Friday, October 22, 2021

Conductor Bernard Haitink dies at 92

The New York Times reports:
Bernard Haitink, an unaffected maestro who led Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for 27 years and was known for presenting powerful readings of the symphonies of Mahler, Bruckner and Beethoven conducting orchestras on both sides of the Atlantic, died on Thursday at his home in London. He was 92.

Here's Beethoven's 7th Symphony conducted by Haitink — the famously moving second movement starts at 13:18:

The Times obit gives a sense of Haitink's personality:

Mr. Haitink let the music emerge from the orchestra, often transcendently, without imposing a heavy-handed interpretation that a star conductor might.

His self-effacing nature was noticed early on.

He was “not one of the glamour boys on the podium,” Harold C. Schonberg, the chief classical music critic for The New York Times, wrote in January 1975 after Mr. Haitink’s debut with the New York Philharmonic, conducting Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7.

“He does not dance, he does not patronize the best tailor on the Continent,” Mr. Schonberg continued. “But he is a dedicated musician, always on top of the music, getting exactly what he wants from his players.”

Reviewing his performance of the same symphony with the Philharmonic in 2011, the critic Steve Smith wrote in The Times: “Some conductors strive for mysticism in late Bruckner; Mr. Haitink, with his unerring sense of shape, transition and flow, lets the music speak for itself, with results that can approach the supernatural and often did here.”

Haitink conjures the towering greatness of Brahms's 4th Symphony:

More from the Times:

His reputation for being unassuming trailed him throughout his career. In 1967, Time magazine described him as “a short, quiet man who likes to take long bird-watching rambles in the woods,” and pointed out that “in a profession where flamboyance and arrogance are often the hallmarks of talent, the diffident Haitink is an anomaly.” A New York Times article in 1976 carried the headline “Why Doesn’t Bernard Haitink Act Like a Superstar?”

Mr. Haitink’s colleagues lauded his modesty, integrity and musicianship when he was awarded the prestigious Gramophone Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015. The pianist Murray Perahia, who recorded the complete Beethoven piano concertos with Mr. Haitink and the Concertgebouw, praised him as being “dedicated to a real collaboration: neither dictating an interpretation, nor slavishly following — but a natural give and take.”

Haitink brings Debussy's cinematic La Mer to life:

The Times on how wartime in Haitink's childhood affected him as a conductor:

Bernard Johan Herman Haitink was born on March 4, 1929, into a well-off family in Amsterdam. His father, Willem Haitink, was a civil servant, and his mother, Anna Clara Verschaffelt, worked for the French cultural organization Alliance Française. Neither were musicians. The family lived under Nazi occupation during World War II, and Willem was imprisoned for three months in a concentration camp.

Mr. Haitink referred to his youth as his “lazy days.”

“I wasn’t stupid,” he explained, “but I just wasn’t there. Half the time we were taught under our desks because of air raids. But even when things became normal, I wasn’t interested. Maybe this is why now, when I am over 70, that people always ask me why I work so hard.”

Shostakovich's merciless 4th Symphony:

The New York Times obit ends with this:

In 2011, in [an] interview with The Guardian, Mr. Haitink mused on the strange life of a conductor. “I have been doing this job for 50 years,” he said. “And, you know, it is a profession and it is not a profession. It’s very obscure sometimes. What makes a good conductor? What is this thing about charisma? I’m still wondering after all these years.”

And here's the last symphony by one of Haitink's signature composers: Bruckner's 9th.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Flow author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has died at 87

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who wrote the famous 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, has died at age 87.

I haven't found any obituaries yet, but here's the announcement on his Facebook page.

In 2010, when I made a list of "the 12 books that have influenced me the most," I included Flow.

This post by Ann Althouse (my mom) quoted the book's summary of 8 features of the state of "flow":

First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and immediate feedback. Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life. Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over. Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours. The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it.

Here's Csikszentmihalyi's TED talk from 2004: "Flow, the secret to happiness."

