About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

Henry Olsen and the Classic Fascist Apologia

Henry Olsen

Henry Olsen is a conservative columnist at The Washington Post. He’s typical of the kind of conservative affirmative action that all of the mainstream press provides because of decades of the right disingenuously calling it “liberal.”

Don’t call us liberal! Beat us up! Legislate us out of existence! Just don’t call us liberal! We couldn’t die in peace knowing that anyone questioned our objectivity!

Anyway, a week ago, Olsen penned, No, MAGA Republicans Do Not Support “Semi-Fascism.” And then, of course, after Biden’s speech, he produced, Biden’s MAGA Speech Was Designed to Protect Democrats, Not Democracy.

(I wasn’t going to read the second article figuring it was just a reworking of the first. It isn’t actually. Instead, it’s just more finger-wagging. The article also elides Republican behavior and current norms. It’s a classic example of an argument much beloved by supposed moderates, “The Republicans are allowed to destroy norms; when the Democrats are back in power, it is their job to reinstate them!”)

Olsen’s “Republicans Ain’t Fascists” Argument

I’ve heard Olsen’s argument many times before. Lauren Southern likes to make it! It boils down to this: Fascism was a political philosophy of the mid-20th century in Europe.

Okay, not in so many words. But his entire argument is to nitpick what fascism is and give an example of why that doesn’t apply to the MAGA crowd. Here is his base argument:

Classic 20th-century fascism was a political philosophy that comprehensively denounced modern liberal democracy. Fascists believed that multiparty democracy weakened the nation, and that competitive capitalism was wasteful and exploitative.[1] Their alternative was a one-party state that guided the economy through regulation and sector-based accords between labor and business.

How the MAGA Cult Stacks Up

And then he contrasts this definition with what the MAGA faithful believe:

Compare this to the MAGA philosophy. MAGA politicians usually argue that America’s liberal tradition is under attack and needs to be saved, not that it is the root of all evil. They tend to attack most expansion of government regulation and spending as “socialism.” That’s the polar opposite of fascism, not its kissing cousin.

This is one of the apologist’s greatest weapons: pretending to not understand subtext. My favorite example of this was when Ben Shapiro claimed that he just didn’t see Steve King’s white-supremism — until years later when he simply could not continue to claim that.

Olsen is using another apologist trick too: pretending that because fascists update their tactics that they can’t be fascists. Of course modern fascists give lip service to liberal democracy! Nazis gave lip service to free speech! And how does Republicans being against socialism distinguish them from any fascist movement ever?!

Olsen goes so far as to discuss the January Sixth Coup and concludes, “Yes, attacks on elections are heinous and autocratic but they aren’t necessarily fascist.” In other words, Olsen wrote a whole column because Biden used the word “fascism” rather than “authoritarianism.”

Oh, that it were true!

Henry Olsen’s Subtext

The point of the article is simply to attack Joe Biden for other things that Henry Olsen doesn’t like about the president. (He also spends two long paragraphs (173 words) defending the MAGA crowd from an article that generally isn’t made and certainly wasn’t made by Biden.)

Henry Olsen is seen as one of the “reasonable” conservatives — the old-fashioned type that you can compromise with. But he shows in these recent articles he’s as thin-skinned as Donald Trump himself. And if people like Olsen can’t be encouraged to reflect on the American Right, there is no hope for them. Or, it often seems, us.

[1] This is not true. It’s one of those things that conservatives believe so much they don’t think they need to look it up. You can’t say that fascism was pro- or anti-capitalism. But it is certainly true that it lived very comfortably with it.

Image of Henry Olsen taken from The Washington Post under Fair Use.

Is Joe Biden Popular?

Joe Biden and Donald Trump - Debate
Cropped from First Presidential Debate Hosted by Fox News by Joe Biden under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

It’s been bugging me for the last few months when people note that Biden is less popular than Trump at this time in his presidency. It’s nominally true, of course. You can see the data on FiveThirtyEight’s tracker. But I think it gives the wrong impression.

Comparing Biden and Trump

The real question is how a single number for popularity hides reality. So let’s compare polling at the recent nadir of Joe Biden’s approval: July 2022:

  • Total: 38%
  • Republican: 5%
  • Independents: 32%
  • Democrats: 78%

In July 2018, these were Trump’s numbers:

  • Total: 43%
  • Republicans: 90%
  • Independents: 38%
  • Democrats: 8%

I don’t have the data for the partisan breakdown. But if I assume it is one-third each, the totals are very close: 38.0% for Biden and 44.9% for Trump. So I’m going to make that assumption. It is at least close.

If Democrats were the authoritarian followers that Republicans are, Biden’s numbers would go up substantially. If we assume that 90% of Democrats approved of Biden, his approval rating would have been 42%. Not quite as high but certainly within the margin of error.

As a Democrat, I can say that I’m pretty much always unhappy with my elected representatives and I would tell that to pollsters. But there is no doubt that I would still vote for them. So I don’t think Biden was ever as unpopular as he appeared.

Biden’s Recent Bounce

Of course, Biden’s poll numbers have increased substantially recently:

  • Total: 44% (+6)
  • Republicans: 4% (-1)
  • Independents: 40% (+8)
  • Democrats: 81% (+3)

The main thing to notice here is that Democrats are, on brand, unwilling to admit success. We are the “Yes, but…” party. It’s independents who are driving his approval up.

