Feb 25

Sonoma County Town Hall Pulls in the People

Sonoma County Town Hall

This morning, we had a town hall on healthcare with Congressional Representative Mike Thompson and State Senator Mike McGuire. It was at the local high school, which is roughly a half mile away from me, so I walked down to it.

The first thing that struck me was that there were other people out walking and it was pretty clear they were on their way to the Town Hall as well. I had noticed when I left that two unfamiliar cars were parked in front of my house (I live is pretty rural area). It was only on getting to the high school that I realized they must have been people who went to the town hall. The very large Pine High School parking lot was packed.

As you can see in the photo above, it was standing room only. There are about 400 people in that photo, and that is about one-third of the gymnasium. So there were roughly a thousand people there. And note that it wasn’t constant: people came and people went. It wouldn’t surprise me if two thousand people took part in the whole thing.

It’s About Engagement

I wasn’t that interested in what the politicians had to say. And while I was there, they didn’t say much. Mostly, people spoke — generally with some eloquence. But there was anger and fear in the air.

There was also a sense of the ridiculousness of the whole thing: we have a system, it works, and now we stand to lose it just because the Republicans made political hay out of it over the last eight years? We know that despite everything, less than 20 percent of Americans want Obamacare repealed outright — at least not without Trump’s facile promise of some better and “great.”

I didn’t stick around long. I just wanted to get some pictures and see what the turn-out would look like. Crowds are not my thing (unless I am on a stage and they are watching me). And this is northern California. My Representative (Thompson) is a good deal more conservative than I would like. But there’s no question that he’s a solid, mainstream Democrat who votes as I want him to the vast majority of the time (given our limited options).

My take-away from the whole thing was that this is the kind of political engagement that is necessary if we are to survive. As Benjamin Franklin probably didn’t say, but should have, when (probably not) asked what form of government the USA would have, “A republic, if you can keep it.” If citizens don’t participate in a democracy (Okay Glenn Beck fans, Democratic Republic!), if they don’t vote, if they don’t communicate with their representatives, if they don’t pay attention to what’s going on — they lose everything.

Systemic Problems

Of course, as many of you know, over the last five years, I’ve come to believe that the problem is systemic: capitalism itself. It naturally leads to plutocracy. And that is what we effectively have. But we do still technically have a vaguely democratic system. (Consider that Wyoming with a population of 600,000 people — roughly the population of my county — has two Senators, as does California with a population 65 times greater.)

My point is that seeing people engaged in the political process is not just heartening; it is essential if we are to survive.

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2017/02/25/town-hall/

Feb 25

Chinese Room Argument

John Searle - Chinese Room ArgumentThe argument and thought-experiment now generally known as the Chinese Room Argument was first published in a paper in 1980 by American philosopher John Searle. It has become one of the best-known arguments in recent philosophy. Searle imagines himself alone in a room following a computer program for responding to Chinese characters slipped under the door. Searle understands nothing of Chinese, and yet, by following the program for manipulating symbols and numerals just as a computer does, he produces appropriate strings of Chinese characters that fool those outside into thinking there is a Chinese speaker in the room. The narrow conclusion of the argument is that programming a digital computer may make it appear to understand language but does not produce real understanding. Hence the “Turing Test” is inadequate. Searle argues that the thought experiment underscores the fact that computers merely use syntactic rules to manipulate symbol strings, but have no understanding of meaning or semantics. The broader conclusion of the argument is that the theory that human minds are computer-like computational or information processing systems is refuted. Instead minds must result from biological processes; computers can at best simulate these biological processes. Thus the argument has large implications for semantics, philosophy of language and mind, theories of consciousness, computer science, and cognitive science generally.

–David Cole
The Chinese Room Argument

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2017/02/25/chinese-room-argument/

Feb 24

Obamacare Repeal Is in Grave Danger

Jonathan ChaitEleven days before Donald Trump took office, I wrote a column with the slightly hedged but still hyperbolic headline “Obamacare Repeal Might Have Just Died Tonight.” While the “might” was doing a lot of work, my argument was that the GOP’s clearest and easiest path for repealing Obamacare had fallen short, which would force Republicans to attempt to forge a vastly more difficult path. That is what has happened since, and that is why the cause of repeal has been dying a slow and painful death. John Boehner — Who repeatedly led his party to election victories on the promise that they would repeal Obamacare! — has now admitted repeal is “not going to happen” and “most of the framework of the Affordable Care Act” would remain in place.

