Matryoshka Doll Ultrasound

Matryoshka Doll Ultrasound

I found this cartoon over at The Incidental Economist, Matryoshka Ultrasound. Austin Frakt over there loves this kind of thing. He has a good sense of humor. And this is clever. We have a Matryoshka — Russian nesting doll — getting an ultrasound and it is creating an infinite regression. It’s charming. But it bugs me.

Unlike most people, I’ve had a lot of ultrasounds. I wasn’t pregnant. They were of my heart. And they were painful, because for whatever reason, the tech seemed to think that it was necessary to push down with all her strength — despite the fact that I weighted just 100 pounds and there was basically no flesh to push through. So I’ve been in the position of that doll — looking at the screen and seeing what was bouncing off my innards.

Given this experience, perhaps you can forgive my pedantry. Or just cluelessness. I don’t really know. Maybe I’m missing something. But I think it is more likely that I’m over-thinking it. So here goes: there would not be an infinite regression. There is no doctor doing an ultrasound on the doll inside her. And even if there were, he wouldn’t be in that position, because there isn’t enough space!

Yes, yes, yes: pedant! But I could go further. I could note that an ultrasound does not provide a picture of your entire insides. Look at the size of that device! And we are talking about the entire inside of her. That’s the thing about the Matryoshka doll: they fit tightly together. If they didn’t, then it would be just a doll with a bunch of crap in it. Also: isn’t this very wasteful in a world of limited healthcare resources? Couldn’t the doctor just have asked any 5-year-old girl what was inside of this doll? Also: Matryoshka dolls are generally the same shape but not the same decorations. Ha! Answer that, cartoonist! (It’s by the brilliant cartoonist at The New Yorker Paul Noth.)

But here’s what I think is really interesting: if the cartoon were done “right,” it would still be funny. It would consist of only the doll on the screen. But that’s still funny. What does she have inside of her? A smaller version of herself. I get that the cartoonist wants to get across the idea that there are many versions of her inside her. But it just doesn’t seem worth the bother of putting a doctor outside ever doll. Yeah, yeah, yeah: universes inside universes — that pug in Men in Black. But that’s not what Matryoshka dolls are!

Afterword

It bothered me when I was a kid that the Matryoshka dolls didn’t regress forever. My mathematical sensibilities made me want to see an endless number of dolls. I wasn’t happy with the practical limits of the toy.

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Lucky Dragon 5 and the Hydrogen Bomb

David KalatOn March 1st, 1954 eight months to the day before the Japanese premiere of Godzilla, the United States set off its first hydrogen bomb. It happened in the Marshall Islands — tiny islands that have been passed back and forth between sundry European powers for hundreds of years — until the Japanese took them over after Word War I. During World War II, they changed hands once again when relentless American bombing raids decimated the population, ravished the countryside, and forced the Japanese to relinquish control. From that point on, the US military took to using the Marshall Islands as a nuclear proving ground. All told, 67 nuclear devices were detonated there — including the first H-bomb. In 1956, the year that Godzilla was exported to American movie screens, the atomic energy commission declared the place by far the most contaminated place in the world. And it was practically at Japan’s backdoor.

The scientists responsible for the world’s first H-bomb weren’t 100% certain that it would explode correctly. Best case scenario, it would explode with a force a thousand times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Worst case scenario, nothing at all. Setting aside the irony of what constituted “best case” and “worst case” in this situation, the upshot was that the Japanese public was told to stay away from the island in question, but weren’t given an explanation why.

The crew of the Daigo Fukuryū Maru — that’s “Lucky Dragon Number Five” to you — figured that they were being extra clever by heading out to troll for tuna. “There’s no competition!” they congratulated each other. Then there was a flash in the sky, like a second sun. The light was so bright, it could be seen as far away as Okinawa. The Lucky Dragon was so far from the blast, they didn’t hear its accompanying thunder for another eight minutes. It was clear to them that they’d made a mistake. But the consequences were now impossible to outrun. They pulled in their nets, stowed their catch, and returned to the mainland as quickly as possible. They were sick. The radio operator, a fellow named Aikichi Kuboyama, would die from radiation sickness. And let’s be clear: Kuboyama received a lethal dose of radiation on March 1st, then spent nearly seven months slowly dying — eventually passing from this world on September 23rd. With his dying breath, he begged, “Please make sure that I am the last victim of the nuclear bomb.”

