Archive for the ‘The Passing Scene’ Category

Taibbi on how the news divides and misleads us

November 13, 2019

Last week I I read Matt Taibbi’s HATE INC.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another.  Of all the books I’ve read during the past 12 months or expect to read in the near future, this is the one I’d most recommend to anybody who wants to understand what’s going on in the USA..

It is about how and why the business model for the American press changed from the seeking of a broad, noncontroversial consensus to the promotion of conflict.  It also is about why the conflict so seldom involves fundamental issues.

Noam Chomsky famously said that the way to preserve the illusion of freedom of the press is to allow vigorous debate, but only within certain prescribed bounds.

There is extreme polarization for and against Donald Trump.  Some say we’re on the verge of a new civil war.   But the debate remains within limits, and is focused on personalities.

We the public are encouraged to think that there is a deep and permanent conflict of ideas between Democratic liberals such as Rachel Maddow and Republican conservatives such as Sean Hannity, but also that there are no ideas worth considering beyond the limits of what they say.

Neither side questions ever-increasing military budgets, everlasting wars, ever-expanding surveillance, ever-growing bailouts of tax breaks for and and handouts to the most powerful corporations.

The current $716 billion military appropriations bill for the coming fiscal year contained a $165 billion increase—in itself more than the entire military budget of Russia or China, and more than the entire cost of the Iraq war in 2003 or 2004.   Large majorities of both parties in both houses of Congress supported it.

The press coverage of the bill focused not on its contents, but on whether President Trump was disrespectful of Senator John McCain, the sponsor, by not mentioning his name during the signing ceremony.

In the old days, the CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite sought to appeal to a broad, bland consensus.  The feeling he tried to project was reassurance—that all was right with the world.  Other broadcasters were the same way.

They also were limited by the government’s Fairness Doctrine.  If they broadcast anything controversial, they had to provide free air time for the other side.

Newspapers followed a similar path.  Most had local monopolies.  All had secure revenue streams based on classified advertising (job listings, legal notices) and as the main source of information for stock prices and the like.

I got started in journalism at the end of the old era.  The ideal in reporting in that era was objectivity and impersonality.  Reporters strove to write in a way that nobody could guess their personal opinions.  Routine newspaper articles lacked bylines because it shouldn’t matter who wrote them.

Then the Reagan administration repealed the Fairness Doctrine.  Opinion no longer had to be balanced.  CNN introduced the 24-hour news cycle.  The easiest way to fill time was with commentary and opinion.

The Internet, especially Facebook and Twitter, provided a way to segment the readership individually.  No longer did a newspaper or TV broadcast have to appeal to the whole family.  Each person could have their own news, tailored algorithmically to their own desires and viewpoint.

Fox News, and also talk radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, took advantage of the new business model.  They realized they didn’t have to have universal appeal to make money.  All they needed to do was to target a segment of the viewers or listeners and tailor things to their interests.

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The making of the Oxford English Dictionary

November 2, 2019

The Oxford English Dictionary, which attempts to encompass the whole English language, was and is an epic achievement.

Commissioned in 1857, begun in 1879 and completed in 1926, it consisted of 12 volumes containing 414,825 words and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations, most of them in type set by hand.  New editions and updates of the OED continue to this day.

This unflagging commitment to a purely cultural project, of no monetary or military value, is truly remarkable.  It is like the construction of the medieval cathedrals that were begun with the knowledge they would take a century or more to complete.

I learned about the background of the OED by reading Simon Winchester’s book THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1998, which my friend Jan Hickman gave me.

The professor was James Murray, the chair of the committee overseeing the compilation of the dictionary.  He was a Scot who dropped out of school because of poverty at age 14, but was respected as an expert on philology, having taught himself multiple ancient and modern languages, including Roma, the gypsy dialect.

Because of the immensity of the project, the OED depended on volunteers to contribute definitions and examples of word usage.