In Psychology Today, English professor Vivian Wagner wrote in 2018:
The flow state, a concept first recognized and analyzed by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi …, is a worthy goal for anyone who wants to think and live more creatively. …

In my composition classrooms, I often have students "freewrite" about whatever topic we’re focusing on that day. I find that while they’re freewriting, they enter a state of flow. … This is an especially valuable state because it’s then that creative connections are made. The mind allows itself to think, without the constraints and expectations of the external world. There’s time enough later to look at what we’ve written while in a flow state, but it’s important to be able to stay there for as long as possible in order to reap the benefits from it. …

In our era of multiple distractions, it can be difficult to slip into a flow state. Often, in the middle of doing something — when I might actually be in a flow state — I stop to check my phone or my email or search the web, and those activities break it up. More even than when Csikszentmihalyi first theorized about flow, we’re in great need of it today. …

It’s a beautiful, mysterious process — one that will change your life for the better and bring in a daily dose of creativity. And during those moments of flow, you’ll find yourself making connections, forming ideas, and thinking differently.

(Photo of Csíkszentmihályi from his TED talk.)

Friday, September 24, 2021

Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Soundgarden released great albums 30 years ago

September 24, 1991 was a great day for music. 

30 years ago, Nirvana released their second album, Nevermind

The Red Hot Chili Peppers released their fifth album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik

[UPDATE: I originally said Soundgarden released their third album, Badmotorfinger, on the same day — which is what Wikipedia said on September 24. But later, Soundgarden did a Facebook post admitting that they had caused the wrong info to be put on Wikipedia. It was scheduled to be released that day, but it was postponed to October 8, 1991 because the band insisted on changing the album's front and back covers. You can see the original cover art in their Facebook post.]

All three albums were commercial and artistic breakthroughs for those bands.

They're the kind of album you listen to straight through, not skipping any tracks, because each one feels essential, from the hits to the songs you might have forgotten about but are happy to hear when they come on (Nirvana's "Lounge Act," RHCP's "My Lovely Man," Soundgarden's "Somewhere"). 

Nevermind has been celebrated for bringing an entire genre into the mainstream and signaling an authenticity-driven reaction against synth-heavy '80s music, even though the album itself has been criticized (including by Kurt Cobain) for being too slickly produced.

Nirvana thought "Lithium" was the song that would break them into the mainstream. They never expected it to be overshadowed by you-know-what

Two features of this song make it stand out as one of Nirvana's best. One is the lyrics, which were unusually clear for Cobain. "I'm so happy, 'cause today I've found my friends. They're in my head. I'm so ugly, that's OK, 'cause so are you. We broke our mirrors." There's so much you can read into that word, "ugly."

The other thing is Krist Novoselic's bassline. While the guitar part in the verse starts at the bottom and climbs upward, the bass starts at the top and descends. He wasn't a flashy bassist who drew attention to himself, but he gave extra attention to this song. He also does some tasteful noodling in the "I'm not gonna crack" section.

The chorus of "In Bloom" is brilliantly self-referential in mocking the whole idea of a band with fans, while being more lovable than that concept sounds. "He's the one who likes all our pretty songs, and he likes to sing along … but he knows not what it means …"

"Drain You" was one of Kurt Cobain's favorite Nirvana songs. I love how in the place where you might expect a conventional guitar solo, they instead do an eerie instrumental interlude with disorienting guitar noises and dissonances, culminating in a frenzied crescendo that leads back to the beginning. Grunge genius.

That same day, RHCP put out a 17-song funk masterpiece. "Give It Away" captures the essence of the band: gleefully sexual, deceptively simple, rhythmically infectious.

"Breaking the Girl" is an uncharacteristically acoustic Chili Peppers song with an electrifying percussion break (starting at 3:03). Chad Smith's propulsive drum beat gives a remarkable momentum to the song.

"Under the Bridge" is a haunting portrait of heroin addiction. I get chills when I hear the choir-like backing vocals start to sing: "Under the bridge downtown …" The beautiful interplay of the guitar (John Frusciante) and bass (Flea) at the end is worthy of comparison to George Harrison and Paul McCartney in the Beatles' "Something."