It’s not statistically significant, but still interesting, that all the good news from and about Biden, has caused his approval among Republicans to go down. This isn’t surprising.

The Republican Party base is made up of authoritarian followers and all their favorite “news” shows only push the negative narrative harder when there’s good news. I see this all the time on Twitter with conservatives repeating the same old talking points that are months out of date.

Where We Stand

The bottom line is that Biden is not doing that bad. That’s especially true when you consider how the mainstream (you know, “liberal”) press behaves. It really wanted to turn student debt into a negative thing but that seems to have failed. And I saw ABC News refer to the one-year anniversary of the”chaotic withdrawal” from Afghanistan. It’s like a drum beat: must find things to complain about!

And yes, the media was very harsh with Trump. But they looked for every opportunity to find the good in what he did. It was a common joke on Twitter to highlight the most recent pundit to say, Trump became president today.

But it’s interesting that no one ever said that about Biden. They don’t need to. But if there were any question, they wouldn’t be falling over themselves to do it. Mainstream journalism reserves its handicap for Republicans, who are generally about +13.

How Machine Learning Harms Us

Machine Learning

I’ve had this experience with YouTube. I discover a particular content creator who I like. And YouTube offers me another content creator who does similar stuff. So I’ll go on to watch all the videos of both these people. But then a year later, I’ll find out that there was a third content creator doing similar stuff who is similarly popular. Yet YouTube never introduced me to this content creator.

This is the essence of machine learning. If I watch a content creator’s video, YouTube is going to show me other videos from that content creator. They may show me a different content creator because they happened to have created a video exactly related to the current video I’m watching. But I’m not being offered that content creator because they are similar to the first. I’m being offered them only because they created a video that is similar to the first content creator’s video.

In other words this is one level deep.

You like this video? Here are other videos that are like that video. You like this content creator? Here are other videos from the same content creator.

Figuring out what I’m interested in in a general sense seems to be beyond what YouTube (and basically every other machine learning algorithm) is capable of. Of course, machine learning is not about providing individuals what they want. Machine learning is about looking for broad trends. In other words: what the population is doing. It isn’t about showing me videos I would like; it is about increasing overall engagement by a small amount.

The Bicycle Example

Ezra Klein has noted that his experience with machine learning indicates that it doesn’t do much. After he bought a bike, everywhere on the internet, people were trying to sell him yet another bike. And for most people it is absurd. If you just bought a bike you’re not going to buy another bike.

But I suspect that the people who have not bought a bike recently are slightly less likely to buy a bike very soon than those who have bought a bike recently. And that is what machine learning does. It makes marginal improvements to the success rate of advertising.

Machine Learning Makes Us Worse

The problem of course is that machine learning makes all of us less interesting. I have wide-ranging interests. Yet at any given time YouTube is only offering me the kinds of videos I’ve just recently watched. The whole system is designed ultimately to bore us all to death by presenting us with the same thing over and over.

And we know where this goes if you happen to be interested in politics. We’ve seen how social media with its machine learning algorithms causes people to go from conservative to fascist. Or liberal to socialist. (Not that I’m equating fascism and socialism; we could do with a good deal more socialists and no fascists.)

But the general phenomenon is that these algorithms make us far more limited and rigid. Far from opening up the world of knowledge and ideas the internet has shut them down. It’s like going into a library but only being allowed to look at anything on one shelf. But even that would be better than what we have.

The Hopeful 1980s

I first got on the internet in 1987. And it’s shocking to look back on just how optimistic I and pretty much everyone else was. It was so obviously powerful. And it seemed to offer a new way of social organizing.

There were problems of course. And those problems have been magnified exponentially. But that’s not even the worst of it. The biggest issue (by a wide margin) is the way that the commercialization of the internet has turned the very idea of free exchange of ideas on its head.

I don’t think I’m alone in craving new and interesting ideas. I think most people would go to weird and idiosyncratic websites if they knew they existed. But all the power and social forcing is on the side of a few corporations that have almost unlimited power.

There isn’t going to be a major video-sharing service that encourages people to watch new and unrelated things. That doesn’t create engagement. People watching such a thing might stop watching and, I don’t know, pick up a book. That’s not going to maximize the profits of the video-sharing platform!

Machine Learning Is Good for a Chosen Few

So in the name of making 10 cents from an hour’s worth of engagement, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the rest are willing to help destroy liberal democracy.

And we are helpless because it’s hard to search for interesting things. It might take you 40 pages of Google results to find anything that isn’t like almost everything else. But it’s easy to just sit on Facebook and have it offer you an endless supply of just what you’ve seen before.

I’m not saying that I know what to do about it. Fundamentally I think that the human ability to find patterns has gone beyond what human nature is capable of defending itself against.

So I no longer think that humanity has much of a future. I certainly don’t think it has an optimistic future like Star Trek. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve also become more lackadaisical. There’s really nothing special about humans. And our eventual extinction really doesn’t matter that much to me.

Image cropped from Artificial Intelligence by Mike MacKenzie under CC BY 2.0.

The Curious State of Sports Broadcasting

Gregorio Petit

The state of sports broadcasting is bizarre. I’m speaking especially now about regional sports networks (RSNs) but it’s more general than that.

