Minor Thoughts from me to you

Trip Notes, Houston, May 2018

This trip has really been the best and worst of times. I've had a successful business trip, helping a client. I've had lots of fun with my co-workers. On a personal level, this trip to Houston has been great. It's simultaneously reminded me how much I genuinely love this city and how I could never survive the daily humidity.

And then there's the screwups. So many uncharacteristic screwups.

Monday: My luggage doesn't make it from Atlanta to Houston. I have to make a midnight trip to Walmart to buy slacks and a polo, to look vaguely professional for Tuesday's meetings.

Tuesday: I get my luggage and discover that I failed to pack any t-shirts, for after work wear.

Wednesday: I discover that I left my credit card at Pappasitos, after paying for everyone's dinner. Fortunately, our server was great and gave my card to a manager to stick in the store safe. I drive out there at 8:40pm and then discover that all of my the on-ramps and exits that I need to get back to the hotel closed at 9pm. I spend an extra 15 minutes taking detours and negotiating construction traffic, in order to get back.

Thursday: ??? A breathless world waits and watches with anticipation.

This entry was tagged. Personal

Reading Idea: A History of Judaism

A History of Judaism

A History of Judaism
by Martin Goodman
$25.17 on Kindle

What I've been reading

Imagine a scholarly history of Judaism, told from the points of view of the time, rather than treating so many events as lead-ups to later anti-Semitism: “My attempt to provide an objective version of Judaism may strike some readers as naive.” I found the book to be a useful mood affiliation jiu jitsu, plus it has plenty of information that competing sources don’t, most of all about the immediate post-Temple period. Recommended.

Congress Needs to Bring Back Earmarks →

I dislike Congressional earmarks, as I dislike all wasteful government spending. I've long viewed them as bribes that corrupt the political process, by inducing Congressmen to vote for legislation that they'd otherwise oppose.

I'm rethinking my opposition, after reading Tyler Cowen's essay at Bloomberg View.

In essence, earmarks give congressional leaders more control over individual members. Recalcitrant representatives can be swayed by the promise of a perk for their district. That eases gridlock and gives extreme members of Congress something to pursue other than just ideology.

But is more legislation always a good result? Advocates of smaller government should keep in mind that reforming spending and regulation requires some activism from Congress. Gridlock today is not the friend of fiscal responsibility, coherent policy, or a free, well-functioning capitalist economy.

Most of all, I think of earmarks as recognizing that compromise and messiness are bound to remain essential features of American government, and that, whether we like it or not, there is something inherently transactional about being governed. Earmarks are a risk insurance policy against extreme outcomes, and like many other insurance policies, in any given year they may appear a pointless waste of resources. Still, we should keep in mind they may be protecting us against the very worst outcomes.

My Favorite Medieval Film Is A Knight’s Tale →

Not mine personally, you understand. This is the opinion of Michael Livingston, writing at Tor.com. And he makes a good point about using ahistorical means to communicate historical truths.

The scene now shifts to opening credits that unfold over scenes of the tournament and its crowd … all set to the tune of Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”

A lot of critics were thrown at this point: they complained that using a soundtrack of classic rock for a movie that is set in the 1370s is tremendously anachronistic.

They’re quite right. The music of Queen is about six centuries off the mark for the movie’s setting. At the same time, as the director himself rightly pointed out, a traditional symphonic score would also be pretty damn anachronistic, even if we don’t think of it that way. There were no symphonies in the fourteenth century, after all.

The anachronism is just getting started, though, and how it happens shows that there’s something important at work here: before we know what’s happening, Queen isn’t just the background soundtrack for the audience: it’s what the tournament crowd itself is singing. And they’re singing it while doing the wave, eating turkey legs, and waving banners in support of one knight or another. Not one bit of it is accurate to history, yet it’s oh so perfectly historical.

Because we don’t live in the fourteenth century, we don’t have the same context for a historically accurate jousting as a person would have had back then. A tournament back in the day was like the Super Bowl, but a wholly accurate representation of the event would not give us that same sense. Rather than pulling us into the moment, the full truth would push us out of it: rather than fostering the connection between the present and the past, it would have emphasized the separation. So Helgeland split the difference: he included tons of historical accuracies with non-historical familiarities.

It’s brilliant and delightful fun.

This entry was tagged. Movies

MoviePass and Data Mining →

The Verge wrote an article about a spat between MoviePass and AMC. (MoviePass is a $9.99 subscription service that lets you watch up to one movie a day, in theaters.) I'm less interested in the details of the spat than I am in the information that MoviePass aims to turn its profit by selling the data about which movies its subscribers are watching.

It’s been clear for some time that MoviePass isn’t simply trying to find ways to bring more people into existing movie theaters. The subscription-price reduction came after MoviePass sold a majority stake to the data firm Helios and Matheson Analytics, Inc., and the change has allowed the company to jump from around 20,000 subscribers to 1.5 million subscribers as of January 2018. MoviePass’ ability to track what movies its customers are watching, and where they’re buying tickets, is valuable data for marketers, advertisers, and distributors. And Lowe has said that selling that data is a major way that MoviePass is going to make money. Not having access to AMC — the largest theater chain in both the United States and the entire world — could make achieving that goal more difficult, since it would be clear MoviePass’ data would be incomplete. There are good reasons AMC was the first chain MoviePass signed a deal with, and that importance is likely why MoviePass is being so aggressive around AMC now.

