Frank Moraes

Author's details

Name: Frank Moraes
Date registered: 17 Aug 2014


Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

Latest posts

  1. Love Actually: One Review or Nine? — 19 Jan 2017
  2. Thank You Trump Voters! — 19 Jan 2017
  3. Great for Chelsea Manning; Not So Much Democracy — 18 Jan 2017
  4. Chelsea Manning’s Sentence Commutated by Obama — 18 Jan 2017
  5. Clark and Dawe — Great Satire From Australia — 17 Jan 2017

Most commented posts

  1. Why Do We Take Sam Harris Seriously? — 82 comments
  2. The Good and Bad of Translating Shakespeare — 81 comments
  3. Erik Loomis Is Wrong About Sanders and Politics — 68 comments
  4. No, Democrats Are Not the Party of the Rich — 61 comments
  5. Anniversary Post: Harpers Ferry Raid — 58 comments

Author's posts listings

Jan 19

Love Actually: One Review or Nine?

Love ActuallyMy brother Eric left all of his movie collection to me. This included an unopened DVD of “the ultimate romantic comedy,” Love Actually. Now, I’m not much of a romantic comedy fan. But it was written and directed by Richard Curtis. You know him: the man who co-wrote every episode of Blackadder? Less impressively, he wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral — but still a solid film. So I had been wanting to see the film for some time. And last weekend, visiting my sister seemed like the perfect opportunity because it’s the kind of thing she would like.

What a mess of a film! I’m sure the screenplay looked like a recipe for gumbo. You know: just keep adding stuff until its done. It must have seemed like a great idea. Romantic comedies are incredibly predictable. So why not just throw together nine romantic plots of varying styles and voilà: soup’s ready! There’s just one problem with this analogy: soups work this way because the different ingredients combine synergistically. These nine plots were related in the most tenuous way. Not one of them made another better — or even different.

Love Actually: The Good

None of this would have been a problem if all the stories — or even most of them — worked. But that isn’t the case. Of the nine, I thought two of them worked — and brilliantly so.

Christmas Is All Around Us

The first was a bromance between aging rock star Billy Mack and his manager Joe. Bill Nighy plays the Mack character for all its cynical old-man comedy potential. And comedian Gregor Fisher plays straight-man to Nighy, adding the pathos to the story that makes it work. The story goes along with my theory that if you scratch a cynic, you will find a blubbering fool who cries a number of time during the course of films like Love Actually. (Not that I have anyone in mind!)

The Body Doubles

The second — and best — story was about John and Judy, played pitch perfect by Martin Freeman and Joanna Page. They are professional body doubles — people who stand in for actors while the technical issues (lighting, framing, camera movement) are worked out. It’s hard and thankless work. But they are working on a sex scene. In addition to often being naked, they are in some hilariously obscene positions. All through it, they chat, very much as if they were having coffee. Eventually, John asks Judy out on a date, and they are wonderfully awkward. But John literally jumps for joy after getting a meaningful but not terribly passionate kiss from Judy.

Love Actually: The Bad

Some of the stories were just bad.

The American President — But Even Worse

Hugh Grant plays a wholly unbelievable prime minister who falls in love with a young woman on his household staff, played by Martine McCutcheon. It features yet another twitchy Good Guy™ performance by Grant, which no sane person would want to sit through. But worse, the implausibility of the story and the characters ruin it. However, I did like that it showed that some men do like women with a bit more meat on their bones, even if McCutcheon probably only wears a size 8 — max.

The Universal Language: Cliche

A similarly insipid yet unbelievable story featured Colin Firth as a writer and Sienna Guillory as a housekeeper who only speaks Portugese. Love blossoms in the way that 13-year-olds think it does. As a viewer, I can see how they might make a fine match. But I don’t see how either of them could possibly know it. But what the hell: Firth is British and Guillory is beautiful! What else does a bad film need?

The Boy Who Wasn’t Arrested

There is also a horrible story concerning recently widowed Liam Neeson and his pre-pubescent son who is in love. If this sentimental claptrap wasn’t bad enough, it all turns into an action adventure that made the “single prime minister searches the streets for the housekeeper love of his life” plot seem like Schindler’s List.

Two for Keira

Of course, there had to be the cinematic equivalent of Jessie’s Girl. In this case, the girl is Keira Knightley, looking about 15 (I think she was 17 while filming). The story is entirely predictable, although the denouement was clever and sweet.

