Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Stories of the Past an Future

If you enjoyed my posting "We're Outstripping Our Own Sci-Fi Future", then you'll love this new mind-blowing XKCD comic:

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Putin the Improviser

Andrew Weiss had an illuminating piece in Friday's Wall Street Journal, proposing that Vladimir Putin isn't working a fiendish, chess-like plan, but, rather, he's furiously improvising, without rhyme or reason.
"How can the Ukrainians or dogged Western leaders such as Ms. Merkel possibly search for a diplomatic solution if they are dealing with a leader who is making it all up on the fly?"
Weiss presents some persuasive evidence, but the most interesting bit revealed something new to me. Putin, of course, explains his adventurism (e.g. Ukraine and Kazakhstan) as an effort to protect Russian ethnic minorities in neighboring countries. As Weiss points out, he's been "cloaking himself with language seemingly lifted from former Serbian strongman Milosevic’s playbook." But it turns out that this represents a complete about-face for Putin.
"That turnaround could hardly have been more striking: Throughout his time as president or prime minister, Mr. Putin had consistently avoided playing to ethnic-based nationalism. He seemed well aware that ethnic chauvinism could bring havoc to the multiethnic Russian state—and could alienate prospective members of a proposed Eurasian Union that he touted as the main project for his third term in the Kremlin."

Against this backdrop, Mr. Putin’s efforts look more like a short-term tactical play than a carefully considered embrace of an ethnocentric approach to defending Russia’s declared interests in its neighborhood. Mr. Putin’s nationalist credentials have never been terribly strong. Before the Ukraine crisis, many prominent Russian nationalists openly despised him for creating a political regime...[with] an inner circle that contained relatively few ethnic Russians and an expensive, unseemly co-dependency on a ruthless, violent Chechen warlord named Ramzan Kadyrov (whose countrymen seem to be playing an important supporting role in the fighting in eastern Ukraine). Just a few years ago, one of the most powerful grass roots political activities in Russia was a nationalist-led campaign entitled “Stop Feeding the Caucasus,” which had clear racial overtones.
An entire world of scholars, pundits, journalists, and politicians is "struggling to explain the thinking of the man who, almost single-handedly, seems to be dragging much of the West into a new Cold War." And while it's hard to find much fault with Weiss' portrait of Putin as an erratic opportunist, in the end, I suspect even this "No Plan" Plan is overly reductive.

Putin finds himself in a convoluted position as neo-czar presiding over a plunging economy, pitted against legions of bitter enemies, and laden with a flagrant criminal history leaving him without a viable exit strategy/retirement plan. Even in the best of times, Russian politics is insanely complex, and there's an awfully fine line between high complexity and chaos. So I suspect the answer is that Putin has found himself working both sides of that fence.

One last particularly delightful vignette:
"Mr. Putin had...[staked] significant personal prestige on keeping the hapless (Ukrainian president] Mr. Yanukovych in power, thanks largely to perhaps as much as $20 billion in financial support and gas-price incentives.

Mr. Putin later conveniently accused Western governments of double-crossing him and orchestrating Mr. Yanukovych’s removal. But the truth was that Mr. Putin had only himself to blame for backing a leader who simply panicked when the going got tough. (Mr. Yanukovych’s loss of nerve should not have come as a total surprise; there is a memorable video of him collapsing in a heap on the campaign train in 2004 after being hit in the chest by an egg, which he mistook for an assassin’s bullet.)"

UPDATE: I asked Nina Khrushcheva ‏one of my favorite Russian pundits (and Khruschev's grandaughter and's complicated), for her comment on the article. Her response:

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Citizenfour on HBO (and Other TV Tips)

I mentioned the film Citizenfour a couple of days ago. FYI, it's playing Monday on HBO. If you do watch it, don't forget to follow it up with the TimesTalk in that last link.

A few quick TV tips to add since my December 5 gigunda round-up:

"The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst" is amazing. From the director of "Capturing the Friedmans", it goes in-depth on a series of bizarre unsolved murders which seem to implicate the scion of one of NYC's wealthiest families. Yet the guy (who's quite a character) walks free. And even participates in the show.

The PBS show "Shakespeare Uncovered" digs deeply into individual plays through the perspective of actors (often famous ones) preparing for roles.

The Americans, about KGB spies under deep cover in 1982 American suburbs, continues to rack up dreadful ratings in spite of being the best show currently on TV. Anyone who watches it falls deeply into its grip. I hate it when great things don't catch on. You can stream the whole series for free on Amazon Prime. I envy you the opportunity to discover it anew.

"Better Call Saul", prequel to Breaking Bad, is, as you've likely heard, quite good.

