Christopher Lee RIP

Christopher LeeTomorrow, I’ll have a little bit to say about Ornette Coleman. But I wanted to take a moment to note that Christopher Lee has died. It was announced today, but he died last Sunday. Most people know him for the part of Dracula in a series of films, starting with the great 1958 film, Dracula. But that is surprisingly not the part I most associate him with. I associate him with the part of Mycroft Holmes in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. I went through a period when I watched that film a lot. And I still think it is a great film — way underrated. That film so perfectly captures the power dynamic between Mycroft and Sherlock. And, as is totally appropriate, Lee steals the scenes he’s in.

I saw an interview (probably on the DVD). In it, Lee discussed working on the film with Billy Wilder. He said that Wilder never made any reference to Lee’s work as Dracula. But they were doing a night shoot, and the two of them were standing together. A cloud of bats flew overhead. Wilder looked sideways at him and grinned. Lee was charmed by this moment with Wilder, and I was charmed by Lee relating it.

I’ve quite enjoyed Christopher Lee in everything he did. He was a great and varied actor. And it was fun watching him show up in so many cool roles into his 90s. Even in poor films like Dark Shadows and The Colour of Magic, he added dignity and style. I am actually sad that I won’t be seeing him pop up in new films. But there are almost 300 screen credits for him, and that isn’t including multiple hits on television series. I wish him well in the undiscovered country.

Here he is as Mycroft:

Pluto By Any Other Name

Pluto and CharonI’ve never been very interested in the question of whether Pluto is a planet or not. But the only clear distinction that I know of is whether an object has sufficient gravity to collapse into more or less a sphere. By this definition, Pluto would be a planet, and so would a number of other objects. But is that all a planet is? If there were a really big comet that orbited the sun every ten thousand years, would we really want to call that a planet? Isn’t a planet just the lose term we use for the “wandering stars” in the sky? Does this have to be a big deal?

Tim DeBenedictis over at seems to think it is a big deal, Why Pluto Is a Planet, and Eris Is Too. He is unhappy about the 2006 IAU Resolution 5A that defined away Pluto’s planet status. And he’s not totally wrong. The resolution defines a planet as an object orbiting the sun that is large enough to be spherical and that has “cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.” DeBenedictis doesn’t even like — nor understand — the spherical requirement. But he’s right that the “cleared” aspect of the definition is vague.

But his alternative is just silly. He proposes that we simply define a planet as any object with a radius of 1,000 km orbiting the sun. This is convenient because it allows Pluto to slip in as a planet (Pluto has a radius of 1,200 km). It is arbitrary, but he rightly noted that all systems are arbitrary. But there is an obvious counter: not all definitions are equally arbitrary. Why not go with the “sphere” definition? I assume it is because DeBenedictis doesn’t want to allow Pluto in the family of planets at the cost of devaluing the title.

This is an attitude I see with a lot of people. Somehow, Pluto isn’t valuable if it isn’t a planet. But I would have thought that the Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko would have dispelled this kind of thinking. All of the objects that we visit are ridiculously large. And they are all wondrously interesting. Call Pluto whatever you want, the New Horizons mission is so incredibly cool that I feel like a kid again — checking every day for news on it. And it is largely because Pluto is small and is strange that makes visiting it so exciting.

I would prefer to define planets the way that Potter Stewart defined obscenity, “I know it when I see it.” I think size is important. But I also think that orbit is important. Although I think Eris is kind of small to be considered a planet, I have a much bigger problem with its highly eccentric and absurdly inclined orbit. Pluto has the same problems, but to a lesser degree. And I doubt if we would even be having this conversation if Pluto hadn’t been so thoroughly sold to the public before we found out just how small it was.

It’s all kind of a mess. Pluto and Eris are very cool objects and they deserve their own categories. I’m tending to think that we call all the objects that are big enough to be spherical “planets.” Then we can subdivide them. Certainly there are fundamental differences between the solid inner planets and gas giant outer planets. So maybe we should have three categories: solid planets, gaseous planets, and weird planets. I really don’t care. But there are things that make Pluto distinctly different from Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. But that’s not a bad thing; in fact, that’s a great thing.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet…

The Obama Revolving Door

Julia Carrie WongIt’s hard to think of a political identity with less actual meaning than being a Democrat these days. As a proud Democrat, Gibbs will devote his time to fighting wage increases, harming the environment, and preying on poor communities. His brother in arms Plouffe will focus on the core Democratic values of deregulation and obviating the National Labor Relations Act.

