Recycled Genius

RecycleI just updated my two articles based on Peter Lamont's book The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick. The first one, Indian Rope Trick Part I, is mostly about the history of the trick and how it started in a made-up newspaper article. The second one, Indian Rope Trick Part II, is about an actual thing, which I call the "Indian Chain Trick." I discuss it and how I'm pretty sure it was done.

I wrote both of those articles just a few months after starting this blog. That was in the days when I took my time. Yet I managed to name both of the articles "Indian Rope Trip [sic]." And it wasn't just that. Some of the text was unclear. It just goes to show, expertise helps. When you have less skill, even working very hard will only take you so far. My dashed off work now, six years later, is better. But these are interesting articles — well worth reading.


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Harriet Tubman and Republican Ignorance

Harriet TubmanIt goes to show just how overworked I am that I'm only now getting to something I saw a week ago in a post at No More Mister Nice Blog, How Your Right-Wing Uncle Is Going to React to Harriet Tubman on the $20 Bill. The point of the article is that Republicans will use Tubman differently how ever it works for them. So she will either be a terrible communist or a great gun loving Republican. It's this latter conception of her that I find interesting and incredibly annoying.

The truth is that Harriet Tubman was a gun loving Republican. But the problem with that is that you can't really compare someone who was born almost 200 years ago to someone today. Let's start with the most obvious and silly thing. Of course Tubman was a Republican! The Republican Party was the anti-slavery party. I assure you that if chattel slavery were an open issue today, it would be the Republican Party that would be on television reading passages from the Bible to justify it. In the 1960s, the Democrats and Republicans crossed paths on this issue. This is the main reason why the south went from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican.

My message to Republicans: after decades of using racial dog whistles to win elections, it is time to embrace the fact that you are a racist party. The group of people who ended slavery in this country might have called themselves Republicans, but they don't represent who you are today.

Who'd've Thought Harriet Tubman Was Like That?!

The issue of guns is a little more subtle but far more interesting. You see, in the early days of the union, the Constitution really did protect gun rights in a most feeble way. It was only after the Civil War that gun rights started to be expanded because the southern states were trying to disarm former slaves. So of course Harriet Tubman would be pro-gun — both before and after the Civil War.

Compare this to what I've found in my life to be the typical gun owner: someone who owns a dozen or more guns and is waiting for the revolution that keeps not coming. You know: Ammon Bundy. These are people who live in a fantasy land where every Democratic president is a despot just waiting to storm their home. Its particularly funny when you consider that our military now has drones. So when Bundy and his fellow idiots occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, it really didn't matter how many guns they had. The government could have just blown them all up using a drone.

On the other hand, guns actually did provide former slaves some degree of protection against state governments that really were trying to kill them. So it not only makes perfect sense that Harriet Tubman would be a gun loving Republican, it was entirely predictable. Yet we get absolutely fatuous statements from conservatives like this:

That awkward moment when leftist feminists find out that Harriot [sic] Tubman — who they voted to replace Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill — was a gun-toting, Democrat shooting, 2nd Amendment supporting Republican.

So we are supposed to be surprised. Why? Because Republicans think we are as stupid and ignorant as they are.

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Morning Music: Christianity Is Stupid

Richard Lyons - Christianity Is StupidProbably the best known song from Escape from Noise is "Christianity Is Stupid." I think I said yesterday that Negativland could do any kind of music they wanted, and we hear that with this song too. It would be compelling, even without the lyrics. But the lyrics are what everyone remembers. And the lyrics are, "Christianity is stupid! Communism is good! Give up!" Over and over. It's got a very Nineteen Eighty-Four feel to it.

Apparently, the band took a sermon from Baptist minister Estus Pirkle. They grabbed seven words from it and rearranged it. Pirkle was known for his films like The Burning Hell (directed by Ron Ormond). Now, I think these of great bits of idiosyncratic art. But you can also tell that Estus Pirkle was a fire and brimstone preacher — and definitely an anti-communist. So it's great fun that Negativland managed to take his words and say something that he would find revolting.