Let’s back up and go through how this has happened. As soon as the immediate aftermath of the election, it could be seen that “repeal and delay” gave Republicans the easiest method for destroying Obamacare. The attraction of repeal and delay is that it did not require Republicans to cobble together majorities in both chambers to support any particular alternative plan, which — despite repeated promises and assurances of imminent success — they had failed to do since the legislative debate on health care began in 2009. Repeal and delay merely required finding 218 House Republicans and 50 senators to defund Obamacare on the premise that something, to be determined later, would be better.

But several Republicans expressed reservations about repealing the law without having any clarity about its replacement, if any. By January 9, repeal-and-delay had enough opponents — Republicans could only afford to lose two votes in the Senate — that the party’s leaders would have to scrap the plan, which they did.

The Republicans’ new strategy is to stage a single vote that would repeal Obamacare and simultaneously put replacement measures in place. A group linked to Mitch McConnell is trying to whip up support for this by circulating polling showing that just 17 percent of the public supports repealing Obamacare without an immediate replacement plan. What’s important about this is not the polling result itself — independent pollsters found the same thing since well before the inauguration — but the fact that Republican leaders are now emphasizing it, rather than pretending it’s not true.

Their professed hope is that the replacement plan will give Republican members of Congress something positive to offer in the wake of killing Obamacare. The trouble for them is that attaching a replacement bill to a repeal bill makes the vote much, much harder. Now that their best chance to repeal the law is gone, the remaining options are all fairly desperate.

–Jonathan Chait
Trump’s Health-Care Nightmare Is Only Just Beginning

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2017/02/24/obamacare-repeal-danger/

Feb 23

Gerald Burns Society

Shorter Poems - Gerald BurnsBack in the mid-1990s, at the end of my career as a graduate student and beginning of my career as college professor, I moved into a big house with three poet friends of mine: Rebecca Davis, James “Jim” Haining (the founder and editor of Salt Lick), Gerald Burns. It was a very lively environment to live in. I learned a lot about literature and writing from the experience, although Jim and Gerald were absolutely vicious when it came to literary merit. All that time, Jim was getting weaker and weaker from multiple sclerosis. But it was Gerald who managed to die first. As I recall (and by that time I was not in constant contact with him), his mother had died and he went back home to help his father. Shortly after arriving, he had a heart attack and died. He was just 57 years old.

Jim used to say that reading a lot of poets was like chewing rocks, and that Gerald was such a poet — but it was worth the effort. It was true. Gerald’s poetry was very difficult. He wore his erudition on his sleeve. But I learned something really powerful from him: it isn’t necessary that a reader understand all the finer points of your writing. Sometimes the mystery has a poetry of its own. And it certainly freed me up to indulge in my own rarefied knowledge. In fact, I am doing that quite explicitly in my most recent (abandoned) novel. But if you want a better example, look no further than Moby Dick. I think the details about sailing and whaling are what make the novel great.

Recently, I found a website of the Gerald Burns Society. It is not the only website preserving his memory. And it isn’t surprising. The first time I met Gerald, he came to a party I was giving, and managed to pretty much single handedly destroy the party. He could be a distinctly difficult person. Yet he was the one thing that we should all strive to be: constantly interesting. And once you got to know him, he was the sweetest man in the world who would do anything for you.

At that time, I was very much involved in my education and thus science. Gerald pushed me to write about that. Of course, he also tried to train my mind regarding literary matters. Now how I wish he were around so we could discuss Ulysses. I remember back with some regret talking about how much I liked the Inferno and he tried to convince me that it was too easy and that I needed to learn to appreciate Paradiso. I wish I had tried at the time. I have tried since, and still don’t really enjoy it. I could really use his help.

Anyway, the Gerald Burns Society has a nice introduction to him. It is a little light on his writing, but it is filled with his drawings, which I must admit to having forgotten about. And it has this wonderful quote from David Searcy (one of the Salt Lick bunch), under the heading, The Earliest Published Burns?