The Japanese press noted that as the first person killed by the H-bomb, he was Japanese — just like the only humans killed by A-bombs.

—David Kalat
From Commentary on Godzilla

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Obviously, Republicans Are Not Turning Libertarian

Libertarian RepublicanDigby wrote a great article over at Kevin Drum’s blog at Mother Jones, No, the GOP Has Not Lost Its Lust for War. It is about all the garbage that we’ve been hearing from “centrist” pundits about how the Republican Party is finally turning libertarian. The truth is that Republicans have never been libertarians. It is an affectation. And during the glory months of the Tea Party, it was a delusion.

The main thing you have to remember is that most Republicans are sheep. They don’t really think anything; they just feel — mostly, outrage and fear. And so, when the Tea Party was big, they were willing to follow along with the libertarian bent of the early days. Of course, that libertarian bent was only there so they could justify the policy that they were suddenly for. Remember that the Tea Party did not start because of the bank bailouts. It started when the federal government wanted to help homeowners. So supporters of the movement didn’t want to come off as the complete jerks that they were. So now they were against all government intervention! And that meant they were “libertarians”!

Once the coast was clear and there was no Fox News drum beat about this stuff — no Amy Kremer interviews to explain what they were to think — they went back to their base instincts. As Elvis Costello put it in Suit of Lights, “If it moves then you fuck it. If it doesn’t then you stab it.” In the case of the Republican base, it is about “getting those people.” And that means cuts to welfare for the poor and more foreign wars. In other words: the standard conservative line. And the elites were fine with it, as long as the base kept voting Republican.

Of course, even in 2010, the main thing that distinguished Tea Party candidates was there extreme social conservatism. The single most important issue was abortion absolutism: no abortions for any reasons at all (even the anti-libertarian belief of no exception for the life of the mother). So none of this should come as any surprise. The truth was that Rand Paul’s non-interventionist positions were treated with either mystification or hostility. And as I predicted, Rand Paul has been willing to abandon even his tepid libertarianism. Why? Because he has to — there is no appetite for it in the Republican Party.

Digby’s article quoted an NBC-WSJ poll that found that a whopping 27% of Republicans said that national security/terrorism was the most important issue facing the country. This has more than tripled since the question was last asked in 2012. And way? Check out this amazing reason that goes right along with what I’ve been saying, “[A] ‘savvy Republican operative’ explained that this threefold increase in concern can be attributed to the rise of ISIS and the movie American Sniper arousing the militarist urge in the GOP base.” A movie! Of course, as Digby commented, “That may be true, but let’s just say it was never exactly deeply buried.” That’s right: outrage and fear.

I’ve argued a lot in the past that if libertarians were serious, they would be more attracted to the Democratic Party than the Republican Party. The Democratic Party is much stronger on individual rights. What the Republican Party is good at is the rights of the wealthy. That may be great in a theoretical sense, but as a practical matter, it is the Democratic party that increases liberty. The Republican Party is still dead set against cannabis legalization. Of course, the vast majority of libertarians are not serious.

What Republicans mean when they say they are libertarians is that they are for “smaller government.” As should be clear by now, Republicans Are Not for Smaller Government. And in the same way, they are not for libertarianism. (Not that many actual libertarians are either.) But Republicans will call themselves anything as long as they are told to. They are excellent followers.


See also: Republican Party’s Libertarian Fantasies.