"Power of Equality" kicks the album off with an urgent note of social awareness ("American equality has always been sour"). The Chili Peppers' singer/rapper, Anthony Kiedis, was clearly self-conscious about this white band being indebted to many black musicians: "My lily white ass is tickled pink, when I listen to the music that makes me think." He makes an explicit call for racial harmony: "Death to the message of the Ku Klux Klan!" The song ends with an earnest lament:

People in pain, I do not dig it
Change of brain for Mr. Bigot …
Misery is not my friend
But I'll break before I bend
What I see is insanity
Whatever happened to humanity?

Soundgarden found their voice with Badmotorfinger, which kicks off with the frenetic "Rusty Cage."

"Slaves and Bulldozers" is a 7-minute epic that sounds like a fearsome machine, with staggering vocals by Chris Cornell.

"Mind Riot" is the relatively poppy side of Soundgarden.

"Outshined" defines the Soundgarden sound and attitude: powerfully heavy, and with a determination to get through life's dark moments.

Focus on the interlude that starts just before 3:00. On the surface, there's not much going on here — no key change, no guitar solo. But a gentle, introspective passage like this to contrast with the heaviness is the kind of thing that elevates a rock song, and distinguished Soundgarden from other bands of the time.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Do trigger warnings work?

No, according to Amna Khalid, a history professor who says she won’t be using them this year (via John McWhorter):

Trigger warnings, the results have been clear, do not reduce negative affect and emotional distress. According to a recent study by Harvard psychologists, trigger warnings “were not helpful even when they warned about content that closely matched survivors’ traumas.” Even worse, the researchers found that trigger warnings actually increased the anxiety of individuals with the most severe PTSD. How’s that? Repeatedly reminded of their emotional wounds — and essentially encouraged to view new experiences through a prism of past trauma — participants came to “view trauma as more central to their life narrative.” The researchers concluded that, ironically, trigger warnings “may be most harmful for the individuals they were designed to protect.”

From my anecdotal observation as a professor of history, trigger warnings have not had a positive impact on the quality of education. Rather, they have become an all-too-easy excuse for students to opt-out of assignments and class sessions. And there has been a chilling effect in the classroom. Increasingly wary of teaching material that may be deemed too distressing for especially sensitive students, many educators are self-censoring....
A commenter on a public Facebook post says she’s not surprised by the study:
I have both PTSD and CPTSD and trigger warnings have always irritated me. They only succeed in bringing to mind trauma and the majority of it is completely unrelated to what the "warning" is about, for me at least. They might as well run around me in a circle ringing a bell and yelling out everything that's ever traumatized me.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

20 years ago today

There’s only been one day in my life when I could get a phone call, and without any context aside from being in America, know exactly what it was about when I heard the other person’s first sentence:

“Do you see what’s happening?”

That’s what my mom said to me at the beginning of her call, when I was in my apartment in college at age 20. For me, that one sentence marked an invisible dividing line between every day before then and everything afterwards.

20 years ago today, on September 11, 2001, starting at 8:46 a.m., almost 3,000 people died in terrorist attacks against America.

We say “3,000 deaths” as a shorthand for “all the harm caused by the attacks,” but the harm was even greater than that. There were toxic environmental effects in Manhattan, which have also killed people. There was enormous economic loss (for instance, the cost to New York City in just the first month after the attacks was over $100 billion). Economic loss can also kill people, but in long-term ways that are hard to see. And there were far more than 3,000 deaths in war.

Of course, you can say America shouldn’t have gone to war, but back then it didn’t feel like we were starting a war in Afghanistan. We felt like we were trying to end a war that was started against us. It’s hard to tell a country that’s just been attacked with intent to cause maximum death and destruction and chaos: you’re not allowed to fight back, no matter how much you try to minimize harm and rebuild places you damage.

We should’ve done a lot of things differently. But after September 11, we couldn’t have just done nothing. That doesn’t mean the something we did was always right. No matter how much we’ve gotten it wrong in the past, we need to keep trying to keep our country safe. We need to remember our history without letting it define us.

WTC World Trade Center September 11 memorial in NYC

(Photo of September 11 memorial by Denise Gould. I got this photo from pingnews, which got it from the U.S. Department of Defense photo collection.)

