Reflections on the End of RBC, Part II: A Personal Perspective on the Pains and Joys of Blogging

This is the second of my three reflections made during this, the last month of RBC’s existence. The first was devoted to Mark Kleiman as a blogger. This one is devoted to my own experience as a blogger. I stipulate at the outset that this reflection may only be of interest to me, but one of the joys of blogging is that you can write posts even if the only person who will benefit is yourself.

How I Got Here and What I Did

I am not sure when I started reading RBC, but it was likely around 2008. Mark already had a strong stable of contributors then (Michael O’Hare, Andy Sabl, Jonathan Zasloff, and Harold Pollack were regulars), in addition to indefatiguably producing his own content. I learned things about public policy regarding crime, drugs, and health from reading RBC that were helpful to me in my work as Senior Drug Policy Advisor in the Obama White House. During my Washington days I also fed Mark some stories and trial balloons that he riffed on in these pages.

When my sabbatical year ended and I moved back to Palo Alto, Mark generously asked me if I wanted to join his crew. He described RBC as a “blogger’s blog” that had a medium sized following — way more than most blogs but way less than the big beasts. But he also said, correctly, that RBC’s work was picked up frequently by national bloggers and traditional media outlets (i.e., in the emerging politics and policy-focused blogosphere, RBC was The New Republic or The Economist rather than Time Magazine or the New York Times). My first post was in August of 2010 and explained my decision to accept Mark’s invitation.

I got into the rhythm of blogging pretty quickly and was active here until Spring of 2014, when I largely moved to Washington Post’s Wonkblog. One thing I worked out over my time at RBC was that more posts = more visitors to the blog. Given that, and the fact that I enjoy writing and even find it relaxing, I wrote a lot during my time here: in one 12 month period, I penned 60% of all RBC posts (to be clear, no one else was skiving off, I just wrote a lot). Despite the fact that some of what I wrote was hot garbage, the expansion of content in that period translated into a significant growth in readership. With I hope pardonable vanity, I am proud to have been a part of the crew that gave this site its biggest audience, not least because that readership growth helped attract Washington Monthly magazine to partner with us in a co-publishing arrangement beginning in 2012 that increased our readership even more (although as I wrote in my reflection on Mark, building an audience from scratch as Mark did is infinitely harder than growing the audience of an existing platform).

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Anglo-Saxon thought for the day

From The Battle of Maldon.

Dedicated to the exhausted army of doctors, nurses, and ancillary workers who have woken up in many countries to another endless day of struggle against a faceless epidemic. And particularly to those who relax reading Anglo-Saxon poetry.

From The Battle of Maldon, ca. 1000 CE. The Saxon war-leader Byrhtnoth has been killed and his band is losing the battle to the Viking invaders; some Saxons have run away. His old retainer Byrhtwold speaks to the remnant standing fast. Try reading it aloud to catch the alliteration. The letter þ is a voiced “th”. [Update: sound file on YouTube.]

Hige sceal þē heardra, heorte þē cēnre,
mōd sceal þē māre, þē ūre mægen lytlað.

Thought shall be the harder, heart the keener,
Mood [mind, courage] the more, as our might lessens [lit: littles.].

Suitably, the text is incomplete, and breaks off before the battle ends. We don’t know who wins – then or now.

Warriors:

Then

 

Now

 

Yad Vashem and plastic plates

We are back from Israel, where I visited Yad Vashem for the first time. Being me, I have written to the curators with a few thoughts and suggestions. An extract follows.

Dear curators of Yad Vashem:

I was recently privileged to spend a morning at Yad Vashem during a holiday in Israel. Among the many strong emotions aroused by this experience is admiration for the work of the designers and curators of this great memorial. The comments and suggestions below are in no way intended to detract from this admiration. In addition, it is I think psychologically impossible to take in everything during a single short visit; if I have got anything materially wrong in my recollections, I apologise but claim force majeure.

[two pages on other stuff]

Disposable plates

As in the Israel Museum, the cafeteria serves cakes on disposable polystyrene plates. The observation may seem trivial and in the context of Yad Vashem ridiculous. Bear with me: I think it’s important.

First, these two museums are world-class institutions, presenting crucial aspects of Israel’s identity to the rest of humanity. At this level, visitors expect exemplary standards of professionalism, and nearly uniformly get it. Polystyrene plates are a retrograde failure to meet the benchmark. The EU will ban single-use plastic plates and cutlery by 2021, and public opinion in Europe is ahead of it.

Second, the mission of Yad Vashem in particular is memory. You seek to fight off the oblivion of time1 and ensure the Holocaust is no more forgotten than the Exodus or the destruction of the Temples. The architecture of the museum well reflects this aim of permanence in its solidity. The same should, I suggest, hold for minor details like plates. In my visits to the Struthof concentration camp in Alsace, I was struck by the shoddiness and meanness of the Nazi construction, and the unexceptional, but dignified and solid, stone memorials to the camps put up postwar by the French were a welcome contrast.

