Where is the line between infrastructure and socialism?

Where do you, personally, draw the line between infrastructure and socialism?

Merriam Webster dictionary definition of infrasctructure, the system of public works of a country, etc.I ask this sincerely, with no desire to engage in polarized internet snipe-fests, but in the spirit of attentiveness to what government services various individuals might deem “necessary” and which are “overreach.”

Even more interesting than the what, is the why.

Only deep ignorance of history allows one to pretend there’s anything universal about this question. Our republican forebears in Rome—whose architecture we aped in the United States capitol in part due to the Founding Fathers’ lionization of that civilization—prioritized very different governmental interventions than we do today.

Proving myself, as always, a true dilettante and no real scholar, I’ll begin by pointing to a series of mystery novelsthat I read years ago. They turned me on to a startling fact: the ancient Romans had no police force.

police car parked at justice centerRome, civilization par excellence, did not feel that it owed average citizens the protection of civil police. The military kept order to an extent that suited the needs of the state, but there was no one to call when your silver was stolen. It wasn’t until the great republic became an empire that Augustus formed the Praetorian Guard in 27 BCE… to protect himself.

And all this in spite of the fact that the Ancient Greek city of Athens had seen the nascent formation of a police force (c. 400 BCE) to keep order and arrest and manage prisoners using publicly owned Scythian slaves. Investigating and detecting crime, in the ancient world, was the responsibility of individual free citizens.

So, is a police force a basic piece of infrastructure, a right that should be available to all, or is investigation and detection by paid government agents an imposition against individual freedoms as the Romans seemed to believe?

In spite of our turbulent times and the fraught political environment, I’ll admit it: I think this is a fascinating question. In a democracy, it is, in fact, the duty of every citizen to ponder these essential assumptions.

Do modern American people on the right and on the left really have such different ideas about what a government ought to do, or are our differences more about degree and descriptive nomenclature?

Continue reading

Passage from Leave the World Behind epitomizes 2020’s key lesson

Like any sensible reader for whom Christmas triggers profound grief over the death of a holiday-adoring loved one, I began Christmas morning 2020 by finishing up a dystopian novel, Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind.

You can find a proper review from NPR or the New York Times, but I agree with the positive opinions that Alam crafted an unusual and interestingly written work of fiction. It isn’t an easy book to read due to the subject matter, but it wasn’t off-putting to me for the usual gruesome reasons I dislike most horror. Gird yourself for a downward spiral of darkness if you dive in, but Leave the World Behind is well worth reading.

Leave the World Behind book coverWhat follows is a quotation from near the end of the novel, but I don’t believe reading it out of context constitutes a spoiler for the plot. I’m putting it “below the fold” in case any reader feels differently and prefers to stop here.

Continue reading

DuoLingo rank in top 3% explains how I passed pandemic time

Perhaps because the pandemic gave me fewer distractions, I stuck with DuoLingo for most of 2020, primarily studying German and Spanish this time. I practiced there more than ever before, and I earned my longest continuing streaks.

I believe I created my DuoLingo account sometime during DS1‘s first year of home schooling, which would put that half a dozen years ago or so. My history with the platform is therefore fairly long, but my use has been sporadic. I come and go with all of my language studies, often in preparation for a trip, but I also use Pimsleur tapes and other resources, and I jump around between languages including those I started in school (Spanish, German, Japanese) but also occasionally French, Russian, or any other language I’ll be encountering in my travels.

Books foreign language learningI’ve tended to view DuoLingo as a game, a dabble, or a linguistic lark. I’m already on record on this point: I am a dilettante.

According to the 2020 Year in Review report Duo sent me this December, I ended up in this year’s top 3% of users. Who would’ve thought it? Yay, me!

DuoLingo 2020 Year in Review analysis

Whether these reports are a new feature, or if I’ve simply been “inactive” by winter in the past, this is the first time I remember receiving such a summary.

2597 minutes of language learning only averages out to about 7 minutes per day, roughly 50 minutes per week, so my minor obsession with the platform over the summer wasn’t too pathological. Nor is such a commitment sufficient, really, for anything except a nifty end-of-year ranking worthy of a self-congratulatory blog post.

Am I great at German now? Na ja, I’m afraid I still require subtitles to watch Nailed It! Germany or Dark on Netflix. Fluent, I ain’t!

Then again, the power of spaced repetition for retaining knowledge is undeniable. I’m hardly fluent in any language but my first, yet I have certainly cemented additional vocabulary in German and Spanish in 2020.

DuoLingo’s tag line is something like: “Learn a language in just 15 minutes per day.”

Analog wall clock showing 12:06The reality is that few will actually commit to the process, and almost no one can achieve fluency using any single tool. Even if you do commit 15 minutes per day to DuoLingo, you’ll be unlikely to be ready to address the United Nations without a whole lot of “something else” under your belt.