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Peter Singer wins million-dollar prize

The New York Times reports:

Over the past decade, the philosopher Peter Singer has been promoting the idea of “effective altruism,” which encourages people to have reason, rather than empathy, guide their philanthropy.…

Now Singer has been named the recipient of the 2021 Berggruen Prize, a $1 million award given annually to a thinker whose ideas have “profoundly shaped human self-understanding and advancement in a rapidly changing world.” And, in keeping with his principles, he will be directing half the windfall to The Life You Can Save, an organization he founded in 2009 to promote the idea that philanthropy should be directed at efforts to do the most good per dollar to save or improve the lives of the world’s poorest people.

In its announcement, the Berggruen Prize committee lauded Singer, a professor at Princeton, for reinvigorating the philosophical tradition of utilitarianism — which holds that creating the greatest happiness for the greatest number, rather than absolute principles of the good, should be the guiding principle for action — both within academic philosophy and as a force in the world.…

Singer’s work has long troubled comfortable notions, including about what counts as generous. In his 1972 paper “Famine, Affluence and Morality,” prompted by the famine in Bangladesh, Singer, who is Australian, argued that well-off people had a moral obligation to give far more to humanitarian causes around the world than was typical in most Western societies. Geographical distance, he argued, made no difference in one’s moral obligations.

The paper was widely influential in philosophical circles. But he really shot to broader fame and influence in 1975 with the book “Animal Liberation,” which argued that factory farming and animal research were immoral, and called on people to make their lives “as free from cruelty as we can.” To limit moral concern only to fellow humans, he argued, is unjustified “speciesism.”
When I did a post in 2010 about “the 12 books that have influenced me the most,” I included Animal Liberation and said: “This is the one book about which I can say it has affected my life every single day for the past 20 years.”

More from the article:
Singer — who has long said that he gives away about 40 percent of his income — turned to developing his ideas about effective altruism in the books “The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty” (2009) and “The Most Good You Can Do” (2015).

Singer, 75, has also been a controversial figure, particularly among advocates for disabled people who have contended that his utilitarian analysis discounts the value of their lives. (In his 1979 book “Practical Ethics,” he argued that parents should have the right to end the lives of newborns with severe disabilities.) In 1999, his appointment at Princeton drew protest from the disability advocacy group Not Dead Yet, whose founder has called Singer “the most dangerous man on earth.”

Earlier this year, Singer, along with two other philosophers, started the Journal of Controversial Ideas, which aims to “show the value of embracing controversy as a means of getting closer to the truth, advancing knowledge, and reforming social and cultural paradigms.” …

Singer will receive the award at an event in Los Angeles next spring. As for the allocation of the prize money, he plans to invite the public to help choose what charities will receive donations, from among those recommended by The Life You Can Save.
The FAQ on Singer’s website responds to some ethical questions he’s been asked:
How is keeping these people alive going to help, in the long run, when the basic problem is that the world has too many people?

It’s not so clear that the problem really is too many people, rather than that some people have a lot more than they need, and others not enough. But that’s a large question that I am currently interested in investigating more deeply. I do agree that continued global population growth is likely to make the world’s problems more difficult to solve. One proven way of reducing fertility is enabling poor people, especially women, to get some education. Women with even just a year or two of primary school education have fewer children than women with no education. So development aid does slow fertility. But if you want to do something more directly related to population issues, you could give to organizations like Population Services International, or DKT International.

I’ve read that you think humans and animals are equal. Do you really believe that a human being is no more valuable than an animal?

I argued in the opening chapter of Animal Liberation that humans and animals are equal in the sense that the fact that a being is human does not mean that we should give the interests of that being preference over the similar interests of other beings. That would be speciesism, and wrong for the same reasons that racism and sexism are wrong. Pain is equally bad, if it is felt by a human being or a mouse. We should treat beings as individuals, rather than as members of a species. But that doesn’t mean that all individuals are equally valuable – see my answer to the next question for more details.

If you had to save either a human being or a mouse from a fire, with no time to save them both, wouldn’t you save the human being?

