Monday, April 29, 2019

What was so great about Duke Ellington?

Duke Ellington would have turned 120 today. He died at age 75 (1899-1974).

This New Yorker article talks about what did and didn't make Ellington great, and what that has to do with how we define "originality":

[Duke] Ellington was a dance-band impresario who played no better than O.K. piano, got trapped for years playing “jungle music” in gangster night clubs, and at his height produced mostly tinny, brief recordings. (His finest was made on a bitter winter night in 1940, in a Fargo, North Dakota, ballroom.) How did he become a dominant figure of modern music and, for many people, an exemplar of art?

The typical answer used to be that he was really a master composer on the European model, all score paper and seclusion and suites. On inspection, this doesn’t hold much water. Ellington’s best music turns out to be the crystallized collective improvisation of an exceptionally ornery group of musical malcontents. To explain it all, we seem to need new categories of value, and another kind of meditation on what originality is. . . .

Ellington knew from the beginning that he needed a sound, more even than a beat or a style. The individual players he employed weren’t up-to-date urban players but, often, less sophisticated New Orleans musicians, whose great gift was a distinctly human tone, often achieved with the use of homemade mutes and plungers. They never suffered from the homogenized, driving tone of the white bands.

Over the years, Ellington cultivated those kinds of players until, with the 1940 band, he achieved something extraordinary—an all-star band that played together, soloed luminously, and never sounded competitive. As critics still remark in proper wonder, at least five of the musicians—Jimmy Blanton, on bass, Ben Webster, on tenor sax, Johnny Hodges, on alto sax, Harry Carney, on baritone sax, and Tricky Sam Nanton, on the trombone—are in the running for the very best ever to have picked up their instrument.

Yet a residue of disappointment clings to these pages [of Terry Teachout’s Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington]: Ellington was an elegant man but not a very nice one, Teachout concludes, exploiting the musicians he gathered and held so close. He used his musicians (not to mention his women) often quite coldly, and his romantic-seeming life was really one long cloud of shimmering misdirection. Teachout reveals that Ellington was rarely the sole composer of the music associated with his name. Nearly all his hit songs, Teachout explains, “were collaborations with band members who did not always receive credit—or royalties—when the songs were recorded and published.” It’s long been known by fans that many of the most famous “Ellington” numbers are really the arranger Billy Strayhorn’s, including “Take the A Train” and “Chelsea Bridge,” and that the valve trombonist Juan Tizol wrote most of “Caravan.” But much of “Mood Indigo” was Barney Bigard’s, while “Never No Lament” (which became the hit “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”), “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” and “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” began as Johnny Hodges riffs and then became songs. “Sophisticated Lady,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” and “In a Sentimental Mood,” in turn, are melodies originally blown by, and rarely credited to, the alto-sax player Otto Hardwick.

None of these are obvious, all-purpose riffs, or simple blues phrases. They’re rich, melodic ideas, as complex as anything in Gershwin or Rodgers. Ellington owned them, but they didn’t start in his head, or take form under his fingers. Teachout says all the right things about how, without Ellington’s ears to hear them and his intelligence to fix and resolve them, these might have been butterflies that lived a day, fluttered, and died. But you sense that he’s shaken by the news. It seems like theft. It certainly bothered the musicians. Hodges used to make a sign of counting money when Ellington was playing the medley of his tunes.

One might be a touch more defiant on behalf of the Duke. Ellington really did take other men’s ideas and act as if they were his own. But he did this because he took other men’s ideas and made them his own. There are artists whose genius lies in exploiting other people’s talent, and we can recognize the exploitation as the genius. It is the gift of such artists to be able to energize and paralyze other people and do both at the same time. It may be true that Herman Mankiewicz wrote most of “Citizen Kane,” scene by scene and even shot by shot. What is certainly true is that nothing else that survives of Mankiewicz’s is remotely as good as “Citizen Kane.” That’s because he was writing “Citizen Kane” for Orson Welles. Johnny Hodges spent many years on his own, with every chance to keep his tunes to himself. No other standard ever emerged. Suppose Billy Strayhorn had been liberated instead of “adopted” and infantilized. Would he have had the energy and mastery to form a band, sustain it, recruit the right musicians, survive their eccentricities and addictions, give them music they could play, record it, and keep enough of a popular audience alive to justify the expense of the rest? It is painful to read of Strayhorn desolate over having credit for his music stolen by the Duke; it is also the case that Ellington had the genius not to have to cry.

Ellington’s ear, his energy, his organizational abilities, the sureness of his decisions are a case study for management school. (Consider the way he fired Charles Mingus for fighting with Tizol, fondly but with no appeal: “I’m afraid, Charles—I’ve never fired anybody—you’ll have to quit my band. I don’t need any new problems. Juan’s an old problem. . . .”) These are not ordinary or secondary gifts. They were the essence of his genius. Ellington had an idea of a certain kind of jazz: tonal, atmospheric, blues-based but elegant. He took what he needed to realize the ideal he had invented. The tunes may have begun with his sidemen; the music was his.

