Anniversary Post: Great Fire of London

Great Fire of LondonOn this day in 1666, the Great Fire of London finally ended. It had started early in the morning of 2 September, so it went on for four days. It made 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 people homeless. There is some question as to how many people died as a direct result of the fire, but it appears to have been fairly low. But no one really knows, because no one creating official records really cared when poor people died.

The fire started in a bakery. But at the time, the people of London decided that it had been started by Mexicans immigrants. In that case, it was French and Dutch because England happened to be at war with them. So many people were beaten and lynched. It’s an interesting kind of mentality of us humans, “There’s a terrible fire going on! Let’s do something! Let’s kill innocent people based on rumor!” Clearly, even if the immigrants had been responsible, that was not the time to seek justice.

This is yet another reason why demagoguery is such a bad thing. It’s all fine for Donald Trump to go around saying that Mexican immigrants are rapists. But the moment there’s a crisis of some kind, who gets blamed? Who do the rest of society start attacking? This is the very worst of what we humans are — and it is in us all. This is why we need to create institutions and ways of thought to counteract this in us. And let’s be honest: we are better than we have been in the past. But we have a long way to go. And there are a lot of people who continue to push us in the other direction.

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A Word From Our Tired Writer

Frank MoraesI hope you don’t mind if I waste a post by explaining to you why I don’t feel like writing anything. It’s funny. When I was out of town the other day, I was following the news on my phone. So I wrote up a whole schedule of articles for the next day in my notebook. Now, that’s notebook as in the thing that people from the 1950s would recognize. I still do a lot of writing by hand. But the point is that I wrote down what I was going to write once I got back home with all my standard tools like the keyboard I like, the trackball, and the computer set up the way that I like it.

And here’s the thing: I got those articles written fast. The hardest thing about writing articles is coming up with what to write about. But that isn’t exactly true. I have about fifty tabs open right now with things that I would like to write about. But I just don’t care to do it right now. Part of it is just that I don’t feel good. And that may have something to do with not eating enough today. So I’m cooking dinner — which I’m also not very excited about.

But I’ll tell you: I have been feeling tired a lot recently. It hasn’t stopped me from writing like a madman. But I constantly have to fight the urge to crawl into bed with a book. And God knows, that would be good for me! What is the point of all this writing? That’s especially true of the writing here. I understand the point of the other writing: money. And I’m very keen on money right now. In fact, let’s talk about money — as it relates to the writer.

Here’s the thing: you can be a really good writer — even a great writer. You can work really hard as a writer. And by that, I don’t mean it in the sense of, “Well, I’m thinking about my novel as a drink a beer and shoot pool over at the local pub.” In fact, the people around you can even be aware that you are a good and hard working writer. But if you aren’t making money, you are still pretty much a joke to them. It’s nothing personal. It is just people don’t know enough about writing (or almost anything) to judge what you do. So they go with commerce.

For example, I’ll bet I could find two generic paragraphs: one each from Stephen King and John Steinbeck. They are good examples because they are both great writers and popular. (Fun fact: it has not been cool to show disdain for King since 1981.) And I could show both of these paragraphs to a group of people, and they would not be able to identify which writer is which, even though they have pretty distinctive styles. So people don’t much get writing. I don’t blame them for it. But that’s the reason they fall back on every writer’s most hated question, “Yeah, but are you making any money?”

But that’s one great thing about these other paying gigs. The fact that Frankly Curious brings in about ten bucks in Amazon referrals each month, doesn’t really matter anymore. Now people have to accept that what I do here has value because other people are paying me to write the same kind of stuff elsewhere. And really, it isn’t that different — except in one way: those who pay me tell me what to write about. Which means writing here is a whole lot harder. I hope you appreciate it!

Afterword

Having written this, I feel so much more energetic. And dinner’s almost done.

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The Problem With Economics

Noah SmithI think that what’s odd about econ isn’t that it uses lots of math — it’s the way it uses math. In most applied math disciplines — computational biology, fluid dynamics, quantitative finance — mathematical theories are always tied to the evidence. If a theory hasn’t been tested, it’s treated as pure conjecture.

