the anthony dobranski blog


Leave a comment

Sticking to my knitting (opinions)

As Facebook gently reminded me —

2017-fb-little-while
my professional media have been stale. It was less a writer’s block than a blind alley. Perhaps others will find my thinking instructive.

Like everybody, I have opinions about the world, and in these contentious times, it’s very tempting to share them. Everyone else is, and I talk prettier than many. Why not join the fray? Ooh, ooh, you’re discussing politics, or climate change, or guns? I can do that too!

I drafted three different posts on things political. One even got into my WordPress dashboard, until I deleted it.

Truth is, I just don’t want to be a public intellectual.

It feels irresponsible to say this. In the face of the great activists of the past, and today’s popular writers who still manage worthy columns (or at least snarky tweets) – and often get slagged by some fans for voicing opinions they don’t like – it seems weak to say, nah, I’m out.

I’m out. While it might feel good to get something off my chest, people aren’t waiting around to hear what I have to say about today’s crisis. Or, if people are, they don’t just want it once. If I start down that road, I have to stick with it, have to make it a bigger part of my life and thought.

Perhaps this would be virtuous, but it wouldn’t be singular. Many good people already discuss the state of the world, plainly and well, after actually investigating it and reporting on it. If I want to change the world in favor of my political beliefs, I’m better off writing checks.

Or, writing novels.

Not that I’m going to be ripping tales from today’s headlines. That’s not my thing. More to the point, the political power of good fiction is often indirect. Fiction can say complicated things to culture, often better than it says simple ones. There are political ideas in my novel The Demon in Business Class, but they’re neither immediate nor partisan.

The “messy ground where the worldly meets the divine,” as my back-cover text promises, is a place in the mind. My characters in their big world might inform your opinions about tomorrow’s crisis, whatever it is, but only by example and analogy.

That’s my contribution. We’ll see if it’s enough, over time.


Leave a comment

The power of story (2016 Iowa Caucus)

I have wagered with my wife that the 2016 US major-party presidential nominees will be Trump and Clinton. I don’t regret my choices after the Iowa Caucus. I understand the power of story.

On the Democratic side, one story seems better — a dark horse, vastly more leftist than anything we’ve seen in decades, going from obscurity to near-parity despite the machinations of party bosses. But Sanders is white, old, and male, and he’s been an obscure senator since before his most ardent fans were sperm. So far the main “machinations” are the Democrats choosing crappy viewing times for debates. Sanders didn’t win on good turf for him, and certainly didn’t trounce. As a tale of a man having a long-awaited moment, he’s heartwarming; but in this race he is an Obama sequel, and at that he is weak.

Clinton started as a sure thing, a near-coronation, just like last time. Clinton got in a fight for her life, just like last time — and narrowly won on bad turf for her. Now, a loss in New Hampshire will only keep the audience more engaged. Sanders failed to get a come-from-behind victory; Clinton is living a come-from-behind life.

For the Republicans, the best story is not when a man works incredibly hard convincing his own most supportive base to give him a squeaker of a win. Cruz has the kind of petty early victory racked up by the loser in a romantic comedy. No one wants that guy to win.

For Rubio, being the newest bottle of old wine is not a story at all. He’s won nothing yet, since the other establishment candidates not only haven’t dropped out, but are now turning their fire on him. So what is Rubio’s story? Alas, it’s Night of the Living Dead, where a man survives zombies inside and out, but dies anyway when he is mistaken for one. (Hey, at least he’s not Jeb Bush, the Chad Vader of 2016).

Which leaves us with a wealthy powerful man committed to protecting his country, who survives his first comeuppance, bloodied but unbowed, keeping the faith that his put-upon supporters always had despite the mockery of the elites, until he wins the naysayers over. That’s a black hole of narrative gravity, the ultimate Frank Capra film: It’s A Wonderful Life To Be Donald Trump.

You can’t fight the power of story. I will win that $1 and put it toward a new novel.

 

 


Leave a comment

Fighting nonsense and spin, climate-change edition

You are driving, and almost out of gas, but you have two passengers who both need a ride. One fell at a construction site and has a steel bar through her chest. The other needs to quit smoking or she will develop emphysema in thirty years. With your limited resources, is it better to go the emergency room, or the late-night drugstore which sells nicotine patches?

