The Hopes and Dreams of the Little Blog

Frankly CuriousIt seems like only yesterday that Frankly Curious published its 2,000th article. (It wasn’t; it was almost two years ago.) We are now well over 5,000 articles. What’s more, the articles are much longer now. In the early days, articles were often very short. And then there is this thing since I moved over to Word Press. It tells me how many words I’ve written, and that tends to make me shoot for 500 words — the Frankly Curious standard. But I often find myself well over double that. What am I gonna do? I have a lot to say.

This comes up because I was thinking of writing an article about the ridiculousness of the libertarian argument against labor unions. I will probably get to that soon, but I was thinking, “Didn’t I write about that before?” Well, the truth is, I can’t find that I have written about it, which is odd given that it is something that really bugged me even when I was a libertarian. (As a libertarian, I was a huge supporter of labor unions — strong labor unions were the only way libertarianism could ever work.) But what if I had? It isn’t like it would be just a rehash of the older article. And it isn’t like I had anywhere near as many readers before as I have now.

But what is the purpose of this blog? I know I write these articles from time to time. But I really am trying to figure it out. As you should have noticed, there is now a “Morning Music” post. It took me exactly three days for it to get totally out of hand. The idea was just that I was going post some video that I thought was interesting. But it couldn’t stay at that — no. Now I have to go on and on about what I think is interesting. For example, I have one coming up about Michael Penn’s minor hit, “No Myth.” And I swear, I get 500 words out of talking about Wuthering Heights.

So I seem to have set up another trap for myself. Now, instead of five posts per day, it is six. And there are three set ones: the birthday post, the quotation, and the music post. But here is the interesting thing: they are actually the easiest ones to write. I know I have to create them, so there is no question of whether I should or shouldn’t write them. The hardest part about writing any article is starting it. Actually, of the three, the quotations are the hardest, because I have to find something that is interesting without my commenting on it.

This means that I have three articles per day that I consider “real.” And by “real,” I mean hard. They are article that generally require that I read a lot about what’s going on and look for something that I think is worth writing about. And then that leads to reading what other people are writing about. And this usually results in what I think is my best work here. Most especially, I think my best work is about economics, because that’s an area where I think I have the perfect level of knowledge (low but not zero) to get across complicated issues. But in general, no one is interested in these articles. Which is fine.

The question remains: do people like this? That’s a rhetorical question — don’t feel the need to chime in. But if you think it sucks, please let me know. It isn’t likely to change anything. The addition of “Morning Music” is part of my broader attempt to make Frankly Curious a destination site. This isn’t as loony a thought as it might sound. The number of people who come directly to the home page is way up over the last year. I want this to be a place where people can come every day and know that there will probably be something that they’ll find vaguely interesting. And it provides my life with structure that I badly need.


Speaking of structure, this is currently the publishing schedule of Frankly Curious:

12:05 am - Birthday Post
06:05 am - Morning Music
08:05 am - General Post (usually politics)
11:05 am - General Post (usually politics)
02:05 pm - Quotation
05:05 pm - General Post (hopefully not politics)

I’m thinking of moving the birthday post to 5:05 am. There’s a technical reason for that. I rather like it going up after midnight.

Reporters are Not Economically Liberal

Eric AltermanAlso, lest we forget, journalists are not entirely immune to the seductions of affluence. While they are not nearly as well paid as the nation’s corporate, legal, or medical elite, high-level Washington and New York journalists do make considerably more money than most Americans. They have spouses who do too, and hence, live pretty well. According to a study conducted by the sociologist David Croteau, 95 percent of elite journalists’ households earned more than $50,000 a year, and 31 percent earned more than $150,000. He points out, “High levels of income tend to be associated with conservative views on economic issues such as tax policy and federal spending.” And journalists are no different. The journalists’ views on economic matters are generally consistent with their privileged position on the socioeconomic ladder, and, hence, well to the right of most Americans. They are more sympathetic to corporations, less sympathetic to government-mandated social programs, and far more ideologically committed to free trade than to the protection of jobs than are their fellow citizens.

—Eric Alterman
What Liberal Media?