Not so in econ. Traditionally, economists have put the facts in a subordinate role and theory in the driver’s seat. Plausible-sounding theories are believed to be true unless proven false, while empirical facts are often dismissed if they don’t make sense in the context of leading theories. This isn’t a problem with math — it was just as true back when economics theories were written out in long literary volumes. Econ developed as a form of philosophy and then added math later, becoming basically a form of mathematical philosophy.

—Noah Smith
Economics Has a Math Problem

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Donald Trump Is Rich Because He Was Born Rich

Donald TrumpWhen I was a kid, Esphyr Slobodkina’s book, Caps for Sale terrified me. It involved this guy who I now understand was a cap peddler who wore many caps on his head at the same time. I thought he was Satan. I have no idea why I thought that. I was a strange kid. Anyway, I now wish that I were that peddler, because I would love to tip a hundred caps to SV Dáte who wrote the best article I’ve read in ages, The One Easy Way Donald Trump Could Have Been Even Richer: Doing Nothing.

People often ask me where I get my story ideas. I tell them it is mostly cartoons (which is true). Perhaps as a result, it would not occur to me to do what Dáte did. We all know that money makes money. And since Donald Trump was born rich, Dáte decided to look at how rich he would be now if he had just floated along: put his money in a regular investment vehicle. In this case, he chose an indexed mutual fund. These are funds designed to do roughly as well as the market itself. His results: if Trump had just put his 1974 inheritance into an index fund, he would now have $3 billion; if he had put his $200 million estimated fortune in 1982 into an index fund, he would not have $8 billion.

Even the smaller figure exceeds the lower range of his possible net worth as reported to the Federal Election Commission, while the larger number exceeds by billions recent estimates of Trump’s worth by financial publications. And it would have come without the high-drama, roller-coaster career that has included four corporate bankruptcies.

That a purely unmanaged index fund’s return could outperform Trump’s hands-on wheeling and dealing calls into question one of Trump’s chief selling points on the campaign trail: his business acumen.

He added that if Trump had given War­ren Buf­fett his money to invest, Trump would now be worth almost $70 billion. But most of the rest of the article is about how much Trump is actually worth. Most recently, Trump has claimed that he is worth ten billion dollars. But that number is certainly not true. And it is possible that he is only really worth something like hundreds of millions of dollars. It doesn’t really matter. The main thing is that he hasn’t done any better than a simple computer algorithm in terms of managing his money.

At Vox, Dylan Matthews looked into the question a bit more deeply.
Even after taking into account all of the costs associated with a mutual fund (fees and taxes), it turns out that Trump currently has (based on the most liberal estimates) just about the same amount of money that he would have had. And I think the title of his article says all that need be said, “Donald Trump isn’t rich because he’s a great investor. He’s rich because his dad was rich.”

That, my friends, is the story of modern America. Meritocracy? American exceptionalism? It’s all rubbish. Donald Trump is the perfect symbol of America.

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Gilad Edelman and the Bagel Whine

Gilad EdelmanAt Slate recently, Gilad Edelman complained, New York Bagel Places Put Way Too Much Cream Cheese on Their Bagels. But he couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, he strikes me as representing everything I hate about many of the political and cultural writers that I most read: this tendency to think that they and their friends are somehow representative of the larger society. But let me back up a bit.

Edelman finds that the amount of cream cheese on a New York bagel ranges from 0.7 ounces all the way up to 3.9 ounces. I’ll admit, a quart-pound of cream cheese is a lot. But it is hardly normal on my coast. But he complains about the glob of cream cheese in the hole. But really, most bagels don’t have much of a hole. In fact, that kind of geometrical perfection is usually reserved for the fake bagel: bagel shaped bread. But I know what he’s talking about. And I either throw it out or redistribute it in the rest of the bagel. It has never occurred to me that it might be something bad — something that I ought to complain about.

