Why the GOP Can’t Criticize Itself

Ted CruzJonathan Bernstein made a funny, but we both know it is very serious. He compared two articles. First, Alex Massie‘s attack on Russell Brand’s “all those liberal politicians are really conservative” game. Second, Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry‘s attack on the “radical” wing of the Republican Party. He wrote, “One of them was about ‘an adolescent extremist whose hatred of politics is matched by his ignorance’—want to guess which one?” The joke is that although it was a description of Brand, it could easily have been a description of Ted Cruz or any number of other Republicans.

Bernstein’s article is about how it is good that Ponnuru and Lowry are calling out the Republican crazies, but that it is being done very gently. As he notes, “Indeed, Ponnuru and Lowry’s five-screen attack on the radicals is packed full of ‘on the other hand’ and ‘to be sure’ qualifications, so much so that at times it’s hard to tell whether the point is convincing convincable conservatives or if it’s to do just enough to be able to claim credit for being on the side of sanity.” My question is why this is. Why is it is that liberals have no problem calling out their own extremists but conservatives never do it.

I think I know the answer: conservatives agree on the essentials whereas liberals have a fair amount of disagreement as to where they are headed. Put another way, the Republicans have an extremely small tent and the Democrats have an unbelievable large tent. I get tired of pointing this out again and again and again. Republicans disagree about urgency. They disagree about tactics. But they do not disagree about goals. And those goals are stunningly archaic.

In a time and place where all land is owned and a man literally cannot make his own way, they want to ossify social positions because they think that they are currently about right. As I quoted social psychologist Paul Piff before, “Let’s imagine that you’re invited to a game of Monopoly. And you arrive at this game to find out that all the property’s been divided up. All of the money has already been handed out. But you’re told, ‘Hey: go ahead and sit down. Play the game; we’re going to give you a chance to play just like everyone else.'” That’s the way all Republicans want the world to be. That’s how they define “equality of opportunity.”[1]

In contrast, Democrats really do disagree about where we are going. This ranges from people who want only what we have now but with perhaps a slightly stronger safety net to people like Russell Brand who want guaranteed minimum incomes. (I’m guessing; I don’t really follow or care about Brand.) But with all of our breadth, what we don’t have are extremists like the Tea Party folk. On the left, that would be equivalent to people calling for the workers to own the means of production. The catastrophe of the Soviet Union long ago scared liberals away from those kinds of ideas. But strangely right wing military dictatorships (eg Augusto Pinochet) have not scared the right away from their path.

It is tiring to see people like Ponnuru and Lowry applauded every time they write articles that make the gentlest of criticism of the conservative movement. Do you know what Rich Lowry was talking about the last time I wrote about him? How Ted Cruz would flummox liberals because he was a smart Ivy Leaguer who thought like Sarah Palin. Ponnuru, of course, is a good critic of his own side. But he is careful in the extreme. And when he talks policy, he is as foolish as most other conservatives. The main thing, though, is that both men agree with Ted Cruz and company with regards to what they want. They would just like these crazies to be smarter about getting to their promised land where all the poor will get their just, painful, but brief death.

Don’t be like Russell Brand: they can only win if you do not vote. Election day is 4 November 2014!

[1] This is clearly not the case for someone like Josh Barro, but even I have a hard time calling him anything but a good old fashioned liberal. And most Republicans would balk at this description of their goals, but this is what the policies that they want would produce. In May of this year, Avik Roy wrote that “equality of opportunity” was nothing more than simply not having laws forbidding people from doing something. In other words, as long as you don’t live in a caste system, you have equality of opportunity. So it isn’t like I’m being hyperbolic here.

It’s Now Or Never for Senate GOP

Charlie CookCharlie Cook made a great point in an article yesterday in the National Journal, Why 2014 Is Do-or-Die for the GOP. This isn’t anything like the conservative claptrap about how we are on the verge of a socialist hellscape where white folk have to hand out dollar bills to every black person they see because of Obama-imposed reparations. Now, as usual with Cook, this is just clearheaded political analysis.

You see, since 2008, the Democratic Party has had a lot of seats to hold in the Senate. In 2010, there were 19 Democrats and only 15 Republicans up for re-election. In 2012, there were 22 Democrats and only 9 Republicans. And in 2014, there will be 20 Democrats and 15 Republicans up for re-election. (These numbers are probably slightly off, since they are based upon the election results from six years earlier, but they will be close.) So the fact that the Democrats have maintained Senate control all this time is something of a miracle.