—Julia Carrie Wong
Three Tweets: one; two; three.

H/T: Glenn Greenwald

US Navy Gets Honest About Why People Join

US NavyAs I’ve written about a few times, I live across the street from a very nice family. You really couldn’t have better neighbors, and I like them all as people. But I’ve always found it curious that they are Christian, yet the two boys who have left home have both gone into the military. What’s with that? I mean, when I think of Jesus, I just don’t think of the military — and for a lot of reasons beyond the standard “Prince of Peace” nonsense. For example, I understand that Judaism goes along with the command and control of the military. But Christianity is all about doing the right thing because the holy ghost is inside of you. It’s really a very liberating theology.

Of course, in America, it largely isn’t practiced that way. Christianity is more or less a cultural signifier. People use it as a shorthand for “patriotic American.” This is why we see states trying to make the Bible the official book. The level of theology in the Bible for most Christians is something less than what is taught to five-year-olds in Sunday school. And the one thing other than Christianity that is most tied to this form of “patriotism” is the military. Taxes for public libraries are tyranny, but taxes for almost half of the world’s military spending is somewhere there in the middle of the Ten Commandments.

But there is a great rhetorical ploy when such things are brought up. The Christian will claim that our military is not aggressive. This, of course, is the standard American line, discussed so well in, War Made Easy. Supposedly, the last thing that any president ever wants to do is go to war. To see how absurd that claim is, note that George W Bush said exactly that before the Iraq War — a war that he was most clearly determined to wage. But there is more.

The Christian military apologist will then mention “nation building” and all the great humanitarian work that the military does. Setting aside the fact that this is just ridiculous, it certainly isn’t the way that those in and around the military see it. Earlier this week, Sam Knight at The Intercept wrote a great article that relates to this, Navy Drops Humanitarian Ad Campaign, Looks for Something More Appropriate. It seems that for about five years from 2009 through 2014, the Navy has been pursuing an ad campaign, “America’s Navy: a global force for good.” They killed it last year and have now hired a firm to create ads that look more like something out of Call of Duty.

These earlier ads were about all the good things that the Navy does to help people all over the world. But check it out in the video below. It is filled with all the badass equipment anyone would want. What it doesn’t include is the usual bellicosity. In a word, it is: mature. It puts the best face possible on the dirty business of war. Thus, it isn’t at all surprising that it didn’t play well with the 17-year-olds it was supposed to attract. Sadly (but not surprisingly), it also didn’t appeal to veterans.

The point is that people can talk all they want about the need for the military and all the good work that the military does. But it means nothing. These are not the reasons people go into the military. These are the reasons people come up with to make joining the military seem noble. I’m with Father James in Calvary, “People join the army to find out what it’s like to kill someone.” And that’s okay, I suppose. I’ve made my peace with the need for a military (although ours is about ten times as large as it needs to be). But it is outrageous that people are allowed to go around claiming others join the army out of some sense of altruism. I’m not sure there is such an army that we could say that for. But certainly we can’t for our imperial army.

Another Way to Fix the Mortgage Interest Deduction

Money and BankingOne of the biggest welfare programs in America is the mortgage interest deduction. People who are wealthy enough to purchase a house are given thousands of dollars every year to pay for that house. Of course, almost no one sees it as welfare because — like most welfare for the more affluent — it is designed to be invisible. We can’t have upper income people think they are getting welfare; that would be rude! So when I talk to people about the issue, they have a hard time seeing the reality of it. So let me provide a simple example.

Imagine you are I live next door to each other. We have identical lives: household size, income, the whole deal. But there is one difference: I own my home and you rent. As a result of this, I pay substantially less in taxes than you do. We both make $100,000 per year. My federal income tax bill is $20,000 and yours is $23,000. We have the same income and expenses. We should both be paying $23,000. So effectively, the government is sending me a check for $3,000. The mechanism by which this happens — giving me some of my tax money back as opposed decoupling it from the tax system — doesn’t matter in the least.

