James Burke

James BurkeToday, the great journalist and sort of historian of science James Burke is 78. When I was young, I was mad for his two series Connections and The Day the Universe Changed. The latter series was on when I was a physics undergraduate and it really fed my excitement for science and all that jazz. The Connection series does get to the heart of what he does. He combines disparate elements and connects them — often in ways that would make a real historian cringe. Add to this a lot of humor and you end up with an enjoyable and educational bit of television.

Since that time, he’s continued to do much the same thing. In between those two series, he did The Real Thing. In six half-hour episodes, he discussed the nature of perception. You can currently see the whole thing on YouTube, although the copy is just terrible. And in the 1990s, he produces the 20-part Connections 2 and the 10-part Connections 3. He seems to be largely retired at this point.

I can’t find any of the two series he’s known for online. This is probably because they are still big moneymakers for the BBC. But it looks like all of Connections 3 is online. So here is episode 5: “Life Is No Picnic.” I haven’t watched the whole thing, but it is classic Burke. It’s an interesting journey, but it isn’t clear that it means anything. However, it is interesting to know that American soldiers using instant coffee in World War II was the start of it taking off in general use.

Happy birthday James Burke!

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The Trans-Five Senses

ProprioceptionAs you probably know, there are more than five senses. And I’m not at all certain why anyone ever claimed that there were only five senses. When I discuss this with people, I always start with the sense of acceleration. You don’t need to have one of the “five senses” to experience a roller coaster ride. Certainly there are elements of the Big Five from the feeling of the wind through your hair to the taste of acid reflux. But it is the acceleration that most defines the experience.

The easiest trans-five sense to demonstrate is balance, or “equilibrioception” for those who like seven syllable words. I suspect that the reason that people do not want to call this a sense is that it isn’t due to any single thing. Balance depends most upon the visual system and vestibular system, in the ear. But the truth is that none of Big Five are quite so distinct either. The simplest example is the way that taste and smell work together. But the truth is that even our vision is very messy; it is so much more than simply the recording the light rays focused on our retinas.

When people asked him later on in life why he pushed Gregg Toland to create deep focus in Citizen Kane, Orson Welles would reply that he just wanted the film to look the way the real world looked to the human eye. But that isn’t really the way the vision system works. The human eye is just as constrained as a camera lens. At any given time, most things are out of focus. It is our brain that “fixes” all of that. What I mean is that our brain lies to us about what we are actually seeing. It also acts as a kind of steadicam.

Thus it isn’t surprising that when people hear a car crash, they often mistakenly believe that they saw it — even though they simply moved their focus to it as a result of the sound. They aren’t lying when they claim they saw the accident; their brain was just lying to them about what they saw. The entire human body is a system for creating meaning out of far too little knowledge.

There are other trans-five senses such as the sense of pain and the sense of heat. But the sense that I find most fascinating is proprioception. It is the sense of knowing where your body is. The most gruesome aspect of this is phantom limb syndrome, where people continue to feel the existence of a limb that is physically gone. But more generally, we all sense how our bodies are oriented. As I write this, my left knee is bent upward because my foot is resting on top of one of my computers while my right leg is sprawled out in front of me and my torso leans far back in my chair. I don’t need to look at my body to know this. I just know it because of proprioceptors in the skeletal muscles. But don’t ask what they are because you get into a kind of tautology. Of course the same thing is true of seeing and hearing, but we’ve all gotten way past caring about that.

Of course, there are lots of senses that other animals have that we lack like echolocation. And there are a whole lot of things we can’t see like anything in the ultraviolet. We also can’t see infrared, but we can feel it. It’s curious. Biology is a most amazing thing. In the end, should humans ever crack the riddle of consciousness, I feel certain we will learn that it is all a trick: a bunch of cells so complex they delude themself into thinking they are a single thing. But you still have to marvel at all living things in the same way you do a Caravaggio painting or a black hole.

My left leg is now bent behind me.

