Matryoshka Doll Ultrasound

Matryoshka Doll Ultrasound

I found this cartoon over at The Incidental Economist, Matryoshka Ultrasound. Austin Frakt over there loves this kind of thing. He has a good sense of humor. And this is clever. We have a Matryoshka — Russian nesting doll — getting an ultrasound and it is creating an infinite regression. It’s charming. But it bugs me.

Unlike most people, I’ve had a lot of ultrasounds. I wasn’t pregnant. They were of my heart. And they were painful, because for whatever reason, the tech seemed to think that it was necessary to push down with all her strength — despite the fact that I weighted just 100 pounds and there was basically no flesh to push through. So I’ve been in the position of that doll — looking at the screen and seeing what was bouncing off my innards.

Given this experience, perhaps you can forgive my pedantry. Or just cluelessness. I don’t really know. Maybe I’m missing something. But I think it is more likely that I’m over-thinking it. So here goes: there would not be an infinite regression. There is no doctor doing an ultrasound on the doll inside her. And even if there were, he wouldn’t be in that position, because there isn’t enough space!

Yes, yes, yes: pedant! But I could go further. I could note that an ultrasound does not provide a picture of your entire insides. Look at the size of that device! And we are talking about the entire inside of her. That’s the thing about the Matryoshka doll: they fit tightly together. If they didn’t, then it would be just a doll with a bunch of crap in it. Also: isn’t this very wasteful in a world of limited healthcare resources? Couldn’t the doctor just have asked any 5-year-old girl what was inside of this doll? Also: Matryoshka dolls are generally the same shape but not the same decorations. Ha! Answer that, cartoonist! (It’s by the brilliant cartoonist at The New Yorker Paul Noth.)

But here’s what I think is really interesting: if the cartoon were done “right,” it would still be funny. It would consist of only the doll on the screen. But that’s still funny. What does she have inside of her? A smaller version of herself. I get that the cartoonist wants to get across the idea that there are many versions of her inside her. But it just doesn’t seem worth the bother of putting a doctor outside ever doll. Yeah, yeah, yeah: universes inside universes — that pug in Men in Black. But that’s not what Matryoshka dolls are!


It bothered me when I was a kid that the Matryoshka dolls didn’t regress forever. My mathematical sensibilities made me want to see an endless number of dolls. I wasn’t happy with the practical limits of the toy.

Lucky Dragon 5 and the Hydrogen Bomb

David KalatOn March 1st, 1954 eight months to the day before the Japanese premiere of Godzilla, the United States set off its first hydrogen bomb. It happened in the Marshall Islands — tiny islands that have been passed back and forth between sundry European powers for hundreds of years — until the Japanese took them over after Word War I. During World War II, they changed hands once again when relentless American bombing raids decimated the population, ravished the countryside, and forced the Japanese to relinquish control. From that point on, the US military took to using the Marshall Islands as a nuclear proving ground. All told, 67 nuclear devices were detonated there — including the first H-bomb. In 1956, the year that Godzilla was exported to American movie screens, the atomic energy commission declared the place by far the most contaminated place in the world. And it was practically at Japan’s backdoor.

The scientists responsible for the world’s first H-bomb weren’t 100% certain that it would explode correctly. Best case scenario, it would explode with a force a thousand times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Worst case scenario, nothing at all. Setting aside the irony of what constituted “best case” and “worst case” in this situation, the upshot was that the Japanese public was told to stay away from the island in question, but weren’t given an explanation why.

The crew of the Daigo Fukuryū Maru — that’s “Lucky Dragon Number Five” to you — figured that they were being extra clever by heading out to troll for tuna. “There’s no competition!” they congratulated each other. Then there was a flash in the sky, like a second sun. The light was so bright, it could be seen as far away as Okinawa. The Lucky Dragon was so far from the blast, they didn’t hear its accompanying thunder for another eight minutes. It was clear to them that they’d made a mistake. But the consequences were now impossible to outrun. They pulled in their nets, stowed their catch, and returned to the mainland as quickly as possible. They were sick. The radio operator, a fellow named Aikichi Kuboyama, would die from radiation sickness. And let’s be clear: Kuboyama received a lethal dose of radiation on March 1st, then spent nearly seven months slowly dying — eventually passing from this world on September 23rd. With his dying breath, he begged, “Please make sure that I am the last victim of the nuclear bomb.”

The Japanese press noted that as the first person killed by the H-bomb, he was Japanese — just like the only humans killed by A-bombs.

