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31 May 2012: Krugman vs. Austerians

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Paul KrugmanThis is great.

In this country, I've noticed that people who disagree with Paul Krugman tend to simply ignore his arguments and call him crazy. Last night, he was on the BBC's Newnight, debating vulture capitalist Jon Moulton and conservative MP Andrea Leadsom. The two came out swinging and got bloodied. Leadsom claimed that Krugman's view was "reckless."

The daring duo presented the same old discredited arguments we've heard before. Leadsom: we have to cut our way to prosperity! Krugman: we aren't a household; your spending is my income. Moulton: our government is too big! Krugman: larger governments are doing better; you just want to use the crisis to enact policy you've always be in favor of.

Watch it, it's great:

I like the tired conservative line that everyone will start their own businesses. And the idea that people aren't starting businesses because of all the regulations? If people want to start a business they will do it the time honored way: illegally.

It is nice to see these fucktards put in their places. Of course, they've learned nothing. If all the evidence from Europe hasn't convinced them then nothing will. Besides, there is the Upton Sinclair Dictum: it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

The Austerity Agenda

In Krugman's column tomorrow, he writes:

Over the past few days, I've posed that question [why the austerians promote a policy that is backwards] to a number of supporters of the government of Prime Minister David Cameron, sometimes in private, sometimes on TV. And all these conversations followed the same arc: They began with a bad metaphor and ended with the revelation of ulterior motives.

The bad metaphor — which you've surely heard many times — equates the debt problems of a national economy with the debt problems of an individual family. A family that has run up too much debt, the story goes, must tighten its belt. So if Britain, as a whole, has run up too much debt — which it has, although it's mostly private rather than public debt — shouldn't it do the same? What’s wrong with this comparison?


When the private sector is frantically trying to pay down debt, the public sector should do the opposite, spending when the private sector can't or won't. By all means, let's balance our budget once the economy has recovered — but not now. The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity.


So why have so many politicians insisted on pursuing austerity in slump? And why won't they change course even as experience confirms the lessons of theory and history?

Well, that's where it gets interesting. For when you push "austerians" on the badness of their metaphor, they almost always retreat to assertions along the lines of: "But it's essential that we shrink the size of the state."


So the austerity drive in Britain isn't really about debt and deficits at all; it's about using deficit panic as an excuse to dismantle social programs. And this is, of course, exactly the same thing that has been happening in America.


Category: Computer
Posted by: Frank Moraes
SpamBotSince I've been moderating my blogs, I've noticed a lot of the same things over and over. The main thing I've noticed is that whoever the people who are writing these things are, they don't write English very well. But some of them are clever. The first time you get them, they make you wonder.

One of them alerted me to the fact that my site was not loading properly in Internet Explorer. It went on to explain that this browser was the most popular and I really should do something about it. Such things can make me wonder, but I knew there was no such problem with the site. Perhaps the best such gambit is this:

of course like your web site but you have to check the spelling on several of your posts. Many of them are rife with spelling issues and I find it very bothersome to inform the truth then again I will surely come again again.

Needless to say, I was pleased that this particular spambot would come again again. If this comment had been written in something approaching standard English, I would no doubt have been driven into a fit of copy editing. But clauses like "inform the truth then again" kind of ruin the illusion.

I try to find this all amusing. But its hard because I hate it that these fucktards are wasting so much of my time again again.

30 May 2012: Krauts with Attitude

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Krauts with AttitudeYesterday, Brad Plumer over at WonkBlog wrote an article called Today in European Stereotypes, which contained some really interesting data from a couple of different sources. Plumer chose to provide the data in stages in order to present it as a mystery story. And he was very effective. I for one clicked below the fold.

But I would rather just come right out and show, I don't know, the hypocrisy of the Europeans—in particular the Germans, or as I like to call them, the Krauts. (In this time of racial sensitivity, it is nice to know you can still hate the Germans. I'll be all for easing up on them the moment they stop being assholes.) Most of the nations of Europe believe that Germans are the hardest working people. Most of the nations of Europe believe that the Greeks are the least hardworking people.

But here is a list of the countries and how many hours they work on average in parentheses:
  1. Greece (2109)
  2. Poland (1939)
  3. Italy (1778)
  4. Portugal (1714)
  5. Ireland (1664)
  6. Spain (1663)
  7. UK (1647)
  8. Germany (1419)
  9. Netherlands (1377)
There were no data for France. Also note how many hours Italians work, because they are generally considered almost as lazy as the Greeks.

Now, I know what many of you are thinking: just because they work a lot of hours doesn't mean they are productive. Certainly Plumer brings this up. And even he doesn't seem quite aware of what his data indicate. The issue isn't about productivity. Productivity is more an issue of management: if you mechanize a production line, productivity goes up. Relatively small increases are due to workers moving faster. This is the bottom line: Greek workers put in almost 50% more hours than Germans. Italians put in 25% more.

There are little doubt many reasons why people work more hours in southern Europe. But these numbers ought to put to rest this idea that Germany is not in crisis because they are virtuous and southern Europe is in crisis because they are not virtuous. No one is more aware of Greece's screwed up political system than the Greeks. But it is the Greek worker and not the Greek politician who is harmed by the austerity that Germany is imposing on Greece and much of the rest of Europe.

Everyone would be a whole lot happier if the Germans would pull their heads out of their asses.

Synecdoche, New YorkActually: first and second thoughts.

Karl Paniczny suggested that I watch Synecdoche, New York, the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman. He suggested that it might be my kind of film. I don't have much to say, because I've seen it only once. But that was more than enough to have first and second thoughts.

It is a remarkable film. And it may not be successful. But if it is a failure, it is the failure of genius. Anyone can make a mainstream film.[1] It takes hard work and great talent to make a film like Synecdoche, New York.

A couple of things struck me while watching it. One was that there were many allusions to other films. I don't know if this was intended, but I was reminded of other films several times. Also, the film is filled with brilliant ideas. Just a few: Hazel buying a house that is always on fire; Caden reading his daughter's diary that apparently fills in automatically as she grows older[2]; the final theater project that is utterly confused with reality.

To me, the film is about the fiction (or "theater" if you insist) of life. In particular, it is about the duality of a writer's work and his life. Speaking as someone who knows, I think it is more true of a failed writer than a successful one. It is easier for a successful writer to compartmentalize these two lives. The failed writer is always asked what his work means whereas everyone can understand commodities.

This leads me to my greatest concern about the film. At one point Caden tells his assistant:

None of those people is an extra. They're all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due.

That's pretty heavy handed, all by itself. But later, roughly the same line is repeated. All I could think was that Kaufman gave in to the money men.

Regardless, I look forward to watching the film a few more times. Even more, I look forward to seeing his new film Frank or Francis, which Wikipedia describes as, "a musical comedy about internet anger culture." It makes me feel like dancing. And shouting.

[1] Ever notice that any given movie star manages to direct (And often write!) a passable movie? It's because they get loads of help and all the department heads they surround themselves with are professionals. Note how no actor goes on to be a focus puller in movie. They are "directors" with a nod and a wink. I would say the same thing about most celebrity writers. Recently, I spent about 90 seconds reading Stephen Colbert's entire I Am a Pole (And So Can You!). That's 32 pages for $15.99. Can you guess how it ends? I did! The only intelligent thing I ever heard Russell Crowe say was that if they ever used his music in a movie of his we should shoot him. Any star who is an aspiring writer (or whatever) should send their work out anonymously to figure out if they really have talent. In general, I'm sure the answer will be a resounding, "No!"

[2] There is a similar sequence involving a self-help book sold to Caden by his psychologist.

Karate KidQuick Thought One

John Avildsen is a great director. I'm glad that Karate Kid was a success, but it kind of sucks when you consider that Avildsen directed Joe and Rocky. The great thing about him is that he has a vision. He fails more than he succeeds, but he always[1] succeeds his own way. And that's what makes him great.

Quick Thought Two

I just saw a bit of Karate Kid (2010). It seemed good enough. But what struck me was that it is set in China. This allowed the film to completely skip the most important thematic element of the film: the military mindset in America. It looked like the remake degenerated into "the old ways are better than the new." And that just isn't that interesting. It sure isn't what Americans need telling. More than ever we need the original.[2]

[1] Okay: not always. I've seen Rocky V too.

[2] I would complain about the horrible performance of Jaden Smith, but Ralph Macchio wasn't much better.

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
End This Depression NowI hadn't planned to read Paul Krugman's new book End This Depression Now! I read his blog every day and I've read all of his books for lay audiences, so I didn't think there would be much to offer in this book. But I couldn't help myself. The book is a quick read; Krugman writes in a breezy style that is uncommon for a political book. But more important, the book does a great job of tying up all of his various policy beliefs into a single narrative that is extremely insightful.