Yes, in almost all cases I would save the human being. But not because the human being is human, that is, a member of the species Homo sapiens. Species membership alone isn’t morally significant, but equal consideration for similar interests allows different consideration for different interests. The qualities that are ethically significant are, firstly, a capacity to experience something — that is, a capacity to feel pain, or to have any kind of feelings. That’s really basic, and it’s something that a mouse shares with us. But when it comes to a question of taking life, or allowing life to end, it matters whether a being is the kind of being who can see that he or she actually has a life — that is, can see that he or she is the same being who exists now, who existed in the past, and who will exist in the future. Such a being has more to lose than a being incapable of understanding this. Any normal human being past infancy will have such a sense of existing over time. I’m not sure that mice do, and if they do, their time frame is probably much more limited. So normally, the death of a human being is a far greater loss to the human than the death of a mouse is to the mouse — for the human, it thwarts plans for the distant future, and it does not do that for the mouse. And we can add to that the greater extent of grief and distress that, in most cases, the family of the human being will experience, as compared with the family of the mouse (although we should not forget that animals, especially mammals and birds, can have close ties to their offspring and mates). That’s why, in general, it would be right to save the human, and not the mouse, from the burning building, if one could not save both. But this depends on the qualities and characteristics that the human being has. If, for example, the human being had suffered brain damage so severe as to be in an irreversible state of unconsciousness, then it might not be better to save the human.
(Photo by Todd Huffman.)

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Donald Rumsfeld has died at 88

The Washington Post reports:

Donald H. Rumsfeld, whose roles overseeing the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and efforts to transform the U.S. military made him one of history’s most consequential as well as controversial Pentagon leaders, died June 29 at his home in Taos, N.M. He was 88. …

His greatest notoriety and national effect came during a six-year reign as defense secretary under President George W. Bush. Hailed initially for leading the U.S. military to war in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Mr. Rumsfeld’s handling of the Iraq War eventually led to his downfall. Widely criticized for poorly planning the invasion’s aftermath, he was slow to recognize the development of an insurgency, draft an effective strategy for countering it and set clear policy for the treatment of prisoners.

Dogged for months by mounting calls for Mr. Rumsfeld’s removal, Bush finally let him go in late 2006 — 3 1/2 years into the Iraq War and just after an election in which the Republicans lost control of both houses of Congress. Mr. Rumsfeld’s forced exit under clouds of blame and disapproval cast a dark shadow over his previously illustrious career.

None of his predecessors had come into the Pentagon’s top job with as much relevant experience. Having served as defense secretary once before under Ford, Mr. Rumsfeld was the only person ever to get a second shot at the position. He held the record as the youngest Pentagon leader — and early in his tenure under Bush, he became the oldest. …

Rumsfeld was the subject of an Errol Morris documentary, The Unknown Known (2013):

The Onion's take:
Weapon Of Mass Destruction Found Dead At 88

Saturday, June 26, 2021

What happened to the promises of Obamacare?

Megan McArdle points out in the Washington Post:

Obamacare’s supporters talked a lot about illnesses contributing to more than half of all bankruptcies, which implied there should have been a sharp decrease in 2014, when Obamacare’s major coverage provisions took effect. There wasn’t.

Obamacare’s supporters frequently cited America’s abysmal infant mortality rate, which implied that once Obamacare was in full swing, infant mortality should decrease sharply. It didn’t.

Obamacare’s supporters claimed that tens of thousands of people were dying every year because they didn’t have health insurance, which implied that by 2019, our overall mortality rate should be substantially lower than it had been in 2009, with a noticeable kink around 2014. Instead, mortality rates, which had been trending downward, leveled off around that time.

Obamacare’s supporters talked a lot about reducing health-care costs, or at least the rate at which they were growing. Sadly, no.

In 2011, Doug Elmendorf, head of the Congressional Budget Office, testified that by 2021, 24 million people would be buying their insurance on the Obamacare exchanges. … In reality, the most recent data suggest it’s half that. …

That’s not to say Obamacare did nothing; the percentage of Americans who are uninsured has fallen from 16.7 percent in 2009 to 9.2 percent in 2019. … But even its most zealous boosters should be willing to admit that the program the Supreme Court saved this week is far from the revolutionary transformation its architects envisioned.

Friday, June 25, 2021

Did covid-19 vaccination lotteries backfire?

