Monthly Archives: September 2015

A prison tale (fiction) by R. E. Buxbaum

I’m writing from the Michigan Department of Corrections; Mail-stop 5678 E, Jackson, MI, awaiting trial on auto-related charges. So, legally speaking, I’m still innocent, if not quite free. So, here’s my  story, and my bargain. The whole situation, it seems, is more comical than criminal. At its source, at bottom, all I was trying to do was take care of some left over issues from unofficial jobs I was doing for the city. For his honor, the mayor. That’s K.K., Kwamie Kilpatrick, the ex-mayor to you, but always his honor to me; great guy. Anyway, cars that fall in the river aren’t that unusual in this town, and it’s not like I planned to smuggle anything to Canada. You’ll notice my case doesn’t involve theft, or injuring anyone but myself. Just trespass, though I wouldn’t mind a short prison stay if it can be arranged. Sort of like Shawshank redemption.

Anyway, my minor crime was committed a week ago, Thursday, and involved a Dodge Viper. One that I own, straight-up, with a partner and the bank: a yellow, convertible viper costing some $220,000 when new. Beautiful machine; tinted glass, and capable of doing 180 mph without breaking a sweat. I use it, or did, to take care of errands for his honor. He tips nice, and helps out when I’m in a jam, so I did get paid for the work, but for the most part, it’s like I’m like a patriot-servant to the city. I’m using my own car for city business. In better days, those errands included taking judges for the occasional joy ride, to the airport or lunch, plus other deliveries. Not generally on the water, like last Thursday, and yes that’s me, waving in the photo. Shame about the car.

As to how I got the viper, I got it at the dealer on Woodward, just over the 8 mile bridge, and paid for it mostly myself, with a loan from First Federal. At the time I had a good job running errands for his honor, as I mentioned. Now I’m so of unemployed. What sort of errands? The sort of ones you’d want to run in a viper, Duh. Aside from driving judges to meetings, there were girl errands; some boy errands; some money errands. Occasionally a disposal — nothing illegal, but embarrassing maybe. When you’re disposing of city property, you don’t look too carefully at the item. When you’re carrying something big, or someone’s wife or girlfriend, or a lot of money, it’s nice to be able to move quickly. Judges and senators like to move fast too, behind tinted windows. They still do.

Anyway, after his honor goes to prison (real shame, that), and my job becomes near-ended. There’s still some errands to to, but not so many, and I’ll grant that the viper has become more of a liability than an asset. Not that there’s insurance fraud behind me ending up in the river, just good-ole fun, and maybe a little reckless driving. I’m owing like 165k still on the machine, and my brother and I came up with this great plan for a movie — no fraud intended. There’s this great spot that we know by Zug Island, where the Rouge meets the Detroit river. It’s pretty well deserted, with a pier and a boat ramp. We used it all the time, back in the day for meetings and such. No-one goes there because of the smells. There’s always an oil slick and the water there will dissolve most anything metal. The Zug Island folks make sure of there are no cameras or loiterers either — just so no-one steals their secrets. Anyway, my brother and I figured that, if I got the viper up to about 30- 40 mph on the pier we could sail it out over the rocks and garbage into the river, land softly in the water, and make for a great movie. We never planned to file an insurance claim like we’d lost the car or it was stolen. Anyway, the water’s only about 8′ below the end of the pier, so it’s sort of like a high-dive. I figured I’d get out of the sinking car swim up to the boat ramp, and walk to my brother’s car on the street. The car would dissolve to rust in a week; the water’s pretty nasty there. He’d film the whole thing. I’d dry off; we’d drive home, have a beer or two, then sell the film. Probably pull the rust out of the river in a week, just to keep everything in it’s pure, pristine state. Though, now that I think of it, insurance might still cover most of the value of the car. You never know.

So the first part goes OK. We drive to the pier about 9:00 PM, Thursday, just as the sun’s setting. There’s that good, reddish light over the Windsor skyline, and the pier is empty. There are two winos off far from my intended route. My brother and I take down the top and line up the vehicle so I avoid unwanted bumps and garbage as I sail out on my way to glory. And, with a shot of Jack, and a wave to my brother (It’s on the film), I go shooting out down the pier and over the water. Fine. No bumps, no rocks. Nice flight. No soft landing, though. The car hits water like a pumpkin on concrete. Ouch! The thing bends in the middle sealing the door shut and me inside. There’s hardly any spring to the seats anyway, and what little there once was is lost. My back gets twisted into the steering wheel. I can barely turn and I can’t quite get out. Then, about 5 minutes later, the air bag goes off. Guess they didn’t design for this accident. My back, is now twisted into the sat-back, and I’m in pain.

