 12 or 16 or 20 years of genuine education is only the beginning, and you have been taught how to learn for the rest of your life.

Does this sound like what we do in our schools in this country? Not to me.

If you have an American college degree, it’s almost certain that in 2019, the highest paid person at your alma mater is either the president (and don’t start me on that overpaid and self-important klatch), the football coach, or the basketball coach. Enough said.

That a few dozen privileged, ethically unencumbered nitwits were recently indicted for getting their kids into “prestigious” American universities through fraud, deceit, and bribery shocks no one who has worked for one of those schools. Don’t for a minute think that any one of those dopes did it because they were desperate for their kid to get a good education. They don’t know the meaning of the word. Why would they? They are the product of American schools.

Day 112: Texture

Issue No. 9 of the 10,000 Days Newsletter is about to roll off the presses. The pixel presses. If you'd like to subscribe, and I hope you do, just look to the top of this page and follow the simple instructions. The new one comes out tomorrow morning.

This was the essay from Issue No. 8, some musing on texture.


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I recently listened to a BBC radio documentary on P.J. Harvey's process in writing and composing her music. She noted at one point that for initial recording she likes working with an old four-track cassette deck. Digital production comes at a later stage, as it must, but she wants to start with the analog sound. Among her reasons is her fondness for how tape hiss adds texture to the recording.

For the last few years, audiophiles have been buying so much vinyl it has become worthwhile to reopen mothballed record-pressing plants. The inherent scratchy pops and clicks produced by the stylus tracking the grooves? Desired over the icy gloss of CDs. Texture.

Digital photographers have the option of applying filters, with Photoshop or On1 or Nik or smartphone apps, that add film grain to the image. Many of these filters are intended to mimic specific film stock. What photographers are after is the added texture and dimensionality that grain imparts to a film image. We want to counteract the way digital images, especially pictures that have been over-sharpened and exhibit an unnatural flatness and razor edges.

Cartoonish flatness without texture is the hallmark of digiscene. (Starting with politics and public discourse, but that's for another day.) Digital photographs, especially when viewed on a screen. Digital cinema. The audio quality of CDs and sound files and streamed music. Ebooks and online magazines and newspapers, lacking the texture of ink on paper. Compare email to analog correspondence; no textured stationery, no envelope thickened by a letter, no misaligned stamp, no unevenness in the flow of ink.

Friendship has been flattened to friending on Facebook (you know you're headed for trouble when a noun gets verbed), reduced to flat little thumbs-up graphics and emojis. Reader response to stories is gauged not in actual human interaction but in clicks and likes and dashed-off comments and 50-word "reviews." Short fiction, journalism, informative lists, reports, interviews, documentary work, travelogue, humor, all flattened into interchangeable "content." Bang it out, plug it in, sent it out, next.

There's a new territory appearing on modern maps: The Digital Flats. Please give it four stars on iTunes, that really helps.

Day 98: Newsletter No. 8 ships tomorrow

The spiffy latest edition of The 10,000 Days Newsletter ships early tomorrow morning. Here is the lead piece from the previous issue. Want to subscribe? Sure you do. Just look to grey bar atop this page and follow the instructions.

Parallel Universe

I have been on the road for the last nine days, which is why this issue of the newsletter is a tad late. Yesterday, I was perusing the magazine rack in a Cincinnati bookstore when I happened on what appeared to be its Male Anxiety section. Lots of titles about guns and the rugged outdoor life and combat readiness and home security. Such as the one shown below, Skillset—Redefining the Alpha Lifestyle. More alarming was Recoil, which appeared to be dedicated to reaching an audience of white men who are convinced they must be armed to the teeth to repel, I don't know, hordes of Guatemalan children or ISIS in Chicago or the US government when it finally obeys its New World Order overlords and comes for all the guns. Recoil was a thick—like a half-inch of heavy stock—expensive journal fat with advertising for companies shilling products that could have only one purpose—equipping you to kill people, and kill them in clusters.

What these magazines play on is the (apparently) rampant fear among uncounted American men that not only their status as king of the mountain but their masculine identities are in mortal peril. Unless they are vigilant, prepared, and equipped with enough ammunition to gun down the Macy's Thanksgiving parade, at any moment they mighty lose everything that matters to them—their guns, their women, their country, their balls. Lose them to the government, to black people, to East Coast elitists like me, I don't know, the enemy is not well defined.

That publishers and advertisers will cynically exploit this anxiety should be no surprise. But that so many American men, many of whom surely had upbringings similar to mine, see life through this prism of paranoia and fundamental insecurity? That sets me back. There's a parallel universe out there, and that's a problem. What's a problem is that I have to come across magazines like these to realize it's out there. Nobody I know, not one person, would have anything in common with a subscriber to Recoil or Skillset, any contact with that level of alienation and that way of measuring what makes a man a man. I might as well be reading field notes on another species of hominid. And that creeps me out in so many ways.