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Democrats Win Big in 113th Senate

Give 'em hell, Harry Reid!This last week, there was big news. The Democrats got to confirm a whole bunch of executive and judicial nominees that they weren’t expecting to. It turned out that they managed to confirm 23 nominees. This is surprising because of the slow way that the Senate works. Normally, votes on the nominees must be brought to the floor where they stay for a couple of days before they can get a vote. The way it was looking, there might have been a hand-full of nominees confirmed before the end of the session. As it was, the Senate was supposed to go home for the weekend on Friday and so Reid was going to have to wait until the following Monday to bring the nominations to the floor.

Lucky for the Democrats, they have great allies in the Republican Party: Mike Lee and Ted Cruz. These two clowns decided to make a bold stand against President Obama’s recent executive action on immigration. When the Senate tried to adjourn for the weekend, it needed unanimous consent. Lee and Cruz balked. They wanted a purely symbolic vote to say that the president was a doody pants for this action. And they wanted it Saturday! This allowed Harry Reid to bring all those nominees to the floor a full two days ahead of schedule. And that meant they would all have time to get votes.

Ted CruzNot surprisingly, the Senate Republicans were furious. But it is hard to feel bad for them. Lee and Cruz are what the Republicans have assiduously sowed over the last several decades. Any political party is going to have a spread of opinions. There is no way for the Republicans to have moved so far to the right without having people who are even more extreme. And remember: starting in January, there will be even more extreme Republicans in the Senate. This is what the Republican Party is. It’s ridiculous for them to think that they could get all the advantages of their pro-corporate extremism without it causing them to lose some tactical advantages because many of their members are simply crazy.

Just the same, the Democrats were thrilled. As Steve Benen pointed out, they got a whole bunch out of this and they gave absolutely nothing. To start with, the Lee-Cruz stunt ended in the symbolic vote going down in flames: 74 to 22. But the vote was scheduled for the next week anyway. It isn’t clear what the dynamic duo thought they were getting. It is also likely true that fewer Republicans voted for the bill because they were so angry at these idiots.

Juliet Eilperin at The Washington Post provided a great overview of the outcome of this whole thing, Democrats Employ Strategy to Get the Most Bang for Obama Nominations. Reid has been very clear that they have focused on judicial appointments because those are the ones that have the longest effect. I’m so glad to hear him say that. Too often, Democrats do not act strategically. And, in fact, Obama was rather bad during his first term — he just wasn’t that interested in the judicial branch. But that’s changed. This Senate has confirmed more judges than any Senate since 1980.

There is some concern that the Senate has focused too much on the judiciary. There are scores of executive branch nominees that have gone unconfirmed. I think Reid’s approach was the best, however. It isn’t just that the judiciary has long-term effects. In the next two years under the Republicans, I’m sure that not a single judge will get a vote. But some executive branch nominees might, given that they will have less than two years to serve.

The truth of the matter is that there should be no reason that executive branch nominees should be simply passed through in the vast majority of cases. That’s especially true when the president is a Democrat and so the nominee isn’t being put in charge to destroy the institution he’s leading. But the situation is that the minority party will always block these nominations if for no other reason than to slow down any other work from getting done. When they get in power next year, I’m not sure how motivating this is going to be.

The next two years ought to be fairly uneventful in the Senate. I think we are going to see just how facile and rhetorical were all the claims that if Obama acted alone Congress wouldn’t work with him. There will be no working together. There never would have been any working together. And the Democrats should take any victory they can. The Republicans were never going to play nice and they won’t in the future.

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Poor Will Be Screwed as Cuba Liberalizes

CancunI’m not sure how to take Josh Barro’s article over at The Upshot this last week, Cuba the Next Cancún? It Should Be So Lucky. It is a response to a tweet by Jeremy Scahill, “I’m glad I got to visit several times before US tourists try to turn it into Cancún.” Barro’s response it, “Gotcha! Cancún was a government created Caribbean resort!” If that were it, it would be just vaguely sad and pathetic. I mean: it was a tweet and Barro never actually proves that Scahill was wrong.

