My Many Last Names: Moraes, Morris, and Morias

Tales of ArjunaI have a Portuguese last name, so it isn’t surprising that I get a lot of junk mail from Brazil and generally from Portuguese and Spanish language sources. What is perhaps not as understandable is that I get a lot of junk mail from India. I don’t know why, but Moraes is apparently an Indian name. I first learned this in graduate school when I was introduced to the poet Dom Moraes. And then later I learned of his father who is aggravatingly named Frank Moraes. A Google search on that name brings me up as the second result. But even I must admit that the other Frank Moraes is far more deserving.

There is another aspect of this: my last name really shouldn’t be Moraes. That is one of those wonderful errors immigration and family history. It all started when my grandfather moved to the United States from the Azores. As immigration officials seemed to love doing, they changed his last name to Morris. This means that my given name was Frank Morris. You may know that name, because he was the mastermind behind the daring Alcatraz escape. But I don’t feel that bad about it, because Frank Morris doesn’t seem to have been a bad guy. He hadn’t done anything particularly bad to find himself on Alcatraz, and he was clearly a smart guy.

For some reason, when I was very young, my father got it into his head to change his (our) last name back to the original name. But he was apparently kind of confused on the name and had it changed to “Moraes.” It should have been “Morais.” How I wish it had been! For one thing, it looks cooler. But for another, the vast majority of people can’t see my last name without slipping an “l” into it and making it the hugely popular Spanish last name, “Morales.” But there is no “l.” Really, I would know.

But I don’t mind having my name linked to India. I have a fondness for the country. I have an addiction for the food. And I love the culture. I most especially like Hinduism. It isn’t the theology of it, because I must admit to not understanding that very well. But I love all it’s gods. Vishnu has four arms. I have to say, I would take Christianity a lot more seriously if it would show a little creativity like that. But no: the whole Judeo-Christian tradition is so wedded to humanity! It’s narcissistic.

So I got this junk mail for an Amar Chitra Katha subscription. This is apparently India’s biggest selling comic book series. And one of them was for “Tales of Arjuna.” It looked really cool! He is the protagonist of the Mahabharata. He’s always pictured with a bow and arrow. That’s him in the picture above. No extra arms. No blue skin. Of course, Arjuna is not a god. I’ll have to read about him some day when I have the time.

Another thing I’d like to do when I have the time is to change my last name to Morais. It isn’t just that I like the name. I like the idea of doing it just because it messes up the whole process of record keeping. But if governmental officials are going to change cool names like Morais into insipid ones like Morris, then the whole process deserves to be messed with.

Apes and the Power of Spin

ChimpThe susceptibility to positive framing is what scientists call an irrational bias, and it is very powerful. To better understand why our psyche responds so deeply, Christopher Krupenye, a Duke University graduate student in evolutionary anthropology, and his colleagues Alexandra Rosati of Yale University and Brian Hare of Duke gathered 40 of our closest living relatives — 23 chimpanzees and 17 bonobos — and offered them options for choosing food: either one or two fruits versus a constant number of peanuts. Sometimes the apes were shown one piece of fruit each time they made the selection, but half the time they were given two: positive framing. In other trials, the apes were initially presented two pieces of fruit, but half the time they got only one: negative framing. Regardless of the framing, the apes ended up with an identical quantity of fruit. Yet they were more likely to choose fruit when they were offered the single fruit with its frequent “bonus” than the double fruit with its frequent “loss.”

—Francine Russo
Like Humans, Apes Are Susceptible to Spin

A Shark Swimming By Doesn’t Mean It’s Attacking

Two People and a Great White SharkI always like it when I nail a story straight out. And that is certainly true of my article on Monday, Mick Fanning and the Curious Shark. At that point, there hadn’t been any reporting about what experts were saying. But looking at the video and the results, it seemed clear to me that Fanning’s close encourage with the shark was not an attack. Just because a shark swims past a human does not mean that it is attacking. And that was clearly the case on Sunday — although it is not to say that it wouldn’t have been a very frightening experience.

Over at Vox, Zack Beauchamp wrote, That Viral Shark Attack Video Is Everything We Get Wrong About Sharks. As with most things wrong with our ideas about sharks, this seems to go back to Jaws (which is still a great film). That film really pushed this idea of sharks as killing machines. Hooper says, “All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that’s all.” I suppose we could say the same thing about humans. But it does a great disservice to all creatures — humans and sharks alike.

My perception of Fanning’s interaction with the shark was no doubt affected by my long fascination with sharks. They are amazing animals — and quite smart. I find it especially interesting that great white sharks hunt in different ways depending upon where they are and what the prey is like. That doesn’t describe a killing machine. That describes at least a fair amount of intelligence — adaptability. But above all, my thinking has been shaped by all the very brave people who swim with sharks. For example, the following video is from Planet Earth. These two cameramen are swimming with three oceanic whitetip sharks. They are probably responsible for more human deaths than any other shark. But look at them — they are not mindless at all:

This is why I speculated that the shark who interacted with Mick Fanning might have been checking him out to see if he was something worth eating. But it was clear that the shark was doing just that: checking him out. It wasn’t an attack. But there is another possibility mentioned in Beauchamp’s article: maybe it was just a chance encounter. Marine biologist Alison Kock mentioned, “Based on the footage we’ve seen, we don’t know its intentions. It looks like the shark was trying to get out of the situation as fast as [Fanning] was.” Very possibly! Remember: there are always threats — regardless of how big and dangerous you are.