The book is broken down in three parts: the history of how we got to where we are now, what (and who) is stopping us from doing anything, and what we should be doing. It is much more edifying than, say, the very good documentary Inside Job. But I'm not sure it is worth the cover price of $24.95 (although it is only $15.26 in hardcover or $9.48 in electronic form on Amazon).

It is not surprising that I totally accept Krugman's argument. I've been reading him so long that I don't know where his opinions end and mine begin. I've come to believe that as long as we are living in this conservative dark age, we will always agree. It is only when the economy is doing well that I will begin to see him as a moderate. That is one of the aggravating things about our nation at this time. Krugman is in no way a radical or even particularly liberal. It is only that our society has gotten so out of kilter that he appears so.

Nonetheless, he see the world clearly. He discusses cuts to the stimulus by $100 billion to get the necessary Republican votes to pass it.

Many commentators see that demand for a smaller stimulus as a clear demonstration that no bigger bill was possible. I guess I don't think of it as being all that clear. First of all, there may have been a pound-of-fless aspect to the behavior of those three senators: they had to make a show of cutting something to prove that they weren't giving away the store. So you can make a reasonable case that the real limit on stimulus wasn't $787 billion, that it was $100 billion less than Obama's plan, whatever it was; if he had asked for more, he wouldn't have gotten all he asked for, but he would have gotten a bigger effort all the same.

I think a lot of us had thought the same thing. For one, Jonathan Chait discussed how Olympia Snowe bargained with her vote:

The retirement of Olympia Snowe, at the young (by senatorial standards) age of 65, has again dramatized the perilous condition of the Senate moderates. They have been scorned, marginalized, and hunted close to extinction. Yet the striking fact about Snowe’s career is that, far from being shunted to the sidelines, she has wielded, or been given the opportunity to wield, enormous power. She has used it, on the whole, quite badly.

When George W. Bush proposed a huge, regressive tax cut in 2001, Snowe, sitting at the heart of a decisive block of centrists, used her leverage to support the passage of a modestly smaller and less regressive version. When Barack Obama proposed a large fiscal stimulus in 2009, Snowe (citing fears of deficits that she had helped create) decided to shave a nice round $100 billion off his figure and call it a day. If a Gingrich administration proposed spending a trillion dollars to erect a 100- foot-tall solid-gold Winston Churchill statue on Mars, Snowe would no doubt decide, after careful deliberation, that the wise course was to trim the height down to 90 feet and perhaps use a cheaper bronze alloy in the base.

What this all means is that Republicans don't particularly believe in anything. Even the supposed moderate or reasonable ones only do what they think of as politically expedient. And this is all the more the reason that liberals need a political part that does stand for something. As I've noted before, we don't need to win elections; we need to move the whole field back to the left—back to where Krugman is in the center.

Until then, it is kind of useless to think too much of Krugman's plan to fix what ails us. But it is a little heartening to know the solution is as easy as Krugman says.

Alexander PopeIn the poem Eloisa to Abelard, Alexander Pope wrote:

How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd.

I know this, not because I'm big into 18th century poetry. I know it because it is quoted in one of my favorite movies, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It is an interesting literary allusion. The poem tells the story of young Eloisa and her teacher Abelard. They fall in love and secretly marry. But when her family find out, they castrate Abelard. They spend the rest of the poem trying to get over the fact that they are completely screwed. As the quote above indicates, it is about acceptance and memory, or lack there of. In a general sense, the film is about these issues. But the story of a young woman falling in love with a wise older man is in both the film and the poem. And in both cases, it does not go well. Of course, Abelard does much worse than Howard Mierzwiak.

This evening, I watched the film again. It has been a while. It is such a delight. But I saw the film in a different way than I have previously. This time, the story of Mary and Howard was much more important. It demonstrated that forgetfulness deprives ourselves of the ability to learn and grow. Without it, we will continue to make the same mistake over and over. This might work for Eloisa and Abelard, because their problems are imposed from without, but the rest of us are dealing with mostly self-inflicted problems.

It is only with the Mary and Howard story that the ending can be seen as anything other than a tragedy. Because Mary offers them the ability to see where their previous relationship ended, they can (hopefully) learn and grow into a better relationship this time.

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Median IncomeThe graph on the left shows the median family income over the last 35 years. What you notice is that incomes have not increased much over this time period: roughly $5,000 or 10%. That is far far far less than the per capita increase in income over that same time. The reason for this is that almost all of the gains have gone to the top—the very top mostly.

Let me suggest something: we should raise the top income tax bracket. When Reagan came into office, that bracket was 70%. It was lowered because of "trickle down" economics—the idea that if the rich did better then everyone else would too. That hasn't happened. It turns out—Quelle surprise!—that lowering the taxes of the wealthy just makes the wealthy even more so and doesn't do a damn thing for anyone else.

Before Reagan, the the top tax bracket hadn't been less than 70% since 1936. What's more, since 1917 it had only been much below 70% during the years just before and after the start of the Great Depression. So clearly, as a country, we seem to think that 70% is about right for the top tax bracket.[1]

Given that lowering the top tax bracket from 70% to 35% has at best done nothing good for the country as a whole, I think we should return to the old tax bracket. All we have to gain is a larger degree of economic equality.

[1] Contrary to what a lot of people think, this does not mean that people with a lot of income pay that amount. This is a marginal tax rate. They only paid this on the income they made above what is now over a half million dollars.

24 May 2012: Pena Ajena!

Category: Language
Posted by: Frank Moraes
So Bad So Good published an interesting article a few weeks back called 25 Handy Words That Simply Don’t Exist In English. It says, "We look at 25 words that simply don’t exist in the English langauge (and yet after reading this list, you’ll wish they did!)" It is a fun article, but I have a few thoughts about it.

1 Age-otori (Japanese): To look worse after a haircut

We do have phrases like "getting your ears lowered." But more specifically, we do have a word: nice. "Oh! You got your hair cut. It looks nice."

2 Arigata-meiwaku (Japanese): An act someone does for you that you didn’t want to have them do and tried to avoid having them do, but they went ahead anyway, determined to do you a favor, and then things went wrong and caused you a lot of trouble, yet in the end social conventions required you to express gratitude

This is a good one. We do have a specialized word for it, however: Christmas.

3 Backpfeifengesicht (German): A face badly in need of a fist

Leave it to the Krauts, huh? I can't think of anything here, but I just don't see the usefulness of this word.

4 Bakku-shan (Japanese): A beautiful girl… as long as she’s being viewed from behind

I'm out of my depth here. I just don't think about this kind of thing, but I suspect we have words and phrases for this.

5 Desenrasçanço (Portuguese): “to disentangle” yourself out of a bad situation (To MacGyver it)

We do have a word for this: divorce. Geez!

6 Duende (Spanish): a climactic show of spirit in a performance or work of art, which might be fulfilled in flamenco dancing, or bull-fighting, etc.

What? The fact that it is associated with flamenco and bull-fighting might have something to do with the fact that we haven't needed to coin such an odd word.

7 Forelsket (Norwegian): The euphoria you experience when you are first falling in love

We're Americans. We just call it love, because we never get more mature than that.

8 Gigil (pronounced Gheegle; Filipino): The urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute

I think we do have a word for this, or a sound. You know: oiggeeeg!

9 Guanxi (Mandarin): in traditional Chinese society, you would build up good guanxi by giving gifts to people, taking them to dinner, or doing them a favor, but you can also use up your gianxi by asking for a favor to be repaid

This is all very nice, but we most definitely have a word for this and it is even in the definition: favor. Or a phrase, "good graces." This one isn't even close.

10 Ilunga (Tshiluba, Congo): A person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time

We don't have such amenable people.

11 L’esprit de l’escalier (French): usually translated as “staircase wit,” is the act of thinking of a clever comeback when it is too late to deliver it

This is just silly. We definitely have a word that means L’esprit de l’escalier: L’esprit de l’escalier! Geez!

12 Litost (Czech): a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery

I don't know about you, but I always use bergmanesque.

13 Mamihlapinatapai (Yaghan): A look between two people that suggests an unspoken, shared desire

This is a nice one. I think it is well represented by "shared glance" however.

14 Manja (Malay): "to pamper", it describes gooey, childlike and coquettish behavior by women designed to elicit sympathy or pampering by men. "His girlfriend is a damn manja. Hearing her speak can cause diabetes."

I don't even know what this is supposed to be. Does it mean to pamper or one who incites the desire to pamper? Regardless, I don't want to be in any social setting where I might need to use this word.

15 Meraki (pronounced may-rah-kee; Greek): Doing something with soul, creativity, or love. It’s when you put something of yourself into what you’re doing

Like a soulless people would need such a word!

