Friday, June 30, 2023

Tweets -- "“I would totally kick your ass, but my mom won’t let me." or "I wanted to be prepared for when I have my first psychotic break"

(Sometimes you just can't decide on a title.)

More fun with RFK jr (including the inevitable crypto moment).

It's always sad when someone you admire espouses positions you find crazy, stupid or offensive. Fortunately, I've always considered Millar a talentless, third-rate Frank Miller wannabe and all around hack, so I'm pretty cool with this.


And speaking of anti-vaxxers...

How about some politics?


The fundamental flaw of the run-to-the-right-of-Trump strategy.


Coming from the Bible-belt, MAGA's apocalyptic tendencies have long been on my radar.

Yeah, that Turtledove.

Good point from Taleb.

Sad Sacks and friends


Never cared for the show, but I have to admit this is a great tweet.


Today in tech with Grady Booch.

And one for the 4th of July weekend.



Thursday, June 29, 2023

A few thought's on Mark's post

This is Joseph.

Mark has an excellent post. Go read it, this reply will wait.

Ok, I have a couple of thoughts here. One of them is that the electoral college is actually a surprisingly good design. I know, I know -- it did create 2016. But that was a sin of many parents. But in a more general sense, I am not sure that the benefit of precise representation is ever as clear as one would like it to be and no system follows the popular vote perfectly.

In the US the congressional districts are supposed to be evenly divided by population, but both the largest and smallest deviations in 2020 were in the same state. In Canada, which has no elected head of state, the difference in riding size is as big as a factor of eight, as the government tries to allow sparsely populated hinterlands to have some say in government (the US uses the Senate for this purpose). 

What is nice about electoral districts is that challenges to an election will hinge on state by state recounts. There is no way to discover a huge bolus of votes in one state that changes the national total. Outstanding votes are only impactful in a handful of places. Further, it tends to increase margins of victory. The margin with electoral votes is often much larger than with actual votes, making it easier to discern a victor.

The place that this went really wrong was in 2000. There it really was a single state and a small number of votes (in absolute terms) that made the difference and this is always going to be a problem. But imagine how much worse this would have been with a national popular vote in 1888. The vote total was 5,443,892 to 5,534,488 (a 0.8% margin). But votes take time to arrive. Vote by mail, military ballots, absentee ballots, and provisional ballots all take time to process. If the vote was extremely close, one could imagine issues with just how closely ballots were studied.

But here comes another advantage. Elections are run by states. The states partisan control is likely very correlated with their presidential vote bias. So padding the vote in California, now, isn't really helpful because this isn't going to change the likely allocation of presidential votes. A last minute ruling on post-marks isn't going to change anything. But with 50 separate elections processes, the potential for an "appearance of impropriety" is actually higher. 

Now you could make presidential elections and election boundary drawing federal tasks. But that is a big change. The system will always be vulnerable to close elections in swing states. 

Now, Bush vs Gore has two parts.  The 7-2 decision is actually not all that bad -- the process in Florida had fallen apart. What I object to is the 5-4 decision certifying the election for Bush on equal protection grounds. No person is entitled to an electoral office and having an unelected court decide the issue was a problem. The constitution has a process for this, which was used in 1824, where congress votes for the president (with the winner of the most electoral votes not winning the one time this happened). It is not a great process, but it has the virtue of elected politicians needing to weigh in, who can be held accountable by their voters. 

In any case, I don't think Mark and I will agree on the electoral college but it is good that the blog has a diversity of opinions. But that's my defense of the electoral college. It is true that we could be like France and it would probably be ok, but my question is whether this is the point where reforms are most urgently needed. The, uh, imperial supreme court is looking like a much bigger deal in my view these days. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Five years ago at the blog: unfortunately, this isn't as relevant now that the hype storm over AI has passed

 Tuesday, June 26, 2018

I'm afraid even the Brothers Grimm would have found Bitcoin a little too fantastic

I'm edging closer to the notion that the tools which we would normally use to critique journalism are no longer up to the task of discussing the 21st century technology narrative. Instead, the appropriate methods are probably those of the folklorist. We are rapidly approaching the realm of the myth and the tall tale. Why not start thinking in those terms?

