Birthday Post: Linus Pauling

Linus PaulingOn this day in 1901, the great scientist Linus Pauling was born. His work spanned a number of fields. He was, at base, a chemist. His first Nobel Prize was for his work on chemical bounds in complex chemical structures. According to Wikipedia, “His discovery of sickle cell anemia as a ‘molecular disease’ opened the way toward examining genetically acquired mutations at a molecular level.” This is why Francis Crick said he was the father of molecular biology. Later in his life, he became a peace activist. His work against nuclear weapons proliferation and testing won him a second Nobel Prize. He also had some controversial beliefs about the effectiveness of vitamins in combating cancer. But no one is right all the time. He was far greater than any man has a right to be.

But I want to talk about sickle-cell anaemia, which is what his important microbiological work was on. It was first discovered in 1910, and since that time, it has been used as a political tool. In the United States, it affected almost exclusively African Americans. Thus, for supporters of eugenics and other racists, they say the disease as a proof that there were “races” — something fundamental that distinguished the white “race” from the lesser “races.” But in truth, it wasn’t the case that sickle-cell anaemia only affected “blacks.”

I discussed this recently, Race as Social Construct. What being prone to sickle-cell anaemia means is that you had recent ancestors who lived in areas where malaria was common. As I wrote, “That includes Africa, but also southern Europe, Persian Gulf, and India.” The whole thing is a good indication of our species greatest challenge and hope for the future. People from a single area tend to have different facial characteristics. But when people mix geographically, minority peoples tend to get lumped all together. There are “negroes” or “orientals” or “indians.” They become “races” when what they really are are “those people” who don’t look like “us.”

I’ve noticed a lot of people don’t like Japanese film because they have a hard time distinguishing the characters. I had the same problem the first time I watched Seven Samurai. It isn’t racism that causes this. It is just lack of familiarity. The solution: more familiarity! (Period movies also make it more difficult because then the costumes are foreign as well.) Ultimately, if we are going to get past this, we need to become more thoroughly mixed geographically. And that will lead to more thorough genetic mixing, which ought to improve the species. And God knows we could use that!

Happy birthday Linus Pauling!

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Fox Can’t Even Compete with a Fake News Show

Jon StewartThe Daily Show is a comedy show and thus should be forgiven all of its sins — which have always been minor. I understand the urge to at least try to provide some level of balance — to not just turn into “that liberal show.” And the sad thing about America is that The Daily Show and Jon Stewart really aren’t liberal. They skew very slightly to the left, but what they really are is more in line with the reform Democrats who showed up in Congress after Watergate. And let’s remember: these were the beginning of the New Democrats — they were not at all about ideology. They just wanted government that was transparent and without corruption. That’s Jon Stewart; that’s The Daily Show.

So it was very much in this context that The Daily Show presented an epic take down of Fox News Wednesday night. Was it liberal bias? No. It wasn’t even political. It was just calling the network on its almost two decades of misinformation. One can be deeply conservative without being dishonest. But Fox News has never been interested in that. I have no doubt whatsoever that if an academic study were done comparing how accurate Pravda was in the Soviet Union during the 1970s, it would do as well or better than Fox News has done over the last decade.

Now that Jon Stewart is retiring, Fox News has used the opportunity to attack The Daily Show for it’s “selective editing.” I’ll admit, there have been a couple of times where The Daily Show played fast and loose with context. And that’s it: a couple of times. If most news sources were as scrupulous as The Daily Show, we would have a far improved media environment. If Fox News were half as scrupulous as The Daily Show, they would not be a national embarrassment.

Megyn Kelly said, “I can speak personally to a lot of the attacks that have been levied on me had no foothold in the facts.” Well, let’s start with the fact that Megyn Kelly is one of the most reasonable parts of the Fox News circus who rarely had attacks levied on her. But what about when last October, she said that a new Colorado law “literally allows residents to print ballots from their home computers, then encourages them to turn ballots over to ‘collectors’”? And remember: she’s one of the sane ones.

