Thursday, July 27, 2017

A Horse Is A Horse Is A Horse, Of Course. On The Uffington Chalk Horse.






A fun story about this giant chalk horse carved into the side of a hill in Oxfordshire, England can be read here.  What's new to me in that story is the dating of the football-field-sized pictogram as 3000 years old.  The dating was made possible by a technique called optical stimulated luminescence:

“It was older than I’d been expecting,” Miles remembers. “We already knew it must be ancient, because it’s mentioned in the 12th-century manuscript The Wonders of Britain, so it was obviously old then. And the abstract shape of the horse is very similar to horses on ancient British coins just over 2,000 years old. But our dating showed it was even older than that. It came out as the beginning of the Iron Age, perhaps even the end of the Bronze Age, nearly 3,000 years ago.”

What's most fascinating about the pictogram is that it has required regular upkeep all through its history and that it has received it and still does:

From the start the horse would have required regular upkeep to stay visible. It might seem strange that the horse’s creators chose such an unstable form for their monument, but archaeologists believe this could have been intentional. A chalk hill figure requires a social group to maintain it, and it could be that today’s cleaning is an echo of an early ritual gathering that was part of the horse’s original function.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

What Sells in Political Commentary. A Re-Posting.

Originally posted here.

1.  Giving political commentary while being famous for some totally different reason.  People will want to hear what you have to say, even if it makes very little sense:

Tim Robbins and his ex, Susan Sarandon, have certainly made news in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, with Robbins going to bat for Bernie Sanders on Twitter and Sarandon speaking out against Hillary Clinton and even appearing to suggest she might vote for Donald Trump instead.

Sarandon wouldn't go quite that far in an interview with Stephen Colbert on Wednesday, but she did suggest why she might do such a thing.
"I'm more afraid actually of Hillary Clinton's war record and her hawkishness than I am of building a wall," Sarandon said. "But that doesn't mean that I would vote for Trump."

Sarandon can vote for whomever she wishes, of course.  But comparing Clinton's hawkishness in foreign policy to Trump's immigration policy is comparing apples to oranges.  In reality Trump is hawkier than Clinton and wants to build a giant wall.  Is "hawkier" a word?

This category is overflowing with celebrities who get the microphone even though they haven't done their homework (coughClintEastwoodcough).  Sarandon's comment is just the most recent one.

2.  Have your writing posted under a really shocking titleExaggerate!  Promise the moon!  Be very very partisan.

That always works, even when the article itself is milquetoast or interprets data wrong, and it works because many of us just look at the headline (tl;dr)*, but that counts as a click for the advertisers.  And it is clicks which matter.

3.   Keep it short and emotional.  Don't confuse people with too many facts (tl;dr)*  Note that the term "emotional" covers anger.  Anger is the default emotion in politics, but recently fear might sell better.  Be very very afraid!

Indeed, any hind-brain emotion (anger, fear, sexual arousal) will make an article popular.

4.  Avoid everything I do on this here blog.

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* too long, did not read

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Anatomy Of Fake News


My post on the Pizzagate tells the story of one manufactured scandal which spread like wildfire in the right-wing information bubble.  The comments to that post could also be worth reading.

The Pizzagate is a fascinating example of fake news.  It had zero evidence of any crime, but it had the hooks which make a story go viral:  The supposed culprit is someone extremely hated and the supposed crime is about the vilest of all, with the kind of twist (pizzas!) that makes it all memorable.

This post discusses a study about fake news and also my deep thoughts on the whole phenomenon, including the fact that it's more common among the right than the left, though not absent from the left, either.

And to understand the appeal of fake news and the difficulty of using evidence to change someone's mind, read this take on the backfire effect.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Women and American Politics. First Monday


There will be four posts in this series, though I cheat and use old material.

This post is about the question whether "identity politics," including such issues as women's reproductive rights, were what the Democratic Party needs to dispense with if it ever wants to win any elections again.  My take on that topic can be found here

The article I respond to in that post was the first of many, so it's useful to stress that I want* the Democratic Party to have a much stronger economic platform, to focus much more on reducing income inequality and on making sure that this country actually offers fair economic opportunities for all.

But that should be doable without dropping general fairness concerns, unless it turns out that Democrats can't both walk and chew gum.  Which would be pretty disappointing.

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* And have written about that many times.  I want single payer health care, for instance, and actually not for only ideological reasons, but because it's the least horrible of all horrible systems that humans have created for financing health care.  I also want a stronger defense of progressive taxes, a better and more egalitarian school system and better benefits for workers, including proper summer vacations. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Should Single Men Pay For Pregnancy And Delivery in Their Insurance Policies?



The argument that they* should not have to do so will not die.  I have addressed it in great detail in a post from  last March.  It gives you some artillery to take down those types of arguments. 

If nothing else works, simply say that you won't pay for anything you might not biologically need, such as treatment for prostate or penile cancer if you happen to lack those organs, or for anything caused by an activity you yourself do not practice, such as orthopedic surgery after a water-skiing or boating accident if you hate water sports and never go near any lake, sea or river.

