The experienced catcher can help the pitcher by “framing” the plate, especially the border-line strike.

– Jeff Mincey, “Crash Course for Catchers,” Scholastic Coach (vol 52; 1982)

In art school, students learn not to look at the edge of the canvas as an absolute border.

In umpire school, the rectangle of the strike zone is an absolute border, but its exact location is a matter of judgment and even consultation. The catcher can influence an umpire – for example, by setting up with the mitt at the “low-outside corner.” Perpendicular lines sprout by implication from the catcher’s mitt, proposing a frame for the strike zone. If the pitch hits the glove, without obvious reaching by the catcher, the umpire may assent to the pictured zone and call a strike.

This influence does not deceive the umpire, say players willing to comment. They also say a catcher who is good at framing can earn a dozen strikes per game that might otherwise have gone the other way. Are umpires being bamboozled, milked, shaken down, seduced? They are being persuaded by a picture inside an imaginary frame.

In a crime drama, “framing” someone means rearranging evidence to make an innocent person appear guilty. This kind of framing clearly crosses a boundary between interpretation and deceit, offering a mental picture that is intentionally contrary to fact. Those last nine words could also describe a metaphor.

But a metaphor is always understood to be imaginary. It doesn’t deceive because it doesn’t make sense as fact: e.g., this month just flew by.

Image: Part of John Lennon’s face is excluded by the artist’s placement of the edge. Revolver album cover via Wikipedia

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Dark money groups are multiplying – and thriving – on both ends of the political spectrum.

– Michael Beckel, “What Is Political ‘Dark Money’ – and Is It Bad?” The Center for Public Integrity / (January 20, 2016)

Dark money is like dark matter: you can’t see it, but you’re influenced by it.

In Citizens United (2010), the Supreme Court cleared a path for political donors who wanted to exceed legal limits on contributions to candidates and parties. The donors also wanted to remain anonymous. As a result of the Court’s decision, spending by ghostly nonprofits now overshadows “on the books” funding of candidates and parties. In US elections in 2018, dark money from the top three 501c(3) nonprofit contributors grew to $60 million – with $40 million going to liberal campaigns and $20 million to conservative campaigns (Schatzinger and ‎ Martin, Game Changer, 2020).

As for dark matter, it is mass that astronomers can’t see but are sure must exist. It must exist because the motion of spiral galaxies is inconsistent with Newton’s universal law of gravitation. The math in Newton’s law says the universe needs about 25 times more mass than we’ve detected so far, to account for the spiral galaxies’ speedy spin. It would be a serious setback for science if the word universal had to be removed from the law of gravitation.

Heigh-ho, proposing a new class of untraceable matter is a radical way to solve an equation, but as Sherlock Holmes might say: Once you’ve ruled out the imponderable, whatever remains must be the truth.

Dark matter, like dark money, is a perplexity of law, accountability, and gigantic unseen forces.

Photo: Karl Stull

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Major bottlenecks in voting system

LA Times headline (March 5, 2020)

Ketchup in glass bottles used to be a case study in every kitchen illustrating the consequentiality of orifice diameter. With ketchup now in squeezable containers, there is no need to shake and pound the bottle.

On Super Tuesday, voters were flowing like ketchup through Los Angeles County vote centers. The “bottlenecks” were many: high turnout, problems with a new check-in system, poll workers unfamiliar with technology. Bottles within bottles.

There is a Zen riddle about imagining a goose inside a narrow-necked bottle and getting her out without breaking the glass. The answer is to recall how the imaginary goose got into the bottle in the first place.

See also “C’mon, it’s like a zipper!”; keyword search: log-jam.

Photo: Karl Stull

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The right to vote and trial by jury “are the heart and lungs, the mainspring and the centre wheel….In these two powers consist wholly the liberty and security of the people.”

– John Adams, Boston Gazette (January 27, 1766)

It’s a jolt to see biology and technology put together this way by one of the Founding Fathers, but Adams may well have viewed the ticking of a heart and the ticking of a clock as two sides of the same coin. Physician William Harvey described the heart as a mechanical pump in 1628, dispelling earlier views of that organ as a magic bag of courage.

In a clock, the center wheel acts as a regulator, metering energy out to the gears in small, steady pushes. Similarly, the heart pushes units of energy (red blood cells, laden with oxygen) through the human body.

In a democracy, voting delivers life-sustaining energy throughout the body politic.

Painting: Portrait of John Adams by Gilbert Stuart via Library of Congress

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New Hampshire result clogs up moderate lane for Democrats

– Reuters (February 12, 2020)

It’s easy to visualize how a 100 yard dash would go awry if Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard, and Marianne Williamson all had their own lanes while Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar had to argue over whose turn it was to use the starting blocks. Lane-sharing in a foot race is contrary to the very idea of having lanes.

In traffic, lanes may be assigned by ethos: slow vehicles to the right, ride sharers to the left, with left-turners in a center lane. But these lanes are meant to form orderly lines, not facilitate a race. The ride sharers all get to where they’re going at the same time.

The race metaphor itself is a dubious description for presidential primary campaigns, where the goal is not to get anywhere first but to gain the most delegates. It’s more like a fishing derby than a marathon. Debates are like boxing, or a combination of boxing and gymnastics (Warren vaults ahead by gut-punching Bloomberg). The peloton in bicycle racing – a pack pursuing a frontrunner – might be the most apt of Olympic metaphors for political campaigns, with doping and dirty tricks being part of the game.

Image: Karl Stull

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To have actual de-escalation diplomacy, don’t you need to have kind of off-ramps that both sides can kind of take baby steps in that direction to kind of develop good faith to show that things are ratcheting down…

– Anderson Cooper, Anderson Cooper 360° (January 6, 2020)

In war, you have an exit strategy. In a diplomatic crisis, off-ramps.

