Write. Publish. Edit.

Every once in a great while I give in to the temptation to comment on Wikipedia. The comments that follow are occasioned by an article in the Wall Street Journal about a fellow who has created a "bot" that has written a couple million articles for that "encyclopedia."

1. Mike Nutter, a geography editor at Encyclopædia Britannica, created just such a program nearly 20 years ago. It was just an experiment and it was never used to produce actual copy. But there's nothing new in the idea.

2. As ever with Wikipee, the emphasis in the article is on quantity, not, you know, that other q-word.

3. Down towards the end of the article comes this minor concession:

When a project was done that needed bird photos, the bot turned to the Russian version of Wikimedia Commons, which provides millions of free-to-use images.

But at the time, Lsjbot couldn't read Cyrillic and made mistakes. Mr. Johansson later altered the software to address the glitch.

Ah, yes. Write furiously and publish precipitately; consider getting it right at leisure. And never, ever, mention the users who were ill-served while you did things backwards.


Hobby Lobby

We now understand that not only are corporations persons and therefore have the right to broadcast their political opinions and to support their favored political candidates with scads of simoleons, they also may have and promote religious views even to the extent of declaring themselves exempt from certain provisions of federal law.

So far this latest freedom, found somewhere in the emanations from a penumbra surrounding a certain exegesis of Leviticus, is confined to “closely held” corporations, meaning one owned by what in other circumstances might be called a cabal, or even a conspiracy.

Consider a group of six family members or six close friends of compatible religious views. They form a company -- let’s call it, oh, Rummy Dummy (they manufacture pacifiers for winos) -- and go about doing the usual things that businesspeople do, like hire and fire people and play golf and fiddle the petty cash. Six human persons. And the corporation, the courts tell us, is also a person. So how many persons do we have here? Six? or seven?

Let’s imagine that there is to be a vote to adopt a favored translation of the Old Testament. How many persons are qualified to vote? If the answer is seven, how is that seventh vote decided on and actually cast? Once each of the six human persons has spoken, in what voice does the corporation speak? Whose hand marks its ballot? Whose drops it in the ballot box? Or is one of the six actually just voting twice?

I’m sure there is a rich history behind the legal fiction that corporations are persons. I might be interested in reading about it one day. But surely the time has come to shift our focus, and that of the courts, from “legal” to “fiction.” For it seems that corporations suddenly become “persons” when it suits them and revert to abstractions other times. When a corporation shows up for jury duty or is drafted into the army or gets ten days in the can for jaywalking, then I’ll consider its personhood seriously, and not before.

The “person” metaphor ought to be taken out and shot.


In Montana

A friend is at this moment visiting in southwestern Montana and has sent me several photographs of beautiful vistas, with varieties of wildflowers in the foreground and majestic mountains in the distance. Quite a lovely place, at least in the non-winter portion of the year.

I’ve not seen much of the state, but in the course of several visits to Billings a couple of decades ago when my son was in school there, I made a few sociological observations. Chief among these was the strong tendency for Montana men to have quite prominent bellies. But they weren't the slack, jiggly paunches of the effete East or the mac-and-cheese Midwest. No, these babies were taut, round, and disciplined. Size apart, they were all very similar, no matter how various their owners might appear in other ways. The suspicion gradually formed that they might actually be cultivated. Confirmation dawned, for me, at least, one day when I spied a young fellow, obviously only in his 20s, tall and slim -- what once would have been deemed "wiry" -- except for a small but undeniable hemisphere on the ventral aspect of his abdomen.

The rest of the picture quickly fell into place. These men, to a man, wore blue jeans. Tight blue jeans. But not tight across the belly. No, they were tightly cinched up below it, held there by a wide belt with a buckle the size of a saucer, which, quite clearly, they could not see. Between the cinching and the pointy-toed boots they had, or pretended to have, the legs of someone, as my mother used to say, "raised on a horse." This then caused them to walk as though aboard a reaching sailboat. Above the jeans would be a a tightly fitted shirt,usually plaid and always buttoned at the collar. Topping off the ensemble, a Stetson or simulacrum thereof.

I have no idea how this bit of male display is achieved. Diet alone cannot be the way. Beer and barbeque will make anyone fat, but these fellows are not promiscuously fat. Perhaps there are exercises that create that central hummock, some sort of anti-crunches that build up a mass of anti-abs. More intriguing is the question of why? Is this a form of sexual display, like the peacock's tail? Are the women of Montana attracted by these round little, or not so little, bellies as signs of prosperousness? Do they promise more than average sexual satisfaction?

Methinks I hear some great Ozymandias of Montana proclaiming “Look on my belly, ye Mighty, and despair.”


