Saturday, July 25, 2015

Is Donald Trump a serious candidate?

Some might say he isn't serious because he doesn't have any experience working in government. But I doubt many conservative Republicans would subscribe to that view. And I'm not hearing anyone say that Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina aren't serious candidates.

Corie W. Stephens seems to think she's found the smoking gun that shows Trump isn't serious. She says:

Perfectly showcasing the depth of his candidacy is, his official campaign website. It contains no issues page, but helpfully informs you that “Mr. Trump has over 7 million followers on social media.”

One can read about how much expensive property he owns and learn all about his foray into reality TV. You’re out of luck however, if you’re curious about how he would handle diplomatic relations with Iran or reform our nation’s healthcare system.
But wait a second . . .

As far as I can tell, Jeb Bush's website "contains no issues page."

And Scott Walker's website also "contains no issues page."

After looking around those websites, I'm not seeing any clue as to how those candidates "would handle diplomatic relations with Iran or reform our nation’s healthcare system."

The websites of Trump and Bush and Walker all look like they could have been designed by the same person. They all have a bio of the candidate with vague references to their political ideologies but no concrete plans. Those websites all feature "news" stories and social-media links instead of "issue" statements. So are the three Republican candidates who've been doing the best in the polls all unserious about vying for the presidency?

I can think of two better explanations. Either (a) they plan to add an "issues" section later in the campaign, after their positions have had more time to jell, or (b) they've decided that a continually updated "news" format is a more dynamic, effective way to engage potential supporters than a static list of policy statements.

Personally, I don't think that's the best approach. I prefer Marco Rubio's website, with its clear "issues" section.

But should we really write off a whole campaign for taking the Bush/Walker/Trump approach, in the very early stages of the race? I don't think so.

Friday, July 24, 2015

"You don't know my name, do you?"

A translator's struggle to export Seinfeld to Germany.

The hardest joke to translate, out of 180 episodes, was the one where Jerry doesn't know the name of the woman he's dating, but only knows it "rhymes with a female body part."

Nazi jokes were also dicey:

Seinfeld’s Jewish references posed a unique challenge: as Sebastian explained, "The Germans have a certain you-know-what with the Jewish." Her editor was worried about some of Seinfeld’s Jewish jokes. "We better not say it like that," she remembered her editor saying, "because the Germans may be offended." She added later, recalling the incident to me, "They should be offended, in my understanding. They did it!"

Sebastian appreciated Seinfeld’s direct approach to Jewish history. She wanted to use jokes in direct translation, but the editor wouldn’t let her. She lost several battles. It was a fine line: Der Suppen-Nazi? Sure. . . . An entire episode based on George being mistaken for a neo-Nazi was problematic. So were references to the TV miniseries Holocaust and the film Schindler’s List. Take Elaine’s voiceover narration in "The Subway" episode when her train gets stuck: "We are in a cage. . . . Oh, I can't breathe, I feel faint. Take it easy, it'll start moving soon. Think about the people in the concentration camps, what they went through."

Occasionally, Sebastian triumphed in her conflicts with editors — the practicalities of the show demanded an authentic translation. In an early episode, one of Jerry’s comedy routines addresses the fact that Nazis in World War II movies had "like two separate ‘heils.' They had like the regular ‘heil,’ and then when they were around the offices, they had like this casual ‘heil.’" There was no way to avoid a faithful translation . . .

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Why do Americans use so much air conditioning?

Megan McArdle explains:

Any American who has spent much time around visiting Europeans has probably had some version of this conversation: "Why do you use so much air conditioning?" they ask. "Your buildings are ridiculously cold. I have to wear a sweater inside in the summer! And it's bad for the environment. You shouldn't do that." . . .

For Europeans reading this, I may actually be able to clear up this baffling issue: Americans use air conditioning more because America is a lot hotter than Europe is. . . .

I've lived through heat waves in Northern Europe, which cause much the same hysteria that we see in Washington when two inches of snow is forecast. Because we have air conditioning, Americans do not have to panic when the mercury rises. Nor do we have incredible fatalities among the old and vulnerable when they happen. . . .

You could argue that if Americans had not migrated en masse from the temperate north to the blistering sunbelt, we would need less energy for climate control. You could argue that, but you'd be wrong. Americans still expend much more energy heating their homes than cooling them. . . . On average, the move from cold areas to warm ones has actually saved energy, not caused us to use more.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Penn Jillette on Donald Trump

Penn Jillette makes an uncommonly nuanced and respectful argument against Donald Trump's run for president during a radio interview (video below):

Thelonious Monk, the great jazz piano player, . . . said, "The genius is the one who is most like himself." And that's what I love about Bob Dylan, Lenny Bruce, Tiny Tim — they were completely like themselves. And Trump, for better or worse, is in that category. I have talked one-on-one with Bob Dylan, and I have talked one-on-one with Trump, and they do not have filters. They speak honestly and from the heart.