One of the most prolific volunteers was one Dr. W.C. Minor, who submitted tens of thousands of definitions and turned out to be an inmate of an asylum for the criminally insane. He had murdered an innocent man whom he thought was part of a plot to assassinate him.  Murray liked and respected Minor, and visited him regularly.

Minor’s distinctive contribution was to collect centuries-old books and read them through, not out of interest in the content, but simply to find early usages of words and how the definition would change.

By day, he was a scholar,  By night, he felt he was being tortured by enemies coming out of the walls and floor.  His performance, under the circumstances, was heroic.

Winchester remarked that it is too bad that mental illness was not understood back then as it is now.  But if Minor had lived 50 or 100 years later, he might have been subjected to lobotomies, electric shock treatments or mind-altering drugs. We still do not know to what extent mental illness is biological in nature and to what extent it is due to life experiences.

Instead his keepers treated him kindly and simply prevented him from wandering off and tried to prevent him from harming himself or others.  Of course good treatment was encouraged by the fact that his family was immensely rich.

I put down the book with increased respect for these Victorian men—their strength of character, their devotion to learning, their determination to carry through what they had committed to do.  I also appreciated the great individual dictionary makers—Samuel Johnson in 18th century England and Noah Webster in the 19th century USA.

What project could be started today that people would still be committed to carrying on a century or more from now?

LINKS

Simon Winchester’s website.

Blog | Oxford English Dictionary.

Contribute to the OED | Oxford English Dictionary.

The domino effect

October 26, 2019

Small causes can have big impacts

And sometimes the chain of causation is very long.

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Wingsuit flying in the Swiss Alps

October 12, 2019

Hat tip to Marginal Revolution.

This must be highly exhilarating, provided you’re able to walk away from it at the end.

More about the Brahmin left and merchant right

September 24, 2019

Democrats in the U.S., the Labor Party in Britain and left-wing parties in France no longer primarily represent the interests of wage earners, according to Thomas Piketty, the famous French economist.

Instead they represent an educated elite, which he calls the Brahmin left, while the conservative parties represent a financial elite, which he calls the merchant right.

The educated elite are not an intellectual elite.  Having advanced college degrees don’t make you an intellectual any more than owning stocks and bonds makes you an entrepreneur.

I agree that there is less conflict of interest between the educated elite and the financial elite than there is between the two elites and the majority of wage-earners.

In a typical Fortune 500 corporation, the CEO, the board of directors and the institutional stockholders would be the merchant right.

Salaried middle management, the highly-paid consultants and most especially the human resources department would be the Brahmin left.  Their income would not come from financial assets, but from their rank in an organization, for which they would qualify by means of educational credentials.

The human resources department of an organization usually determines the organizational culture.  Typically HR people are big on diversity training and being LGBTQ allies because these things do not affect the wealth of stockholders or the power of top management.

American non-profit organizations such as universities and hospitals and also government agencies are adopting a  corporate model.

This means a well-paid top-heavy administrative overhead along with lower pay, higher demands and less security for those who do actual work.   Adjunct teachers, hospital nurses and letter carriers are treated just the same as factory workers.

Just to be clear, I’m in favor of sticking up for the rights of minorities, women and other groups that are targets of prejudice.  What’s wrong is using this as cover for lower wages, longer hours, expansion of contingent work and a fight against labor unions.

Such are my observations about American institutional life.  I don’t know how true these observations are true of institutions in Britain and France, or whether they are true at all, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were.

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Kurt Vonnegut on the shapes of stories

July 27, 2019

Double click to enlarge.

Kurt Vonnegut Diagrams the Shape of All Stories in a Master’s Thesis Rejected by the University of Chicago by Open Culture.  Hat tip to Lambert Strether.

Sixteen levels of complexity in ‘Happy Birthday’

July 20, 2019

This is from Jason Kottke’s blog.

Watch, listen, and learn as pianist and composer Nahre Sol plays what you might think of as a very simple song, Happy Birthday, in 16 increasing levels of complexity.  She starts out using a single finger and ends by playing an original composition that seemingly requires 12 or 13 fingers to play. This gave me, a musical dunce, a tiny glimpse into what a composer does.