Bagel and Cream CheeseBut why do bagel shops pile on the cream cheese? Well, a couple of vendors give him the two reasons. First: if there is too much, you wipe it away. Most people are not whiny “writer, musician, popcorn enthusiasts” who complain about this. It’s better to have too much than to have too little. Second, bagel places do charge a small fortune for cream cheese. It’s not just that I would feel cheated by paying a buck fifty for a thin butter-like layer of cream cheese. It is that I wouldn’t want it. Cream cheese doesn’t have a very hearty taste. You need a fair amount of it to experience it.

Here is the ultimate thing: the right amount of cream cheese isn’t just a personal thing. The right amount depends upon my mood. So today, I may want 0.7 ounces and then tomorrow, I may want 2 ounces. So what the bagel places are doing is providing me with the option to ingest as much cream cheese as I want. What am I going to do? Walk into House of Bagels (which is fantastic) and say, “Well, I want a fair amount of cream cheese, but not too much, you know, the way you made it last Thursday, something like that”? It’s crazy. It is expecting too much of the bagel place, and frankly, it’s expecting too much of me. I know that if I press down harder on a bagel with a lot of cream cheese, it will squish out and I won’t eat it.

So come on, Edelman. Man up! Take responsibility for your bagel! This just isn’t hard. But I’ll make a deal with you. If you go work in the Peace Corps for a couple of years, helping poor farmers in Haiti, then I’ll start caring about our wasted cream cheese problem in the bagel industry. Until then, I will eat bagels the way that God intended poor people to eat bagels: I will buy them in bulk, cut them myself, and apply generic cream cheese to them. But the next time I’m in Palo Alto, getting a bagel and cream cheese — I will think of Edelman as I relish each ounce of excessive cream cheese that House of Bagels offers me.

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Morning Music: Roses Are Red (My Love)

Roses Are Red - Bobby VintonMy mother really liked Bobby Vinton. But the truth is that I can’t really remember any particular song. But I do remember hearing her sing, “Roses Are Red (My Love).” It is a memorable song. It’s interesting that the writers were able to transcend the simple rhyme with the insertion of “my love.” Also, the music works really well.

Even as a kid, I didn’t think much of Vinton. His voice lacked character. The arrangements were all standard. He never took a risk. But what the hell? He made a boat load of money. And in the end, isn’t that what pop music is really all about? This is something that my friends who like modern pop music really don’t understand. It doesn’t matter how much the production techniques have changed: they are still listening to the same soulless music that Bobby Vinton was producing in the early 1960s.

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Anniversary Post: Fantasy Founding of Los Angeles

Chumash TribesmanOn this day in 1781, a bunch of Spaniards settled “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula” — later to be known as simply Los Angeles. Luckily for the native population, elders from the Tongva and Chumash got together to discuss the situation. They decided that if they allowed the Spaniards to stay there, they would spread disease, try to push their ridiculous god who gets himself nailed to a stick, and ultimately commit a genocide. So they acted.

The women of the tribes came to the settlement offering native fruits and vegetables. While they were talking to the settlers, the men came up behind them and killed all the settlers. It was quick and painless. Unlike the Spaniards and all of the other Europeans who were invading the Americas, these tribes were not savages.

But once all the settlers were dead, they had to make a decision as to what to do next. Finally, they decided that Los Angeles would be a great place to produce films. So they started the film industry. In fact, “Hollywood” is an old Chumash word meaning, “That which is white with a bloody throat.” But this explains why Hollywood spent so many years using Italians to play the parts of Native Americans: the Native Americans were too busy running the studios.

Afterword

In fact, there were Native and African Americans as part of the settlement. This is a broader commentary, in as much as it is a commentary at all. Mostly, it’s just silly.

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The Stupid Way We Report on Global Warming

Climate Change Is a HoaxMany outlets are reporting, Scientists Reveal There Are 3 Trillion Trees in the World in Latest Count. This is important because it is over seven times higher than the last global count (or estimate). It’s interesting and it is an indication of just how hard it is to study and understand the entire Earth. My PhD dissertation was focused on a really complicated model of the atmosphere that was 2.5 dimensions. It had height and latitude, but longitudinally, it just had land or ocean — that was the half-dimension. But what I’m interested in here is how the news was reported.