But in 2016, things will be reversed because of the huge gains made by the Republicans in 2010. Cook explains:

The reason next year is so make-or-break for Senate Republicans is because in 2016, when all of the seats they won in 2010 come up—they netted a six-seat net gain that year—there will be 24 GOP seats up, compared with only 10 for Democrats, leading to some serious Republican overexposure. Seven of the 24 GOP senators up are hailing from states that Obama carried in 2012. After having had plentiful Democratic targets in 2012 and 2014, it will be Republicans in 2016 who will have the most incumbents in the crosshairs.

This is why Cook says that 2014 is “do or die” for the Republicans. I would put it more musically and say it is “Now Or Never”:

H/T: Ed Kilgore

Libertarianism Incompatible With Atheism

CJ WerlemanCJ Werleman has written an absolutely fabulous column over at Slate, Atheists Can’t Be Republicans. It is primarily an attack on what I call The Atheist Libertarian Connection. He notes, “I am acutely aware that a great number of atheists identify with the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, but this is comical.” He goes on from there to discuss how atheists claim to believe in things that have evidence, but there is no evidence for libertarianism. Unfortunately, I don’t think any atheist libertarians will be swayed by his claim.

Let me take a whack at it. The fundamental problem with libertarianism in this context is that it is a utopian ideology. It would be like believing in a communist utopia, but worse. In a communist utopia, all you need is for human psychology to be different. In the case of libertarianism, you have a system designed to appeal to the worst instincts of humans but expect that they will behave using the best instincts.

For example, libertarians claim that we don’t need environmental regulations because if someone pollutes on your land, you can sue them. But that won’t stop big companies from distorting the legal system to benefit themselves. But in the libertarian utopia, they would never do that! The courts would be perfect anyway. And come to think of it, given that the big companies would not try to distort the legal system, they would never pollute in the first place. So who needs the courts anyway? Libertarianism is perfect as long as it is theoretical, but the moment you try to implement even a small amount of it, it becomes a mess.

For the Ron Paul Libertarians, however, the situation is much worse. For one thing, do these people really think that if Ron Paul became president he would implement libertarian policies? As I learned rather quickly when I was a fellow traveler: vote libertarian and get conservative policy. When President Paul nominated someone to the Supreme Court, he would have to decide if he wanted someone who wanted to deprive women of the right to choose an abortion or someone who wanted to legalize drugs. There’s no doubt that we would end up with just another conservative judge. But this brings up an important point about Ron Paul: he’s as anti-choice as you can get. That isn’t a position that comes out libertarian first principles. It is reverse engineered from his Southern Baptist faith. I suspect that Paul would lose well over half the support he does have (which is small already) if he were pro-choice.

Werleman goes on to note that the Republican Party more generally is even more an anathema to atheist thinking, “The recent Values Voter Summit demonstrated that the likely 2016 GOP frontrunners and its base wish to transform America’s secular state into a tyrannical theocracy—a nirvana absent gays, liberals, immigrants, Muslims and science books.” But there are certain things that the atheist community shares with the Republican party. In general, it is white, male, and middle class or higher. That tends to make it economically conservative, having little understanding of what poor people go through in our society. And most sadly, it tends to make them raving kooks regarding Muslim fundamentalist violence while mostly ignoring both American aggression and Christian fundamentalist violence.

The last part of the article calls for atheists to see that they are really liberal and to decide to become a political force. But there is a major problem, I think, and that is the demographics of the movement. Werleman describes the atheist community very well as “white, middle class, intellectually smug and mostly apolitical.” Whether they know it or not, these are the winners in our society. They are having a good life and the only way they see to improve it is to allow themselves even more affluence and privilege. Hence: libertarianism. Sikivu Hutchinson perfectly explained the problem of the movement, “If mainstream freethought and humanism continue to reflect the narrow cultural interests of white elites who have disposable income to go to conferences then the secular movement is destined to remain marginal and insular.”