I think it’s some sort of Sprite Healey fracture like Kevin Everett got last year. I can walk, thanks, but it needs medical attention that I’m not likely to get on Medicaid. Anyway, like I said, I’m trapped inside the vehicle, and suppose I’d be dead if the car sank like we planned, bit it don’t sink. The thing floats. Like, forever. The car weighs like two tons and it floats! Who knew. I’m carried by my momentum and by some random Rouge current out past Zug Island into the main channel between Detroit and Windsor where I’m almost run down by an ore boat. Anyway, the yellow metal Viper-dingy I’m in gets noticed by the boat lookout and by some fishermen, but no one helps. Everyone’s seems to think it’s really funny. They’re all taking pictures, and texting, and calling their friends. And everyone is laughing but me. It’s funny, like a fart in a space suit. Meanwhile my brother’s been driving along by the river, filming everything and hoping I get out and can somehow swim to safety, and I keep floating off to Canada. Finally, someone calls the coast guard, but when the come, it turns out I’m in Canadian waters. So the Canadians come, and they’re all think it’s a boot. I’m a celebrity with pictures of me in my car floating all over the internet. And well, here I am, a relatively innocent man, with a junked car and a bad back. And I’m ready to make a deal. I’ll admit it looks like I was planning to defraud someone, but there’s no evidence. I’ll admit to trespass if you like, but not fraud or endangerment. There was no one there to endange, and no one endangered, except of me. And I won’t press charges (little joke).

What with all the publicity, I figure you want to press more than just trespass, and what I was thinking of is reckless driving. I’ll admit to that with no contest. Looked at the right way, that’s like a 60 day sentence, maybe 90 days, and that’s just fine with me. I don’t have the cleanest record, but it’s not like I’ve done this before. I think it would be fair if I got 60 to 90-days of incarceration with medical benefits and job rehabilitation. I’d like to learn a new trade, like auto repair. That’s a win-win for everyone. You close the case, and I get cured and put my job skills to work just as soon as I get out. But I really need the medical though. My health insurance doesn’t cover injury-in-performance-of-a-crime — it’s right there on page 28. And Medicare is garbage. Next time you get insurance, your honor, make sure to read the contract.

Anyway, you have the tape and the pictures, and can check with my brother. We have plenty of people who will testify for us, even folks in congress and in the police department. They’ll all tell you, we’re just a couple of good fellows, somewhat down on our luck, waiting to get out and go straight. Thanks for your help, and God-bless.

R. E. Buxbaum. Sept 30, 2015. Some weeks ago, I wrote an essay, “What is comedy.” So I thought I’d try writing one. Tell me how you think I did. No one in the story is meant to be anyone real, except for “his honor,’ who’s meant to be a fictional version of His Honor.

Marie de Condorcet and the tragedy of the GOP

This is not Maire de Condorcet, it's his wife Sophie. Marie (less attractive) was executed by Robespierre for being a Republican.

Marie Jean is a man’s name. This is not he, but his wife, Sophie de Condorcet. Marie Jean was executed for being a Republican in Revolutionary France.

During the French Revolution, Marie Jean de Condorcet proposed a paradox with significant consequence for all elective democracies: It was far from clear, de Condorcet noted, that an election would choose the desired individual — the people’s choice — once three or more people could run. I’m sorry to say, this has played out often over the last century, usually to the detriment of the GOP, the US Republican party presidential choices.

The classic example of Condorcet’s paradox occurred in 1914. Two Republican candidates, William H. Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, faced off against a less-popular Democrat, Woodrow Wilson. Despite the electorate preferring either Republican to Wilson, the two Republicans split the GOP vote, and Wilson became president. It’s a tragedy, not because Wilson was a bad president, he wasn’t, but because the result was against the will of the people and entirely predictable given who was running (see my essay on tragedy and comedy).