Richard Curtis’ Porn Fantasy

But without a doubt, the worst story was that of Colin (Kris Marshall) who runs off to America because all British women rightly think he’s a creepy idiot. Once in America, he finds himself in a porn fantasy where he goes to stay with four beautiful women (played by four models) who “will be naked.” At first, I couldn’t believe it. I thought surely this was a set-up to steal his money or sell him sex. But no. Apparently, Richard Curtis knows that Americans are keen on European accents. We aren’t that keen. But okay, I get it: broad comedy. Unfortunately, tonally, it simply doesn’t work with any other part of the film. Also: where’s the comedy except for, “American women are stupid, ha ha!”

Love Actually: The Ugly

There were two stories that almost worked. They were both dramas.

The Brother Calls

The first featured Laura Linney, desperately in love with Rodrigo Santoro. But here’s the catch: he’s desperately in love with her too! The problem: Linney has a schizophrenic brother (Michael Fitzgerald) who is in a mental institution. Unlike any mental institution I can imagine existing, this one allows the patients to wander around with cell phones and call whoever they want whenever they want. So Linney is constantly interrupted in her brief attempt to have a romance. She ultimately chooses her brother, and I can’t decide whether it is noble or cowardly. It might make a good feature drama. Certainly Richard Curtis is not the man to right it, though.

The Necklace and Joni Mitchell

The other drama was about Harry (Alan Rickman) and Karen (Emma Thompson). He has a very sexually aggressive secretary, Mia (Heike Makatsch). You know the story. What makes it more interesting is that I don’t believe Rickman ever has an affair. But it shows that the pain is not because of the act, but because of the feelings. This story has some of the best scenes in the entire movie. If it weren’t for Harry being such a complete idiot, it would have worked better.

Image this. Your wife tells you that she knows you find your secretary attractive. She tells you explicitly, “Be careful.” And you have at least a hunch that she caught you buying a gold necklace. In that case, you either give her the necklace or you buy another one and give her that. You absolutely don’t buy her a Joni Mitchell CD in the exact same sized box.

Love Always Is a Christmas Movie!

The whole film takes place in the lead-up to Christmas. I can’t help but feel that I’m supposed to forgive the film its many sins against intelligence, human emotion, and art because of this. But I didn’t walk away from the film feeling good. My main thought was, “Oh my God! Laura Linney is spending Christmas with her violent schizophrenic brother!” On the plus side, I’d do that before I’d watch Love Actually again.

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Jan 19

Thank You Trump Voters!

Donald Trump VotersI want to take a quick moment to thank everyone who voted for Donald Trump. I am not thanking you for voting for him, of course. Regardless of what you think of Hillary Clinton, voting for Trump was an incredibly stupid thing to do. So I’m not thanking you for that — especially since most of you have been falling for this same Republican con for years. “I’ll fix the economy! Ooops! I guess yet another round of tax cuts for the rich didn’t work this time, just like it didn’t work every other time over the last 35 years! Who could have known?”

No, I want to thank all you Trump voters for not telling me that you regret voting for him. It’s already happening. But I assure you, it will happen in a big way soon enough. The fall is coming, as it always does. And it would be really unkind to try to save face with me by admitting fault. In fact, doing so could potentially land me in jail for assault. So I’m really thankful for all you Trump voters who are just going to remain quiet as you see your salaries decline and your healthcare vanish.

Now, it would be one thing if Donald Trump were something new. But what he is offering is no different from what George W Bush, George HW Bush, and Ronald Reagan offered. Oh, sure: the economy has improved. Productivity goes up! Dividends go up! But somehow, salaries don’t. There’s a reason for this. Economics is pretty simple: if you take money away from poor people and give it to rich people, the poor get poorer and the rich get richer.

So those people in rural Pennsylvania who voted for Donald Trump thinking he was going to bring the manufacturing jobs back? You should have known better. And that’s why I know I can thank you now for not saying you regret voting for him when the con is so obvious that even you can’t deny it. You’ve saddled America with this dangerous embarrassment for four and likely eight years. It would just be wrong for you to try to get on the right side of history once all the damage has been done.

Besides, you know that you’re just going to vote for the next Republican con man who comes along. You always do.

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Jan 18

Great for Chelsea Manning; Not So Much Democracy

Chelsea ManningAs has been widely reported, President Obama has commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning. And it’s great news. All the way back in November, James wrote, Chelsea Manning: Obama Should Pardon Her Now — a long an passionate argument on the matter.

