Odds and Ends Vol 9

Odds and EndsI really don’t know why I do these other than that I kind of like the “Odds and Ends” graphic. But most of these could have been a full article. Or I could just do one of these a day and relax the rest of the day.

Well, now that I think of it, only a couple of these actually seem interesting enough to do a whole article about. The main thing is that I try to do shorter takes here. Today is a bit of a mixed bag. There is some politics from the last two days and then just some “fun” stuff. I’m sure it will be worth the price!

  1. Canadian Healthcare Debate: This is interesting. Dr Danielle Martin from Toronto was testifying before the Senate Health Subcommittee about the differences between the Canadian and American healthcare system. That’s Bernie Sanders’ subcommittee. The ranking Republican is Richard Burr, who, like most conservatives, will never believe anything but that America has the Greatest Healthcare System in the World™. He is very big at throwing out anecdotal evidence. But of course no one questions that America has as good a healthcare system as any in the world if money is no object. One would hope for better from and for America.

    Also in the video is Sally Pipes of the Pacific Research Institute. PRI is a “free market” think tank that has been pushing medical savings accounts from at least since I started graduate school 24 years ago, when I saw a presentation by one of their people. Their interest is not creating a good healthcare system but rather creating a passable system that is in alignment with their anti-government philosophy. Sally Pipes is nothing but a talking point fount who is usually arguing any way she can against Obamacare. It’s very simple: Obamacare is the free market healthcare reform. The fact that she argues against it indicates that she doesn’t want any healthcare reform. Not that I would ever expect her to admit that.

    But Pipes is a small part of this video. Most of it involves Martin. My favorite part of the exchange is when Burr asks her, “On average, how many Canadian patients on a waiting list die each year? Do you know?” Martin replies, “I don’t, sir, but I know that there are 45,000 in America who die waiting because they don’t have insurance at all.” Ouch!

  2. Historical Jesus: Regular readers know my position on the historical Jesus: if he ever existed, he is now so covered over by myth that the actual man is lost. So the fact that there is a whole industry of books and lectures on the historical Jesus strikes me as silly. The most recent notable work is Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I’m afraid that such books really only speak to the author and his times. But that’s not surprising. Regardless of what the fundamentalists think, religions evolve and that’s how something like Christianity manages to still speak to people after two thousand years.

    One bit of Jesus historicity is very good. That is the push back against the idea that Jesus was some blond hair and blue eyed man who looks more like Odin’s son than a Jewish carpenter. (By the way: the Bible never actually says that Jesus was a carpenter.) About 15 years ago, some anthropologists put together an image of Jesus for a BBC program. Now, this is not a picture of Jesus, but rather a picture of roughly what Jewish men in Nazareth looked like two thousand years ago. This is now the image I use when thinking about Jesus:

    Anthropologist Rendering of Jesus
  3. Weird State Things: On Huffington Post I saw the following click bait headline, The 1 Weirdest Thing You Never Knew About Your Home State. (Was that “1” really necessary?) But since I’m a total sucker for click bait, I clicked over. In this particular case, I clicked because I was pretty certain that whatever they were going to say about California was very well known to me. Indeed: “Hollywood was initially founded to escape Thomas Edison.” I think this is common knowledge, but I might be wrong. Sadly, the article made no mention of the fact that it shows how patents largely reduce creative output. If Edison had been able to rigorously exploit his patents (As he would in modern America!) the development of film as a great entertainment medium would have taken far longer.

    I also knew a few other state secrets. For example, “Every year, a town [in Colorado] celebrates a frozen dead guy.” Of course I know that! The event gets a lot of coverage and I try to stay up on all the latest news about frozen dead guys. Similarly, “Lobster was once so abundant in this state [Massachusetts] that it was given to slaves and prisoners.” I knew that because I have read David Foster Wallace’s great essay “Consider the Lobster.” And really, doesn’t everyone know about South Carolina’s Rhesus monkey island? But somehow I hadn’t heard that they were being bread for lab testing. That takes the shine off that particular fact.

    Many of the “weird things” are trivial. Consider: “The terrain of the entire state [of Kansas] is actually scientifically proven to be flatter than a pancake.” Actually, I’m pretty sure that others states are too. Pancakes are not that flat. Other “weird things” are not really indicative of the state. Consider: “A Minnesota father would only speak to his son in the Star Trek language of Klingon for the first three years of the child’s life.” Yes, there are kooks all over. Hell, there are Star Trek kooks all over! And then some aren’t even true. Consider: “The residents of a small fishing island [of Virginia] still talk in a dialect closely resembling ‘Restoration English.'” This is a common linguistic myth; people throw an occasional “ye” in their conversation and the Yankees think they’re Shakespeare.

