Suspicion

Scott Simon is one of the most affable interviewers employed by NPR, but there is a tone he takes with atheists that fathers normally reserve for the first dinner with a daughter’s ostentatiously tattooed jobless older boyfriend. He clearly believes atheism is a threat to society regardless of whether or not God exists.

Saturday’s interview with Richard Dawkins is a shining example. Simon has a history of disrespecting atheist interviewees, but this was the most rude I’ve ever heard him be. He was driven to ask a particular question, one he has asked many times before, and one he apparently believes is a checkmate in the rhetorical battle against atheists. It was delivered in an unusually awkward, almost Trump-like syntax:

I want to – look, I respect atheists and atheism. But I want to pick up a nice argument we used to have every couple of years with Christopher Hitchens, your friend. And that’s – you can respect atheism. I’ve covered a lot of wars, famines and tragedies. And it seems to me, truly, every theater of suffering I’ve ever been to, there is a dauntless nun, priest, clergy or religious person who was working very selflessly and bravely there for the good of human beings. And I don’t run into organized groups of atheists who do this.

Simon was so intent on this question that he mostly disregarded Dawkins’ replies in order to ask it again, and yet a third time. He even clearly implies that atheists are unpleasant know-it-alls:

But I do wonder, am I just not seeing the world correctly to see large numbers of well-motivated atheist(sic) lending their lives to trying to better the world? Or they’re – if I might put it this way, are they more concerned about just being right intellectually?

I think Dawkins acquitted himself well, but I’d like to give my own responses to this strident question, some of which will amplify his.

Simon’s question incorrectly assumes atheism is comparable to religion.

Plato recounts a man who asks Socrates how to find the best teacher of warrior skills for his son. Socrates replies “Is there not a prior question?” In Socrates’ case the prior question was complex and meant to enlighten the listener about the nature of knowledge and what knowledge is worth pursuing.

In Simon’s case there us a simpler prior question: “Why would atheism organize into large-scale atheist-themed charity organizations?”

Like many NPR staffers Simon misapprehends what atheism is, and, more to the point, what it isn’t. It is not anything like religion. It is simply the lack of religion. As Penn Gillette once said, “atheism is a religion like not stamp-collecting is a hobby.” To be slightly more accurate, atheism is a religion like not having any hobby is a hobby. Atheism is a lack of churches, of theology, of clergy. Atheism represents a simplification of one’s worldview to omit irrational beliefs in gods, angels, demons and miracles.

Asking why atheists don’t create massive, atheist-themed global charity organizations to deploy dauntless atheists to every theater of suffering is totally absurd. Churches are organizations of people joined together by a common set of beliefs. It’s hard to imagine a lot of organizations joined together by a common lack of belief. Yes, there are atheist organizations, but mostly because atheists are a reviled minority, including by Mr. Simon. The day atheism becomes common and accepted is the day those organizations mostly disappear.

Secular organizations provide the counter-examples Simon is seeking.

Simon admits that secular organizations and individual atheists do good in the world, but refuses to allow those to substitute for the atheist organizations he apparently thinks should exist.

When people lack religious belief and therefore the desire to act as a member of a church they organize around other more specific goals and causes that they care about, such as providing clean water or medical care to villages in the developing world, including in disaster-ravaged and war-torn areas. The secular organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) is a perfect example of this. MSF is made up of doctors, many of them from Europe. Statistically it is a certainty that many/most of them are atheists. They perform some of the hardest and most needed acts of bravery in theaters of suffering around the world. UNICEF is another large-scale example. One can argue that secular organizations do a better job than religious ones because they don’t waste precious energy and resources on the evangelical goals that both motivate and distract missionaries.

These organizations demonstrate that, in the unlikely event atheism takes hold across the world, Simon need not worry the theaters of suffering will be emptied of well-meaning helpers.

Religions are problematic in ways atheism is not.

Most of what religious organizations do is in places other than theaters of suffering. And much of what religions teach (and require) is not about helping others. Almost half of the Ten Commandments are not about behavior but instead are about worshipping Jehovah. Religion is characterized by everything it requires of its believers, and everything that its organizations enable. This includes the good and the bad. Many wish to define religion as only the positive things done for religious reasons. For example with this statement from the Dawkins interview Simon even implies there’s an argument to be made that religion plays no role in terrorism:

You’ve been outspoken and unbowed in your beliefs that religion plays a role in terrorism.