Connecting vaccinations to lottery prizes doesn't seem to have worked too well:

Ohio, the state that launched the national movement to offer millions of dollars in incentives to boost vaccination rates, planned to conclude its program Wednesday — still unable to crack the 50% vaccination threshold. …

In late May, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced that Oregonians who are 18 or older and have received at least a first dose of Covid-19 vaccine will automatically be entered to win $1 million or one of 36 $10,000 prizes — with one winner in each county. Oregonians, ages 12 to 17, have a chance to win one of five $100,000 scholarships. …

The Oregonian reported in early June that the seven-day average of adults receiving their first shots had actually decreased from about 9,000 the day before Brown, a Democrat, announced the lottery to 6,700 nearly two weeks later.

In Colorado, vaccinations have slowed since its lottery was rolled out by Democratic Gov. Jared Polis last month, with about 589,000 fewer doses given out in the month since Polis’ announcement, compared to the same amount of time a month before the contest began.

Could the lotteries have backfired by implying that getting vaccinated isn't intrinsically desirable, hence the need to entice people by giving away millions of dollars? In other words, the financial incentive (a chance to win the lottery) could undercut the non-financial incentive of getting vaccinated (including virtually eliminating the risk of death, at least for now). 

There was no controlled experiment with the vaccination lotteries, so we can't know for sure what effect they had. But what happened could be analogous to the Israeli day care experiment described by Freakonomics, where a financial disincentive (a fine for parents who are late to pick up their kids at day care) undercut the non-financial disincentive (parents wanting to avoid feeling guilty for inconveniencing the day-care workers). That was a randomized controlled trial where the fee was introduced at some day cares but not others, and the result was that about twice as many parents were late at day cares that did fine them!

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Joni Mitchell's Blue

Joni Mitchell, the Canadian singer / songwriter / guitarist / pianist / genius, released her fourth album, Blue, 50 years ago today on June 22, 1971.

Blue is great but understated. It's often clever, never pretentious.

Rolling Stone ranked it the third "greatest album" by anyone!

So many lines from Blue stay in mind:

I wanna talk to you, I wanna shampoo you, I wanna renew you … I wanna make you feel free …

He's a walker in the rain, he's a dancer in the dark …

I could drink a case of you … and I would still be on my feet …

(Photo of Joni Mitchell in 1968: Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.)

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

My favorite movie of each year from 1920 to 2020

Today I'm starting a blog that's going to turn into an extended love letter to movies. 

The site will be centered on a list of my favorite movie(s) from each year of the past 101 years, but it'll be much more than just a list: there'll be videos, quotes, and thoughts on the movies from me and others.

Keep checking back for more movies!

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Has news been canceled?

The articles I’m seeing in my Facebook feed are all about the Queen, the Duchess of Sussex, Dr. Seuss, Pepe Le Pew, Mr. Potato Head...
It’s like after a year of the pandemic, we’re done with talking about important stuff. Let’s revert to childhood and talk about characters who are either royalty or cartoons.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Encouraging signs on covid-19 and vaccinations

The Washington Post reports:

In recent weeks, U.S. coronavirus case data — long a closely-watched barometer of the pandemic’s severity — has sent some encouraging signals: The rate of newly recorded infections is plummeting from coast to coast and the worst surge yet is finally relenting.

But scientists are split on why, exactly, it is happening. Some point to the quickening pace of coronavirus vaccine administration, some say it’s because of the natural seasonal ebb of respiratory viruses and others chalk it up to social distancing measures.

And every explanation is appended with two significant caveats: The country is still in a bad place … and recent progress could still be imperiled, either by new fast-spreading virus variants or by relaxed social distancing measures.

The rolling daily average of new infections in the United States hit its all-time high of 248,200 on Jan. 12…. Since then, the number has dropped every day, hitting 91,000 on Sunday, its lowest level since November.…

“Two [factors] are driving down transmission,” [a February 12 briefing by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation] says. “1) the continued scale-up of vaccination helped by the fraction of adults willing to accept the vaccine reaching 71 percent, and 2) declining seasonality, which will contribute to declining transmission potential from now until August.”