I’m actually a bit optimistic. I think that most atheists are pretty reasonable. The problem exists mostly in the “public” atheists—people like Penn Jillette, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins. And of course, one of the most offensive public intellectuals of the 21st century: Christopher Hitchens. On the left side of this spectrum is Dawkins with his status quo apologetics and on the right side we have Sam Harris and his proto-fascist imperialism. Add to this that all these men know nothing of the religions they claim to despise and you have a recipe for a modestly successful, but irrelevant movement. But there are a lot of good thinkers in the movement and if they can shake off the bullshit of the likes of Penn Jillette, they might create something great.

Wizard of Animation Ralph Bakshi

Ralph BakshiOn this day in 1861, the great painter Andrei Ryabushkin was born. He has a very distinctive style—in some ways primitive. He painted primarily ordinary working people, but not of his time—of those two centuries before. As a result, he was never really accepted. His paintings were not pretty enough for the rich nor were they political enough for the avant garde. And then he died at 42 of tuberculosis.

The great editorial cartoonist Bill Mauldin was born in 1921. He got his start working as a reporter and artist for the army during World War II. In fact, he is still best know for that work that features Willie and Joe, two infantry soldiers who struggle through the hardships of war. The following two cartoons are from later in his career. The first is in reference to the Kennedy assassination. The second one is from 1984 about terrorism. It shows Death with two meat grinders. One is marked “Terrorism” and the other “Retaliation.” The caption reads, “Women and Children first.” It’s great work.

Two Cartoons by Mill Mauldin

Other birthdays: the highly successful propagandist for the Nazis Joseph Goebbels (1897); the great sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle (1930); singer Melba Moore (68); musician Peter Green (67); actor Richard Dreyfuss (66); and actor Winona Ryder (42).

The day, however, belongs to the great animator Ralph Bakshi who is 75 today. He is best known for Fritz the Cat. He created animated films not just for adults but for thinking adults. He was highly controversial throughout his career. He bounced around, doing a lot of different things. My favorite of his films is Wizards, although I wouldn’t say it was a great film. There are two things about it. First, I’m a huge Cheech Wizard fan, and Bakshi totally ripped of that character for the part of the hero Avatar. Second, it is amazing to watch how much he does with so little. Of course, it helps to have a really great voice like Susan Tyrrell’s to work with. You can see a collection of some of the interesting imagery used in the film below. It gives you the wrong idea about the film, however. It’s actually a very funny film. (It is also available complete on YouTube.) Anyway, he has produced an enormous amount of work, especially for someone who has largely worked independently. Check out any of it.

Happy birthday Ralph Bakshi!

Accidental Movie Watching

MoviesWell, I guess the title doesn’t say it all. It could mean when you are flipping channels and are about to hit the hay, when you stumble on something that looks vaguely interesting… And you wind up watching an entire movie. Has it happened to you? I’ve done it a lot. In this case, I mean confusing one movie with another, usually because of a key word or similar words in film titles. This too, I have done a lot.

One time, my friend Frank Moraes and my brother, Marlo, were going to a movie and asked if I’d like to go. They were headed to see something at the discount theater, which showed 2nd (3rd?) run movies and classics, for cheap. In this instance, they were going to see something called Blue Velvet. I wasn’t that interested in seeing a horse movie. No, you are correct: Blue Velvet is not a horse movie. I was mistaking it for being something along the lines of National Velvet or Black Beauty. Well, I went. I was entranced. I was shocked. And, to an extent, disappointed. Did I mention I have done that a lot?

Such was the case last night—late at night. At first things went the other way… I began to watch The Yellow Wallpaper, and the first three minutes confirmed it indeed was a story, of the same title, I was forced to read in college. (“Hey, layoff… I went for a few years.”) I stopped that one and fumbled through the selection for something that sounded familiar but which I had not seen, or fully seen.

I found it. The Woman in Black. That’s it. I always wanted to know more, some of the hypothetical aspect would be nice too, of that woman, the wannabe actress, who was murdered and mutilated in the outskirts of Hollywood. Um, no. Wrong again. That most recent theatrical retelling of that story is titled, The Black Dalia, and I wound up watching a much different story.

It’s the Transitional part of my story…

When I was ten (10! Ten!), my much older, adult sister, Kathleen Maxwell Abeta-Brown (now known merely as Kathy Winters) decided the next mistaken, parent-unapproved gift for her youngest brother was to be a drastically abused console television. It was within a month or two of my birthday, one way or the other (I don’t really recall).