The paradox appeared next fifty years later, in 1964. President, Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) was highly unpopular. The war in Vietnam was going poorly and our cities were in turmoil. Polls showed that Americans preferred any of several moderate Republicans over LBJ: Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., George Romney, and Nelson Rockefeller. But no moderate could beat the others, and the GOP nominated its hard liner, Barry Goldwater. Barry was handily defeated by LBJ.

Then, in 1976; as before the incumbent, Gerald Ford, was disliked. Polls showed that Americans preferred Democrat Jimmy Carter over Ford, but preferred Ronald Regan over either. But Ford beat Reagan in the Republican primary, and the November election was as predictable as it was undesirable.

Voters prefer Bush to Clinton, and Clinton to Trump, but Republicans prefer Trump to Bush.

Voters prefer Bush to Clinton, and Clinton to Trump, but Republicans prefer Trump to Bush.

And now, in 2015, the GOP has Donald Trump as its leading candidate. Polls show that Trump would lose to Democrat Hillary Clinton in a 2 person election, but that America would elect any of several Republicans over Trump or Clinton. As before,  unless someone blinks, the GOP will pick Trump as their champion, and Trump will lose to Clinton in November.

At this point you might suppose that Condorcet’s paradox is only a problem when there are primaries. Sorry to say, this is not so. The problem shows up in all versions of elections, and in all versions of decision-making. Kenneth Arrow demonstrated that these unwelcome, undemocratic outcomes are unavoidable as long as there are more than two choices and you can’t pick “all of the above.” It’s one of the first great applications of high-level math to economics, and Arrow got the Nobel prize for it in 1972. A mathematical truth: elective democracy can never be structured to deliver the will of the people.

This problem also shows up in business situations, e.g. when a board of directors must choose a new location and there are 3 or more options, or when a board must choose to fund a few research projects out of many. As with presidential elections, the outcome always depends on the structure of the choice. It seems to me that some voting systems must be better than others — more immune to these problems, but I don’t know which is best, nor which are better than which. A thought I’ve had (that might be wrong) is that reelections and term limits help remove de Condorcet’s paradox by opening up the possibility of choosing “all of the above” over time. As a result, many applications of de Condorcet’s are wrong, I suspect. Terms and term-limits create a sort of rotating presidency, and that, within limits, seems to be a good thing.

Robert Buxbaum, September 20, 2015. I’ve analyzed the Iran deal, marriage vs a PhD, and (most importantly) mustaches in politics; Taft was the last of the mustached presidents. Roosevelt, the second to last.

Comedy: what is comedy?

It’s a mistake, I think, to expect that comedy will be funny; the Devine comedy isn’t, nor are Shakespeare’s comedies. It seems, rather, that comedy is the result of mistakes, fakes, and drunks stumbling along to a (typically) unexpected outcome. That’s sometimes funny, as often not. Our expectation is that mistakes and fools will fail in whatever the try, but that’s hardly ever the outcome in literature. Or in life. As often as not, the idiot ends up as king with the intelligent man working for him. It’s as if God is a comic writer and we are his creation. Perhaps God keeps us around for our amusement value, and drops us when we get stale.

It’s not uncommon to have laughs in a comedy; a Shakespearian comedy has some, as does life. But my sense is that you find more jokes in a tragedy, e.g. Romeo and Juliet, or Julius Caesar. What makes these tragedies, as best I can tell, is the great number of honorable people behaving honorably. Unlike what Aristotle claims, tragedy doesn’t have to deal with particularly great people (Romeo and Juliet aren’t) but they must behave honorably. If Romeo were to say “Oh well, she’s dead, I’ll find another,” it would be a comedy. When the lovers choose honorable death over separation, that’s tragedy.

hell viewed as a layer cake. Here is where suicides end up.

Dante’s hell viewed as a layer cake. The “you” label is where suicides end up; it’s from an anti-suicide blog.

Fortunately for us, in real life most people behave dishonorably most of the time, and the result is usually a happy ending. In literature and plays too, dishonorable behavior usually leads to a happy ending. In literature, I think it’s important for the happy ending to come about semi-naturally with some foreshadowing. God may protect fools, but He keeps to certain patterns, and I think a good comic writer should too. In one of my favorite musicals, the Music Man, the main character, a lovable con man is selling his non-teaching of music in an Iowa town. In the end, he escapes prison because, while the kids can’t play at all, the parents think they sound great. It’s one of the great Ah hah moments, I think. Similarly at the end of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, it’s not really surprising that the king (Mikado) commutes the death sentence of his son’s friends on the thinnest of presence: he’s the king; those are his son’s friends, and one of them has married a horrible lady who’s been a thorn in the king’s side. Of course he commutes the sentence: he’s got no honor. And everyone lives happily.