    Still, you should probably click over. Some of the information really is important. Did you know Nevada has an Area 51-themed brothel? Or this:

    Boring Oregon City
  4. Ezra’s Folly: After a string of notably straight white male hires, Ezra Klein has been trying to add a bit of diversity to his Vox Media project. And his newest hire is getting a lot of attention, although not in a good way. Hired as a “writing fellow,” it is not exactly clear what Brandon Ambrosino will do for the project. But as a graduate of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, he is known for being a gay man who writes apologetics for anti-gay causes and groups. For example, after Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty equated homosexuality with bestiality, Ambrosino wrote that he would still like to go fishing with the homophobic and racist older man.

    Gabriel Arana provides an excellent rundown of the problems with Ambrosino in The American Prospect, Ezra Klein’s Queer New Hire. It focuses not on Ambrosino’s opinions, but rather his incompetence:

    Gay intellectuals like Andrew Sullivan or Jonathan Rauch may occasionally ruffle queer folks’ feathers for going against the grain when it comes to hate-crime laws, say, or the right of for-profit businesses to turn away gay customers. But Ambrosino should not be thought of in this mold. Whereas Sullivan’s and Rauch’s positions are thoughtfully staked out and stem from nuanced views about the role of government, Ambrosino’s iconoclasm amounts to heedless self-promotion. His gross distortions of mainstream gay views and stunning lack of fluency in the basic language of gay equality reveals him to be little but a feckless provocateur. His mischaracterization of 20th-century philosopher Michel Foucault—Ambrosino warps the philosopher’s idea that sexuality is a “social construct” to justify his view that gays choose their sexuality—has gotten him called out by academics. But his use of nonsensical phrases like “intersexed crossdressers” (intersexuality, a medical condition, has nothing to do with cross-dressing) and penchant for referring to transsexualism as a “sexual choice” (it’s not about sexuality) show that his lack of familiarity with his subject matter runs even deeper.

    A similar appraisal is offered by Mark Joseph Stern of Slate, Vox‘s Unbelievably Terrible New Hire:

    Yet Ambrosino’s main problem is not that he defends homophobia; The New York Times‘ Ross Douthat does that too, but at least Douthat’s views arise from real intelligence and conviction. Ambrosino’s worldview, so far as he has one, is primarily comprised of crass opportunism and toxic narcissism. His writing is a quagmire of tedious ideas and sloppy prose; his angry jabs at the LGBTQ community reek of a writer legitimizing his insecurities by presenting them to an audience that should know better. A typical Ambrosino article takes a self-consciously contrarian thesis (Jerry Falwell was a gay-friendly saint, gay-rights activists are bigots) and immerses it in a muddle of casuistry, victimization, and unintelligible nonsense. On first read, his pieces aren’t infuriating so much as they are baffling: Ambrosino ignores the basic principles of journalism and simply spews free-form argle-bargle, as though he’s swinging a bat at a pinata that’s hanging from a different tree.

    Klein responded that he is still learning about hiring. I tend to think it doesn’t play to his strengths. Time will tell. Whenever I hear discussions of “new media” I always think of the same thing: click baiting. And that seems to be all that is really behind the Ambrosino hire.

  5. Andrea and Phil: Last week, Andrea recommended that I watch Phil the Alien. Even though I do think she has good taste in films, I’m usually more excited to see films she really hates. But she thought that I would particularly like this one. And I did! How could I not? It has a beaver puppet and Joe Flaherty does the voice. But I did make the mistake of saying that I thought the script was weak and she has not been willing to let it go.

    For the record: the screenplay seems very much like an unfinished draft. It is filled with lose ends and generally isn’t tight. And the problems are fairly extreme. I think it is at least two drafts from being finished. But that doesn’t make it bad. There are lots of things to like about it. At first Phil becomes a drunk. When this lands him in jail, he becomes a Christian, using his special powers to convert people. It has plenty of funny bits in the middle of all that. But it ends about as abruptly as it starts. It’s worth a viewing but not much more.

  6. UFOs: And finally, here’s a sketch from That Mitchell and Webb Look that points out most of what is absurd about the “government hiding alien crash” conspiracies:

Well, that’s all for now. My best guess: tomorrow will be very much like today.