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American Torture and Lack of Accountability

CIA TortureI watched the Frontline episode Secrets, Politics, and Torture. It’s sad that the show now has to be so careful, but even still, the whole thing is outrageous. I was literally talking to the screen while watching it. And there really wasn’t anything in it that I didn’t already know. I suppose the hard part about watching it was seeing these people who clearly should be prison for the rest of their lives. And I have a policy idea that I’ll discuss in a bit.

Not surprisingly, most of the CIA didn’t show up to be interviewed. The main representative was for Deputy Director John McLaughlin. And despite all his apologetics and, frankly, outright lies, his position was summarized in this quote, “We were at war; bad things happen in wars.” That’s so true. But that didn’t stop us from trying and executing Nazis. But of course, the statement itself is disingenuous. We were at war, but that wasn’t what the torture program was all about. Obviously, the CIA’s torture program eventually infected the military, but it didn’t start there.

Regardless, the torture program was not a matter of some agents getting out of hand — over-eager in carrying out their duties. This was a clear plan — decided at the top. It was implemented with eyes wide open. And that is clear from the other representative of the government CIA Acting General Counsel John Rizzo. He did everything he could to get political cover for the torture program and lay the legal foundation for it. I don’t especially blame him; he’s a lawyer, after all. But the fact remains that the torture program was no accident of war.

Rizzo claimed that he had never heard any complaints about the program not working or being, you know, wrong. I believe him. Why would he have been told? I do think it most likely that he did everything he could to avoid hearing anything. But the others knew. And they didn’t care. Or more accurately, they didn’t care what they were doing to other people; they loved the program. Perhaps we can say that George W Bush was just misinformed. But clearly, the top people in the CIA pushed the program and lied about its effectiveness to keep the torture going. They should all die in federal prison.

A very telling part of the documentary is the story of Abu Zubaydah. After his capture, FBI agent Ali Soufan was brought in to use the standard — and highly effective — technique of rapport building. And Zubaydah was very helpful. But the CIA were certain that they could get more from him if they just got tough. Think: Tom Clancy Combat Concepts. So the CIA took over and began to torture him, using two charlatans who had no actual experience with interrogation. And in the end, they got nothing. This is largely due to the fact that the opportunity costs of torture greatly outweigh any possible benefits. But also because they had always been wrong: Abu Zubaydah was not a high ranking member of Al Qaeda. But that didn’t stop Deputy Director McLaughlin from repeatedly claiming that the torture was necessary because Zubaydah was a “psychopath,” who wouldn’t be truthful — even though he had been!

I have an idea for how we can avoid these things. As we saw at Abu Ghraib, even when people are held to account, it is just low level people. What was done at that prison was nothing compared to what the CIA did for years. So I say we hold top people accountable for systemic “failures” like this — because they aren’t failures. Sure, there will be the occasional “bad apple.” But what happened at the CIA was not a case like that. In fact, it seems that many if not most of the agents being forced to do the torture didn’t want to — at least in the early days. So when Jose Rodriguez erased the torture tapes, he should have been arrested, tried, convicted, and spent the rest of his life in jail. So should John McLaughlin and George Tenet and Dick Cheney and many others. Will that mean that people are reticent to take those jobs? Sure. But who cares? All the high level people will have a great incentive to not allow anything to get out of hand.

Afterword

The documentary ends with a discussion of the Panetta Review. It is a “top secret” document that apparently shows that internally, the CIA agrees with everything the Congressional investigation found. The main thing I thought while watching it was that none of it or any of the other documents will come out in my lifetime. But the reason that they won’t is the same reason that the United States probably won’t be a great nation in a century. Like all great empires, we spend most of our time just trying to hang onto power and save face. Meanwhile, there are countries out there that are actively working to improve themselves. There is too much power consolidation in the United States. And power will do whatever it can to maintain that power in the short term. And inch by inch, our country is destroyed. The day will come when our economy just can’t bear to spend almost as much on our military as the rest of the world combined. And after that, what do we have?

