On not over-praising the dead

Look, de mortuis and all that; if you don’t want to speak ill of the dead, then you’re justified in not mentioning Marion Barry at all. Or if you want to praise his verbal wit  - “Jesse? Jesse don’t wanna be no Mayor. Jesse don’t want to run nothin’ but his mouth.” – you’ll be on solid ground.

But please, please don’t try to pretend that as a politician and public official he was anything but a disaster to anyone but himself and his cronies. Stealing from mostly Black taxpayers to make some of your friends rich is not giving “working-class black residents a taste of the economic prosperity that racial apartheid had long denied them,” and a summer-jobs program doesn’t really alter that fact.

Of course the racial composition of the DC police needed to change; but too-rapid hiring with too-low standards meant building a force full of incompetent and sometimes brutal grifters, and not having enough senior folks around to train and control them. It’s hard to guess how many Washingtonians who died of homicide would be alive today if DC had had a different mayor, but the number isn’t small. And let’s not forget that DC Statehood was a live issue until Marion Barry turned the District government into a work-free drug place and a national joke.

How bad was the looting? At one point, DC General Hospital ran out of pharmaceuticals because the distributors who supplied the drugs refused to offer the bribes City Hall demanded simply to get their invoices paid, and eventually cut off the hospital when the balance due got too high. That’s right: Marion Barry was prepared to have sick people go without medicine if his cronies didn’t get their slice of the action.

Having said that, I should add in haste that Barry’s conviction on cocaine charges reflected truly outrageous investigative and prosecutorial over-reach. It’s clear from the tape that his interest was entirely in sex, and not drugs; the drug motif was introduced entirely by the undercover. He was guilty of soliciting sex for hire, and guilty of the corruption everyone knew about but no one could prove. But the crack charges were bogus, and his supporters weren’t wrong to say he’d been set up. And no, Barry’s outrageousness provides no excuse whatever for any of the people involved in the investigation or the trial. You’re supposed to convict people of stuff they actually did, not of some manufactured substitute.


Rule of thumb

Any pundit or politician who helped promote the Benghazi! hoax, and who doesn’t fully retract and apologize now that a Republican-dominated House committee has fully debunked all the accusations against the Administration other than having paid attention to what turned out to be inaccurate initial reports from the intelligence agencies, should from now on be conclusively presumed a fool and a scoundrel. Of course we already knew that about Lindsay Graham, who is sticking to his principles by denying reality. But so far none of the loud Behghazi!-mongers has stepped up to eat his plate of crow. And John Boehner’s handpicked “select committee” can probably be counted on to try to make the zombie lies walk again; the House Republican website still has all the debunked charges, with no mention of the new report debunking them, under the mind-blowingly ironic heading of “accountability.” Will no one hold the Republicans accountable?

Yes. anyone involved in politics sometimes thinks the voters are sort of stupid, because of course the voters often act stupidly. The rational-choice political scientists have actually formulated theories of “rational ignorance” to explain why people vote on evidence that would never persuade them to buy a used car: voters aren’t spending their own money. (And no, the inference that democratic government is a mistake, or alternatively that government is always rotten and ought to be minimized, isn’t justified, unless you’ve examined the consequences of undemocratic government of of unchecked private action and found that they’re not as bad.)

And yes, it was damned silly for Jonathan Gruber to let himself get caught on camera saying what everyone knows to be partially true.

But Jonathan Gruber didn’t just win an election by lying to voters. The Republicans did. I’m happy to give Trey Gowdy credit for telling the truth at last, but of course he knew the truth three weeks ago, when publishing it could have had an impact on the midterm election results. Even a relatively honest Republican preferred to have his party win by lying to taking the risk of telling the American people the truth.

Let’s just recall how ghoulish this whole business has been. Republicans have – with some success – tried to get political gain out of the deaths of four Americans who died for their country at the hands of its enemies, and kept doing so long after the spuriousness of the conspiracy theories was clear.