I'm currently on a Krzysztof Kieslowski kick. This Polish director did legendary work in both film and TV, and I've been catching up. His stuff's way too complex to try to synopsize; see the (glowing) Amazon reviews for the following for a better idea. The following are in my queue:

"Double Life of Veronique" (Criterion Collection)
"The Decalogue", a ten-part TV drama, each episode dealing with one of the ten commandments.
The Krzysztof Kieslowski Collection (A Short Film About Love/Blind Chance/Camera Buff/No End/The Scar/A Short Film About Killing)

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Extremely Poor Job We Do of Debunking Anti-Vaxxers

This article follows a long-standing Slog tradition of trying to explain different groups to each other. Many such articles are labelled/tagged as "right whispering"...though the following cuts the other way.

Note: I've got a flair for explaining different perspectives, but, alas, not for doing so tersely. Apologies for the length of this. By the end, hopefully you'll have a more visceral understanding of the anti-vaxxers than you can get from other sources, even if you still don't (god, please don't) agree with them.

Look. The Anti-Vaxxers are wrong. But they're not stupid. Smart people get caught in hysterias and mass delusions, too, and, as has been amply reported, the folks caught up in this one are highly-educated, including many Silicon Valley high-tech families who are well-informed and perfectly capable of critical thinking (as well as ridiculously poor judgement).

I've watched the steadfast efforts of perhaps three dozen debunkers over the past few weeks, and nearly all have recited the same tired facts, none of which speak to the crux of the issue. It's pretty disorienting; I agree with these people, yet as they parade across my TV screen, parroting the same talking points, I feel like I'm watching a Daily Show takedown of the Fox News' echo chamber. Since the anti-vaxxers lie far to the left, this backlash surely fades for them into a background wash of institutional ignorance.

The anti-vaxxers know Wakefield's study was discredited. That is not news to them. Enough with Wakefield, already. And, no, these people have not "forgotten" what polio is or why it's bad. Harping on these two points makes me wonder whether pundits and authorities truly want to persuade anti-vaxxers, or if they're simply trying to agitate the rest of us against them.

The other thing anti-vaxxers comprehend is herd immunity. They get it, and would otherwise be inclined to do their part, but not if it requires jeopardizing their kids' health to keep the herd 100% immune to a diseases like measles with mere 0.3% fatality. There are small sacrifices to be made for the greater good, but as stakes rise (or are imagined to rise), it becomes a more complicated equation.

We talk past this. We impatiently swipe away assumptions and we push conclusions which hinge on assumptions of our own. This is the question Sane America is asking anti-vaxxers: "Why would you endanger the children around you when vaccines are perfectly safe?". But, duh, they don't think they're perfectly safe! It's not that they don't care, it's that they find the risk/benefit equation more complicated than you or I do.

And vaccines are not perfectly safe, even with (unfounded) autism claims aside. No authority would ever claim they are (yet public debunkers - fearing backlash wrath if they concede facts which might appear to fuel the wrong side - steer clear of this entire branch of the's like this). Yes, autism risk, specifically, is pure bullshit, but people certainly do have reactions to vaccines, even serious ones. So, from the get-go, it's not quite obvious where that risk/benefit equation should fall. Reasonable discussion could be had.

No, I'm not a traitor to my side of the debate. I just don't think you can convince people by deliberately talking past their arguments, though that's exactly what we always try to do (usually in the name of "clarity").

And yet more discussion could be had to finally decide the level of compulsion appropriate for the many childhood vaccinations which don't address quite as firm a public health need. Did you know many locales currently suggest over 50 of these things, ladening pediatrics with a confusing thicket of shots both compulsory and non-compulsory and leading healthcare authorities to occasionally go nuclear against parents who refuse even voluntary shots for their immune-compromised children?

It's not quite as simple and clear-cut a matter as one might imagine. While the anti-vaxxers are wrong and dangerous, persuasion can't happen until we at least consider what they're actually saying....which is more intelligent than the ten-year-old sound bites you hear on TV of Jenny McCarthy being a complete ditz.

Now, finally, the autism thing. It's actually not all that hard to understand where they're coming from on that, if you make an effort. Helicopter parenting, where smothered, over-parented children become mommy and daddy's fabulous craft project (what I referred to, in the above link, as a "Narcissist's Creation Kit"), is pandemic wherever vaccine refusal is pandemic. Helicopter parents don't trust institutions, they trust their guts (just as the extreme right - their antithesis - does). And that's where autism risk - which isn't an intellectual concern, but certainly is an emotional one where such public furor has been stirred up - comes in. Mommy trusts her gut, and her gut worries that maybe there's something to this scare, because the scare comes at her from all directions. That's what happens in a hysteria - an alarming answer is blowing in the wind.

Such situations can result in far deadlier outcomes than mere under-vaccination. Hysterias can make crowds crush each other to death for no discernible reason. Crackling exo-neurological wirings are a deep part of human nature, so don't imagine only idiots are effected. Have you ever had a widely repeated rumor - which you intellectually knew to be false - turn your stomach to lead? Can you recall how exquisitely sensitive our collective antennae got circa September 12, 2001 - and how a stream of theories and omens filled that channel, leaving smart people distraught and confused? The intellect can try to soberly discount rumor and anecdote, but the gut cannot. And so we get to the crux: if you keep receiving a series of emotionally-charged stories from your empirical grapevines about autism from vaccines, your intellect may remain skeptical, but your gut will scream "watch out!". And which way would you lean re: your kids' safety? Especially if your entire parenting philosophy revolves around one's defiantly personal (read: socially conformist) choices? You wouldn't take the chance. You wouldn't step on that sidewalk crack, risking that you might break your momma's back.