You would think after all this time that Fox News would just leave it alone. Why start a fight with Jon Stewart? There are various problems. First, he’s right. Second, he’s funny with a whole lot of funny writers. And third, in the end, he’s a comedian. It is like a big guy beating up a charming skinny guy: the big guy either wins and looks like a total jerk, or the big guy loses and looks both pathetic and like a total jerk. And guess what: the big guy is going to lose. The real “news network” will just look like a pathetic jerk. In fact, it already has.

In the video above, Stewart called out Fox News to a “lie off.” They created a vine of fifty Fox News lies. And PolitiFact has already listed them all out, The Fact-Checks Behind The Daily Show‘s 50 Fox News “Lies.” This is how it comes out: there were only two that PolitiFact hadn’t previously rated. Of the remaining 48, the best Fox News did was a single “Mostly False.” And there were two that Fox News later admitted to — one specifically because The Daily Show caught them on it. Then there were 34 “False” and 11 “Pants on Fire” claims!

This isn’t about politics. This is about a network that is simply an arm of the Republican Party that would say exactly the opposite things about an issue if the party flipped on it tomorrow. It is an outrage. Stewart summed it up, “Even watching it is killing me.” I don’t think that was a joke. And I think he speaks for the entire nation.

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Parting Wisdom From Leonard Nimoy


COPD is primarily a disease of smokers, but that isn’t necessarily the reason that Nimoy got it and eventually died due to complications from it. What he did, however — quitting 30 years earlier — undoubtedly did him extremely well in terms of health and longevity. Regardless of your age, it is a good time to stop smoking. Excellent advice from “Grandpa” Nimoy. I’m sad that he’s gone, but he seems to have led a pretty good life and that’s a lot.

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Chait Is Wrong — We should Fear King v Burwell

Jonathan ChaitIn the first half of October 2013, the Republicans shut down the government. The people were very unhappy with the Republicans. Just over one year later, these very same people voted for those same Republicans they were so angry at only a year before by a whopping 5.6 percentage points in the House. I understand. Elections are not about changed opinions. They are about who shows up to vote. But all that means is that many of the people who were angry weren’t angry enough to vote. What’s more, among those people who voted for such Republican winners as Sam Brownback and Ed Gillespie must have been a lot of people who were angry just a year earlier.

It is in this context that I call foul on Jonathan Chait in an article yesterday, Why the New Lawsuit Won’t Kill Obamacare. The irony is that I’ve made the same case. The truth is that the people will be hopping mad if they suddenly find the Supreme Court has caused their healthcare premiums to skyrocket. In a sane world, those people would blame the Republicans. Indeed, they might very well well blame the Republicans. For a month. Maybe two. But by November 2016, I doubt they will remember their anger. Whatever anger they might have will easily be transferred to the Democrats.

The real problem is that Obama forced a government take over of healthcare. In a real American “free market” system you would have no problem! You didn’t have this problem before Obamacare, did you? So it’s Obama’s fault! It’s the Democrats’ fault! The Republicans aren’t responsible for this. They didn’t even want this law. They were looking out for you the whole time when they were doing everything they could to deprive you of healthcare and make you pay as much as possible. Yeah, that’s the ticket! It’s the Democrats who did this do you!

Trust me, I’d love to believe that this isn’t the case. But think about the situation in Iraq right now. Do you really think the Sunday morning political shows would be featuring all the guys who screwed up the situation in Iraq in the first place if it weren’t for the fact that the viewing audience hadn’t totally forgotten who was responsible for the Iraq War? George W Bush currently has a higher approval rating than Barack Obama. Why is that? Because the American electorate has the memory of a goldfish.

I have to wonder if there is something wrong with Chait. Because he noted that while this would be a Democratic victory, it might take years to achieve. And what of those people — huge numbers of which would die? This is not all about politics. Ultimately — in the last paragraph of an 18 paragraph article — he argues that this is why John Roberts won’t waste his political capital on this case. I tend to agree that Roberts is not going to go along with this ridiculous lawsuit. But I doubt very seriously that his calculation includes a five year political battle that the Republicans might lose.

The Republicans are remarkably good at getting people to vote based on resentment of the wrong people. And I have no problem believing that a clear majority might vote against the Democrats for giving “those people” healthcare and thus harming the good hard working Americans who the Republicans have spent the last 34 years harming. And I know as a matter of fact that Jonathan Chait knows this. So I don’t know who he is trying to fool. Maybe himself.