16 Nunchi (Korean): the subtle art of listening and gauging another’s mood. In Western culture, nunchi could be described as the concept of emotional intelligence. Knowing what to say or do, or what not to say or do, in a given situation. A socially clumsy person can be described as ‘nunchi eoptta’, meaning “absent of nunchi”

I think we would call this empathy, but this word has a nice specificity.

17 Pena ajena (Mexican Spanish): The embarrassment you feel watching someone else’s humiliation

Leave it to the Mexicans to coin a phrase that—out of all of the words here—I really do feel bad about not having. I'll just have to memorize this and start using it. Pena ajena!

18 Pochemuchka (Russian): a person who asks a lot of questions

I can see that my friends might feel deprived by the lack of his word. But in general, we have no use for such a word because as a people we do not ask a lot of questions. We just talk a lot. And there are lots of words for that!

19 Schadenfreude (German): the pleasure derived from someone else’s pain

Again: the Krauts! I am liking those people less and less. Contrast with the Mexicans.

20 Sgriob (Gaelic): The itchiness that overcomes the upper lip just before taking a sip of whisky

I'm not a big whiskey drinker, but even still, I have no idea what this is. Perhaps you have to be a drunk. Or Irish.

21 Taarradhin (Arabic): implies a happy solution for everyone, or "I win. You win." It’s a way of reconciling without anyone losing face. Arabic has no word for "compromise," in the sense of reaching an arrangement via struggle and disagreement

Perhaps we would just say "a solution" or "agreement." I would say, "The denouement of every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation."

22 Tatemae and Honne (Japanese): What you pretend to believe and what you actually believe, respectively

Not fair! That's two words. Anyway, I don't think these are difficult enough concepts to require their own words.

23 Tingo (Pascuense language of Easter Island): to borrow objects one by one from a neighbor’s house until there is nothing left

I don't believe it! What? Like someone borrows your screwdrivers one by one until he has the set? Does anyone even live on Easter Island?[1]

24 Waldeinsamkeit (German): The feeling of being alone in the woods

Might I suggest: alone? Or "alone in the woods" if you're not into the whole brevity thing.[2]

25 Yoko meshi (Japanese): literally ‘a meal eaten sideways,’ referring to the peculiar stress induced by speaking a foreign language

I wouldn't know about that.

Are you experiencing Pena ajena?

[1] Yes! There are 5,034 residents of Easter Island, according to Wikipedia.

[2] Yes, I am quoting from The Big Lebowski, which I seem to do more and more as the years go by.

24 May 2012: God Hates Figs

Category: Spirituality
Posted by: Frank Moraes
God Hates FIgsI've written before about Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church and their campaign (and website) "God Hates Fags!" Well, some clever person has noticed that they have it all wrong. It isn't fags; it's figs. Click on the image to buy the shirt. Or don't. I have no stake in it.

Mark 11 (New American Standard Bible):

12 On the next day, when they had left Bethany, He became hungry. 13 Seeing at a distance a fig tree in leaf, He went to see if perhaps He would find anything on it; and when He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” And His disciples were listening.

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Colorado Congressman Mike Coffman got caught in a brouhaha recently after claiming that he wasn't sure if President Obama was a citizen. This is a big deal because it calls into question the legitimacy of the government by one of its official representatives. This statement didn't really bother me, however. Coffman is just another crazy Republican, saying crazy things. And anyway, he apologized:

What bothered me about his statement was not his uncertainly; it was his certainty. Here is the whole quote:

I don't know whether Barack Obama was born in the United States of America. I don't know that, but I do know this, that in his heart, he's not an American. He's just not an American.

This does offend me. This isn't just a partisan attack. This is the line that Republicans always hold. It is the same hubris that most Christians have in believing that they alone know what God wants. In this case, Republicans know what America is and anyone who disagrees with them is not an American. They define what it is to be American. (Of course, they hold a thimble full of liquid out of the ocean of truth.)

When Coffman apologized, he said more than, "I misspoke and I apologize." Here it is:

I have confidence in President Obama's citizenship and legitimacy as President of the United States... However, I don't believe the President shares my belief in American Exceptionalism. His policies reflect a philosophy that America is but one nation among many equals. As a Marine, I believe America is unique and based on a core set of principles that make it superior to other nations.

So he doubled down on the, "If you don't believe what I do, you're a communist." Whatever.

For the record, I do not believe in American Exceptionalism, although President Obama clearly does. I accept that Americans who believe in this doctrine are Americans, but I suspect they are delusional. And I'm not even talking about our many and varied policy failures over the years to spread "freedom and democracy" around the world. We have a big army and a big economy and we use it to bully the world into giving us what we want. This is the only way in which we are exceptional. But throughout history, this is exactly how all big empires operated. And there is nothing exceptional about that.

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Pretend Scientist Fred SingerWhen I was a global change scientist, I had occasion to hang out with Fred Singer. This isn't surprising, because I was an iconoclast in a group of iconoclasts. And the fact is that at that time (the early 1990s), there was a lot to doubt about global warming. The models weren't that good and we hadn't seen the dramatic temperature increases that we've had the last decade and a half.

Fred was an interesting guy. He was really into gadgets—a true early adopter. And he liked to be the one beating up on the existing paradigm. But I noticed something about him that bothered me even then. He seemed inclined to cherry pick data. He just wasn't interested in data that went against his belief that global warming was nothing.

At that time, I was very much under the spell of James Lovelock and the idea that humans could not change the world because it was its own organism. This all depended upon negative climate feedbacks, and a lot of us were out looking for them. Unfortunately, they never appeared. The more I looked, the more it looked like the climate system was dangerously unstable. But Fred Singer didn't see climate science inside a framework of the Gia Hypothesis. Instead, it seemed political.

On Monday, I saw that the Heartland Institute, a free market think tank[1], had put up the following billboard for their upcoming climate conference:

Heartland Global Warming Billboard

At first, I didn't get the meaning of this sign. I thought it meant, "Even someone as crazy as Ted believes in global warming, why don't you?" But that's not it. Instead, it means, "Only people as crazy as Ted believe in global warming, why do you?" And this is why I am never invited to focus groups.

The Heartland Institute triggered my Fred Singer alarm. I somehow thought he might be involved. And he is. At least, he has published with them. But checking out Wikipedia, I found that he had written an OpEd regarding the "Climategate" scandal. From the Wikipedia article:

In December 2009, after the release of thousands of e-mails from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit—a controversy that came to be known as "Climategate"—Singer wrote an opinion piece for Reuters in which he said the scientists had misused peer review, pressured editors to prevent publication of alternative views, and smeared opponents. He said the leaked e-mails showed that the "surface temperature data that IPCC relies on is based on distorted raw data and algorithms that they will not share with the science community." He argued that the incident exposed a flawed process, and that the temperature trends were heading downwards even as greenhouse gases like CO2 were increasing in the atmosphere. He wrote: "This negative correlation contradicts the results of the models that IPCC relies on and indicates that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is quite small," concluding "and now it turns out that global warming might have been 'man made' after all." A British House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee later issued a report that largely exonerated the scientists.

In other words, Fred Singer was totally wrong, but used the opportunity to push his conservative political agenda. And that's just what I expect from him.

[1] It seems strange to me to call such places think tanks when they are mostly just propaganda mills. And the problem is pretty much only on the right. It is very much like Fox News—it is hard to call it news, because it isn't.

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Our friend, the photographer George Henry was at the NATO protest on Sunday. And for the kindness of covering the event, he was beaten up and arrested. Of course, that doesn't distinguish him from many people at the event. In the photo below, we see our protectors of order protecting the order. George Henry has 29 high resolution images up at his website. Check them out!

NATO Protest - George Henry

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Sarah Palin on Fox News

I take back anything nice or understanding I ever said about Sarah Palin. She is stupid—at least compared to other people who are around her—people like Sean Hannity, who are not themselves intellectual giants. Ditto for her morality, which at least is no worse than that of those who are around her. When I say—as I will from now on—that she is stupid and evil, this is what I mean.

22 May 2012: Famous Blue Raincoat

Category: Music
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Songs of Love and HateIn a conversation, Leonard Cohen came up—in particular, his song Famous Blue Raincoat. It is my kind of song. It is written as a letter to a brother. It recounts the story of the brother cheating with the writer's wife: "So you treated my woman to a flake of your life / And when she got home she was nobody's wife." Famous Blue Raincoat is filled with the kind of resignation and tired bitterness that seems to define adult life.