The one thing that we have seen time and again as communist countries “liberalized” is that they they don’t move to open governments with free markets. They move to corrupt governments with crony capitalism. In the United States, the first thing that set the media against Putin was what he did to the oil oligarchs in Russia. This was presented as some terrible authoritarian move. But the Russian people saw it the opposite way. Putin was just reversing a great injustice that occurred under the early Russian “democracy.” The people’s wealth was basically stolen from them. The billionaires who were losing most of their money were not great capitalists. They were just people who had the ability to work the levers of government.

I doubt that Scahill has thought through the situation in Cuba. It was, after all, a tweet. But the generous reading of his words is that he fears that the “capitalists” are going to descend on Cuba, find a whole lot of government officials keen to trade their power in the government for piles of cash. And just like in Russia before it, Cuba will see its people screwed of their share of the wealth generated. It will be the Batista government all over again. Five decades of the Cuban people suffering under their own government and the United States’ government. And it all comes right back to where it started.

The problem with Scahill’s tweet is that he he misspoke. It wouldn’t be the tourists who try to turn Cuba into Cancún. The idea of more and more tourists going to Cuba and spreading some money around in the local economies sounds like an absolutely great idea to me. The fact that individual Cubans would build hotels sounds great. In this regard, I suspect that Barro and I are much in agreement. But he probably thinks foreign capital flooding in is the best way to do this. On that issue, I’m sure I’m with Scahill. It would be sad if Cuba ended up looking the same as every other corporate resort in the world.

But I can’t get too upset about that. The issue is how this would all play out for the Cubans themselves. Most likely, they will be screwed the way most people are today: with a public-private partnership that allows powerful people in the government to cash out of the country, foreign money to cash in, and leaves the people with new minimum wage jobs cleaning toilets. Maybe that will be an improvement for them. But it certainly isn’t anything like justice.


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The Secret Burden of Poor Conservatives

Edwin LyngarI have a close friend on permanent disability. He votes reliably for the most extreme conservative in every election. Although he’s a Nevadan, he lives just across the border in California, because that progressive state provides better social safety nets for its disabled. He always votes for the person most likely to slash the program he depends on daily for his own survival. It’s like clinging to the end of a thin rope and voting for the rope-cutting razor party.

The people who most support the Republicans and the Tea Party carry a secret burden. Many know that they are one medical emergency or broken down car away from ruin, and they blame the government. They vote against their own interests, often hurting themselves in concrete ways, in a vain attempt to deal with their own, misguided shame about being poor. They believe “freedom” is the answer, even though they live a form of wage indenture in a rigged system.

—Edwin Lyngar
I Was Poor, but a GOP Die-Hard: How I Finally Left the Politics of Shame

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Frank Zappa

Frank ZappaI remember reading an article by a fairly serious music writer — most likely in New Musical Express — discussing Frank Zappa, who was born on this day in 1940. This was in the late 1960s and the writer said something to the effect that Zappa could be the best rock guitarist of all time if he would just take it seriously. I don’t think anyone ever so perfectly encapsulated Zappa. It wasn’t just his guitar playing. Zappa did not think much of popular music. I recall the early albums being filled with little comments. Like on Absolutely Free at one point, he says, “This is like The Supremes… See the way it builds up?” Most of his career was him saying, “I’m only playing this crap because you idiots like it.”

Zappa was always fundamentally a blues guitar player. But his mixing of various modes makes it often sound more like jazz. It’s actually more of a classical approach, but with his use of subtle string bends and other aspects of electric guitar technique, it all sounds highly idiosyncratic. Of course, now you can hear his influence in some of the more interesting “independent” bands over the last couple of decades. As you can probably tell, I admire Zappa at the same time that I think he was kind of a douche who didn’t do as much with his talent as he should have.

He was at his best when he was creating instrumentals like “Peaches en Regalia.” But since I’ve heard that song entirely enough for a far longer life than I will have, here is “Black Napkins” performed live:

Happy birthday Frank Zappa!