Source: A Demonstration of 16 Levels of Piano Playing Complexity

How many times can you fold a piece of paper?

July 6, 2019

Hat tip to kottke.org.

It’s said that you can’t fold a piece of paper in half more than eight times.

High school student Britney Gallivan proved this wrong back in 2002.

To see how remarkable her achievement was, take a look at a brute-force approach to the problem below.

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A sand sculpture of Abraham Lincoln today

May 31, 2019

This was the winning individual entry in the 2019 Texas Sand Sculpture Festival.  (Hat tip to Avedon’s Sideshow.)

Outdoor cat ladders in Switzerland

May 25, 2019

The Swiss have a nice custom—ladders to allow cats to enter and exit from upper story apartments and rooms.  These photos are from a book, Swiss Cat Ladders, by Brigitte Schuster, focusing on outdoor cat stairways in the city of Berne.  To look at more photos, click on the links.

LINKS

Cat ladders: a creative solution for felines in flats in The Guardian.

Quirky Photos Showcase the Ingenuity of Cat Ladders in Switzerland on My Modern Met.

The hands are quicker

May 11, 2019

No matter how many books you’ve read, and no matter how many degrees and certificates you have on your wall, never, never, never think that gives you standing to consider yourself better than people who work with their hands.

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Synchronized precision walking as a sport

May 4, 2019

The videos show students at the Nippon Sport Science University demonstrating “shuudan koudou,” which translates as “collective action.”

If you don’t have time to watch the entire videos, go to 1.35 minutes in the top video to see two columns of students quick-march backwards through each other.

Despite everything, it’s an amazing world we live in.

Hat tip to kottke.org.

The ultimate threat to Wikileaks

April 25, 2019

The ultimate threat to Wikileaks is not that Julian Assange may be executed or imprisoned for life.  The ultimate threat is that the NSA, GCHQ, FSB or some other intelligence agency will crack the Wikileaks code.

If a government can commit crimes in secret, and can make it a crime to reveal that secret, there is no barrier to dictatorship and tyranny.

The greatness of Julian Assange was to create a program whereby whistleblowers could divulge secrets without revealing their identity, even to Wikileaks itself.

Assange is the founder and public face of Wikileaks, but there are other members who help keep it up and running, and who will continue even if Assange is put away.  If Wikileaks is shut down, the architecture of the system is available to anyone who wants to use it.  Most important news organizations have a Wikileaks-like system for receiving confidential information.

But this is not an achievement that will stand for once and for all.

I have no doubt that governments and corporations are working night and day to find ways to hack the Wikileaks system, and unmask the leakers and truth-tellers.  If and when they do, they will not announce it.

In 2010, Pvt Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning was caught sending unauthorized information to Wikileaks because she unwisely talked to an informer.  But now prosecutors have actual transcripts showing Manning conversed with Assange.

I wonder whether the authorities had these transcripts all along, or whether Assange and Manning used a secure communication system that the government only recently was able to crack.

I hope that the people who believe in disclosure are working just as hard to strengthen and protect the system as the government is to crack it.  This is a race that will not end until either all dissent is crushed or the veil of secrecy is removed from the crimes of governments—I say “governments” plural because it is not just the U.S. government that Wikileaks threatens.

LINKS

WIKILEAKS.

WIKILEAKS DEFENSE FUND

The burning of Notre Dame cathedral

April 16, 2019

Hat tip to Gavin Ashenden.

Notre Dame Cathedral took centuries to build.  One student estimated that it took more than 20 percent of the surrounding area’s resources for 150 years. Could we today commit to something that magnificent that would take even decades?  Yves Smith on her Naked Capitalism blog wrote—

Even if Notre Dame can be restored, the project is likely to take more than a generation, meaning even in best-case scenario, many people will never be able to see it properly again in their lives.  [snip]

The great medieval cathedrals, through their enormous scale and soaring vaults, with their narrow stained glass windows that help pull the eye upward, tell worshipers and later visitors of how small they are compared to God and his works. Yet their seeming solidity and scale also suggests the faithful can find refuge.