This is not a secondary form of originality, which needs a postmodern apologia, in which “curating” is another kind of “creating.” It is the original kind of originality.

There’s a reason that Duke’s players mostly complained of being cheated only of the dough. Originality comes in two kinds: originality of ideas, and originality of labor, and although it is the first kind that we get agitated about, we should honor the second kind still more. There is wit, made by the head and spun out into life; and work, created mostly by fingers engaging tools as various as tenor saxes and computer keyboards. It is an oddity of our civilization, and has been since the Renaissance, to honor wit more than work, to think that the new idea “contributed” by the work matters more than the work itself.

What Johnny Hodges was doing in making those new melodies may have been more like the copying errors in ceaseless cell fission than like premeditated decision: as he set to playing the same chord changes over and over, night after night, a lucky error in a note may, one night, have touched another and become an innovation. It was a happy accident produced by hard labor. But that it reflected effort as much as inspiration should only increase its value. No author really minds, too much, seeing his or her ideas “out there,” to be recycled, and even a conceptual artist has a slightly guilty conscience about trading in that commodity alone. (That’s why Jasper Johns fans insist that it is the finish, the touch, that really matters.) . . .

What mattered was the band. Duke Ellington was a great impresario and bandleader who created the most stylish sound, and brand, in American music, and kept a company of musicians going for half a century. That this description seems somehow less exalting than calling him a “major American composer” or a “radical musical innovator” is a sign of how far we have to go in allowing art to tell us how to admire it, rather than trying to make it hold still in conventional poses in order to be admired.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Joe Biden announces he's running for president

Joe Biden announces he’s running for president:

I’m surprised by his announcement video. It’s negative and depressing, mentioning racism and anti-Semitism and a woman who died at a white supremacist rally, even as it tries to be inspiring (showing Martin Luther King, Jr. right before cutting to Biden announcing his candidacy). He’s focused on what’s wrong with the incumbent president, but says nothing distinctive about himself in over 3 minutes.

The subtext is: Unlike the many candidates who’ve only come to your attention this year, I don’t need to introduce myself. I need no introduction. You don't need to be reminded of my time as Vice President, and I don't need to tell you where I stand on the issues.

Instead of talking about himself, he talks about us. He ends by saying dramatically: "We have to remember who we are! This is America."

We only see him sitting down in one place; there are no shots of him walking around interacting with people. He's been criticized for his age (he'll be 78 on Inauguration Day), so why not show him being more active? But shots like that would make him look more like a “politician.” And he doesn’t want to look like one more politician. He’s presenting himself to us not as Vice President Biden, but as Joe, your friend.

He starts out quoting the famous line from the Declaration of Independence about how “all men are created equal.” We all know to read that as if it said “people” instead of “men,” but it’s still an odd choice for a candidate who’s going to be criticized for being an old, white man who’s intruded into women's personal space. He includes the part about being “endowed by our Creator” with inalienable rights, signaling that he'll overtly use religion on the campaign trail.

UPDATE: The ad has been roundly criticized. That Politico article quotes a Democratic ad maker:

“It looks in memoriam. The font is your grandmother’s funeral card. To get people to watch your video and make it go viral, you want people to share it and say you’ve got to see it. Your first four seconds have to be the hook, something to get people to stay. The first 15 seconds of this is Joe rambling along. It’s the most Joe thing ever. It’s what you would’ve done in 2004.”

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

What's wrong with Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student debt

Sen. Elizabeth Warren might be my least favorite Democratic candidate. She keeps coming out with all these bold policies, but so many of them sound like bad ideas, like her plan to forgive most student debt. Here's the Washington Post Editorial Board (which is liberal — they endorse Democrats for president):

No one can accuse Ms. Warren of thinking small. What she really needs is a better sense of proportion. Her premise seems to be that student debt is all burden and no benefit, but this is not true: It represents an investment in skill acquisition that pays substantial long-term benefits. President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers estimated this lifetime “earnings premium” at about $1 million over a worker with only a high school education. It’s not unfair to expect people to pay back their loans out of that income.

What might be unfair is debt relief to the exclusion of other priorities with wider benefits, including to people who did not go to college at all. Ms. Warren proposes a wealth tax to cover the cost, the proceeds of which would then not be available for alternative, possibly more progressive uses. In any case, default rates are actually falling slightly, according to the latest Education Department figures; 84.7 percent of borrowers were current on their obligations as of the end of 2017, according to the New York Fed.

As for tuition-free college, why should children of families in the upper reaches of the income distribution scale receive an income-enhancing state-university education for nothing, when their parents are perfectly capable of helping defray the cost?

Jussie Smollett allegedly “directed every aspect of the attack” in hate-crime hoax

Well, many actors decide they'd like to direct . . .