For example, the NFL is a mess. True, by putting up an antenna, you can generally watch two games Sunday afternoon and one game Sunday night. If you get cable or a live TV streaming service, you can also watch Monday Night Football on ESPN. But Thursday Night Football? You now need Amazon Prime for that.

And unlike MLB or NBA, there is no league pass to allow you to watch whatever games you want (with limitations). True, the NFL offers such a service — but not to people in the United States! Those people are stuck with NFL+, which allows viewers to watch local and primetime games — but only on their phones and tablets.

About RSNs

But overall, the NFL is very nationwide in nature. MLB, NBA, NFL, MLS are all the opposite. They each (in different ways) allow fans to watch out-of-market games via specific services. For example, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. I can sign up for NBA League Pass and stream any game I like as long as it does not involve my local team, the Golden State Warriors.

The problem is that most people are primarily interested in their local teams. Just watch the local news and you’ll see! So if you want to watch your local team, you need to subscribe to a special kind of channel: a regional sports network, or RSN.

RSNs exist primarily to air particular local teams. For example, Bally Sports West exists primarily to air Los Angeles Angels (MLB) and Los Angeles Kings (NHL) games. If you live in Los Angeles, you simply must get this particular channel to watch 150+ Angels games and 70+ Kings games. And it ain’t cheap. Currently, your only online option is DIRECTV STREAM, which will cost you $89.99/mo.


But why is this? Why should local fans have fewer, more expensive, options than fans far away? History. It all comes down to the idea of a blackout. Originally, teams didn’t want their games broadcast locally because then people wouldn’t come out to the ballpark.

This doesn’t even make sense on its own terms. Even in the MLB, roughly half the money teams make is from TV contracts — and more is from local channels (RSNs) than national channels. But even if that were different, that would just be a reason to get rid of the RSN contracts themselves.

(Note: many RSNs are owned by the teams themselves. But Bally Sports is still dominant with 19 different channels. Why the Angels and Kings haven’t gotten together to put their own channel together, I can’t say. But the Angeles do own a quarter of the current RSN.)

Location Location Location

Most RSNs have coverage areas that at least make sense. Bally Sports Arizona, for example, covers all of Arizona and some parts of New Mexico.

But consider fans in Hawaii. There are really not in the Angels’ broadcast area in any real sense. But there are from an accounting standpoint. In fact, viewers in Hawaii get access to all seven of the California RSNs. So Hawaii is parts of San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco!

RSNs Are Small

But as much as I’d love to see there be a simple system for fans to watch games, I’m largely in favor of the RSNs. I hate to see behemoths like Bally Sports but the truth is, each individual channel is pretty small.

And they show all the signs of that. HotDog noted that Bally Sports West has had 7 different names in its lifetime — including Fox Sports West twice! And it’s been owned by three different companies.

Bad for Fans

There is no doubt that it’s all bad for fans. You shouldn’t need a treasure map to be a Lakers fan. And there is no direct reason to keep the system as it is since it mostly just rewards those who already have power in the system.

The problem is that if we changed the system, that would just give more power to the already unreasonably powerful leagues. And I’m not keen on that.

Much better to check out less popular sports. Over the last year, I’ve really become a fan of softball. It’s way more fun to watch than baseball!

Image cropped from Gregorio Petit by EricEnfermero under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Real Consequences of Republicans’ “Anything But Guns” Arguments

Ted Cruz
You can have Ted Cruz’s talking points when you pry them from his cold, dead hands.

Paul Krugman wrote an excellent article this week. In it, he notes that rather than address the fact that America owns almost half of the world’s guns, Republicans are suggesting that we militarize our schools and frankly the rest of society. In other words, it’s better to live in a world where there are military checkpoints at every block than it is to live in a world where gun ownership is limited in any way whatsoever.

This is the ultimate example of American libertarianism. It’s the idea that explicit limits on what people can do are the only thing that limits their liberty. And it results in bizarre conclusions. People are now able to buy military-grade hardware but have to put up with police checkpoints that are supposedly looking for drunk drivers but arrest almost exclusively people with expired licenses and car registrations.

This is what you get when freedom is just a fetish. I find it frustrating. The people who go on and on about “freedom” don’t seem to care about it on a practical level. They will trade away tons of real freedom for talking points. And they’re able to do this because their lives are good. They aren’t the kind of people who are likely to be harassed by the police.

Guns as the Only Freedom That Matters

Not that the modern Republican Party has actually turned libertarian, even in the pathetic American sense of the word. But they have come to this libertarian approach to guns for the same reason that libertarians come to their positions: they are trying to stop specific actions in the name of liberty rather than produce the maximum amount of liberty.

The start of any conservative conversation about mass shootings and other gun deaths is always simply that we can’t talk about guns. Access to guns is defined as a libertarian ideal so important that it cannot be challenged. Nothing is as important. No other freedom can compete. Therefore we quickly move to an authoritarian state. Because that is a small price to pay for the very thing that defines liberty in their minds.

Liberty as Fetish

We wouldn’t have this problem if liberty had meaning. But for the people who love to use the word, it’s nothing but a signifier. It is the thing that is supported by the People That Are Good. Liberals might believe in freedom but they don’t believe in “Freedom”!

So it’s not surprising that roughly a quarter to a third of the nation thinks that no freedom claim can match the freedom claim of gun owners.

Of course for the politicians and activists, none of this matters. They don’t care about schools. They just care about having something they can talk about besides guns while reporters are still asking them about the latest shooting.