All of our technological prowess hasn’t found a way to create spaces that inspire the same sort of awe of these centuries-old houses of worship.

Modern visitors were further humbled by the audaciousness of its accomplishment: a project executed across generations, reaching heights that seem daunting even now, marshaling the skills and hard work of many artisans and laborers.

In other words, Notre Dame provided comfort and hope against that gnawing knowledge in the back of our heads of the certainty of death and the impermanence of human action.  Even though all those who built Notre Dame were long dead, something of them lived on through the cathedral….or did at least till yesterday.

Rod Dreher of The American Conservative recalled the beginning of Kenneth Clark’s famous TV series on Western civilization—

Standing in front of the Notre Dame cathedral, Clark asks, “What is civilization?”  He says he can’t define it in abstract terms, “but I think I can recognize it when I see it.”  He then turns to the cathedral, and says, “I’m looking at it right now.”

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A joyous flash mob symphony In Spain

April 6, 2019

This performance of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy was sponsored by the Sabadell bank in Spain in honor of the 130th anniversary of its founding.  It is headquartered in Alicante, Spain, so that is probably the location of the performance.  The bank was founded Dec. 31, 1881.

The opinion revolution in thinking about race

April 3, 2019

Matthew Yglesias, in an article called The Great Awokening, documents the revolution in white American thinking about race during the past five or so years, especially among Democrats.

Democratic presidential candidates, including those who call themselves centrists and moderates, are talking about reparations and systemic racism.  These issues would have been considered too hot to handle five years ago.

The charts he ran with the article tell the story.

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The planet closest to Earth isn’t Venus or Mars

March 30, 2019

The order of the planets’ orbits going outward from the Sun is Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.  The orbit of Venus is a little closer to the orbit of Earth than the orbit of Mars is.

But Venus is not our closest neighbor in the Solar System.  Mercury is, most of the time.

The thing many people forgot is that the planets are in motion, and are different distances from each other at different times.  Venus is somewhat closer to the Earth than Mercury when they are both on the same side of the Sun as Earth, but much further away than Mercury when they are on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth.  The video shows how this works.

In fact, Mercury is the closest planet to all the other planets in the Solar System for this reason.

The failure to keep in mind that the planets are constantly changing position in relation to each other invalidates the background (though not the enjoyment) a lot of old-time science fiction.

Most stories with an interplanetary background assume, without spelling it out, that a space voyage from, say, Earth and Mars is like an ocean voyage from Nantucket to Shanghai, a journey between two fixed points.

Instead, how long it would take to get from Planet A to Planet B, and how much trouble it would take, would depend on the date.

LINK

Venus is not Earth’s closest neighbor by Tom Stockman, Gabriel Monroe and Samuel Cordner for Physics Today.

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The echo of time

March 24, 2019

Hat tip to Yip Abides

I like this, you may or may not like it, but don’t ask me to explain it.

Climate, migration and border militarization

March 13, 2019

Click to enlarge.

The two agencies of the U.S. government that take climate change most seriously are the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security.

They foresee droughts, floods and storms on a scale that will create global political instability and millions of climate refugees, mainly from countries already ravaged by war and poverty.  While other parts of the government dither and deny, they have spent billions since 2003 preparing for the coming emergency.

Their preparation, however, is not aimed at preventing or slowing down climate change, nor is it principally aimed at relieving distress.  Rather it is in protecting the U.S. homeland and American business interests from the desperate masses.

A journalist named Todd Miller did a good job of reporting on this in STORMING THE WALL: Climate Change, Migration and Homeland Security, published in 2017.

He attended a Defense, National Security and Climate Change conference in Washington, D.C., in 2015, attended by top military brass and government and corporate officials.  A NASA representative told how the Space Shuttle and F-35 fighter required chrome, columbium and titanium, which are sourced from South Africa, Congo and Zambia, all threatened with political instability due to climate change.