This idea is absurd, but better minds than mine have thoroughly debunked it elsewhere.

Whether or not you believe Religion is a major cause of terrorism, it certainly inspires many horrible outcomes ranging from tragically widespread alienation of gay kids from their fundamentalist religious families, to more spectacular sect-on-sect deadly violence that occurs weekly in places like Pakistan, Iraq, and Egypt.

To make this crystal clear I’ve created a chart showing some of the good and bad things that are demanded by or systematically enabled by religion and atheism:

religion chart 1

Atheism wins handily because it requires nothing – good or bad – of atheists. You might argue that some atheists also molest children, but they are not empowered by the fact that they are atheists. The shocking child abuse widespread within the Catholic Church was enabled, hidden, and ultimately protected by the respect required of congregants for their clergy and the political power of the church in communities.

By contrast, atheism has no doctrine, not even rationality. If you are an atheist for irrational reasons you are still an atheist. Atheists simply do not accept the truth claims about gods made by the religious. If an atheist organization is created and starts a youth group or meets every Sunday for discussions it’s not because atheist doctrine requires or encourages it. There’s even a group called “Atheism Plus” which admits by its very name that all of its principals and activities are additions to the simple base of atheism.

It’s also interesting that the World Happiness Report rates many of the most secular countries at the top. Here’s the summary for 2017:

Norway has jumped from 4th place in 2016 to 1st place this year, followed by Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland in a tightly packed bunch. All of the top four countries rank highly on all the main factors found to support happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance.

And all without a single dauntless nun or priest! A world without religion is not as scary as Simon so often implies. It might even be quite a bit better.

Atheism is an undeserving target.

Globally atheists are an oppressed minority. In America majorities in many states say they would never vote for an atheist running for public office. Atheists are killed and tortured in many countries on a regular basis, something that is woefully under-reported by NPR.

Sometimes journalists like Simon get confused into thinking criticizing atheism is “punching up,” as in afflicting the comfortable on behalf of those who piously comfort the afflicted. I believe they feel this way for a few reasons:

  1. Because atheism is the closest humans can get to a true representation of the world it seems more “powerful” than the frangible and conflicting myths taught by religion. Religious truth claims have been in retreat for centuries as science progressed. (Meanwhile, due to population growth, lack of education, and familial & community indoctrination, there are more religious people than ever.)
  2. Many atheists are well educated privileged caucasians, while religious people tend to be less educated and more underprivileged.
  3. Some atheists have a gratingly supercilious manner. (Many religious people who believe they are on a first-name basis with the almighty share these traits, but for some reason they get a pass.)
  4. Religion has a major emotional component and atheism is purely rational. As a result atheists can seem like haughty Mr. Spocks to religious people.
  5. In many places atheism is trending up even if atheists are still dramatically outnumbered.

Given the real power of religion I’d much rather hear Simon & NPR punch up at, for example, nefarious and hypocritical self-proclaimed religious groups like “prosperity gospel” churches that are actively fleecing people while wearing the sheep’s clothing of righteousness.

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Miracle of Miracles

Jackie Lyden had a story on Weekend Edition this past Sunday about the repair and re-costuming of a beloved icon of the Virgin Mary at a Catholic church in Harlem. This tacky statue is credited with countless miracles by parishioners and the Catholic church itself. And, so anyway, it has a new fancy dress up dress and stuff.

Wait, what? Back up. Who cares about the freaking dress, Jackie? A KITSCHY STATUE HAS BEEN GRANTING WISHES AND PERFORMING MIRACLES ON THE REG FOR DECADES NOW. There’s your headline, obvs. I mean if even one miracle were real it would change everything science knows about the universe. That’s not an exaggeration.

It is well worth asking why supposed miracles are treated so casually by the media. Here are a few theories:

  • The media has “learned helplessness” about trying to prove miracles happened, so they just report that lots of people believe they happened and move on.
  • The media is wary of alienating religious folks, so they get as close as possible to calling the miracles real (by quoting people who believe in them, aka “witnesses”) without actually confirming them.
  • The media is cynical and really doesn’t believe in miracles at all, but they overcompensate for their bias by condescending to the believers with their coverage. “I’m sure it helps you be a better person to believe in such things, though of course I don’t need to” might be the subtext here.