Real Consequences

But there are real consequences. After the Parkland massacre, Florida schools were turned into police zones. Did it help? Well, it diverted a huge amount of resources to cops, who now outnumber nurses at Florida schools. It made the children far more likely to be expelled from school and arrested at school.

But most important, the new police schools may have succeeded in doing the one thing that they were meant to do: stop the bad publicity of school shootings. Thus far, there haven’t been any major school shootings in Florida. Of course, it’s only been four years. Time will tell. But the cost is enormous. Rather than stop the war, we’ve simply armed one side. And it’s not like shooters don’t have other targets.

This shows that there are real consequences of all this happy talk meant simply to move society past the time when we’re focused on these things. Our society becomes more authoritarian even as we become less safe from the very things the authoritarianism is supposed to protect us from.

But I suppose that’s a small price to pay for the happy feeling that The People That Are Good get from knowing that “freedom” has been secured.

Tucker Carlson Will Never Be Held Accountable

Tucker Carlson

A man apparently shot 13 people, killing 10 of them, at a grocery store in Buffalo. He live-streamed it (of course). And he left what appears to be a white supremacist manifesto that discusses the Great Replacement conspiracy theory, popularized by Fox News star Tucker Carlson.

On Twitter, people made the connection. Many demanded that Carlson be taken off the air. But we all know that won’t happen, right? I wrote to a friend:

“All that will happen is that Carlson will air a segment in which he notes that his name was never mentioned and that the true outrage is that liberals are attacking him. And it will be over.”

Apologia Begins!

Well, within an hour, I saw this:

On one level, she’s right: there is no way to know if the shooter got the idea from Tucker Carlson. In fact, my guess would be that he didn’t.

But that’s not how information spreads. Information comes via an ecosystem. I fully absorbed the popular ideas of postmodernism by the age of 12 without ever having read any philosophers or even heard anyone talk about it explicitly.

This is one of the big reasons why we need to signal, as a community, that the ideas of fascism are wrong. All the happy talk about the “free market of ideas” is the road to social collapse. (Of course, I know that all the big proponents of the “free market of ideas” are the first to want to silence any ideas they don’t personally like.)

This is why Tucker Carlson should have been taken off television long ago. He spreads fascist propaganda. We don’t need 10 people to die to know that is harmful.

Useless Media

But our media industry requires that Tucker Carlson be holding a good deal more than a smoking gun. They require something to the effect of “Patriots should murder people of color in order to protect our race!” They will be fine with, “Well, you can’t prove he got the idea from me!”

The bigger problem is that we live in a country where a large part of the population believes fascism is good. For many years now, I’ve felt like I was living in a bad production of Rhinoceros.

Tucker Carlson by Gage Skidmore under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Why Democrats Don’t Want to Indict Trump

Donald Trump

Last week on Counterspin, Janine Jackson mentioned some potential reasons why the Democrats and the country at large don’t want to charge Trump for laws he almost certainly broke. She mentioned concerns that Republicans would scream and holler and that it would be presented as partisan by the press. I think these are real issues but I don’t think they are the main issue.

I think Democrats are concerned that if they charge Donald Trump with crimes, there will be retaliation. As soon as Republicans are back in power (which will almost certainly happen partially in the next year and then fully less than 3 years from now), Joe Biden and other Democrats will be charged with crimes as simple payback.

And, of course, it won’t matter at all that there is no substance to such prosecutions. It won’t even mean that no dirt will be dug up. Look at what the Republicans did when Bill Clinton allowed them an open-ended investigation. After years of digging, they found something real. It was bullshit. But it was real and it led to the most disingenuous impeachment in history.

It’s Not Turnabout

The problem is that you can never depend upon Republicans to act in a reasonable way. And that’s especially true if you are reaching out to them and trying to deal with them in good faith. They see it as simple weakness. They go for the jugular.

So not indicting Trump will not lead to the Republican Party saying, “You know, they treated us well when we were in power. Let’s do the same now that we are in power!” If anything, it will be the opposite. But more likely, it doesn’t matter. They will try to throw Biden in prison if Trump is indicted and they will try to throw Biden in prison if Trump is not indicted.

Systemic Problems

But this isn’t just an issue of some Democrats being abused. The larger issue here is that we live inside a completely fucked up political system. We know that a fascist party is going to be back in power soon. Really doesn’t matter what goes on. Our system is designed to be anti-democratic. And through the machinations of conservatives over decades, it is far less democratic still.

There is literally nothing the Republicans could do that is so bad that they won’t be re-elected every couple of terms. Look at Richard Nixon. He resigned and disgrace in late 1974. In 1976 the Republicans lost the White House in a very close election. And in 1980, they won it back in a landslide and held on to it for 12 years.

George W Bush was an absolutely horrible president who committed war crimes. And that got him two terms as president. Then America, in its great wisdom installed a reality TV star who is stupid, ignorant, small-minded, and vicious because that’s who we are.

And I think the odds are better than even that our country will elect him again in 3 years.

Minority Rule

So it’s not like the Democrats’ concern that a corrupt government will go after them are unfounded. I don’t think it does us a lot of good to focus on the weakness of politicians. We should focus on the fact that we have a government that will change every couple of terms. And it does not matter how horrible and incompetent that party is.

Of course, that might all change when the Republicans next get power. They could legislate this country into single-party minority rule. Watching how much Republicans love Viktor Orbán makes me believe that is the plan.