That was it… I was off to the races with my addiction to Abbott and Costello, Lucile Ball, and the Bowery Boys. I was the most severe television fanatic of any person I’ve known or heard of, prior to the era of 200 channels we don’t watch. I watched everything. It almost never turned off. In the mornings before school; late at night, with little or no volume. The weekends were a blur of old movies, classics or not, anything that aired within reach of our antenna.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

So, that The Woman in Black was not a dramatized murder mystery and instead was a ’40s style ghost story, was familiar, almost welcomed, territory. The review of said film is mixed. All of us go into things with preconceived notions, it’s our nature… They can work for or against you. In this case, I was pleasantly surprised, but I could understand being in the minority as this is pretty classic in its pace and level of special effects. In our gilded cages, we are accustomed to bright lights, shiny objects and over-blown special effects, especially in languishing tales of woe of the likes of Harry Potter and his friends. It seems the main character of The Woman in Black is also the lead from that movie series. It also seems that people are expecting too much of an actor struggling to free himself from type-casting.

I’m not really saying you should run out for the nearest Redbox or embark on some other pilgrimage to acquire your own copy of this movie, but given the approaching holiday, if you’d like to disturb your mate’s slumber by jumping suddenly a few times here and there, it’s not a bad way to justify it.

CAPTCHA Solved But Who Cares?

CAPTCHAAccording to Reuters, These Coders Say They Taught a Computer to Crack CAPTCHA. According to the article, the San Francisco based company, Vicarious, has developed this program as part of his larger mission. As their website says, “We’re building software that thinks and learns like a human.” What I find so remarkable about this is that this wasn’t done a long time ago.

For those of you who don’t know, CAPTCHA is an acronym that stands for, “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.” They are those pictures of distorted characters that you have to enter to, for example, post a comment on some blogs. You may have noticed that you do not need one here. This is because I’ve used them in the past and have found that they prevent absolutely no spam comments. This led me to believe that the spammers were just using programs that were able to crack the CAPTCHAs.

The truth is that I don’t see the problem with writing such a program. Imagine a simple CAPTCHA with a graphic with black letters on a white background. That should be as simple as running through the alphabet and doing a two-dimensional cross-correlation with each letter. Clearly, the more common distorted letters would be harder. But even these have standard algorithms that ought to allow one to reverse engineer them. And then increasingly, the CAPTCHAs have visual noise on them. It isn’t clear at this point just how well the Vicarious solution does with these. But often humans aren’t that good at this themselves. Here is a standard image that almost no one gets unless they are told that it is a picture of a spotted dog:

Spotted Dog

The big problem with the CAPTCHAs is not that computers can solve them. Vicarious has only approached the problem as a way to show what they can do with artificial intelligence; they aren’t trying to revolutionize the spam industry. That’s a good thing, because at this point, at least part of most spamming is done by hand. So a computer program will deposit spam on a web site and if it comes upon a CAPTCHA, it will be forwarded to a human to decipher. The article explains:

“Most CAPTCHAs now are broken by paying people in Bangladesh to do it manually,” said computer scientist Greg Mori of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, an expert on machine learning and computer vision. “For 50 cents an hour, you can get someone to break seven per minute.”

That could well be cheaper than the costs of breaking it by computer alone. My cross-correlation idea, for example, would take up a lot of cycles and a lot of real time as well.

I still don’t see what the purpose is of all the spam that I get. Absolutely none of it gets through. Almost all sites where it does get through post them with rel=”nofollow” options, so there is no search ranking increase from the link. And no one but a complete idiot would click on those links. I understand in the old days of spam email, there was effectively no cost of sending out 10 million email messages for a return on 1,000 clicks. But if Dr Mori is to be believed, then the spammers are paying a dollar for every 840 spam posts. That’s more than a tenth of a cent per posts. I just don’t see how it is worth that unless the people doing the spamming are scamming the companies that they work for.

Regardless, spammers do an enormous amount of damage to the internet for very little profit. It is the ultimate example of the tragedy of the commons. The funny thing is that despite what Ayn Rand said, people really do exhibit altruism. And most people will not pollute the entire network for the smallest of personal advantages. But in this context it really only takes one person to cause significant harm to all the others. The whole thing leaves me with very violent thoughts.