The Strongest Argument Against King v Burwell

Nicholas BagleyOn Monday, Nicholas Bagley over at The Incidental Economist wrote, Fifty Shades of Wrong. He’s a little different from most of the people over there in that he isn’t a doctor; he’s a lawyer who specializes in issues related to health. So it’s a good idea to keep up with him, especially these days of the never ending flood of anti-Obamacare lawsuits. Of course, you always have to be careful in listening to what legal scholars say about the law in regard to Obamacare because they can only speak to the law and its traditions. They can’t speak as well to the ideological madness that lives inside the conservatives on the Supreme Court.

This article is in reference to a recent academic article in the University of Miami Business Law Review, Anomalies in the Affordable Care Act that Arise from Reading the Phrase “Exchange Established by the State” Out of Context (pdf). It was written by Timothy Stoltzfus Jost of Washington and Lee University and James Engstrand, a practicing attorney. And it takes on the case in King v Burwell in a very interesting way.

The base of the case is that there is one sentence in the healthcare law that seems to imply that subsidies are only available to state run exchanges — not federally run exchanges. To many people, this seems to be a smoking gun — even to many liberals. But it has been noted that there are other parts of the law that imply just as strongly that the subsidies are to be provided to purchasers regardless of what kind of exchange they use. To me, that’s a very compelling counterargument. The truth of the matter is that in any sufficiently complicated document, there will be inconsistencies and contradictions. (See, for example, Sancho’s disappearing donkey in Don Quixote.) The fact that the plaintiffs have found one — and only one — example of a contradiction does not mean that the proper reading of the law is that one sentence.

Unfortunately, I find myself unable to read the article itself. This is strange, because I’m pretty good at reading scientific papers in fields far outside my own. But the lawyers have their own thing going on. I get the gist of it. But it is too fine-grained for me. So I’ll have to depend upon Bagley’s summary. Basically, what the authors are arguing is that if the Supreme Court finds for the plaintiffs, it will be introducing “at least fifty” anomalies into the law. (Hence the title of Bagley’s article.) In other words, in the name of fixing on inconsistency, the court will be creating far more new ones.

I agree with Bagley’s conclusion:

Jost and Engstrand are on exactly the right track: they’re building a statutory case, premised on the text of the ACA as a whole, in favor of the government’s interpretation… As it stands, the meticulousness of their examination is unmatched. Let’s hope the Supreme Court takes notice.

That last sentence is the killer though. I really want to believe that after all the information that has come out since the Supreme Court took the case, that King v Burwell will go down in flames, nine to zero. It’s my hope that at this point, the conservatives are thinking that they kind of embarrassed themselves in even taking the case. But at the appellate court level, conservative judges have seemed quite willing to find on behalf of the plaintiffs for no other reason than that they just don’t like Obamacare. If there is anything that the last 15 years should have taught us, it is that the judicial system in this country is every bit as political as the United States Congress.

But this information does give me confidence. And I am hopeful that Obamacare will squeak out a 5-4 decision. And if it does, it will be fascinating to see how the conservative justices tie themselves in legal knots — go against almost everything they’ve ever said in the past — to justify why it doesn’t matter what the total law says — only what one sentence says that happens to lead to the conclusion they want.

Rats Exonerated for Black Death

Black Rat Eating With Its HandsVindication! The European black rat, long blamed for the Black Death and for later waves of plague, has been exonerated. The real culprit, it seems, is the gerbil with its “cute” tail. Ha! All you rat haters out there can suck it! Not that I dislike gerbils. They are wonderful. I am fond of all my fellow mammals. But rats have been vilified for too long. And why?

Well, I will tell you why people don’t like them: rats don’t have much hair on their tails. Really. That’s it. That is how superficial we humans are. And in the case of black rats, there is the color too. People really do not like black pets nearly as much. I assume this is true of wild animals as well.

There is a new study out in Proceedings of the National Academy Sciences that looked at climate data as it applies to the question. Brad Plumer at Vox provided the details, Scientists Now Suspect Gerbils Were the Real Villains in the Black Death — Not Rats:

Earlier research has suggested that the optimal weather for rat-driven plague outbreaks in Europe would have been warm and somewhat dry summers. But that created a problem: the plague data and climate data don’t line up — it didn’t seem likely that rats in Europe were the ones driving the repeated plague outbreaks. (As further evidence, past studies have found that rats were often absent from plague centers in northern Europe.)