Imaginative Power and Percival Lowell

Percival LowellToday is one of those days when this year’s birthday posts with a single-person focus is hard because there are a number of cool people who I would like to talk about . There is, for example, cartoonist Al Jaffee, the Mad legend. Then there is the great comedy writer and creator of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, David Nobbs. And the surprisingly heterosexual songwriter Neil Sedaka is 75 today. But it is also the birthday of someone even more interesting—at least to me, today.

On this day in 1855, Percival Lowell was born. Now, let me say up front: he was a good astronomer. But there have been a lot of good astronomers and we don’t know their names. Lowell is known for some bad work that he did over a very long period of time. For fifteen years, he sat at his telescope looking at Mars, cataloging its canals. And these were no normal formations: Lowell was very clear that they could only have been created by an advanced intelligence.

The problem is that the advanced intelligence that created the canals were on the opposite end of the telescope from what he thought. There were no canals, natural or artificial, on Mars. No one really knows what Lowell saw, but the canals were nothing more than his own creation. To me, it’s very simple though. The human brain is little more than a pattern recognition system. If you look at noise for long enough, you will start to see patterns. This is why conspiracy theories become more believable the more you study them.

Lowell also spent years studying nonexistent features on the surface of Venus. But his career was far from a failure. He built an important observatory. And as Wikipedia puts it, “[H]is practice of building observatories at the position where they would best function has been adopted as a principle.” Astronomy is a greater science because of him.

Happy birthday Percival Lowell!

Three Levels of Political Pessimism

Capital in the Twenty-First CenturyDean Baker has written a very interesting review of Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I mean “interesting” in a neutral way: it is notable to see Baker so optimistic. It is probably due to his iconoclastic tendencies. He just has to take a contrary position. And based upon the review, he was forced to be at least somewhat optimistic, because Piketty’s book sounds like a real downer!

Of course, that doesn’t mean he is wrong. His thesis is that based upon the historical trends, income inequality will get ever worse. Piketty’s work with Emmanuel Saez on the income distribution of the very richest people are key to this. Baker has nothing but praise for this work. His problem is with Piketty’s proposed solutions such as a wealth tax. Baker thinks these are very unlikely to happen, although Piketty is in agreement on that. Baker, however, sees politically viable solutions as he documented in his last solo book, The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. These involve things like limiting intellectual property rights and taxing financial transactions.

All of these ideas are really good, and The End of Loser Liberalism is free for your phone, so you really should go and read it. I’m entirely in agreement with Baker that these are incredibly good ideas. Where I differ from him is in that I don’t see limiting patent protections as distinctly more possible than a wealth tax. For example, Baker wrote:

In the past, progressive change advanced by getting some segment of capitalists to side with progressives against retrograde sectors. In the current context this likely means getting large segments of the business community to beat up on financial capital.

It sounds nice: divide and conquer. But I don’t see this past time when some segment of capitalists sided with progressives. I think the times that he is talking about owed a huge debt to strong unions. There is nothing like that on which to build. What’s more, there seems to be more solidarity among the rich than there ever has been. And there is less among the poor. “Divide and conquer” is working, just not against the rich.

The big problem that I see is that we simply don’t live in a democracy. A financial transaction tax is very popular with actual voters. But it isn’t on offer from any major politician. That’s because before any people get to vote, the rich get to vote on who the people get to vote for. No politician with Bake ideas, much less Piketty ideas, will ever get the money to be a viable candidate. And given that I think that, I guess I’m even more pessimistic than Piketty.

Update (13 March 2014 2:05 pm)

Eduardo Porter wrote a great sorta review over at The New York Times, A Relentless Widening of Disparity in Wealth. In it he sums up something that Piketty said, “The holders of wealth, hardly a powerless bunch, will oppose any such move, even if that’s what is needed to preserve capitalism against the populist impulses of those left behind.” This is an argument I’ve been making a long time: the rich are shortsighted and so greedy they will never give up a little to keep their wealth safe. Look at what’s happened with their spokesmen: the Republican Party. At a time when the rich are doing better than ever, the demands are more extreme than ever. It’s like they want a revolution.

Update (13 March 2014 2:32 pm)

Eduardo Porter also has an interview at The New York Times that is really worth reading, Q&A: Thomas Piketty on the Wealth Divide.