But there are things that bug me about this. On the top of the list is that Manning is being set free because the administration thinks she has suffered enough. No, no, no! Chelsea Manning shouldn’t have been put in prison in the first place. Neither should the many other leakers who the Obama administration oppressed (as well as general whistleblowers like John Kiriakou).

(Of special note is the abuse of the Espionage Act of 1917. As many of use have been saying for years, Obama was setting a bad new norm and he wouldn’t always be president. Imagine what President Trump will do with this law? Breaking norms matter — perhaps especially when Democrats do it, because it legitimizes the norm breaking so much more.)

The Case Against Manning

But I think the case can be made that Manning should have been punished — although not to the extent she was. The truth is that her release of documents was reckless. I would counter that she tried to work with reporters and was ignored and dismissed. She could have done some culling before giving the material to Wikileaks, but I think that’s asking quite a lot from one so young.

You can disagree with me, of course. But I don’t think anything close to a reasonable argument can be made for a 7 year sentence — much less the 35 year sentence she was assigned barring commutation. The idea that “Manning had served enough time” just shows that the government has learned nothing from this. It isn’t interested in having a well-informed public. The question isn’t whether those who inform the public of our dirty deeds should be punished; it is just a question of how much they should be punished. According to Obama, 7 years is about right for an American hero like Chelsea Manning.

Edward Snowden

Here’s where we get into troubled waters: the Edward Snowden comparison. I am sick to death of hearing the official Democratic Party line on Snowden coming out of the mouths of dozens of liberal friends and acquaintances. Manning is the Good Leaker and Snowden is the Bad Leaker. Let me quote from an administration official, “Chelsea Manning is somebody who accepted responsibility for the crimes she committed. She expressed remorse for committing those crimes. She began serving the sentence that was handed down.”

So the distinction here is that Manning was a good a little girl and took her punishment. And Snowden was the bad little boy who ran away. Please! Think about this in a different way. Think about Harriet Tubman. After breaking the law by helping slaves escape, should she have turned herself into the Maryland police to see that justice was done? Of course not. Doing so would have been beyond naive. Yet that is what I am constantly told Snowden should have done.

I think the single biggest difference between Manning and Snowden is naivete. And I say that as someone who used to be very much like Manning. I used to think that if you did what was right, everything would be okay. But that’s not true. And I suspect if you could get inside Chelsea Manning’s head, you would find that she has had second thoughts about that. Those in power are not interested in right and wrong. They are interested in power and weakness. People like Manning and Snowden are the weak and must be destroyed.

Edward Snowden, with his libertarian politics, did not believe all the “home of the brave, land of the free” propaganda that Manning and I did. So he did the rational thing: he ran.

The “Screw You Snowden” Theory

I believe that a good part of why Manning’s sentence was commuted is because of Snowden. If the government didn’t have Snowden to hold up as the Big Bad Leaker, there would be far less pressure to release Manning. The message from the administration could not be clearer, “We’ll treat you right [Ha!] if you hang around, but don’t run!”

(Also: the idea that Snowden’s real crime is that he ran to our enemies is a joke. If he had run to the UK, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, or whatnot, he would have been handed over to the US. He clearly doesn’t want to be in Russia; that’s the choice of the US — not letting him move around. Had he gone to Venezuela, people would make the same arguments against him. In addition, there’s a good chance the US would have invaded Venezuela. Remember the invasion of Panama? Yes, the US is that sick a country that it would kill thousands of innocent people just to get one guy who pissed it off.)

Chelsea Manning’s Remorse

I also hate this idea that Manning “expressed remorse” for these “crimes. First, the whole idea of criminals showing remorse is a joke. No judge or jury can say that anyone is remorseful. Psychopaths are notably really good at showing remorse, even while feeling none. And everyone shows remorse — and every other emotion — differently. A couple of years ago, I was reading about a guy falsely convicted of killing his wife. It all stemmed from the fact that the police didn’t think he showed the proper emotion. So they railroaded him, as they are wont to do.

The other issue is that I don’t think Manning should show remorse. She’s a hero. Okay. She could show remorse over little things. She could have dealt with the leak better. (More like Snowden!) But that’s not what the Obama administration is on about. They are saying that she has shown remorse for doing it at all. And she shouldn’t be remorseful about that. And I suspect after she’s out — hopefully being something like an advocate for open government — she’ll be clear that it was right to release those documents.