Leonard Cohen came up in a discussion of Jacques Brel. In discussing him and having to defend my high opinion of him, I have come to see that what I most connect with is the sadness, anger, and bitterness of his songs—both in writing and in singing. See if you can spot these elements in this recent performance of Famous Blue Raincoat:

"Thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes / I thought it was there for good, so I never tried." Wow.

22 May 2012: Spambot Update

Category: Computer
Posted by: Frank Moraes
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For the hundredth time: if you're going to code a spambot, why not fill it with actual English sentences?

I especially like "Magnificent issues altogether" and "Fantastic issues altogether." It reminds me of Ed Grimley:

22 May 2012: Fuente Ovejuna

Lope de VegaI recently read the Angel Flore and Muriel Kittel translation of Lope de Vega's Fuente Ovejuna. It was written right at the end of Shakespeare's career, when he was writing such gems as Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Fuente Ovejuna is not a perfect play by any means, but by the standards of the time, it is a classic.

The main thing one notices while reading it is that it has great dramatic momentum. It certainly has speeches and songs, but they are short. It resembles nothing so much as what a group of high school students would create if asked to put on a play about this historical event.

The synopsis of Fuente Ovejuna is really quite simple. The lord of the town is misbehaving by raping many of the young girl. Finally, the town men rise up and kill the lord. Given that the plot is so simple, the play can deal with the characters, and more important, their interactions.

No character is more important or well written than Laurencia. I know of no female character in all of Shakespeare who can compare with her. There are reasons for this, of course. Vega had actual women actors playing his female characters whereas Shakespeare had boys. As Gary Taylor has noted, this tended to limit the females in his plays to pretty young things and old hags. The only Shakespearean character that strikes me at all like Laurencia is Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. But even Beatrice is at heart a sad sop. Laurencia is captured by the lord, but manages to escape before being raped but after being beaten. She finds the men of the town and yells at them for allowing all that has happened. She shames them into action.

One of my great annoyances about Shakespeare is the density of the text—the overuse of allusions and puns. It is hard to say if Lope de Vega suffers from these problems, because I read an English translation. But it doesn't seem as though he does. It also seems likely that he didn't have time for such nonsense. Shakespeare wrote 38 plays (more or less); Lope wrote many hundreds. I'm all for craft, but not when it just annoys me.

The only major flaw of Fuente Ovejuna is that it throws in scenes about the higher lords and the King. This is a problem that Shakespeare shares, but to a much worse extent. In most of Shakespeare's plays, you can get nauseous from the rapid scene changes. This is not the case here. And there is a reason for these scenes. But it is clear that the play could have focused entirely on the town with what must be more recent theatrical innovations.[1]

Just like Shakespeare is rarely performed in the Spanish speaking world, Lope de Vega is rarely performed in the English speaking world. There is a whole Spanish filmed version of the play online. But mostly, even in Spanish, Fuente Ovejuna is performed in adaptations. Here is a collection of scenes from a caberet act based on the play:

Overall, Fuente Ovejuna is an excellent play, especially for its time. We English speakers should definitely pay more attention to Spanish golden age theater. Theater that begins and ends with the English Renaissance is a very poor theater indeed.

[1] This is the one thing that most defines early 17th drama: the inclusion of lots of narrative that the audience just doesn't care about. Think of Romeo and Juliet. Did we have to see the apothecary scene? We learned everything we needed when Romeo dies, "Oh true apothecary! Thy drugs are quick."

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Facebook SucksAs regular users know, I read Ezra Klein regularly, but I have problems with him. He is too intent on seeing both sides of every conflict, even when he has to strain credulity to do so. Thirty years ago, the truth was somewhere between left and right in this country—more to the left, but the right had actual ideas and some of them were good. Since then, both parties have taken a brisk walk along the loony pier. But in recent years, the right has looked more like Usain Bolt[1] than mom's power walk group. If the truth is anywhere in the left-right Overton Window of American politics, it is in the Democratic Party camp. It is quite simply not true that the truth lies between left and right in this country. The right have jumped off the loony pier and are now swimming in the fascist ocean.

All of this is not to say that Ezra Klein isn't a smart and insightful guy. There's a reason I read him every day. And that reason was on display last Friday when he hosted The Rachel Maddow Show. He really gets to the core of income inequality and why it is a problem in this video that should not be controversial:

I'll let the video speak for itself, because I think it does. But I do what to say something about Facebook.

Facebook is not that great, but if you like it, well, a rich life is its own reward. But the main thing is that Facebook is not innovative. There is nothing important in Facebook that wasn't in lots of other social networking sites before. Facebook had two things that were critical: plenty of start-up cash because the founders were well connected (mostly to their wealthy parents) and luck. Sometimes the best plan is to have a little luck. But it continues to annoy me that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and now, I can hardly believe this, Mark Zuckerberg are considered technological messiahs. Steve Jobs was a marketing genius. Bill Gates was a ruthless businessman. And Mark Zuckerberg was a nerd with a banal idea, like millions of others who don't have his connections. There are actual geniuses in the computer world—Linus Torvalds and Mitch Kapor come immediately to mind—but they aren't the guys you see on the cover of Time Magazine.

Update (21 May 2012 10:28)

Silicon Valley likes to think it operates as a pure meritocracy, e.g., it's the best teams and ideas which get funded. In practice, as luminaries from John Doerr to Ron Conway acknowledge, key decisions are often guided by a combination of pattern-matching based on superficial characteristics and the network of people you already know.Mitch Kapor on why there aren't more minorities in Silicon Valley

[1] Usain Bolt is a world record holding Jamaican sprinter. Here he is one of the times he set the world record for the 100 meter dash (he has since beat this time by 0.18 seconds):

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Klu Klux Klan and Their Fabulous Outfits

Jim Lo Scalzo spent last summer in Southwestern Virginia taking pictures of the resurgent Klu Klux Klan. Before we get to the great article he wrote for Bag News, I feel I must tell you that I had no idea the Klan outfits were so beautiful. They are really gorgeous. If they would embrace their inner gayness, I think they might get over all that hate.

Scalzo noticed something in his discussions with Klan members: they often surprised him.

For example, one wrote to him about visiting the Rosa Parks museum in Alabama. According to this guy who hates blacks, it was great and shouldn't be missed. (Remember this: the Rosa Parks Museum is a "must see" if you are in Alabama. If a bigot doesn't know, who does?)

When it comes to economic justice, the Klan members tend toward the liberal. This isn't exactly surprising. I think the vast majority of Republicans would sound very liberal if you got them off the subject of "all my tax dollars going to undeserving minorities."

Scalzo write:

Last summer’s budget battle between President Obama and congressional Republicans seemed to crystallize the economic clash as one between the haves and have-nots—a dynamic not lost on those I was photographing. Even if most Klan members did not admit siding with president Obama, they openly railed against Republican budget proposals, specifically the GOP's attempts to cut social programs like Medicaid and food stamps while maintaining tax breaks for the wealthy.

Klu Klux Klan for Obama, 2012. When you start seeing the bumper stickers, remember you read it here first.

Category: Computer
Posted by: Frank Moraes
John Scalzi at his Whatever Blog has a great flowchart explaining who gets to be a dick on his website:


I would create something similar, but that isn't the way it works around here. In general, anyone can be as big a dick as they want. I just don't have enough people commenting to complain. In fact, I love it when someone yells at me.

As I was preparing to post this, Rafael yelled at me about being mean to Moe Tucker and more generally The Velvet Underground. This is strange, because I love the band. Some people are such big fans that they can brook not even the smallest insults. Thus, I believe it is with Rafael. Here's a taste, but check out the whole thing along with my response:

[T]his article seemed like some kind of ill fated attempt to get people to stop fretting over her political views, but instead of just pointing out "she can believe what she wants, she's not obligated to be liberal because of her counterculture past, ect." you basically excused [expressed? attacked?] her political views as "Crazy" in a very condescending manner, and pointed out that she's "losing her mind because she's old". does telling people to leave her alone about her politics; then spending half the post ranting about how she only believes this because she's old and debating whatever she says make much sense to you? I am not a tea party supporter, and I in fact disagree heavily with them, but I cant dismiss things she genuinely believes in as "old people nonsense". nice post, hypocrite.

Who gets to be a hypocrite on this website? I do! I alone! Ha ha ha ha!


John Scalzi's comment policy is very funny. Check it out.

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Ted TalksThere's been much controversy about Nick Hanauer's talk for TED. He made an argument that shouldn't even have to be made: high levels of inequality are not only morally wrong but bad for the rich as well as the poor and middle class. At first, the head of TED, Chris Anderson, would not post the video because he claimed it was too partisan. This didn't shock me, because I think TED talks have a distinct bias. They are often very good, but they definitely push a particular socially liberal, economically conservative line. You'll never hear anything noticeably outside the Overton Window.