Monday, April 22, 2019

How the Boeing 737 Max "denies [pilots'] sovereignty"

[T]he 737 Max . . . violated that most ancient of aviation canons and probably violated the certification criteria of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. But instead of going back to the drawing board and getting the airframe hardware right . . . Boeing relied on something called the “Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System,” or MCAS. . . .

MCAS is certainly much less expensive than extensively modifying the airframe to accommodate the larger engines. Such an airframe modification would have meant things like longer landing gear (which might not then fit in the fuselage when retracted), more wing dihedral (upward bend), and so forth. All of those hardware changes would be horribly expensive.

What’s worse, those changes could be extensive enough to require not only that the FAA recertify the 737 but that Boeing build an entirely new aircraft. Now we’re talking real money, both for the manufacturer as well as the manufacturer’s customers.

That’s because the major selling point of the 737 Max is that it is just a 737, and any pilot who has flown other 737s can fly a 737 Max without expensive training, without recertification, without another type of rating. Airlines—Southwest is a prominent example—tend to go for one “standard” airplane. They want to have one airplane that all their pilots can fly because that makes both pilots and airplanes fungible, maximizing flexibility and minimizing costs. . . .

The flight management computer is a computer. What that means is that it’s not full of aluminum bits, cables, fuel lines, or all the other accoutrements of aviation. It’s full of lines of code. And that’s where things get dangerous.

Those lines of code were no doubt created by people at the direction of managers. Neither such coders nor their managers are as in touch with the particular culture and mores of the aviation world as much as the people who are down on the factory floor, riveting wings on, designing control yokes, and fitting landing gears. Those people have decades of institutional memory about what has worked in the past and what has not worked. Software people do not.

In the 737 Max, only one of the flight management computers is active at a time—either the pilot’s computer or the copilot’s computer. And the active computer takes inputs only from the sensors on its own side of the aircraft.

When the two computers disagree, the solution for the humans in the cockpit is to look across the control panel to see what the other instruments are saying and then sort it out. In the Boeing system, the flight management computer does not “look across” at the other instruments. It believes only the instruments on its side. It doesn’t go old-school. It’s modern. It’s software.

This means that if a particular angle-of-attack sensor goes haywire—which happens all the time in a machine that alternates from one extreme environment to another, vibrating and shaking all the way—the flight management computer just believes it.

It gets even worse. There are several other instruments that can be used to determine things like angle of attack, either directly or indirectly, such as the pitot tubes, the artificial horizons, etc. All of these things would be cross-checked by a human pilot to quickly diagnose a faulty angle-of-attack sensor.

In a pinch, a human pilot could just look out the windshield to confirm visually and directly that, no, the aircraft is not pitched up dangerously. That’s the ultimate check and should go directly to the pilot’s ultimate sovereignty. Unfortunately, the current implementation of MCAS denies that sovereignty. It denies the pilots the ability to respond to what’s before their own eyes.

Like someone with narcissistic personality disorder, MCAS gaslights the pilots. And it turns out badly for everyone. “Raise the nose, HAL.” “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

In the MCAS system, the flight management computer is blind to any other evidence that it is wrong, including what the pilot sees with his own eyes and what he does when he desperately tries to pull back on the robotic control columns that are biting him, and his passengers, to death. . . .

None of the above should have passed muster. None of the above should have passed the “OK” pencil of the most junior engineering staff, much less a DER. That’s not a big strike. That’s a political, social, economic, and technical sin.

It just so happens that, during the timeframe between the first 737 Max crash and the most recent 737 crash, I’d had the occasion to upgrade and install a brand-new digital autopilot in my own aircraft. . . .

The media's magical thinking about the Supreme Court

The Wall Street Journal reports:

The Supreme Court on Monday said it will consider three cases to decide whether federal law protects gay and transgender workers from employment discrimination.

The cases mark the first major consideration of gay rights by the justices since the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who led a closely divided court through a series of landmark opinions culminating with the constitutional recognition of same-sex marriage.
The Wall Street Journal says this is going to "put[] the spotlight squarely on Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the former Kennedy clerk who succeeded his former boss last year." But I see no reason to think Justice Kavanaugh is any more significant in this way than Justice Gorsuch (who isn't mentioned in the WSJ article). What matters is that they're the two who joined the Supreme Court after its 2015 same-sex marriage decision; it's irrelevant who replaced Justice Kennedy and who replaced Justice Scalia. The media made the same mistake when Justice Alito replaced Justice O'Connor, shortly after Chief Justice Roberts replaced Chief Justice Rehnquist; journalists would act as if Alito were especially important because his direct predecessor, O'Connor, was more often in the majority than Rehnquist. But that's magical thinking. When two judges replace two judges on a court, it doesn't matter who replaced whom, as long as the judges' votes all count equally.