So it’s great that Chelsea Manning is getting out of prison. But from a political standpoint, it isn’t a good thing. In fact, it’s only going to get worse. This is what happens to empires. They get too big. Those who lead them become too powerful. They will brook no disobedience. If America isn’t a dictatorship in a century, I’ll be surprised. If it is one in 20 years, I won’t be shocked. All Obama did yesterday was adjust a prison sentence. He didn’t make a stand for open government. Why would he? He isn’t for it.

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Jan 18

Chelsea Manning’s Sentence Commutated by Obama

Chelsea ManningPresident Obama commuted the 35-year prison sentence of Chelsea Manning, an Army private convicted of taking troves of secret diplomatic and military documents and disclosing them to WikiLeaks, after deciding that Manning had served enough time…

Officials said the president thought that in Manning’s case, seven years behind bars was enough punishment and that she had been given an excessive sentence — the longest ever imposed in the United States for a leak conviction. The administration has contrasted her case with that of Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who leaked classified documents in 2013 and then fled the country, pointing out that Manning did not try to avoid facing the US justice system for her crimes.

“Chelsea Manning is somebody who accepted responsibility for the crimes she committed,” a senior White House official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House. “She expressed remorse for committing those crimes. She began serving the sentence that was handed down. The president’s concern was rooted in the fact that the sentence handed down is longer than sentences given to other individuals who committed comparable crimes.”

–Ellen Nakashima and Sari Horwitz
Obama Commutes Sentence of Chelsea Manning, soldier Convicted for Leaking Classified Information

[I will have more to say about this, most likely this afternoon. I’m very pleased for Manning’s sake. But I don’t like the reasoning and I don’t like the claims about Edward Snowden. -FM]

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Jan 17

Clark and Dawe — Great Satire From Australia

Clark and DaweJohn Clarke and Bryan Dawe are two, well, Australian comedians. It’s hard to peg them. For one thing, Clarke is actually from New Zealand, but I’m an American and so that’s close enough. Also, they do an awful lot of different work. I suspect that both of them think of themselves as writers more than anything. Also, they are somewhat unevenly matched, with Clarke being a bigger star than Dawe.

That’s probably why they generally haven’t been considered a comedy team. In fact, in as much as they are a comedy team, it is presented on John Clarke’s website, Clarke and Dawe Project.

Clark and Dawe Begin

But back in 1989, the two of them started performing mock interviews for the Australian television program A Current Affair. What’s wonderful about these is that they are very easy to mistake for a real interview. Indeed, on YouTube is a video clip, Australian Idiot Talks About Whale Death FUNNY. The person posting it wrote in the description, “Watch this Australian guy (who I think is running for some kind of elected office) talk about the death of a whale in an interview.” Now that might be a con, but there is no indication on his YouTube channel and it is posted as News & Politics, not Comedy.

And the truth is, it is easy enough to get confused. James sent me the following video, and it took me roughly 10 seconds to figure out that it was not serious. James was apparently looking for information about an oil spill on 21 July 1991 that occurred to the Kirki when it lost its bow. I assume this segment was done within a month of it, at most. Their work has always been topical.

They did interviews like this from 1989 to 1997, and then stopped.

On The 7.30 Report

Some time later (I’m not sure — I assume a few years), Clarke and Dawe returned on a different Australian current affairs program, The 7.30 Report. According to Wikipedia, they did this act pretty much once per week until 2012 (The 7.30 Report became simply 7.30 in 2011).

The following video is from the end of that period. It is clearly making fun of tabloid king Rupert Murdoch. But the story is about Australian model Lara Bingle. And the subtext is that the newspapers are running some kind of vague stories just so they can publish pictures of this young woman — most likely in a bikini.

But there is another side to it, that I relate to. A lot of the time there are big stories and they don’t seem to be about anything that anyone actually cares about.

I probably should explain the Shakespeare jokes there, but you can just look it up. Or just realize that Dawe is right — Polonius is definitely not in Romeo and Juliet. In fact, he isn’t even in much of Hamlet, but he does do a lot of talking while he’s still alive.

Their Very Own Show

In 2013, they got their own show, Clarke and Dawe. As you can see by the link, it still seems to be going. Over the years, they’ve broadened their act. For example, there are a number of segments that are kind of like game shows, European Debt Crisis. (Note: it’s funny, but they miss the biggest point about what what going on — and continues to — in the EU.)

Here is one of the last things they did at the end of last year, “Some Great Xmas Gift Ideas Here.” The part about the Australian superhero is hilarious. But the whole thing ends kind of darkly — brilliantly — but darkly.