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Morning Music: Jane Siberry

The Speckless SkyI really want to get back to Europe for the Morning Music posts. But I seem to be having a hard time keeping up with the site these days, so I will do something easy. For whatever reason, Jane Siberry popped into my head. There was a time a couple of years ago where I was listening obsessively to her first ablum, Jane Siberry, and her last album, Meshach Dreams Back. It was quite an experience because that first album is almost folk. And the last album is about as complex as any pop music gets — dare I saw: jazz.

I first discovered her because of her second album, No Borders Here. And I saw her live three times. She put on a great show. The following song is more or less the title track off her third album, The Speckless Sky. The song is actually called “One More Colour.” It’s a beautiful song. But this video is from 1985. And videos sucked in 1985. Still, this one at least has a hand puppet:

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Anniversary Post: Pietà Attack

Laszlo TothOn this day in 1972, Laszlo Toth attacked Michelangelo’s Pietà. And because he was trained as a geologist, he did a lot of damage. But let’s back up a bit on this.

Toth was born in Hungary in 1938. He got a degree in geology in 1965 and moved to Australia. But he had difficulty finding work. This was partly due to the fact that his degree was not recognized there. It was also party due to the fact that he didn’t really speak English. But it was mostly due to the fact that he was crazy.

In 1971, he moved to Italy, even though he knew no Italian. But he seemed to want to get close to Pope Paul VI (also know as “the pope who looked like Jonathan Pryce”). By this time, Toth believed he was Jesus Christ. But the pope apparently never answered his letters. So on 21 May 1972, Toth entered St Peter’s Basilica and attacked the Pietà, yelling, “I am Jesus Christ — risen from the dead!”

He was wielding a geologist’s hammer. And, “With fifteen blows he removed Mary’s arm at the elbow, knocked off a chunk of her nose, and chipped one of her eyelids.” American sculptor Bob Cassilly, who was visiting, was the first to grab him, followed quickly by a number of others who managed to subdue him as seen in the photo above.

Laszlo Toth was never charged with a crime. He spent two years in a mental hospital, after which, he was shipped back to Australia where he was cared for until he died on 11 September 2012. The Pietà was completely repaired after the incident and is now displayed behind bulletproof (and geologist’s hammer proof, I would assume) glass.

Happy anniversary for this unfortunate, but somehow amusing, attack.

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The Americanization of Godzilla

Godzilla“History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of men.” That bit of wisdom from Blue Öyster Cult (or Richard Meltzer if you prefer), is a condensation of the 1954 classic, Godzilla. Last weekend, I got the Criterion Collect DVD of the film. It was very exciting. I grew up watching Godzilla films, but I had never seen the original. So I watched both versions — Japanese and American — twice: once straight and once with what is very possibly the best commentary ever, by David Kalat. It is quite an experience — especially because the two versions are so different.

Godzilla was such a big deal in Japan, that when American distributors bought it, they decided not just to dub the film; they shot extra scenes and turned the main (human) character into an American reporter, played by Raymond Burr.[1] And it works remarkably well. The film editor Terry O Morse was hired to direct the whole thing, and with television writer Al C Ward, he used the existing movie to tell the story from a remarkably different perspective. It’s especially interesting to see how conversations are totally changed from one version to the other.

But even while marveling at just how clever Morse and his team was, there is a fundamental problem: they didn’t do a very good job of matching the style of the original. Ishirō Honda and his team made a very good film that is visually interesting even without Godzilla. The camera is relatively fluid, the shots are always well framed, the lighting is realistic. It’s what we’ve come to expect from feature films. The scenes with Burr are static and flat. Great care is taken to make things match up, but it does feel choppy.

In addition to this, the film is excessively narrated. I suspect that this decision was made so as to require as little dubbing as possible. And that does work. There is relatively little on screen dubbing. And despite the fact that the dubbing actors didn’t even get to look at the scenes they were dubbing, it works quite well. But it does mean that we see a lot of the backs of America doubles while the dialog takes place.