It is standard practice when discussing something like a Jack tale to list the Aarne–Thompson classification. For example, Jack in the beanstalk fall under the classification AT 328 ("The Treasures of the Giant"). We could do something similar with the vast majority of tech reported. TakeTheranos. This and other accounts of college dropouts supposedly coming up with some amazing innovation can be classified under "wayward youth finds magic object."

 I've been getting quite a bit of thought recently to how magical heuristics have come to dominate the conversation about technology and innovation, but the idea of actually treating the narrative as folklore didn't hit me until I read this:
The paperclip maximizer is a thought experiment described by Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom in 2003. It illustrates the existential risk that an artificial general intelligence may pose to human beings when programmed to pursue even seemingly-harmless goals, and the necessity of incorporating machine ethics into artificial intelligence design. The scenario describes an advanced artificial intelligence tasked with manufacturing paperclips. If such a machine were not programmed to value human life, then given enough power its optimized goal would be to turn all matter in the universe, including human beings, into either paperclips or machines which manufacture paperclips.[4]

    Suppose we have an AI whose only goal is to make as many paper clips as possible. The AI will realize quickly that it would be much better if there were no humans because humans might decide to switch it off. Because if humans do so, there would be fewer paper clips. Also, human bodies contain a lot of atoms that could be made into paper clips. The future that the AI would be trying to gear towards would be one in which there were a lot of paper clips but no humans.
    — Nick Bostrom, "Ethical Issues in Advanced Artificial Intelligence", 2003

Bostrom has emphasised that he does not believe the paperclip maximiser scenario per se will actually occur; rather, his intention is to illustrate the dangers of creating superintelligent machines without knowing how to safely program them to eliminate existential risk to human beings. The paperclip maximizer example illustrates the broad problem of managing powerful systems that lack human values

Suddenly it struck me that this was just the magic salt mill ever so slightly veiled in cyber garb. In case you're not up on your folklore...

It is Aarne-Thompson type 565, the Magic Mill. Other tales of this type include The Water Mother and Sweet porridge.


A poor man begged from his brother on Christmas Eve. The brother promised him, depending on the variant, ham or bacon or a lamb if he would do something. The poor brother promised; the rich one handed over the food and told him to go to Hell (in Lang's version, the Dead Men's Hall; in the Greek, the Devil's dam). Since he promised, he set out. In the Norse variants, he meets an old man along the way. In some variants, the man begs from him, and he gives something; in all, the old man tells him that in Hell (or the hall), they will want to buy the food from him, but he must only sell it for the hand-mill behind the door, and come to him for directions to use it. It took a great deal of haggling, but the poor man succeeded, and the old man showed him how to use it. In the Greek, he merely brought the lamb and told the devils that he would take whatever they would give him, and they gave him the mill. He took it to his wife, and had it grind out everything they needed for Christmas, from lights to tablecloth to meat and ale. They ate well and on the third day, they had a great feast. His brother was astounded and when the poor man had drunk too much, or when the poor man's children innocently betrayed the secret, he showed his rich brother the hand-mill. His brother finally persuaded him to sell it. In the Norse version, the poor brother didn't teach him how to handle it. He set to grind out herrings and broth, but it soon flooded his house. His brother wouldn't take it back until he paid him as much as he paid to have it. In the Greek, the brother set out to Constantinople by ship. In the Norse, one day a skipper wanted to buy the hand-mill from him, and eventually persuaded him. In all versions, the new owner took it to sea and set it to grind out salt. It ground out salt until it sank the boat, and then went on grinding in the sea, turning the sea salty.

I realize Bostrom isn't proposing this as a likely scenario. That's not the point. What matters here is that he and other researchers and commentators tend to think about technology using the specific heuristics and motifs people have always used for thinking about magic, and it worries me when I start recognizing the Aarne–Thompson classifications for stories in the science section.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Zombie Alert -- the Electoral College and the 2000 Election

 "Routinely"   in this case means once in over 130 years.

    I know a lot of readers are shouting "2000!" at the screen, but you cannot use what happened twenty-three years ago as an example. Al Gore won the popular vote and may well have been on track to win the electoral college as well. We will never know because the Republicans staged a successful attempt to prevent a fair election, done with the cooperation of the courts and to a large degree the mainstream media.

    There has been a huge and for the most part successful attempt by the press to shove what actually happened in 2000 down the memory hole. This is not exactly surprising given that it was such a shameful chapter in American journalism. Faced with the subversion of a presidential election, pretty much everyone just went along and pretended everything was okay. This tacit approval of Bush V Gore laid the groundwork for much of what has gone wrong with his country in the following years.