Sgt. Bergdahl: Just a Thought or Two

One of the great appeals of ideology, as opposed to thoughtfulness, is that it lends itself to simple, easy-to-follow rules of conduct, where "conduct" includes shooting your mouth off.

For example, who could object to this rule:  Leave no soldier behind on the battlefield.

And for another, who could object to:  Never negotiate with terrorists.

As we all know, no rule of conduct that is obviously, self-evidently correct could possibly conflict with another, equally self-evidently correct ruled. Morality, our self-appointed moralists assure us, is simply a matter of following clear rules. Do this, don’t do that, and you’re fine.

But then a soldier falls into the hands of (let’s assume) terrorists. Rule One says we must get him back by any means. Rule Two says we cannot discuss this with his captors.

This could be tricky. Who can we talk to? And in what way that doesn’t amount to negotiating with the terrorists?

A lot of folks are suddenly having trouble with this little poser. Others are not having any such trouble because they have useful amnesia. The Gawker site offers an amusing sampling of moral absolutists proclaiming first Rule One and, later, Rule Two in the case of Sgt. Bergdahl.

A neutral observer might be forgiven for inferring that the rule that the chest-thumping patriots are actually observing is:  Whatever the President does is wrong, outrageous, and unpatriotic.

No question that the five Taliban members are a nasty looking crew:


But the critics overlook one salient point. Now that they are out of Guantanamo and free to take up their lives again, they have lost a certain, um, security. One may decide to retire from the terrorism game and open a Fiat agency over in West Doha (h/t: S. Freberg), another to settle down quietly to poppy growing, while the other three resume campaigning against all history since the 8th century. But however they choose to utilize their new freedom, they are all now far more apt to be disturbed by one of those terrible drone strikes that have become so worrisome in their part of the world in recent years.

Happy retirement, fellows; be a shame if anything were to happen to it.


Al Feldstein (1925-2014)

I think the first issue of Mad magazine I bought was #39, the “Special April Fool Issue” in 1958. I had been introduced to Mad by my 8th-grade English teacher, John Leo of blessed memory.


Mr. Leo was, my increasingly unreliable memory tells my much later developed knowledge of the ways of the world, a slightly disreputable character. There was a dissolute look about him that we 12- and 13-year-olds easily overlooked because he was a kindly man with no interest in teaching.

My class, section 8-D at the Bushey Hall American School somewhere west of London, sat in Mr. Leo’s classroom for two consecutive periods in the afternoon. One period was supposed to be devoted to the English language, the other to American history. Of history I can recall nothing ever having been said. Of English, well...does “potrzebie” count?

One day Mr. Leo produced a magazine and proceeded to read to us. I cannot remember what he read, but at the end he showed us the cover -- Mad. Later, perhaps to offset the message, or perhaps to underscore it, he read us On the Beach. The world is nuts; the world kills itself. I don’t think we suspected a connection then, but in retrospect it is rich.

(I’ll just mention here that on a field trip to Hampton Court Palace one day, Mr. Leo taught several of us boys to shoot craps. Or, more accurately, not to.)

The Mad magazine that I bought every month for years afterward was to a great extent the creation of Al Feldstein, who has just passed from this earthly plane to the Cowznofski dimension. Where, it may be, it is not necessarily crackers to slip a rozzer the dropsy in snide. Of course, he had some help from the usual gang of idiots, a group I tried very hard and failed utterly to imagine.

A friend of mine once met Feldstein at the Iditarod sled race in Anchorage. My friend expressed his admiration and, to hear him tell it, Feldstein expressed his indifference. Good all around.

To the man who helped teach me to doubt what I was told, that irony and rudeness have their place, and my first few words of Yiddish:  Thanks, Al. And thanks, too, Mr. Leo. The great teachers are not always the obvious ones.


UPDATE: My friend corrects me:

He was by no means indifferent.

First of all he was a funny and open guy.  You know, always a big broad smile.

I gushed a bit, telling him how important MAD was in my life.  He was used to hearing that from 63 year old guys.

He said that their goal was subversive.  In the 1950s they wanted kids to realize that they should not trust anyone, not the government, not the media, not the teachers and especially not their parents....

He was a warm and frIendly guy.  Not at all a celebrity, and anyway in Anchorage on Iditarod Day everyone is happy and friendly, in the midst of 1500 crazed sled dogs.

As musher handler for our two teams, I introduced him to all the dogs.  I showed him and his woman friend how we would provide a safe and comfortable ride.  He was 80.

At the end of the run, when I helped him out of the sled, he was totally ecstatic....

He was an animal lover.  His western home was a rescue ranch, with all kinds of animals.

After the race he invited us out to the ranch, and I regret we never made it.