MoviePass isn’t trying to help movie theaters; it’s trying to use them to capture data it can sell. It isn’t trying to help people see more movies out of some altruistic bent; it’s hoping to spike attendance in the short term so it can expand the pool of people whose data it’s collecting. And when it doesn’t get the answers it likes from a chain like AMC, it’s willing to cut those theaters out completely, regardless of the harm that does to its customers or reputation. While a $9.95 subscription deal may sound great, it’s really only a good deal if it works consistently, at the theaters where customers want to use it. And as MoviePass’ CEO said, those theaters are subject to change.

I want MoviePass to work. Who wouldn't like the idea of watching 30 movies a month for just $10? But it's felt vaguely scammish to me ever since I first heard about it. Knowing that they're selling my data is somewhat comforting: at least now I know what the scam is.

There's even a positive way to look at this. Many websites and businesses sell my data without me feeling like I'm getting fair compensation for it. If I do want to sell my data, super cheap movies sounds like something that's more in the right compensatory ballpark than the norm.

This entry was tagged. Movies

Be Your Whole Self

Almost 13 years ago, I signed up for a shared hosting account on a little web host called TextDrive. I didn't know it then, but that was my introduction to a community that I'm still a part of today.

TextDrive was founded by Dean Allen, a man with a love for writing and for the ability of typesetting to make writing pop off of the screen. I wasn't a Dean Allen fan — I didn't come to TextDrive because of Dean. I came because TextDrive looked like a good hosting company for people who loved technology, and who loved to tinker on the web.

TextDrive was that. Of all of the hosting companies that I've used over the past 20 years, TextDrive was the best. Dean and Jason gave us a remarkable amount of freedom on their servers, while sparing us from the challenges of being administrators of our own systems. They were personable, with a seemingly endless supply of patience for our requests and the ways that we found to crash their servers.

But I found more than just a good web host. I found a community of the like minded. We all liked to tinker and to write. Some linked to tinker so much that they became members of TextDrive's support staff. The TextDrive forums were our shared campfire. (I mostly sat in the shadows). When TextDrive was absorbed into Joyent, we moved together to the Joyent forums. And when Joyent stopped offering shared hosting, we stayed in touch through Twitter and Slack. The community feels special because we each have different backgrounds, careers, and interests. We have different levels of technical skill. On the surface, it sometimes seems that we have little in common. But we're still united by that shared interest in writing and in tinkering.

Last week, I learned that Dean Allen had died. I feel his loss less keenly than others in the community only because I knew him less well than they did. But I mourn the loss of him nonetheless, because of what he did to attract so many like minded individuals. I've been shaped by that community in various ways and wouldn't be quite who I am today without them and without him.

Joel, a member of our TextDrive community, wrote some thoughts on Dean's passing, Retooling. I was struck by his thoughts and his Twitter summary of them.

  • For God’s sake, stay in touch
  • A good way to stay in touch is to keep blogging
  • Be your whole self online
  • Make the whole soup from scratch

I was especially struck by Joel's third point.

One thing about blogging, as opposed to clipping words into a stream of status updates, is that it gives you room to be your political self (say) without collapsing the rest of you out of sight. Dean’s politics were pretty clear to anyone who read him, and he was no stranger to the polemic, but he let himself be more than his politics, to such an extent that people who disagreed with his politics (including myself at the time) were happy to congregate together around him.

Maybe when we each have our own spaces to think and express ourselves, and when we Stay In Touch mainly by checking in on each other’s spaces, we do better at thinking together.

Politics (e.g.) are important. But, thanks in part to my experience with Dean and people at TextDrive, I can see that being inclusive, allowing ourselves to be and see more than our politics, happens to be good for our politics. The fact that they took this approach, and looked past my freshman twerpisms, was helpful for me at the time, and a factor in several changes-of-mind down the road.

I'm not good at being my whole self online. I'm an introvert. I'm very, very comfortable with my introvertedness. I'm not lonely. I'm perfectly content to spend an evening (or 10) with the quiet comfort of my own thoughts. That leads me to spend a lot of time having internal dialogs, forgetting that no one else can hear my constant conversation. And then I realize that's been two months since I posted anything, anything at all, on my blog and longer still since I publicly wrote anything of true meaning.

Joel's thoughts challenged me to make public interaction a priority. Post something, even if it's just a link to something that I found interesting. Post everything, even if it's political and might annoy people. Post about who I am — my whole self — my love for books, my nascent interest in comic books and console games, the boardgames that I'm enoying, the frustrations and joys of parenting, my complaints about American Christianity, everything.

I'm not sure how successful I'll be. It's a struggle to take the constant stream of thoughts in my head and focus on one long enough to freeze it and put it online. But I think it's worth doing. Community is important and I can only be a part of an online community if I'm willing to be heard.