I was listening to NPR — the show The World. They are partly a production of the BBC, and so they get their news updates from the BBC. The little 30 second story said (more or less — I can’t find the transcript online), “This doesn’t affect global warming, but it does give policy makers more information.” I was impressed because it simply presented global warming as a fact. And I wondered how it would be presented in the mainstream American media. Some outlets, like The Los Angeles Times have taken a stand on the issue. But for most, it is still just a “matter of opinion.” Pretty much the entire scientific community thinks one thing and some oil companies with billions of dollars of profits on the line say another. Who can determine which side is right?!

I expect that mainstream American media outlets would have reported this story differently, “This new estimate will cause those on both sides of the global warming debate to claim that they are right.” Note the total equivalence there. If the two sides were equally valid, that would absolutely show no bias either way. It would also be a vacuous statement, because it isn’t really true. But the main point is that it would be presented in a way that highlighted the two sides as somehow equal.

The conservative press will look at it differently, I suspect. It will claim that it shows that scientists don’t really know what is going on in the world. “They can’t even count trees, how can they know that the Earth is getting hotter?!” Of course, determining the number of trees is actually a hell of a lot harder than measuring the temperature all over the world. Temperature is a contiguous distribution. Trees and treed areas are discrete. So you can look at two temperatures separated a mile apart and have a very good idea of what the temperature is at every spot between them. That’s not at all true of trees.

But this isn’t about science. And it isn’t really about what the global warming deniers say. The issue is that our media — with notable exceptions — treats the global warming deniers as if they were just one side of the debate. The BBC story showed that it doesn’t need to be that way. The truth is that fewer people accept global warming now than when I was activity studying it 20 years ago. And the reason for that is that the oil companies and other moneyed interests got together and produced a bunch of science-like nonsense that we see constantly coming out of The Heartland Institute. But they could have done that forever and no one would have cared, if the media had treated their “propaganda as science” with the derision that it deserved. But they didn’t.

On one hand, it is cheering to know that coverage of global warming in other countries is more reasonable. But on the other hand, it is depressing to know that if the power elite can twist the truth into knots here, it can do it anywhere. And most concerning of all: it can do it wherever it is most important to do it.

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Eric Loomis on Unions and Solidarity

Erik LoomisI was lucky enough to be sent a copy of The Enemy Within (in Britain it is going by Still the Enemy Within). This is a powerful documentary on how Margaret Thatcher busted the coal miners’ unions in the 1980s. If this is of interest to you, I highly recommend hunting down a copy, perhaps through getting your library to purchase one if possible. Told strictly through the eyes of the miners and their wives, along with video clips of Thatcher and other conservatives, the film is a very useful document for understanding the decline of the postwar labor movement, which was far more than just an American phenomenon. I am far from a scholar of Europe so I can’t speak with any real authority about the claims the workers make, but they certainly believe they were really very close to winning what turned out to be a catastrophic loss to a government seeking to destroy their union, which was the backbone of the British left. But the workers claim that had the other unions shown solidarity and walked off the job in support, as opposed to empty words and some money or if all the British mines had joined the strike (Thatcher intended to split the miners by giving a few choice mines some extra money while seeking to bust the other unions) that they could have defeated the government and perhaps the worst parts of Thatcherism broadly. Even though this is a depressing story, the film also shows how solidarity between groups with little in common with miners (elite students, gay and lesbian activists) was created, how women stepped out of traditional gender roles during the strike, and how personally empowering the strike was for at least some workers.

—Erik Loomis
The Enemy Within


Note: the Amazon link above is not for Region 1 (US and Canada). It hasn’t been released here. But if you bought it, you could still watch it using VLC.