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“Right to Work” and the Con Hatred of Workers

Right to WorkAs we watch Wisconsin on its way to becoming a “right to work” state, it is a good time to think about what all this means. Note that it shows the total lack of any actual integrity on the part of conservatives. While Scott Walker and others were going about destroying public sector unions, the argument was always that these were public employees and that they thus shouldn’t be allowed to have those fat pay checks. (Leave aside for now the fact that they don’t get over paid and the idea that government workers should be the worst we can get.) But when it comes down to it, they are all for destroying private sector unions as well.

Basically, “right to work” laws take away rights. They make it illegal for a business to make an exclusive contract with a union. Which basically means that the union is destroyed — either quickly or slowly. Given that the United States government hasn’t enforced labor laws in over three decades, businesses that don’t want unions really don’t have to have them. But there it is still bad PR to be had by a business that destroys an existing union, so this is a way to make them wither away on their own. The bottom line is the bottom line: it is a way to take even more money away from workers and give it to owners.

Hooray! Is this what conservative voters really want? Very few of them, I think. But names matter, and “right to work” sounds great! It makes it sound like unions are keeping people unemployed, even though the opposite is true. And there is also the issue that a great many people who are not in unions resent people who are. The worst aspects of human nature play right into the hands of the conservative elites. Workers are much more likely to blame their bad lives on workers who are doing marginally better than they are than to blame the owners who suppress their wages and their rights.

Let’s think about the minimum wage for a moment. I want to shift from thinking about conservatives generally to thinking about libertarians, who are, after all, the keepers of conservative economic thought. The libertarian argument against the minimum wage is not, as most libertarians I talk to seem to think, that it will “cost jobs.” That’s not an ideological argument. The libertarian argument — the “freedom” argument — is that the state has no business interfering in the contracts of the employer and the employee. If workers want to take jobs digging ditches for one dollar per hour for some company, that should be their right as a workers. Now there are all kinds of things wrong with this argument, but let’s just leave it at that.

But when it comes to those same workers wanting to collectively bargain with that same business, the libertarians scream, “No, no, no!” What’s different? Why is the “freedom” to take a low paying job so important, but the freedom of workers to negotiate on something close to an equal footing not? I think the reason should be clear. Libertarians just hate workers and unions. Their idea is that if workers had any gumption, they would have their own businesses. And indeed, I have heard libertarians argue for a world without workers. (This is ridiculous: it is simply a world where everyone is an independent contractor — a world that has never existed for reasons that are obvious to everyone but libertarians. Hint: it’s inefficient.)

To be fair, there are libertarians who are pro-union and very much against “right to work” laws. When I was a libertarian, I was one. And I remember several years back reading an article in Reason by a similarly inclined libertarian against “right to work” laws. And the comments blasted him from beginning to end. I never managed to see a single comment that agreed. And the reason was plain to see: the commenters just hated unions. In their eyes, they were all “entrepreneurs!”

Now some person might point out that liberals have the same problem: they are against “right to work” laws and for the minimum wage. That’s right! The point is that liberals hold these positions because they want to empower workers. Conservatives hold the opposite views because they want to deny power to workers. And as Matt Yglesias would say, “That’s great!” Everyone is entitled to whatever vile ideas they like. But don’t give me any of this garbage about caring about “freedom.” Conservatives care about enriching the rich and empowering the powerful and that is the end of the story.

So now Wisconsin is going to get a new “right” and that is the right to have one less right. Well played conservatives. Well played.

Single panel above taken from the great work at Lefty Cartoons. Go buy a shirt!


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Morning Music: No Myth

No Myth - Michael PennI’m not a big fan of Michael Penn. I much prefer Aimee Mann. It’s strange. Penn is the better writer. He is something we don’t see nearly enough in popular music: a craftsman. Still, it is Mann’s passion and anger that moves me. But in terms of pure pop music, there really is no one who better than Michael Penn.

Here is “No Myth.” I know that Andrea likes it — because of the literary references. Or maybe it is just that she thought that I would like it because of the literary references. But really, it only has two, and one of them is the most overused and annoying imaginable: Romeo. The other is Heathcliff, which is rather unusual. But there is the problem that I’m not really a Wuthering Heights fan. I fully admit that it is the best Brontë novel — but that’s mostly due to its great consistency that was never matched by the other sisters’ novels.