This entry was tagged. Personal

A Parade of Flawed Arguments for Minimum-Wage Legislation →

Don Boudreaux on one of my bête noires, the minimum wage.

Finally, when Ms. Kim writes that “The minimum wage isn’t a pathway to the middle class; it is a safety net to prevent destitution,” she reveals that she doesn’t understand the key problem with the minimum wage – namely, that it causes some workers’ earnings to fall to $0. However economically precarious one’s life might be when paid a positive market wage of less than $15 per hour, that life is far more precarious when paid $0 per hour.

Minimum-wage legislation isn’t a safety net; it’s a knife that shreds the safety net of employment opportunities in the market.

I think there are already people who want work and can't find it, at the current minimum wage. A policy that makes them more expensive to employ, a policy that increases the minimum wage, makes it harder for them to get a job. That seems counterproductive to me.

NFL Championship Game Sunday (2018 edition)

Here's how NFL Championship Game Sunday is going to go.

I'm going to take a nap.

I'm going to fry up some chicken wings.

I'm going to make my own version of Subway's Spicy Italian as a sandwich, with some quality lunch meats.

I'm going to watch the Jaguars take on the Patriots.

I'm going to head to church for an evening meeting.

I'm going to tuck my daughters into bed.

Finally, I'm going to watch the Vikings and the Eagles battle it out, on a length tape delay. This is the game that I'm really looking forward to.

This entry was tagged. Personal

Asking the Wrong Question →

David Friedman uses the focus on affordable housing to illustrate how asking the right questions can lead you to different conclusions than you would otherwise get.

When someone moves into one house he moves out of another, which is then available for someone else to move into. If the development is built and the units are bought by people currently living in San Jose, the net result will be to increase the city's housing stock by almost a thousand units. Doing that will make more housing available in the city and lower its cost. The question the Mayor should be asking, assuming that what he is really interested in is the welfare of the citizens of the city and not merely his ability to control things, is whether the development will draw mostly from current residents or mostly from people who would not otherwise live in the city. Pretty clearly, that question never occurred to him.

The assumption of the Mayor–I think of city planners more generally–is that the way to get affordable housing is to build affordable housing. That is not the only way of getting it. The alternative, very common in the history of U.S. cities in the past, was for poor people to move into housing that had been occupied by, possibly built for, less poor people, vacated when the less poor people moved into newer and better houses.

The same way poor people get cars.

I thought this was very insightful.

This entry was tagged. Housing Market

Condemning the Alt-Right

I wanted to check in on what "my" side (the political right) was saying about the despicable events in Charlottesville, VA, so I took a look at the National Review's massive group blog, The Corner. I wasn't disappointed by what I saw.

David French:

Incredibly, key elements of the Trump coalition, including Trump himself, gave the alt-right aid and comfort. Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, proclaimed that his publication, Breitbart.com, was the “the platform for the alt-right,” Breitbart long protected, promoted, and published Milo Yiannopolous – the alt-right’s foremost “respectable” defender – and Trump himself retweeted alt-right accounts and launched into an explicitly racial attack against an American judge of Mexican descent, an attack that delighted his most racist supporters.

In other words, if there ever was a time in recent American political history for an American president to make a clear, unequivocal statement against the alt-right, it was today. Instead, we got a vague condemnation of “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” This is unacceptable, especially given that Trump can be quite specific when he’s truly angry. Just ask the Khan family, Judge Curiel, James Comey, or any other person he considers a personal enemy. Even worse, members of the alt-right openly celebrated Trump’s statement, taking it as a not-so-veiled decision to stand against media calls to condemn their movement.

America is at a dangerous crossroads. I know full well that I could have supplemented my list of violent white supremacist acts with a list of vicious killings and riots from left-wing extremists – including the recent act of lone-wolf progressive terror directed at GOP members of the House and Senate. There is a bloodlust at the political extremes. Now is the time for moral clarity, specific condemnations of vile American movements – no matter how many MAGA hats its members wear – and for actions that back up those appropriately strong words.

As things stand today, we face a darkening political future, potentially greater loss of life, and a degree of polarization that makes 2016 look like a time of national unity. Presidents aren’t all-powerful, but they can either help or hurt. Today, Trump’s words hurt the nation he leads.

Ted Cruz:

The Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists are repulsive and evil, and all of us have a moral obligation to speak out against the lies, bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred that they propagate. Having watched the horrifying video of the car deliberately crashing into a crowd of protesters, I urge the Department of Justice to immediately investigate and prosecute this grotesque act of domestic terrorism.

These bigots want to tear our country apart, but they will fail. America is far better than this. Our Nation was built on fundamental truths, none more central than the proposition “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Is there any doubt, at this point, that Ted Cruz would have been a far better President than Donald Trump?