ABC News flubs presidential candidates' ages

ABC News says this about Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, the latest Democrat to announce he’s running for president:

At 40, he's the second-youngest candidate, three years older than Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, whom Moulton has described as a friend and fellow veteran.
Wait, Tulsi Gabbard and Eric Swalwell are both 38-year-old members of Congress who've announced they're running for president. Have they dropped out? No, Moulton is at most the fourth-youngest candidate, not the "second-youngest"; ABC News just didn’t bother to fact-check. This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed the mainstream media getting a 2020 contender’s age wrong; as I posted before, a CNN article understated Joe Biden’s age. If the media isn’t going to be accurate about something as easy to check as the age of presidential candidates, you have to wonder how badly they’re getting the facts wrong in trickier areas.

(I posted a screen shot of ABC's mistake to Facebook for posterity, in case it's eventually corrected.)

By the way, Moulton seems to have an impressive military record as a Marine and an Iraq veteran — not that that’s been an effective way to win votes. The veterans who've run for president in recent memory (John Kerry, Wesley Clark, John McCain, Bob Dole) all failed; it's been a while since we've elected a president with a military background. So I don't expect this to be the factor that makes Moulton stand out from the crowd of at least 20 candidates.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Does society allow men but not women to have comebacks?

This New York Times article argues that women don't "get comebacks like Tiger Woods" because "society" doesn't "allow . . . women to get high enough to fall." Ann Althouse (my mom) responds:

It seems to me, there's no one to compare to Tiger Woods — the ascent, the crash, the long time in the wilderness, the perfection of the big comeback win. You can't generalize to: Men can do that, women can't. . . .

There are a lot of people who only care about golf to the extent that it's about Tiger. Who else has done that with a sport — made millions of people care about it only because of him (or her)? . . .

Getting that high means beating everybody else. There's no way for the rest of us to "allow" that. Women already enjoy the allowance of playing in separated women's sports. . . .

[The article] really does undercut women by insisting proactively that women be given something no man was given.
This is a pet peeve of mine: gender/race articles that claim men (or white men) "get" to do something or are "allowed" to do something while other people aren't. That kind of framing makes it sound like the writer is boldly announcing a discovery about how society's rules are discriminatory. But the supposed rule isn't real; it was created by the writer, not by society.

Right under the Tiger Woods piece is a New York Times article about Martha Stewart, which says she recently joked at a roast "about surviving the five months she spent in prison beginning in 2004 after being convicted of lying to investigators about a stock trade," and the joke "was a hit." The article goes on to say that she's "still a competitive business woman" and "still expanding her empire." Apparently women are "allowed" to make comebacks.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Does increasing the minimum wage also increase crime?

The Wall Street Journal looks at some of the harmful consequences of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour:

New York City’s minimum wage rose again on Dec. 31. Businesses with 11 or more workers must pay $15 an hour, up from $13 last year and $11 in 2017. Employees who earn tips can be paid a lower rate, now set at $10 an hour for waiters, provided their total pay exceeds $15.

Is it merely a coincidence that the city’s full-service restaurants have fallen into a jobs recession?

Employment in January dropped 3.7% year over year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the start of 2018, the Big Apple’s sit-down restaurants had 167,900 employees. This January, after the wage bump, it fell to 161,700, a three-year low. The preliminary February number is 161,000, even as overall city employment is up around 2% year over year.

The monthly jobs data can be noisy, but the trend fits what restaurateurs are saying. The New York City Hospitality Alliance surveyed 324 full-service eateries late last year. Nearly half, 47%, planned to eliminate jobs in 2019 to deal with higher labor costs. Three-fourths expected to cut employee hours, and 87% said they would raise menu prices.

Meanwhile, in a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper posted last month, three economists examined whether minimum-wage increases had any effect on crime from 1998 to 2016. “We find robust evidence,” they write, “that minimum wage hikes increase property crime arrests among teenagers and young adults ages 16-to-24, a population for whom minimum wages are likely to bind.”

When politicians arbitrarily set the price of labor, young workers without skills can be locked out of the job market. That’s the finding in studies of Seattle’s wage mandate by a team at the University of Washington. The new wrinkle in the NBER paper is that some of these young people turn to petty crime.

What does this say about the Democrats’ idea for a nationwide $15 mandate? “Our estimates suggest,” the economists write, “that this minimum wage hike would generate over 410,000 additional property crimes and $2.4 billion per year in additional crime costs.” . . .