Also, the CEO is the person who invented CAPTCHAs, so there’s that working against DuoLingo’s place in my heart, too. I despise those stupid things.

Screen grab from DuoLingo showing 129-day streak achievementMany of us are susceptible to game-ification, however, so I encourage langauge learners to give DuoLingo a try. Extrinsic motivation isn’t such a bad thing for a necessary—yet repetitive—task like vocabulary study. I jealously guard my months’ long streak of continuous* days’ use of the platform. No stack of flash cards has ever kept me on track so continuously; not even the fear of low grades in college courses was as compelling as hoarding an imaginary currency called Lingots.

I’m 21 topics away from completing Level One of every available topic in German, the language I study most often on the platform. I’ll earn a completely meaningless Achievement dubbed “Conqueror” when I make it to that lofty(?) goal.

I’ve only topped out at Level Five on a single topic, Basics1 before the castle icon indicating Checkpoint One. It’s interesting, actually, recognizing from perusing the DuoLingo chat boards how some of us approach a language breadth-first, whilst others prefer a deeper dive, completing each topic up to its max in turn before moving on to the next.

I suppose the choice to do otherwise feels as obvious to other learners as mine does to me!

German has five Checkpoints or collections of topics, whereas Spanish has seven. Some languages are more popular than others, and the platform seems to offer more content for the languages users demand. Rational of them, I suppose.DuoLingo screen shot showing one more Topic to complete before Checkpoint 3 Castle is reached

I’m just shy of Checkpoint Three en español.

DuoLingo is free, so it is well worth its price. Ads are a significant annoyance when using the iOS app, but I don’t see any in the web version running on my desktop though I do employ multiple ad blockers.

The number of ads shown seemed to increase with total usage on the iOS app; I might not have kept up with it if I’d seen ads after every lesson from the beginning like I do now.

It’s worth noting that the ads in the app occur only at the end of each topic lesson, so I can and do cover my screen with my hand until the close button becomes available, and unwanted screeching video noise pollution can be silenced when it does occur. Moderately annoying still ads outnumber intensely annoying video ads on DuoLingo in my experience, but the ads to which you will be subjected are no doubt dictated by some algorithm outside my ability to predict on your behalf.Calculation of 41 weeks + 3 days times minutes per day = 417,600 minutes

I appreciate DuoLingo’s year end report for an accounting of how I spent 2597 minutes of pandemic isolation. Now if only I had such complete records for the other 415,003 minutes of it. I have some doubt that the balance was spent in so edifying a manner!

* Full disclosure: I have used a “Streak Freeze” save at least twice, so my current 129 day streak is somewhat less impressive than it looks.

FYI French has nine, Russian has five, and Hebrew has seven. You’ll have to do the resources yourself for any of the other 32 languages available to English speakers that are not in my DuoLingo queue.

Cheer a grumpy Christmas by stacking tiny bricks of gratitude

2020 hasn’t been a normal year. This won’t be an average Christmas.

Xmas tree - 1Many of us are heeding public health advice and avoiding travel. Some of us are still grieving lost loved ones whose presence defined* special holidays. Ignoring these very real sources of pain is neither healthy, nor possible in the long term.

But does acknowledging the bumps in life’s road mean choosing between being a humbug or a Grinch? I hope to prove otherwise.

I’m afraid I’m having a Very Grumpy Christmas. While I wish for better for every reader, I suspect my miseries enjoy plenty of company.

When I’m in this kind of snit—so easily degenerating into a full on funk—about the only remedy is the doing of good or the counting of blessings.

As I took advantage of an un-rushed school vacation week morning today by staying in bed for an extra hour with my book, I was grateful for not yet having reached the end of the last series of novels my mother will ever recommend to me.

She bugged me for months to pick up the first one. Why did I resist until after she was gone? I wish with every page that I could tell her how much I’m enjoying them…

Comforting myself with this small thing for which I could give thanks, I realized each little blessing is a brick. If I stack up enough of them, I’ll have built a sizable structure. One brick won’t do a person much good against an invading army, but enough humble chunks of masonry suffice for The Great Wall of China.

Thanksgiving give thanks - 1So perhaps I’m not playing so well with others, today. I’m hardly a Sugar Plum Fairy. I’ll be a builder, though, of my own Great Wall of Gratitude.

I think it will hold.

QC city walls

Here are a few more trivialities I’ve found to be thankful for today:

  • My husband went back to the too busy, too crowded day-before-holiday bakery when they forgot to include my favorite cinnamon buns in the pre-packed bag he went out for at dawn.
  • My teenager told me he loves me… without me prompting him by saying it first.
  • My younger one never hesitates to show me affection, not even when his friends can see him doing it.
  • My kids can collaborate on a project and produce something great without adult supervision.
  • My pantry is full; I’m not afraid for how I will feed my family.