One of my favorite spam comments goes something like this, “I have a site very much like yours. Do you have much of a problem with spam? Could you tell me what plugins you use to fight this?” It is quite clever because every time I see it, for an instant I want to respond. The more standard spam is more like, “It’s difficult to find experienced people in this particular subject, but you sound like you know what you’re talking about!” This raises the question of whether they know what I am talking about. That particular comment was in reference to an April Fools post based on an article in The Onion. Yes, I am experienced in that particular field; it is no wonder I sound like I know what I’m talking about!

WTF? What a Way to Ruin a Beer!

Brew Dog Taxidermy
If you’re looking for something with a nice blend of weirdness and a package certain to catch the eyes of your guests, try getting your hands on Brewdog’s “The End of History,” a 50 percent ABV beer released in 2010 that sold for the absurd price of $765. But you weren’t just paying for potency at that price: “The End of History” was a special, limited-edition Belgian blond ale. Only 12 bottles were made, and they were all contained within the taxidermied body of a squirrel or weasel. [Read the full text here at mental_floss!]

Guess how you get the bottle into the squirrel. I hope they’re insulated, otherwise condensation will puddle up and the poor rodent will look like it’s (understandably) peeing itself.

New Democrats and the Rightward March

Bill Clinton not Republicans are Responsible for rightward shiftJoel: “Oh no, no, no! Oh, my heavens, no! No! Oh God! Oh Porgy! Oh my dear heavens, no, no, no, no, no, no, no….”

Crow: C’mon, c’mon! Read ’em all!

Joel: There’s six pages of “no’s” here, Crow!

Crow:Well, y’think that’s enough to convey the raw terror she must feel as a giant bowl of “California Cornucopia Vegetable Jubilee” slithers towards her on all fours, it’s hellish maw…[1]

That’s how I felt today reading David Atkins article, Where Did the Republican Political Acumen Go? Look, I admire Atkins; he’s a keen political observer but, “Oh, my heavens, no!”

He started by discussing what a great political machine the Republicans had in the early days of the Bush Jr administration. I agree with that. But Republicans generally have good operations when they control the White House. The Republican Party is an authoritarian group. When they have power, their army falls in line. It is only when they don’t have power that they fall to pieces.

But Atkins really lost me when he wrote, “Conservatives had forced or persuaded a Democratic president to declare the era of big government at an end, to smash welfare, to deregulate Wall Street and pass free trade agreements one after the other.” Really?! That’s not my memory of the 1990s. I’ll admit, this is a time of special focus for me since I’m working on a book that focuses on the New Democrats and their abandonment of liberalism. But still, I remember the 1992 campaign and how conservative Clinton was. I especially remember him promising to “end welfare as we have come to know it.”

So it isn’t the brilliant Republican political machine that pushed Clinton and later Obama to the right. What I would call the center right is where these men feel most comfortable. Another thing I remember from the 1990s is just how crazy the Republicans were. They are marginally worse now, but they were still crazy. Remember how Vince Foster was murdered by the Clintons? Even Ken Starr investigated it! This was mainstream stuff. The Republicans didn’t get Clinton to bend to their will; it was the other way around. Imagine what Clinton might have accomplished if he had been a real liberal!

What the Republican political operation shows is that political operations don’t mean that much. Even with a hopeless eight years, they still managed to get the White House back. (They also came close to doing it democratically!) And after all this madness, they may well get it back in 2016. They don’t need to be smart or reasonable or even disciplined. All they need is a good economic slowdown or crisis. That’s how politics works in the United States. Remember, as brilliant as Karl Rove may have been, Bush still lost the 2000 election. This is despite the fact that the unemployment rate had stopped falling and was beginning to rise. Bush should have won that election fairly easily and didn’t.

I think that David Atkins is falling for a myth. The Republicans’ lack of success in governing is not a choice. They really aren’t good at it. If they had been, they would have managed to create their conservative economic utopia in Iraq. Instead, they made a mess of it. All they’ve really been good at is continuing to exist during the dark 1960s and 1990s. Just like bad managers, if political parties stay around long enough, they will be rewarded with power. I understand the desire to look back on it and provide a narrative. But there has never been a brilliant Republican Party in my lifetime. Time in grade.

