Presidential Greatness

A lot of Donald Trump surrogates are saying that we need to give him a chance.  Of course I’ll give him a chance and so far, if I want to be at my most polite, he is on track to becoming easily the biggest disaster of a president since World War II.   

When Bill Clinton won the presidency after having taken only 43% of the popular vote in a three-way presidential race, the highest ranking republican in office, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas tried to justify his obstructionism by claiming to represent the 57% of the country that didn’t vote for Clinton.  When Obama won the presidency, the republicans in congress stepped up the obstruction even more and it persisted throughout his eight years in office. I don’t see them as doing anything that can even be remotely considered “giving [them] a chance.”

But the bigger point here is that I question why someone might say that we should give an incoming president “a chance” in the first place (beyond simple civility). It sounds to me as though this is a means of saying that we shouldn’t criticize them. And that’s just bullshit. You can always find things both to praise and criticize in any presidency. My general approval of President Obama doesn’t stop me from criticizing the NSA under his watch, or what happened with Edward Snowden, or the drone strikes. Hell, a year ago I faulted him for the fate of ACORN, the now-defunct community organizing group.  

And that got me to thinking about the greater process by which we judge our presidents.  The Wikipedia page on historical rankings of US presidents is an excellent resource here.  It’s easy to argue that FDR and Lincoln were among the best presidents and that Buchanan and Harding were among the worst.   But why?  What did they do to earn those rankings?  How hard would it be to find something worth criticism for FDR and Lincoln and/or something to praise for Buchanan and Harding?

And I’m not just talking about individual decisions that are important but ultimately not relevant, like FDR’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court.  I’m embarrassed that it was necessary to go to war to end slavery.   We should have been able to do that without so much carnage.   But is it fair to say that Lincoln deserves criticism for his apparent eagerness to go to war in the first place?  Be my guest if you want to make the argument that the fault just as readily might have lain with those who wanted to continue slavery.   You wouldn’t be wrong but the escalation of belligerent rhetoric during the decade or so prior to the war should be a blight on both sides.  

I guess that’s one of the reasons why, when I was in high school, the Advanced Placement American History test put a heavy focus on the 1850s in their questions.  (And the 1790s and the 1930s).  

But fundamentally, it’s not always easy to judge any given president.  Take Ronald Reagan, who championed tax cuts and deregulation.   If we regard these concepts as his primary legacy, were they successes or failures?   It depends on who you ask, of course.  Even if we recognize that they were worthwhile experiments (and I do), can we say, for example, that supply side economics serves nobody but the already rich?  Is it not unreasonable to say that privatizing the prisons was a bad idea?   Regardless of their merits or demerits, he got them done.  

Where is the dividing line between effectiveness at implementing and/or maintaining a given policy, and your disagreement with the policy in the first place?  

Andrew Jackson comes to mind here.  He said he’d force the native tribes to relocate, and he did.  For however horrible the policy was (and it’s a part of the reason why I don’t care for him or his legacy, and I will be grateful when his image is taken off of our $20 bills) but you can’t deny the fact that the goal he set out to achieve, got achieved.  

Just compare Teddy Roosevelt and George W Bush, two men whose interventionalist approaches to foreign policy appear quite similar to each other.   Why is TR so highly regarded but W so low on the Wikipedia page I cited above?  Did TR just get lucky where he swung the big stick?  

It’s interesting that Lincoln and FDR both succeeded presidents whose rankings are close to the bottom of the list.  Is there a degree to which we’re comparing them against their immediate predecessors?  Earlier this year I wrote a blog entry about the gun problem in this country and compared it with the inaction on the part of Herbert Hoover at the start of the Great Depression.  I gave a semi-defense of Hoover who likely had little reason to think this particular economic downturn would have been any worse than prior ones.  James Buchanan was probably correct when he took the position that the federal government had no legal power to prevent states from seceding and certainly would have overstepped its boundaries by forcing them back into the union.  