Readers, please feel free to share in the comments what you can find to be grateful for this topsy-turvy holiday season. Your smallest joy would be a Really Wonderful gift to me.

* I can’t look at a Christmas decoration without being reminded of my mother, who died of cancer in 2019. On the other hand, to ignore her favorite holiday would be the most disrespectful possible thing as far as honoring her memory goes.

Today’s post is brought to you in memory of Mother Christmas.

Mom decorates Christmas tree with ornament

That would be the Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny. Find them listed in order here; I’ve made it to book 13, Glass Houses. You definitely do want to read these in chronological order if you opt to give them a try. They’re decorous enough for readers of cozy mysteries (Mom), but complex enough for those of us who like to pretend we’re exercising our minds with our choice of literature.

Be warned, however: If you get into these mid-pandemic, you’ll be cross that you can’t make a visit to Quebec, which Penny paints as paradise… if you can get past the political intrigues and frequent murders!

Mail a greeting card in 2020 to uplift lonely holidays

Even if you don’t usually send Christmas cards or other holiday greetings, this year might deserve to be an exception. So many people are lonely and missing far-flung families due to the pandemic; getting a hand-written note in the mail may be the most human connection in a person’s day. That is well worth 55 ¢ in postage and a few minutes of your time.

greeting cards on desk blotter with pen and stampsI send cards sometimes; other years, I don’t get around to it.

I have written Hanukkah greetings, Christmas cards, acknowledgements of the Winter Solstice, and best wishes for happy New Years. I send the message I think the recipient would most appreciate; my religion* in no way dictates the blessing I offer a friend of a different persuasion.

My family hung the same red felt banners on the entry hall wall every year of my life. They went up early in December, empty canvasses, ready to receive holiday missives as they arrived. The oldest was made by my mother’s mother and features pockets and a waving Santa at the top; Mom had to craft another when I was little to accommodate the deluge of communiques that her sociability and dedication to friendship and public service inspired. Cards were pinned or stapled to that display.

In 2019, my mother died.

Somehow, that year also saw a huge reduction in the number of Christmas cards my widowed father received. In years past, every inch of these many yards of felt was hidden by the volume of cards and letters; last year, only one banner ended up even partially covered.

Torn black felt heart pinned to garment to signify grief and k'riah

I don’t believe that people were intentionally ignoring my dad in the absence of Mom, though her enthusiasm** for Christmas did put that of other, mere mortals to shame. I received fewer cards last year, too. The dentist and the auto body shop we used only once historically sent pre-printed cards, untouched by even a secretary’s hand. A lot of that has stopped. I suppose it’s a sign of the growing reliance on electronic communication, and I don’t miss impersonal mailings from businesses too much.

Dad’s passing comment about getting so few cards, however, was like a punch in the gut to me. It was already such a hard year for him; I grieved again to see him feeling forgotten. What a dreadful time for the world to decide to save a tree and skip a mailed paper greeting!

I’m going to be sending at least a few cards this year, myself. I’m prioritizing older relatives, and those who live alone. Even if you never send cards, hate to write, or don’t celebrate any of the winter holidays, this may be a year to reach out in the spirit of warmth, light, and joy—just because.

There’s no real deadline, either, in case you’re worried about the already overburdened postal system. Send Warm Winter Wishes in January, if that feels more appropriate. After the happiest of holidays, that month can be a real let-down. After a grim, lonely season you believe should have been festive? January could be gruesome.

Our shared humanity is reason enough. Care for others is the animating gift of all societies. Winter is dark and feels too long in the good years; 2020 has not been a particularly good year for most. Pandemic winter is an enemy to us all, but a terrorizing monster to the isolated and the lonely.

Reach out, if you’ve got a few minutes, an envelope, a stamp. You’ll be making the world just that little bit better for someone else. I’m willing to bet it will brighten your day, too.

I might even argue that the very definition of faith makes the fear of someone else’s difference a rather fundamental failing of it…

** Mom liked to say that Christmas was the reason the rest of the year exists. She called herself Mother Christmas, and Dad had a song commissioned for her about that by a talented musician friend. My parents’ over-the-top outdoor decorations were so spectacular, their house was featured in a television public service announcement in the 1990’s. Mom had a unique holiday outfit for every day between Thanksgiving and Epiphany, reckoning the arrival of the Wise Men was the true end of the Christmas season.

I wouldn’t turn back the clock to more paper spam either. This is not an argument that we return to physical documents for conducting most business.

That said, I do notice, enjoy, and appreciate the personalized greetings sent by some institutions, such as my son’s school and my former personal trainer who takes the time to hand write all of his cards.