This afternoon, TED finally posted the video, saying that they would let viewers decide for themselves. There's a thought!

Ezra Klein, hardly a radical, noted that the speech was not partisan. "To my ears, Hanauer framed the issue in a way that was explicitly nonpartisan. The only mention of either party comes at the beginning" when he mentioned both parties disapprovingly.

Here is the whole six minute video. The only thing controversial about it is that it might not be welcome by some wealthy people. We live in a seriously screwed up country.

Shockingly, this video has only received 300 views thus far.

Update (20 May 2012 8:02 pm)

Now the video has over 400,000 views. It must be all the traffic I sent to it.

Category: Music
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Scott Walker is a fine musician, with interesting ideas and a great voice. And yet, when I listen to this great Jacques Brel song, I can't help but think of it as I do Pat Boone performing Blueberry Hill:

As opposed to Fats Domino.

Here is Jacques Brel, debuting the original song, Mathilde:

Can it be that Walker doesn't understand the song? The agony and the ecstasy? It certainly seems that he doesn't. There is no doubt that Brel understands it—probably far better than we do.

16 May 2012: Birthday Rankings!

Category: Science
Posted by: Frank Moraes
I'm going to be out most of tomorrow, so I may not post anything (not that I've been all that consistent recently). But that's not why I'm posting this. It just struck me as too cool:

Birthday Rankings

Taken from Daily Mail.

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Robert ReichI'm very fond of Robert Reich, but I think he is fundamentally wrong in discussing how conservatives have public and private morality backwards. Yesterday, he noted that Mitt Romney thinks that banks—in particular, J. P. Morgan Chase—should be allowed to do whatever they want, because the market will figure it out. We all know how well that's worked historically.

At the same time, Romney thinks that people's private morality—whom to marry or when to have children—should be controlled by the government.

Reich writes:

This is a dangerous confusion. It should be a matter of personal choice whom to marry and when to have children. But it is undoubtedly a matter of public choice whether big banks should be allowed to take the kind of risky bets that plunged the economy into the worst downturn since the Great Depression, and whether people with great wealth should be able to buy our democracy with huge campaign contributions.

Reich is right about this from a policy standpoint. But I don't think this is how the conservatives elites see it. Instead, they are looking for ways to remove all societal restrictions on what the wealthy can do. Taxes take away freedom from the rich. But abortion rights and even marriage laws do not affect them. They can buy their way around them. If a wealthy man wants to marry another man, he can set up the legal framework to have everything but the title "marriage." And if he really wants the title, he can just live full time in another country. As for abortion? If a wealthy man wants his daughter to have an abortion, he'll just fly her to Amsterdam.[1]

The morality of Romney and his peers is that of the aristocracy. The rich are rich because they are better than the rest of us. Therefore, there should be no limits on their behavior. And in general, there aren't.[2]

[1] Note that this is largely what the Democratic Party has become since President Clinton. The people who fund the Democrats are socially liberal, but fiscally conservative. They still want to screw the poor. They believe in gay rights for rich people. A homeless gay man doesn't think that his life is bad because he can't marry another man. And so on among the various Democratic Party constituents.

[2] Here's a nice video that goes along with Reich's article:

Jeopardy!This week on the game show Jeopardy! they are presenting "Power Players," which is basically media figures. Tonight the show featured evil spawn of an arguably great man, Chris Wallace; proof that anyone can become a doctor and have their own TV show, Dr. Oz; and hardly great but the British press are almost always better than their American peers, Katty Kay.

Early on, two "answers" really struck me. The first was, "The tax credit only poor workers qualify for." The answer (obviously) is "Earned." The second was, "Keynes' book 'The General Theory of this, Interest and Money'." The answer (obviously) is "Employment." Not one of these "Power Players" got these "questions."

This made me think that the reason must be that they don't have to worry about things like earning money and being employed. These are society's elite. They don't need to think about the stuff that occupies the Little People.

When the show started, I wondered, "Why would these people go on Jeopardy! when they might embarrass themselves?" I found the answer very quickly. The "answers" were trivial compared to those normal contestants ("Little People") face. You know, this is the way it has to be: the lives of these "Power Players" aren't easy enough.

Category: Music
Posted by: Frank Moraes
This is arguably the greatest piece ever written for the flute. It is Francis Poulenc's Sonata for Flute and Piano. Here it is played by Jean-Pierre Rampal, the flutist the Sonata was composed for:

And here is the master getting funky with composer Claude Bolling (also on piano[1]):

[1] When first performed the Sonata for Flute and Piano had its composer on piano. Unfortunately, I cannot find a recording of it.

Category: Language
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of WritingElmore Leonard is not one of my favorite writers, but I will allow that he has talent. And if forced to choose between Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, Danielle Steele. and Leonard, I'd pick Leonard. Faint praise, I know. It's no wonder that so many of his novels have become films, because that is about the depth at which he writes. He is the only writer I know who is still able to publish pulp novels.

A few years ago, he published a writing book. Actually, "book" is a kind assessment. In fact, even to call it a pamphlet would be to pump it up. It's about 500 words: one typed sheet of paper. And at $14.99, Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing is pretty expensive. Still, the rules are useful.

1. Never Open a Book With Weather

Here he telling writers to get on with plot. Don't try to set the mood—no one is interested in the mood. Many years ago, I saw Kurt Vonnegut lecture at my school. He provided this same information by saying, "Burn the first three pages of your novel, because you probably used it to describe a sunflower." Vonnegut also provided another rule that Leonard doesn't touch on, "Every story needs an Iago." I don't believe this, but the advice is good: it makes the writing so much easier.

2. Avoid Prologues

See 1.

3. Never Use a Verb Other Than "Said" to Carry Dialogue

This rule made me think. And I'm still thinking about it. In discussing this rule, Leonard writes, "I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with 'she asseverated,' and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary." I do, however, think there are times when something other than "said" is in order.

4. Never Use an Adverb to Modify the Verb "Said"

See 3.

5. Keep Your Exclamation Points Under Control

Boring advice, or just useless? You decide!

6. Never Use the Words "Suddenly" or "All Hell Broke Loose"

See 5. See also: cliches, writing of.

7. Use Regional Dialect, Patois, Sparingly

Lots of great writers do this. Think: Faulkner. And while I'm on the subject, it really bugs me when people spell mama, moma. Moma is the Museum of Modern Art.

8. Avoid Detailed Descriptions of Characters

Jack Lord HairI doubt this is a big problem for most writers. I know I describe characters only as much as absolutely necessary. I think people like some notion of what a character looks like. In my current novel, I provide three details about the main character: tall, thin, Jack Lord hair.

9. Don't Go Into Great Detail Describing Places and Things

See 1.

10. Try to Leave Out the Part That Readers Tend to Skip

See 1.

As you can see, Leonard's 10 rules are really just 5. Actually, you can boil them all down to this: write only action and dialog. And that's pretty good advice. But not worth $14.99.

13 May 2012: Thank You Mom

Category: Fun
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Happy Mothers' Day!

Category: Music
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Jean FerrandisI am very poor. It has been many years since I have been to any live concert, much less a symphony. But I received a card in the mail alerting me to an upcoming performance by the Santa Rosa Symphony. The conductor, Bruno Ferrandis, had brought his brother, flutist Jean Ferrandis, in for the season finale. Being an old flute player myself, I decided to get tickets for the "Discovery Open Rehearsal" because it was cheap.

The rehearsal was not what I had expected. I thought this would be like the dress rehearsal for a play. At one of these, unless the lead actor's hair catches on fire, the performance continues. The first thing I noticed here was that this was not a dress rehearsal; the musicians were mostly dressed in shorts and tank tops—it was 92 today in Santa Rosa. Then Bruno comes out and tells the orchestra, "Start at measure 22." Of course, he says it in an outrageous French accent, so it was still pretty cool.

After about 20 minutes of rehearsal, they perform the whole piece: Debussy's Jeux. It was unremarkable.

Then, Jean Ferrandis comes on stage with his flute. They are going to do the Mozart: the Flute Concerto in D—the lesser of the two flute concertos Mozart deemed to "write" (he did not like the flute, and I can't really blame him). The first two movements go well enough. Jean is my kind of flutist: clear and accurate with little showiness. Half way through the third—and best—movement, the orchestra stops. I'm not sure why. It seems that Jean wanted to do a little rubato and Bruno forgot. I feel for both brothers. On the one hand, rubato used in that particular phrase worked really well. On the other hand, this is really pushing Mozart—it wasn't meant to be!