How did Democrats settle on a goal of $15 anyway? An organizer with the Service Employees International Union, which is behind the public campaign, joked in 2014 that “it was a pretty scientific process: $10 was too low and $20 was too high, so we landed at $15.”
Just yesterday I noticed that a restaurant where I've sometimes gone to lunch from work in Manhattan had raised all of its entree prices to at least $20. This is more than the restaurant was charging last week. I don't plan to go back. Democrats have recklessly caused harm by raising the minimum wage to unreasonable levels.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Movies vs. real life

In movies, young children are angels who go along with whatever their parents want without resistance. When they reach puberty, they're constantly being rude and rebelling. In real life, teenagers are usually more polite and well-behaved than younger kids.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Notre-Dame will be rebuilt again

In the aftermath of the fire in the Notre-Dame Cathedral of Paris, a piece in the New Republic points out:

Notre Dame’s spire was a nineteenth-century restoration by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, replacing an original that was taken down in the reign of Louis XVI. Most constructions, all cities, every culture, are constantly rebuilt in the midst of damage and loss. Mourning and renewal are linked together as long as the world goes on. Loss is its own meaning. And civilization is the story of rebuilding.
NBC News talks about the daunting task ahead:
Jonathan Foyle, an architectural historian and author, said a critical part of the restoration process will be to assess how damaged Notre Dame’s massive stone vaults were by the blaze. Extreme temperatures can cause calcination — a process that turns stone into powder, he said.

Then, there’s the possible damage caused by firefighters trying to extinguish the blaze: Dumping cold water on red hot stone can cause it to shatter and crack, Foyle said.

“It’s gone through a very complex trauma,” he said. “You’re going to need months to figure out whether it is safe enough to stay standing.” . . .

Still, he said there are French architects trained in medieval building techniques that would be up to the task of restoring this “pioneering giant of Gothic cathedrals.”

“This building has been through the French Revolution, the Huguenots and two world wars,” he said. “I have no doubt it will rise again.”

The rebuilding process could take two decades of painstaking work and restructuring, said Emily Guerry, a professor of medieval European history at Britain's University of Kent. . . .

[Architectural historian Jonathan Foyle] estimated that it will cost tens of millions of dollars and require an army of stone masons, glaziers, plumbers and carpenters.

Still, such a massive project could signal a “rebirth,” he said.

“In a way, projects like Windsor Castle — they look disastrous, and they are, but they give life to traditional trades,” he said. “Sometimes they can have a silver lining.”

Friday, April 12, 2019

25 years ago today: Hole and Sugartooth

25 years ago today, April 12, 1994, was a good day for grunge rock.

A week after the death of Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love's band, Hole, released its breakthrough album, Live Through This.

Rolling Stone ranked it #4 on a list of the "50 Greatest Grunge Albums":

Live Through This is the sound of Courtney Love ripping herself to shreds. Her band’s second album is a roller-coaster reflection on co-dependency, motherhood and feminism that found the volcanic frontwoman making the case that she was more of a pop-culture heroine than the villainess she’d previously been painted as. . . . The title of Live Through This felt like a prophecy as Love was suddenly thrust into the role of celebrity widow.
Here's an oral history of Live Through This.

The album title is in the lyrics of "Violet" — Hole at its best:

"I’m part of an evolutionary process. I’m not the fully evolved end.” — Courtney Love

Hole was "grunge" in a way that, say, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains were not. Those bands were a mix of genres: grunge, hard rock, metal, prog rock, etc. But the unpolished, first-take feel of a song like "Rock Star" (a/k/a "Olympia") makes it pure "grunge."

On the same day, Sugartooth, a band from Southern California which never found its big break, released its debut album (self-titled). Sugartooth was best known for the first song, "Sold My Fortune":

One more from Sugartooth:

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Much ado about "something"

If you're offended by Rep. Ilhan Omar's use of the word "something," you don't get to mock anyone else for being a triggered snowflake.

Her statement from last month that's causing all this controversy was that the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) "was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties." She didn't make her point as eloquently as she could have, and she was technically incorrect about when CAIR was founded. But you're allowed to use a basic pronoun like "it" or "something" to refer to, well, anything — even the most horrific atrocity. As far as I can tell, she wasn't emphasizing the word "something" to minimize the enormity of the attacks. Instead, she was pithily getting across the familiar point that just because some people perpetrated these acts of war doesn't mean everyone who looks like them or practices the same religion should lose their rights.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is right; the New York Post's cover is a gratuitous attempt to stir up hatred against Omar. As you can see at that link, the cover puts her name at the top and quotes her out of context; right under that is a photo of the World Trade Center being destroyed (in a newspaper that's widely in circulated in New York City where it happened), with superimposed text saying: "Here's your something." I get that they're using the phrase "Here's your . . ." in the colloquial sense of "Here, let me show you what this is about . . ." Still, using the word "your" right after naming Omar is an almost subliminal way of linking her to the World Trade Center attack in readers' minds. I've been critical of Omar in the past, but that is not a decent way to be talking about a member of Congress.

(Photo of Rep. Ilhan Omar from Wikimedia Commons.)

President Trump shares fake news about his approval rating

President Donald Trump said “Great news!” when tweeting this image from Fox News, which says “TRUMP’S SOARING APPROVAL” at the top, and then “55% OVERALL.”