Miracles are spoken of with no suspicion with surprising frequency in conjunction with the canonization of new saints (3 “proven” miracles required), the death of religious leaders who are often credited with having performed miracles during their lifetimes, and, as with Lyden’s latest, some travelogue about holy places or icons.

If such stories are worth air time, how much more are the reported miracles worth the attention of the press? If a statue is routinely healing people and otherwise changing lives in dramatic ways then this really is the biggest story on Earth because miracles really don’t actually happen.

And since the press refuses to investigate claims of miracles, who do they expect to do it? Does James Randi have to do all of them himself?

And, finally, the question must be asked, if we accept the premise that miracles are happening all over the place, why don’t the gods heal amputees?

To Infinity…And Beyond!!! (and beyond that, too!)

The meaning of the word “infinity” is impossible to comprehend. It contains multitudes, literally. In fact, it contains everything and keeps coming for more. It is the the most famished concept in math and cosmology, devouring all sums and spaces, gleeful as it swallows exponents and parsecs alike. It is sinister, for everything that lives will eventually disappear into it without so much as a ripple or blemish on its mirror surface. No human mind can grasp it. The vertiginous vastness of its nature is beyond communication. It’s one of the first ideas children encounter that truly blows their minds. I’m still not over it.

Mathematicians have tried to tame it; infinity is useful and necessary in that abstract realm. They selected a symbol for it, as if it could be captured in a mere rune. But in practice infinity is a Hell’s Angel badass singularity that is fatal to applied logic and reasoning. All you have to do is ask a computer to divide any number by zero, the result of which is axiomatically infinity, and the computer will promptly behave like a a person injected with an LSD-PCP-Bath Salt speedball. The poor computer will immediately generate a deeply felt and wounded message reading simply “Divide by zero error”. The computer is saying “OMG did you just seriously ask me to try to calculate infinity? I just cannot even. I don’t even know where to go from here.”

My point here is that infinity is really, REALLY beyond humungous, akin to an ineffable deity. We can name it, try to talk about it, but never truly know it or grok it. And, like an angry god, its name should not be invoked for cheap effect.

And so a few days ago when I was listening to a Laura Sydell story on All Things Considered, as one does, I was suddenly struck by this comment, made by a worthy named John Seely Brown.

“The ability to imagine is the key challenge, because we have infinitely powerful tools to build whatever we imagine. As a result we’re limited by our imagination.”

Do you see the problem there? If not, read it again. There it is: Infinitely powerful tools.

Yeah, as they say, no. “We have infinitely powerful tools” is something only comic book super-villains should say with a straight face, usually followed by a prolonged, evil cackle and some kind of intimidating knife-switch being closed.

John Seely Brown doesn’t have infinitely powerful tools. No one has infinitely powerful tools. No human will ever have infinitely powerful tools. Theologians even debate whether or not the omnipotence-claiming god of Abraham truly has infinitely powerful tools. Can God throw a curveball so sneaky even Jesus can’t hit it? Is God constrained to moral actions? (The answer to the latter seems like a big old “No!” of course. #theodicy)

But John Seely Brown is thought-leading us to believe he is not constrained by the mere finite, but only by the interdisciplinary artist-in-residence-curable constraint of imagination.

After hearing this howler of a hyperbolic claim I unwittingly began a Twitter conversation in which I was quickly accused by an NPR reporter of being hubristic and having neither a life nor an imagination. No, really. Here it is:

Can you believe this shit?
Figure 1. Laura Sydell rips public radio’s infinitely awesome blogger a new one. Rhetorical summary: “I know you are, but what is John Seely Brown!?”

Ouch, right? Plus I was obviously applying the hubris tag to claims of infinite power, not to Sydell as she seems to have misinterpreted. Of course one might be justified in accusing her of something like hubris-by-proxy…

The proper response was, if anything, “allow John Seely Brown a moment of exaggeration in his exuberance at the cool stuff he’s doing”, not a spit-take inducing doubling down on “infinitely powerful.” If Sydell had accused me of being over-literal in my reaction to the word “infinitely” she might have a fair point, but her mama-bear ad hominem broadside is over the top. How am I the hubris-befuddled party here?