As for the character of Heathcliff, well, that’s kind of disturbing. I know women are supposed to swoon when in the presence of such a man, but ultimately, he’s more to the taste of adolescent girls than mature women. Had Catherine decided to marry him, wouldn’t he have just turned into a violent drunk who abused her? That’s pretty much the way he was to Isabella anyway — and she clearly never harmed him. He is not a pleasant character.

None of this is to say that I miss Michael Penn’s meaning. Both Romeo and Heathcliff are the stuff of immature female fantasy. But ultimately, the male complaint in the song is the same one we’ve been hearing from “sensitive” young men for centuries: if only she knew the “real” me. But who is the “real” singer? Edgar Linton?


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Birthday Post: John Steinbeck

John SteinbeckOn this day in 1902, the great writer John Steinbeck was born. I know I did him last year, but he is arguably my favorite writer. It is also Irwin Shaw’s birthday, who I greatly admire. Both of these men are similar in that they wrote about regular people — at least in the 1930s.

Even though it isn’t my favorite of his novels, he was right to get the Nobel Prize for The Grapes of Wrath. It has one of the greatest endings of any book I’ve ever read. It is an unstoppable combination of tragedy and hope. Who else is capable of that but Steinbeck?

Interestingly, when Steinbeck was given the Nobel Prize in 1962, it was controversial in the United States. That really was the beginning of the end of America. That was when the conservative counter offensive was fully under way. The only reason anyone thought that giving Steinbeck the Nobel Prize was controversial is because of the way that he wrote about America as it was — warts and all. And he was a humanist. Shocking indeed, in a country that still can’t fully admit its sins of slavery, genocide, and torture.

Happy birthday John Steinbeck!

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How the Sex Lives of Birds Scarred Me Forever

Gulls MatingI’ve been scarred. Really. Read on. I promise that I will not scar you unless you want to be scarred. It has to do with bird sex, so first we must discuss the way most birds have sex before getting to the way that one bird in particular has sex.

All birds have this thing called a cloaca from which they expel both urine and feces. This is true of all amphibians and reptiles and even some mammals as well. I’ve never really understood why we humans (and the vast majority of other mammals) have separate systems, and I’m not going to look it up now. I have important bird business to discuss.

Okay, so all birds have these things. Most birds also use the cloaca for sex, “This means that the same opening that excretes feces and urine is where eggs are laid.” So in Chicken Run when the two rats, Nick and Fetcher, refer to eggs coming out of chickens “bums” they are exactly right. (This is, by the way, the best way to learn biology: from animated features.) In case you are wondering, this is not the scarring part of the story — not even close.

The way that most birds mate is kind of cool. When they are ready for sex, their cloacae puff up. So the male balances on the back of the female. She splits her back feathers to allow access to her cloaca. He maneuvers his body so that their cloacae can touch — this is called a “cloacal kiss.” It only lasts a second or so, but that’s enough time for the seamen to get transferred. This makes sense. Imagine if humans had to copulate standing up in a hammock and you get the idea.

Male and Female MallardsIt seems like such a charming way to have sex. There is something kind of brutal about the whole penis and vagina arrangement. On the other hand, having a single orifice where urine, feces, and babies come out strikes me as kind of disgusting. I’m already freaked out enough that the urine and baby place is the same. Obviously, baby birds have the advantage that they come out in neat little packages.

Okay, so that’s how most birds have sex — like those pretty gulls above. But as I said, not all. In particular, the mallards have penises and vaginas. And they generally have the kind of sex lives that most animals have. The male and the female link up, have some sex, have some babies, and the guy goes on his merry. But the males who do not manage to find a mate will go after lone females and beat them up and turn them into a kind of sex slave. Of course, dolphins do the same thing. But you need to remember that this is not what scarred me. Humans partake of sex slavery, and that oh so holy Bible that people like to talk about being the source of all morality is absolutely fine with it.