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Christians, Atheists, and Torture

Saint SebastianI have this tendency to be most critical of the groups that I’m part of. You see this a lot in terms of my thinking about the Democratic Party. But I dare say you see it most of all with my thinking about atheists. And there is a lot to dislike about the modern atheist movement. I am an atheist in the Arthur Schopenhauer tradition. Much of modern atheism is intellectually vacuous. But as popular movements go, it is still pretty good. There isn’t likely to be a mass movement that I have any less criticism of.

Probably the best aspect of modern atheism is that there is a strong current of humanism in it. I think it is the case that people like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are admired despite being torture proponents, not because of it. What’s more, I don’t so much see myself as part of the atheist community in the sense that I read atheist blogs and go to atheist conventions. I see myself as a member of the growing numbers of people who just aren’t religious. And by and large, this is a mighty fine group.

As regular readers know, I found the recent release of the torture report as upsetting as it was unsurprising. So I was somewhat pleased to read Steve Benen’s The Week in God today. It’s focus was on a new Washington Post/ABC News poll on attitudes about torture. It confirms the results of a 2009 poll by Pew. As you’ve probably heard, Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of torture. Of those polled, 59% were just peachy with what the CIA did; only 31% had a problem with it. Obviously, that was not what pleased me.

This poll subdivided people by their religious affiliations. So Benen put together the following graph that sums up the main categories:

Religion and Torture

Benen pointed out that people with “no religion” were pretty much the only group in the report that were against torture. I wish the numbers were better than they are, but they are far better than average. And the major Christian groups are all worse than average. It’s disgusting, but again, unsurprising. It goes along with my primary complaint against modern American Christians: their religion is all culture and no theology. The one thing they absolutely believe is that people like them are “good” and people not like them (eg, Muslims) are “bad.” Thus they don’t really care. After all, it’s not like anyone is suggesting burning the evildoers alive. (Not that they would be against that either.)

As much as I’m pleased that we non-believers demonstrate more humanity than average, this information is profoundly disturbing. We are, after all, an almost 80% Christian country. And the only takeaway from that is that Christianity is “right” and that Christians are oppressed whenever someone says “Happy holidays!” to them. We live in a sad world.

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Reader Comments Are a Good Thing

No Comments!Over at The Monkey Cage, Elizabeth Suhay wrote some much needed perspective, Comment Threads Are Messy, but so Is Democracy. There has been a push in a lot of quarters to get rid of user comments. It is understandable. A lot of commenters are repellent. But I think it’s a major mistake. What’s more, I think it reflects a kind of desire on the part of content providers to go back to the old days when they could sift through the letters and publish the ones that they wanted. It’s about control, and it doesn’t speak well of those who push it.

Some time back, the excellent blog The Incidental Economist stopped allowing comments. Now they treat their users the same way that magazines used to. If you have a comment, email them and if they think you are worthy, they will add the comment. In addition to the “Moses coming down Mount Sinai” arrogance of such a policy, it just isn’t practical. A few years back, I emailed one of their writers about the statistics in one of his articles. He took over a month to get back to me. But even if the response was timely, it would take at least a day before such comments would be posted — long after most people had read the article.

This approach also eliminates the possibility of what I consider the best part of comments: conversations. Comments to articles often end up being even more interesting than the articles themselves. They also make the readers more engaged with the material. There is no doubt that The Incidental Economist is no longer as exciting as it was when it had comments. Look at Eschaton: it is little but comments and is one of the most vibrant websites around.

Getting rid of comments strikes me as an overreaction to a problem. Sure, there are jerks who post comments. But the numbers are small. Suhay reported on some of her own research that found that “clearly disrespectful” comments only made up 10% of those found on sites like Daily Kos and only 4% of comments on sites like The New York Times. And for that, people want to get rid of all the good that comes from comments? That strikes me as, “Letting the terrorists win!”

What I think is going on is that content providers are thinking of what they do from their own perspective and not from that of their users (ie, customers). In fact, another article in The Monkey Cage found that comments make people trust articles less. The article concluded “news outlets that care about their reputations (including The Monkey Cage) should shut down their comments sections.” That shocks me. That’s such an authoritarian thought. Obviously, when a bunch of people openly debate an article, it is going to make that article seem less authoritative. And by and large that’s a good thing!