The model predicts 152,000 more covid-19 deaths by June 1, but projects that the vaccine rollout will save 114,000 lives.

In the past week, the country collectively administered 1.62 million vaccine doses per day…. It was the best week yet for the shots, topping even President Biden’s lofty goal of 1.5 million vaccinations per day.

Nearly 40 million people have received at least their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine
, about 12 percent of the U.S. population. Experts have said that 70 percent to 90 percent of people need to have immunity, either through vaccination or prior infection, to quash the pandemic.


Get vaccinated as soon as possible!

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Mary Wilson of the Supremes has died at 76

The New York Times reports:

Mary Wilson, a founding member of the Supremes, the trailblazing group from the 1960s that spun up a dozen No. 1 singles on the musical charts and was key to Motown’s legendary sound, died on Monday…. She was 76.… No cause of death was given.…

Although the Supremes faced difficulties in reaching success early stages in their careers, [sic] their song “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” peaked at No. 23 on the Billboard pop chart in 1963. Then came five consecutive No. 1 singles: “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Back in My Arms Again.” …

The Supremes “transcend adolescence without repudiating it,” an article in The New York Times read in 1967, adding, “Their audience spans ages and taste barriers.”

By that year, the group had undergone another change. Ms. Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong and the group was renamed “Diana Ross and the Supremes.” Ms. Ross left the group in 1970, and was replaced by Jean Terrell, leaving Ms. Wilson as the last remaining original member.

"Baby Love":

"My World Is Empty Without You":

"You Can't Hurry Love":

More from the obit:

The influence the Supremes had on Black girls and women across America in the 1960s was undeniable. “You never saw anything like it in the 1960s — three women of color who were totally empowered, creative, imaginative,” Oprah Winfrey was quoted as saying in “Diana Ross: A Biography,” by J. Randy Taraborrelli. As a 10-year-old Black girl, she said, “to see the Supremes and know that it was possible to be like them, that Black people could do THAT … ”

And the Supremes have influenced countless musical acts and girl groups like Destiny’s Child, En Vogue and SWV, many of them borrowing from their playbook and producing pop stars in their own right.

“We, the Supremes, can’t take all the credit,” Ms. Wilson told The Guardian in 2019. “The writers and producers at Motown gave us the music and sound that people loved. And then there was the glamour. My whole life is like a dream. I tell you — if I were not a Supreme, I would want to be a Supreme.”


Goodbye to Mary Wilson of the Supremes — one of the most important pop groups of all time.

(Left to right: Mary Wilson, Diana Ross, and Cindy Birdsong. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, credited to GAC-General Artists Corporation-IMTI-International Talent Management Inc.)

Saturday, January 30, 2021

The Animals' guitarist, Hilton Valentine, has died

The Animals' guitarist, Hilton Valentine, who played the instantly recognizable arpeggios at the beginning of the band's signature song, "The House of the Rising Sun," has died at age 77. (The cause of death has not been reported.)

The Animals' singer, Eric Burden, said: "It really was Hilton who made the early Animals a rock band because I don’t think the element of rock was in the band until we found him."

I've previously blogged other versions of that traditional folk song, from Leadbelly's acoustic blues, to Frijid Pink's hard rock, to a bunch of old computers! But the Animals' 1964 version is definitive.


According to John Steel, Bob Dylan told him that when he first heard the Animals' version on his car radio, he stopped to listen, "jumped out of his car" and "banged on the bonnet" (the hood of the car), inspiring him to go electric.…

Dave Marsh described the Animals' take on "The House of the Rising Sun" as "the first folk-rock hit," sounding "as if they'd connected the ancient tune to a live wire." Writer Ralph McLean of the BBC agreed that it was "arguably the first folk rock tune," calling it "a revolutionary single," after which "the face of modern music was changed forever."

Wikipedia also points out that it was the first "British Invasion" #1 single "unconnected with the Beatles."

"Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" (originally performed by Nina Simone the year before, in 1964):

Friday, January 29, 2021

Why do people fall for unfounded conspiracy theories?

