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.