A final thought flowing from the above. As I understand it, the inmates in slave labour camps, Jews and others, were issued metal plates and cups for their starvation rations. I assume these remained the property of the camp, and were passed on to from one disposable slave to the next. I imagine that they played an important and ambiguous part in the mental world of the inmates: at the same time part of the machinery of destruction, but also a concession by the oppressors to the necessity of maintaining life among their slaves and a twisted recognition of their humanity. The tin plates were not evil things in themselves.

You might consider a small display cabinet in the cafeteria, with relevant testimonies from survivors. An additional possibility would be a comparison of the daily rations in a typical labour camp with those of a Geneva-convention Stalag for Western Allied POWs and of an American GI in Normandy.

Respectfully, Shalom

1Julian Barnes’ short story “Evermore”, in his collection Crossing the Channel, is a good exploration of this topic, set in the Western Front after WWI.

[/end letter]

Note: I have chosen this part of the letter as the most likely to spark a useful and focussed discussion – a general one on the Holocaust would be shapeless. Commenters are free to call me names, but I’d be grateful if you could avoid using the argument “so that’s the one thing you could find to write about?” because, you know, it wasn’t.

My climate strike

Joining the striking kids in Malaga

Lu and I joined the children’s climate strike in Malaga yesterday.

Can you spot the odd man out? Photo by Lu

The photo is slightly misleading in that the majority of the protesters were older, with a surprising number of Seniores. A decent if not startling turnout, and all very good-humoured.

Our information-rich poster. Translation at the end. Bus by Playmobil. Hollin is soot – the streaks are the real thing from my wood-burning fireplace. The QR code links to a paper in Nature Communications, but only one other participant took a photo of it. No media in sight.

I did quite well on photos otherwise: several dozen. Very markedly, there was disproportionate interest from middle-aged women. I assume it’s the placenta reference: it doesn’t connect in the same way to young nulliparae.

If I were Francisco de la Torre, the 77-year-old PP mayor of Malaga, would I be worried enough to reconsider my policies? For instance on slow-walking the buying of electric buses? I doubt it: we weren’t enough, nor sufficiently focused. A lot depends on whether Greta’s army, or its parents, will get down to the plank-boring work of political organization. The Occupy Wall Streeters notoriously failed to make this transition. But I might be more worried by the middle-aged women, the kind that go to meetings, who may now be circulating photos of my poster and others on their FB feeds.

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Vegas pics

I was the leadoff speaker at the American Association of Individual Investors conference in Las Vegas. I enjoyed meeting participants, disproportionately older folk asking questions about how to financially assist their adult children and grandchildren. While there, I took some pics….

Vegas card dealer. “For I have seen your painted women…”

Veronica and I are really enjoying that new TRX class, though my neck is a little sore.

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President Trump does look better with nonlinear functional forms

…So says the White House Council of Economic Advisors, anyway.

I’d wanted to learn how to do K-means image compression in R. So I decided to fact-check CEA’s claim by seeing what President Trump would look like if I compressed his image. Total time from googling R code to posted image: 15 minutes. Props to this guy for the clear code.

On the whole, I would have to say that CEA’s claim checks out…

Some other cool compressed images below
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Weekend pics: Chicago Air and Water show

On a poorly-planned trip, I got fewer good pics than last year, but a few decent ones. Mainly, the trip demonstrated the value of high-quality equipment. My full-frame camera with a 300mm lens got much better pics than my new super-zoom Nikon P900. The P900 got a few cool pictures of parachutists from miles away, but the soft lens, camera jitter, and related challenges made it hard to do action shots at high zoom.

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Memorial Day at Normandy, 2016

(Me from two years ago)

A four-year-old with her toy basket and cute yellow boots plays with her father in the sand. She has no way to understand–not that the rest of us really do, either that the spot on which she is playing was once a killing field, Juno Beach, where so many brave Canadian troops were subject to withering German fire on the morning of June 6, 1944.

IMG_4207

Our tour bus from Paris hit the usual sites. Memorials to Allied soldiers pepper the area. We saw no memorials to their German adversaries, who fought all too bravely and well for an unspeakable cause. I cannot honor these men. Yet they, too, left much behind.

Like many of my contemporaries, I was a childhood World War II buff. I’ve probably read a hundred books on World War II since I was a child. I learned world geography from the battle maps of American Heritage accounts of Midway, Stalingrad, and the Ardennes. So I was intimately familiar with our guide’s account of the logistical feats and planning missteps in Operation Overlord’s first day.

I knew of the bombing runs missed, the amphibious vehicles than had sunk. I knew about the currents and tides led many of the invaders to arrive a fatal thirty minutes late or to land a fateful few hundred-yards from their intended site. The greatest and most consequential victory of American arms since 1865 was, at ground level, bloody chaos, replete with tragic mistakes and accidents that led thousands of men to die.

I knew about the American Rangers who rappelled the steep face of Pointe du Hoc, while German troops on the ridge above slashed their climbing ropes and rained down grenades. I did not, until Saturday, know what that rock face looked like from above.

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