You really should check out Clarke and Dawe. They are quite brilliant. I spent well over an hour watching these two-minute bits and never got tired of them.

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Jan 17

Intra-Group Fights More Common Than Inter-Group Fights

Fredrik deBoerScott Alexander wrote a piece in the middle of last year that I think is as essential as anything I’ve read in ages about how we argue now. His point is pretty simple: as political segregation increases, with people from dramatically different political camps less and less likely to interact, the really bitter political arguments are intra-group, not inter-group. That is, the battles that are most personal and toxic stop being Democrat-Republican but left-liberal, alt-trad, insurgents-establishment…

Here’s an extension to Alexander I want to make, which I’ll relate to my own experience. As internecine warfare against the neargroup intensifies, the regulation of who is in and who is out becomes more and more important. That is, the more that politics becomes about battling the neargroup instead of the fargroup, the more essential self-identification with a given faction becomes. As the really bitter fights become those between people who are close on the spectrum, the regulation of one’s space on the spectrum becomes even more essential.

So look at my experience. For a long while I was just kind of a fringey voice; perceived by many people as kind of annoying but not in any sense someone to be careful not to be associated with. Now, to the minor degree that I am discussed by progressives (being a low-traffic and low-attention figure generally), it is almost always accompanied by this laborious process of distancing themselves from me even while agreeing with me. Most endorsements of my work, by liberals and some leftists, involve endorsing what I’ve said while performing a dance to show everybody they know I’m Bad. It is the perpetual “I know Freddie’s problematic, but he’s right here” phenomenon. At some point or another I was given the mark of Cain, and I’ve never been clear on when or why…

The attitude that grownups should constantly be in the business of saying “This person is good/bad” instead of discussing specific arguments and ideas is contrary to how democracy is supposed to work. But it’s all people care about…

–Fredrik deBoer
I Know My Own Group by Defining Who’s Not in It

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Jan 16

Cory Booker: Neoliberal Hater of Typical Americans

Cory BookerBernie Sanders introduced a very simple symbolic amendment Wednesday night, urging the federal government to allow Americans to purchase pharmaceutical drugs from Canada, where they are considerably cheaper. Such unrestricted drug importation is currently prohibited by law…

The Senate voted down the amendment 52-46, with two senators not voting. Unusually, the vote was not purely along party lines: 13 Republicans joined Sanders and a majority of Democrats in supporting the amendment, while 13 Democrats and a majority of Republicans opposed it.

One of those Democrats was New Jersey’s Cory Booker, who is considered a rising star in the party and a possible 2020 presidential contender.

In a statement to the media after the vote, Booker’s office said he supports the importation of prescription drugs but that “any plan to allow the importation of prescription medications should also include consumer protections that ensure foreign drugs meet American safety standards. I opposed an amendment put forward last night that didn’t meet this test.”

This argument is the same one offered by the pharmaceutical industry. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), which lobbies against importation, maintains that it opposes importation because “foreign governments will not ensure that prescription drugs entering the US from abroad are safe and effective.”

The safety excuse has long been a refuge for policymakers who don’t want to assist Americans struggling with prescription drug costs. Bills to legalize importation passed in 2000 and 2007, but expired after the Clinton and Bush administrations refused to certify that it would be safe. The Obama administration also cited safety concerns when opposing an importation measure in the Affordable Care Act.

–Zaid Jilani and David Dayen
Cory Booker Joins Senate Republicans to Kill Measure to Import Cheaper Medicine From Canada

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Jan 15

Human Thought in a Dark Room

I’m sure that many of my readers will like this little meme. But to me, it shows such total contempt for the search of knowledge that it makes me really angry. And I don’t know that I have seen a more clear example of the way that much of the atheist community deifies science.

I am, as most of you know, trained as a scientist. I have a PhD in physics. And maybe the fact that I don’t work in the field shows that I have a fundamentally different orientation. But that isn’t my experience. Most scientists I know don’t make a fetish of it. Science is to them what it is to me: a really powerful tool for learning new things of a very specific nature. And that’s it.

A Million Dollars

The whole meme reminds me of my favorite line from Citizen Kane. Bernstein scoffs at Thatcher, Kane’s guardian. The reporter says, “He made an awful lot of money.” And Bernstein replies, “Well, it’s no trick to make a lot of money — if all you want is to make a lot of money.”