The down side of all this discussion about this “attack” and the general hysteria we see after any shark encounter is that it makes sharks more at risk. For all the power of the whitetips and great whites, they are classified as vulnerable. In fact, whitetip populations have plummeted. And that would be because of… us. Some scientists now question the whole idea of referring to shark “attacks.” It tends to turn sharks into villains when this isn’t called for at all. In one paper, Christopher Neff and Robert Hueter noted, “Under current labels, listings of shark attack may even include instances where there is no physical contact between shark and human.” Of course, that wasn’t true of the interaction between Fanning and the shark on Sunday. In that case, Fanning punched the shark. Human attack!

Jeb Bush Wants to End Medicare Like Them All

Jeb BushMedicare is hated by conservative elites. And it was hated long before it even existed. In 1961, Ronald Reagan said, “We are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.” He was talking about what would become Medicare. It’s silly in a way, but also callous and hateful. Now, of course, conservative elites have a problem because the one group that consistantly votes for conservative candidates is totally dependent upon Medicare. They mostly have sunset years because of the medical care that Medicare provides. Although I will admit that many of them do spend a lot of time telling young people about how great things used to be.

The truth is that Medicare has a problem: it costs a lot. This fact is often used by conservatives to claim that Social Security is not sustainable. It’s nonsense, but fundamentally Medicare is not sustainable. But it is true that Medicare is not sustainable. This is because we pay about twice as much for the same medical care as people in other advanced countries like Canada, France, Germany, and Japan. Medical inflation seems to be slowing down. But if things don’t improve, no one will be able to afford healthcare in America. Now that’s an issue of freedom that Reagan ought to have been worried about.

But conservatives are not interested in dealing with Medicare problems reasonably. The truth is that the elderly would just be squeezed out of the private insurance market. And the one thing that would have any chance at all of stopping that would be Obamacare, which conservatives also want to destroy. There isn’t a lot of honest discussion about healthcare on the right. Conservatives just want to destroy any system that will actually cover people. And to be honest, I’m not sure why this is. It seems to be some kind of ideological gut reaction that is not based on anything rational.

Now the most “reasonable” man running for the Republican presidential nomination is Jeb Bush. And I just read in Think Progress, Jeb Bush Quietly Suggests “Phasing Out” Medicare. And it’s the same old thing: let’s keep Medicare for those who now have it but then get rid of it for those who will soon need it as much or more. Or to put it more bluntly: let’s keep Medicare for the people who currently vote Republican and screw over everyone else.

This is always phrased as something that we must do for fiscal reasons. We just can’t afford to fund Medicare! But there are two big things wrong with this. First is just that the costs are not going away. Older people will still need medical care. So the question is only and forever who is going to pay. Second is that benefits determine taxes. There is this bizarre idea that many politicians and pundits have that somehow you could get rid of Social Security benefits but just keep on collecting those payroll taxes.

Ideology trumps everything in the conservative movement. They don’t like Medicare because it is “socialized medicine.” That doesn’t mean that they actually know what socialized medicine is. (Medicare is actually socialized insurance, not socialized medicine.) It is just a conservative bogeyman. But the press really needs to do a better job of covering this stuff. Bush needs to be asked what he thinks should be done to help the elderly who won’t get Medicare. I know what Bush actually thinks: nothing. But it would at least be fun to hear him say what I know he would: buying insurance across state lines; tort reform; high deductible plans — the usual conservative answers to every healthcare problems that would, in fact, do little if anything to address the problems.

Update (24 July 2015 10:33 am)

I didn’t realize just how much Medicare spending had leveled off. This is from Paul Krugman. It shows that per patient Medicare costs in inflation adjusted dollars have stopped growing. Amazing.

Medicare Costs

Morning Music: Mari Samuelsen

Mari SamuelsenThere are few things I hate quite as much as television commercials that use music that I like to sell their pathetic products. And that is especially true of Summer of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, because I don’t much like anyone enjoying that because I think people like it for all the wrong reasons. So I’m kind of annoyed to be hearing a commercial for something using the third movement of that piece. It is thrilling — far more so than whatever it is that is being sold.

One thing that I always liked about Vivaldi as a player is that his stuff wasn’t hard — but it sounded like it was. Most composers are the opposite: they write stuff that sounds easy and is really hard. But in the following performance of the presto from Summer, Mari Samuelsen makes it look and sound easy, even as she flies all over the fingerboard.

Anniversary Post: United States v Nixon

Nixon Fights BackOn this day in 1974, the Supreme Court decided unanimously against the president in United States v Nixon. This was the decision that said that Richard Nixon had to hand over the tapes. It was Nixon’s last hope. He resigned 16 days later.

Here’s what I find interesting. Somehow, all of the justices managed to get together on his decision. Does anyone doubt that had the current Supreme Court decided the same case that at least three justices would have found in favor of Nixon? And given what happen in 2000 with Bush v Gore, it is hard not to escape the conclusion that Nixon would have won with a 5-4 ruling.

I don’t much go in for all the discussion about this or that judge overstepping their bounds. The Supreme Court really has been mostly terrible throughout its existence. And the truth is that judges have generally been bad throughout human history. The justice system was created as a way of formalizing the oppression of the weak. It isn’t about determining truth.

So now we have three judges — Scalia, Thomas, and Alito — who have given up all pretense of judicial restraint. They don’t even need to come into work any more. They could outsource the work to Rush Limbaugh, who could just fax in their opinions each morning. And think about that. If Nixon hadn’t lost that case, he never would have been forced out of office and conservatives would still be claiming that he did nothing wrong. And if we had our current Supreme Court, that might have happened.

How far we’ve fallen!