“If these stressing factor result in increased migration,” he said, “it will just increase the potential for instability and conflict,” which would affect the U.S. ability to obtain elements “critical to the alloys we need to support the system.”

It was at that meeting that Miller for the first time heard the expression, “military-environmental-industrial complex.”  Billions of dollars are being spent to, on the one hand, wean the U.S. military itself from dependence on fossil fuels and, on the other, maintain the political and economic status quo in the face of climate-driven upheaval.

He devoted several chapters of the book to migration from central America and Mexico into the southwest USA.  He showed that the border is not a line on the map separating the United States from Mexico.

The border area extends 100 miles into the interior of the United States, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) acts like a military occupying force.  Miller noted that an order by President Obama against racial profiling specifically exempted the Department of Homeland Security.

It also extends down through Mexico into Central America, where there are a series of checkpoints, aided by U.S. military advisers and U.S. military equipment, designed to intercept migrants on their way.  There are fewer arrests nowadays at the international border, but this may not mean that fewer people are trying to cross the border.  It may just mean that more of them are intercepted before they get close.

The U.S. Coast Guard nowadays does more than guard the coasts.  After the 2010 earthquake, the Coast Guard patrolled the coast of Haiti, turning back anyone who tried to flee, and even set up a detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

Migrants leave their home countries for many reasons—commonly poverty, war, tyranny or crime.  But, in the words of a Marine Corps general, climate change is a “threat multiplier.”  Events such as the 2015 drought in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua make all the underlying social problems worse.

The United States is not unique.  The new “smart border” between Turkey and Syria has a new tower every 1,000 feet, a three-language alarm system, and “automated firing zones” supported by hovering zeppelin drones, Miller wrote.

Experts say floods and a rising sea will cause millions to flee Bangladesh.  India has a 2,000-mile ‘iron wall” on its border and soldiers with orders to shoot to kill.  More than 1,000 Bangladeshis were killed between 2001 and 2011 while trying to cross the border.

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The widening target of ‘anti-racism’

February 14, 2019

Where once the targets of those concerned to fight injustice were “racism” and “sexism,” today the targets are “whiteness” and “masculinity.”  The underlying premise is plain: that there is no whiteness independent of the domination of nonwhites, and no masculinity independent of the domination of women.

==attributed to Wesley Yang, author of The Souls of Yellow Folk

I think it is great that black people to take pride in themselves and not think they have to be like whites in order to respect themselves.    I think it is great that women to take pride in themselves and not think they have to be like men in order to respect themselves.

I think discrimination against black people and against women are great evils, and I think it is great that these evils are being stigmatized and diminished.

I don’t see how racism and sexism are diminished telling white men they should be ashamed of themselves for being white and male.

My father taught me to live in a way that allows me to respect myself and to be willing to treat others with courtesy and respect, and that is what I believe in.

It is wrong to teach anyone that self-respect is impossible, or is possible only by adopting a certain creed or joining a certain group.

A giant floating ice disk forms in Maine

January 19, 2019

This video, taken last weekend, shows a massive spinning ice disk in the Presumptscot River near Westbrook, Maine, which is just west of Portland.  Local residents say it is 100 yards across, which would make it possibly the largest such ice disk on record.  Wonders never cease.

Click on A Massive Naturally Occurring Ice Carousel by Jason Kottke for more information.

Welcome to 2019

December 31, 2018

Source: xkcd

When 2019 Starts Around the World

Which country has New Year first and which celebrates it last? 

Santa Claus in the 21st century

December 23, 2018

An interview with Santa’s lawyer by John Scalzi.   Hat tip to the Weekly Sift.

From the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

November 24, 2018

From the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.

A joyous flash-mob dance troupe

November 3, 2018

Some 200-odd dancers suddenly turned up in Antwerp’s Central Station at 9 a.m. on March 23, 2009, and performed a number based on the “Do-Re-Mi” song in The Sound of Music, as a promotion for a Belgian television station.  What a delightful surprise that must have been!