Michael Brendan Dougherty:

Even if you believe as I do, that Spencer’s form of white nationalism is a marginal movement granted far too much attention, the sight of hundreds of unmasked young men marching through Charlottesville with torches and chanting racist slogans inspires genuine fear in many Americans. Trump was given a chance to speak to that fear today, and to offer the same moral condemnation and deflation he’s given others. Instead he essentially repeated his disgraceful half-disavowal of Duke. He refused to call out these white supremacists by name, and condemn them. He merely condemned “all sides.”  An energetic law and order president who had any sense of the divisions in his country would have announced today that he was instructing his Justice Department to look into the people in these groups, and zealously ferret out and prosecute any crimes they turned up. 

This is a target-rich environment. Some of these scummy racists in Charlottesville wore chainmail, others went around shouting their devotion to Adolf Hitler. A president with Trump’s intuitive sense of depravity should be able to call them what they are: evil losers. More pathetic: evil cosplayers.  Just as Spencer took Trump’s “I disavow” without a direct object to be a kind of wink in his direction, surely he’ll take today’s statement about “all sides” as another form of non-condemnation. With his performance today, Trump confirms the worst that has been said about him. He’s done damage to the peace of his country. What a revolting day in America. 

Rich Lowry:

—I’ve been skeptical of the rush to pull up Confederate monuments, and Robert E. Lee—the focus in Charlottesville—is not Nathan Bedford Forrest. But if the monuments are going to become rallying points for neo-Nazis, maybe they really do need to go.

I'd change this from "maybe" to "definitely". Otherwise, I agree with Rich. I've also been skeptical of the movement to remove Confederate monuments, but if the alt-right is organizing around them, it's long past time to take them all out.

—It’s always important to maintain some perspective. We aren’t experiencing anything like the level of political violence of the late-1960s and mid-1970s. But we now have two fringes on the right and the left, the white nationalists and anti-fa, who have a taste for violence, love the thrill and attention that comes with it, and are probably going to grow stronger rather than weaker. Depressing.

I agree.

This entry was tagged. Racism Terrorism

I Was Wrong About Robert E. Lee

Adam called me out on my respect for Robert E. Lee, after I posted "Dominance Displays Over Statues". He argued that Robert E. Lee, as a man, wasn't worthy of my respect. As proof, he pointed me towards "The Myth of the Kindly General Lee", published in The Atlantic.

I should have blogged about this then, but didn't. Recent events have forced me to do now, what I didn't do then. A city councilor from Charlottesville, VA wants to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee. That brought out the alt-right to stage an ugly demonstration supporting the statue — and Robert E. Lee.

I'm going on the record now: Adam was right and I was wrong. Robert E. Lee is not worth supporting and I oppose both the actions of the alt-right in Charlottesville and the cause that they're agitating for.

This is the history that I wasn't taught in Southern schools and that I didn't bother to research on my own.

The strangest part about the continued personality cult of Robert E. Lee is how few of the qualities his admirers profess to see in him he actually possessed.

​> …

The myth of Lee goes something like this: He was a brilliant strategist and devoted Christian man who abhorred slavery and labored tirelessly after the war to bring the country back together.

There is little truth in this. Lee was a devout Christian, and historians regard him as an accomplished tactician. But despite his ability to win individual battles, his decision to fight a conventional war against the more densely populated and industrialized North is considered by many historians to have been a fatal strategic error.

But even if one conceded Lee’s military prowess, he would still be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in defense of the South’s authority to own millions of human beings as property because they are black. Lee’s elevation is a key part of a 150-year-old propaganda campaign designed to erase slavery as the cause of the war and whitewash the Confederate cause as a noble one. That ideology is known as the Lost Cause, and as historian David Blight writes, it provided a “foundation on which Southerners built the Jim Crow system.”

What was Lee, himself, like?​

White supremacy does not “violate” Lee’s “most fundamental convictions.” White supremacy was one of Lee’s most fundamental convictions.

Describing an 1856 letter from Robert E. Lee, Adam Serwer writes:

The argument here is that slavery is bad for white people, good for black people, and most importantly, it is better than abolitionism; emancipation must wait for divine intervention. That black people might not want to be slaves does not enter into the equation; their opinion on the subject of their own bondage is not even an afterthought to Lee.

And Lee treated slaves horribly:​

Lee’s cruelty as a slavemaster was not confined to physical punishment. In Reading the Man, the historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s portrait of Lee through his writings, Pryor writes that “Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families,” by hiring them off to other plantations, and that “by 1860 he had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days.” The separation of slave families was one of the most unfathomably devastating aspects of slavery, and Pryor wrote that Lee’s slaves regarded him as “the worst man I ever see.”

Lee’s heavy hand on the Arlington plantation, Pryor writes, nearly led to a slave revolt, in part because the enslaved had been expected to be freed upon their previous master’s death, and Lee had engaged in a dubious legal interpretation of his will in order to keep them as his property, one that lasted until a Virginia court forced him to free them.

When two of his slaves escaped and were recaptured, Lee either beat them himself or ordered the overseer to "lay it on well." Wesley Norris, one of the slaves who was whipped, recalled that “not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.”

​It wasn't just slaves. Lee treated free blacks horribly as well.