The meme presents four ways of gaining knowledge. But the test is rigged. It’s defining knowledge as the kind of knowledge that science excels at. But I’ll come back to that. My point is that people who put these kind of memes together so want to limit the human experience. As Bernstein said in the script (cut from the film), “He [Thatcher] never knew there was anything in the world but money.”


According to the meme, “Philosophy is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat.” So it’s a way to learn things, but a really bad one.

There are a number of things wrong with this. For one, the search for knowledge isn’t as categorical as this makes out. Work by Kant and Schopenhauer laid intellectual groundwork for Darwin’s discovery. But most people have an extremely childish view of how science actually works.

Perhaps most annoying to me is that math is a branch of philosophy, not science. People get caught up in counting, and think that it is real and thus “Science!” But giving names to quantities is not math. It’s like claiming that knowing the names of different bacteria makes you a microbiologist. It’s so silly.


The meme claims, “Metaphysics is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn’t there.” Apparently, the writer doesn’t know what the word “metaphysics” means. From Merriam-Webster, metaphysics is “a division of philosophy that is concerned with the fundamental nature of reality and being and that includes ontology, cosmology, and often epistemology.” That’s right: it really doesn’t have anything to do with Edwardian mysticism.

The cosmology part of this is amusing. Most people think of this as part of science. And it is! In a limited form. But every time I hear some subgenius go on about how cosmology is settled because of the big bang, I think they sound like fundamentalists. Science said it, I believe it, that settles it. Not really.

Don’t get me wrong, the big bang is as established as natural selection. But most people do not find it a satisfying cosmological answer for the same reason they don’t find “God” a satisfying answer. It just raises another question. And that’s fine! But ultimately, cosmology is a metaphysical issue because science isn’t designed to find ultimate answers.


The meme continues, “Theology is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn’t there, and shouting, ‘I found it!'” This is probably the most offensive part of the whole thing.

The implication is that theology is the most rigid form of religious belief. It isn’t even religious belief, much less of the “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” variety. There have been many theologians who were atheists and agnostics. It’s only quite recent in the US that theology departments are overrun by theists.

And this part of the meme begs the question. Of course, the point of such simple-minded memes is to preach to the choir. No Christian is going to read it and think, “I’ve been so wrong! I’m an atheist now!”


And so we come to the end of the meme, “Science is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat using a fucking flashlight.” It’s only at this point in the meme that I wondered, “Why are we looking for a black cat in a dark room?”

I’m not an idiot; I get that it’s an analogy. But as I indicated above, this is a rigged analogy. It all falls apart if you change it to being in a dark room looking for a reason not to kill yourself. Science isn’t all that helpful in gaining that kind of knowledge.

But it’s worse than that, because the example just begs to be criticized on quantum mechanical terms. Once you turn on the flashlight, it isn’t a dark room so you literally can’t find the black cat in a dark room. Consider it on more practical grounds. What if turning on the flashlight caused the black cat to run out of the room before your eyes adjusted?

I suppose I shouldn’t really complain because the kind of people who write these things have a really limited understanding of science — and pretty much everything else. But geez!

Tribalism in Meme Form

This is all about tribalism. You can love and respect science without dismissing other ways of knowing. And it really disturbs me that this is the default position of the New Atheism. It never really bothered me that theists were tribal and awful. But I thought that humans could — if they opened their minds — be more accepting of others. But no. It’s just another “I know the One True Way” of experiencing the world. This is why we will always fight wars.

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Jan 15

There’s Very Little Free in Free Trade Policy

Dean Baker on Supposed Free Trade PolicyReporters always complain about not having enough space to give the full story, which makes it a mystery as to why they so frequently add the word “free” to references to trade policy. We got an example of this wasteful wordiness in a NYT article on Donald Trump’s decision to ignore nepotism and conflict-of-interest rules and appoint his son-in-law Jared Kushner as a top adviser.

The piece told readers that Kushner, along with other responsibilities, would work on “matters involving free trade.” The use of “free” in this context is misleading since much of the US trade agenda is about increasing protectionism in the form of longer and stronger patent, copyright, and related protections. These protections are equivalent to tariffs of many thousand percent in the economic distortions they produce. They are 180 degrees at odds with free trade. There also has been little, if any, effort to remove protectionists barriers that benefit highly paid professionals, such as the ban on foreign doctors who have not completed a US residency program.

For these reasons, it is inaccurate to include the word “free” in reference to US trade policy. It is difficult to see why the NYT and other news outlets feel the need to do it.