Finding a Way Out for Ukraine… And Putin

Ukraine War
Consequences of early shelling during Russian invasion of Ukraine

My near-universal experience of people from Eastern Bloc countries is that their hatred of the Soviet Union has everything to do with its relative egalitarianism and really nothing to do with its authoritarianism. So it has not been surprising to me to see how much the Russian people love Vladimir Putin.

Now I understand that a lot of it is simply that after the Soviet Union fell, things were really bad economically in Russia. And it’s clear that the West should have gone in and flooded them with aid. But instead, we allowed the same old disaster capitalism to take place. And the vast majority of the people suffered while a very small number of the worst people on earth thrived. Things are better under Putin, so the people like him for that alone.

But there is no doubt that the Russian people have a strong tendency towards authoritarianism. But I cannot say that it’s any stronger than it is in the United States where it seems about 40% of the people want nothing so much as an authoritarian they can follow. The idea that the Russian people will turn on Putin because he’s an authoritarian is absurd.

Danger of Trapping an Authoritarian

But given that Putin is an authoritarian, I’m very concerned with the way that we are approaching his invasion of Ukraine. Many of the people who I consider allies are saying things that bother me. I see a lot of people wanting to see Putin destroyed the same way that Hitler was. That strikes me as unlikely.

At the same time, no one is particularly keen on going to war. And while I have been impressed with the economic war that is being waged against Russia, the West is doing surprisingly little to support Ukraine militarily. Yes, some weapons and other military aid are being shipped there. But it doesn’t strike me as being up to the situation.

The truth is that if we continue how we’re going, Ukraine will fall. All those brave men and women that we are applauding on Twitter can do is to slow down that conclusion. That’s it. They can’t win without outside help.

So what can we do to stop it? I don’t think that economics is going to do the work that needs done. In the short term of the next 6 months or year, sanctions will just make the Russian people love Putin more because the truth is the West is attacking Russia. And let us not forget they are attacking Russia for doing something that the US did in Iraq less than 20 years ago with even less justification.

We can play the long game and hope that our economic war will lead to Putin’s ouster over the next 5 years. But even if that happens, it’s not at all clear that Russia will get a leader we like more. But to the point itself, defeating Putin in 5 years will not save Ukraine this year.

Saving Authoritarian Faces

The only thing that will save Ukraine is for Putin to reverse course. And since the West is not willing to wage a physical war with Russia, the only option seems to be to give Putin an out. We need to find some way to allow him to save face in this matter.

And that doesn’t seem all that hard. The truth is Russia’s invasion has gone reasonably well. And there’s no doubt if they stick it out, they will win this war. So it’s just the case of creating the framing that Putin never wanted all of Ukraine and that he sent a message to the West. And it’s all good.

Back in 2002 during the lead-up to the Iraq War, there was one thing above all others that made me realize that the Bush administration was disingenuous. They weren’t actually trying to accomplish the goals they claimed. Yes, they were asking for UN inspectors and so on but they were doing it in a way that required Saddam Hussein to be publicly humiliated. They were not providing him with any way to get out of the situation he was in.

And it was clear to me, certainly by October, that it was their intent to invade and that was the only thing they were going to do and everything else was just propaganda. They were just making the case to the American people for a war they were definitely going to start.

Well, the Bush administration was both bloodthirsty and incompetent. I think much more highly of the Biden administration. But I fear the worst. I know they can find a way out of this. But at what cost? Losing the mid-terms because the Republicans (and let’s face it: the “liberal” media) will scream about Democrats being weak?

The Price of Justice

And look. I understand that this is a mess Putin made. Sure he has his reasons. And he has concerns. And some of them are even valid. But ultimately this is his mess.

I, of course, despise the man. But I would give him a fluffy kitten and lollypop if it would make the world better. But right now, we seem to be gambling on the chance we can remove him from power eventually and that we are willing to pay the price of thousands of dead Ukrainians and the whole country’s subjugation.

I really hope more is going on here than I see and that somehow this gets turned around.


Just to be clear here on a few points. First, I do hope the Ukrainians can stop the Russians. That doesn’t seem possible but stranger things have happened. Second, politics is always complicated and just because Russia might have some real concerns about Ukraine becoming too closely tied to the West doesn’t make the Russian invasion acceptable in the least. And third, I am aware of Russian protestors. Not everyone in the country backs Putin. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that he isn’t really popular.

Image cropped from Consequences of a Shelling During Russian Invasion of Ukraine by State Emergency Service of Ukraine under CC BY 4.0.

The Trojan Horse Affair and Convenient Bigotry

Syrian School Children

Via This American Life, I learned of an 8-part investigative podcast called The Trojan Horse Affair. I was hooked from the start because it was about a great injustice: a bunch of people getting hurt by the lamest of conspiracies. But the conspiracy worked because it exploited society’s racism. So ultimately, it harmed a whole demographic of people.

The Trojan Horse Affair

You should listen to it all. But I’ll give you the basics. In Birmingham, England a fragment of a letter shows up that indicates that some “radical” Muslims are taking over the public schools in an effort to take over the world. Okay, it’s not quite that ridiculous but it definitely has a Snidely Whiplash vibe to it. You can only really take it seriously if you already want to believe it.