Still, all of this occurred to me because I had just seen the original. I think it wouldn’t be nearly as clear if I had just watched the film cold. But the original is clearly the superior film. That’s not just because of the awkwardness of the added material. The original is also a more thoughtful and subtle film. It actively engages with an issue that I care deeply about: the responsibility of scientists for the uses of their findings. The two scientists in the film are disgusted by the state of the world. On the other hand, sometimes you just need to get through the crisis at hand. It doesn’t matter that, “History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of men.”


[1] It’s very cool. At the end, he has Godzilla on the stand. “And was it not you who destroyed Japan — going so far as to chew on a rail car?!” And Gozilla broke down, “It’s true! I couldn’t stop myself!” Alright, maybe not. But I think Godzilla vs Perry Mason would have been a fantastic film.

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Wisdom From a Bitter Dead Man

Our TownYes, now you know. Now you know! That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those… of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another. Now you know — that’s the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness.

—Simon Stimson
Character quoted in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town

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Being for LGBT Rights Doesn’t Make You a Liberal

GCHQ Celebrates LGBT

The British surveillance agency GCHQ (more or less their version of the NSA) showed its liberal colors by literally lighting its exterior with rainbow colored lights. Glenn Greenwald is not pleased, GCHQ’s Rainbow Lights: Exploiting Social Issues for Militarism and Imperialism. He related this to a very general tactic that we’ve seen for decades of wars being sold as liberal causes. But of course, all that is really going on is that liberal excuses are being offered for conservative and nationalistic policies. This is how you get people like Peter Beinart and Jonathan Chait to support a bloody good war: give them some (Any!) rationale for the war and they hop right on board.

I remember what is perhaps the best example of this. As we were set to go to war with Afghanistan, we were feed all this information about how terrible the Taliban were to women. This, of course, had the advantage of being true. But just like the old liberal cause for war — “Free people from oppressive regimes!” — this excuse had nothing to do with the reason that we were going to war. There are lots of regimes all over the world that treat women as bad or worse. But we weren’t invading them. (Also note: when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, it too brought equitable treatment of women — but that didn’t change our opinions of that war.)

I used to think about this a lot when I was a kid. We supposedly went to war in Vietnam to keep the country democratic and the people free. Yet we were just fine with Latin American despots like Augusto Pinochet. And as became very clear shortly after that time, democracy is not something we approve of if the people vote for governments we don’t like. You have to be pretty naive to think that we go to war for the benefit of the people we are bombing. It’s a pretty story, but it is almost never the case.

It should be seen as a good thing that now LGBT rights are mainstream enough that they are used by neocons to sell wars. But there is one thing that bothers me. Both LGBT and women’s rights are issues that are most effective to sell to the upper classes — Chris Hedges’ “liberal class.” The ultimate liberal cause would be the poor: that regime is harming the poor! But we don’t hear that. And I think we don’t hear that because no one cares what the working poor in this country think. For one thing, they are too busy surviving to pay much attention. The “liberal class” — like all classes — only care about themselves. The “liberal class” is filled with women and LGBT members. So let’s go to war anywhere because those kinds of people are being oppressed, am I right?!

This gets to one of the most depressing elements of politics in America. Over the last thirty years, “liberalism” has largely been cleaned of economics and foreign policy. The Democratic Party mostly stands for social issues. African Americans are largely as poor as they were fifty years ago, but at least they have the right to vote! Women may face systemic career discrimination, but at least they have the constitutional — but often not the practical — right to an abortion! LGBT members may not be able to afford a wedding, but they largely have the right to one![1] Modern liberalism sure is grand: if you are rich, it really does make you equal!

There seems to be a general political law here. If GCHQ or other odious government institutions are ostentatiously in support of certain kinds of rights, then those rights are no longer liberal. They are just mainstream. That’s especially true of LGBT rights. If you are against them, then you are a bigot. If you are for them, it doesn’t mean you a liberal — just that you are a human. Liberals need to be held to a higher standard than just figuring out an issue at the same time the average American does. (And yes: that was a reference to President Obama.)


[1] None of this is to say that any of these gains are unimportant. Most especially, the right to vote is very important. And African American show this by voting at high (for Americans) levels.