"Why do so many people believe Covid-19 conspiracy theories?" From that article:

belief in conspiracy theories is negatively associated with education and positively associated with religiosity. In a recent study on determinants of conspiracy beliefs relating to Covid-19, it was found that younger rather than older individuals, those with a lower level of education, … and less literate individuals were more likely to believe in conspiracy theory explanations. Those living in poverty are also more likely to believe conspiracy theories. The experience of social change and social conditions such as unemployment can also drive feelings of fear and insecurity, resulting in higher levels of belief in conspiracy theories.…

A belief in conspiracy theories is created by epistemic motives (the desire to understand our environment), existential motives (feeling safe and in control of our environment), and social motives (upholding a positive perception of ourselves and of our in-group). Conspiracy theories can provide apparently simple explanations for complex phenomena such as a pandemic or global warming.…

Making sense of our own individual role in a complex world is difficult for everyone. This may be even more the case if you feel marginalised, unappreciated or insignificant. A sense that you know what is 'really going on', that you are one of a few who truly sees things for what they are, and that you can ‘fight against the machine’ or simply share your insights with others, may help to restore a sense of significance, meaning, and value in your life. Linking up with others with the same insight can also be affirming and reinforcing. You may also feel the benefit of not becoming a hapless victim of the machinations of a powerful elite; standing your own ground, asserting your own worth, and being someone that attracts the (even sceptical) interest of others.…

That's consistent with this 2017 article on 2 studies:
more education was associated with less belief in conspiracy theories, and this seemed to be explained in part by more educated participants feeling more in control, having less belief in simple solutions, and having stronger analytical skills.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Me looking forward to a new administration:

"No question about it, I am ready to get hurt again!"

(That's from the Office episode called "Chair Model.")

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Trump impeached for "incitement of insurrection"

Now he's the most impeached president in American history!

Half of all impeachments of an American president have been of Trump.

10 Republicans voted to impeach, and 4 Republicans abstained. 

Last year, not a single Republican voted to impeach Trump. But last year Mitt Romney was the only Senator ever to vote to convict a president of their own party. 

Today, it was reported that Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, is leaning toward convicting.

I wonder if Trump is tired of all this winning…

Saturday, January 2, 2021

"Normalcy bias" and the pandemic

Megan McArdle has an excellent Washington Post column about the different ways our brains try to fit the pandemic (and other disasters) into some idea of "normal." Here's an excerpt, but as always I recommend reading McArdle's whole piece:

From movies, you’d think that when disaster strikes, people trample each other in their panic. But the greater risk is more often the opposite: People can’t quite believe. They ignore the fire alarm, defy the order to evacuate ahead of the hurricane, or pause to grab their luggage when exiting the crashed plane. Too often, they die.

One of 9/11’s most haunting details involves the South Tower, which was struck 17 minutes after the first. It seems likely that if people had started urgently evacuating right after the first plane hit, many of the 600 who died might have lived. But the standard evacuation plans called for emptying affected floors, not the entire 110-story building, and if a plane crashing into the North Tower wasn’t a normal kind of disaster, who could say how different it really was?

So the building’s director did the normal thing, waiting for the fire department or some other authority to order a broader evacuation.…

Calling the quest for normalcy a bias makes it sound bad, but most of the time this tendency is a good thing. The world is full of aberrations, most of them meaningless. If we aimed for maximal reaction to every anomaly we encountered, we’d break down from sheer nervous exhaustion.

But when things go disastrously wrong, our optimal response is at war with the part of our brain that insists things are fine. We try to reoccupy the old normal even if it’s become radioactive and salted with mines. We still resist the new normal — even when it’s staring us in the face.…

Nine months into our current disaster, I now see that our bitter divides over pandemic response were most fundamentally a contest between two ideas of what it meant to get “back to normal.”

One group wanted to feel as safe as they had before a virus invaded our shores; the other wanted to feel as unfettered.
The disputes that followed weren’t just a fight to determine whose idea of normal would prevail. They were a battle against an unthinkable reality, which was that neither kind of normalcy was fully possible anymore.…

After a decent interval, we might have the time and perspective to sort out who was right and who was wrong, so we all can try to do better next time. Though I’m sure we’ll never agree on the whole truth of the pandemic, since no one person will ever know what that was.