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* Or post-menopausal women or any other group not planning to give birth.  For some weird reason the services which people feel shouldn't have to be covered for other people are always services only women need, even though there are services women do not directly need.  Viagra, say.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

A Literary Thought About Jane Austen


This story about the favorite books of twenty-five famous women has a fascinating Virginia Woolf quote about Jane Austen:

J.K. Rowling:
“Emma by Jane Austen. Virginia Woolf said of Austen, ‘For a great writer, she was the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness,’ which is a fantastic line. You’re drawn into the story, and you come out the other end, and you know you’ve seen something great in action. But you can’t see the pyrotechnics; there’s nothing flashy.” —Oprah, June 2014
Compare that to Austen's own statement from a letter to J. Edward Austen:

What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of variety and glow? How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?
She sells herself short, of course, and probably J. Edward Austen too long, because she worked very hard erasing, editing and rewriting.

That can be seen by comparing her last book, Persuasion, with her earlier ones.  She didn't have the time (having a date with death) to hone and hone and hone Persuasion the way the earlier books were polished, to make the sarcasm subtler and harder to spot (which makes the spotting more hilarious).




Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Where I Agree With Jennifer Rubin


Not the kind of title I thought I would ever write, but in the Trump Reich things change.  Rubin, a conservative columnist, has written a fairly straightforward piece on the way the Republican Party has brought us much closer to the dawn of a dictatorship:

Let me suggest the real problem is not the Trump family, but the GOP. To paraphrase Brooks, “It takes generations to hammer ethical considerations out of a [party’s] mind and to replace them entirely with the ruthless logic of winning and losing.” Again, to borrow from Brooks, beyond partisanship the GOP evidences “no attachment to any external moral truth or ethical code.”
Let’s dispense with the “Democrats are just as bad” defense. First, I don’t much care; we collectively face a party in charge of virtually the entire federal government and the vast majority of statehouses and governorships. It’s that party’s inner moral rot that must concern us for now. Second, it’s simply not true, and saying so reveals the origin of the problem — a “woe is me” sense of victimhood that grossly exaggerates the opposition’s ills and in turn justifies its own egregious political judgments and rhetoric. If the GOP had not become unhinged about the Clintons, would it have rationalized Trump as the lesser of two evils? Only in the crazed bubble of right-wing hysteria does an ethically challenged, moderate Democrat become a threat to Western civilization and Trump the salvation of America.

Rubin also singles out the demonization of "gays, immigrants, Democrats, the media, feminists, etc" as one of the major tactics of the Republican politicians and writers.

I was reminded of this when I had to look up a reference at the National Review and all the other articles they thought were similar to the one I was reading were really about how horrible women are and especially how horrible feminists are.  National Review online is supposed to be the martini-sipping older gentleman in the conservative coalition, not the rabid rubble-rousing Breitbart.com, but there's not much -- except the strength of the vicious language -- to choose between them.

The Republicans have been appealing to the hind-brain for a long time by creating many groups of "Others" and it is those "Others" who are responsible for all evil in this world, never mind any lack of evidence.

And for what purpose?  To win the game.  It IS a game the Republicans play, and the only object is to win, or at least make the others lose.  That losing seems more central than any actual conservative victory, because the pain of the Democrats is sweet and to watch their humiliation is delightful, even if the conservatives end up suffering at least as much.

So yes, I agree with Rubin when it comes to this particular piece, but she has certainly been an avid player in that game.   If the cost of all that winning is the end of democracy, then, my friends from all sides of the aisle, we are screwed.

Swords, Not Ploughshares. The Republican Love of War.


Military spending is the holy cow of the Republicans.   By July 14, the House Republicans  had passed a bill which would give the military ninety billion dollars more than the six hundred billion dollars Trump had asked.   Imagine that!  The party which sees government waste and duplication in almost all programs is willing to give the military more than the president asked, and appears to want to add "unneeded bureaucracy to the Pentagon" by creating a new military branch for space.

Remember that these are the same House Republicans who have worked very hard to make certain that lots of Americans will lose their health insurance coverage.  Thus, certain types of dangers to life matter to them, while other types do not matter at all.*

It's not hard to understand that paradox. 

Rich people can afford to protect their lives against health risks, even without health insurance, but certainly with private health insurance, while even rich people can't afford their own high-tech military to protect them against possible attacks by hostile foreign powers.  And weapons to kill people with are manly.

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*  It's possible to argue that all economic theories accept that the military constitutes a public good which the government should provide, while only certain aspects of health care (the treatment of communicable diseases and basic medical research) pass through the strictest analytical colander. 

But I very much doubt that the House Republicans are driven by such concerns, because, first, they tend to promote market alternatives in other areas where economic theory demonstrates that they will not work well (such as in many parts of health care), second, because no theory of public goods justifies overspending on the military, and, third, because this is the only public good on which the conservatives are willing to splurge.