A war is like a party that has become tedious. With an exit strategy, you know in advance where the door is and what excuses you’ll offer. “It was so nice of you to invite us, but now we’ve met all our goals in coming. [Smiling, waving] Good night.”

But a diplomatic crisis is like an accident about to happen on a strange superhighway. For some reason, the superhighway has only one lane. A truck is coming from the other direction. To avoid a crash, you look for a well-paved excuse. “Oh, look, this exit has pie and coffee, and meeting rooms with negotiating tables.”

The same important principle underlies both metaphors: you need an excuse to get out of a war.

Photo: Missouri Department of Transportation

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We are preparing for the battle at the top of the mountain.

– Governor Andrew Cuomo (NY), March 31, 2020

The “mountain” Governor Cuomo had in mind was a statistical curve showing the distribution of COVID-19 cases – coming all at once or spread out over time. A very steep curve would hit the health care system like a tsunami, said ER management consultant Eric Holdeman (, March 24). President Trump questioned whether “mountain” was too tall a term.

You look at most places where that – you can call it the bump, you can call it the hill, you can call it the mountain, you can call it whatever you want – it’s very flat. (April 6)

At the same press briefing, President Trump saw “light at the end of the tunnel,” suggesting there could be rapid progress through the bump/hill/mountain. A couple of weeks earlier, epidemiologist Michael Mina was also thinking in terms of a tunnel: “We are flying blind through this tunnel at the moment, and we don’t know where we are in the epidemic curve” (LA Times, March 24).

Dr. Carlos del Rio of Emory University, a specialist in global health issues, cautioned there is still a considerable way to go back down after reaching the peak of Everest (CNN, April 8). Further imagery on “getting from here to there”:

This may be a marathon, not a sprint . – Tyler Falk (National Public Radio, March 6)

It’s not time to take your foot off the accelerator. – Dr. Anthony Fauci (White House COVID-19 Task Force, March 31)

The only regret we will have is if people cut the parachute before we land. – Gov. Gavin Newsom (CA) (March 31)

Looking ahead to the other side of the mountain, Governor Cuomo anticipated a program of antibody testing: “That is going to be the bridge from where we are today to the new economy” (April 8). A week later, he added:

We are bridge builders. That’s what we do. Sometimes literally, sometimes symbolically, sometimes metaphorically. (April 15)

Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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It’s a war. I view it as a – in a sense – a wartime president.

– President Donald Trump, March 18, 2020

“It’s a war” is the mother of all metaphors when people talk about disease. Patients, doctors, and fundraisers for charities vow to fight an “invisible enemy.” Who is the enemy? Mosquitos and bacteria might qualify with diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, but the most potent killers in societies like ours are heart disease and cancer, and the enemy is us – our own clogged plumbing and cells gone haywire. With pop-up viruses like COVID-19 and flu, the “enemy” is a protein blob, not a living thing in the usual sense: more like a self-propagating chemical than a bug.

Might as well declare “war” on lime scale or rust.

The war metaphor is first declared in primary school, where children learn the immune system is an army that attacks invaders with an array of specialized weapons – white blood cells, fever, and a flood of fluids. In action, the immune system could just as well be compared to a mob of villagers with pitchforks, torches, and too many tankards of ale – sometimes killing the patient along with the germ.

In the context of a life-threatening disease, such as cancer, the war metaphor is meant to affirm the value of a human life. Never surrender. The “fight” is stubborn resistance – against the pain of scorched-earth treatments like radiation and chemotherapy. Victory is a Korean standoff called remission.

In the context of a pandemic, “war” means casualties piling up in hallways and hospital staff under constant threat. Chaos and waste: 21st century diagnostic machines and not enough cotton swabs.

COVID-19 killed more Americans in three months than the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Korea. Throughout history, deaths from plague, smallpox, cholera, meningitis, and other diseases have far outrun military casualties. The “war against disease” is a tail wagging the dog.

Humans have the instinct for fight-or-flight, and we are fascinated by battle to the death, so the appeal of the war metaphor is understandable – even though most of our accomplishments and well-being arise from purposeful work: cleaning, patching, lacing, fencing, planting, pruning, digging, damming, etc. The cure for rust is preventive maintenance, not micro-ninja commandos equipped with tiny missiles.

Illustration: Immune system during flu season by Dan Page, Purdue University newsletter (January 15, 2020)

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…the whole town seemed like a railway waiting-room.

– Albert Camus, The Plague (1948)

Nothing beats a waiting room for banal. From body language, it’s clear people feel their lives are on hold, their emotions sidelined to boredom and irritability. Young passengers feel excitement (or fear) about the adventure of travel aboard a roaring, whistling monstrosity. The grownups are just waiting for their lives to resume.

In Camus’ metaphor, the city of Oran (Algeria) comes to resemble a waiting room, with people’s lives on hold, because of bubonic plague. There is an uproar when the plague first arrives, but the city adjusts resentfully to a new normal: restrictions, shortages, losses of loved ones, a “for the duration” feeling in relationships, difficulty finding anything meaningful to do. Another name for this waiting-room state of mind is despair: I’m stuck. Nothing to be done. Is there anything on TV?

The plague of despair is endemic in the everyday life of a wage-earner/consumer society: symptoms are detachment, helplessness, paranoia, self-absorption. Voting against rather than for. Having no serious work to do. Wearing ear buds while waiting for real life to happen.

Photo: Railway waiting room at Kazan, Russia (500 miles east of Moscow); Adam Jones via Wikimedia

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