Were Airbag Moments a blog about language peeves I would have cause to opine about the overuse and cheapening of the word “infinite” simply on the basis of style, like the overuse and cheapening of the word “literally”, but there are actually much more serious reasons, especially for journalists and industry spokespeople, to eschew tech triumphalism and to treat it with skepticism when it appears. This idea that “the only limit is our imagination” is the obnoxiously perfumed Disney-film epitome of tech triumphalism. The same exaggeration can equally inappropriately describe a pencil, or Play-Doh ™.

Tech triumphalism flourished, as one would expect, in the mid twentieth century, when the development curve of fundamental invention was arguably at its steepest. Magazines like Popular Mechanics boasted unintentionally hilarious (even then) covers featuring flying cars and plans for working robots you could build with free boxes from your neighborhood grocer.

flying car
Figure 2. “Your flying car for 1967, Hiller’s Aerial Sedan” PM said in 1957.

Wired magazine periodically takes up the mantle of Popular Mechanics for contemporary techno-gushing, and has proven to be almost as hilarious in some of its predictions over the years.

Sydell is not the only public radio personality to overestimate just how awesome our present and near future are. Remember when that guy from 99% Invisible said we now have everything from the Star Trek tv show except the teleporter? Good times! When I thoroughly corrected him on the inanity of that claim he also refused to back down. I guess nobody likes corrections. Or reality.

The idea that there is eventually going to be a technological fix for all of our problems is a deadly one. It inculcates lassitude and inattention towards very real, very, very hard to fix dynamics in the world. If Doctor John Seely Brown has an infinity gadget then I guess anthropogenic climate change is nothing to worry about. In fact if it’s even close to true that the only limit to his power is imagination I hope the United Nations will quickly dispatch John Seely Brown to start fixing some things real quick, like the anthropogenic hellscape living nightmare that Fukushima Daiichi has turned into.

There’s actually a benighted school of thought in Economics comically named “Cornucopianism” that is accepted as dogma by some noted economists. It essentially teaches that we humans are such clever little buggers that we will always invent ourselves out of every hole we are capable of digging ourselves into, including problems like disease, resource scarcity, and overpopulation. (Sounds like hubris to me.) The effect of this is to encourage us to dig ourselves into ever deeper holes. Jabbering about infinity devices, or flying cars for that matter, encourages that delusion. Who needs to recycle or buy a fuel-efficient car or practice safe-sex when Doctor John Seely Brown has an infinity machine?

Of course I could be wrong. Maybe John Seely “Thanos” Brown actually owns and operates an infinity machine. But the examples from Sydell’s story of what our nation’s infinity labs are doing certainly don’t inspire the expected awe. For example I’m sure the 3D-printed model of San Francisco’s antique cistern system is attractive and interesting, but it isn’t exactly a cure for Malaria, much less a fix for the continents of plastic debris laying waste to our oceanic biosphere. In fact I’m guessing odds are good that the plastic 3D-printed model of San Francisco’s antique cistern system is fated to choke a Sea Lion in the not too distant future, shortly after the forgotten gewgaw is discovered in an attic and junked by a mystified tenant.

oceans_impacts_seas_degradation_garbage_plastic_pollution_galapagos_q_16148
Sea life greet 3D-printed tchotchkes with less enthusiasm than Laura Sydell and Ira Flatow.

Now, in spite of her vituperations against yours truly and her not-very-imaginative or infinite dreams of a smart fridge, I do generally respect Sydell. So I went ahead and looked up this Doctor John Seely Brown as she so icily demanded.

Instead of finding a list of Tony Stark-like world-changing inventions, I discovered that Doctor John Seely Brown has a lot in common with none other than my frequent target, professional religion-adorer Krista Tippett. Like Krista Tippett, John Seely Brown won admission to Brown University. Like Krista Tippett, John Seely Brown is the eponym for his own website. And like Krista Tippett, John Seely Brown is clearly a very talented, intelligent person, an accomplished self-marketer, and sometimes talks in ways that, while verbose and grandiloquent, fail to convey specific meaning to the average listener.