   The relevant comparison here is not between 2000 and 2016; it's between 2000 and January 6th and while there are tremendous differences between the two events, the most important was that the attempt to overturn the election in 2000 succeeded.

    The Establishment press would go on to be largely silent and in some cases openly supportive of the buildup to the Iraq War, the swift-boating of John Kerry, Citizens United, McConnell refusing to allow a duly elected president to appoint a Supreme Court judge, and various other attacks on democracy. By 2016, we actually saw a collaboration between the New York Times and Steve Bannon in promoting Clinton Cash. 

    Yes, the Electoral College is an awful system (though we may see a differing opinion on that in the not-too-distant future [here's the link. -- MP]) and you could argue that it helped the Republicans steal the election 23 years ago, but as threats to our democracy go, it does not rank that highly. Furthermore, the one aspect of the EC that has caused the most trouble over the past 30 years is the easiest to fix. Not only is All or Nothing apportionment of votes not in the Constitution, it isn't even universally practiced among the states. Taking that away would greatly reduced the likelihood of another president losing the popular vote by a substantial margin and still winning the presidency.

    In its current state, the debate over the Electoral College consists almost entirely of performative concern, pseudo-seriousness, and handy excuses for not addressing real threats, the kind that require some measure of courage to take on. Apologies for using the same paper in two different examples, but when the New York Times did an article on voter suppression, they gave both sides of the argument above the fold then took over 20 paragraphs get around to pointing out that all of the evidence and data contradicted the GOP's claims.

The Electoral College is a bad system and was a necessary factor in the disastrous outcome of the 2016 election (though Lord knows there's lots of blame to spread around for that one) but journalists and political scientists need to stop blaming it for the 2000 election and they need to start taking responsibility for all the other more dangerous and more immediate threats to democracy they've been giving too little attention. For all the hand wringing over the possibility of normalizing Trump, everyone seems to forget how much norm breaking the press has already overlooked.

Monday, June 26, 2023


Apologies for running tweet-heavy for a while, but the weekend's craziness in Russia when the fog of war combined with the fog of mutiny to bring visibility pretty close to zero for a while was one of those moments where Twitter at its best (which still exists despite Musk's efforts) is invaluable. 

If you can follow the right people, you sit in the corner while some of the sharpest experts in the field discuss the situation and point you to the best reporting. The hard part is finding these people, fortunately, Josh Marshall has taken care of that.

You can of course read write-ups in the standard publications. But what I’m doing is watching these two curated lists I created more than a year ago to follow the Russo-Ukraine War. Here’s one on the conflict generally and here’s another focused specifically on military analysts. While this current situation is not the Ukraine War proper, you want to hear from the same people generally. And of course it is deeply related to it.

First off, a reminder that this is war criminal on war criminal violence.


Which is why no winners seems like a pretty good outcome


 Also, a reminder that any mutiny/coup where the people attacking the government get to walk away does not send a message of strength.


 Parody site, but still...

Friday, June 23, 2023

There were lots of red flags with the NYT UFO story

The more you dig into the New York Times recent coverage of reports of alien contact, the worse it looks.

Back in 2019, veteran journalist Keith Kloor had an excellent post on our seventy-six year fascination with UFOs. Given recent events, this section is particularly relevant.

Today, a new set of crusading actors are reviving a UFO narrative with all the trappings of America’s first round of extraterrestrial enchantment. On December 16, 2017, Politico, the New York Times, and the Washington Post published near simultaneous stories about an obscure $22 million Pentagon project that officially existed between 2008 and 2012.

All three outlets had essentially the same story: The Pentagon program was created at the behest of former Democratic Senator Harry Reid in 2008 and was run jointly for a time with Bigelow Aerospace in Las Vegas, whose owner, Robert Bigelow, has long been on the hunt for extraterrestrials and poltergeists.

Politico and the Washington Post treated the Pentagon program as it appeared to be: A pet project of a senator that didn’t amount to much — other than “reams of paperwork” — and did not provide evidence that alien spaceships were buzzing our skies. Both stories had well-placed sources in the intelligence community that were skeptical of the program’s purpose and deliverables. Absent any salacious details, neither story got wider pickup.