Now it turns out that local Muslims had been involved with the public schools. And it was helping. Graduation rates were going up for majority-Muslim areas. And government officials were applauding the results. Until the letter shows up.

“Sure It’s a Hoax, But…”

What’s interesting is that the government looks into it and finds that the letter is probably a fraud. And yet… The investigation turns up troubling things at the school. Are they real? Well, there are some problems. In particular, there seems to have been a teacher who was a sexual predator. But that only really matters if you just assume that one bad Muslim spoils the whole group. (If you haven’t been paying attention the last 21 years: yes, for most people, it does. Also: why don’t Muslims condemn terrorism?!)

Throughout the podcast, it’s almost a refrain, “Yeah, the letter was a fraud but…” And it’s clear by the end that everything that happened was only because of this letter.

And what happened? Well, for one thing, the schools got worse. Teachers were fired. The bigotry of the British people was enhanced.

Good Teacher Gone Bad?

The sad thing is that the person I think was behind it all was a Muslim. I think (and this is only my opinion based on circumstantial evidence) that Rizvana Darr, what we’d call the principal of Adderley school, created it to help in a situation she had created with four teaching assistants.

What I find fascinating about this is that everyone agrees that Darr is a fantastic teacher. If she did do this, it goes along with my theory that what is best in all of us is also what is worst. She apparently has great passion for helping her students. I can see myself allowing such passion leading to the dark places she might have gone.

If that’s the case, she solved a relatively small problem by defaming over 3 million Muslims in the UK.

It was somewhere in the sixth hour of his podcast that I realized, “This isn’t going to end well.” And I was right. Justice is not done. The Guardian published an article about Michael Gove. Otherwise, I’ve seen little mention of it. The good people lost. The weak people were harmed. And the bad people won. Like always.


People often wonder why I like horror movies so much. Well, because they usually don’t end like The Trojan Horse Affair. I love horror films like Dolls. In it, all the bad people are punished and the good people live happily ever after. It’s a feel-good film. A very gory feel-good film!

Image cropped from Syrian primary school children by DFID under CC BY 2.0.

Where Are All the Iconoclasts?

Frank Moraes

Sometimes I think that deep down I am a conservative because I really do think there should be a reason to change things. And other times, I think that deep down I’m a liberal because I honestly like change for change’s sake. Regardless of all that, there is no doubt that I am an iconoclast.

My gut reaction to anything I hear is to disagree with it. And I’m not saying that’s a good thing. In fact, I fight against it. Because I know very well that in most cases the conventional wisdom is correct.

But what’s really bugged me over the years is that almost everyone I’ve ever met who considered themselves any kind of iconoclast was actually a conservative. It’s like they are iconoclasts only in relation to who they used to be or the people they knew at one particular point in time. And that is not really being an iconoclast.

Rise of the Iconoclasts!

But I get it. If you listen to right-wing radio shows that have literally millions of listeners, they will go on and on about how subversive they are. Even while they push the default ideas of the most powerful people in society. They are iconoclasts: attacking mean college kids and protecting billionaires!

Things only got worse during the Trump era and then especially during the pandemic. Every anti-vax person considers themselves some kind of free thinker who is striking a blow against the establishment. But all they are actually doing is picking a different side in the culture war. They have, in other words, selected a new establishment. In no way are they operating contrary to the establishment.

What I’m saying here is that there is no idiosyncrasy with regard to their beliefs. Even though some of them might say they are mask-skeptical they are not. They’re anti-mask. They are not vaccine-skeptical. They are anti-vax. And they are for one reason alone: because they’ve been told to by huge media corporations.

JAQing Off!

There is this thing that conservatives love to do: pretend that they are free thinkers — skeptics. They are “Just Asking Questions!” RationalWiki refers to this as JAQing Off.

This is very similar to the way that people who embrace radical political ideologies especially on the right often start off being ironic. And so they say offensive things ironically until they aren’t. It’s like test-driving a car.

When someone tells you that you should do your own research regards to vaccines or COVID-19 or any such technical issue they don’t actually mean that. Doing your own research would involve looking at all of the information. And when it comes to something this technical, that’s really out of the question unless you’re going to hold off on any conclusions until you spend a year or two researching it.

The Conformists

No. They are telling you to pay attention to their Facebook timeline. To look at the cherry-picked evidence that they have that is designed to manipulate you into their pre-existing conclusion. And that’s all fine as far as it goes.

People have every right to be stupid and ignorant. There is a long history of it. But to think that just because you’ve grabbed on to an ideology that was adopted from the President of the United States (!) does not make you an iconoclast. It makes you the opposite. It makes you a conformist.

Evidence of Exceptional Stuff or “How Many People Saw Elvis Alive After He Died?”

Peter and Paul (Roman School circa 1620)

I’ve been listening to a lot of responses to Christian apologetic arguments. I like the people who create these but there is something that bothers me. They tend to demand the same level of evidence for normal matters as they do exceptional matters.

Peter and Paul

Think about the two (reasonably) well-documented post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. (These are well-documented in the Bible; they aren’t documented anywhere else. So we are starting on very favorable ground for the apologists.) Paulogia, for example, responds that one was clearly a vision (Paul) and the other (Peter) could well have been a post-bereavement hallucination.

Fair enough. But suppose you could find some well-documented source stating that all the disciples saw Jesus risen from the dead. Should we believe this?