One new thing about Gerald — a little stapled journal, GADFLY (bi-monthly, Cambridge MA, 35 cents) from December, 1959, contains what I believe to be the earliest published Burns. Some professor friend of Ben Fountain’s gave it to him since it contained some Ezra Pound (Ben being something of a Pound scholar) whereupon Ben showed it to me, wondering if a small elitist essay called “Man in the Street” by Gerald Burns were by the genuine article. A glance at the first line was enough: “Reading Heidegger the other day…”

Yep, that’s Gerald!

Anyway, check out the website. It is great to see people keeping Gerald’s work alive.

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2017/02/23/gerald-burns-society/

Feb 23

FBI Nab Another Fake Terrorist

Robert Lorenzo HesterThe Justice Department proudly announced the first FBI terror arrest of the the Trump administration on Tuesday: an elaborate sting operation that snared a 25-year old Missouri man who had no terrorism contacts besides the two undercover FBI agents who paid him to buy hardware supplies they said was for a bomb — and who at one point pulled a knife on him and threatened his family.

Robert Lorenzo Hester of Columbia, Missouri, didn’t have the $20 he needed to buy the 9-volt batteries, duct tape, and roofing nails his new FBI friends wanted him to get, so they gave him the money. The agents noted in a criminal complaint that Hester, who at one point brought his two small children to a meeting because he didn’t have child care, continued smoking marijuana despite professing to be a devout Muslim.

One of the social media posts that initially caught the FBI’s attention referred to a group called “The Lion Guard.” Hester told one of the undercover agents the name came from “a cartoon my children watch.”

But according to the DOJ press release, Hester had plans to conduct an “ISIS-sponsored terrorist attack” on President’s Day that would have resulted in mass casualties had it succeeded.

News reports breathlessly echoed the government’s depiction of Hester as a foiled would-be terrorist. But the only contact Hester had with ISIS was with the two undercover agents who suggested to him that they had connections with the group.

–Murtaza Hussain
Trump’s First Terror Arrest: a Broke Stoner the FBI Threatened at Knifepoint

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2017/02/23/robert-lorenzo-hester/

Feb 22

An Aborted Apologia for Milo Yiannopoulos

Milo YiannopoulosThere is nothing I like so much as a victim. I love defending them. And I will turn on a dime. I will denounce a man one day and defend him the next if I feel he’s become a victim. And for a short period of time, I felt that way about Milo Yiannopoulos. I’ll sketch out the argument that I was going to make and then I’ll discuss why I changed my mind.

The Case for Milo Yiannopoulos

There are various things that are wrong in the downfall of Milo Yiannopoulos. Let’s start with the fact that the man has been extremely vile for years regarding pretty much anything you can think of. But mostly he was sexist, racist, and transphobic. And he did it all in a manner to make it seem “cool.” Watching a 2 minute video of him is equivalent to receiving a doctorate in Hating With Style. Yet despite this, Simon & Schuster gave him a quarter million dollar advance on a book. CPAC made him its keynote speaker. (Good move, actually: Trump won white millennial voters.)

But then a known tape from 8 months ago shows up where Milo Yiannopoulos talks about the complexities of sexuality in young people and defines pedophilia as being attracted only to pre-pubescent children. Now, I have some sympathy for that view. When I see the outrage when some female teacher sleeps with her 16-year-old male student, I think it’s a bit much. I certainly think it’s wrong and I think the woman has obvious problems. But to pretend that this is in the same category of anally raping a seven-year-old is ridiculous. These matters are complicated, and Americans really don’t like complicated.

What probably got Milo Yiannopoulos in trouble, however, was this line, “I’m grateful to Father Michael; I wouldn’t give nearly as good head if it wasn’t[1] for him.” And that’s so clearly his shtick that it’s hard for me to take any more offense than hundreds of other things he said that were not over the line for the Good People™ at Simon & Schuster and CPAN and eventually even Breitbart.

The Better Case Against Milo Yiannopoulos

So I was willing to defend a man who has been very effective in making the world a worse place. But then I saw this headline at BuzzFeed, Milo Yiannopoulos Said He Was Sexually Abused as a Child and Resigned From Breitbart News. It was about his press conference yesterday. He said, “I am a gay man, and a child abuse victim. Between the ages of 13 and 16, two men touched me in ways they should not have.” He followed that up with, “My experiences as a victim led me to believe I could say almost anything on the subject, no matter how outrageous.”