The New York Times, however, played up dubious tidbits that the Washington Post or Politico either didn’t find credible or simply didn’t know about — namely that the program had found “metal alloys and other materials… recovered from unidentified aerial phenomena,” that got stored in a Bigelow Aerospace warehouse. There is no indication in the Times story that any of these “materials” were seen firsthand by its reporters.

The Times also had something its competitors apparently didn’t: Grainy footage of two Navy F/A-18 fighter jets in 2004 tracking an apparent unknown object “traveling at high speed and rotating” off the coast of San Diego. The 45-second video and the Times front page article went viral.

But there’s more to the Times story that should’ve given readers pause.

One of the authors of the story was Leslie Kean, a journalist with a long-standing interest in UFOs and the paranormal, who published a book in 2010 titled, UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record. At the time, activists in the UFO community were coalescing around the goal of obtaining official “disclosure” about extraterrestrial sightings. This entailed finding current military and aviation whistleblowers to come forward and share the secrets they knew about UFOs — or in the case of Kean’s book, tell of the strange flying objects they had seen or learned about in the course of their jobs. In numerous articles in the Huffington Post over the past decade, Kean has discussed her participation in several nonprofit groups involved in UFOs and the “disclosure” movement.


The Times, encouraged by Kean, took a serious look at Elizondo and his claims. Other prominent outlets, it turned out, were doing so, too. Two months later, the Times, Politico, and Washington Post stories hit. But it was the Times piece that reverberated across the media landscape.

Around the same time, Kloor also wrote this critical examination of key NYT source Luis Elizondo for the Intercept.

I mentioned Kari DeLonge’s response — about Elizondo having taken over AATIP and run it “out of the Office for the Secretary of Defense (OSD) under the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence (USDI)” — to Sherwood, the Pentagon spokesperson who had told me unequivocally that Elizondo “had no responsibilities with regard to the AATIP program while he worked in OUSDI.”

I then asked Sherwood how he knew that Elizondo hadn’t worked for AATIP during his time with the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, where he was based from 2008 until his retirement in 2017. Sherwood said he’d spoken with OUSDI leadership, including individuals who are “still there” from the time when Elizondo started working in the office.

Maybe Elizondo was running AATIP under the purview of another office or agency within the Department of Defense? Sherwood acknowledged that Elizondo “worked for other organizations in DoD.” But that, too, would have contradicted Kari DeLonge’s statement to Greenewald.

Kari DeLonge did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

It bears noting that, although Elizondo has made a point of providing various documents to reporters (including me) to establish his bona fides, he does not appear to have supplied any materials that validate his connection to the government UFO program he insists he led. No memorandums, no emails discussing deliverables or findings, and no paperwork addressed to or from him that connects him to AATIP.

The documents he has provided include recent annual Defense Department performance evaluations and his October 4, 2017 resignation letter to then-Defense Secretary James Mattis, which bears the apparent seal of the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense. In the letter, Elizondo alludes to internal opposition at the Pentagon to investigate UFOs that he wrote had menaced Navy Pilots and posed an “existential threat to our national security.” He was leaving, he strongly implied in his letter, because the Pentagon wasn’t taking that threat seriously.

The letter does not mention AATIP or Elizondo’s role as its director.


In 2017, when Elizondo outed himself to the Times, he was portrayed as a reluctant whistleblower and a little paranoid. The three reporters who shared bylines on the story, including freelancer Leslie Kean (who wrote in 2016 that she was “privileged to welcome” Chris Mellon into the UFO organization to which she belonged) met Elizondo in a “nondescript Washington hotel where he sat with his back to the wall, keeping an eye on the door.”

On the Times’s podcast, “The Daily,” [Complete with spooky music -- MP] Helene Cooper, the newspaper’s Pentagon correspondent, described Elizondo as a “spooky, secretive guy” but added that he was “completely credible.” He showed her documents, pictures, and military videos of potential UFOs, which appeared fantastic to her, but also persuasive. “I did believe him,” Cooper said on the podcast. “It seemed completely credible to me in the moment.”

Later on, after she left the hotel room, Cooper acknowledged that doubts crept in. In the end, though, she decided that what mattered most was whether the Pentagon’s UFO program was real. That, she said, was the focus of the story.


Except that really wasn't the focus of the story. Here's Jeff Wise writing for New York Magazine in 2017.