I would certainly accept that kind of evidence if the claim were something simple, “Jesus walked 150 miles in 5 days.” Okay. That’s a lot but it is certainly plausible. I know that I could do that and that some people can run 150 miles in a day.

I’d need more than that if the claim were, “Jesus flew 150 miles in 5 days.” And that claim is far more reasonable than that Jesus died and came back to life three days later!

Motivated Reasoning

There’s another issue. Peter had an enormous amount to gain from claiming that Jesus had risen from the grave. So did Paul!

But I understand that there is a social aspect of apologist-skeptic dialog. The skeptics don’t want to be seen as dicks. They don’t want to claim that the founders of the Christian religion were charlatans.

The problem with this is that we have so many examples of modern cults starting in exactly this way. It isn’t as simple as people lying. As Upton Sinclair put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

All I’m saying is that it’s easy to convince yourself that you saw Jesus after he died when saying it is paying the bills and getting you invited to all the best suppers.

Or they could have been lying. They could have simply thought that Jesus’ teachings we so important that it made sense to fabricate the resurrection narrative. (Paulogia has suggested just that.)

Did Paul Really Persecute Christians?

One thing I’ve never seen contested is Paul’s claims that he worked for the Romans persecuting Christians before being converted. It isn’t attested to anywhere else. It’s just his claim.

Should we believe him? I doubt it.

I have seen many Christians tell exaggerated or outright false things about their pre-Christian days. Think about Mike Warnke who made a career claiming that he was a Satan Seller.

But he isn’t the only one. I’ve personally known two people who claimed they worshipped Satan when they were younger. It’s nonsense. If there were as many reformed Satanists as claimed, they’d have to be using my office at least part of the time for their orgies and goat sacrifices.

Paul’s story of his past sounds to me very much like stagecraft — a good tool to use to win converts. (And power. Just saying.)

Cults Then and Now

Everything we know about modern cults tells us that they are driven by the desire for power and grown through lies. I really can’t imagine the earliest days of Christianity being all that different from the early days of Heaven’s Gate. And even with the mass suicide, there are still believers in that cult.

Why would we think things would be more reasonable two thousand years ago?

Image via GaryStockbridge617. It is in the public domain.

How Rich Elites Promote Cryptocurrencies With Facile Talking Points and Strained Apologetics

Kathryn Haun

Kathryn Haun was recently on The Ezra Klein Show. I don’t see much in terms of considered opinion coming out of the pro-crypto camp. It’s much more, “Gimme a B! Gimme an I!” What’s that spell? Propaganda!

So normally, I wouldn’t have even listened to the podcast. But Klein doesn’t bring loons on his show. And the truth is, I continue to look for people who can make a good case for crypto. I really do want there to be something with it. But I have begun to despair. It’s looking more or more like a simple scam. (Not that it started that way.)

Haun did approach the podcast with the seriousness that it deserves. But it was quickly revealed that she was not there for an honest discussion of the issues. It reminded me of a Christian apologist going on an atheist talk show. They know they are in a dangerous place so they don’t come on aggressively. But they are only there to push their canned talking points.


Haun trumpeted the glories of sending money with Bitcoin. You see, you can do it without a centralized authority! This is true. People make millions of dollars every year “mining” Bitcoin to allow just that. But who cares?

What bothers me about credit cards is not that there’s some authority involved in the transaction. I’ve been using Banks since I was about 5 years old. I’m fine with it. What bothers me is that it costs me money (indirectly). I think most people feel the same way.

And guess what? Cryptocurrencies cost money when you transfer them! In fact, they cost a lot more! But you’re not beholden to a centralized bank — oh, no! Instead, you are beholding to a distributed group of crypto miners. Hooray!

Ignorance Is Fueling It

The sad thing is that most people who are into crypto simply don’t understand it. That’s not true of Haun, of course. But the current market capitalization of a trillion dollars is built on ignorance. And people in the middle of a bull market tend not to notice that their brokers are siphoning off huge amounts of money.

But eventually, the bull market ends. Then everyone is left with what? A really expensive method of exchange that adds literally nothing new to the technologies we had before?

I’m really kind of sick of this happy talk especially coming from people who clearly do understand the system. Cryptography is really interesting. But in terms of transferring valuable objects from one person to another, the system just doesn’t seem that useful.

And every time I bring this up, crypto people say, “Look at how much money it is worth!” I do see that. We all see it. We also all saw that Theranos was valued at $9 billion dollars when it was worthless.

Blockchain Will Save Musicians!

Haun mentions that you can use the blockchain to transfer other things like songs. Well okay. An artist could release songs on the blockchain. And maybe that would be more efficient than using rights management software.

I don’t really know but I’m open to it because I hate rights management software. But again that’s a case where crypto is just a different way of doing the same old thing. And that’s great! Finding new and better ways to do things is good.

But this is clearly a post hoc rationalization. Bitcoin started as a currency. As time has gone on and it has failed as a currency, true believers continue to look for ways to justify the technology. Certainly, we are better off looking for a way to replace rights management software rather than trying to shoehorn that solution into a technology that has failed at being a currency. Right?

Of course, we aren’t looking for a way to replace rights management software. And as I will discuss below, there is a reason for that. Hint: it involves the interests of powerful people. You know, people like Kathryn Haun!


She also mentions interoperability. Oh, the irony! Over 6,000 different cryptocurrencies have been created. As I write this, there are over one hundred cryptocurrencies with a market cap above a billion dollars. Doctor, heal thyself!