During his invasion of Pennsylvania, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia enslaved free blacks and brought them back to the South as property. Pryor writes that “evidence links virtually every infantry and cavalry unit in Lee’s army” with the abduction of free black Americans, “with the activity under the supervision of senior officers.”

​Lee even sounds like a modern, alt-right, white supremacist.

Nor did Lee’s defeat lead to an embrace of racial egalitarianism. The war was not about slavery, Lee insisted later, but if it was about slavery, it was only out of Christian devotion that white southerners fought to keep blacks enslaved. Lee told a New York Herald reporter, in the midst of arguing in favor of somehow removing blacks from the South (“disposed of,” in his words), “that unless some humane course is adopted, based on wisdom and Christian principles you do a gross wrong and injustice to the whole negro race in setting them free. And it is only this consideration that has led the wisdom, intelligence and Christianity of the South to support and defend the institution up to this time.”

Lee had beaten or ordered his own slaves to be beaten for the crime of wanting to be free, he fought for the preservation of slavery, his army kidnapped free blacks at gunpoint and made them unfree—but all of this, he insisted, had occurred only because of the great Christian love the South held for blacks. Here we truly understand Frederick Douglass’s admonition that "between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference."

Privately, according to the correspondence collected by his own family, Lee counseled others to hire white labor instead of the freedmen, observing “that wherever you find the negro, everything is going down around him, and wherever you find a white man, you see everything around him improving.”

​And he tacitly encouraged abominable behavior by others.

Lee is not remembered as an educator, but his life as president of Washington College (later Washington and Lee) is tainted as well. According to Pryor, students at Washington formed their own chapter of the KKK, and were known by the local Freedmen’s Bureau to attempt to abduct and rape black schoolgirls from the nearby black schools.

There were at least two attempted lynchings by Washington students during Lee’s tenure, and Pryor writes that “the number of accusations against Washington College boys indicates that he either punished the racial harassment more laxly than other misdemeanors, or turned a blind eye to it,” adding that he “did not exercise the near imperial control he had at the school, as he did for more trivial matters, such as when the boys threatened to take unofficial Christmas holidays.” In short, Lee was as indifferent to crimes of violence toward blacks carried out by his students as he was when they were carried out by his soldiers.

Study: Regular soda causes body to store more fat after high-protein meals →

It's not a high protein food, but this research is why I didn't have a Mexican Coke with my pizza last night.

Combining a sugary soda with your burger or fried chicken can really prime your body to pack on more pounds, a new study suggests.

Folks who had a sweetened drink with a high-protein meal stored more unused fat, compared to others who ate the same food with a sugar-free beverage, laboratory tests revealed.

Their bodies did not burn about a third of the additional calories provided by the sugary drink, researchers found.

The participants also burned less fat from their food, and it took less energy overall to digest the meal.

"If we are adding extra carbohydrates on top of what's already in a meal, that will definitely have an effect on the body being able to use fat as an energy source, and it will more than likely go into energy storage," said lead researcher Shanon Casperson. She's a research biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

​The study was performed by putting participants into a sealed room and precisely measuring how their bodies did (or didn't) burn the nutrients in their meals.

Each day, the participants had a sugary cherry-flavored drink with one meal and a sugar-free cherry drink with the other meal, Casperson said.

The sugar-sweetened drink decreased fat oxidation -- the process that kick-starts the breakdown of fat molecules -- by 8 percent, the researchers discovered.

Also, the sweetened drink consumed with a 15 percent protein meal decreased fat oxidation by an average 7.2 grams, while the same sugary drink with a 30 percent protein meal decreased fat oxidation by 12.6 grams.

If you ​decrease fat oxidation by that much per meal, over enough meals, you'll definitely start to pack on the pounds. This is disappointing news, because I really love to have a soda with my fried chicken, brats, burgers, and other delicious high protein meals.

This entry was tagged. Food Research Weight

Slavery and Southern Income

Tyler Cowen shares this quote from Douglas Irwin’s book Clashing Over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy.

The South’s enormous economic stake in slavery far outweighed the impact of protective tariffs on its income. In 1860, the aggregate value of slaves as property was $3 billion, nearly 20 percent of the nation’s wealth. The value of slaves was more than 50 percent greater than the capital invested in railroads and manufacturing combined, a calculation that excludes the value of land in southern plantations. Slavery generated a stream of income that enable overall white per capita income in the south to approximate that of northern whites. In the seven cotton states, nearly a third of white income came from slave labor.

That’s staggering. Growing up in the South, I had an inherent bias towards finding reasons for the Civil War that didn’t involve slavery. For instance, Southern anger over Northern tarrifs. And, sure, that was a factor. But these numbers are a convincing indication that slavery was the chief economic reason for the Civil War.

In terms of both capital investment and income, slavery was the foundation of the Southern economy. Ending slavery would have financially wiped out many of the Southern whites, especially the rich and the powerful. Moral arguments against slavery barely stood a chance — to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, “It’s difficult to get a man to agree to end slavery when his income depends on his maintaining it”.