Sounds impressive! Except for one slight detail: according to the same poll that was the basis of the Fox News report, 55% is actually his disapproval rating. His approval rating is only 43%. And he calls other people fake news . . .

Mo Elleithee, director of the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service (which conducted the poll), tweeted back:

Some other Twitter users have a theory:

Pete Buttigieg on "capitalism"

Mayor Pete Buttigieg said this on Meet the Press over the weekend, in response to Chuck Todd's question about whether he's a "capitalist":

Sure, yeah. I think, look, America is a capitalist society. But — it's gotta be democratic capitalism. And that part's really important, and it's slipping away from us. In other words, when capitalism comes into tension with democracy, which is more important to you? I believe democracy is more important. And when you have capitalism capturing democracy, when you have the kind of regulatory capture where powerful corporations are able to arrange the rules for their benefit, that's not real capitalism. If you want to see what happens when you have capitalism without democracy, you can see it very clearly in Russia. It turns into crony capitalism, and that turns into oligarchy. So, I know the temptation, especially for the commentariat, is to kind of align everybody as dots on a spectrum, but that's not how most voters think.
He largely seems to be associating the word "capitalism" with "regulatory capture," i.e. incumbent businesses colluding with government to keep other businesses down. The phrase "crony capitalism" is also not really about free-market capitalism, but about big government interfering with businesses. (The distinction is laid out here — scroll down for a concise explanation of crony capitalism.) Buttigieg seems to realize all that when he says "that's not real capitalism." And yet, I'm wary of this rhetorical device of associating the word "capitalism" with things that have more to do with big government than free markets.

Here's the whole video of Buttigieg's Meet the Press interview, which I've cued to start at this part of the discussion (9:50):

(The photo at the top of this post is from a 404 page on Pete Buttigieg's campaign website.)

Why is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez mocking this Fox News interviewer?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says this short interview with a customer in a diner didn't "go quite as expected," and someone else says the interviewer seemed "confused." Really?

The interview seems completely planned out, and they both seem calm and unsurprised.

Maybe people watching it are surprised to see an interview with a liberal on Fox News.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Is this Trump's worst immigration argument yet?

President Trump has been repeatedly saying that America can't handle any more people because "our country is full." (That links to the Boston Globe, which restricts your number of free articles.)

That piece corrects the president:

Far from running out of room for more people, most of this immense country is wide open and empty. According to the Census Bureau, nearly two-thirds of the US population live in cities — but those cities take up just 3.5 percent of the nation’s land area. Add in all the other places where Americans live — villages, islands, farms — and it still amounts to a mere sliver of US territory. In 2006, a detailed federal government study of land use in the United States reported that “urban land plus rural residential areas together comprise 154 million acres, or almost 7 percent of total US land area.” Our country, in other words, isn’t 100 percent full, it is 93 percent empty.
Peter Suderman adds in Reason:
There are at least 145 countries more physically dense than the U.S. There is no sense in which America has reached its capacity to hold, support, or employ people. . . .

"Our country is full" is not an argument. It's an excuse for draconian political symbolism that will have real and lasting consequences for both immigrants and native-born Americans.

Toddler disables iPad until 2067

Try again in 25 million minutes . . .

What's the matter with having so many "Acting" officials in the Trump administration?

ABC News explains:

By the end of the week, 10 major leadership positions in the Trump administration -- including some of the most critical in the government -- are expected to be filled by individuals serving in an acting capacity. . . .

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has been his temporary status for almost four months, since James Mattis left at the end of December.

Besides Shanahan, the "acting" senior leadership includes soon-to-be Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, Acting Budget Director Russell Vought, Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Acting U.N. Ambassador Jonathan Cohen, Acting FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor, Acting ICE Director Ronald Vitiello, a soon-to-be acting administrator of the Small Business Administration, and a soon-to-be acting commissioner of the Customs and Border Patrol. . . .

The president himself has expressed a preference for the "flexibility" that comes from having non-permanent leadership.

“I sort of like Acting. It gives me more flexibility . . .” the president said in January. . . .

Max Stier, the CEO Partnership for Public Service[,] . . . Stier warns of a widespread “substitute teacher effect” across the administration whereby the “acting” leaders “don’t get the respect in the classroom and also don’t personally view themselves as responsible in the long run.” . . .

“There’s also this trend of taking people out of their jobs to fill top jobs and then not filling the deputy gaps, so it’s a game of musical chairs,” he said in an interview with ABC News. . . .

John Cohen, . . . a former acting in Department of Homeland Security, spoke from personal experience in having served as an acting leader for a time during the Obama administration.

“As the acting person, and I speak from experience, you’re very much aware that you are temporary and your replacement can come at a moment's notice, so there’s this sense of discomfort about trying to bring organizational change,” said Cohen, who recalled learning that a permanent leader had been named to the job he had been filling in an acting capacity through a White House press release.

