August 26, 2023

Observations on the Recent GOP Debate

The GOP debate of presidential hopefuls on August 23 was mildly useful, though it illustrated again that the mechanics of these events are all wrong. 

Candidates at August 23, 2023 GOP Debate
First, let me offer a few quick observations.

The most animated participant, Vivek Ramaswamy, was insufferable and pretty much acted as a stand-in for the former president. He was born into a Hindu Brahmin family and appears to think that this automatically makes him a member of the highest caste in the United States. He is a businessman, and we have ample reason to believe that is a disastrous qualification for high office. Besides, he is barely old enough to be president. He will not go far, at least anytime soon.

Ron DeSantis, the personality-challenged Florida governor was unimpressive. Enough said.

The remaining candidates, except for Nikki Haley, were unremarkable. The former U.N. ambassador displayed a realization that the policy positions needed to obtain the GOP nomination are the same ones that will doom the standard bearer in the general election. She is clearly the strongest candidate and will therefore fail to be nominated.

Now, as to the debate mechanics. I should begin by saying that the moderators, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum of Fox News, largely asked reasonable and relevant questions. (The UFO question asked of Chris Christie was the exception.) They were hampered by two ongoing problems: the presence of an audience, and the lack of an adequate mechanism to enforce the agreed-upon rules of engagement.

I don’t know how the audience was selected, but it clearly favored the Republican Party in general and Donald Trump in particular.  Reactions of the local audience cannot but influence the remote audience and perhaps even the candidates themselves. Moreover, the audience interrupted the debate. It was unsurprising that Bret Baier felt the need to turn around and admonish the crowd, which was becoming unruly. (In my more mischievous moments, I’ve thought that it would be interesting to have a Democratic audience for a Republican debate.)

Disruptive audience reaction is not a new problem but is one that is easily ameliorated: eliminate the audience. Put them in another room with a remote feed, but remove them as a factor in debates. I suspect that getting a ticket to a debate is a perk offered by the network or the candidates. (As I said, I don’t know how the audience is selected.) Fine, give them a comfortable auditorium with a big TV screen and generous hors d’oeuvres. They can cheer and boo to their hearts’ content. Meanwhile, the debate can be held in a much smaller venue, perhaps in a television studio.

Then there is the matter of controlling the candidates themselves. It is clear that the rules for who can speak and in what circumstances are not self-enforcing. The moderators ringing a bell to indicate that a speaker’s time has expired was conspicuously useless in shutting anyone up. If candidates perceive that they can gain a rhetorical advantage by flouting the rules, they will do so. This has been shown to be true time and time again. The solution to uncontrolled debate is also simple: mute the microphone as soon as a candidate speaks beyond his or her allotted time. No one will be able to speak out of turn if an active microphone is not available. If a speaker is in the middle of a sentence, it may be appropriate to allow a three-second grace period before a microphone is cut off. This more aggressive timekeeping is probably best done by a technician. Not only do moderators already have enough to think about, but it is best not to give a candidate reason to be angry with a moderator, either during the debate or later.

My suggestions are not rocket science, and I surely am not the first person to think of them. Why haven’t they been implemented? As long as a debate is staged by a television network, there is an incentive to make the event as entertaining as possible. Audience reactions—to a point, anyway—and verbal fireworks among the participants are audience magnets, at least among those more interested in entertainment than politics. Nothing leads to changing the channel faster than a boring discussion. I suspect that even participants appreciate a certain anarchy in political debates. They are not above stealing more time than they deserve, and they want to display their passion or machismo. (Can a woman show machismo or is there another non-sexist word I could use?)

Of course, my suggestions will not be implemented. None of the participants seems to have an incentive to participate in a thoughtful, polite discussion.

August 14, 2023

Lock Him Up!

This evening, Rachel Maddow and Hillary Clinton are having a discussion as we await information about the just-issued indictment in Georgia. One of the matters they have spoken about is a proper sentence for Donald Trump. Clinton seems reluctant to say that Trump should go to prison.

I don’t remember when first I said I wanted to see Trump in prison, but it was a long time ago. I feel even stronger about the matter today. There are two reasons for desiring that result. First, it is important to make it clear that the undermining of the Republic that was the program of Donald Trump must never happen again and that the punishment for such behavior is sure and harsh. In addition, however, putting Trump in prison is a way to shut him up, to remove his poisonous influence from the body politic.

A say, as I have said before, “Lock him up!”