Dominance Displays Over Statues

Dan McLaughlin wrote this, at the end of a blog post for National Review. And I'm quoting it, because I particularly liked the sentence that I bolded.

Lee was no hero; he fought for an unjust cause, and he lost. Unlike the Founding Fathers (even the slaveholders among them), he failed the basic test of history: leaving the world better and freer than he found it. And while he was not responsible for the South’s strategic failures, his lack of strategic vision places him below Grant, Sherman and Winfield Scott in any assessment of the war’s greatest generals. We should not be building new monuments to him, but if we fail to understand why the men of his day revered him, we are likelier to fail to understand who people revere today, and why. And tearing down statues of Lee today is less about understanding the past than it is a contest to divide the people of today’s America, and see who holds more power. That’s no better an attitude today than it was in Lee’s day.

Much of today's political fighting is cloaked in the language of justice, morality, and virtue. But it often feels more like gleeful displays of dominance than it does sober exercises in judgment. The end result may be good — removing statues that honor seriously flawed heroes — but the process can create bitterness and resentment rather than healing and unity.

Freaking Out Over Babies in Boxes

Rachel Rabin Peachman gives me the reason for my weekly eye roll directed towards the New York Times. Finland gives new mothers a box loaded with baby supplies. The box can double as an infant bed. It's been a successful program in Finland, so American hospitals are following their lead.

American "safety" experts are freaking out, because these are unregulated boxes. And, by the mighty power of the precautionary principle, anything unregulated must be treated as a danger to society.

But the rapid pace at which the box programs have been adopted by states and hospitals worries some experts, who say the boxes have not yet been proven to be a safe infant sleep environment or an effective tool in reducing infant mortality.

“I’ve been very surprised at how much enthusiasm there’s been for this and how people are just jumping on this bandwagon,” said Dr. Rachel Moon, chairwoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ task force on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. “They’re just assuming that since it worked in Finland that it’s going to be fine.”

Well, yes. That seems a reasonable thing to assume. Hence the reason why I'm rolling my eyes at Dr. Moon. She appears be a professional worrier, which does nothing to change my general opinion that the American Academy of Pediatrics is primarily run by professional worriers.

The CPSC joins her in stressing out about these boxes.

Ms. Buerkle said there are a number of unknowns about the boxes. “What is the box made of? How durable is it? If you use it through three different children does it deteriorate?” she said. “But those are things they’ll determine in the standards committee.”

But Dr. Moon said safety standards need to be decided by unbiased experts, not the companies that make a product. She said she has many unanswered questions about the boxes herself, including: What are the age and weight limits for baby boxes made in the United States? Is it safe to pick up the box with the baby in it? What is the airflow quality inside the box? Is it safe to place the box with baby inside on the floor or on another surface?

Good grief, people. It's a box for newborn infants. I think it's very nature indicates that it's a disposable start, not a full bed. She appears to worry that there will be a rash of parents trying to stuff their children in boxes, carry the boxes around the house, and then mail them to their grandparents.

Meanwhile, Temple University has been busy using these new box programs to do some research.

On Monday, Temple University released data showing that box programs may influence the sleep practices of new parents. When new mothers in the Temple program received a baby box and face-to-face sleep education from a nurse before leaving the hospital, their reported rate of bed-sharing with their infant within the first eight days of life was 25 percent lower than the reported bed-sharing rate of mothers given nursing instructions and no baby box. Bed-sharing is a risk factor for suffocation and other sleep-related deaths. The A.A.P. recommends that infants sleep alone, on their backs, without any loose, soft bedding.

Dr. Megan Heere, medical director of the Well Baby Nursery at Temple University Hospital and lead author of the study, said she was optimistic about the baby boxes and their potential role in promoting safe sleep. “At this point we have no reason to believe they’re dangerous,” Dr. Heere said. “We’re of the thought process that it can only help.”

I'm with Dr. Heere. Let's try acting as though parents had a modicum of common sense. Parents who already have a good bed or bassinet for their infant won't use the box as a bed. For the parents who don't have those things, the box may very well be better than whatever they'd been planning to use. Let's not freak out until we've first seen whether or not there's a reason to freak out.

(Oh, and why am I rolling my eyes at the New York Times? Because of their typically breathless coverage and the fact that they chose to lead the article with the fact that the boxes are, gasp!, unregulated. As though that were the primary thing that mattered.)

What a Conservative Sees From Inside Trump's Washington →

Megan McArdle, writing at Bloomberg, on the Washington scuttlebut about Trump's White House.

Consider the endless debates over last week’s series of leaks. Washington conservatives read the news stories too. But for connected conservatives in DC, the media isn’t the only source of information about this administration. I’d venture to say that most of them have by now heard at least one or two amazing stories attesting to the emerging conventional wisdom: that the president either can’t, or refuses to, follow any kind of policy discussion for more than a few minutes; that the president will not be told no, or corrected about anything, forcing his staff to take their concerns to the media if they want to get his attention; that the infighting within the West Wing is unprecedentedly vicious, and that those sort of failures always stem from the top; and that his own hand-picked staffers “have no respect for him, indeed they seem to palpitate with contempt for him.” They hear these things from conservatives, including people who were Trump supporters or at least, Trump-neutral. They know these folks. They know, to their sorrow, that these people are telling the truth.