It’s tough work upholding the constitution, especially when it runs counter to public opinion or need.  Just ask any of the lawyers working for the American Civil Liberties Union, which probably does more to defend our constitutional rights from government overreach than any other organization.  They’ll get criticism from the left when they defend the KKK’s right to hold a rally, and from the right when they point out that nativity scenes on public property violate the establishment clause of the first amendment.  That’s enough to make me wonder if the constitution would even pass a popular referendum today.   

How long after a president leaves office can we truly grasp his legacy?  In some cases, it’s immediate.  George Washington was given a blank slate as to how to run the executive branch.   In others, not so much.   We can pin the assassination of President Garfield (in 1881) on the system of patronage introduced by Andrew Jackson (when he won the 1828 election).  

If it seems as though I’m picking on Andrew Jackson a fair bit in this blog entry, you’re right.  Without regard to how good or bad a president he was, I do consider him one of the most overrated.  

JFK is another interesting example.  Popular, likeable, and, quite frankly, inspiring: many Americans have a soft spot in their hearts for the man, and likely would even if he hadn’t been assassinated.  But when you look at his foreign policy (specifically), the best thing we can say about it is that he was shortsighted.  Just look at his policy towards Cuba during the missile crisis and then later during the Bay of Pigs fiasco.   

His successor exemplifies the dichotomy between domestic and foreign policy successes and failures: he deserves accolades for the Great Society programs he instituted, and criticism for the way he handled the quagmire we know as Vietnam.   Indeed, Vietnam was the reason he became the only president since the passage of the 22nd Amendment to choose not to seek reelection.  (As opposed to being constitutionally prohibited from doing so…  I’m not counting the three presidents who lost their reelection bid who could technically have challenged their successors four or more years later but chose not to.)

How does dying in office change the overall perception of a president?  After all, that’s another thing that Lincoln and FDR have in common.  A total of eight presidents have died in office (William Henry Harrison, Taylor, Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, FDR, and JFK) of whom three — Lincoln, McKinley, and FDR — had already served at least one full term as president when they died.  Of the remaining five, two served less than a year (Harrison and Garfield) and probably should be exempted from any lists ranking the presidents since the fact of their deaths probably had a greater impact on the direction of the country than anything they did in life.   This is especially true for Harrison since he was the first and nowhere in the constitution was it written that the Vice President becomes president upon the death or resignation of the president.  

Side note: I use the word “was” here because the 25th amendment to the constitution settled that question in 1965.  Only 124 years later and after the death of the most recent president to die in office…

It certainly does seem as though popular opinion of presidents who died in office seems to be frozen in time based upon how we felt about them at the time and the relative suddennness of the death.  It’s at least partially why JFK is so loved today while Harding ranks near the bottom.  

But does that mean that the post-presidential activities of the 35 men who lived long enough to become ex-presidents ought to have a bearing on how they’re perceived?  I’d like to think that both Nixon and Carter managed to redeem their relatively uninspiring presidencies once they were unencumbered by the needs of the position itself.   That’s not a new phenomenon.  John Quincy Adams also looks better in the lens of history when you consider his work in congress to abolish slavery.   (Plus, he was portrayed in the movies by Anthony Hopkins.)

And no discussion of post presidential activities (at least the ones that redeem the presidency) would be complete without a huge shout-out to William Howard Taft, who went on to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  According to legend, he wanted to be on the court more than he wanted to be president.   Without regard to the validity of the legend, he certainly executed the duties of the president most consistently with the way it’s spelled out in the constitution.  It’s why he pissed off Teddy Roosevelt so much.   

There are so many moving pieces to what does and does not make for a good president, that it seems almost impossible to gauge it all.  I haven’t even gotten into the stuff we don’t (and can’t possibly) know about what happens behind the scenes, either because it’s classified or just not exceptionally relevant.   

In the end, it’s probably most fair to say that Lincoln and FDR were our best crisis managers.   And that likely means that they’ll rank near the top simply by virtue of the historical circumstances that happened to lead them to he presidency.   Yes, that gives the short end of the stick to those presidents who weren’t tested the same way.   But what can you do?


Watch out for fake outrage!

About a week ago, a fake video popped up in which a person who opposed Trump verbally confronted a Trump supporter.  Almost immediately after this, a report appeared where Ivanka Trump was confronted on a JetBlue plane in a similar manner.  