The extremism, mendacity, and lack of scruple of the Teahadi-dominated GOP have risen to the level of a constitutional crisis. That’s observable fact. It’s time for reporters who pride themselves on “objectivity” to start reporting that fact, rather than groveling to the successful scoundrels and blaming their victims.

Solar disobedience

That’s not a coinage but a quote. From the website of Spanish solar equipment vendor Efimarket:
efimarket screenshot(Key graf: “Enjoy self-consumption and solar disobedience, supporting the democratization of solar energy and environmental sustainability”.)

What is going on? How on Earth did Spain get to the position where businessmen are using civil disobedience as a selling-point for solar DIY kits?

A little history. Continue Reading…

Alcohol, “rape culture,” taxation, and libertarianism

Robby Soave of Reason’s Hit & Run pokes fun at some feminists so fixated on the gender dynamics underlying physical and sexual violence against women that they want to deny the role of alcohol. Fair comment, I suppose, though it seems to me that Soave’s colleague Elizabeth Nolan Brown offers a more sensible interpretation of the “rape culture” idea.  (The tendency to give other people’s words trivial and vicious interpretations rather than looking for sensible interpretations of them must rank very high on the blogosphere’s list of besetting sins.)

And of course there’s no reason why acquaintance rape, like other phenomena, shouldn’t have more than one cause. In a culture whose ideas about masculinity involved less sexual score-keeping and less tolerance for violence, alcohol use might be associated with less rape; at the same time, in the culture we actually have (which feminists, with little enough help from the Robby Soaves of the world, are trying to change) less use of alcohol (both by those who become perpetrators and by those who become victims) would probably also lead to less rape. There’s no contradiction there, just the acceptance of a multi-causal world. Nor does pointing to the role of alcohol diminish the culpability of the rapist; the rape may well have been done under the influence, but the decision to get drunk (and, frequently, to encourage the intended seducee/victim to become drunk) was made by a sober man, or – often enough – a sober adolescent trying to pretend he’s a man.

That said, I’m grateful to Soave for pointing out the role of alcohol, and to the editors of Hit & Run for publishing the piece. Now that we’ve agreed that alcohol is a key factor in rape, as it is in homicide and motor vehicle fatality, the question is what to do about it. The obvious answer, if one believes in markets, is to raise the price of alcohol by taxation.

But of course the official libertarian line is that taxing alcohol would be unfair to those drinkers who aren’t drunken rapists or drunken brawlers or drunken drivers.  Any unfairness to rape victims from low alcohol taxes is simply the price of a free society. (Oh, and alcohol taxation is also “regressive,” which you must admit is a weighty argument from people who hate progressive taxation.)

Where does that leave us? Why, with vacuous prescriptions about “fostering”  ”a teen culture of responsible alcohol consumption,” for example by “lowering the drinking age.”

But of course that’s all moonshine, with the marketing and political muscle of the booze industries solidly lined up against anything that might foster moderation in alcohol use, even if we knew how to do so. And of course limiting the commercial and political “free speech” of the people who make their money selling products that kill 90,000 people a year and send hundreds of thousands to emergency rooms, rape crisis centers, and prison cells would be unthinkable.

So what’s a libertarian to do? Why, make fun of feminists! That’s always safe.

Hat trick

Over the past couple of weeks, my essays in search of temperate cannabis policies have appeared in Slate, Vice, the New York Times, and now National Review. Other than the expected trolling from pot fans, pot-industry flacks, and fundamentalist libertarians, they haven’t drawn much response. I sometimes think that trying to talk reasonably about cannabis is a little bit like trying to talk reasonably about football on sports-talk radio. It’s a subject so hard to think clearly about, and so easy to get angry about, that saying anything other than “Racist drug war! Legalize it!” or “Brain damage! What about the children?” seems to miss the whole point of the exercise. But I’m grateful to all the editors involved for giving me the space.