None of this should be taken as a reason for Democrats to feel safe. Quite the contrary. It means that regardless of how good a job we do, Republicans will soon be back in power. This is why the New Democrats bug me so much. Their idea was that by moving to the right, they could win elections. But just as with the Republicans, the Democrats’ time had come in 1992 and 2008. By electing a conservative Democrat in 1992, the party allowed the political landscape brought in by Carter and Reagan to ossify. Bush Jr came in and pushed things further to the right. Obama is now allowing that new normal to ossify. The problem we face is not the brilliance of the Republicans, it is the cluelessness (or simple conservatism) of the Democrats.

[1] That’s from Crow T Robot’s great screenplay, Earth Vs. Soup. Watch; enjoy; learn:

Euphemisms and the Grand Bargain Hunt

Joshu GreenLast week, Joshua Green wrote, Obama’s Top Economic Adviser Tells Democrats They’ll Have to Swallow Entitlement Cuts. He went to a Q&A session with Gene Sperling and concluded that the administration is trying to soften up the liberal base for a deal that offers entitlement cuts in exchange for Sequester cuts—no new revenue at all. There are a couple of things wrong with this.

The big thing wrong with this is that I don’t know any liberals who are actually in favor of the Grand Bargain. Maybe at one time, it wasn’t such a bad idea. But now the deal has been reduced to limiting loopholes in exchange for decreasing entitlement spending. We all know that the loopholes will quickly come back while the entitlement cuts will go on and on. So regardless of what proponents say, it is a short term tax increase in exchange for long term spending cuts. That’s a bad deal for liberals!

Now Green is pushing the idea that the White House is going to take long term entitlement cuts for nothing—or maybe a couple of years of Sequester cuts. Even I don’t think that the administration is that clueless. Instead, what seems to be happening is that Green is reading the tea leaves wrongly. I don’t know much about him, but I assume that he’s a typical upper middle class Washington reporter who really wishes to see entitlement cuts. You know what they say: wish in one hand…

But my reason for even talking about this is a comment that Green quoted from White House spokesman Amy Brundage in response to Sperling’s comment, “Gene was reiterating what our position has been all along: that any big budget deal is going to have to include significant revenues if Republicans insist on entitlement reforms.” I really hate the euphemisms. And even more, I hate how they favor the conservative reading of what’s going on.

The word “revenues” is not really wrong. But it has been used so often as a euphemism for “taxes” that I think people get the wrong idea. Again: these would simply be the elimination of loopholes, not new taxes. This is then contrasted with “entitlement reform,” which is the biggest euphemism this side of “collateral damage.” No one is talking about reform. We are talking cuts—pure and simple.

What we ought to be asking is this, “Are you willing to exchange the rich having their taxes go up by a very small amount for a couple of years in exchange for having your Social Security cut each year of your retirement?” In fact, as bad as that “deal” sounds, it is even worse. Chained-CPI would also throw more and more lower and middle class people in higher tax brackets going forward. So many people of modest means would see their taxes go up. What a brilliant idea that would be. Conservatives would clearly love it, but I don’t see what is there for liberals at all.

What Joshua Green is offering up is even worse than this. But like most Washington reporters, I doubt he’s thought much about it. In the group he runs with, there are all kinds of things people know that just ain’t so. And that’s the basis of “objective” reporting!

Curing Polio and the Worthless Rich

Jonas SalkOn this day in 1902, the great actor Elsa Lanchester was born. In a career spanning 55 years, she made almost 100 films. A lot of people will know her from countless supporting roles like Mrs MacDougall, the nosy neighbor in That Darn Cat! But I have a crush on her for playing Mary Shelley and the Monster’s Bride in Bride of Frankenstein. She has that wonderful break in her teeth that is just adorable. But of course, she was so much more. Check her out in this great Dick Cavett interview. She’s charming in addition to everything else.

The actor Jack Soo was born in 1917. He is best known for being the very best part of one of the great sitcoms, Barney Miller. Here is the first part of the retrospective the show did after he died:

Bill Gates is 58 today. Along with Steve Jobs, he is the favorite example conservatives offer up as entrepreneurs. In a sense, they are right. But I don’t see it as a good thing. I’ve watched over the last 40 years as both men did far more to limit innovation than they did to produce it. And that’s what capitalism is all about. In general, innovation is hard. Most people don’t have that much in them. But a big corporation like Microsoft or Apple has more than it needs to crush the innovation that comes out of smaller companies. I’m not saying that Gates is an evil man. But he certainly has far more wealth than he deserves. And even more important, he should not be offered up as an example of an innovator who has helped society. There is not a single major innovation that we have Bill Gates (even indirectly) to thank for.