In light of (1) the sheer amount of fake news out there, (2) the fake video, and (3) the fact that it was JetBlue, I was skeptical of this report.  

So when I saw someone on Facebook make a vaguely worded comment that could have been interpreted as the fake video, I commented “you know this is fake, right?” I talked about confirmation bias and how it feeds into fake news.  And then the following morning, when I realized that it wasn’t fake, I apologized for my error.  

That’s when things went downhill in the Facebook dialogue.  She asked me to make a post on my Facebook feed echoing her outrage at the actions of the man who was escorted off the plane.  After all, would the political left have sat idly by if it had been Chelsea Clinton who had been harassed like that?  And in the presence of her child no less!

I politely refused to do so, largely on the grounds that this isn’t something worth being outraged about.  She threw my confirmation bias statement back at me along with a few other things and I abandoned the dialogue. 

I’m not defending the actions of the man who confronted Ivanka Trump, but he was punished accordingly by being escorted off the plane.   Conservative news media continue to talk about this and how horrible the guy was.  Tucker Carlson called him a member of the intolerant left.  

I call it bullshit.  

Let’s start with the “think of the children” part.  What should it matter?  We hear that a lot when people want to give a comforting lie to children rather than expose them to uncomfortable truths about life.  I have no problem with being age appropriate to some of the more unpleasant aspects of life, but to outwardly lie to them and pretend that things aren’t the way they are?  No. 

I’m reminded of the scene in the movie Dragnet with Dan Aykroyd playing the very uptight Joe Friday and Tom Hanks playing the more iconoclastic Pep Streebek.   They’re investigating vandalism at the local zoo and find a lion whose mane had been shaved into a mohawk.  Friday goes on a long “think about the children” screed about this travesty and how will they recover from seeing this.   Streebek looks over at a group of children and says, “kids, it’ll grow back.”  They all cheer.  

Ivanka Trump may have one of the most unenviable positions in modern politics: she has her own business interests to tend to and she may be best positioned to temper her father’s nature.  If she intervenes too much, charges of corruption and nepotism will surely arise.   If she does too little, she may be questioned about why she allows her father to do the things he will inevitably do.  

Do you want real outrage?  How about Donald Trump’s attempts to redirect US policy during the transition, most glaringly with regard to the UN Security Council condemning Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory?  By comparison, then-president elect Bill Clinton didn’t even complain when still-president George H W Bush had an initial troop deployment to Somalia in December 1992.  If ever the outgoing president might have been in the right to refrain from acting until the new administration came in, it was here.  

How about a Secretary of State designate who has a personal vested interest in seeing the sanctions against Russia be lifted?  How about a Secretary of Energy designate who not only doesn’t accept the reality of climate change but who wants to pursue policies that will make it worse?  How about an Attorney General designate who thinks that racism only exists when it’s aimed at white people?  How about a Secretary of Health and Human Services designate who wants to make it harder for people to afford the health care they need?

How about a Secretary of Education designate who wants to dismantle our educational system, replacing scientific truths with lies that I’m not even sure I’d call comforting?  You want someone to think about the children?  Yeah, I’ll take that over a rude and inconsiderate person on an airplane.   

I suspect the fake outrage machine is only just getting started.  

I think it’s a warning shot

There still remains a month before Barack Obama and his family vacate the White House.  Our allies and our enemies know this.  To that end, this was planned as a part of the drafting of the constitution and reinforced by the 22nd amendment.  

From the perspective of other nations, it is something they all must abide: how to deal with the planned transition time when you know someone new will be in charge (but not yet).  I imagine that before the 20th amendment moved the date the new president was sworn in from March to January, it was even harder.  

Yesterday, all of the (legitimate) news sites were abuzz over the assassination of Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey.  I’ve lost count of the number of articles I’ve seen, where the author questioned whether this is a spark that might trigger the next world war, not unlike the assassination of Austro-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 triggering World War I.  

(Note that the assassination more than a century ago really wasn’t the cause of the war; it was the excuse for it…)

I’m not trying to argue that this particular killing — it should be noted that Russia and Turkey are not allies — won’t lead to war (it certainly could).  But I am arguing that this seems more like a strategic warning to Donald Trump that couldn’t be more than that while Obama is still in charge.  