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The Brave New World of Conservative Media

Brave New WorldI’ve been away, meeting with an editor of mine. She is a very colorful character — and one of the best storytellers ever — and brilliant. She’s even a life coach of sorts for me, because she is the one who rushes in while I cower in the corner. But over the past couple of years, she has really gotten into listening to conservative hate radio. In fact, as I was having coffee with her yesterday morning, Rush Limbaugh was playing on the radio. She is aware that I am not a conservative. But as with most extreme conservatives, there are a number of things we agree about. But I’m not not going to discuss those here.

She related to me her concern — which I have seen floating around conservative media — that Obama wants to start a race war. And she presented him as this major Machiavellian character, determined to destroy the United States. Now this is clearly nonsense. The one thing I’ve never understood about this theory is why the most powerful man in the world would want to destroy it. If these people were saying that Obama would change the Constitution and become president forever, that would make a bit of sense. And indeed, I do hear that mixed in with the conservative ranting: the very same people will claim that Obama wants to destroy America and to become its dictator.

It isn’t surprising that none of it makes sense. It isn’t about reason. In my editor’s case, as I said, we are talking about a prodigious intellect — one of the most remarkable people that I’ve ever known. But none of us is perfect. And conservative broadcasting has hocked into something inside her. Part of it is a fairly common paranoia that comes from area and time. I’ve known a lot of people from the late 1960s Berkeley scene who mix a kind of liberalism — Can’t we all just get along? — with a profound distrust for authority.

But in her case, she’s done a lot of work with police and generally has a high opinion of them. In fact, when I sent my first book to her to consider for publication, her main complaint was that I had been so nasty (and inaccurate, she incorrectly claimed) in my depictions of the police. But in our conversation about race wars and Obama declaring martial law, she claimed that she was for small government — just things like police, fire, military. And this is the kind of nonsense that really blows my mind. This is the same old, “The government shouldn’t waste money on public libraries, but it should hire millions of cops and army men!” Well, in the history of the world it is the military and cops who governments used to oppress their people — not public libraries.

But the whole thing reminded me so much of Paul Bibeau’s recent article, What If They NEVER Come For Our Guns? I wrote about it at the time, Oath Keepers As Protectors of the Power Elite. The conceit of Paul’s article was that an Oath Keeper was starting to have doubts that Obama was coming for our guns. After all, it’s almost seven years now. What’s he going to do, wait until 19 January 2017 just to confuse us all?

I know that my editor (who I won’t name — and I have several) would be able to come up with justifications for all these obvious inconsistencies. And she will be able to justify her beliefs in a year and half when there has been no race war and we have a new president. As I said, she’s really smart. And even I can fill in most of the gaps. For example: Obama could destroy America becoming dictator, because then America wouldn’t be America anymore. Blah, blah, blah. But really, I think the takeaway here is that people like Rush Limbaugh present the appearance of informed commentary. So my editor accepts it as such — and effectively turns her mind off.

It is literally a Brave New World.

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GOP Only Tactic: “Other” Demagoguery

Muslim ObamaLast night, I was reading Job’s Anger (as I do every night), and I came upon, Many of GOP Are Unconnected to Reality. It’s one of the great things that Ted does on the site: present and analyze polling data in a really accessible way. But these polling results were a little odd. Public Policy Polling asked Republicans if they thought that President Obama was born in the United States. But they also asked if Ted Cruz was born in the US. Before digging in, let’s remember that Obama was, in fact, born in the US — this is an undeniable fact. Also: Ted Cruz was born in Canada — this too is an undeniable fact. (All you have to do is ask him.)

Now regardless of this, Ted Cruz is still qualified to be president of the United States. His mother was a citizen of the US and thus, by legal precedent, Ted Cruz is a natural born citizen. But forget the courts. Think about it. Both sides of your family have been American citizens for generations. Your mother is pregnant with you but is visiting Tijuana when she goes into labor and gives birth to you in a taxi. Does it make any sense that you would not be considered a natural born US citizen? Of course not. And I know I’m right on this because I hate Ted Cruz and if I could find a rationalization to deny him the presidency, I would.