Escape From Noise was the first Negativland album on SST Records — you know Greg Ginn's company created to put out Black Flag albums but also put out all of the Minutemen albums, as well as albums by a number of other great bands. So Negativland had found a home. And Escape From Noise was a surprisingly successful album. So they were expected to go on a tour. But SST had no money for it. What's more, Negativland wasn't really a live band. What to do?

Bandmember Richard Lyons came up with an idea to get the band out of having to tour. You will remember that Richard Lyons died last week, and he is the reason that we are listening to Negativland this week. He put out a press release that stated that mass murderer David Brom was inspired by the song "Christianity Is Stupid" to kill his parents and siblings. It stated the FBI had told the band not to leave town. Many news outlets picked up on the hoax press release and ran with it. And why not? Everyone always thinks that pop music creates murderers.

The following recording of "Christianity Is Stupid" goes along with scenes from Metropolis, which I still can't believe wasn't a hit when it first came out. And if you haven't seen it, shame on you. Here is a beautiful print of it for free: Metropolis.

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Anniversary Post: Mutiny on the Bounty

Mutiny on the BountyOn this day in 1789, the mutiny on the Bounty occurred. It is one of those sad stories where it is hard not to sympathize and also hate everyone involved. There is also the problem that it seems every historian who has tackled the subject has (understandably) come to different conclusions. So what you think about the event largely depends upon who you have read. Much better to watch the 1962 classic, Mutiny on the Bounty with Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard -- ahistorical as it may be.

What I nonetheless love about the whole thing is how very civilized it was. The mutineers did not kill the captain and his supporters. They just set them in a row boat. In fact, four of the supporters couldn't go in the boat, so they were dropped off in Tahiti. But the boat wasn't just set adrift. It was sent with (according to Wikipedia) "150 pounds of bread, some pork, 6 quarts of rum, 6 bottles of wine and 28 gallons of drinking water." And that explains how Bligh and his crew managed to make it to safety.

Unlike in the movie, Bligh returned to England a hero. It would seem that his reputation fell because towards the end of his life, he was appointed Governor of New South Wales. And he was so bad at getting along with people that he sparked the Rum Rebellion. I think that probably made a lot of people think that Fletcher Christian might have had more than just a little reason for his mutiny.

Happy anniversary mutiny on the Bounty!


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The Surprisingly Similar Attacks on Sanders Regarding the Soda Tax

Jonathan Chait - For Soda Tax If Sanders Is Against ItI wasn't going to write about it. And the truth is, I'm going to try to make this short. When Paul Krugman wrote yesterday, A Note on the Soda Tax Controversy, I figured I'd let it slide. After all, at this point, I do a search for "Sanders" on anything Krugman writes, and if I find it, I don't read the article. Or at least I try to. I usually manage to read at least half the article and it is usually nonsense. It's what I always say, and what neuroscience proves: we make up our minds and then we come up with arguments to justify ideas that might as well have come from our guts.

But then I noted this morning that Jonathan Chait (who might as well be Paul Krugman when it comes to any discussion of Sanders) wrote, Why Is Bernie Sanders Making Right-Wing Arguments Against Taxing Soda? Right-wing arguments? What could they be?! Well, it turns out it is only one argument and that it is only "right-wing." That is to say, it's right-wing in Chait-land where everything is either right-wing or communism if Jonathan Chait doesn't agree with it.

For those of you not following it, Hillary Clinton wants a soda tax on these sugary drink so that America gets healthier. It's not a bad idea. I'm not necessarily against it. Call me agnostic. And call me agnostic because there is another side to the issue. Bernie Sanders is against this tax because it is regressive. You can see what a right-wing argument he's making there. That is: you can see it if you have Jonathan Chait's eyes that allow him to throw out pejoratives for anything that he doesn't happen to agree with. It's interesting that when Michael Bloomberg wanted to ban soda in anything larger than 16 ounce containers, Jonathan Chait ridiculed it.

Paul Krugman - For Soda Tax If Sanders Is Against ItAs Chait noted, the fact that such a tax would hit the poor hardest would probably make the tax most effective, since the rich spend more of their money on pricey Gamay Beaujolais. But it occurs to me, a liberal, that are ways to make everyone more healthy that don't require doing it on the backs of the poor. It is only because Chait and Krugman and Clinton are all wedded to neoliberal approaches to social problems. Global warming?! How about a carbon tax! Obesity?! How about a soda tax! Both of these are regressive, but neoliberals don't care because they aren't poor.