Officially, Turkey is an ally to the US through NATO.  Prime Minister Erdogan, though, has been making some very undemocratic moves in the past couple of years.  President Putin may be happier than most world leaders with the results of this election.  Among other things, he wants to see the sanctions against his country lifted.  

And Donald Trump has business interests in both countries.  I expect to see him at least try to get Russia and Turkey to be less belligerent to each other.  It’s in his interest, as well as being in the interests of many people he has nominated to his cabinet.  

And in and of itself, less belligerence is a good thing.  

So I regard the assassin’s motive as having less to do with political sovereignty and more to test the incoming Trump administration.  A warning shot, if you would.  

The world has become a more dangerous place in the past fifteen years than it was in the previous fifty.  We can’t close ourselves off to it and we’d be naive to even try.   Alliances do shift over time.  

I just hope we don’t give up on our friends because someone might make more money from others.  I suspect that some people in Turkey might be thinking the same thing.  

Immigration and Hypocrisy 

Like many American children, my early civic education taught me that the United States has always been a melting pot: a place where people from diverse backgrounds and cultures can come together as a single unit.   And there is a certain appeal to this picture.  

As I learned more about the history of this country, I started to think that maybe a salad bowl might be a better metaphor.   In a melting pot, the various ingredients all mix together and you can’t necessarily discern what went into it.  In a salad bowl, none of the ingredients lose their original nature.  Indeed, the act of becoming “American” has no requirement that you eschew what you previously were.  

It’s why we technically have no official language under the law, despite some people’s efforts to the contrary.  

The USA has always had a bizarre relationship with immigration.  Indeed, if you look at world history and events that have triggered large scale migrations, there was probably pushback against immigration from those areas into America.   Ireland in the 1840s thanks to the potato famine.   Russia in the early 1900s thanks to the revolutions of 1905 and 1917.   Germany in the 1930s thanks to the Nazis.   The Mexicans and middle easterners in recent years thanks to currency devaluation and the Arab spring respectively.  

I often talk about how there’s something truly special about becoming an “American”.   Imagine the range of emotions people must go through as a part of the decision making process.   To decide to give up your family, your friends, your home, your very way of life to make a journey to a place where, stylized imagery notwithstanding, the only certainty is uncertainty.  How bad must things be in your home country to even consider such a drastic change?

And that’s the big question.  Immigration on a large scale is always either a direct or indirect result of more people in a geographic region than there are resources to support that number of people.   What’s going on in Syria right now is an easy example of it: a drought, caused by global warming, took its toll on the nation’s farmers, who migrated to the cities in hopes of finding jobs and commodities.  The infrastructure of the cities wasn’t prepared to handle the influx of people and the people already in the cities started to resent this movement.   Tempers flared, fights broke out, and the next thing you know, the country became enmeshed in a three-way civil war.   So some of the immigration from Syria is a direct result of strained resources (the drought) and some is an indirect result (getting away from the war).  

I don’t want to give lip service to the objections of any country that is on the receiving end of large-scale immigration.   There are legitimate questions about the cost of providing goods and services to every new person crossing the border and it’s never an unfair question to ask, to wonder when the tipping point will be, when the cost outweighs the benefit.    (All too often, the knee-jerk reaction is just to the cost without regard to the benefits.)  For every new person who comes to the country, there is an added need both within the government and the private sector to provide for them: jobs, basic goods, health care, police, infrastructure, etc.   Is there a point where the availability of those things is outweighed by what they provide in return (taxes, spending on those goods, volunteer work, intangibles that occur simply by their presence — see the movie It’s a Wonderful Life for details…)?  Of course there is.   But I don’t think we’ve come anywhere close to it.   

Now you’re free to disagree with me on that point.   Maybe we’re closer to that tipping point than I say.   Maybe we’ve already passed it.   It’s certainly possible, to be sure.  I certainly don’t have a magic formula to know one way or another.   Or maybe it’s because, as then-candidate Donald Trump put it, the countries from which immigration is a quote-unquote problem, “aren’t sending their best people”.   That could explain why you hear complaints about the Mexicans taking blue collar jobs but not Indian or Chinese immigrants taking white collar jobs.  