Better Than English

Better Than English

Almost two years ago, I wrote an article, Pena Ajena! It was based upon an article, 25 Handy Words That Simply Don’t Exist In English. The title of my article refers to a Mexican Spanish phrase. Literally it means “grief of others,” but idiomatically it means, “The embarrassment you feel watching someone else’s humiliation.” I love this stuff, because you not only learn interesting things about language, you also learn something about cultures. For example, I think it is telling that the Mexicans give us “pena ajena” while the Germans give us “backpfeifengesicht” (a face in need of being punched) and “schadenfreude” (the pleasure felt at others’ pain).

It turns out that there is a whole website for this, Better Than English. And it is great. For one thing, the definitions are generally better than one expects from such websites (for example, Urban Dictionary). Its definition of “pena ajena” is, “Shame experienced on behalf of another person, even though that person may not experience shame.” I love the addition that the subject may not be experiencing the shame.

But it goes further than just the definitions. The comments are invaluable. For example, I learned that there is a similar Portuguese phrase, “vergonha alheia,” literally meaning “shame others.” And a different Spanish phrase, “verguenza ajena,” which literally means the same thing. And even the Germans who I unfairly vilify have such a word, as reported by commenter Daniel:

The very same thing: In German there’s a slang verb called fremdschamen as opposed to the regular schamen (to feel ashamed). Fremd translates to foreign.

And then commenter Chris sends us to a word coined by Terence McKenna: “Fardow.” He defines it as, “The embarrassment you feel when someone else fucks up and you just happen to be there…”

The website is set up as a blog, and there seems to be something new there every couple of days. Unlike the increasingly useless Urban Dictionary, it isn’t a free-for-all. So you aren’t going to end up fifty slightly different definitions for the same word because the users can’t be bothered to check if a word is already in the database. Along these same lines, the comments are generally very good—generally discussing the words or phrases in other languages. I didn’t see any trolling or other obnoxious behavior.

For a word freak, the site is a whole lot of fun. I just learned the Basque word “Erdera.” It means, “Any language that is not Basque.” Now that is something you would think Americans would have a word for!

H/T: Andrea English

Same Old Lesson for Dems in FL-13

Dave WeigelDavid Weigel continues to be essential reading every day, but “bleeding heart libertarianism” seems to have morphed into old fashioned non-crazy conservatism these days. That’s not too surprising, given that libertarians are, regardless of the number of holes in their hearts, conservatives. It is all based upon the conceit of their personal power and the delusion that they aren’t entirely dependent upon their communities. See, for example, Weigel’s total whitewash of Paul Ryan’s recent racist remarks, Paul Ryan Accused of Racism for Suggesting That There’s Endemic Poverty in Inner Cities. So I wasn’t shocked when Weigel seemed to take a certain delight in Alex Sink’s defeat to David Jolly in the Florida 13th District special election.

But that doesn’t mean that he isn’t as insightful as ever. Yesterday, he wrote, Hey, Democrats! This Election Will Make You Feel Less Sad About FL-13. Actually, the article itself is a confused jumble. But his point is clear enough: it’s the turnout, stupid. As he noted:

I should admit that smart analysts predicted the result with one number. Two-hundred thousand. If that many ballots showed up in FL-13, Democrats were hitting their turnout models and winning the race. If fewer, they were losing. There were about 180,000 votes cast in the race, and the Democrats lost.

And then he goes on to document a number of elections (Not one!) where the Democrats invested in turnout and won. We liberals have long known this. In fact, I have long argued that turnout is the only thing that matters and that Democrats should stop going after what are mostly mythical “swing” voters.

What did strike me in the article, however, was the tone that Weigel set in talking about this. And this is largely the reason for my tone here. For example, he wrote, “They won… But barely.” It’s a though he is trying to make a larger point that his Republican friends aren’t that unpopular. But they are.

What’s more, he seems to be implying that that Democrats aren’t aware that they have an difficult task getting out their voters in off year and special elections. I would say that the Democrats are doing well when they even make such races competitive. (Weigel pooh-poohs this idea as it relates to the FL-13 election.) All I can think is that Weigel is falling for the recent libertarian rhetoric coming out of the Republican Party these days. And all I can say is, “Good luck with that!” Libertarian rhetoric leads to old fashioned anti-individual conservatism.

But the bottom line is clear enough. The Democrats have to spend a lot more money on turnout. That is the key to Democratic electoral success. And that should be clear to everyone, even libertarians. Because when I was a libertarian, I was painfully aware just how unpopular my philosophy was. It’s nice to now have a political philosophy where I cheer for more people to vote.