And would it surprise anyone to know that the poor actually consume less junk food than their richer counterparts? But it seems that the modern Democrat has but one tool to deal with problem. So when Bernie Sanders isn't for a neoliberal "solution" to a problem he acknowledges, then he's "right-wing."

I happen to know that Sanders is for a far better solution to the problem of bad eating by the poor: more food stamps. Am I the only one who remembers the article in Mother Jones two years ago, People on Food Stamps Make Healthier Grocery Decisions Than Most of Us? The issue is poverty, not "incentives." And people like Chait, Krugman, and Clinton think the issue is training the poor, because it's their own damned fault.

But why listen to me? I am apparently "right-wing"!


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Morning Music: Escape from Noise

Escape from NoiseToday, we reach what is widely considered Negativland's masterpiece, Escape from Noise. It is the perfect mixing of sound and music. It also has the advantage of being more song oriented. As we saw yesterday with the first side of A Big 10-8 Place, songs mixed into one another and what was called a song was almost arbitrary. Here, that's not really true. Whether you think that's good or bad is up to you. I don't think it much matters.

But for today, we will listen to "Car Bomb." What I especially like about it is that's it's kind of a parody of maximum rock-n-rock. But it works as maximum rock-n-roll and is also better than the vast majority of maximum rock-n-roll. The truth is that Negativland could do anything, because they understood sound — a fact that was clear enough from their previous albums.

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Anniversary Post: A Vindication of Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary WollstonecraftOn this day in 1759, the great writer Mary Wollstonecraft was born. She is probably best remembered today as one of the first and greatest feminist philosophers, but I think that is rather too small a box to cram her into. But there is no doubt that her ideas were far ahead of her time. She was even far ahead of the thinking of many of the suffragettes who came along a hundred years later. And among conservatives, I still commonly hear ideas that would offend Wollstonecraft's thinking over two centuries ago.

I like to think of her as the female Thomas Paine. And indeed, they were friends. In fact, they were both in France together where they faced the guillotine. Paine was jailed for some time, but it isn't clear whether or not Wollstonecraft was. She was the first to publish a response to Edmund Burke's apologia for hereditary rule, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Her book was, A Vindication of the Rights of Men. And it contains the kind of fiery rhetoric I associate with Paine. For example, she suggests that Burke would have argued in favor of crucifying Jesus. The sad thing is that I'm sure she's right.

She followed that book two years later with what is probably her masterpiece, even though it was written hurriedly, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It is mostly an argument for the proper education of women. It was generally thought at that time—even by intellectuals—that women needn't more than a basic education. Rights of Woman is one of the founding documents of modern feminism.

Mary Wollstonecraft died young at the age of 38. It was ten days after the birth of her second daughter who would go on to be Mary Shelley, perhaps the greatest Romantic writer. Her death was due to blood poisoning from a broken placenta. It's extremely sad and a great tragedy for our culture, but there is something satisfying in the author of Frankenstein killing her creator.

There is much more to say about Wollstonecraft. She wrote a great deal and had a very colorful life. The Wikipedia page on her is rather good, or you could read, Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life. Or you could read her work, much of it is available at Project Gutenberg. She also wrote narrative fiction. She's well worth checking out.

Happy birthday Mary Wollstonecraft!


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Calming Down the Clinton Campaign

Hillary Clinton CampaignI've written too many articles about how ridiculous the Clinton campaign has been with regard to Bernie Sanders. Apparently, I have a super power that allows me to read a poll — a power that is apparently unavailable to the Clinton campaign. Another of my super powers is the ability to remember all the way back to 2008. My take away from that primary was that the Democratic base really didn't like having to choose between any of the three main candidates, but most especially between Obama and Clinton. So 2016 has represented a great opportunity for these people to have the best of all worlds.