So even though they agree with conservative outsiders that the media skews very liberal, and take all its pronouncements about Republicans with a heavy sprinkling of salt, they know that the reports of this administration’s dysfunction aren’t all media hype. They have seen the media report on their own work, and that of their friends; they know what sort of things that bias distorts, and what it doesn’t. Washington conservatives know that reporters are not making up these incredible quotes, or relying only on Democratic holdovers, or getting bits of gossip from the janitor. They know that the Trump administration is in fact leaking like a rusty sieve -- from the top on down -- and that this is a sign of a president who has, in just four short months, completely lost control over his own hand-picked staff. Which is why the entire city, left to right, is watching the unfolding drama with mouth agape and heads shaking.

The White House dysfunction should discourage anyone who was hoping for big conservative policies and encourage anyone who was afraid of big policy changes.

And here’s the final thing that they know: that if you want to do anything big in Washington, there’s a lot of smaller stuff that has to happen first. You don’t write code or build a building without a lot of stuff that probably seems expensive and unnecessary to the customers, and our product requires similarly careful planning and management.

Some of the hoops that a president’s staff must jump through are legally required; some of them are simply necessary to make sure that your bill doesn’t explode on the steps of the Capitol, or die a gruesome public death in the Supreme Court. They include: appointing policy staff; deciding on policy goals, strategy and tactics; keeping the staff from descending into the infighting that inevitably besets any large organization; providing regular oversight of evolving policies to make sure they adhere to the president’s goals; setting up channels and a process to get input from Congress and legal advisers; writing a very detailed plan that provides guidance to staff and legislators, and reassurance to the public; and having your political and communications strategy lined up long before you roll out that plan. Insiders know that this process looks cumbrous and unnecessary to outsiders; they also know that getting majorities in Congress, and legislation that will survive a court challenge, is a Herculean task that cannot be completed without many thousands of people devoting many thousands of hours to these labors.

I don't think Trump knows how to be anything other than what he already is. And that could mean that this administration is among the least effective in American history. Good news for some, bad news for others.

This entry was tagged. Donald Trump

Planning to Age in Place? Find a Contractor Now →

Paula Span brings an important message to anyone planning home renovations who's also planning to live in their home a long time.

Older people have the highest rate of homeownership in the country — about 80 percent, according to a 2016 report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard. The great majority live in single-family homes, most of them poorly suited for the disabilities common in later life.

The center has looked at three of the most important accessibility features that allow people to move safely around their living spaces: entrances without steps, single-floor living, and wide hallways and doorways that can accommodate wheelchairs.

“Less than 4 percent of the U.S. housing stock has all three of those,” said Jennifer Molinsky, a senior research associate at the center.

Add two more important elements for aging in place — doors with lever handles, and light switches and electrical outlets that can be reached from a wheelchair — and the proportion drops to 1 percent.

You’ll often hear older people vow that they won’t leave their homes except “feet first.” Without modifications, however, the design of most older Americans’ homes could eventually thwart their owners’ desire to stay in them.

This entry was tagged. Home Ownership

The crisis in American journalism benefits no one →

Salena Zito writes in the Washington Examiner about the lack of trust between America's most venerable news organizations and readers with traditional values. I found myself agreeing with everything she said.

Beginning in the 1980s, Washington and New York City newsrooms began to be dominated by people who had the same backgrounds; for the most part they went to the same Ivy League journalism schools, where they made the right contacts and connections to get their jobs.

Yes, elite networks are a thing not just in law schools, as "Hillbilly Elegy" author J.D. Vance so aptly described of his experiences in law school. They also exist in Ivy League or elite journalism schools.

And the journalists who came from working-class roots found it in their best interest to adopt the conventional, left-of-center views that were filling the halls of newsrooms.

In short, after a while you adopt the culture you exist in either out of survival or acceptance or a little of both. Or you really just wanted to shed your working-class roots for a variety of reasons: shame, aspiration, ascension, etc.

That does not make them bad people – aspiration is the heart of the American Dream — but it did begin the decline of connection between elite journalism institutions such as the New York Times and the Washington Post and the rest of the country.

So when fewer and fewer reporters shared the same values and habits of many of their consumers, inferences in their stories about people of faith and their struggles squaring gay marriage or abortion with their belief systems were picked up by the readers.

Pro-tip, don't think people can't pick up an inference, even the most subtle, in the written word. It is as evident as a news anchor rolling his eyes at someone on his panel he doesn't agree with.

The result was a populist explosion against all things big: big companies, big banks, big institutions and big media. The movement went undetected by the D.C. and New York centralized press not because they are bad people, not because they had an ax to grind against the center of the country. They just didn't know them. They did not know anyone like them, or if they did it reminded them of all the things they despised about their upbringing, and they wanted to correct those impulses.

And so they missed it. They were a little shocked by the support for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton, and they were really shocked by the support candidate Donald J. Trump received in the primaries

And they were really, really shocked by his win.