Here are a few TED-talk-ready Seelyisms (Holy Cow does he give a lot of lectures!) from his website:

“Today, I’m Chief of Confusion, helping people ask the right questions, trying to make a difference through my work”

“Learners craft their own pathways, through a rich ecology of learning experiences” (I guess they craft their pathway through the ecology with some sort of imagination machete?)

“Welcome to the Imagination Age where the arts, humanities & sciences fuse creating a new kind of alloy.” (applause, presumably)

“For the problems we now face in the 21st century we need vividness and texture to sense what might be needed given their complex nature.” (who can argue with that?)

“His personal research interests include digital youth culture, digital media, and the application of technology to fundamentally rethink the nature of work and institutional architectures in order to enable deep learning across organizational boundaries – in brief, to design for emergence in a constantly changing world.” (emphasis mine)

Do those mean anything tangible to you? It’s all a bit vague for my apparently raisined, lifeless, and pride-distorted imagination. I assume he has nurtured vivid imagishperical ecologies that have enabled deep utility for the world, such as the copier his team developed at Xerox PARC that could actually predict when it was about to break and call for repair – which is very cool, except, you know, Malaria and all – but he sure has produced a lot of triumphalist techno-evangelical jargon as a by product. A lot of research outfits manage to produce incredible breakthroughs without that sort of hype. Hell, Apple Computer is a shrinking violet compared to this stuff.

But Sydell clearly drinks the rhetorical Kool-Aid and so do a lot of very smart and successful people in business and the academy, so I’ll check to see if Google Translate has a “Thought-Leader Lecture –> Unimaginative Egotistical Zombie Grunts” translation mode.

If not I’m just going to have to sharpen my imagi-machete and get to work crafting a new path through my personal learning ecology.

What’s Annoying on Public Radio Now

On a Tuesday, this is Airbag Moments returning to air – or wifi anyway.

I notice with horror I made zero posts in 2014. I am tweeting a lot, though, so blame the siren song of social media and fear of the Riyadh Flogger for my lack of blogging. (@airbagmoments)

What has driven me beyond the 140 character restriction today, the first time in over a year? Only a brief list of weird/annoying micro-trends in Public Radio, especially NPR, that I feel need some publicity – so they can stop.

Let’s do the numbers!

1. The Daily Grind

Apparently Steve Inskeep feels our pain. (Well he doesn’t feel my particular pain, since he took to his fainting couch and blocked me on Twitter at some point – see below.) But apparently he feels the rest of you, because he has pioneered a new version of the useless day-of-the-week intro ritual (ie “on a Wednesday”) he and other hosts have adopted over the last couple of years. Now he’s taken to uttering pseudo-ominous inanities like “well, you’ve made it to Tuesday!” I think everyone out here in listener-land is pretty aware of what day of the week it is and whether or not surmounting the previous midnight is worthy of succor and sympathy.

I will go so far as to say I would not mind being calmly reminded of the date, Steve, which you never do for some reason.

2. Yay us!

NPR or its shows were mentioned in two nerdy inner sanctums in the past week, the game show “Jeopardy” and the NY Times crossword puzzle. Given the exuberant twit-storm about this from NPR staffers I can only deduce that it’s apparently everything they’ve been working towards for their entire lives. What will they do now for a second act?

This brings me to a more general annoyance, which is the self-aggrandizing vanity retweets many hosts and official public radio program feeds indulge in. I guess I’m glad that @doctormom420 cried in her driveway during the segment when Scott Simon sang “Danny Boy” to Draggy, GoryCorps creator and aptonym David Isay’s 2-legged Golden Retriever, but I don’t need to know about it.

Let’s make a deal: if you are going to retweet the effulgent praise then I expect you to retweet the trenchant critiques also, which you can find more easily if you unblock me on twitter.

Which brings me to…

3. Throwing a block

I try to be a resource for people by following every public radio personality and show I can find on Twitter, unfollowing them only when their feeds become choked with baby pics and vanity retweets.