So it's been really annoying to watch the Clinton campaign never take the high road and always act as though it was in a very close match. But maybe it's just me and my age. I find Sanders supporters very silly much of the time too. The other day, I saw a short video from The Young Turks, and they were discussing how it was a good thing that the Republicans looked set to nominate Trump, because he was the only one that Clinton could beat. What do you even say to such nonsense?! That's the kind of thing I expect from Fox News where it is taken as a certainty that Hillary Clinton will be in prison by June.

But the implication of the complaints coming from the Clinton campaign seems to be that Sanders should just know that he's an issue candidate and that he should therefore not hurt the obvious eventual nominee. Now, I called this race back in February — because of my super powers of poll reading and history remembering. But the truth is that the race is rather tight nationally. Real Clear Politics has Clinton ahead by just 4 percentage points. But there are a few things to keep in mind with this.

Bernie Sanders SupportersFirst, 4 percentage points is really quite a lot. That's what Obama beat Romney by. What's more, in all the polls during the last month, Clinton has been right at 50%. And if you assume that she would get roughly 50% of the undecided vote (And you should!) she is well above 50%. This is a race between two figures in the Democratic Party that are both well liked. It isn't a surprise that the race would tighten over time.

The other issue is that the national figures don't matter at all. I don't know if anyone remembers the obscure presidential election back in 2000. During that there was all kinds of controversy about who had won in Florida, even though one of the men had clearly won the majority of votes nationwide. I still get the question, "Can Sanders win the nomination?" In the sense that anything could happen (a humanity destroying asteroid hitting the Earth this calendar year), then yes, Sanders can win the nomination. But reasonably: no, Sanders cannot win the nomination.

Now I keep hearing that Sanders is hurting Clinton by staying in the race. Of course, the same people have been calling for him to step down for months. But the Clinton campaign thinks that Sanders is hurting Clinton in the general election. That might be the case. But I have a hard time taking it seriously for two reasons.

First, Sanders being in the race has made Hillary Clinton a far better candidate. If she had just floated through this campaign with only Martin O'Malley to fight with, she would have been a much worse candidate once the general election started. So the Clinton campaign really ought to balance out the good things that Sanders has done for them compared to the minor damage he has done. And it is minor damage. Who thinks that the Republicans wouldn't have tried to attack her on her Wall Street connections?

The second reason is demonstrated very well in an article by Brian Beutler yesterday, Democrats Should Stop Sweating Sanders' Attacks on Clinton. He notes how Clinton was far more vicious toward Obama when she was losing in 2008. For example:

I could stand up here and say, "Let's just get everybody together, let's get unified, the sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know we should do the right thing, and the world would be perfect." Maybe I've just lived a little long, but I have no illusions about how hard this is going to be. You are not going to wave a magic wand and have the special interests disappear.

But again, I think the issue is that the Clinton campaign just takes it as granted that Sanders could never win the primary. So it was totally okay for her to say she should stay in the race because who knows what information might come out about Obama. But it isn't okay for Sanders to do the same thing because the Clinton campaign doesn't think he's a viable candidate.

Just to be clear: Clinton will win the nomination. Sanders will stay in the race. Clinton is not going to be noticeably harmed by Sanders' attacks. Once Clinton is the nominee, Sanders will support and campaign for her. There's nothing special about this campaign. Except for all the whining.


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Morning Music: A Big 10-8 Place

A Big 10-8 Place - NegativlandNegativland's third album A Big 10-8 Place is widely considered their first great album. A lot of it is reminiscent of John Lennon's "Revolution 9." But I've always thought of that as Lennon trying to do Stockhausen without actually understanding Stockhausen. Negativland are fully in the tradition of musique concrète, but from a pop music standpoint. This is especially true on tunes like A Big 10-8 Place, Pt One. But that tune is pretty subtle.

Similar, is the other long song on the album, 180-G, a Big 10-8 Place, Pt Two. It is a 15 minute long sound collage with directions on getting from San Francisco to Concord (the band's home town). But I must admit, having grown up here, I don't much follow the directions. They talk excessively about "180 and the letter G." I don't know what they mean. Hwy 180 is down by Fresno. But it's not supposed to make sense. There are various other aspects of the directions like, "You're going to have to shoplift." It's an amazing piece of music. Do check it out.