—Dean Baker
Does NYT Require Reporters to Needlessly Add “Free” to References to Trade Policy?

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Jan 14

The Martian and the Point of Entertainment

The MartianI finally got around to seeing The Martian the other day. And in a sense, it is the perfect American entertainment. What The Odyssey was for the ancient Greeks, this film is for Americans: it tells them who they are supposed to be. The film is so filled with pluck that I really wanted to see Mark Watney (Matt Damon) die at the end.

But no. The Martian tells us all that there is no problem we can create that we can’t fix. (This is a terrible philosophy — and provably false.) So the film becomes kind of a “how to” documentary for surviving on Mars. This is made less tedious than it would be by Watney’s constant flippant chattering. And I’ve always found Damon kind of adorable. But really, there isn’t much here to like.

There is a constant drum beat of supposedly funny lines about Watney being stuck with only Disco music. I’m not really sure if, as a viewer, I was supposed to agree with him or not. It would have been better to pick a style of music that has not been widely mocked. At least in that case, we might learn something about who Watney is. But we don’t. Nor do we learn anything about any of the other characters. Really: the film is made up of positions, not characters.

I’ll give a nod Sean Bean — playing the mission director. He doesn’t have much of a part, but he has almost the entirety of the humanity in the film. He’s an exceptional actor who really doesn’t get as much due as he deserves. But who needs humanity when you can be an American!™? Really, rather than The Martian, the film should have been titled, The American.[1]

The Martian Is Just Another Disaster Film

The Martian got me thinking about the point of entertainment. Because I’ve seen this film so many times before. It’s just a disaster film. It is The Poseidon Adventure. But, you know, without actual human characters. It is The Towering Inferno. But, you know, without actual suspense. I’ll bet the vast majority of my readers (who skew older) haven’t seen either of those films. So why not just watch them? Why watch a guy on Mars grow potatoes using his own excrement as fertilizer?

That’s not a rhetorical question. We live in a world in which no one needs to suffer from hunger or homelessness. So after you get those issues taken care of, what is left but ways to find meaning in life and enjoying entertainment? Nothing really. But entertainment is a business. So films are not produced to entertain, but to make money. So Hollywood is going to put how how ever many films each year, even though almost none of them are categorically different from films we’ve seen before.

Newer Isn’t Necessarily Better

What’s more, these new versions are not necessarily better. For example, The Martian, in addition to being kind of boring, is all CGI. The film just looks mushy. Watney mentions gazing at the horizon every day just because he can. Yet there is not a single frame in the film that made me think, “Wow! That’s beautiful!” This is a big problem with modern blockbusters: they’re all pretty much Who Framed Roger Rabbit (that is, live actors on top of a cartoon).

A much better film that is similar, but categorically different is Moon. (See my review.) It should have been made. The Martian? I really can’t say. You will get the same exact experience from countless other films. So why make just another disaster film? I mean: besides making money.


I think the film could have been something much greater if Mark Watney had died at the end. Obviously, the entire script would need to be reworked. But it might have said something about pluck that I hadn’t heard before. Maybe pluck is it’s own reward? Watney will die eventually anyway. What if he had just held out as long as he could and all the world looked on helpless? It wouldn’t have to be a downer. Think of Shane.

The Martian as it stands ends with an annoying lecture by Watney where he says, “You solve one problem — and you solve the next one — and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.” Yeah. But we already knew that. If you just happen to be a botanist stranded on Mars who knows far more about operational matters than I find credible, then there might be a sequence of steps that allow you to come home. But often times, there are no steps that lead home. And that’s simply a more interesting thing to think about — especially when you consider how completely implausible the ending of The Martian is.

[1] There is a film called The American, which stars George Clooney. It is a much more likable film. Or rather, it is a much more poetic film. I’ll have to revisit it.

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Jan 14

What About the People Who Don’t “Make It”?

Chris Hayes on the People Who Don't Make ItAfter the election, I conducted a kind of exit interview with retiring Senate minority leader Harry Reid. I asked him what the Democratic Party stands for, and after speaking of his own upbringing in deep poverty in the rural town of Searchlight, Nevada, he said: “People have asked me the last year, ‘What message do you want to leave with people?’ And here’s the message: I want everyone in America to understand, if Harry Reid can make it in America, anyone can. And I want those young men and women out there who are looking for a way out to realize, if Harry Reid can make it, anybody can. That’s what America is all about.”