Those of you who are familiar with the effete and grammatical pokes I take at public radio must marvel at Steve Inskeep’s (and EXCITING UPDATE “Vocal Fry Guy” Raz!) precious sensitivity. This is unbecoming in one who makes a living ostensibly asking tough questions in interviews. If Twitter actually notified users at the time when other users blocked them I could know which comment of mine tweaked Inskeep’s and Raz’s hair-trigger peevishness.

Then we come to On The Media, a show I myself have praised effulgently in this space. Yeah, they blocked me for some reason. Really, OTM? You are the show that hates censorship so much you have produced entire episodes about it. What could I, who have called OTM the best show on radio, have said to offend them so much that they would block me from their official Twitter feed? What does that even accomplish other than tainting the purity of my love for them? At least Brooke and Bob, the hosts, have yet to block me from their little-used personal feeds.

I admit that I do sometimes say things that don’t follow the public relations guidelines for human society known as “political correctness.” But I am not one of these ignorant, racist, sexist, conspiracist or wing-nut (left or right) knee-jerk public radio trollers you find in the comment sections dangling under so many segments’ web pages.

To those who block me I have this to say: no matter what you claim, vous n’êtes pas Charlie.

4. Same old pundits vs. Sarah Chayes

I have written before about how outrageous it is that Chayes, one of the most valuable voices about Afghanistan we have and a former NPR correspondent, has been ignored ever since she left her radio job to actually do something instead of just “getting a sense.” I have also written about how weird it is that smart voices only seem to appear on radio shows like Diane Rehm when they are coincidentally on a book tour.

Well the second phenomenon has, at least for a brief period, solved the first because Sarah Chayes is on a book tour, which is the golden ticket to get back on the radio. Yay!

Meanwhile most of the regular pundit slots remain filled with people whose responses are entirely predictable: either political talking points or conventional wisdom.

I’m out of time, but not out of bile, so stay tuned!

Where’s the Pork?

NPR reporter Julia Simon had a story today that exemplifies the best and worst of public media.

She starts with an incredibly good question: all educated Americans know that the US gives mega money to Egypt annually, but what does that money actually buy?

In a  very easy to understand narrative Simon takes us on a guided tour of what happens with this money.  SPOILER ALERT!  It never leaves the USA.  It actually purchases a bunch of bloated, American-made cold-war weapons systems of which Egypt already has plenty.  Best quote:

There’s no conceivable scenario in which they’d need all those tanks short of an alien invasion.

– Shana Marshall, Insert Relevant Institution Here

Simon then follows with specific examples of companies who lobby Washington to keep these purchases going.

So far so awesome.  But then the story just ends.  There is the requisite comment that this is just how things are and the inertia of existing programs is difficult to change etc.  We’ll just have to leave it there.

Conventional wisdom achieved: the military industrial complex is what it is, sigh.

But there’s a giant Nile crocodile in the room that is utterly absent from this story of a corrupt developing country spending proxy billions of American taxpayer money on unnecessary American made weapons, isn’t there?

Anybody?

Bueller?

Oh wait!  Corruption!

The subtext of the story for those actually paying attention is that someone, somewhere, is getting a lot of kickback for these deals.  Probably a lot of someones.  In fact a lack of corruption in this set-up would be so astonishing as to deserve its own mention.

But I guess that sort of exploration is for the kind of investigative reporting that either doesn’t exist much anymore or is too focussed on Anthony’s Wiener.

Highlights for Children

I’ve long noticed that NPR correspondents, with or without conscious intention, water down the language they employ in their reportage.   I’m not quite sure why.  I might imagine they were trying to create the journalistic equivalent of “easy listening” music – or maybe “new age”.  But their selection of topics, war, disease, the economy, would belie this.

The “M”-word is the perfect example of this tendency.  Whether from spontaneous groupthink or ironclad editorial edict, NPR reporters go out of their way to avoid the word “mother” the way an alcoholic avoids free wine tastings.  Jennifer Ludden did an entire piece on the fertility of women in their 40s without once using the word.  This is only possible due to her substitution of the much more popular word “mom”, which she uses four times.

One explanation would be a politically correct separation of biological motherhood from “family of choice” momhood so as not to implicitly stigmatize those who come by at least some members of their clutch in ways that are not, uhmm, “in-house” as you might say,  Michele Bachmann style.  But Ludden’s story, with its subject entirely devoted to the difficulty middle aged women encounter when trying to, ermm, “grow their own” so to speak, would be the perfect place for the biologically specific term “mother”.  Its total absence in this particular story, along with the clumsily repetitive use of “mom”, means something else is going on.