Even in the Divine Comedy (Dante), the happy ending (salvation) comes about with a degree of foreshadowing. While you meet a lot of suffering fools in hell and purgatory, it’s not totally unexpected to find some fools and sinners in heaven too. Despite the statement at the entrance of hell, “give up all hope”, you expect and find there is Devine grace. It shows up in a sudden break-out from hell, where a horde of the damned are seen to fly past those in purgatory for being too pious. And you even find foolish sinning at the highest levels of heaven. The (prepared) happy ending is what makes it a good comedy, I imagine.

There is such a thing as a bad comedy, or a tragic-comedy. I suspect that “The merchant of Venice” is not a tragedy at all, but a poorly written, bad comedy. There are fools aplenty in merchant, but too many honorable folks as well. And the happy ending is too improbable: The disguised woman lawyer wins the case. The Jew loses his money and converts, everyone marries, and the missing ships reappear, as if by magic. A tragic-comedy, like Dr Horrible’s sing along blog; is something else. There are fools and mistakes, but not totally unexpected ending is unhappy. It happens in life too, but I prefer it when God writes it otherwise.

It seems to me that the battle of Bunker Hill was one of God’s comedies, or tragic-comedies depending on which side you look. Drunken Colonials build a bad fort on the wrong hill in the middle of the night. Four top British generals agree to attack the worthless fort with their best troops just to show them, and the result is the greatest British loss of life of the Revolutionary war — plus the British in charge of the worthless spit of land. It’s comic, despite the loss of life, and despite that these are not inferior people. There is a happy ending from the American perspective, but none from the British.

I can also imagine happy tragedies: tales where honorable people battle and produce a happy result. It happens rarely in life, and the only literature example I can think of is  1776 (the musical). You see the cream of the colonies, singing, dancing, and battling with each other with honorable commitment. And the result is a happy one, at least from the American perspective.

Robert E. Buxbaum, September 17-24, 2015. I borrowed some ideas here from Nietzsche: Human, All too Human, and Birth of Tragedy, and added some ideas of my own, e.g. re; God. Nietzsche is quite good on the arts, I find, but anti-good on moral issues (That’s my own, little Nietzsche joke, and my general sense). The original Nietzsche is rather hard to read, including insights like: “A joke is an epigram on the death of a feeling.”

Why I don’t like the Iran deal

Treaties, I suspect, do not exist to create love between nations, but rather to preserve, in mummified form, the love that once existed between leaders. They are useful for display, and as a guide to the future, their main purpose is to allow a politician to help his friends while casting blame on someone else when problems show up. In the case of the US Iran-deal that seems certain to pass in a day or two with only Democratic-party support, and little popular support, I see no love between the nations. On a depressingly regular basis, Iranian leaders promise Death to America, and Death to America’s sometime-ally Israel. Iran has acted on these statements too, funding Hezbollah missiles and suicide bombers, and hanging its dissidents: practices that lead it to become something of a pariah among its neighbors. They also display the sort of nuclear factories and ICBMs (long-range rockets) that could make them much bigger threats if they choose to become bigger threats. The deal just signed by US Secretary of State and his counterpart in Iran (read in full here) seems to preserve this state. It releases to Iran $100,000,000,000 to $150,000,000,000 that it claims it will use against Israel, and Iran claims to have no interest in developing multi-point compression atom bombs. This is a tiny concession given that our atom bomb at Hiroshima was single-point compression, first generation, and killed 90,000 people.

Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile, several stories high, brought out during negotiations. Should easily deliver nuclear weapons far beyond Israel, and even to the USA.

Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile, new for 2015. Should easily deliver warheads far beyond Israel -even to the US.