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The Paternalism of Libertarianism

Matt BruenigAbout a week ago, Matt Bruenig wrote, A Note on Libertarian Anti-Paternalism. It was about this curious fact that the philosophical basis for libertarianism is paternalistic. He went back to Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, and looked at the argument for private property. And Nozick’s argument is utilitarian: yes, private property reduces freedom, but that’s okay because it leads to a society in which everyone is better off. So there’s the libertarian answer to the question, “Why can’t I have the liberty to go wherever I want?” And the answer is, “Because depriving you of that liberty is the best thing for you.” In other words: paternalism.

This is a good example of why Nozick is one of the very few libertarians worth reading. At least he understands that private property is something that has to be argued. Whenever I talk to libertarians, they take private property as a given — a matter of faith. This is why arguing with them is usually so frustrating. Given their unstated assumptions, their arguments are relatively straightforward — still full of problems, but at least they can be argued against directly. It is apparently beyond most libertarians’ comprehension that private property mightn’t be a given. It’s especially ironic considering that libertarians are fond of talking about how “rights imply responsibilities,” but according to them, property rights don’t imply any responsibilities at all.

Bruenig noted another irony. Libertarians commonly complain about state paternalism, but the paternalism of private property is far more powerful:

Under the paternalism of property, you have no choice. The propertarians declare that the system is for your own good, and if you disagree, too bad. You can’t go on ignoring property systems. If you do, violence will visit you shortly.

Under the paternalism of modern-day nudges, you do have a choice though. Laws that put cigarettes behind counters out of sight do not forbid you from buying them. Laws that limit the cup size of sodas does not prevent you from drinking as much soda as you want. Laws that put gruesome labels on cigarettes also do not prevent you from buying them. Conceivable laws that would forbid putting sugary impulse buys near registers also would not prevent you from buying the things usually featured on those shelves. In all these kinds of cases, choice is entirely preserved. The paternalism only changes the decisional environment in which the choices are made. This is done “for your own good” in the same sense as keeping you off appropriated property is done “for your own good,” but again different because property paternalism is choice-destroying while nudging paternalism is choice-preserving.

Of course, when I was a libertarian, I didn’t go around complaining that buying cigarettes wasn’t convenient enough. I complained that the government put me in jail if they caught me anywhere around those particular drugs that it had decided were so bad. (Note: this is not an argument for libertarianism!) But a libertarian commenter, Dr J, responded with this astoundingly fatuous remark, “The ‘nudging paternalism’ of New York’s cigarette taxes ended up choking Eric Garner. It’s difficult to see what libertarians are advocating that’s harder or more problematic than that.” Check out the comments on Bruenig’s article for a full refutation of that. (But is it really necessary? The problem is obvious.)

One of the threads in the comments is worth highlighting, however. It was between the very same Dr J and Matt (not Bruenig). It had to do with something that Bruenig has written about a lot: the non-aggression principle. Following on his ridiculous argument, Dr J said that he didn’t think that police should attack peaceful people. I think we can all agree on that, which pretty much makes it a comment not worth making. But Matt decided to press on just what he meant by the this whole “peaceful” business.

Dr J was constantly about two questions behind in the dialog. Matt asked what about people who peacefully walk into a building and take things. Dr J said they should be charged for the item. Matt then asked what if the people wouldn’t pay for the item. And so on. I’m sure you can see where he’s going, even if Dr J couldn’t. This led to this clear knockdown:

Dr J: Well, that’s the cool thing about being the cops. There are hundreds of thousands of distinct crimes out there, and the list keeps getting longer. If you’re of a mind to choke someone, you can probably find a rationale.

Matt: Ok great, so you’ve admitted your appeal to Eric Garner was disingenuous.

Dr J: Huh?

Matt: You’ve just admitted that if cops want to choke people, they will find a reason to choke people, whether that’s over cigarette taxes or trespassing on “property.” So what was the point of appealing to the cigarette taxes as an example of deadly paternalism?