Under most circumstances, I don’t read comment threads. I have my own blog; if I want to comment, I will write an article. But I do find comments useful. If an article strikes me as using questionable logic or facts, reading the comments can be really helpful in corroborating or diffusing the article. And that’s especially true in reading about specialized subjects like economics. The comments are often of shockingly high value.

But I get it. Before moving to WordPress, despite my automatic filtering, I still had to manually remove a great deal of spam. Also, I had to explicitly approve all comments — even people who had commented before. But given all that is done by using free software, I don’t have any sympathy for far more successful blogs on this issue. And it is annoying to get certain kinds of comments. Personally, I don’t mind people yelling at me. The one thing that does bug me is when someone yells at me without having read (or understood, at least) the article I wrote. (Here’s my favorite example: Two Thoughts on Lars and the Real Girl.)

Ultimately, the push to destroy comments is just about the desire to control. I do understand why the folks at The Incidental Economist and Hullabaloo just wouldn’t want to deal with it. They can be forgiven. I think it is wrong to even discuss it at The Washington Post. But above all, it is dismissive of your readership.


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The Man Who Would Be King

The Man Who Would Be KingHaving watched Zulu recently, I decided to watch another film with red coats in it, The Man Who Would Be King. I’d never seen it before and I was interested — especially because it was directed by John Huston. And I can see why he wanted to make the film: it is epic. And it was a chance to make his generation’s Gunga Din. Just the same, I don’t really think the film works very well.

There are things to like about the film. The main thing is that it is a gorgeous film. That isn’t just because of all the beautiful locations. It is also despite all the beautiful locations. When movies started moving out to location shooting, it caused a problem. Movies began to present places like Egypt as they were instead of how they ought to have been. The Man Who Would Be King gets the best of both worlds with actual locations and wonderful sets. The designs by Alexandre Trauner and their implementation by Tony Inglis are stunning. The costumes by Edith Head are also great — simple but beautiful.

Also of note in the film is the vaudeville act that is Sean Connery and Michael Caine. They really are good as a couple of lovable rogues. And they are what give the film a feel of Gunga Din: Victor McLaglen and Cary Grant in color! The problem in this regard is that when they are not in the film, the entire experience seems hollow. And poor Christopher Plummer is so constrained in his part that he hardly leaves a mark. That’s saying something for one of the most charismatic actors of his generation. On the plus side, Saeed Jaffrey as Billy Fish is really good in the Gunga Din part.

What most fails in the film is the script. It is entirely too dependent upon narration. This isn’t just a problem with drawing attention to the fact that Peachy is telling the story, and thus taking the viewer out of the narrative. Even more, the entire story telling is dependent upon the narration. It is as though Huston and co-writer Gladys Hill never figured out how to translate Kipling’s novella to a visual framework. There is far too much inexplicable action followed by Peachy’s voice-over explaining what had happened. And when it isn’t done with narration, it is done with dialog as when Preachy explains that the avalanche has created a bridge for them to pass or when Danny explains that the arrow was stopped by his bandolier.

The bigger problem with the film is in stark contrast to Zulu. This film is racist. This is entirely due to the filmmakers’ decision to follow the novella so closely. Whereas the Zulu are portrayed from the outside and as the enemy, they are always rational. But the local people here are not. And the entire plot is dependent upon them not being rational or loyal. For example, at one point Preachy tells Danny that they must go to see the religious leader Kafu Selim, or else their own men will turn on them. Ultimately, the local people were not given the dignity of being anything but a plot device.

Still, the film is marginally worth watching. If it shows up on television, it is worth a look. As I said, it is wonderful to look at. And much of it does work rather well. But there are so many films that are more worth watching. Like Gunga Din.

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Governmental Power in the Age of Corporations

Theodore RooseveltThere once was a time in history when the limitation of governmental power meant increasing liberty for the people. In the present day the limitation of governmental power, of governmental action, means the enslavement of the people by the great corporations who can only be held in check through the extension of governmental power.

—Theodore Roosevelt
Limitations on Governmental Power (pdf) — 9 September 1912

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