What is scarring is the mallard penis. Mallard penises can be over a foot long. That’s about as long as the duck is itself. And it is corkscrew shaped. You can read all about it along with information about duck and sea otter necrophilia in a Dylan Matthews article, Seven Adorable Animals That Are Also Murderous Monsters. But be aware that if you click over, you will be treated to a duck penis becoming erect in slow motion. And once seen, it cannot be unseen.

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We Could Sing Better Songs

Educating RitaI’m all right with you, here in this room; but when I saw those people you were with I couldn’t come in. I would have seized up. Because I’m a freak. I can’t talk to the people I live with any more. An’ I can’t talk to the likes of them on Saturday, or them out there, because I can’t learn the language. I’m a half-caste.

I went back to the pub where Denny was, an’ me mother, an’ our Sandra, an’ her mates. I’d decided I wasn’t comin’ here again. I went into the pub an’ they were singin’, all of them singin’ some song they’d learnt from the juke-box. An’ I stood in that pub an’ thought just what the frig am I trying to do? Why don’t I just pack it in an’ stay with them, an’ join in the singin’? …

Well I did join in with the singin’, I didn’t ask any questions, I just went along with it. But when I looked round, me mother had stopped singin’, an’ she was cryin’, but no one could get it out of her why she was cryin’. Everyone just said she was pissed an’ we should get her home. So we did an’ on the way I asked her why. I said, “Why are y’ cryin’, mother?” She said, “Because — because we could sing better songs than those.” Ten minutes later, Denny had her laughing and singing again, pretending she hadn’t said it. But she had. And that’s why I came back. And that’s why I’m staying.

—Willy Russell
Speech by Rita in Educating Rita

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Congressional Chicken and Long-Term Dangers

Mitch McConnellLauren Fox at National Journal has been doing a lot of good reporting about the upcoming Department of Homeland Security (DHS) shutdown. But I have to admit to being flummoxed by the whole thing. The Republicans seemed determined to create fights with no other point than to make President Obama look bad. And then more often than not, they fail even at that. I now have a bit more sympathy for Charles Krauthammer; it must be really painful to watch your own party do this. And for what? Over the issue of “amnesty” for five million people that can be reversed the moment a Republican gets in the White House?

But Fox provided one clue to the situation in an article on Monday, Conservative Groups Won’t Budge in Their Opposition to a Clean DHS Funding Bill. It would seem that what conservatives want the Republicans in Congress to do is what they want America to do: look strong, beat their chests, pretend that they are more powerful than they really are. It’s pathetic, but that is about right. She quoted Dan Holler of Heritage Action saying, “If Senator McConnell reverses course and pulls this bill, without forcing the Democrats to get on it, that is going to embolden Senate Democrats to hold out constantly on every single bill.”

John BoehnerReally?! That’s what is going to make the Democrats do that? It isn’t, oh, I don’t know, six years of Senator McConnell doing exactly the same thing to the Democratic majority? That’s hard to imagine. But that actually circles back to Krauthammer. As I discussed before, he is delusional if he thinks that a government shutdown is going to be blamed on the Democrats. Everyone knows who wants a government shutdown. This is not an issue that can be finessed.

Fox continued, “Not blinking first, [Dan Holler] contends, is the only way Republicans can display dominance to Democrats in the new Senate.” What are they? A pack of dogs? Do conservatives really think that the Republican Party can bully its way to power? It all goes back to this general belief of the conservative movement in the United States that they can will themselves to power. The idea is that if they just hold out long enough — if they are willing to destroy the entire nation, then they can get their way. It is like a game of chicken.

Ted CruzBut as Jonathan Bernstein wrote yesterday, Will McConnell or Boehner Blink First? He noted, “John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are playing a game of chicken this week. Against each other. Whoever veers off first will lose more True Conservative points.” It all comes down to the fact that the Democrats don’t need to do anything. So the question is whether Boehner or McConnell will give in first.

But in addition to it all being pathetic, it is dangerous. We’ve long known that Boehner doesn’t have control of the crazies in his caucus, and now we know that McConnell doesn’t have control of the crazies in his — led by Ted Cruz who is a true believer in the will to power theory. And if they are acting this way about immigration, what’s going to happen when it comes to the debt ceiling. I find it all exhausting. These freaks can do untold damage — not just to the United States, but to the entire world. And it won’t hurt them. There will always be millions telling Ted Cruz that he’s a great man.


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