The problem journalists face right now is that they have never really acknowledged his win appropriately, at least not in the eyes of the people who voted for him.

Since the day he won, the inference that his win was illegitimate has been everywhere. It set the tone in the relationship between the voters and the press that has only soured since November of last year.

New golden age for science fiction in China →

Rachel Cheung writes about the Chinese sci-fi scene, for the South China Morning Post.

It’s not the first golden age of sci-fi in China, though. Wang Yao says that was between 1978 and 1983 during reforms initiated by late Deng Xiaoping. “It was thought that science fiction could cultivate a scientific spirit, and the authorities assigned authors to write books in the genre,” says Wang.

More than 30 years later, the new golden age is very different but also being supported by the government. In its science and technology progress plan, published last year, the State Council cited a need to improve the population’s scientific literacy. Policies include the establishment of national science fiction awards and international sci-fi festivals.

Although investors are eyeing sci-fi’s entertainment industry potential, the literature itself is not so highly valued. “The payment writers receive for fiction writing is very small. I also write for fashion magazines, which pay a lot more,” says Regina Wang. Since it is impossible to make ends meet writing sci-fi, most authors do it simply as a hobby.

… ​> Although the Hugo Awards have brought global attention to the Chinese sci-fi scene, as an industry it still has a long way to go.

“Unlike Western countries, we do not have a long tradition of a cultural and creative industry,” says Wang Yao. There are only about 100 writers, publishers and filmmakers in the Chinese sci-fi industry, compared with more than 4,000 sci-fi writers in the United States, she adds.

​That's a surprising discrepancy to me, especially given the overall population advantage that China has over the United States. That, combined with the government sponsorship of both "golden ages" of Chinese science fiction, makes me wonder how much staying power the genre has in Chinese culture. SF is great at shining a light on society, but only if it's coming from a place of genuine enthusiasm and grass roots support.

This entry was tagged. China Science Fiction

Did a Voter ID Law Really Cost Clinton a Victory in Wisconsin? →

It's not easy to say, but recent reports suggesting that Voter ID lost Wisconsin for Mrs. Clinton are overstating the evidence. So says Slate anyway, and they're not noted for being Republican shills.

But the Nation headline doesn’t say it all—not even close, as a number of political scientists and polling experts were quick to point out.

One of the first to arrive on the scene with a big bucket of cold water was Eitan Hersh, an assistant professor of political science at Yale University who has studied the effect of voter ID laws.

No offense, but this is something that is going to be shared hundreds of times and does not meet acceptable evidence standards. https://t.co/4M3ipqiaWg

— Eitan Hersh (@eitanhersh) May 9, 2017

The most glaring problem with the report and how it’s being interpreted, Hersh told me by phone, is that the firm behind the analysis decided to operate at a surface level when it almost certainly had the data and expertise to dig much deeper. “Civis presents itself as a very sophisticated analytics shop,” Hersh said, “and yet the analysis they’re offering here is rather blunt.”

The group relied largely on state-by-state and county-by-county comparisons to reach its conclusions, but it could have—and Hersh maintains, should have—conducted a more granular analysis. Civis could have isolated communities that straddle the border between two states, for instance, or even used a comprehensive voter file to compare similar individuals that do and don’t live in states with new voter ID laws. Doing either would have allowed Civis to eliminate variables that may have ultimately skewed its findings. “It’s very weird to do an analysis the way they did when they presumably had a better way to do it,” Hersh said. “That’s a red flag that jumps out right away.”

Civis says it mostly limited itself to publicly available information so that its analysis was repeatable; Hersh counters that repeating a flawed analysis will just lead to the same flawed results. As the New York TimesNate Cohn pointed out on Twitter, and as Hersh echoed in his conversation with me, the absence of a detailed voter file-based analysis of the impact of voter ID laws—by Civis or anyone else for that matter—is in itself telling at this point. “I would in no way argue that these [voter ID] laws have no effect, but what we’ve found is that it’s a relatively small one,” Hersh said. Making things more complicated, he added, is that the effect of a voter ID law can be difficult to separate from that of other non-ID-based measures that disenfranchise the same types of people. “It’s just very unlikely that these voter ID laws by themselves would translate into the effect of 200,000 voters,” Hersh said.

Richard Hasen, an occasional Slate contributor and a professor of law and political science at the University of California–Irvine, voiced similar concerns about the Civis findings on his blog, pointing to a New York Times story published in the weeks after the election. Reporting from Milwaukee in late November, Times national correspondent Sabrina Tavernise cited Wisconsin’s voter ID law as one potential reason why turnout was down in the city’s poor and black neighborhoods. Tavernise, though, ultimately found a bounty of anecdotal evidence that black voters were simply far less excited to vote for Clinton in 2016 than they were to pull the lever for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Here again it is difficult to offer a single explanation for depressed voter turnout: If a black man in Milwaukee decides it’s not worth jumping through hoops to cast a ballot, do we explain that by citing voter enthusiasm, the ID law, or both?