The fact that the program really existed was the part that the Times touted as its big get, but that wasn’t what set the internet on fire. What got people excited was the implication that the program had collected evidence of encounters with unidentified flying objects. In reporting this part of the story, reporters Helene Cooper, Ralph Blumenthal, and Leslie Kean were much less careful about maintaining a critical eye. “The program produced documents that describe sightings of aircraft that seemed to move at very high velocities with no visible signs of propulsion, or that hovered with no apparent means of lift,” the article asserted, later adding: “The company modified buildings in Las Vegas for the storage of metal alloys and other materials that Mr. Elizondo and program contractors said had been recovered from unidentified aerial phenomena. In addition, researchers also studied people who said that they had experienced physical effects from encounters with the objects and examined them for physiological changes.”

The straightforward presentation of these assertions implies that the authors believe them to be true. But they beg for elaboration. Were the produced documents credible? In what way were the buildings modified, and why was it necessary to modify them in order to store this material? What does it mean for an object to be associated with a phenomenon? What were the claimed physical effects, and were any physiological changes found?


In a follow-up story for the Times Insider about how the story came to be, reporter Ralph Blumenthal makes it sound like the Times scored an exclusive by getting Elizondo to open up to them, writing that he and two colleagues “met Mr. Elizondo in a nondescript Washington hotel where he sat with his back to the wall, keeping an eye on the door.” The implication is that Elizondo feared the repercussions of leaking sensitive information for the first time.

In fact, when Elizondo spoke to the Times he had left government and was promoting the launch of a new venture called To the Stars … Academy of Arts & Science, a website that is trying to crowdsource donations to study paranormal phenomena. Before the Times told his story, To the Stars’ main shareholder, former Blink-182 guitarist Tom DeLonge, had previously promoted the venture on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast.


 What left out of the NYT narrative was, while less incredible, arguably more interesting, from the through the looking glass world of Bigelow and the Skinwalker Ranch to the actual science and engineering that offered plausible explanations for that "footage of unidentified flying objects that couldn’t be explained." (Worth noting that Scientific American never jumped on this bandwagon,)

The New York Times had plenty of critics telling them they were at risk of serious reputational damage, which might have helped if the paper were capable of listening to critics.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Thursday Tweets: "Wifi radiation opens up your blood-brain barrier so all these toxins that are in your body can now go into your brain."

Still trying to get my head around Kavanaugh turning out to be one of the better Republican justices (of course, the bar is low and he is just starting out).


Josh Marshall has a good essay on how all of these scandals (Alito, Gorsuch, Roberts, and Thomas -- have I missed any?) trace back to the Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo.

RFK jr and Russia

Russia and Vaccines 

Vaccines and RFK jr.

Useful thread and a reminder that the PayPal Mafia is the gift that keeps on giving.


Speaking of the PayPal Mafia.

Shades of Claude Pepper...

When I was an undergrad back in Arkansas, one of the main promoters of backwards masking panic gave a presentation. I imagine with a sympathetic audience he could have been rather slick, but this crowd wasn't letting him get away with any misstatement or unsupportable assumption. As the talk went on you could see the realization that he was out of his depth.

And in tech news.

And as always, we end with miscellanea,

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Extraordinary claims (used to) require extraordinary evidence OR the gray lady and the little green men

I wish I had times to do this justice. When the New York Times just tees one up, you want to take your best swing...

As you may have heard, we now have proof that there a aliens among us, that their craft are capable of defying the laws of physics but are still remarkably prone to crashing, thus providing us with multiple crash sites complete with wreckage to reverse engineer and bodies to autopsy. 

The proof in this case is mainly some grainy videos ...

NASA on Wednesday conducted its first public meeting regarding UFOs, following a year-long study into unexplained sightings. The four-hour hearing was televised and featured an independent panel of experts. The team comprised 16 scientists and various other specialists, handpicked by NASA, including retired astronaut Scott Kelly, first American to spend nearly a year in space. 

“I want to emphasize this loud and proud: There is absolutely no convincing evidence for extraterrestrial life associated with" unidentified objects, NASA's Dan Evans said after the meeting.


... and something we heard from a guy who heard it from a guy who definitely knew what he was talking about.

Grusch said the recoveries of partial fragments through and up to intact vehicles have been made for decades through the present day by the government, its allies, and defense contractors. Analysis has determined that the objects retrieved are of exotic origin (non-human intelligence, whether extraterrestrial or unknown origin) based on the vehicle morphologies and material science testing and the possession of unique atomic arrangements and radiological signatures,” he said.