At this point, there was a break. I was really thinking that I had wasted my money. Then the group came back together to perform Ibert's Flute Concerto. Wow. One of my most favorite pieces in the world is Francis Poulenc's Sonata for Flute and Piano. Ibert's piece is perhaps as good. And Jean's performance of it was exquisite, even though he didn't not have it memorized. (He seemed to have much of it memorized, but he was still dependent upon sheet music.)

Jean Ferrandis left and the orchestra performed a very capable version of Ravel's La Valse. It seemed a strange program: 3 early 20th century French works and one of Mozart's most banal adult works. Truly, it didn't work, but I suspect that the Mozart was thrown in as a bone to make up for all the airy and dissonant music. It can't have been that after all these years Jean still likes to perform it; I was bored with it at 17; then again, that may be what distinguishes a great artist from me.[1]

In the end, I wish I had ponied up the extra cash and saw a real performance. But certainly the Ibert was worth the entire cost.

And now for something completely different, a Cuban version of Für Elise:

[1] The D Major Flute Concerto seems to be a signature piece for Jean Ferrandis. On his CV it says, "Leonard Bernstein was so impressed by his performance of the adagio from Mozart’s D major concerto that he remarked 'It is Pan himself!' and subsequently composed a cadenza for Mr. Ferrandis." On the front page of his website, there is an audio clip of the rehearsal of the concerto where Bernstein says this: "C'est pan lui-même!" Also, I don't mean to put down Mozart. He remains the composer I listen to the most. I just don't think he was at his best when composing these pieces, fun though they are.

11 May 2012: Letter to the Editor

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
The Cause Eric AltermanI always look forward to Fridays, for many reasons, but especially because Eric Alterman releases his blog post that day where he also has at least one of his own articles and one by Reed Richardson. Last week, I clicked over to The Nation where Alterman keeps his blog, Altercation, and... Nothing! I knew he wasn't gone for good; he's an institution: a liberal curmudgeon—and so precocious! He just published The Cuase: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama,[1] which I have, but haven't gotten to because I am too busy devouring Michelle Alexander's important The New Jim Crow and I got sidetracked reading some policy candy that I promised myself I wouldn't read: Paul Krugman's End This Depression Now!

So I figured that maybe Alterman took the week off. This did not stop me, however, from clicking to The Nation on Saturday morning, only to find his new page was up. I was so giddy that I sent off the following missive that he published this week:

"Wehw!" I said, wiping the sweat from my brow with the back of my hand.

"When you weren't here on Friday, I thought you had abandoned me!"

"No grasshopper," Eric Alterman said. "I would never abandon my reading public."

"Even for a book tour?" I asked.

"Even for a book tour," he said.

And all was calm.

Alterman appears to like my sense of humor, because this is the second cheeky letter of mine he's published this year. Or it could be that I'm the only one who writes to him. I like this approach to commenting on written works. The standard method in the blogosphere of everyone with an opinion piling on strikes me as largely a waste of time. The few good comments are overwhelmed in a sea of trash. I would rather go back to the old magazine model where only the few letters deemed worth while are published so that a reasonable number of people would actually take the time to read them. I understand that there is a strong narcissistic aspect to commenting (or writing) in any way. But in the new model, it seems worse because it is so much more useless.

[1] The book is co-written with Kevin Mattson. According to Eric Alterman, Mattson wrote the first draft and Alterman greatly expanded it and wrote every word in this version. My question: why when Alterman does this, he's the first author in a larger font and when I do it, I'm handed a bit of cash and told to disappear?

Category: Science
Posted by: Frank Moraes

The Neolithic Revolution is the time about 10,000 years ago when humans in a number of places independently stopped hunting and gathering and started to farm. As a result, it is said, humans settled down; they stopped being nomadic. But in an article over at Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that this view is wrong, or at least more complicated.

They point to two settlements—Göbekli Tepe and Çatalhöyük (pictured above)—where the inhabitants where hunters and gatherers. This makes me wonder why people generally think that agriculture caused people to settle down rather than people settling down caused agriculture. Here are two clear cases in which settlements existed without agriculture.

Acemoglu and Robinson are economists. Their point is that institutional innovation generally precedes technological innovation. I find this very compelling. For example, if I'm a solitary hunter and gatherer, any technology I invent will likely be shared by a limited number of people and thus be much less likely to be integrated widely. On the other hand, if I live inside a group of 500 people, it is far more likely that my innovation will become part of the society.

With this idea of the Neolithic Revolution, people built permanent villages from which they ran their hunting and gathering operations. Over time, people noticed things: seeds grow into plants; we can save the seeds from the food we eat; seeds can be put someplace convenient and close by; in time, things we eat will be abundant someplace convenient and close by. That seems much more likely than that people started farming and this caused them to create settlements.

Fascinating stuff!

10 May 2012: We're Doomed

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
James HansonWhen I was working in the field in the early 1990s, the concentration of carbon-dioxide was roughly 340 ppmv. I knew it was rising, of course; but I was surprised to read today that it is now just short of 400 ppmv. This is worrying enough, but yesterday, that titan of the field, James Hanson, wrote an Op Ed in the New York Times where he said this:

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.

I don't have a lot to add. Hanson goes on to say that we know the science and now it is time to work on the politics.

I have one thing to say about that.

We're doomed.

10 May 2012: Enormous Mustache

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
As I've reported before, Atrios named Thomas Friedman the Wanker of the Decade. Via his site, The Partisan Report has produced Thomas Friedman Is An Enormous Mustache. It is the funniest thing I've seen this week, and that's saying a lot.

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Is this still funny in the age of George Zimmerman?


Category: Fun
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Barbara FieldsI thought it about time to go back to my sort of sexist hobby of ogling at female public intellectuals. In my defense, I have wanted to include men because (1) this isn't about sex and (2) Chris Hayes is cute as a button. (Sadly, I'm afraid that Hayes would not make the cut—he falls a little short on the learned scale.) For some time I have wanted to do an article about Elizabeth Warren. Like all liberals, I have a vague feeling that she is just what I've been waiting for. And she is arguably as cute as Chris Hayes. She just seemed too pat a choice. And she's much too famous. My last choice—Melissa Harris-Perry—would no longer make the cut since she has become so famous.

When I first watched Ken Burns: The Civil War 20 years ago, like most people, I was very taken with Shelby Foote's southern charm and great storytelling. But this last week when I watched the series again I was blown away by Barbara J. Fields, the historian at Columbia University. She speaks more incisively about the Civil War than anyone else when it comes to its broader meaning. Certainly Foote is still the best when talking about the war on the micro-scale—about individuals caught up in it. But I'm not really interested in that any more. In that way, the war was a catastrophe. It is only in the broader context that all that suffering means something.

Here is Fields talking about exactly that:

I think what we need to remember, most of all, is that the Civil War is not over until we, today, have done our part in fighting it, as well as understanding what happened when the Civil War generation fought it. William Faulkner said once that history is not "was" it's "is." And what we need to remember about the Civil War is that the Civil War is in the present as well as the past. The generation that fought the war, the generation that argued over the definition of the war, the generation that had to pay the price in blood, that had to pay the price in blasted hopes and a lost future, also established a standard that will not mean anything until we have finished the work. You can say there's no such thing as slavery, we're all citizens. But if we're all citizens, then we have a task to do to make sure that that too is not a joke. If some citizens live in houses and others live on the street, the Civil War is still going on. It's still to be fought and regrettably, it can still be lost.

I'd never thought about this, but we are at war with each other. And this is why the claims of Romney that raising the top tax rate is "class warfare" are so offensive. There is a class war in this country, but it isn't found there. But then, I don't suspect that Romney and his ilk see many homeless people.

Barbara Fields is beautiful, intelligent, learned. And compassionate.


Last year, Fields gave a speech at the 150th anniversary of the South Carolina Low-country Sesquicentennial Observance. Unfortunately, I can't embed it. (Damn you to hell C-Span!) Click on the image below to hear it; it is a half hour.

Barbara Fields talk Who Cared About States' Rights

Moon film 2009I just watched Moon, the film about He3 mining on the moon that stars Sam Rockwell. It is a deeply affecting film.

There are no such things as spoilers. Even films with surprise endings like The Sixth Sense are better if you know the plot. So as usual, I am not going to worry about spoiling this film.

What most struck me in Moon was the relationship between Sam 5 and Sam 6. They lie to each other in the most humane way. For example, Sam 5 has managed to make a call to the original Sam's house where he finds out that his baby daughter is now 15 and his wife is dead. While Sam 5 is asleep, Sam 6 plays the call log and gets the same devastating information. Think about it: if you learned that you were a clone and that all the memories you have of life had been implanted, you would not deal with it well. Especially if you learned that your spouse was dead. But that's not what I'm talking about.