Meteor Hunting

This past weekend, I went meteor hunting. August, of course, is the month in which the Perseid Meteor Shower can be seen, and the celestial show was supposed to be at its zenith Saturday and Sunday. I have fond memories of my first encounter with the Perseids. I was attending family camp at Sheldon Calvary Camp, an Episcopal Church retreat on Lake Erie. I lay on the grass and watched one meteor after another one memorable night. I have been trying to duplicate that evening of wonder ever since.

To view the Perseids, one needs three things: the right timing, darkness, and a clear sky. I could generally get the timing right, but finding a place away from urban lights has always been a problem. And clear skies always seemed a big problem in southwestern Pennsylvania. Last year, on the condominium deck in a dimly lit development, I did see a handful of meteors, one of which was dramatic.

Having lived in Clifton Springs, New York, for less than a year, I wasn’t sure where I might find a good spot to view meteors. According to The New York Times, the best time to see meteors is between midnight and dawn. I am not such an astrology freak that I was willing to lose a major chunk of sleep to view the sky at the ideal hour. I thought I might have a fair shot of finding darkness at an earlier hour, and I hoped that the weather would coöperate.

Saturday afternoon had seen showers—the watery kind—and I wasn’t sure whether the cloud cover would prevent me from seeing anything in the sky. Nonetheless, I set out after 10 o’clock to have a look. There are two parks a block from my apartment, and I suspected that in one of those, it would be dark enough for meteor viewing. What I discovered is that this small village has a lot of illumination at night. There are streetlamps on Spring Street, lights from the apartments on Main Street, and, much to my surprise, bright lighting at the large pavilion in one of the parks. Nevertheless, I lay down on a paved path in the park near the pavilion and looked up at the sky. I saw some sky, but, mostly, I saw clouds. After 20 minutes or so, I gave up my search.

I decided to try my luck on Sunday. After 10 o’clock, I set out with water bottle and exercise mat. I walked around a bit looking for a dark spot and ended up on a pickleball court in the other park. I decided this position was dark enough. Moreover, lying on my exercise mat was considerably more comfortable than lying on concrete, as I had the night before. I lay on the pickleball court for about an hour. The sky was mostly clear, although some clouds drifted by from time to time.

I am happy to report that I did see meteors. I saw one really good one. There were others that I think I saw but cannot be sure about. They were faint, were not where I had been looking, and were visible for but a brief moment. Watching the sky was like an eye test I’ve been subjected to in which I had to press a button when I saw a flash but was often unsure whether I had seen something or not.

Although I had not duplicated my experience of 30 years earlier, I returned home. At least I had seen some meteors. Perhaps I will be more ambitious and lucky next year.

August 12, 2023

A Delightful Organ Concert

Organ in its present home,
the former Methodist Episcopal Church
On August 6, I attended an organ concert in Lodi, New York, some 36 miles from where I now live. A friend had made me aware of the concert; my usual sources of event information were silent on the matter. I am a fan of organs generally, but what attracted me to the recent concert was that the instrument being played was an 1852 instrument made by E. & G. G. Hook. (The instrument is Hook Opus 140. The Hook firm built more than 2500 organs over its lifetime.) The concert was sponsored by the Lodi Historical Society. The Historical Society owns the former church in which the organ is installed. Opus 140 was erected originally in Canandaigua, New York. The organ remains substantially as built, though the decoration on the visible pipes is a later addition.

The musicians are all members of the Sears family. Both Father David F. Sears and daughter Rebecca A. Sears hold doctoral degrees. Mother Permelia S. Sears has a master’s degree in organ performance. The entire program involved the organ. David played organ and piano; Permelia played organ and viola; and Rebecca played violin and piano. The concert was the only organ concert I can remember that included no music from any member of the Bach family. The music was from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. The Sears family is apparently dedicated to playing old tracker-action organs, and they do a fine job of it.

The organ is a two-manual affair of 14 ranks. I am told it is tuned to a pitch of A=444 Hz using unequal temperament. Since it lacks the ability to choose a desired collection of ranks at the push of a button, the organ was often being played by one person while two other people were pulling and pushing stops. The 
Searses were resourceful in playing music intended for a larger instrument. There were occasionally two people at the console and, in a transcription of the Grand March from Aida, Rebecca played on the grand piano to compensate for the fact that the organ’s 16-foot pedal stop has only 13 pipes. The Aida March was surprisingly effective.

If you ever have an opportunity to hear these musicians in concert, be sure to avail yourself of it.

Organ and instrumentalists before concert
L to R: David, Permelia, Rebecca