That’s where we see a ton of hypocrisy.   If you’re opposed to immigration while simultaneously denying the reality of climate change and/or restricting access to birth control/abortion services, you’re contributing to the immigration problems that you complain about.  

By denying climate change, you’re denying the strains on resources that will inevitably cause populations to relocate.  Remember that the scientists who have written about the consequences of climate change, have reported that it will cause natural weather phenomena to happen with greater intensity and in greater frequency.  Thus droughts will last longer, floods will happen more often, wildfires will burn for longer, there will be more hurricanes, blizzards, tornadoes, and other harsh weather events.  Crops will fail, animal migration will start following different patterns and times.  Arable, farm-worthy land will be reduced even more than they already are.  

By denying access to birth control and abortion, you’re setting the stage for more people to consume the foods that are already being farmed.   Population and population density will increase, and cities will be even harder pressed to meet the needs of its residents.  There was a report about ten years ago that said that the state of New Jersey was on track — given then-current growth rates — to run out of land for people to live on within 25 years. I haven’t heard anything about that report since then.   

Rising populations and reduced crop yields set the stage for the most hard-hit to need to leave their homes.   This isn’t about the ones who want to leave.   It’s about the ones Trump sarcastically said aren’t “the best people”.  

And the evangelicals are the greatest hypocrites here.   They’re the ones most loudly denying climate change, railing against any form of sexuality that expresses itself when people have sex for reasons other than to make babies, and, of course, complaining about the immigrants.  Not the only place where they’re hypocrites but certainly one of the most outrageous.  

In this regard, I do have to give some credit to the Catholics.    At least they (or their current leader) is saying that climate change is a problem, and that we shouldn’t build walls to keep immigrants out.   They’re still being irresponsible with regard to the very real problem of overpopulation, but they’re not the hypocrites their conservative Protestant brethren have shown themselves to be, at least in this arena.  

States rights

I have a love/hate relationship with the phrase “state’s rights” (no matter where, if at all, the apostrophe in the first word is placed).  If you want to have an even remotely honest reading of the constitution, you must acknowledge that power really does lie with states and not the federal government.    Even if you don’t read the constitution, you have to acknowledge that the closer you are to an issue (both metaphorically and literally) the better positioned you will be to address it.  

That doesn’t mean you’ll do it right.  The 2005 Supreme Court case Kelo v City of New London is evidence of that.   This was a case involving eminent domain.   The defendants wanted to seize a local property that had nothing wrong with it but only because a WalMart wanted to move in.  The plaintiffs didn’t want their property seized.  A reasonable dispute. When the court sided with the defendants, they pointed out, accurately, that local officials are usually better suited to making decisions involving the local economy than anyone at the national scale.  It’s kind of hard to argue against the logic of this decision, at least as a matter of law and overall due process.  If the property owners hadn’t been properly compensated, that would be a different story.  

It’s easy to see how state’s rights can be a double-edged sword.   I wrestled with the proper way of describing when they’re a good thing and when they’re not.  I settled on the thought that all good ideas start out small and, with a little luck, hope, promise, and elbow grease, they’ll get bigger.  And with those same ingredients, bad ideas wither away and die out.   

So as a general rule, I support states’ rights as the breeding ground for ideas, and the good ones will eventually become more widespread.  In recent years, the most obviously visible example is how a 2004 court ruling in Massachusetts allowed gay and lesbian couples to marry.  Eleven years later, that’s the law of the land.  

Where I don’t support states’ rights, comes when the phrase is a euphemism or glossing over of an intent to discriminate.   To pass laws that are overtly or subtly racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or otherwise to enable some form of inequality under the law.   We see it in laws intended to keep any minority group down, including racially motivated gerrymandering, voter ID laws, bathroom bills, and TRAP laws.  