I really want to introduce you to "Clowns and Ballerinas." But I don't want to give you the wrong idea of Negativland. Then again, I'm not sure it is possible. It's like the blind men and the elephant. Negativland is so many things all at once. And the best thing to do with them is to listen to a whole album — or at least an album side. The first side of A Big 10-8 Place starts with "Theme from a Big Place" then goes into "A Big 10-8 Place, Pt One" and ends with "Clowns and Ballerinas." So I've made a playlist so you can listen to the first side of the album. I think you will see what I mean — how it works as a whole better than it does as a collection of songs:

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Anniversary Post: SS Ideal X

SS Ideal X - Container Ship

On this day in 1956, the SS Ideal X was launched. It was the world's first successful container ship. Actually, before that, it had been an oil tanker from World War II. But it was purchased by Pan-Atlantic Steamship Company and converted into a container ship. It carried 58 containers. Compare this to the biggest container ships today that carry in excess of 10,000 containers. It is truly remarkable.

Now the Ideal X was not the first container ship. That would be the Clifford J Rogers. But I don't think that's quite fair, because it didn't transport the standard twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) containers. And the whole purpose of container ships is that they are standardized. If they weren't, they wouldn't be important.

If you are an American and you are out of work, it is probably because of container ships. Well, not completely. There are lots of political reasons. But without container ships, those wouldn't matter that much. Think of the total crap that comes to this country from China — things like toy rings that kids get in gumball machines. The only reason that it is profitable to make this junk is that the transportation costs are greatly reduced. Container ships allow that.

All this talk of globalization being about allowing companies to get the cheapest labor is true. But if it was expensive to transport the goods, it just wouldn't happen. And one thing you will notice is that America still does a fair amount of manufacturing of cheap stuff. It is just that it is on a small scale. It might be reasonable to produce a million plastic rings in China, but if it is only 100,000, the transportation costs make it cheaper to produce here.

I certainly think that container ships have had a far bigger effect on the world than computers. And of course, if resources were shared somewhat equitably, container ships would have been a much bigger benefit to everyone. Instead, they have more or less facilitated taking money from the poorer people in the developed world and giving it to the poor people in the developing world. And that's overall a good thing. But along the way, it shouldn't have been that the rich have simply gotten unimaginably richer — largely because of a technological advance that they had nothing to do with.

Happy birthday container ships!


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The Scam of the Interactive Commercial

Interactive Commercial

Every time I lie down on the couch and put on Hulu to watch Bob's Burgers, I get that screen asking me if I would like to have a very quick interactive commercial or a much longer string of normal commercials. It's really annoying for a number of reasons. But the main reason I do nothing is that it would require that get up every five minutes to interact with the computer. I'm relaxing, watching Bob's Burger's for Christ's sake. I can put up with the commercials. I don't want to jump up all the time just so I don't have to watch a few extra commercials.

But there is more to it than that. I've done the interactive commercial in the past. And it has been a nightmare each time. For one thing, they make it very confusing. It isn't a thing where they ask you if you'd if you like golfing and then tell you to buy a particular putter. Now, it is, for example, a film trailer. There is a 30 second countdown. But there's also a "close" button. If you use it, it starts the whole thing over with a new 30 second clock. But once you figure out that you shouldn't do that, I guess it is okay.

The whole thing is meant to confuse you, however. There isn't really much in the way of interaction, other than the fact that you do have to interact with it. If you just let it go on, it will never stop. At the end, you are in a loop like in a DVD menu. And you are left in that state, you may think you can click "close" because that's the only thing that makes sense. Instead, you have to click something on the screen. The "close" button doesn't go away after the 30 seconds transpire. You have to click something and only then will the button appear that allows you to get back to Bob's Burgers.

Another interesting thing about it is that the "normal commercial break" is never the two minutes they claim. On average, it is about 1:15. And sometimes, it is less. Sometimes there is no commercial break at all — it just goes right back to the show. So over all, the best the interactive commercial does is cut your commercial time in half.