Later, Sam 6 tries to convince Sam 5 to escape to earth. As an incentive he says, "Maybe you can meet Eve [the daughter] in person." But both of them know this is impossible. They both know that Eve is grown and that she has a real father. And they don't let on. It is a sweet moment. And it is this moment and many others like it that elevate this film to something more than an intense existential rumination.

But the intellectual part of the film would be enough to make Moon well worth watching.

The film brings up some profound questions. How do we know who we are? Do we belong to ourselves? After our memories are gone, did we ever exist? And what does it matter anyway? I have no answers.

Moon is really well made. According to Wikipedia, it was produced for only $5 million. I guess this is an indication of how cheap simple special effects have become. The entire film has shot in Shepperton Studios, where so many other fine films have been shot (e.g. Gosford Park and the whole Beckett on Film project). Sam Rockwell is great in the film, but then he always is. He may well be the best actor of his generation. The fact that he isn't a star says much about how screwed up the film industry is. But any industry that can produce a film as good as Moon is doing okay.

06 May 2012: Working for the NSA

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
The problem with working for the NSA:

That's part of it for sure.


Just so you know: I think Good Will Hunting is a terrible film—especially coming from Gus Van Sant, who has made a few great films. Of course, what really makes it retched is the script: a child's idea of "deep." But it has its moments like the scene above.

06 May 2012: Marvel's The Despots

Marvel's The AvengersOver years of watching way too many movies, I have a long list of movie cliches that annoy me. These are most definitely not things like people never saying "goodbye" before they hang up the phone. Only a much worse pedant than I would have a problem with that. What I'm talking about are offensive narrative devices—things that would never fly in a novel.

One of these showed up in all its glory in Marvel's The Avengers. Agent Phil Coulson dies and everyone is very sad. In fact, Nick Fury uses his blood-stained Captain America cards to bind the team together to take on the Chitauri army, which they manage to do in less than an hour. And everyone is happy, apparently having had their memories of Coulson erased. But that should be easy enough to do. After all, Coulson wasn't a character, he was a plot device.

It reminds me of a line from Laurie Anderson's song Big Science, "I think we should put some mountains here. Otherwise, what are the characters going to fall off of?" Put mountains up so the characters can fall from them or kill a character so the characters can can bind themselves together. But at least in the former case, after the characters fall off the mountain, the mountain is still there.

Marvel's The Avergers is written (along with Zak Penn) and directed by Joss Whedon. And it is not nearly as bad as it could have been. The half of the film that is played as humor works quite well as entertainment. I suspect that this is due to Penn, who is a funny guy[1] even if he is a mediocre screenwriter. Overall, the film holds together well enough—especially when you consider what a stupid concept The Avengers is: a Norse god, a billionaire in a high tech suit, a guy from the 1940s with a souped up body, and a green monster who even kills his friends. Frankly, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles make more sense.

The other half of the film is super hero action. These scenes do have the advantage that the characters are, you know, super heroes instead of, say, Sherlock Holmes. But this doesn't change the fact that they are boring. Iron Man has to fix a turbine (I think) and Captain American has to pull the red lever at just the right time or Iron Man will get cut to pieces. As you might imagine, I was not wondering if Iron Man was going to be cut to pieces. First, his suit protects him from everything. Second: right! Like Captain America—a character so earnest he shits puppies—would ever let anyone down.[2]

The same thing happens at the end of the film when Iron Man is in the other universe. The only question was whether he would make it out in the nick of time or be caught so that he could escape in Iron Man 3. Spoiler: Iron Man 3 will not be about Tony Stark's escape from wherever the hell that place was.

What's most offensive in this film is its glorification of the military. I've written about this before (Two War Films in One Day). But the film is somewhat schizophrenic in this portrayal. This isn't a surprise: Americans are just the same. They think that the government can't do anything right at the same time they worship the military as God's perfection on earth. So we get all kinds of scenes of dashing men and women in uniform with their shiny high tech weapons who are unfortunately just not up to the threat they face. So, in step the romantic (super) heroes to save the day. Joseph Goebbels would have loved this film: it tells people they are free at the same time that it shows them they must yield to their betters: the übermenschen—people like Hitler, Stalin, Bill O'Reilly. Loki is the villain, not because he enslaves the people, but because he likes it. What differentiates Loki from Thor is style, not content.

Films like Marvel's The Avengers are pernicious. People let them wash over their minds. But the themes build up and stick. They tell people that the way to a more perfect society is not through joint action; it is through belief in super heroes who will protect us. This is exactly what every modern despot has ever told the people he controls. Many have noticed the tendency of the elite in this country to be anti-democratic. Long before we saw widespread voter suppression laws, I heard conservatives grouse that the ignorant should not be allowed to vote. (Not surprisingly, I have heard this from some of the most ignorant people around; better someone who gets news passively than someone who gets news actively from Fox and hate radio.) It is only through faith in ourselves as a group that we can bring about a more perfect future.

As entertainment, Marvel's The Avengers works well enough, and much better than Iron Man 2. It's two plus hours go by quickly. The 45 minute segment on the floating warship that is mostly comedy is quite good. Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner (Hulk) is a nice take on the character—at least until the third act. Robert Downey, Jr. was as good as could be hoped for in a role that had many good lines. And Samuel L. Jackson's performance made me think that I've been fooled all these years to think of him as an actor.

With six "art directors" it is hard to say who is responsible for the look of the film, but ultimately it must look the way that Whedon wanted, because it looks the ways all his films look: cyberpunk without the style. Some of the special effects looked good, but I noticed a lot of obvious compositing. Technically speaking, the film was what you would except for this kind of budget: professional and uninspired.

If you like these kinds of movies and can deal with the thematic problems, have at Marvel's The Avengers. But you'd be better off supporting filmmakers who don't have $220 million to tell a story you could get from a comic book for less money.

Update (27 September 2012 10:18 pm)

This is very funny, but it doesn't begin to get at everything that is wrong with this film:

[1] His fake director's commentary on Incident at Loch Ness is one of the funniest things I've ever heard.

[2] When Thor first shows up and rushes away, Captain America is going to go after him. One of the two female characters warns him not to go because Thor is a god. The Captain says, "There's only one God and I'm pretty sure he doesn't dress like that." Please! Even apart from the special pleading ("Those Norse and their silly myths; why didn't they believe our myths?") this is such pandering to a country that is 80% Christian. And from an atheist writer/director!

04 May 2012: Keep Calm and Carry On

Category: Fun
Posted by: Frank Moraes
I thought I was way behind in posting here, but I see I did something late last night or this morning (I am losing track of my life): a rant about Peter Beinart's book. Anyway, I found this movie from a list of favorite videos of C.G.P. Grey (see link on the right). I find this uplifting: keep calm and carry on.

04 May 2012: War Monger Apologia

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
The Icarus SyndromeI was working in Silicon Valley for the last couple of years of the boom. The bust came as no surprise to me. I was working for a real estate investment company up through 2006. The later financial meltdown came as no surprise to me. I was freelancing up through 2003 and so was listening to a lot of NPR. The mendacity of our Iraq venture came as no surprise to me.

I do not say these things to show how clever I am. It is precisely because I am not clever that I mention them. If I noticed these things, it could not have been subtle. It could not have required great insight. It could not have required special knowledge or training or powers.

There are people I read all the time who were in favor of invading Iraq. These are smart, well educated people. And they look back at their opinions leading up to the Iraq war and they ask, "How was I fooled?" Peter Beinart tries to answer this question in his book The Icarus Syndrome: a History of American Hubris.

It is an interesting book—very well researched. But mostly, it is just an apologia for his earlier endorsement of the war. And it seems to show that Beinart hasn't learned a damned thing. Unlike Norman Solomon's excellent War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death, Icarus doesn't think that wars are generally a bad idea. He thinks we just have to pick well.

Here's the thing: Beinart was deceived by the likes of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. You see, he kept warning people that we shouldn't go to war—that it might all end like Vietnam. And it didn't, see! Like the Persian Gulf War. That was fucking brilliant! Sure, there were roughly 30,000 Iraqi conscripts killed. But we didn't see them. We didn't know them. So it was brilliant. Right?

Beinart has determined that there were three bad wars during the 20th century: World War I, Vietnam, and Iraq. In between them, we lost sight of the fact that war can be a terrible thing and then: bam! We fight a war that we end up regretting. That's the thesis of this City University Associate Professor and New America Foundation Senior Fellow. Question: how do you know someone is a Serious Thinker without looking at his job title? Answer: If he's been wrong about the most important policy issue of his day, he's Very Serious!