This is, in some ways, a perfect summation of the Democratic Party’s message in the Obama era: in America, anyone can make it out, anyone can rise to the highest heights. Immigrant, native-born, black, white, disabled, gay, straight, male, or female — no matter your background, there’s a place at the top for you. Even if this were perfectly true (and it’s not), we’re now seeing what happens when the Democratic Party is perceived, by white working-class people at least, as the party for those who make it out. But millions didn’t make it out — so who champions them?

The answer is that someone came along and more or less said, “Fuck all that. You won’t have to go to college to live your dreams; I’ll deliver them to you myself. I’ll reopen the coal mines. I’ll wave a magic wand, and this place that’s been pummeled will be restored. You can stay here and live your dreams. Your town can be great again.”

I think Obama recognized the need to speak to the dislocation and alienation of the Americans who didn’t make it out as well as anyone. There’s a reason he won all those counties that Trump flipped: it was Obama’s extraordinary political talent to connect with citizens from all walks of life that made him one of the greatest figures in American history. A century from now, schoolchildren will be celebrating his birthday.

But I’m left to wonder what it must be like inside his head now. Does he have a blissful moment every morning where he wakes up with no memory of what happened in November, a sweet morning calm before remembering the catastrophe? And I also wonder if that blissful moment before reality sets in is how we’ll remember his presidency.

–Chris Hayes
How Will History Judge Barack Obama?

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Jan 13

Are Headlines Ending in a Question Mark a Good Idea?

Question Mark - Betteridge's Law of HeadlinesI was having an email discussion with some people I work with. It was about an article that is really interesting, but based on sketchy science. And one of the people wrote, “Don’t forget Betteridge’s Law of Headlines.” The law is a little obscure. The basic idea is that any article that asks a yes or no question can be answered in the negative. Consider, for example, the headline of this article.

It may not be clear why this matters, so let me explain. Imagine that you want to publish an article that is really thin. Maybe some study just came out that found a negative correlation between drinking Pepsi and getting colon cancer. Well, it’s just one study. There will probably be a dozen more that will show no effect or a positive correlation. So you write the article and publish it with the headline, “Is Pepsi a Cure for Colon Cancer?”

See the trick? You’re not saying that Pepsi stops colon cancer; you’re just asking questions. As Donald Trump might put it, “We just want to find out what’s going on.” It’s a bit sleazy. But more important, it isn’t honest. This is quite different from asking a question in a headline and then answering it in the article.

History of Betteridge’s Law

The concept got its name starting back in 2009. Erick Schonfeld wrote an article for TechCrunch, Did Just Hand Over User Listening Data To the RIAA? The story took off — and not in a good way. It didn’t seem to be true. Ian Betteridge responded to the article at TechNovia, TechCrunch: Irresponsible journalism. He ended the article:

This story is a great demonstration of my maxim that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no.” The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it. Which, of course, is why it’s so common in The Daily Mail.

The Broader View

Of course, the concept wasn’t original to Betteridge. It’s part of a broader discussion of “weasel words.” These are things that non-fiction writers — journalists especially — talk about a lot. For example, I can write, “It seems that there is information that some people believe proves Donald Trump enjoys getting golden showers from Vladimir Putin.” If you notice the “seems” and “some people believe,” you will see that what I’ve actually said is that I don’t know a damned thing.

Should You End Headlines With Question Marks?

But since I don’t want to fall afoul of Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, I am going to answer my question. Are Headlines That End in a Question Mark a Good Idea? Yes! People like them. They click on them. But they are like all headlines: they raise ethical issues. I think the writer should answer the question they ask. Otherwise, they shouldn’t ask a question. TechCrunch shouldn’t have gone with, “Did Just Hand Over User Listening Data To the RIAA?” It should have gone with something like, “Rumor Spreading That Shares User Data With RIAA.” But even that would be misleading because it was mostly that article that spread the rumor. More accurate would be, “Exclusive: A Rumor I Heard That Shares User Data With RIAA.”

The sad thing is, of course, that ethics be damned. TechNovia doesn’t seem to even exist anymore. TechCrunch is one of the biggest tech websites in the world. According to Alexa, it is the 550th most visited website overall. Of course, it is a great website. But I have little doubt that they made a huge amount of money off that non-great article, even though they were widely criticized for it.

Betteridge’s Law of Headlines is most useful for writers and editors to think about before publishing. If a question headline seems perfect for the article, maybe the article isn’t worth publishing — at least not yet.

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