Why is it that the blockchain is what is going to fix our interoperability problems? Consider this: why did we have cassette and 8-track tapes at the same time? Why did we have Beta and VHS at the same time? What about Sirius and XM? We had them because there was a difference of opinion about which was best. Ultimately, the issue was resolved. But how would this work with all these crypto blockchains that are, you know, not controlled by anyone?

Another thing Haun says is that when you buy digital music you don’t own it. Guess what? When you buy an LP you don’t own it either. The problem is not the technology. The problem is our broken IP system.

As with licensing, she’s desperately looking for ways to make crypto relevant. She doesn’t care about rights management. She doesn’t care about IP law. She just cares about use cases that make crypo seem like it isn’t a waste of everyone’s time.

Concentrated Power

It bothers me how much Spotify and other platforms charge. It bothers me even more that TextBroker takes 35% of what I pay writers. But in both cases, this money goes to connecting one person to another. How exactly is a new freelance writer going to find clients? Hell, how is an established one?

Yes: the amount that TextBroker charges strikes me as exploitative. We ought to do something about that. But the blockchain doesn’t seem a particularly fruitful avenue to pursue.

Think about what she’s suggesting: musicians put their songs on the blockchain and you buy it and then own that particular copy! (Again: IP law makes it so you do not own it.) Is that going to happen? No! Spotify or some other powerful interest will find a way to offer the songs for sale even as they are “sold” on a blockchain. So we’ll have a new technology with the exact same system.

This is where we get to the issue of power. And to his credit, Ezra Klein pushed back. Musicians and listeners are getting ripped off not because of the technology but because of the power. But Haun counters that the technology simply isn’t here yet. That just goes to show she doesn’t understand the issue.

Powerful interests are always able to use technology to their own benefit. Yes, there are minor cases here and there where that doesn’t happen. But those in power learn quickly and errors are not repeated. Technological fixes do not stand in their way.

Vertical Marketing to the Rescue

Many times, Haun brought up some form of the idea that early fans might be able to make an investment in an artist. It’s just multi-level marketing. What’s more, there are much better ways to do this.

Dean Baker’s idea of The Artistic Freedom Voucher is great. But it requires a change in the system that harnesses the fact that people want to help out struggling artists that they admire. They wouldn’t do it because they think they’re going to make money off it later.

Virtual Handbags

Haun also notes that Gucci handbags cost more in the Roblox virtual world than they do in reality. But of course that Gucci handbag can only be used in that game. Imagine what it would be like if you could take that handbag to any virtual world?

She isn’t making a joke. She’s deadly serious. Here you have people paying a lot of money for something useless. And she thinks it’s a game-changer that they might be able to have that useless thing in more areas. This is all so absurd!

Of course, I should be clear that most of this is all about fashion. I don’t care about fashion in the real world and so I don’t care about it in the virtual world. So I’m probably a particularly bad person to discuss this kind of thing.

Bitcoin Energy Consumption

She pushed back on the idea that Bitcoin uses a huge amount of energy. She knows quite rightly that newer cryptocurrencies are using Proof of Stake. But as I’ve been ranting about for well over a year now, Bitcoin is by far the biggest and has no plans to change from Proof of Work.

And her solution for the fact that you can’t just change Bitcoin is that most miners are trying to use more renewable energy. Well, no shit! The cost of energy is the main thing limiting profits.

But imagine that Bitcoin was powered by solar energy. It isn’t causing global warming. Hooray! There’s still a huge opportunity cost here. That energy could be going to do something useful. Bitcoin needs all of this energy just to maintain itself. Meanwhile, I have cash in my wallet that works just as well and doesn’t take any energy!

I’m not saying that energy use by Bitcoin isn’t a huge problem. But the moment the issue came up in the conversation, her first reaction was to come out with two or three talking points to minimize it. She’s nothing but a propagandist.

Horror Film Crowdfunding

She said there was a recent movie that was crowdfunded with crypto — apparently Braid (2018). Despite what people argue, there is nothing new about the way that the film was crowdsourced. You can crowdsource dollars and give people a cut of the profits.

The solution is not technology. The solution is collective action. The solution is changing the system.

The Reveal!

For most of the podcast, I assumed Kathryn Haun was a true believer with utopian dreams like I shared with many on the late 1980s internet. But then I learned she was a general partner at the venture capital company Andreessen Horowitz, which manages almost $20 billion.

She’s also on the board of Open Sea! For those who don’t know, Open Sea is “the world’s first & largest NFT marketplace.” And for those who don’t know, NFTs are a scam.

But what really bugs me about Haun (and others like her) is that she probably got into this because it really appealed to her and she was a true believer. But she saw that there was a huge amount of money to be made.

She’s not putting money into a non-profit. No Aaron Swartz she!


The takeaway here is that Bitcoin was sold to us as this great technological innovation for currency. And it has failed absolutely. It continues to go up in value but it doesn’t work as a currency. So just as this realization finally seems to be seeping through, we get these new justifications for the cryptocurrency industry.

It’s hard to see the whole crypto world as anything but a giant con for a group of elite people. And sadly it is sustained to a large extent by a lot of utopian idealism pushed by rich elites like Kathryn Haun.

Image of Kathryn Haun taken from her Twitter profile under Fair Use.