The deal itself is about 170 pages long and semi-legalistic, but I found it easy to read. The print is large, Iran has few obligations, and the last 100 pages or so are a list companies that will no longer be sanctioned. The treaty asserts that we will defend Iran against attacks including military and cyber attacks, and sabotage –presumably from Israel, but gives no specifics. Also we are to help them with oil, naval, and fusion technology, while leaving them with 1500 kg of 20% enriched U235. That’s enough for quick conversion to 8 to 10 Hiroshima-size A-bombs (atom bombs) containing 25-30 kg each of 90% U235. The argument in favor of the bill seems to be that, by giving Iran the money and technology, and agreeing with their plans, Iran will come to like us. My sense is that this is wishful-thinking, and unlikely (as Jimmy Carter discovered). The unwritten contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

As currently written, Iran does not recognize Israel’s right to exist. To the contrary, John Kerry has stated that a likely consequence is further attacks on Israel. Given Hezbollah’s current military budget is only about $150,000,000 and Hamas’s only about $15,000,000 (virtually all from Iran), we can expect a very significant increase in attacks once the money is released — unless Iran’s leaders prove to be cheapskates or traitors to their own revolution (unlikely). Given our president’s and Ms Clinton’s comments against Zionist racism, I assume that they hope to cow Israel into being less militant and less racist, i.e. less Jewish. I doubt it, but you never know. I also expect an arms race in the middle east to result. As for Iran’s statements that they seek to kill every Jew and wipe out the great satan, the USA: our leaders may come to regret hat they ignore such statements. I guess they hope that none of their friends or relatives will be among those killed.

Kerry on why we give Iran the ability to self-inspect.

Kerry on why we give Iran the ability to self-inspect.

I’d now like to turn to fusion technology, an area I know better than most. Nowhere does the treaty say what Iran will do with nuclear fusion technology, but it specifies we are to provide it, and there seem to be only two possibilities of what they might do with it: (1) Build a controlled fusion reactor like the TFTR at Princeton — a very complex, expensive option, or (2) develop a hydrogen fusion bomb of the sort that vaporized the island of Bimini: an H-bomb. I suspect Iran means to do the latter, while I imagine that, John Kerry is thinking the former. Controlled fusion is very difficult; uncontrolled fusion is a lot easier. With a little thought, you’ll see how to build a decent H-bomb.

My speculation of why Iran would want to make an H-bomb is this: they may not trust their A-bombs to win a war with Israel. As things stand, their A-bomb scientists are unlikely to coax more than 25 to 100 kilotons of explosive power out of each bomb, perhaps double that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But our WWII bombs “only” killed 70,000 to 90,000 people each, even with the radiation deaths. Used against Israel, such bombs could level the core of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. But most Israelis would survive, and they would strike back, hard.

To beat the Israelis, you’d need a Megaton-size, hydrogen bomb. Just one Megaton bomb would vaporize Jerusalem and it’s suburbs, kill a million inhabitants at a shot, level the hills, vaporize the artifacts in the jewish museum, and destroy anything we now associate with Israel. If Iran did that, while retaining a second bomb for Tel-Aviv, it is quite possible Israel would surrender. As for our aim, perhaps we hope Iran will attack Israel and leave us alone. Very bright people pushed for WWI on hopes like this.

Robert E. Buxbaum. September 9, 2015. Here’s a thought about why peace in the middle east is so hard to achieve,

Pelham G. Wodehouse would like to acknowledge

Here is the acknowledgement page of P. G. Wodehouse’s autobiography, “Over Seventy”, published 1957. Wouldn’t we all like to be able to write an acknowledgement like this (and have enough of an oeuvre to make it funny)?

Wouldn't we all like to write one like this.

You have to have a lot of hits — or an imaginary Frisby –to get away with an acknowledgement like this.

For those who don’t know, P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975)  was the author of some 150 books and plays, plus a hundred or so short stories, radio-sketches and songs. He is best known as the creator of one of the great bromance relationships: carefree Bertram Wooster and his super-competent valet, Jeeves. Wodehouse collaborated on two dozen Broadway musicals including with Jerome Kern (Showboat), Cole Porter (Anything Goes), Guy Bolton, and George Gershwin, and once had 5 running simultaneously. But, to my knowledge, he has never sold an eel, jellied or otherwise.

Robert E. Buxbaum, September 1, 2015. “It was one of those cases where you approve the broad, general principle of an idea but can’t help being in a bit of a twitter at the prospect of putting it into practical effect. I explained this to Jeeves, and he said much the same thing had bothered Hamlet.”  (Jeeves in the Morning).