Uh, no. You don’t get to do that.

As I said, the pedophilia remarks were his shtick. Now it would have been fine if he wanted to embrace his victimhood and say, “I was raped as a child and that no doubt is what has turned me into the vile person you have all come to know.” But he can’t say, “On this one issue (the only one you all seem to care about), I was wrong but the rest of what I said was right on!” Indeed, this was literally his apology at the press conference, “I don’t believe that sex with 13-years-olds is OK. I’m certainly guilty of imprecise language, which I regret… For those statements I made where I misspoke, I apologize.”

As Larry Wilmore said, “Go fuck yourself.”

He’s Not a Victim — Not for Long, Anyway

And note: I don’t think this is anything but a low point for Milo Yiannopoulos. For one thing, he’ll get to keep some if not all of the $250,000 advance. But for another, he’s done the fake apology. We won’t hear much for him for a while. But in two years at the absolute maximum, he’ll be back as a major player in the alt-right. Maybe he’ll go back to Breitbart. Regardless, time will heal his wounds. Because there is always a big audience for someone who can Hate With Style.


[1] Look, I’m not even going to explain it. Let’s just say that when you go around shaming people for being illiterate, you really better have your subjunctive mood down.

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2017/02/22/apologia-milo-yiannopoulos/

Feb 22

Can Democrats Take Back the House in 2018?

Greg Sargent - Dems Take House in 2018?President Trump’s new plans for vastly expanded deportations, and the forthcoming new version of his immigration ban, are a reminder: Trump is governing in full accordance with the xenophobic nationalism that drove his campaign. That posture may have driven up huge numbers among blue-collar whites, which offset his relative losses among college-educated white voters and helped him win key Rust Belt states.

But now that he is president, can the brutal real-world realization of these policies boost Democratic chances of taking back the House? If this is possible, what does that tell us about the political staying power of Trumpism in a broader sense? …

While Trump still remains very popular among blue-collar whites, those voters may not be all that decisive in the battle to wrest House seats from Republican incumbents. That’s because many of the districts where Republicans are weak have higher concentrations of college-educated whites and Latinos…

To be clear, Democrats still face a huge uphill climb — they have to net 24 seats, and Republicans still enjoy a huge amount of safe districts. Latinos turn out at low levels in midterms. Other factors, such as recruitment and retirements, will also matter. Trump may end up more popular than seems likely right now. And it should be stressed that Democrats still do have to address their weakness with blue-collar whites for all kinds of moral and political reasons.

But this is a dynamic to watch, and not just because of what it says about Democrats’ chances of taking back the House.

–Greg Sargent
Can Trump Help Democrats Take Back the House? Here’s a Big Thing to Watch.

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2017/02/22/democrats-house-2018/

Feb 21

Dark and Silent

Dark and SilentThis is a prose poem I wrote back in 2010. It is the last poem that I’ve written. What I find shocking about it is that it isn’t bad. It isn’t great. I’m not a poet.

I don’t have the patience for it. Every poem I’ve ever written contains parts that don’t quite work. I think the change in tone of “It allows me” is too abrupt. But I could work days on that problem and never solve it. People think writing poetry is easy because there aren’t many words. It’s quite the opposite.

What I doubtless most like about this poem is how it sums up my intellectual loneliness. The people of my intellectual caliber are not interested in the things I am interested in, and the people who are interested in what I am interested in are so far beyond me that I can learn from them but not share with them.

On the plus side, I feel infinitely more cheerful than I did when I wrote this. But the questions do remain.

It is dark here. The moon but a sliver sharp enough to sew. I see it reflected clearly on the lake — its surface calmer than stretched linen. And silent. Even, it seems, the raccoons are gone. Field mice a distant memory. My only light — shining down on The Passionate Shepherd to His Love from page 18 of The English Reader — escaping my windows into the vacuum of night. It allows me to notice the missing sixth stanza; the different, inferior source; the modernized language. And I wonder: did I travel so long to get here? To reread poems I have memorized? To quibble dumb with editors over what every literate person needs to know? To accept the dark — the silence? This is where my long journey has led? My greatest hopes that wildlife return to scratching and the new moon to full?