A couple of business professors, Stephen Cecchetti and Kermit Schoenholtz, wrote a paper, Why the Mortgage Interest Tax Deduction Should Disappear, but Won’t. They noted that economists don’t like the mortgage interest deduction. The main problem from an economic standpoint is that it distorts the natural flow of capital. By the government making home purchases cheaper, capital that would normally go to other parts of the economy gets diverted. But even more than that, the mortgage interest deduction increases inequality. Yet we are stuck with it for a number of reasons.

The biggest reason is that roughly 50 million households currently have mortgages and they are not keen to lose out on their welfare checks, even though they probably don’t think of them that way. But in addition to this, there are lots of people who feed on this: real estate agents, bankers, and home builders. And even more, getting rid of the mortgage interest deduction would cause house prices to fall — hurting every homeowner in the nation. According to Cecchetti and Schoenholtz, it would represent a loss of $4.1 trillion — comparable to the cost of the bursting of the housing bubble: $6.4 trillion.

But Cecchetti and Schoenholtz have a good idea for making the mortgage interest deduction less of a problem. They suggested putting a maximum mortgage value that one could deduct at $400,000. They noted that currently, 90% of US homes are worth less than $500,000. This would have the effect of reducing some of the bad economic signals with the deduction by not subsidizing vanity homes. But it would also make the deduction less inequality expanding by not allowing the government to subsidize more and more the richer the home buyer. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities also has an idea for making the system better, Fixing the Unfair Mortgage Interest Deduction.

The point of all this is that something can be done to make the mortgage interest deduction more fair and less disruptive in the economy. But I doubt we are going to see much. Eventually, the government may see that there is a bunch of money to be had. We’ll see if that leads to improved policy. For me, I would just appreciate recipient of the mortgage interest deduction understanding that they are getting welfare.

Morning Music: Paul Simon

Still Crazy After All These Years - Paul SimonThis morning, I had wanted to bring you the Paul Simon song “Allergies.” But I can’t find a live version of it. So what the hell? Let’s do “Still Crazy After All These Years.” I love the song and I thought I would tell you what it means. Because it doesn’t mean anything at all. It was released in 1976 — when Simon was 35 years old. It is a reflection on what it means to mature. Our fundamental engagement with life doesn’t change — we are indeed, still crazy after all these years. But the way we perceive that engagement is different. It isn’t as intense.

As with most songs, the real meaning comes out in the bridge. In it, Simon comes right out and says it, “I never worry; why should I? It’s all gonna fade.” But the great thing about aging is that it tends to universalize you. When you are young, you fear that everyone has it together and you alone are the seething bundle of anxieties. But when you are old, you realize that everyone is like you: a complete basket case.

Of course, in America anyway, you would be convicted by a jury of your peers. That’s because we hold others to a higher standard than we hold ourselves. It’s because we secretly hate ourselves. Because in America, growing up is something only a minority of people do. But it doesn’t change the fact that we are all still crazy after all these years.

Anniversary Post: Broad Street Riot

Broad Street RiotOn this day in 1837, the Broad Street Riot occurred. It was between English protestant firefighters and Irish Catholic immigrants. It seems that Fire Engine Company 20 was coming back from a fire. There’s nothing that brings on a thirst like fighting a fire, so the men stopped at a bar and got a bit toasted. On their way back to the station, they came upon a funeral procession of Irish Catholics. One of the firefighters insulted or assaulted the Irish and a fight started.

Before long, the firefighters retreated to their station — just like their modern equivalent pussies, the police. And then, because they hadn’t shown themselves to be big enough wimps, they sounded the fire alarm, calling firefighters from all over Boston. Eventually, the mayor had to call in the military to put a stop to it. Interestingly, however, no one was killed. That would never happen today because there would be so many guns around. Also: there would be so many pussy police officers who were vewy vewy awraid!

But one thing was entirely typical of how things work today. In the end, only three people were convicted of any crimes, and they were all Irish Catholic immigrants. Note that I’m not saying there is anything special about the Irish Catholics. Today, they would be the oppressors. That gets to my core belief, which is the moment a group has power, it abuses it. And the rest of the society does everything to justify why that is right and proper.

Think about the swimming kids in McKinney, Texas. Would anything at all have happened to Officer Eric Casebolt if the whole thing hadn’t been caught on video? If there was any room to doubt at all, the society would have sided with him and that would have been that. The children he abused — far from being sympathized with — would have been vilified and jailed. That’s the way things work in America. And it ever was so.

We mark this day 178 years ago when the American tendency to hate immigrants erupted in violence.