Maybe it’s the fact that “mother” is sometimes used in a rather extreme piece of two-word profanity that, uhmm, let’s just say implies a globally frowned-upon form of over-parenting.  “Having it all” so to speak.  Sometimes to avoid inevitable bleeping, that epithet is shortened to “Mother-f-” or just “mother” on television.  So is it this?  Is the word “mother” now classed with “faggot” and “retarded” just because occasionally it hangs out in the wrong part of urbandictionary.com?

It turns out that theory is also wrong.  The proof is that NPR reporters avoid the words “children” and “fathers” with as much awkward sidestepping and repetition as they do “mother”.  They compulsively prefer “dads” and “kids” to party with all the “moms”.  When a “father” shows up things can get ugly, as in the Loudon Wainwright song “Me and All the Other Mothers”.

Maybe, as with some profanity, it’s some kind of word origin problem?  Is “mother” from some poorly thought of word root and “mom” from an original language that’s a bit more presentable in polite society?  Turns out that’s not the case either.  Both the hated “mother” and the beloved “mom” seem to originate from the same semi-universal infant sound “ma” or “muh”, which may itself derive from the satisfied “mmm” infants sometimes utter after a bout of nipple noshing.  So there’s another theory shot-down.

Let’s examine the larger context.  As their Twitter feeds attest, most NPR reporters *cough* Scott Simon *cough* are child or grandchild-addled.  Or do I mean “kid” or “grandkid”-addled?  (It’s so odd how different these exact synonyms can feel.  One would never say “wicked stepmom”, “kid of the depression”, or “dad of our country”.  At least not yet.  “Mother’s Day” is holding on with 35 million Google results, but “Mom’s Day” is coming up fast in the rear-view with 357,000.)

Anyway, to me all this linguistic pre-chewing smacks of parental and grandparental over compensation.  The same way marketers force used car dealers to start referring to their jalopies as “pre-owned”, and realtors to start calling houses “homes”, parents continually try to spin reality to their children as something more palatable.  It’s the difference between “shit”, if you’ll pardon the expression, and “doo-doo”.  It’s exactly the relationship of Ray Liotta’s character to Jeff Daniels’ in the totally brilliant and allegorical “we’ve all got a darkside” Jonathan Demme film “Something Wild.” A word clothed uncomfortably in gym shorts and a t-shirt purchased hastily at a gas station is still naked underneath.

So is this the answer?  Do NPR reporters actually know the difference between Shineola and that other nasty substance that isn’t Shineola, but they just don’t want to come out and say it in so many words?  I really hope so.

The alternative is that they actually mentally inhabit this baby-proofed, rose-colored Nicey Niceland.  In Nicey Niceland, Wall Street math-prodigy mountebanks aren’t prodigious monsters, they’re “number crunchers”.  And in Nicey Niceland the politicians don’t “lie”, they “exaggerate” or “mis-speak”.  When the lies come flying, the reporters at Nicey Niceland Today report on the public opinion reaction to the dishonesty rather than even noticing the rude fact of the moral unfitness of the liar.  Nicey Niceland Public Radio (NNPR) reporters are so happy just to get a “sense” of things.  Reality had them at “hello”.

In this formulation evil is real, and the banality of evil is to perceive and describe it in child-friendly gauziness.  Like Jeff Daniel’s character, Gallant is so Gallant that he becomes Goofus without realizing it.  (“Gallant lets his children starve to death because stealing bread is illegal.”)

Public Radio is a format that features vocal intonations sometimes too closely resembling the cadences of a parent reading a storybook to a child at bedtime. I hope they are at least explicitly aware of these linguistic habits, and that they have a good reason.  I would also love to hear the reason.  Journalism is the first draft of history, and that draft should not be written with sparkle pens and smiley faces over the “i”s.

Maybe the first step to fixing all this is for NPR staff to ban their kids (adult or not) from listening…

Got Milk?