Typical. Why did we think that it was rats, anyway? I don’t think there was ever much reason to think it other than that people see rats and they noticed that they got around a lot on ships. And they have ugly tails. Hence: it’s gotta be rats! But the same climate data makes it looks like the great gerbil is responsible. I should note, it is a rather large animal that look more like a squirrel or a chipmunk. It is not the cute little animal that we so often see on YouTube getting baths. That isn’t to say they aren’t adorable too.

Great GerbilThe real culprit, of course, are the fleas. And it isn’t like the rats weren’t carrying the infected fleas on them. The problem seems to be that the plague was even more devastating to rat populations than it was to humans. So rats are not only not the culprit — they are one of the primary victims of the plague. So put that in your pipe and smoke it, you rat haters!

Out in the big bad world, wild animals are, well, wild. In general, wild rats behave the way we expect social animals to behave. They aren’t perfect but then neither are humans. But I have actual experience with pet (fancy) rats. And they are wonderful creatures. I’ve never been around a hamster who didn’t bite. I’ve never been around a rat who did. They are wonderful pets. This is what Wikipedia has to say about rat social behavior (emphasis mine):

Rats are generally very friendly to other cage mates, particularly with females. They will even sometimes help or take care of other sick rats

Unless there is an issue integrating rats together, owners should endeavor to house rats in pairs as they are incredibly sociable creatures. It’s important that Rats are continually entertained.

Why are rats not as beloved as dogs? The Black Death is certainly part of the problem. I hope this research helps. But I would hate it if the gerbil becomes the scapegoat. As I said, it is the flea — which doubtless killed lots of gerbils too. And even the flea has no moral culpability. It isn’t like humans who knowingly drive other species to extinction.

But ultimately, I think the Black Death association is more a result of the low esteem we hold rats. Ultimately, it is that damned tail. Beauty is only skin deep — just like humans.

Morning Music: Gwen Verdon & Bob Fosse

Gwen VerdonAfter my rant about the Academy Awards a couple of days ago, I got to thinking about Bob Fosse. And as I was making my way around YouTube watching dance numbers, I came upon this great one from Damn Yankees, “Who’s Got the Pain.” It is interesting in that it actually features Fosse and his future wife, Gwen Verdon. Verdon was a Broadway legend. During the six years from 1954 through 1959, she won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical four times. To me, she looks like Shirley MacLaine, which is interesting because Verdon starred in Sweet Charity on Broadway. Anyway, here she is with Fosse doing Fosse’s choreography:

Birthday Post: Carlo Goldoni

Carlo GoldoniOn this day in 1707, the great playwright Carlo Goldoni was born. Carlo who? It is one of the great shames of English language theater that we’ve had Shakespeare crammed down our throats to the exclusion even of his more daring contemporaries. I literally cannot remember how many times I’ve seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the stage and the screen. How many times have I seen Hamlet? Lots. Macbeth? Lots. Much Ado about Nothing? Richard III? Twelfth Night? Lots. Lots. Lots. I could go on. And this is not a condemnation of Shakespeare; this is a condemnation of us.

But if Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton get neglected in the English speaking world, it is nothing compared to the treatment of non-English speaking playwrights. The Shakespeare scholar Gary Taylor wrote, “We assume that Shakespeare’s thirty-odd plays contain more of humanity than the five hundred plays of Lope de Vega we have not read.” Goldoni has received better treatment — probably because he wrote a century and a half later and he wrote in Italian — I think there is a little more prejudice against the Spanish than the Italians.

Like Lope de Vega, Carlo Goldoni wrote comedies. It makes sense. As Philip Henslowe says in Shakespeare in Love, “It’s comedy they want, Will… Love, and a bit with a dog. That’s what they want.” If you look at the chronology of Shakespeare’s plays, you will see that the tragedies are much more common at the end of his career. And they tend to be performed more now because actors and directors want to do them, rather than that audiences want to see them.

Carlo Goldoni was also extremely prolific. He wrote roughly 150 plays, and over 50 opera libretti. His best known play is, Il Servitore di Eue Padroni. It has actually gotten quite a bit of (relative) attention in English under the name, Servant of Two Masters. It is kind of like Twelfth Night, but the focus of the play is on Truffaldino Battochio, a servant who is always hungry and so takes on two masters simultaneously to hilarious effect. You can see a very good high school production that just makes me weep for the idea that America is a meritocracy. Just look at the sets and the costumes and ask if Richmond High School could ever do anything like it, despite the fact that it certainly has as much raw talent.

Happy birthday Carlo Goldoni!