Of course, the whole thing takes me back to Obama’s early years when people were claiming that he was an invalid president because he wasn’t born here. But even if that had been the case, he still would have been a natural born citizen. It’s funny to see how the conservative media pushed this whole thing for years without ever mentioning that it didn’t matter. When people on the left started saying much the same thing about Cruz — who clearly was not born in the US, the liberal media just pointed out the truth that he was perfectly qualified to be president because he was still a “natural born citizen” even though he was born in Canada.

But the numbers are shocking. Republicans overall think Obama was not born in the US by a factor of 44% to 29%. Less than one-third of Republicans are sure that Obama was born in the United States. It gets even worse when you move out to the Tea Party types. They think Obama was not born in the US by a factor of 64% to 15%. That’s just crazy. When it comes to Ted Cruz — who again, was not born in the US — the numbers are reversed. For Republicans generally, they think Ted Cruz was born in the US by a factor of 40% to 22%. And for the Tea Party types, it is 55% to 22%.

Now Ted McLaughlin (of Job’s Anger) thinks, “A significant portion of the Republican base have no use for reason or logic.” That’s true. But I doubt that’s what’s going on here. Instead, I think Martin Longman nails it in his article, How the Stupid Party Was Made. He focused on another part of that same poll. Republicans also think that Obama is a Muslim: 54% think so, compared to just 14% who think that he is Christian — which is what he actually is. Longman compared this to a hypothetical poll question, “If you ask Republicans if Bobby Jindal is Hindu, Muslim or Christian (all real possibilities given his ethnicity), they’re going to do much better at identifying him as a Christian.”

So why is that? Obviously, it is because conservative media consumers have been fed a steady diet of “Obama the foreign born Muslim usurper.” But as Longman points out, if Democratic operatives and media types tried to do the same thing (“Chris Christie is a Christian Scientist!”), it wouldn’t work nearly as well. “So part of this is about differential gullibility in the bases of the two main political parties.” But that’s not all. Longman also thinks that this is a way for the Republican Party to solidify its base by creating a kind of identity of “whiteness.”

But I think it is even more fundamental than that. The primary political tactic of the Republican Party — going back decades — is to define the good people and the “other.” That’s certainly what the Welfare Queen was all about. The Democratic Party has lots of proplems, but it isn’t based on the idea that “those people” are getting over on you — unless you define “those people” as the billionaire class. But the “why” of the matter doesn’t ultimately mean all that much. As the traditional white identity becomes more of a minority, it will naturally go in this direction.

Still, these results are shocking. Obama is at the end of his term. In ten years, these very same Republicans will not admit that they ever believed he was a Muslim Kenyan Socialist bent on destroying America. It will be like Bill Clinton, where they can’t quite remember why they thought he was so bad. But I guess as long as any Democrat is still in the White House, they will think the worst. Clearly, that overt racism will go away with Obama’s presidency. But don’t be surprised if conservatives under a Hillary Clinton administration start claiming — and believing — that she has a secret plan to castrate all men or make it illegal for men to run companies. Because Ted is right, “Many of GOP Are Unconnected to Reality.” And that will always be the case.

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Morning Music: Sundown

Sundown - Gordon LightfootI’ve done Gordon Lightfoot before for Morning Music, Don Quixote. In that one, I mostly complained that Lightfoot clearly had never read Don Quixote. But my mother was a big fan of Lightfoot, and I remember that she loved the song “Sundown” off the album of the same name. It’s a song about a troubled relationship — something my mother knew a lot about.

What I never knew was that the song is most likely about Lightfoot’s ex-girlfriend Cathy Smith. You may know her for having given John Belushi the speedball (heroin and cocaine mixture) that killed him. For that, she spent 15 months in a California state prison. Personally, I think if Belushi hadn’t allowed his health to get so bad, he wouldn’t have died. Regardless, I hate this habit we have of blaming (mostly) women for getting (mostly) men drugs that end up killing them. They made their choices.

Anyway, it’s a good song:

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