—David Kalat
From Commentary on Godzilla

Obviously, Republicans Are Not Turning Libertarian

Libertarian RepublicanDigby wrote a great article over at Kevin Drum’s blog at Mother Jones, No, the GOP Has Not Lost Its Lust for War. It is about all the garbage that we’ve been hearing from “centrist” pundits about how the Republican Party is finally turning libertarian. The truth is that Republicans have never been libertarians. It is an affectation. And during the glory months of the Tea Party, it was a delusion.

The main thing you have to remember is that most Republicans are sheep. They don’t really think anything; they just feel — mostly, outrage and fear. And so, when the Tea Party was big, they were willing to follow along with the libertarian bent of the early days. Of course, that libertarian bent was only there so they could justify the policy that they were suddenly for. Remember that the Tea Party did not start because of the bank bailouts. It started when the federal government wanted to help homeowners. So supporters of the movement didn’t want to come off as the complete jerks that they were. So now they were against all government intervention! And that meant they were “libertarians”!

Once the coast was clear and there was no Fox News drum beat about this stuff — no Amy Kremer interviews to explain what they were to think — they went back to their base instincts. As Elvis Costello put it in Suit of Lights, “If it moves then you fuck it. If it doesn’t then you stab it.” In the case of the Republican base, it is about “getting those people.” And that means cuts to welfare for the poor and more foreign wars. In other words: the standard conservative line. And the elites were fine with it, as long as the base kept voting Republican.

Of course, even in 2010, the main thing that distinguished Tea Party candidates was there extreme social conservatism. The single most important issue was abortion absolutism: no abortions for any reasons at all (even the anti-libertarian belief of no exception for the life of the mother). So none of this should come as any surprise. The truth was that Rand Paul’s non-interventionist positions were treated with either mystification or hostility. And as I predicted, Rand Paul has been willing to abandon even his tepid libertarianism. Why? Because he has to — there is no appetite for it in the Republican Party.

Digby’s article quoted an NBC-WSJ poll that found that a whopping 27% of Republicans said that national security/terrorism was the most important issue facing the country. This has more than tripled since the question was last asked in 2012. And way? Check out this amazing reason that goes right along with what I’ve been saying, “[A] ‘savvy Republican operative’ explained that this threefold increase in concern can be attributed to the rise of ISIS and the movie American Sniper arousing the militarist urge in the GOP base.” A movie! Of course, as Digby commented, “That may be true, but let’s just say it was never exactly deeply buried.” That’s right: outrage and fear.

I’ve argued a lot in the past that if libertarians were serious, they would be more attracted to the Democratic Party than the Republican Party. The Democratic Party is much stronger on individual rights. What the Republican Party is good at is the rights of the wealthy. That may be great in a theoretical sense, but as a practical matter, it is the Democratic party that increases liberty. The Republican Party is still dead set against cannabis legalization. Of course, the vast majority of libertarians are not serious.

What Republicans mean when they say they are libertarians is that they are for “smaller government.” As should be clear by now, Republicans Are Not for Smaller Government. And in the same way, they are not for libertarianism. (Not that many actual libertarians are either.) But Republicans will call themselves anything as long as they are told to. They are excellent followers.

See also: Republican Party’s Libertarian Fantasies.

American Torture and Lack of Accountability

CIA TortureI watched the Frontline episode Secrets, Politics, and Torture. It’s sad that the show now has to be so careful, but even still, the whole thing is outrageous. I was literally talking to the screen while watching it. And there really wasn’t anything in it that I didn’t already know. I suppose the hard part about watching it was seeing these people who clearly should be prison for the rest of their lives. And I have a policy idea that I’ll discuss in a bit.

Not surprisingly, most of the CIA didn’t show up to be interviewed. The main representative was for Deputy Director John McLaughlin. And despite all his apologetics and, frankly, outright lies, his position was summarized in this quote, “We were at war; bad things happen in wars.” That’s so true. But that didn’t stop us from trying and executing Nazis. But of course, the statement itself is disingenuous. We were at war, but that wasn’t what the torture program was all about. Obviously, the CIA’s torture program eventually infected the military, but it didn’t start there.

Regardless, the torture program was not a matter of some agents getting out of hand — over-eager in carrying out their duties. This was a clear plan — decided at the top. It was implemented with eyes wide open. And that is clear from the other representative of the government CIA Acting General Counsel John Rizzo. He did everything he could to get political cover for the torture program and lay the legal foundation for it. I don’t especially blame him; he’s a lawyer, after all. But the fact remains that the torture program was no accident of war.

Rizzo claimed that he had never heard any complaints about the program not working or being, you know, wrong. I believe him. Why would he have been told? I do think it most likely that he did everything he could to avoid hearing anything. But the others knew. And they didn’t care. Or more accurately, they didn’t care what they were doing to other people; they loved the program. Perhaps we can say that George W Bush was just misinformed. But clearly, the top people in the CIA pushed the program and lied about its effectiveness to keep the torture going. They should all die in federal prison.