Giving Tuesday, No Giving Required; and Jail for the President

Over on The Nonprofiteer, I critique the whole Giving Tuesday concept and particularly its latest iteration, in which people don’t have to actually give to participate.

Plus, h/t to our friends at Political Wire, for quoting a Republican legislator who can’t seem to imagine a black man who isn’t incarcerated.


Weekend Film Recommendation: Obsession

1862396_600In my recommendation of Dear Murderer, I described my fondness for British films in which brutal people say awful things with perfect manners and diction. This week’s film recommendation is another fine example of the “Terribly sorry old chap, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to kill you” school of Brit Noir: 1949′s Obsession.

Like Dear Murderer, the film revolves around a beautiful, faithless wife (Sally Gray) whose urbane, intelligent cuckold (Robert Newton) seeks indirect vengeance by trying to kill one of her lovers in a fashion that the police will never uncover. Gray, who was with us in prior film recommendation Green for Danger, is at her most alluring…and her most cold. If there were any doubt as the film progresses, the final scene makes clear her character’s utter selfishness, and she puts it over in a manner worthy of noir’s most memorable femme fatales.

Robert Newton, as a calculating, vindictive psychiatrist plotting the perfect murder, is even better. It’s hard to believe that his suave, perfectly tailored character is the creation of the same actor who made “Arrrrhhh!” the byword of would be pirates everywhere (see my prior recommendation Treasure Island for details). Because he is ostensibly the victim of his wayward wife and conducts himself so politely, it’s possible to feel sorry for him until about half way through the film, when a critical scene with a little dog makes you realize that he is, like his spouse, a thoroughly nasty piece of work.

As the lover who is to be killed, Phil Brown is solid, though a stronger actor might have been able to do more in the many face-offs he has with Newton. Naunton Wayne — for once not co-cast with Basil Reardon — comes off better as a dogged Columbo-type detective, and also skillfully injects some comic relief into the otherwise grim story.

The other key presence here is director Edward Dmytryk, who was essentially exiled to Britain during the McCarthy witch hunts. He had a smaller budget to work with than what he was no doubt used to in Hollywood, but he gets everything possible out of the small cast and few sets as the film unfolds.

If you have trouble finding a copy of Obsession, look for it under an alternate title that was adopted at some point after its release: The Hidden Room. Any required extra hunting effort on your part will be well-rewarded by this finely-crafted piece of cruel and suspenseful entertainment.

p.s. Look fast for Stanley Baker (whose films were recommended here, here and here) as a cop on the beat.

p.p.s. If Stanford grad Phil Brown looks vaguely familiar, it’s probably because he played Luke’s Uncle Owen in the opening scenes of Star Wars!

Homework from Edward Tufte

While you are twiddling your trackball thumbs waiting for the DACA explosion. something slightly useful.

I finally bought Edward Tufte’s classic of graphical design The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. It’s so good it has no competitors, like the Department of Water Engineering at the Technical University of Delft. [Update 22/22: this is incorrect, see comments.] Struggling to find a niggle against a nearly perfect work, my only complaint is that he compares his masterpiece to Strunk and White’s error-packed The Elements of Style: a “malign little compendium of bad advice” (Stephen Dodson); “the book’s toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar” (Geoffrey Pullum). If you have any serious professional or even amateur interest in charts, buy Tufte’s book: he gets all your money as self-publisher, as commercial publishing houses refused to cede him the full graphical control he demanded. More fools they.

The book lucidly combines general graphical principles on “the revelation of the complex” and a plethora of striking and even amazing examples of good and bad practice. It would be a disservice to offer a dummy’s summary on this blog. What I tried to do was to investigate how much of his specific good advice, as opposed to the general principles, can be put into effect using a standard office software suite. I have LibreOffice. Most of the features apply in Excel, which does offer more: in some case misguidedly, in the 3D pyramid stacked histograms, with a variable lie factor as the data correspond to the heights of the pyramid slices while the eye reads their volume. If you want to make marginal or bubble plots, you will need specialised software like this or this.