Unfortunately, when you move into the political arena, when you're speaking from the heart, if your heart has some really dark, wrong areas, and that comes out too, that becomes very, very unpleasant. When someone who's a comic says something about immigrants in this country, it's in the category of a character; it's in the category of context. But when a person who is telling us — we don't know how seriously he's really taking it, but let's . . . give him the respect of saying he's taking it seriously — when he says that what I'm saying is going to have some policy implications, then all of a sudden, we have to be our better selves. It is perfectly OK for you to be personally a little uncomfortable with certain immigrants. It is not OK for our country to be that way. So if you say that to your friends, or in the context of a radio show, or just speaking, I will defend that.

But if you say, "Now, I'm going to take these prejudices that I have, and say them in your name, in the international arena," I'm going to go, "Oh — baby! If you're going to be our spokesman, you've gotta be better than you are personally. You've gotta be better." And Trump . . . the very honesty that I respect him for so much — if you're going to be president, we can't have that. . . .

When you go out there, you've got to be the best of us. And I mean that on everything. It's the way I feel about capital punishment. People say all the time, "But if your family — these monsters — don't you feel like they should be put to death?" And my answer is: of course I feel that. But as a society, as a culture, we want to be better, you know? What we want out of the United States of America — what we want is to be better than we are individually. I want to be proud of our country because our country is better than me.

You know, I don't want "the guy that I'm going to have a beer with — he's just like me." If the guy is just like me, don't be ____ing president! You know?

And I can talk to Donald Trump really comfortably. He's really smart. He has a lot of interesting things to say. But I want somebody that's one notch up for president.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Deconstructing "privilege"

Econ prof Don Boudreaux writes:

One challenge that I encounter often when writing is that of finding an accurate adjective for describing the typical upper-middle-class American (and typical rich American). A common convention is to use the adjective “privileged” – as in, for example, “A disproportionate number of minimum-wage jobs will be filled by privileged teenagers raised in affluent suburbs.” As used in this now-conventional way, the word “privileged” describes the state of being more prosperous economically and better connected socially than is the typical working-class or poor American. . . .

I resist using “privileged” in this way. The reason is that the word “privilege” still conveys also a sense of undeserved special treatment. And so while someone might be made economically more prosperous and socially more well-connected because he or she receives undeserved special treatment, becoming economically more prosperous and socially more well-connected does not require undeserved special treatment. Many prosperous people (indeed, in America, still the vast majority of prosperous people) achieve their success through hard work, economic risk-taking (using their own money), prudent behavior, and honest dealings with others. . . . To call such successful people “privileged” . . . wrongly, if subtly, suggests that they’ve been granted some unusual special treatment that accounts for their success.

Many people are tempted to assert that it is a “privilege” in modern America to be born white, or to be born into a loving two-parent family that instills bourgeois virtues, or to be born without any significant physical or mental disabilities. It’s true that people so born are dealt a better starting hand in life than are many other people. But such a use of “privilege” is too expansive and, hence, runs the risk of verbally papering over important distinctions that should be kept visible. Such an expansive use of the word “privilege” has no obvious boundaries. If we accede to this use of the word “privilege,” then we can say also that it is a privilege to have been born in the U.S. to start with – even, perhaps, regardless of one’s skin color (post-1865) or ethnic background. Even the poorest American today is, by this expansive use of the word “privilege,” privileged in comparison to at least a couple of billion people living today throughout Africa and south and central Asia. So, too, then is anyone born in the modern world “privileged” compared to the vast majority of people born just a few centuries ago and earlier. Such an expansive use of the word “privilege” is misleading.

The etymology of the word “privilege” is obvious if you think about it: “privi” – private; “lege” – legislation. Private legislation. (“Special privileges” is, therefore, a pleonasm.) A person who is truly privileged, therefore, is a person who benefits from a special use of government force wielded in his or her favor. This use of force is not generalizable beyond the individual (or small, closed group) for whom the privilege is created. A genuine privilege is a benefit that government bestows on only an individual or on a small select group with the intention of benefiting that individual or members of that small group even if such benefits come at the greater expense of the general public.

According to this correct understanding of the word “privilege,” the vast majority of upper-middle-class and rich Americans are not privileged. While some of these people attained their wealth through favors conferred illegitimately upon them by the state (and, hence, are indeed privileged), the vast majority earned their prosperity without any such favors. . . .

Such a use also strongly suggests . . . that the best, or only, way for “underprivileged” people to become more prosperous is for them to manage to get for themselves some privileges. That suggestion is widely mistaken, as well as one that, if accepted, creates social strife rather than encourages social cooperation.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Obama on prison rape

President Obama said:

We should not tolerate conditions in prison that have no place in any civilized country. We should not be tolerating overcrowding in prison. We should not be tolerating gang activity in prison. We should not be tolerating rape in prison, and we shouldn’t be making jokes about it in our popular culture. That is no joke. These things are unacceptable.
(Click through for video.)