Of course you go to the emergency room. But of course, this is a false choice.

In this spirit, I want to take on the nonsense about climate-change spouted last Friday by a reactionary writer named Bret Stephens, on the political affairs talk show Real Time with Bill Maher. Maher mentioned a study by scientist James Lawrence Powell showing that in almost eleven thousand scientific studies of climate change, only two studies denied it was caused by human activity. Stephens answered Maher’s challenge thus: Continue reading


Leave a comment

The future of the university, the bad part

When I posted on this subject a few days ago, I wish I had known this would be Mainstream Media Says College Sucks week. National Public Radio, the New York Times and the Economist have been discussing the ever greater burden of college tuition, the extremely poor guidance colleges give new students about the cost, the mismatch between graduates and the job market. Even the new sitcom Silicon Valley gets its hero his start by having him tell a major tech investor that if he doesn’t get funding, he might have to go back to college.

But no one has a solution, except regulation and future innovation. This avoids the problem. People go to college for different reasons, but most white-collar employers* use college as minimum requirement.

A college degree is not a guarantee of useful professional skills. A math major, a marketing major and an English major may join the same company the day after graduation, but the first two will get work in keeping with their training sooner than the last. I was a young English major looking for work in the recession of 1989, and I didn’t have a thing about me that an employer would want. But I didn’t quite know that until it was too late.  Continue reading


Leave a comment

Two Riffs on Edward Snowden

1) The Great Success of “Operation Snowden”

Three months ago, the Washington Post’s alpha-wonk Ezra Klein noted the double-think in Washington, that we could obviously create a vast enterprise to monitor all human information (using closed-source tools), but obviously the effort to provide healthcare to all was inevitably doomed by the same contracting procedures.

Of course, those in endless opposition to Obamacare are less likely to fuss over the NSA’s work (pace Rand Paul, and assuming they even see the true costs of the latter), and when Klein wrote, people hadn’t yet counted on the NSA hollowing out encryption standards from the inside. Nonetheless:

…. it’s hard to believe that [the] technological incompetence [of] HealthCare.gov and [the] technological omniscience of PRISM can both exist, exactly as currently understood, in the same institution.

Perhaps Klein was in too much of a rush to get to the obvious answer (certainly the bracketed text I had to add points to this – in case they fix it, here’s a screen shot).

But you can see it, can’t you? Say it with me: The operative known as “Edward Snowden” is the NSA’s greatest operation Continue reading


2 Comments

Tinkerers and the Tea Party

Recently on Slashdot I read a thread about how 3-D printing — the technology of making an object layer by layer, as opposed to carving it out of a block of matter or forming it in a mold — is limited by the difficulty-of-use of 3-D design software. As threads on Slashdot do, it quickly became a forum for all kinds of venting and debate. One especially nerdy (and I mean that as a compliment) rebuttal explained a system for recreating sheet-metal parts in software, as a way of showing how “easy” it is to digitize a flat object like a gasket.

I suppose if I described exactly how to build my garage shelving out of 2x4s and plywood it would be even longer, but most people will read that post and be glad they have a hardware store to run to when their garden hose is dripping.

Tinkerers persist in society despite the vast system of production and shipping that we humans have created. This is of course usually seen as a blessing — where would we find innovation if not for such people — but the people doing this seeing are often faux-wistful columnists who would not at all be happy if they had to design their gaskets, or even their paper clips, from scratch. Continue reading


4 Comments

Nobody knows anything (Boston Marathon bombing)

It’s weird to post a long-mulled-over essay about potential violence in America only to find one’s social page filled up with actual violence. I already put a stake in this ground but I’m not crediting myself with any foresight. Nobody knows anything, except for the investigators. It’s tempting to guess, but stupid.

After the Oklahoma City bombing, the initial guessing on US news was that it was the work of Islamic extremists. Only three years earlier, followers of the “Blind Sheik” Omar Abdel Rahman had tried to destroy the World Trade Center with car bombs.

The night of the bombing I was with a friend, switching news channels along with most of America. At one point when she left the room, I added Univision to my rotation. I admit I was unsure of my Spanish when a University of California professor suggested it might be the work of Americans disaffected with their government.

It was days before I heard the same on Anglo media. Nobody knows anything.

Continue reading