Other birthdays: costume designer Edith Head (1897); the great writer Evelyn Waugh (1903); the great painter Francis Bacon (1909); musician Charlie Daniels (1936); athlete Bruce Jenner (64); actor Annie Potts (61); actor Andy Richter (47); actor Julia Roberts (46); singer-songwriter Ben Harper (44); and actor Joaquin Phoenix (39).

On most days, this would be Elsa Lanchester’s. The day, however, belongs to the great virologist Jonas Salk who was born in 1914. I’m fascinated by diseases that were once so devastating but now are largely a thing of the past. One of the big ones is polio—even affecting the most famous 20th century American president. Salk (along with his own group of researchers and eventually thousands of others) developed the first successful polio vaccine. It was one of the great scientific triumphs of the 20th century.

Salk stands as the ultimate symbol for scientific greatness. He did work that helped millions of people. And just as important, he did not do it for profit. When Edward R. Murrow asked him, “Who owns this patent?” Salk famously replied, “No one. Could you patent the sun?” Of course, that didn’t stop his funder, National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (later The March of Dimes), looking into patenting it. But Salk seemed to have no interest.

Happy birthday Jonas Salk!

LA Times Stands Up for Reason

Climate Change Is a HoaxI learned from The Young Turks this evening that the Los Angeles Times will no longer be publishing letters from climate change deniers. My already high opinion of that paper just went up even further. Let me explain this from my perspective. My PhD is more or less in global warming. That is what all the physics and chemistry that we did went to understanding. So even though I no longer do the work, I understand it really well. What’s more, when I did work in the field, I was highly skeptical. I tend to be a believer in the Gaia hypothesis and it seemed very strange to me that the earth’s climate system could be so easily disrupted.

But that’s a whole different kind of skeptic than we find today. For one thing, the science wasn’t nearly as nailed down 20 years ago. We were looking for additions to the science, not holes in it. In particular, we were looking for negative feedback loops. Today, even the most serious skeptics are little more than charlatans. Those who even pretend to be doing science cherry pick data to make their cases. In other words, they aren’t doing anything like science. Science does not work this way: get an idea; ignore all data that contradicts idea; idea is right!

The problem is so much worse with lay people. They constantly mention things I’ve never even heard. “Oh, such and such, has proven that ice core temperature records are wrong!” Oh really? And how exactly is that? Well, they never know. It’s just the latest thing they’ve heard on Fox News or hate oriented radio (HOR). So it requires me to go actually look for whatever they are talking about. In the vast majority of cases it is from The Heartland Institute. Now that in itself is interesting. As late as 1994, Heartland was pushing the idea that secondhand smoke had no negative health consequences. Today, they are one of the biggest purveyors of quack climate science. Just like with cigarettes, there will never be any convincing them because they don’t do science. They are in the propaganda profession. Eventually, they will drop global warming denial just like they eventually dropped the cigarette-cancer link denial.

But regardless where the “research” comes from, most of the time it doesn’t even say what I’ve been told. A great example of this is tree ring temperature records. There was a lot of commotion about the fact that two independent records didn’t match where they overlapped. Tree rings are not a great source of temperature records. You don’t get absolute temperatures; you just get relative temperatures. So it isn’t surprising that two different investigators would have an offset between their data. Does this mean the data are useless? Not at all. It just means the two sets have to be reconciled and then they work just fine if you want to look at temperature trends. What scientists studying global warming want to do is look at temperature trends. Regardless, when there is an actual data set it is either (1) an outlier of many different sets that show something else entirely or (2) misinterpreted by the “scientist” (most likely willfully misinterpreted).

So the Los Angeles Times is right to refuse to print letters from these lay people. It isn’t just that they are wrong. None of these people think about this stuff. If a Los Angeles Times reader is writing in, all they will be doing is repeating something they heard Rush Limbaugh say the day before. It has been many years since people on that side of this issue have seriously thought about it. Anyway, if you want to read climate change denial, you can just buy the Washington Post and read George Will.


Here is The Young Turks segment: