Human evolution and the Myth of Control

Bone House Wasp - Very Good MotherMother Nature Network published an interesting little article the other day, Kooky Cartwheeling Spider Among Bizarre New Species. It seems that 18,000 recently discovered species were given official names this last year. And so the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at State University of New York (SUNY) decided to highlight ten of these creatures. Think about that for a moment. Humans have spent thousands of years cataloging different animal species, yet we can still be discovering tens of thousands of them each year. According to the article, there are still 10 million yet to be discovered. This number is also the estimate of the total number of species on the earth. Thus far, humans have only been able to catalog about 1.5 million species.

The group of creatures include some things that demand a rewrite of Hamlet, “There are more things on earth than are dreamt of in your worst nightmares.” Take the bone house wasp. Although disturbing, we must admit that she is a hell of a good mother. She creates a nest in a hollow stem of a plant. At the bottom, she lays her eggs. On top of it, she puts a dead spider for the hungry baby wasps, once they are born. That’s actually rather nice of the mother in regard to the spider — paralyzing, and having them eaten alive seems a much more common approach in the wild. The creepy part comes when the mother wasp piles dead ants on the very top. This is done to ward off predators because of the smell ants. So think about a nursery with rotting corpses piled by the door to keep others away. Effective, loving, and very creepy!

For the creationists out there, there is the Limnonectes larvaepartus. It is a frog from Indonesia that gives birth to live tadpoles. That’s interesting because most frogs lay eggs and a few frogs give birth to baby frogs. This new frog is what we might call “the missing link.” But as we know from creationist apologetics, there will always be “holes” in the diversity of life. Nothing will convince them because they cannot be convinced. They “know” the truth and are only looking for things that justify what they already “know.”

Another of the new species is Torquigener albomaculosu, a kind of pufferfish. The male of this species attract females by creating beautiful designs in the sand. That reminds me of the following “Effective Catcalls” cartoon. Females really do appreciate a man who can provide a nice home.

Effective Catcalls

The sad thing about all the species we are discovering is that plants and animals are going extinct at an even faster rate. Of course, life forms are always going extinct — it is the nature of life. But it is hard not to figure that we are largely responsible for the fast rate. Thus far, we have done this by destroying habitat, but as time goes on, the climate forcing is going to be a much bigger — even catastrophic thing.

Still, the amazing diversity of life on the earth is staggering. At the same time, mama wasps are just like human mothers in all they do to protect their young. And I know that a lot of people will dismiss what the wasp does as just instinct. But our great brains don’t seem to change the overall nature of things. We humans are pre-programmed to think that human babies are cute and worth protecting. We may obscure that with ideas like “feeling” and “choice.” But I think that’s all rubbish. We are all on autopilot, we just have these big brains that trick us into thinking we are in control.

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Capitalists Hire Managers

Karl MarxOur [capitalist] friend, up to this time so purse-proud, suddenly assumes the modest demeanor of his own workman, and exclaims: “Have I myself not worked? Have I not performed the labor of superintendence and of overlooking the spinner? And does not this labor, too, create value?” His overlooker and his manager try to hide their smiles. Meanwhile, after a hearty laugh, he re-assumes his usual mien.

—Karl Marx
“Have I Myself Not Worked?”

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If Court Harms Obamacare Reps Will Be Blamed

Jeffrey ToobinLast week, Jeffrey Toobin pushed back against the idea that if the Supreme Court find for the plaintiffs in King v Burwell, it is a problem for the Republicans, Obama’s Game of Chicken With the Supreme Court. In fact, he used Colin Powell’s old Pottery Barn rule to make the case. According to him, if Obamacare is broken, it will be the president’s problem because it is the president’s law. Toobin is a smart guy, but I don’t think he has a clue about political science.

Think about government shutdowns: why is it that the people always side with the president? Well, part of it is because the president is always a Democrat. Dig down a little deeper and you will see that the public’s reaction is almost axiomatic. Democrats are seen as being in favor of the government. Republicans are seen as hating the government. (I don’t think either of those perceptions are right, but they are what people think.) So when the government is shut down, it must be because the Republicans wanted it. If the proximate cause is the Democrats, it must be because the Republicans forced them into it.

The case here is even more on the Democrats’ side. The whole point of the Pottery Barn analogy was that if Bush went into Iraq and broke it, he bought it. In this case, it isn’t Obama who’s screwed things up. You’d have to use some pretty twisted logic to get there: people are getting subsidies because of Obamacare, and now they aren’t because of the continued Republican War on Obamacare, and so it is Obama’s fault for people not getting something that Obama gave them to start with. No. This is much simpler: Republicans hate Obamacare and this is their fault. This one isn’t hard. This is how it will play. Whether the Republicans will care or not is another matter.

Another aspect of this is how media shape perceptions. Clearly, the media cannot push a narrative that is totally at odds with what people are inclined to believe. But the media can certainly push a narrative that goes slightly against what the public is inclined to believe. And there isn’t even a question in this case. The media will push the narrative that the public already accepts. The only thing that will push against this is Fox News and hate radio. And the people who tune into those “news” sources will already believe the narrative that they are hearing. In terms of overall perception, we are talking about the people who listen to NBC Nightly News.

Clearly, everyone should hope that King v Burwell goes down in flames — with none of the justices siding with the plaintiffs. If that happened, maybe we could put an end to these frivolous anti-Obamacare lawsuits. If we get another 5-4 decision, I fear they will continue on. It’s like playing craps: the conservatives just keep rolling the dice hoping to get lucky. Regardless, this will be a problem for the Republicans and they will be forced to deal with it — even if they do it in a piecemeal way just until the next president’s term.

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Memorial Day 2015

Memorial DayHappy Memorial Day. I used to really hate holidays — unless they were ones when people called me over to cook. To me, they were just days when the library wasn’t open and there wasn’t much news. But now, all days are pretty much the same for me. So it’s Memorial Day and that doesn’t really change anything. But Memorial Day has always been an exception in the sense that it is a serious holiday. As much as I may question the American war machine, I don’t question the sacrifice that people have made in the name of official government policy.

I’ve twice written about Memorial Day. The first time was, Remembering on Memorial Day. At that time, I said:

In general, the military is used by countries for immoral purposes, like accumulating resources and providing leaders with glory. Thus, it isn’t the military who we should despise but the country’s generally vile leaders. At the same time, I think it is a major mistake to pretend that we owe the military any greater acknowledgement than other public servants.

But this isn’t Veterans Day, it is Memorial Day. It is the day to honor those who died in our wars. Most of these people (one way or another) had no choice about serving. Regardless, they were all doing what our leaders said was the right thing to do. These people should be honored. My only wish is that we honored them by not thinking that every new war is a great idea. We should honor the dead by limited who we send to die in the future.

Last year, I wrote, Try to Be Better on Memorial Day. I think that it is worth quoting in total, because it sums up what I feel about this holiday — both good and bad:

It is the way of my people. We are not barbecuers. We do not like the Monday holidays. But if it is for a good cause, we bear it. The labor struggle is a good cause. The civil rights struggle is a good cause. And today is Memorial Day, and remembering the men and women we sent to their deaths, is a good cause. I like to think of Memorial Day as a day of remembrance of all who have died pointlessly. And before people jump on me, war is a pointless activity. It doesn’t matter that there are times when good people are forced to fight wars. World War II was a righteous war because of the Nazis and others, but certainly it would have been better if the Nazis had not risen and forced the world into war.

Let’s think about the “Good War” for a moment. As many as 25 million soldiers died during it. Of those, 5 million died while in POW camps. As many as 55 million civilians died, roughly half of them from disease and famine. What a waste. I can’t help but think of us as two colonies of ants, because the individuals on either side are pretty much indistinguishable. The treatment of Jews and other “undesirables” by the Nazis was inhuman, but other than being more concentrated it was no different than what we did to the native peoples of America. The Japanese treatment of the Chinese was terrible, but did it really justify our systematic destruction of the Japanese civilian population? Did it justify dropping two atomic bombs on them?

Again and again, I come back to 95/5 principle: 95% of the population just wants to live their lives and have their Memorial Day barbecues (or in the case of my people, write maudlin essays about the tragedy of war); and 5% of the people want something else — I don’t even know what it is anymore. It’s mostly power, I suppose. But once these things are set in motion, there seems no way to stop it. Everyone has pitchforks and torches, and in the end no one is quite sure why.

Simpsons' Mob

Unlike Memorial Day that I rather like, I really dislike Veteran’s Day. The whole thing reminds me of the bumper sticker, “If You Like Your Freedom Thank a Vet.” Sadly, the military is necessary. But the last even remotely existential threat we faced was 75 years ago. And sure, we should thank those vets. But just as much, we should thank the vets of the Soviet Union — over 11 million of whom died to protect our freedom.

But if people want to see Memorial Day as a nationalist holiday, I’m against that. The last thing we need is to expand the holiday — to make it about even more dead soldiers. The sacrifice that these men and women gave is not “cool.” It is not something to be celebrated. It is something to be honored, because as a species, we are extremely flawed. Above all, it should be a day that we, as a species, ask forgiveness from those we’ve murdered in what were almost always fights over natural resources. Very much like this:

On this Memorial Day, let’s try to be better than the chimpanzees.

So there you go. Let’s honor and remember our military dead. And let’s try to do better from now on. It is not a matter of better technology. It is a matter of better morality. Happy Memorial Day.

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Morning Music: Watkins, Jarosz, and O’Donovan

Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O'DonovanI was listening to A Prairie Home Companion over the weekend. One of the acts was a very compelling trio consisting of Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan. My ears perked up when I heard them say they were going to do a Jim Croce song. I figured that it wouldn’t be one of his hits. One thing that is a bit strange is that Croce’s songs have not been as widely covered as one would think. That’s probably because Croce had such an ability to make a song seem especially his (even when it he didn’t even write it). But the truth is that he was a fine songwriter, and it is always interesting to hear other people interpret his work.

In this case, the trio did, “Walkin’ Back to Georgia.” It is one of his genre tunes: trying to get back together, like “It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way.” But “Walkin'” is less sentimental than Croce often was when writing about this kind of stuff. It’s also a clever song in that he’s clearly referring to the state of Georgia, but at times, he implies that the girl’s name is Georgia as well.

The Watkins, Jarosz, and O’Donovan version of the song is just beautiful. Also, I like that they didn’t change the gender of the object of the song. You can think of this as being a lesbian love affair, but I think of it more simple than that. They are just performing the song the way it was meant. When Bob Dylan did “House of the Risin’ Sun” on his first album, he did it as a female prostitute. It’s always struck me as cowardly to do otherwise.

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Anniversary Post: Halley’s Comet

Halley's CometIt’s a little complicated, but for now, let’s just say that on this day in 240 BC, Halley’s Comet was discovered. And now that we’ve said that, let’s admit that it isn’t true. The main way that it isn’t true is that this isn’t the date it was noted. This is the date that the comet reached its perihelion — the position when it is closest to the sun. The comet was seen before and after this date.

This appearance was documented in Records of the Grand Historian, Sima Qian’s history of ancient China that was published some time around 109 BC. The reason we know it was the Halley’s Comet is because Halley calculated when the comet had come and when it would come. So we know that it should have shown up in May of 240 BC, and Sima Qian made note of a comet at that time that appeared in the east and moved north.

Interestingly, it is probably the case that this is not the first documented sighting of this most famous comet. Halley should also have dropped by for a visit in 467 BC. A comet between the years of 468 and 466 BC was noted both in ancient Greece and ancient China. But the dating is uncertain, so we can’t say for sure that it was Halley.

So happy sorta birthday Halley’s Comet!

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Liberalism and Conservatism in America on TPP

Timothy B. LeeOver at Vox on Friday, Timothy B Lee wrote a surprisingly thin article based on a single source, These House Republicans Are Bucking Their Party Leaders — and Obama — on Trade. Mostly, it is just, “This is what my Cato friend, Bill Watson, thinks is going on in the House.” Watson is just your typical Cato ideologue who thinks that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is going to be like fairy dust on partner countries. That’s because he, like most proponents, claims, without proof, that the TPP is about “free trade.” Well, at least in Lee’s article, we don’t have to listen to such nonsense. But I do wonder if the Republican vote totals that he presents are any more grounded in reality than his arguments for the TPP.

He claims that there are between 15 and 50 Republicans in the House who will vote against fast track authority. If it is 50, bye-bye TPP! If it is only 15, then the president gets his “legacy” bill and we get another “trade” agreement that will cost American jobs and put more money into the pockets of the already rich. Given that this is is the raison d’être for the American government, the people will probably not even notice. The modern American is used to slipping further and further behind. She might have a heart attack if our long slide down were interrupted.

But what I found really interesting in the article was Lee’s comparison of the Democrats’ reasons for being against the deal and the Republicans’ reasons. The Democrats oppose the treaty on the basis of practical concerns. For example, one of my biggest complaints is that greater enforcement of intellectual property rights in other countries will crowd out actual goods that Americans make. For example: Hollywood is just going to take this money and run; it isn’t going to produce more and better films. So money that was once available to Vietnamese consumers to buy our stuff will instead go straight to the power elite in Hollywood. This is one of the mechanisms in the TPP that will redistribute income upward.