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2017/02/21/dark-and-silent/

Feb 21

People Are Truly Bored of Fighting About Milo

Heather Dockray - Milo YiannopoulosAfter a week like this — in which the country’s National Security Advisor resigned because of ties to the Kremlin, someone nicknamed “the foreclosure king” was put in charge of the economy and the president did something so shameful to a black reporter it’s actually too depressing to type it out — it’s borderline quaint to argue about someone like Milo Yiannopoulos…

For many in the queer community, fighting Milo has been a grating and exhausting long-term battle. The former Breitbart columnist who commandeered the troll troops to attack Leslie Jones and claimed that “Islam is the real rape culture” has still managed to find his way to the public eye — first, by appearing in a glowing Out Magazine puff piece, then by touring college campuses nationwide.

Now, it’s by showing up on Bill Maher.

Every time he makes a public appearance that’s not on his Facebook page, he triggers the same outrage cycle:

  1. People on Twitter rise up in protest, threaten to boycott “XYZ” and destroy it forever.
  2. Someone writes a viral hot take arguing that, “Blablabla, you may not agree with him . . . but free speech!”
  3. The internet then goes after the hot-taker, who proceeds to compose a middling tweet along the lines of, “Why can’t we just agree to disagree?”
  4. Someone from the show issues a watered down statement that is literally impossible to decipher, 10 news organizations repost that exact same statement and call it a story.
  5. Milo appears anyway. He builds his fan base. The cycle begins again.

–Heather Dockray
Bill Maher Doesn’t Understand How Milo Yiannopoulos Works

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2017/02/21/milo-yiannopoulos/

Feb 20

A*P*E: Meta-Film of a Fine Vintage

Psychotronic ReviewNew at Pychotronic Review: A*P*E: Meta-Film of a Fine Vintage.

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2017/02/20/ape-meta-film-fine-vintage/

Feb 20

Melania Trump in NYC or Corporation for Public Broadcasting?

Dean Baker on 2016 July Jobs ReportWe all know about the need to make trade-offs in budgeting, most of us have to do it on a regular basis in our daily lives. But what about the trade-offs for the federal government? Arguably there is no need for trade-offs right now. Both interest rates and inflation are at low levels, so it is not obvious that there is any problem with larger deficits, but folks in both parties are fixated on the need to run low budget deficits or even to have balanced budgets, so these politics dictate the need for trade-offs.

In this context, it is worth making some comparisons as the Republicans seem prepared to slash a number of relatively low cost programs that have received considerable visibility. At the top of this list would be federal funding for Legal Services, a program that has provided legal assistance to low income people for decades. This program provides lawyers for people facing foreclosures or evictions, for people who need help with a divorce or will, or for many other situations that would typically require the assistance of a lawyer. The appropriation last year came to $375 million, or 0.011 percent of the federal budget.

Another item on the chopping block is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). CPB helps fund National Public Radio as well as public television stations around the country. It got $445 million from the federal government last year or 0.013 percent of total spending.

Then there is the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). The NEA supports a variety of education and cultural events around the country. It got just under $150 million last year or 0.004 percent of the total budget. There are a number of other small programs also on the chopping block, including AmeriCorps and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

It is interesting to compare the spending of these programs that face cuts or may be eliminated altogether with spending of security for President Trump and his family. In the past, presidents have generally tried to limit their own travel and that of their families so as not to create large security bills for the country. Apparently, this is not a concern of President Trump.

Unlike past presidents, he has requested Secret Service protection for his adult children. Given their travel habits running President Trump’s business, this is likely to be a considerable expense for the government. For example, the Washington Post reported that one trip to Uruguay by Eric Trump to open a hotel there cost the government almost $100,000 in security expenses. In addition, Trump’s decision to take his weekends at his golf club in Florida, rather the White House or Camp David, costs us more than $3 million a shot. And the decision by Melania Trump to stay in New York with her son is apparently costing taxpayers close to $2 million a day. [Over $700 million per year. -FM]

–Dean Baker
Paying for Legal Services or Keeping Melania Trump in NYC: Choices for Taxpayers

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2017/02/20/comparisons-melania-trump/

Feb 19

Human evolution and the Myth of Control

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

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

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

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

Effective Catcalls

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

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

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2017/02/19/human-evolution-and-the-myth-of-control/

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