I'm glad Obama is taking prison rape seriously, but the president shouldn't be telling comedians what kind of jokes they are and aren't allowed to tell. Would he tell comedians not to joke about murder? How about drone strikes that kill innocent people?

I wish he had just said: "We should not be tolerating rape in prison — that is no joke." In other words, his serious point isn't a joke, and too often people act like prison rape is purely a joke. That doesn't mean comedians aren't still allowed to joke about it — comedians are allowed to joke about all kinds of very serious topics. (The Onion has joked about the Holocaust, and I don't object to that!)

Monday, July 13, 2015

Happy belated 85th birthday to Thomas Sowell

The economist Thomas Sowell reflects on his 85 years. An excerpt:

After my 85th birthday last week, I looked back over my life and was surprised to discover in how many different ways I had been lucky, in addition to some other ways in which I was unlucky.

Among the things I did not know at the time was that I was adopted as an infant into a family with four adults, in which I was the only child.

All sorts of research since then has shown how the amount of attention and interactions with adults a child gets has a lot to do with the way the child develops. But of course I knew nothing about such things back then.

It was decades later, when I had a son of my own, that I asked one of the surviving members of the family how old I was when I first started to walk. She said, “Oh, Tommy, nobody knows when you could walk. Somebody was always carrying you.” . . .

Although I was raised by people with very little education, they were people who wanted me to get an education. They praised my every little accomplishment when I was very young, and I was taught to read by the time I was four years old, taught by someone with only a few years of schooling herself.

Years later, when I was promoted to the seventh grade, I was surprised by what a commotion it caused. Then I was told: “You have now gone further than any of us.” You don’t need a Ph.D. to help your child get an education. . . .

Not everything was wonderful in my family or in the world where I grew up in Harlem. But, as I learned from later research, the homicide rate in New York when I was growing up was lower than it had been in the years before, and much lower than it would be in the years afterward.

I cannot recall ever hearing a gunshot, or even having to think about gunshots when I slept out on the fire escape on hot summer nights.

The New York City schools were among the best in the country in those days, better than they had been for the European immigrants before me and much better than they would be for the mass influx of blacks from the South after me.

As for bad luck, there were years of that, too. But I learned a lot from that bad luck, so I am not sure that it was all bad luck in the long run. And 85 years is a very long run.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

What it's like to have prosopagnosia, or face-blindness

New York Magazine interviews an anonymous 47-year-old woman about her condition:

It doesn’t matter if I know the person: I’ve walked right past my husband, my own mother, my daughter, my son, without being able to recognize them.

It can be very embarrassing, and it can offend people. I once had to drop a sociology class, because I told the professor, to her face, that she was a horrible lecturer. I thought I was complaining to a fellow student! It’s as if I have a missing chip — you feel like you’re just not trying hard enough. Faces are so important to humans that we have a special part of our brain dedicated to recognizing them. Most people remember them as a whole piece, but I don’t. . . . Good-looking people are the most difficult to recognize. . . .

The other thing I have discovered is that there is a specific expression people have when they see somebody they know. I call it the “I know you face” — it’s sort of a surprised micro expression. I’m convinced that it’s completely involuntary. It looks a little like surprise. The eyebrows go up, and usually the mouth opens like they're about to say something. When I see it, I say hello, and then when I start interacting with them, I’ll remember who they are. That’s just one of a whole set of observational skills I’ve developed. Another is when I’m meeting somebody in public, I’ll arrive early so they'll approach me.

I'm always looking for visual hooks. My daughter has a particular thing she does with her mouth. If there’s several people who could be her, I look for the mouth thing. If she's nervous, or she's irritated, one side of her mouth goes up. She's done it since she was a baby. She doesn't like having her photograph taken, so when I look at a group photo, I look for the kid with the smirk and I know it’s my daughter. . . .

My son had a distinctive blue and white camouflage hat that he wore for five years. It was great for me when we were in the playground because I could track him. The rule was that my kids had to keep me in their line of sight. If there was a crowd of kids and mine weren’t wearing anything distinctive, I was totally lost. . . .

I’ve had to say to friends of mine, “Is that a picture of me? Who is that?” If I unexpectedly see myself in a mirror, I might think it's somebody else. It's like, Why is that woman staring at me? . . .

When I worked at a homeless shelter, I was often praised for the way I interacted with my African-American clients. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing differently from the other white workers, but I was allowed into their circle and they bonded with me. When we lived in Louisiana, I was always being asked by African-American women if my husband was black. When I was tested at Dartmouth, I scored low on unconscious racism. Apparently babies show a preference for their own race at about nine months because that’s when they start being able to recognize faces. My head doesn’t do this.