Have no fear, dairy fans, Laura Sydell is still on the job!  Indeed, she’s all over the whole milk-detecting “smart refrigerator” thing like Judy Miller on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.  Her bio on Twitter says she’s interested in “looking at the intersection of culture and technology.”  Who knew she meant “milk culture”?

The only problem is that her Vitamin-D fortified monomania may be blinding her to the larger world of technology.  Have you ever heard the old saw that “if your only tool is a hammer then everything looks like a nail?”  Evidently every technological advance is, to Sydell, just another inevitable step on the many-streamered path to our glorious smart-fridge future.

The opportunity arising from the opening up of new wireless spectrum for digital devices?  Milk-detecting smart fridge!

Coolest thing she might find at the 2011 consumer electronics show?  Duh!  Milk-detecting smart fridge, obviously!

She is giving this gallons of coverage. She tweets “Getting ready 2 talk about CES on ATC. So far what interests me most is internet connected appliances:refrigerator, washing machine.”  In that  two-way on ATC she brings up the whole milk thing right at the beginning to make sure it isn’t edited out for time.  Additionally she writes in the synopsis/blog-post that accompanies the audio for this on the ATC website yesterday that “I want my fridge to tell me when I’m out of milk, but,” she adds moovingly, “I don’t know if we are there just yet…”

Courage, Laura!  Don’t be a milquetoast!

Listen, I’m as interested in the status of my domestic milk supply as the next blogger, maybe even more than some (looking at you, veganlife.blogspot.com…), but if you think about it for a couple of seconds you’ll realize that this 2% solution to our admittedly nightmarish collective ignorance of our own milk quantities is probably not all it’s cracked up to be, even in theory.  What if the smart fridge knows we have gallons of milk but doesn’t know it’s all gone horribly off?  What if we have to constantly monitor and recalibrate the accuracy of the M.I.L.K.?  (Milk Indicator Level from Kitchenaid)  What if the fridge is ignorant of some sort of catastrophically unanticipated increase in our milk requirements, like providing enough nog for the NPR Arts Information Unit staff holiday party?  And this is not to mention the privacy issues.  What if the Department of Social Services learns about our failure to keep our child’s bones strong through maintenance of an adequate dairy supply?

As fascinating as the topic is, one has to wonder why Sydell keeps milking it.  Is there a sour note here?  Does she have some udder motivation to constantly call our attention to the national tragedy of our milk ignorance?  Your humble blogger has discovered there exists not only a “Sydell” brand goat-milking stand, but also a “Sydell Spa” brand milk-based facial cleanser.  Coincidences?  You, dear reader, or better yet the NPR ombudsperson, can make that call.  (Memo to FOX News: get Juan Williams on this, please!  What else does he have to do?  Oh wait, I forgot, FOX News doesn’t do actual journalism.)

I suppose it could be personal.  Does Laura live several hours from the nearest milk provisioner?  Is she exhausted from wasting entire days when she returns home for a nice virgin White Russian only to find that the fiendishly opaque milk carton, when hurriedly opened with that funny little cap they all have now, reveals nothing but her hopes and dreams?  Everyone knows you can’t drink those, unless you are newly-appointed house speaker John Boehner.

Or perhaps this is the consumer technology equivalent of what Reagan termed the “soft-serve bigotry” of lowfat expectations.  How can any careful observer not be disappointed by the state of consumer technology?  I, too, am cowed by the fact that here we are in 2011 and we still have no warp drives, no teleportation, no clean and infinite fusion power, pretty much nothing we were promised by the imagineers of the greatest generation 50 years ago.  (Except, of course, that stupid Facebook game that Isaac Asimov predicted in his speculative novel “I, Time-Wasting Fake Farmer” in 1947.)

Maybe, just maybe, if we can do this one stupid thing, if we can just have a refrigerator that can put a cussing update on our cussing Facebook wall to tell us how much cuss-damned milk we have, maybe we can, as President Kennedy promised in his stirring oration announcing the Apollo program, “do the other things” too.  Was it Browning who said “Man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

Alright, dammit,  I’m on board!  I’ve talked myself into it!  From this day forward I hereby dare to believe that one day, in some shining Sydellian Utopia, we’ll even have a fridge that can tell us when it’s time to buy more Half and Half.

Good luck in Vegas, Laura!  Those of us who dive for dreams are counting on you!