I’ll take a worked example. Warning: the page below the fold is large, with many images, pushing the envelope on resolution. The WordPress software seems to muddy the resolution of images so you will need to click on each to get a proper view. Continue Reading…

News Chew

Last week the Federal Trade Commission approved orders settling charges against two companies selling caffeine-infused underwear.  Norm Thompson Outfitters, Inc. and Wacoal America, Inc. don’t have to recall the underwear made from fabric with microencapsulated caffeine, retinol and other ingredients, but they have to stop pretending the items will do anything but keep your junk in place. Also, they have to pay a combined about $1.5 million towards refunds for those souls that dared to believe.

Do you have questions? Naturally.

Curtain up 

TIC: Have you heard about this caffeine underwear?

TAC: No I haven’t. By all means, tell me about the caffeine underwear. For starters, huh?

TIC: The underwear is infused with caffeine. It’s shapewear and boxer briefs—

TAC: —that you wear? Like, on your body?

TIC: Yes yes of course. That’s the point.

TAC: How bizarre. So, the caffeine in the underwear is meant to leave the fabric and go into your body?

TIC: Well sure. But these two companies that sell them just got fined by the FTC.

TAC: Yea that sounds kind of shady. But, I dunno, I guess the nicotine patch is pretty standard. And don’t they sell transdermal patches with birth control hormones in them? Say, my initial opinion on the topic of caffeine underwear is beginning to change!

TIC: Oh, no no no. That’s not—I see that I’ve confused you.

Continue Reading…

The Only Way to Fly

I recently flew coach to Minneapolis. My seat space was small for a reason that may outrage you: I was not willing to pay for a bigger seat.

I ate a sandwich on board that I packed myself before hand, for a reason that may make your blood boil: I was not willing to pay the cost of the food served on the plane.

I took less luggage than I might have, for a reason you may want to refer to the International Court of Human Rights: I was not willing to pay the costs of checking a bag.

But in fact I am not angry at all and you don’t need to be either. The only way to fly, which eludes the people who issue a sea of complaints about the flights that they freely choose to take, is this: (1) Accept responsibility for the choices you make and (2) Don’t act oppressed when in fact you are incredibly privileged.

The reason airline seats are small is not because you are being persecuted, or that airlines are mean, or because they are raking in big bucks at your expense. We get the smallest, cheapest seats because that’s what we are willing to buy. American flyers care about pricing more than anything else, and a large proportion of them wish that even smaller, even cheaper seats were available for purchase. Airlines that expanded the size of seating throughout coach (like American Airlines) or offered 100% no frills business class flights priced between economy and typical business class (like Maxjet and Silverjet, both of which went bankrupt) lost money because flyers prefer cheapness above all. Airlines today have learned to sell us the product we actually want (Yeah I know, the nerve of these corporate fatcats…).

Also, for those of you who are upset that you got an owie on your knee during your family trip to Paris, remember that for over 99% of human history, our species was Earthbound. Even today, most people don’t get to fly anywhere, ever. If it feels unjust that your pillow wasn’t big enough, tell it to the billion human beings who live on less than one percent of your ticket price a day and they will quite rightly shove said pillow down your entitled piehole.

If you have privileges and define yourself as oppressed, you will be unhappy. If you make choices with perfectly predictable consequences and then resent those consequences, you will be unhappy. So don’t do those things and instead enjoy your flight. My seat to Minneapolis was very small. So what? For two hundred dollars I got to safely fly through the air like a bird, visit an interesting city and see dear friends. That’s a technological miracle and a gift to be grateful for. Thank you Sun Country Airlines!

Louis C.K. says all this better than I just did. Play this whenever you are tempted to feel sorry for yourself at 35,000 feet.