The irony about this euphemistic use of the phrase, is that the issue here is the end goal and not the stated point of curtailing federal overreach.    Indeed, since the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001, the federal government has been absolutely horrible with regard to upholding certain rights, particularly with regard to the 4th and 6th amendments.   (In a bipartisan manner.   Ample blame falls on both presidents Bush and Obama here…)

I am ashamed and embarrassed that my senator, Pat Toomey, is a vocal critic of what he calls “sanctuary cities”.  To listen to Sen. Toomey describe it, they’re bastions of lawlessness, with crime running rampant, the perpetrators getting no punishment and the victims getting no justice or even a mechanism for redress.  The reality is that all they are, is a set of rules governing when local law enforcement should and should not turn over undocumented immigrants to the federal authorities.   And Sen. Toomey has just introduced a blatantly unconstitutional bill that basically says that local authorities must turn them over, otherwise the city would risk losing federal funding.   

So yeah, I’m a full on advocate of states’ rights when it comes to government overreach in that regard.   

In fact, the only place where I never think it’s overreach is when you’re talking about anti-discrimination laws, as if somehow it’s a controversial opinion to treat other human beings as though they were, you know, human.  

So it’s heartening to see the phrase getting used for the active promotion of local activism.   This article in Vox is a great start.   Let’s see more of it.   And then we can finally take back the term “state’s rights” and the idea from the bigots and xenophobes.  

In defense of Percy Weasley

The character of Percy Weasley, the third oldest of the seven Weasley children in the Harry Potter franchise, is underappreciated at best.  When we first meet him, he’s in his fifth year at Hogwarts and has just been named prefect.   Unlike his brothers, he’s ambitious to a fault, and significantly more power hungry than anyone else in his family.  

In any sufficiently large family, all of the children might want something to help differentiate them from the rest.  The oldest, Bill, gets that by simply being the oldest.   The only daughter, Ginny, gets that by being the only girl.   The twins, Fred and George, are the jokers and the troublemakers.  

That leaves Ron, who got it simply by befriending Harry Potter, Charlie, who found his comfort in magical creatures, and Percy, who likely had no choice but to be the most studious and ambitious.  

While this ambition starts to cause real problems in the fifth book (and rightly so), I’d like to focus on Percy in the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.   At the start of the book, he has just graduated from the school with high marks and lands a government position in the ministry of international magical cooperation.  The British wizardry’s equivalent of the US State Department.  

His first responsibility, for which he receives some ridicule, is to help draft new regulations regarding the thickness of cauldrons.   In fairness to his brothers who laugh about it, this is decidedly not sexy or even headline grabbing work.  

But when you get down to it, this is one of the main purposes of government.   It’s even a clause of the preamble to the US constitution: “in order to … promote the general welfare”.  You can’t have your potion spilling out onto the fire because the cauldron you bought wasn’t thick enough.  The government is really your only line of defense against a “caveat emptor” attitude exposed and espoused by a free market economy.   The “invisible hand of the market” only pushes things so far and many lives are harmed if not lost without some reasonable regulation or restriction.   

At least as far back as the 1920s, the mantra of the Republican Party has been that government regulations are bad and that they stifle job creation and harm the economy.  This mantra has been magnified in the past 40 years even though they very seldom point to any specific regulations (other than those designed to protect the environment) that are so bad.  

Just like the correct tax rate (and in this regard, I don’t care whether you’re talking about consumption taxes, property taxes, income taxes, or other taxes) can be problematic in terms of deciding what’s too high and what’s too low (too low means the government doesn’t get enough money to do its business, while too high means that some jobs may be lost), there are trade-offs with any other numeric value that must be ascribed to.  If cauldron bottoms are too thin, they may cause problems for the end consumer.   If they’re too thick, the demand for replacement cauldrons will shrivel up and depress the market.   

But without an external agency driving minimum standards, there can be no protection at all.   It’s why I’m skeptical of any politician who makes a speech railing against regulations in general.   If you think the speed limit is too low, or that the proper limit for defining drunk driving is too high, or that fuel efficiency standards for cars are too high, fine.   Tell me what you think they should be and we can talk.   