Tucker and other fringe dwellers jumped on this but more surprisingly, so did the mainstream press.

Here's a representative sample from Matt Stieb writing for New York Magazine.

While a previous UFO expert in the government might have been discredited, Grusch has bona fides that are worth taking seriously. Grusch is a 36-year-old combat veteran of Afghanistan who was a member of the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force, the program run by the Office of Naval Intelligence to investigate UFO sightings. From 2019 to 2021, he served on the task force as the representative of the National Reconnaissance Office, considered one of the big five of the U.S. intelligence agencies. His colleagues think highly of him, too. Karl Nell, a retired Army colonel who was also on the UFO task force, told the Debrief that Grusch was “beyond reproach.” Nell even backed up one of Grusch’s claims in the complaint: that there is an ongoing competition with other countries to “identify [UFO] crashes/landings and retrieve the material for exploitation/reverse engineering.”
Unfortunately for all these respectable publications, Grusch started giving more interviews and it turns his conversation with the Debrief interview was what he sounds like when he's on his meds.

In his follow-up, Stieb walks back his earlier credulity so fast you can hear the Doppler effect.

The UFO Whistleblower Is Back With More Crazy Claims

Grusch claimed the first UFO case he was briefed on involved a vehicle downed in Italy in 1933; the Mussolini government had allegedly kept it in storage until near the end of World War II. Pope Pius XII “back-channeled” the existence of the object to the United States, which obtained it in 1944 or 1945.

Grusch said he has spoken with intelligence officials who have been briefed on giant UFOs observed by the U.S. military. “A lot of them are very large,” he claimed. “Like a football-field kind of size. I remember interviewing these personnel and thinking, Either these people are lying to me, having a psychotic break, or this is some crazy but true stuff that’s happening. And I have no good explanation that’s prosaic at all for this because this is not explainable by swamp gas, Saint Elmo’s fire, a ball of lightning, etc. This is like tangible, technical craft we’re seeing up close and personal in some cases.”

The New York Times, by comparison, is standing firm, largely because it doesn't have much choice. The authors of the Debrief story are NYT reporters (Leslie Kean and Ralph Blumenthal -- remember those names) and the paper has been all over this story for years, often in full "the truth is out there" mode, ignoring any number of warning signs.

One troubling aspect of these reports is the recurring connections to the paranormal community and its financial backers (you knew there had to be a loony right wing billionaire involved somehow).

Lots of ties to this place.

You don't have to do much googling to realize that a lot of names you're hearing are people who either believe or claim to believe lots of incredible things. Some of these connections are rather indirect. Some are not.

Here's the Kirkus Review of Leslie Kean's 2017 book, Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for an Afterlife:

How do you begin to investigate whether there’s an afterlife, a beforelife by way of reincarnation, a limbo state by which the dead walk among the living, and so forth? Insisting that her intriguing though ultimately unconvincing project is a journalistic account, Kean (UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record, 2010, etc.) heads off to talk to the psychics. “To locate them, I checked with two respectable organizations that run certification programs for mediums,” she writes. Respectable? That’s a value judgment—and just how does one certify a medium, anyway? The author dutifully explores the ethereal realms, looking into out-of-body and near-death experiences, “intermission memories,” apparitions and auras, and the like. The whole enterprise is garbed in a sort of science-y mantle, replete with terminology along the lines of “living-agent psi” and “materialization.” Mostly, Kean’s argument is one of assertion; as one of her like-minded contributors puts it, “I am now ready to say that we have good evidence that some young children have memories of a life from the past.” Unfortunately, that good evidence is not forthcoming, and in any event, as the same contributor notes, children who express these memories tend to be “very intelligent and very verbal,” which might lead a skeptic to conclude that such stories are inventions of the imagination. In the end, Kean’s case proceeds on touchy-feely grounds (“these feel so clearly external to me, that I am compelled to allow them that reality”) without much in the way of actionable proof: it’s certainly not science, and it’s not really journalism, either.
[I'm certainly glad he didn't go with one of those disreputable organizations that run certification programs for mediums.]

I realize some of these feel like cheap shots, but much of what Kean offers as support for these extraordinary claims boils down to "you should trust my sources because I trust them."