The Republicans, not surprisingly, don’t need no stinking practical concerns. Instead, they are concerned about the “Constitution” and “executive power.” But most of all, they are focused on the fact that they hate the current President of the United States. In addition, of course, Republicans are concerned about things that aren’t real. Lee mentioned, “And when Republican do complain about the contents of the TPP, they sometimes focus on topics that almost certainly won’t be part of the trade deal.” That includes the fear that the TPP will allow more brown people in the country.

This is, sadly, the great divide in American politics. And it is amusing that a libertarian like Lee would highlight it, even if he doesn’t frame it as systemic. “Liberalism” in America is just the practical business of governing. It is largely devoid of ideology. “Conservatism” in America is just the business of attaining ideological purity. But the ideology of the conservative movement is vague at best — having something to do with American exceptionalism: small government when it comes to the least dangerous aspects of public policy and large government when it comes to the most dangerous aspects of public policy. This is why most liberals can at least have a decent political discussion with libertarians. They may be lost in the ideological vapor, but at least their ideology is relatively coherent.

See also: TPP Could Create 4,000+ Minimum Wage Jobs.

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Empty Educational Crazes

HL MenckenEvery year sees a craze for some new solution to the teaching enigma, an endless series of flamboyant arcana. The worst extravagances of privatdozent experimental psychology are gravely seized upon; the uplift pours in its ineffable principles and discoveries; mathematical formulae are marked out for every emergency; there is no sure-cure so idiotic that some superintendent of schools will not swallow it. The aim seems to be to reduce the whole teaching process to a sort of automatic reaction, to discover some master formula that will not only take the place of competence and resourcefulness in the teacher but that will also create an artificial receptivity in the child.

—HL Mencken
“The Educational Process” in A Mencken Chrestomathy — Originally in The New York Evening Mail, 23 January 1918

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Centrist Pundits Pushing Hopeless Candidates

Josh MarshallJosh Marshall at Talking Points Memo wrote an insightful article last week, Chris Christie and the Distorting Lens of New York Media Dominance. It answers the question, “Why is so much made of these northeastern Republicans when they never have any hope in a national primary?” There is a lot to his answer. Basically: so much of the media establishment — including conservative flagships — is located in the northeast. He also noted that this is where most of the moneyed Republican base is. But, “It’s just not where the voters come from.”

As everyone should know, this is the standard problem for the Republican Party. It is committed to the interests of Wall Street. But that doesn’t win elections. The Republican base voter is mostly interested in social issues. The truth is that Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani are extremely conservative. “But they are usually not terribly focused on the evangelicalism-tinged social issues that drive Republican party identification in its heartlands.” So these guys might be loved by Wall Street, but they are like the Southern Strategy without the south: they aren’t going to win elections, even if northern Republican voters rather like them.

I agree with all of this. But I think there is another aspect to it. It has to do with the Professional Centrists. These are the people, who represent the foundation of the commentariat, who are always and forever looking for a “third way.” By definition, the Republicans are too conservative and the Democrats are too liberal. And we know it is definitional, because these people so often call on the two parties to compromise on what turns out to already be Democratic policy. But even if it weren’t for this, how can someone look at both the Democratic and Republican Parties and how much more conservative they’ve become over the last 50 years and think, “Sure, the Republicans are too conservative, but the Democrats are too liberal!”?

For these kinds of pundits, the Republicans from blue states will always have a special glow. It’s simply because those Republicans can’t afford to look like rattle snake handlers. But since the pundits don’t care about actual policy, they can focus on the way that people like Christie and Giuliani seem like regular people (in the sense of “like people who upper class pundits know”). What’s more, they seem less conservative than the likes of Ted Cruz — even though they aren’t. So it allows these Professional Centrists to claim that these Republicans are centrists. It’s axiomatic: given that Democrats are too liberal and Republicans are too conservative, any Republican who they decide is less conservative than the Republican Party generally must be a centrist or moderate. QED.

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Charles Murray Finally Realizes He Isn’t Winning

Charles MurrayCharles Murray is out with another book, By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission. I haven’t read it because no one is paying me to. There are too many great books that I will never have time to read. I’m not going to waste my time reading yet another of his screeds. Let’s be clear what he’s all about. Most people know him from, The Bell Curve. As a result, most people think of him as a racist. Indeed, I’m pretty sure I have called him that myself. But it isn’t quite appropriate. Murray doesn’t care about race. Like all of his books, The Bell Curve was making a social argument for conservative policy. In that particular case, he was arguing for an end to affirmative action.