This is especially true for any regulation that they perceive as having a result of lost jobs.   A lot of coal miners and oil drillers think that environmental regulations cost jobs.  While not outwardly incorrect, it’s a dramatic oversimplification of the truth: changing market conditions, most notably consumer demand, has done more to limit the availability of those jobs.  I should think that for each job lost to the closing of a coal mine, a job can be gained by installing and maintaining wind farms and solar panels.  All that’s needed is a little training.  

So Percy Weasley was a typical bureaucrat: he wants to do the right thing and make lives a little better.  Is that really so wrong?

But is it good radio?

If you pick up any sufficiently old book — especially one with a table of contents longer than a page in length — you’ll quickly notice that the table of contents uses a different page numbering scheme (usually lower case Roman numerals) from the main text of the book itself.   Ditto for the index, glossary, and appendix at the back of the book.   

It’s not because those sections of the book are less important than the main text of the book.   It’s because having the table of contents use the same numbering scheme as the main text, can alter the page numbers on which the text to which they refer. Creating a table of contents was already a tedious task for the typesetter; forcing them to make changes to the page numbers as a direct consequence of the work they’re trying to do, well it’s fair to say that it can easily add to the frustration and tedium of the work.   (Especially if the changes bounced back and forth multiple times between the table of contents and the main text…)

The advent of word processing software in approximately the past 20 to 30 years simplified the process of creating a table of contents: with a few mouse clicks you can do what previously took days to do.   The tedium and issues with recursive downstream impact have completely vanished.  

This is just one example of how computers and technology have greatly simplified tasks that might previously have been difficult, tedious, or in some cases, impossible without the tools we now take for granted.  

I mention this because yesterday, my favorite radio station, WXPN in Philadelphia, after about a week of teasers on social media, started an interesting project yesterday morning at 6 am (local time): they are suspending their usual programming 24/7 to play their music catalog alphabetically (by song title).  (I doubt it’s the whole catalog because I would presume they’re going to want to play something new by the time springtime rolls around…)

When I was in college in the early 90s, I was a DJ at the on-campus radio station.  Back then, it had an incredibly weak signal to the point that if you didn’t live in on-campus housing, you probably couldn’t pick it up.  We had two turntables, two cassette decks (plus one more tape deck for recording your shows), an 8-track deck, and a CD player.  I, like most DJs there, favored playing records and CDs to the other means of airing music because they were the easiest to cue up in preparation of the next song to play.  When it was my turn to be on the air, I’d load up a duffel bag with some of my own personal CDs and LPs to supplement the radio’s library.   (And as an added bonus, the extremely short range of our little AM station meant that I could play John Lennon’s Working Class Hero or similar songs without censorship or fear of reprisal from the FCC…)

Given that technology, imagine the effort it would take to play even a couple of hundred songs alphabetically: locate the albums that are the source of the songs you want to play (and you might need more than one copy of the album if you’re going to segue from one song to another on the same album and they’re not one right after the other in the correct order on the record or CD).  Then write out all of the song titles and alphabetize them into your playlist.   And then cue them up and play them in the order you spelled out.  It’s probably fair to say that any such playlist, if it contains more than, say, fifty to a hundred songs, is an effort whose tedium might rival the creation of a table of contents in a book.  

But with modern computer technology, this is relatively easily done.  I’m sure WXPN isn’t using iTunes, but any disk jockeying software that is at least as powerful as Apple’s music management system can do it with relative ease.  All that’s really needed is to do some curation of the overall archive (which might be ongoing as a part of the day-to-day running of the station) and have a DJ who knows when to pause the playing of the playlist to speak into the microphone and play ads.  (It’s a public radio station so the ads are minimal and are from sponsors…). And maybe have a pause in the playing for regular station identification.  I say “maybe” here because they occasionally put the software on shuffle and leave it to its own devices during holidays when no one wants to go into the station.  You hear the identification at the top of the hour then, too.

That’s pretty good stuff.   I’m just wondering which song — with multiple artists who’ve put their stamp on it — will be played the most times in a row.   I’ve narrowed it down to one of three possibilities: Hallelujah by Leonard CohenHard to Handle by Otis Redding, or Landslide by Fleetwood Mac.   But I could be wrong.   We shall find out soon enough….