It's worse though! It takes time for the interactive commercial to load. And then, it takes time to "interact" and click the button to return to the show. But even more frustrating is that the interactive commercial has crashed on me twice, causing me to have to start the entire show over again. So in addition to not getting such a great benefit, the interactive commercial offers the potential for television viewing catastrophe.

There is something else about the whole process: the choice screen itself. You have to wait for 15 second to make your choice. Those who want the interactive commercial, can just click and get rid of it. So I suppose that works in its favor. Hulu is willing to slow down normal viewers just for the opportunity to get people to use their interactive commercial. This annoys me even more. But on top of this, we have a man's voice that is distinctly louder than the show telling us that we have this great opportunity to "interact" and get "right back" to the show.

This is the kind of short-term profit thinking that defines the modern world. And it makes me just want to wait until the whole season is available on Netflix. But I do continue to watch it, because it is Bob's Burgers. But that's all I watch; I don't stick around for The Simpsons anymore.


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Morning Music: Negativland's Points

Negativland - PointsNegativland's second album, Points, goes more in the direction of pure sound collage. It's really remarkable stuff. Listening to it, I try to remember what technology was available. It was 1981, so it was mostly tape recorders and analog synthesizers. I'm on record as being against synthesizers from the early 1980s, but this is because it was when the digital ones came out. And so you got a lot of stuff that all sounded the same. But analog ones had been around for a long time and people did different things with them. Negativland did a lot of interesting stuff on Points.

The song I want to highlight is quite odd for the album, "The Answer Is..." It sounds like they discovered their grandmother's electric organ. And, in fact, I'm sure that's exactly what they did. But it just goes to show that you can do great work with any tool at all. But in addition to sounding like a little concert in your grandmother's living room, there is a little bit of Ronald Reagan saying, "The problem isn't being poor, the problem is, um, the answer is..." They cut it there. It's perfect because that was generally the answer that Reagan had.

Remember, this album came out in 1981. It was probably recorded shortly after Reagan was elected. What a great way to come into adulthood! Looking back, it's so embarrassing. Reagan really was a mediocrity in all ways. This song is a great tribute to him. Anyway, check this out. It's probably unlike anything else you will hear this week, month, year.

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Anniversary Post: the Spanish Speaking Wars

Mexican–American WarToday, we get a twofer. On this day in 1846, the Mexican–American War started. And also on this day but in 1898, the Spanish–American War started. Okay, that's not exactly true. In 1846, the first battle of the Mexican-American War -- the Thornton Affair -- took place. Effectively, Mexico had declared war two days before. The US Congress didn't declare war until 13 May. The US Congress actually did declared war against Spain on 25 April 1898. Spain had declared war two days before.

What I think is interesting about these wars is that growing up, I didn't really know what the difference was between them. They were just these minor wars fought against Spain in different countries. Well, that's not exactly true. Mexico was independent from Spain by that time. But it was close enough. And more important, these wars weren't minor. Tens of thousands died in both.

Spanish-American WarThe Mexican-American War started after years of tension following the Texas Revolution in 1836. And specifically, there was a dispute over where exactly the border was. The war became much broader than this, and Mexico ended up losing almost all of what is today the western United States. Just the same, I think this would have happened regardless. The history of Texas shows this: the Texas Revolution really wasn't a revolution. It was more Americans flooding into the territory, staging an armed revolt, and eventually becoming a state.

The Spanish-American War was pretty much just the end of the Cuban War of Independence. It is definitely a war that we shouldn't have fought. Basically, the Democrats and various business interests pushed President McKinley into it. The sinking of the USS Maine certainly added fuel to the fire. No one knows for sure the cause, but one thing is for sure: Spain didn't want the United States entering that war. So I suspect that it was just an accident that was used -- just like today -- as an excuse for those who thought they would profit -- politically and economically -- from the war.

Both of the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War could have been avoided. But the push for war is strong. There is something about humans that makes us want to lash out rather than reflect. And one thing is very true: it is a lot easier to whip up people into a frenzy of anger and fear than it is to calm them. And the ultimate geopolitical outcomes are more or less what all parties knew they would be -- bigger, better equipped armies almost always beat smaller, less equipped armies. But in the process, people die. Lots of people.

We mark the anniversaries of these two unfortunate wars.


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