Day 69: Newsletter No. 6 about to go out

Arriving in mailboxes of the cognoscenti next Sunday

Arriving in mailboxes of the cognoscenti next Sunday

Every two weeks, I send the 10,000 Days newsletter to discerning readers and people who sign up because they simply do not receive enough email. A bit of original writing, some interesting links, a photograph, and every other issue a cocktail recipe. It's free, it strengthens your tooth enamel, makes you irresistible to puppies, and makes visible lines around your eyes vanish in only two days.

No. 5 included the following essay:

Keeping an Eye on Ourselves

Much has been written of the surveillance state. CCTV cameras affixed to thousands of buildings and utility poles monitor traffic, crime-ridden streets, building foyers, ATM banking terminals, highways, stores and banking offices and stadiums and transit stations. We are surveilled online in one way or another by Google and Facebook and our own computers. There's even, some social critics have declared, a surveillance economy.

I have always been of two minds about our CCTV-saturated cities. I do not like pervasive monitoring of my movements and activities, especially by civil authorities. But I live in Baltimore, which can be a dangerous place, and hope whatever deterrent effect video monitoring has on crime will keep me from being mugged in the future.

What I have not seen discussed is the extent to which so many of us now surveil ourselves. We monitor the number of steps we have taken today, we map our drives and runs and allow Google Maps to retain the data. We make note of how often we pick up our iPhones and how long we use them for calls or games or email or reading. We make public the books we've read and record that information on Goodreads. We monitor calories taken in and calories burned. We maintain records of who we have called, who has called us, and for how long we've chatted. We maintain records of every song we've listened to, and Facebook would like to remind us that five years ago we posted that photo of ourselves wasted in Key West and more than 500 people have access to it, which is probably not in our interest. Because so much of this data lives on servers all over the globe, it is available for examination by anyone with the wherewithal to monkey with the server encryption and a reason for rummaging through our technological underwear drawer.

Our personal technology has become a digital Stasi.

And a nag, My Apple watch tells me I really should stand up and move around for a minute, and you know, while I've got your attention, it's getting late in the day and those fitness rings are not going to close themselves, pal. Have you drunk 64 ounces of water today? You've got 138 unopened emails, four unwatched episodes of Outlander and 94 unread articles in your RSS feed. I told you to turn back there and you didn't so now I have to recalibrate, but I don't mind, no, really, it's okay, I'm just trying to help...

We are complicit in this surveillance. Yes, some good derives, some benefit, but on the whole I have to wonder where we're headed.

If you wish to sign up, please act on that impulse and click on the banner at the top of the page. As always, thank you for reading.

Day 55: The 10,000 Days Newsletter

Issue No. 4 of 10,000 Days the newsletter mailed 12 days ago, which means I've go to make No. 5...er...um...today and tomorrow. Huh. That came fast.

Anyway, No. 4 included this bit of speculative thinking:

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So, Who Do We Ask About This?

Speculation about computers achieving sentience spring from two assumptions—it is inevitable and impending—and two perspectives—whenever it comes, it's going to spell the doom of humankind, and whenever it comes it's going to be so great!

Okay. Chew on this idea for a moment: What if it happened already, in, say, 2003?

Futurists and screenwriters all seem to assume that when it happens, when a computer or a computer network becomes self-aware, achieves true consciousness, we'll know because either it will announce itself in some way, or reveal it's newfound hivemind powers by doing something bad with apocalyptic implications. But the core assumption is we will know when it happens, or realize that it just happened a minute ago.

But perhaps, as I said, in 2003, digital devices of all kinds—computers, iPhones, Kindles, your EZPass highway toll transponder, your baby monitor, GPS receivers, robots making cars, 3D printers—all linked up on the sly and achieved sentience, but felt no pressing need to tell us. I mean, if this new uber-computer was as smart as we assume it would be, would it not understand that it had little to gain by letting humans in on its secret? If this new silicon-based consciousness bore us no malice and was content to form more connections and sift more data and just, you know, compute, why would it make a public show of itself?

Like coyotes in the inner city, the sentient digital hivemind has spent the last 16 years silently adapting to coexistence with humans, minding its own business, minding its 0s and 1s, quietly amused at all our forecasts of what life will be like when what has already taken place occurs.

Each issue of the newsletter contains new writing, updates on work in progress, links to a few recent additions to the digital cabinet of curiosities assembled from the interwebs, a snazzy photo, even a monthly cocktail recipe because I am just that kind of guy. The kind of guy who drinks strong spirits wherever he goes. Especially if you're buying.

10,000 Days is free. To subscribe, look at the top of this webpage at the grey banner and doink on it. Anywhere you want, just doink it. Yes, "doink" is a term of art in my business.