As an indication of just how committed the paper is to this narrative, Kean was given the whole hour of Ezra Klein's last podcast. It starts out just as bad as you'd expect, with a great show of performative "open-mindedness" as an excuse for a lack of critical thinking. Klein does finally start asking a few pointed (though not that pointed) questions toward the end but coming that late, they felt to me more like ass covering than anything else.

There's much more I should be digging into here but I've run out of time. Perhaps we'll come back to this. In the meantime, you might want to check out this good if snarky debunking of some of these claims.

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Personal financial advice: Cheese sandwich edition

This is Joseph

There is a genre of budget advice that is just about closing a small gap in finances. Most of the time, when I have been skint, this advice was useless. It worked well when I had a junior position and lived in an inexpensive apartment. But if you are really poor it works badly (stop buying Lattes is bad advice to people who are worried about loaves of bread). It got especially bad when we saw avocado toast consumption as the barrier to housing down payments. The median house price in Toronto is 1.27 million (yes, a 20% down payment is over $250,000!) and a typical after tax income is $50,000. The average rent for a one bedroom apartment in Toronto is $2,500 (so $30,000 a year) and you have $20,000 left for food, clothing, medical care (Rx drugs are not covered by OHIP), transportation, and entertainment. If someone managed to save half of their after tax and rent income (15% of gross so above the normal save money book threshold) that is a cool 25 years of savings. If house prices stay stable. 

It wasn't the toast. 

Even two ambitious young people who both save a ton to form a family are getting their house in their mid-30's without help -- on the late side for family formation. 

So this is the context where the UK is going insane about the cheese sandwich. Yes, a cold sandwich with soft sandwich bread, butter, and cheddar cheese inside it. These sandwich have gotten more expensive post-Brexit, as food inflation in the UK has now hit a 45 year high. Is it any surprise that the government response is to eat fewer cheese sandwiches? Yes, a Brexit party member, former conservative, and now a reform party member is suggesting that very basic food items just be eliminated because of rising costs:
Citing inflation in the 1970s she added: 'We just have to be as grown-up about this as we can and stop thinking it is solely a UK problem, because it isn’t.

'We also just have to learn the lessons of the past, which is that prices follow wages, follow prices, follow wages.'

Presenter Jo Coburn asked: 'What do you say to consumers who literally can’t afford to pay for even some of the basics if they have gone up the way that cheese sandwich has, with all its ingredients?'

She replied: 'Well then you don’t do the cheese sandwich ... because we have been decades without inflation we have come to regard it as some sort of given right that our food doesn’t go up.

A few thoughts in this nightmare response. One, is not the UK government trying to stop wages from increasing? Was there not a medical doctor strike over this?  Or a university strike? Or the teachers strike? So obviously this is not just a wages and prices are both adjusting cycle. 

Two, cheese sandwiches are really basic and not an expensive meal option. 

[I know, real economy experts like Mark will tell me that there are better options than a cheese sandwich for inexpensive eating. He will be right. But it is a very nice blend of inexpensive ingredients (the butter is a ton of sandwiches at $5/lb, the bread is $1.50 for 20 slices if you shop at all, 2 lbs of cheese is $12). The recipe earlier was 3.5 ozs cheese ($1.30), 2 slices of bread (15 cents), and butter (looking at serving sizes, 25 sandwiches per lbs is generous so 20 cents). That is 1.70 cents for a lunch item, mostly the cheese, which doesn't have the allergy problems of fillers like peanut butter.]

If a cheese sandwich is an unaffordable luxury then something has gone very wrong. 

Finally, this is all rearranging deck chairs. Food becoming a serious financial stress again is undoing a generation of progress in improving quality of life. Seeing it end should be seen as a real crisis of poor governance, and not a chance to lecture people on their food choices. The real issue is rent is out of control in a lot of the anglosphere and that is feeding into a general cost of living crisis (note my examples mix two anglosphere countries, Canada and the UK, but could add in New Zealand too, if one was really motivated). 

The worry is affordability. If you do a major policy change that increases costs then it would make sense to make sure that there is a very clear benefit. I can see the same issue in Canada. 

Monday, June 19, 2023

A fast follow-up to Mark

This is Joseph.

Mark had this sharp observation in his latest post:
Being mildly pro-diversity has gone from the safest business strategies to being one of the riskiest because a majority of the conservative base has suddenly started passionately caring about something they never cared about before. 