In addition to being unable to execute on a long-term vision, Cohen said, acting leaders can be more beholden to the political whims of the presidents they serve than Senate-confirmed leaders.

"This makes them potentially vulnerable to political pressure and when the acting official is serving in a cabinet level role it makes them more likely to yield to the demands of the president," Cohen said.

Does moderating comments lead to more and better comments?

The Wall Street Journal spent 5 months studying online comments and reached these conclusions (via Althouse):

Heavy commenters are often not reading much of the articles they comment on. They go to the headline, sometimes scan a small part of the story, and skip right on down to the comment box. In a sense, some have more interest in having a place to post their thoughts than in engaging with the journalism. . . .

Light commenters are more likely to say that moderation improves comment quality. . . .

One of the concepts you learn in Economics 101 is opportunity cost — which means that when you do one thing, you’re missing out on doing something else. The thing you are missing out on is the opportunity cost. In the case of commenting, we have concluded that overly focusing on the small subset of users who comment frequently and want no one intervening at all in their comments is costing us the opportunity of engaging with our much larger, growing, and diversifying audience.

Indeed, when we looked at the demographics of our heavy commenters, we found they don’t represent the Journal as a whole. That led us to focus on the people who are not commenting as much. Women and younger people have been less represented among our commenters than they are among our subscribers, so we took a look at what was keeping them away. What we heard was they want to feel safe from bullying and share their comments in a forum in which they won’t be attacked. . . .

Our standards for posts remain the same — and they can be found here — but they will be enforced more than they were. We owe it to our readers and our journalists to lead the way with thoughtful discourse.
Ann Althouse (my mom) responds: "To me, the WSJ's observations seem pretty obvious. The trick is what to do about it. Comments are great and comments are horrible. To me, it's an endless struggle."

Hidden camera invades privacy at Airbnb

A couple staying at an Airbnb in Ireland made the discovery:

"I could see the live stream video of myself looking at his phone," Nealie Barker, 42, said. "I had this horrible, sinking feeling ... We're definitely being watched.” ...

The couple, who was traveling with their four children and niece, contacted Airbnb, which doesn’t allow hidden cameras.

"Airbnb had no advice for us over the phone," Nealie Barker told NBC News, adding that the representative didn’t seem to understand the severity of the situation.

Feeling Airbnb was unhelpful, they called the host themselves. As he denied their questions about cameras on the property, she said, her husband asked, "Well then why am I [looking] at a livestream of myself?"

The host hung up but called back later, saying there was only one hidden camera.

Black hole seen

We can now see a black hole for the first time. Science magazine explains:

Astronomers today revealed that they have taken a picture of a gargantuan black hole at the heart of the nearby galaxy Messier 87. The result is a powerful confirmation of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which was used to predict black holes more than a century ago. It is also a feat for the team of more than 200 scientists who toiled for years to produce the image by combining signals from eight separate radio observatories spanning the globe. . . .

Black holes have gravitational fields so strong that even light cannot escape, so they are defined by a black, featureless sphere called an event horizon. But the holes can nevertheless be seen because they acquire a disk of gas and whip it up to high temperatures so that it glows brightly at different wavelengths.

By seeing the shape of this ring, bent into an asymmetric crescent by the black hole’s gravity, a new era of astrophysics will begin. The precise size and shape of the ring will help researchers test Einstein’s gravitational equations to see if they stand up to the test or if some other theory of gravity may be needed.
For scale: black hole, sun:

(Image by XKCD.)

Is Kirsten Gillibrand right that she's more open to changing her mind than Trump?

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (whom I've voted for repeatedly) said this in a CNN town hall:

"When I was a member of Congress from upstate New York, I was really focused on the priorities of my district," the New York senator said during a CNN town hall. "When I became senator of the entire state, I recognized that some of my views really did need to change."

Before becoming a senator in 2009, Gillibrand represented a largely Republican district in the House and expressed ideas on immigration — from blocking certain benefits for undocumented immigrants to establishing English as an official language — that have come back to haunt her as she seeks the Democratic nomination in 2020. . . .

During the town hall, Gillibrand said she has changed considerably since her times in the House, and that she was "ashamed" of her past positions. She used her ideological evolution to further distance herself from the president, who she said is incapable of change.

"For people who aspire to be president, I think it's really important that you're able to admit when you're wrong and that you're able to grow and learn and listen and be better, and be stronger," Gillibrand said. "That is something that Donald Trump is unwilling to do."
She was also asked about her dramatic shift on guns: she currently has an F rating from the NRA, not surprisingly for a Democrat . . . but she used to get an A.

So, Gillibrand says she's changed her mind again and again, while Trump is unwilling to change his mind. But wait — by her own account, she changed her mind because her job changed from representing a relatively conservative district in upstate New York to representing the whole state, which is more liberal.