The worst thing about all the supposed liberals who have traditionally been hawks—people like Beinart—is not that they were previously wrong and have seen the error of their ways. It is that they have only seen the error of their specific opinion. In most cases, it is not as clear as it is for Beinart. I'm pretty sure that most of them will repeat the same mistake. The next war will be different in some fundamental way that necessitates its support. In Beinart's case, there is no doubt. What he needs to write is a history of his own intellectual hubris.[1]

[1] I read this book because of all the praise that The Crisis of Zionism has received. And it looks like it might be a very good book. The guy is most clearly smart and knowledgeable. But those two qualities have never stood in the way of war mongering.

Category: Fun
Posted by: Frank Moraes
I'm kind of busy with other stuff at the moment—mostly trying to figure out how to use a teleprompter without looking like I'm insane. But I came upon this great little video via WonkBlog. Check it out; it's only a couple of minutes long:

I can't find the video anymore. YouTube sucks. It was about an old man who owned his own island and protected tortoises.

"I've been offered millions... And I've said no."

My faith in humanity is restored. At least until I leave the house the next time.

01 May 2012: May Day Reading

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
The 'S' WordOn this May Day, it seems like a good time to talked about a great American tradition: socialism. I've never thought that much about socialism, because I learned in an introductory course in economics that pretty much every country on earth is a mixed economy: part socialist and part capitalist. And if you talk to people, you will find that what they like most about America is more the socialist side of things. They like Social Security, for example. And Medicare. But if you ask them about socialism, they'll likely tell you it is evil. At least they will if they're old.

The "S" Word

John Nichols' The "S" Word: a Short History of an American Tradition... Socialism was a revelation. In one way, it is a history of the movement from Thomas Paine to Michael Harrington. But more than this, it puts socialism and socialist thinkers into the context of the American experiment. It shows that even though socialists have never gained power in the United States, their thinking pushed the country in directions that improved it. At least until recently.

In the last chapter of the book, Nichols discusses the last couple of decades of Democratic Party politics. During this time the party has fled from socialist thought only to turn into the anemic mess that it is. He writes, "It is no secret that battles of consequence are won with a politics of meaning, not mumbled apologies." Sound like a political party you know?

Slightly later, he lays out this case more forcefully:

One need not embrace socialism ideologically or practically to recognize that public-policy discussions ought to entertain a full range of ideas—from right to left, not from far right to center right. Historically, America welcomed the range of ideas, and benefited by the discourse. Where Michael Harrington once promised a country which still believed in the possibility that "under socialism there will be no end to history—but there may be a new history," we have since been told that we have reached an "end to history" in which neoliberal economics and neoconservative foreign policies are our fate—no matter how frequently they fail. And we can't even mention the "S" word.

More than anything, The "S" Word woke me up to America's early history. I had know, for example, that Benjamin Franklin had started a public school and that other founders were involved with things that today's GOP would call "Socialist!" But I had little knowledge of just how healthy socialist thought was at that time and continuing on up through the 1960s. In particular, Thomas Paine's Agrarian Justice is mind boggling in its modern and revolutionary content.

The Reactionary MindThe Reactionary Mind

So much for the good news.

There is no book I so looked forward to reading as Corey Robin's The Reactionary Mind. Robin is one of these "scary smart" guys who make me feel stupid just by breathing. In this book, he brings together all of his impressive erudition and intelligence to explain what has always been a very confusing question: what is a conservative. Here's the thing: during my lifetime, political conservatives have not been what I would call "conservative." What was it that they were conserving?

Robin's answer is as profound as it is simple: they are conserving installed power structures. This explains so many things. First, it explains why conservatives never look back 50 years and say, "We were right about denying blacks the right to vote!" And why in 50 years they won't look back and say, "We were right about denying gays the right to marry." As Robin says in the introduction:

Today's conservative may have made his peace with some emancipations past; others, like labor unions and reproductive freedom, he still contests. But that does not alter the fact that when those emancipations first arose as a question, whether in the context of revolution or reform, his predecessor was in all likelihood against them.

What is most striking in The Reactionary Mind is the illustration that the common paradigm of the right-left continuum as being between liberty and security is totally wrong. Conservatives are not interested in the liberty of the masses, just the elites:

Historically, the conservative has favored liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders. What the conservative sees and dislikes in equality, in other words, is not a threat to freedom but its extension.

All of this is just subtext, because Robin's real argument is that conservatism is not about anything; it is in reaction to something: emancipation movements. This is a freeing concept. For no longer do I need to fret that conservatives don't seem to make any sense. For example, Obama is a very conservative guy; why do conservatives claim he is a socialist? Simple: even though he may not be willing to fight for it, he believes the economy should be a little more equal. This can't be accepted. The use of the "S" word doesn't matter; they could call him a bugger-nose; it's all the same.

The most disconcerting part of Robin's thesis (which is much broader and deeper than I'm indicating here) is that it explains the "What's the Matter With Kansas" issue. Why does a man vote for conservative policies when his best interests are served by liberal policies? The poor man is still master of his castle: his home, wife, children. To accept that women ought to have the right to vote (an issue not long settled and knowing the GOP maybe not fully settled yet) is to accept that his wife ought to have a say in the home. Better to hang on to all hierarchy rather than risk losing the little power he has.

Is it any wonder that women are more liberal than men?

Too Much to Talk About

There is one chapter of The Reactionary Mind that had a special appeal to me because I was once married to an Ayn Rand aficionado: "Garbage and Gravitas." In this chapter, Robin argues that Rand's work (fiction and non-fiction) is nothing more than Hollywood melodrama. Once again, Robin manages to see the obvious that we have all missed. His deconstruction of her and her movement is brilliant. Here he is discussing her novels:

The chief conflict in Rand's novels, then, is not between the individual and the masses. It is between the demigod-creator and all those unproductive elements of society—the intellectuals, bureaucrats, and middlemen—that stand between him and the masses. Aesthetically, this makes for kitsch; politically, it bends toward fascism. Admittedly, the argument that there is a connection between fascism and kitsch has taken a beating over the years. Yet surely the example of Rand is suggestive enough to put the question of that connection back on the table.

Then there is the question of what Rand really has to offer:

[Rand biographer Jennifer Berns] concludes that "what remains" of enduring value in Rand is her injunction to "be true to yourself." Yet it hardly took Rand to teach us that; indeed, the very same notion figures in a play about a Danish prince written roughly [three] centuries before Rand's birth.

And he brings it all together at the end:

But after all the Nietzsche is said and Aristotle is done, we're still left with a puzzle about Rand: how could such a mediocrity, not just a second-hander but a second-rater, exert such a continuing influence on the culture at large?


[H]er success explains itself. Rand worked in that quintessential American proving ground—alongside the likes of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Glenn Beck—where garbage achieves gravitas and bullshit gets blessed. There she learned that dreams don't come true. They are true. Turn your metaphysics into chewing gum, and your chewing gum is metaphysics. A is A.

I haven't even touched on the second half of The Reactionary Mind which is about the conservative adoration of war—largely for its own sake. Both The Reactionary Mind and The "S" Word need to be read.

Happy May Day!

01 May 2012: Happy May Day

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Soviet UnionMedia Matters is reporting on the Fox News campaign to link May Day to Soviet Russia. As they point out, May Day started in 1867 after a week-long strike in response to the fact that "a state law limiting the work day to eight hours was ignored." Later today, I will have more to say about socialism in the United States and the reaction to it. Socialism is not an import from Europe.

Although communist nations adopted the holiday in the 20th century, the origin of May Day is undeniably American. Instead of celebrating the American ideal of an eight-hour workday, a 40-hour workweek, and weekends off, the virulently anti-union Fox News is painting the struggle for these standards of American labor as something foreign and to be feared.

01 May 2012: Mystery Video

Category: Fun
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Will sent me this. He is very computer savvy, but for some reason, instead of sending me a link, he sent me embed code. I'm guessing that it is the Correspondents Dinner. And yes, I could have extracted the URL directly from it, but why would I do that when I can whine here?


I'm so smart.


It is very funny.

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Jonathan Cohn in writing about Romney's changing opinions on the auto bailout, reprints a number of tweets from Oliver Willis. The idea is that Romney's got a bandwagon problem. He was against going into Pakistan to get bin Laden, at least until it was done successfully. He was against the auto bailout, at least until it was done successfully. Here he is throughout history:

romney 1774: "anyone else think its time we stop being british subjects?"

romney was in the colts draft room the day they got peyton manning: "gentlemen, i just feel it in my gut.

romney: "yeah, stan, what if we make the lead character a teenager, and have him bitten by something like... a spider?

romney: "sorry to interrupt this gathering of cavemen, but have you fellows considered 'fire'?

romney: "bill, this stuff is good... but have you tried writing it in iambic pentameter?"

My favorite—Of course!—is the Shakespeare one, even if it is historically inaccurate. Shakespeare was always referred to as "Bill-heim."