I think it is, in a way, worse than that. Because the right is pushing for such extreme levels of loyalty to these new ideals, there isn't actually any safe position for Disney to take. Or the reptilian lawyers would have identified it and taken it as a public relations move. Instead, you need to adopt positions that are entirely being adopted to annoy other parts of the customer base. If "own the libs" is the standard and no bystanders are allowed, then there really isn't a place to be neutral.

I suspect that Disney (and other such corporations) are waiting for this fever to burn itself out. It is hard to run a national movement based on alienating large groups of potential supporters. But we will see. 

Sunday, June 18, 2023

"It's amazing how strongly people feel about that. I talk about cutting taxes, people go like that, I talk about transgender everybody goes crazy. Five years ago you didn't know what the hell it was"


Kari Lake and friend.


In the mid-Seventies, All in the Family, the most popular TV show in the country routinely watched by over twenty million households, would feature a drag queen as a beloved recurring character.


By the Eighties, the topic was safe enough for the least edgy show on television to do an episode on it.

As Aubry points out later in the thread, the captain is baiting Gopher to get him to move past his initial bigotry, which was a familiar element of what was a common sitcom plot for at least forty years. Old friend/lover turns up having transitioned. lead character freaks out, mentor/trusted advisor reminds them that their friend is still their friend, and they learn to move past their prejudices. 

You can argue that these episodes were patronizing and that the message would have rang truer had producers actually hired a trans actor (which, with the exception of All in the Family, was almost never the case), but the important part, at least with respect to this post, is that it was no big deal. The producers undoubtedly got a few angry letters, maybe even lost a handful of viewers, but outside of a few small groups, no one paid any attention. 



As recently as 2016, the GOP's nominee would say in his acceptance speech, “As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens” and no one would really care. And in this one case, Trump is not an outlier. You can find any number of examples of prominent Republicans taking LGBTQ positions that were entirely mainstream but which would outrage the base today.


There has always been homophobia and transphobia in our society just as there has always been racism, misogyny, and religious bigotry. It is important to acknowledge our history here, but there is a danger when looking at how much things are the same, of blinding ourselves to see to what extent things have changed in a dangerous and frightening way.


As Bob Chipman has pointed out, for decades, companies like Disney have leaned toward a mild, performative liberalism because it was good business. This mostly consisted of empty gestures like putting up a rainbow flag this time of year or running an ad with Fredrick Douglass during Black History Month, or declaring their love for the planet on Earth Day. These things were and are generally popular and allowed the huge corporations to come off as compassionate and concerned. This used to be the safest path, but times have changed.

Target pulled certain products from its Pride collection, citing confrontational behavior by shoppers and the need to protect its employees. Bud Light walked back its brief collaboration with a transgender TikTok influencer, but that didn’t stop it from losing its long-held status as America’s best-selling beer. The brand’s parent company, Anheuser-Busch, issued a quasi-apology for simply doing business with a trans person, but that doesn’t seem to have appeased transphobic boycotters. At the same time, it appears to have alienated LGBTQ people and their allies. 

“When Kid Rock took out an automatic weapon and shot up a case of beer, you did not see anyone from Anheuser-Busch saying, ‘Hey this isn’t OK,’” said Mark Robertson, who has been watching these events play out from Chicago. He co-owns four LGBTQ bars in the city that used to serve a lot of Anheuser-Busch products until that apologetic statement from the CEO prompted Robertson to cut ties.

There's a lot of good reporting in Savannah Maher's piece, but it falls down badly on the most important part of the story.  Yes, LGBTQ marketing always generated protests -- there were angry letters and an occasional blip of publicity and a few people actually followed through with their "I'll never shop here again" threats, but on the whole the numbers were trivial and the positive PR and access to new markets far outweighed any downside. It was good business.

Being mildly pro-diversity has gone from the safest business strategies to being one of the riskiest because a majority of the conservative base has suddenly started passionately caring about something they never cared about before. 



 Though I know we are not supposed to be this blunt, it is difficult and probably counterproductive to try to ignore the Nazi in the room. The parallels are simply too obvious, not just with the Third Reich's persecution (culminating in mass murder) of homosexuals, but with the larger obsession with perceived decadence, and most of all in the way that a fairly low level and even arguably diminishing level of bigotry can suddenly boil over into a terrifying collective madness.