And it all begins again with Dr J claiming that the problem is that there are too many laws. But of course most of those laws are related to property rights. And on and on. Eventually, Matt gets Dr J to sort of understand the question, at least. But Dr J is still deeply confused, “So you’d be okay with me exercising my freedom to peacefully break your window, walk through your home, and take your computer?” And that, my friends, begs the question in the mostly clueless way imaginable. All Dr J has managed is to argue himself in a circle: property rights are not paternalistic because property rights are not paternalistic. Or something.

The thing is that Dr J is clearly smart. In general, I find that libertarians are smart — subgeniuses. As I’ve explained before, this term refers to smart people, but not really smart people — ones who don’t understand what they don’t understand. Dr J must have commented at least 30 times on that article, with responses to them all. Yet I doubt he went away any the wiser. There’s a reason why I say that libertarianism is a theology. Libertarians just have faith — it all makes sense to them. And that’s fine. But it is no different than the thinking that comes from a born against Christian.

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Morning Music: Blue Öyster Cult

Spectres - Blue Oyster CultFor reasons that will become clear this evening, I’ve had the Blue Öyster Cult song “Godzilla” going through my head. When I was younger, I didn’t like the band. This was largely because I had this friend who was very obnoxious in his fandom for the band. On reflection, I don’t necessarily think he really liked the band. But he saw that certain people he admired like them. There are worse reasons to like a band. Not that I can think any.

But I rediscovered them when I was about 30, and I was impressed. There was one thing that had changed in me: I now understood that heavy metal was the silliest music known to man — the only kind of music even in competition with it was Disco, and it is nice enough to make the joke crystal clear. With heavy metal, it is not clear. And that’s especially true when you are a teenager and all the people you know take it so serious.

My friend Will once noted to me that a huge number of heavy metal songs are about monsters. At the time, I didn’t know what to make of that. Now I know: because it’s silly. Okay, so Rush sings about Ayn Rand philosophy. Very few bands can be that silly. The more serious heavy metal appears to be, the more silly it is. And that is where Blue Öyster Cult stands out for not taking themselves too seriously, even while embracing the faux seriousness of the genre. (Although “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” is an unforgivable sin.)

“Godzilla,” off their fifth album, Spectres, is perhaps the best example of explicit heavy metal silliness. It isn’t even a monster song; it’s really a film song. Is it as silly as Ayn Rand and the sign of the goat? Well, no. But it’ll do.

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Anniversary Post: Great Temple Massacre

Pedro de AlvaradoOn this day in 1520, the Massacre in the Great Temple occurred. This happened while the Spanish had Moctezuma under house arrest. He had asked Cortés’ representative, Pedro de Alvarado, if his people could celebrate Toxcatl. While as many as a thousand Aztecs were celebrating the event, Alvarado went in with his men and killed them all. He then took all the precious stones and metal from their bodies. Cortés was apparently displeased and came back, but by the time he made it, Moctezuma had been murdered.

Now there are Spanish stories that supposedly explain all this. Alvarado apparently claimed that he simply intervened to stop a human sacrifice. Why doing that would require killing upwards of a thousand unarmed and mostly naked people is never made clear. It strikes me as an obvious lie to justify his theft. Plus, everything I’ve read about Alvarado indicates that he was a psychopath.

As for the murder of Moctezuma, it is usually reported as his having been stoned to death by his own people — upset about the massacre. But this strikes me as being between unlikely and impossible. Moctezuma was under house arrest. How did these angry Aztecs get to him? About the only possibility would be that Alvarado threw him out to them hoping that he could calm them. So regardless, Moctezuma was still killed by Alvarado.

Finally, I don’t want you to get the idea that Cortés was a good guy. He seems to have been a very capable conqueror. There is no reason to believe that he was especially worse than other Spaniards of his day — and he may have been better. But what Alvarado did made no long-term sense. The least you can say about him is that he wasn’t a psychopath.

So we mark this day, 495 years later.

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