A very telling part of the documentary is the story of Abu Zubaydah. After his capture, FBI agent Ali Soufan was brought in to use the standard — and highly effective — technique of rapport building. And Zubaydah was very helpful. But the CIA were certain that they could get more from him if they just got tough. Think: Tom Clancy Combat Concepts. So the CIA took over and began to torture him, using two charlatans who had no actual experience with interrogation. And in the end, they got nothing. This is largely due to the fact that the opportunity costs of torture greatly outweigh any possible benefits. But also because they had always been wrong: Abu Zubaydah was not a high ranking member of Al Qaeda. But that didn’t stop Deputy Director McLaughlin from repeatedly claiming that the torture was necessary because Zubaydah was a “psychopath,” who wouldn’t be truthful — even though he had been!

I have an idea for how we can avoid these things. As we saw at Abu Ghraib, even when people are held to account, it is just low level people. What was done at that prison was nothing compared to what the CIA did for years. So I say we hold top people accountable for systemic “failures” like this — because they aren’t failures. Sure, there will be the occasional “bad apple.” But what happened at the CIA was not a case like that. In fact, it seems that many if not most of the agents being forced to do the torture didn’t want to — at least in the early days. So when Jose Rodriguez erased the torture tapes, he should have been arrested, tried, convicted, and spent the rest of his life in jail. So should John McLaughlin and George Tenet and Dick Cheney and many others. Will that mean that people are reticent to take those jobs? Sure. But who cares? All the high level people will have a great incentive to not allow anything to get out of hand.


The documentary ends with a discussion of the Panetta Review. It is a “top secret” document that apparently shows that internally, the CIA agrees with everything the Congressional investigation found. The main thing I thought while watching it was that none of it or any of the other documents will come out in my lifetime. But the reason that they won’t is the same reason that the United States probably won’t be a great nation in a century. Like all great empires, we spend most of our time just trying to hang onto power and save face. Meanwhile, there are countries out there that are actively working to improve themselves. There is too much power consolidation in the United States. And power will do whatever it can to maintain that power in the short term. And inch by inch, our country is destroyed. The day will come when our economy just can’t bear to spend almost as much on our military as the rest of the world combined. And after that, what do we have?

Morning Music: Jane Siberry

The Speckless SkyI really want to get back to Europe for the Morning Music posts. But I seem to be having a hard time keeping up with the site these days, so I will do something easy. For whatever reason, Jane Siberry popped into my head. There was a time a couple of years ago where I was listening obsessively to her first ablum, Jane Siberry, and her last album, Meshach Dreams Back. It was quite an experience because that first album is almost folk. And the last album is about as complex as any pop music gets — dare I saw: jazz.

I first discovered her because of her second album, No Borders Here. And I saw her live three times. She put on a great show. The following song is more or less the title track off her third album, The Speckless Sky. The song is actually called “One More Colour.” It’s a beautiful song. But this video is from 1985. And videos sucked in 1985. Still, this one at least has a hand puppet:

Anniversary Post: Pietà Attack

Laszlo TothOn this day in 1972, Laszlo Toth attacked Michelangelo’s Pietà. And because he was trained as a geologist, he did a lot of damage. But let’s back up a bit on this.

Toth was born in Hungary in 1938. He got a degree in geology in 1965 and moved to Australia. But he had difficulty finding work. This was partly due to the fact that his degree was not recognized there. It was also party due to the fact that he didn’t really speak English. But it was mostly due to the fact that he was crazy.

In 1971, he moved to Italy, even though he knew no Italian. But he seemed to want to get close to Pope Paul VI (also know as “the pope who looked like Jonathan Pryce”). By this time, Toth believed he was Jesus Christ. But the pope apparently never answered his letters. So on 21 May 1972, Toth entered St Peter’s Basilica and attacked the Pietà, yelling, “I am Jesus Christ — risen from the dead!”

He was wielding a geologist’s hammer. And, “With fifteen blows he removed Mary’s arm at the elbow, knocked off a chunk of her nose, and chipped one of her eyelids.” American sculptor Bob Cassilly, who was visiting, was the first to grab him, followed quickly by a number of others who managed to subdue him as seen in the photo above.

Laszlo Toth was never charged with a crime. He spent two years in a mental hospital, after which, he was shipped back to Australia where he was cared for until he died on 11 September 2012. The Pietà was completely repaired after the incident and is now displayed behind bulletproof (and geologist’s hammer proof, I would assume) glass.

Happy anniversary for this unfortunate, but somehow amusing, attack.