Well, Trump has also changed his views. He used to be pro-choice. Trump admitted in 2015: "At one point, I was a Democrat. As Ronald Reagan changed, I also changed. I became much more conservative. I also became a Republican."

In 1999, Trump said he wouldn't want to ban "partial-birth abortion": "I'm very pro-choice. . . . I am pro-choice in every respect."

Trump said in 2004: "In many cases, I probably identify more as a Democrat. . . . It just seems that the economy does better under the Democrats than under the Republicans." As you can see in that video, he said in another video (I'm not sure when) that he was "liberal on health care."

But then Trump changed many of his positions — why? We can't know, because we can't read his mind, but the most likely explanation would seem to be that he wanted to run president, and he thought he'd have the best luck vying for the Republican nomination.

Is Trump really so different from Gillibrand? Don't they both change their positions depending on what job they had or wanted?

Monday, April 8, 2019

25 years of the Offspring's Smash

25 years ago today, April 8, 1994, the Offspring came out with their third album, Smash. The previously unknown band sold over 10 million copies of what journalists inevitably referred to as "the aptly titled Smash."

Just 2 months after Green Day's commercial breakthrough, "pop punk" seemed to be having a moment, leading to somewhat silly debates about whether too much pop and success made the word "punk" inappropriate.

The Offspring's interesting lead singer, Dexter Holland, wrote their breakthrough single, "Come Out and Play," about gang violence after living near the LA riots in 1992. Holland, who was pursuing a Ph.D in molecular biology before he dropped out to focus on the band, added the "You gotta keep 'em separated" catchphrase to this song based on his experience working with hot liquids in a laboratory.

The title track of Smash, released the same day we learned of Kurt Cobain's suicide days earlier, closed out the album with a defiant declaration: "Do what I want, do what I feel like . . . Who gives a f--- if it's good enough for you? 'Cause I am alive, I am alive, I am alive!"

Sunday, April 7, 2019

What's so great about unwavering beliefs?

That someone has unwaveringly stuck to the same beliefs or principles or values throughout their life is often said as if it were a compliment, but it isn't. The fact that you've consistently believed something isn't particularly valuable in itself. You might be consistently right, but you could be consistently wrong. So consistency of beliefs is not the best standard to apply when judging, say, a political leader. More useful tests are how flexible and adaptable you are, and how reliably you recognize truths and reject falsehoods. You don't get any bonus points for resolutely standing by what's irrational or false. If you have a false belief, the worst thing you can do is to keep believing it, and the best thing you can do in the future is to change.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Kurt Cobain died 25 years ago

Kurt Cobain is estimated to have killed himself 25 years ago today, April 5, 1994. His body was discovered and the news was reported 3 days later.

Over 10 years ago I made a list of the 40 greatest grunge songs as a series of blog posts, and then did a post reflecting on those who had died. I said:

I vividly remember when I was 13, sitting around watching MTV on April 8, 1994. Kurt Loder announced on MTV News that Kurt Cobain had been found dead in his home and that the cause of death was "a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head." I was so young that the meaning of that delicate phrasing didn't register with me, so I asked my mom about it. She had to explain: "That means he killed himself." . . .

He was 27. He left behind a one-year-old daughter and many others.

Nirvana [which had songs #18, #9, #1 in my list] released only three proper studio albums. In a Rolling Stone interview near the end of his life, Cobain was critical of the band's soft/loud formula and talked about wanting to branch out stylistically. He said he wanted to "learn to go in between those things, go back and forth, almost become psychedelic in a way."

We'll never get to hear how the band might have developed; the analogy would be if John Lennon had died not in 1980 but in 1965. They should have done so much more. But they changed the direction of rock music in the few years they were around. (As I said yesterday, I realize that other bands have a better claim to inventing grunge, but Nirvana perfected it and reached a lot more people.)

For days after the news broke, MTV constantly reran the Nirvana Unplugged concert, and I watched it almost as constantly. I started learning to play guitar that summer.
This is a park bench in Seattle, south of Cobain's home, where he died. The photographer, Eric Shoemaker, says: "Nirvana fans gather at the park on the memorial of Kurt Cobain's death (April 5th), to pay tribute. . . . The park's benches are covered with graffiti messages to the rock icon."

As you can see, someone wrote the first line of "Dumb," from In Utero: "I'm not like them, but I can pretend."

Cobain tribute bench in Seattle

From the New York Times:
Suicide prevention advocates have developed guidelines for news media coverage of suicide deaths. . . . They . . . recommend avoiding coverage that describes death as an escape for a troubled person.

One example was the 1994 death of Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, who was beloved among young music fans, including in Seattle, where his career rose and where he was found dead. Local coverage of his suicide was closely tied to messages about treatment for mental health and suicide prevention, along with a very public discussion of the pain his death caused his family.

Those factors may explain why his death bucked the pattern. In the months after Mr. Cobain’s death, calls to suicide prevention lines in the Seattle area surged and suicides actually went down.