This new book is more practical. He argues for a kind of civil disobedience. He wants some billionaires to pony up some money for a legal defense fund that will allow companies everywhere to break the law. This act of widespread law breaking will thus paralyze the system and the long promised libertarian utopia will at least be at hand! Some people seem genuinely concerned about it. Sam Seder and Digby spoke about it at some length on The Majority Report on Tuesday. But I don’t think there is much to worry about here.

Matt Bruenig tackled the issue last week with his usual finely tuned analysis, Charles Murray’s Abracadabra State. He noted that Murray’s legal defense fund would constitute insurance. And in most areas, the courts have already made insurance against law breaking illegal. Now it is possible that the court system would allow conservatives to get away with such a scheme. But that would be because the courts wanted the same thing that the conservatives wanted. That, of course, does not seem likely. Even conservatives judges bristle when conservative activists try to mess with their power.

To me, Murray’s idea is just a systematic approach to what conservatives have long been doing. We have seen two major challenges against Obamacare. But the truth is that conservatives have filed hundreds if not thousands of similarly frivolous lawsuits. And they were all taken care of very quickly. And it goes back much further than that. Conservatives love to rail against “activist judges,” but for the last 30 years, it has been the conservatives on the bench who have been activists. There are very few people in the federal courts who would be seen as liberal outside our own skewed definition of the term.

I think that Brian Beutler is exactly right, Charles Murray and the Right’s Plan to Subvert Democracy. But even that gives the conservative movement too much credit. Despite their constant claims to the popularity of their cause, conservatives gave up on democracy over two centuries ago. This is one of the great burdens of being a conservative. If you are serious, you have to admit that the people are not on your side. And that means abandoning the idea of democracy. And that means you want something like a philosopher-king. Of course, that’s not going to happen. Instead, it would just be a king — some better than others. But most conservatives are fine with that — just as long as they are part of the aristocracy, and they are allowed to keep stealing from the poor.

Murray’s subtitle is telling, “Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission.” It’s interesting how conservatives see liberty as being whatever it is that they want. It’s never thought out. I would like the liberty to live anywhere that I want and to hunt and gather. But Murray would say: no, no, no! That’s because the kind of liberty I’m talking about interferes with the kind of authority (property rights) that he believes in. Murray doesn’t believe in liberty, though; he believes in a system of government that is more attentive to the interests of his class. Of course, he’s living in a dream land. There is no government that could be more attentive to the interest of his class than the one we have in the United States — at least one that wouldn’t cause a revolution.

See also: David Frum Summarizes Charles Murray

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Morning Music: Ducu Bertzi

Best of '06 - Ducu BertziI’m not quite sure what we here in the west thought the godless commies were up to in the 1950s and 1960s. But what they were up to was the same things we were up to. They were just poorer. Romania is generally considered the most oppressive of the Soviet autocracies. But just like we were here in the states, the Romanians were having a folk revival in the early 1960s. I’ll have to mine that period in the future.

For now, I’ve discovered a much later artist from the same tradition, Ducu Bertzi. He’s a singer-songwriter from Sighetu Marmației in the northernmost of Romania. I don’t know much about him, other than that he performed a lot with the much more famous Florian Pittiș. You know us Americans: we don’t get out much. Anyway, here is a song, “Suflet Fără Chei” off (at least), Best Of ’06. The literal meaning of the title is “Soul Without Pier.” But Google Translate offers “Keyless Soul.” I think the idea is a soul without a point of access. It sounds very poetic and sad. Regardless, it is beautiful song:


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Anniversary Post: “Mary Had a Little Lamb”

Sarah Josepha HaleOn this day in 1830, the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” was first published. I’ll provide some discussion of it in a moment, but first I want to talk about it in the context of copyright law. If the law had been then as it is now, “Mary Had a Little Lamb” would have still be under copyright at the beginning of 1949. Think about that. The first American steam train was produced in 1830. That was the cutting edge of transportation. And we would have had to wait until the dawn of the Space Age before this little rhyme was considered part of the public domain. After it was written, we lived through the Civil War and then World War I and then World War II. But according to current American law, the country had only then moved on enough for the rhyme to be considered part of our shared culture. Until then, it was simply property for some corporation to use to extract rents.

It was written — to one extent or another — by Sarah Josepha Hale. Born in 1788, she lived all the way to 1879, which is one of the reasons that the length of the copyright would have been so long. It was published as part of her book, Poems for Our Children. You can find out more about her in the birthday post I wrote about her, Sarah Josepha Hale Had a Little Lamb.

So happy 185th birthday to “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Now let’s go fix our broken copyright system!

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