That's the kernel of it, no more, no less. Vaccines carry a (legitimate!) risk to little Shandra or Kent....and the risk just might be far worse (i.e. autism) than The Man tells us it is. Probably not, but, hey, you've heard stories, and that raises the stakes at least some, no matter how many people scream "nonsense!".

Parents inclined to micromanage their children's development feel supremely confident in their "mix" of intellectual/emotional/spiritual KNOWING. They never doubt for a moment that they're sculpting the most super-well, super-functional kids ever (note: it's exactly these people, now with offspring. Can you now understand why I'm so alarmed and annoyed by them?). Such parents do not eagerly receive feedback on their highly enlightened decisions - especially not from "authorities". So we need to offer far better tailored arguments, and speak to their actual concerns, rather than speaking past them to impatiently demand they stop being such morons, period.

It's the same with how we talk to the Right about climate change*, abortion or tolerance. If we go in assuming they're idiots and talking to them like they're children, we'll continue to polarize the country into Partisanville.

* "Just look at the weather!" we cry during storms or droughts. Then, when climate change deniers do the same during conditions matching their conclusions, we wag our heads at the stupidity of pointing to single data points....

"Step Back And Try To Admire How They're Drawn"

From a posting about Werner Herzog on Apple pioneer Dan Kottke's blog: by Tim Carmody on Jason Kottke's blog:
With folks like Herzog, you almost have to approach them as if they're characters in a play. Instead of asking yourself whether you like them personally or agree with the things they say, take a step back and try to admire how they're drawn.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Great TimesTalk about "Citizenfour"

I hope you've seen Citizenfour, Laura Poitras' film shot in Edward Snowden's Hong Kong hotel room as the leak was gushed. Subject aside, it's one of the most extraordinary films ever made, and will be talked about for decades (and it's still in theaters).

The film leaves you hankering for follow-up discussion, and last night Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, and Snowden himself (via a video connection) came together to speak about the movie and the aftermath of those events in a TimesTalk which should not be missed. You can view it on the web, or via the LiveStream channel on Roku (just search for "Poitras").

The talk was hosted by the great David Carr, who, alas, died a few short hours afterwards.

The Same Dismissive Intolerance

We have no idea what actually happened re: those horrific shootings in Chapel Hill (the victim's family has behaved inspiringly; this is how to be outraged without being strident, to be conciliatory without being weak, and to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism. They're heroes). The perpetrator seems to be a pugnacious atheist, but nobody imagines militant atheists taking out people of faith (at least not yet). And the notion that this was a parking dispute seems similarly baffling. Either way, we don't know the whole deal yet.

But lots of people are talking about atheism right now - particularly the brasher sort of atheism which has cooked up over the past decade. Nothing, in my opinion, has explained the dynamics more elegantly than this letter (which I first referenced here) to the editors of WIRED Magazine in response to their article about the neo-Atheist movement:
Gary Wolf describes the disdain that the New Atheists have for believers. One could argue that religious fervor has caused more grief than any other motivator (see the Crusades, the Inquisition, ongoing Middle East unrest). But the root cause of such strife is not belief in God – it’s intolerance of the beliefs of others. The conviction that one’s chosen religion is the only path to salvation and that other religions are populated with infidels deserving of conversion or slaughter is at the crux of almost every struggle on the planet today. Sadly, since atheists exhibit the same dismissive intolerance, they are no different from or better than any of these groups. -- Phil Hegedusich (Clarence, New York)

Help Fix an Abysmal Wikipedia Paragraph

I was about to write something about the little-known Just World Fallacy, and figured I'd link to the relevant Wikipedia page. I was about to give it a quick read, but, after seven failed passes through the impenetrable lead paragraph, I realized I can't possibly send readers into such a bear trap.

So I decided to try to edit the hairball of a lead paragraph myself, but found that, per the four feet of tarry, plough-compressed snow and ice currently blocking my mailbox, there's simply no way in. It's the world's tightest knot, impregnably blocking all non-philosophy grad students from enjoying an incredibly insightful concept.

Can anyone, more patient and competent than me, figure out a way to edit this? To release a lovely insight tragically frozen solid within an ice block (and do so without irking the article's previous contributors and spurring them to revert the changes)? We'll all be watching!

Here it is, for those too lazy to click (be sure you're in a well-ventilated room).

The just-world hypothesis or just-world fallacy is the cognitive bias (or assumption) that a person's actions are inherently inclined to bring morally fair and fitting consequences to that person, to the end of all noble actions being eventually rewarded and all evil actions eventually punished. In other words, the just-world hypothesis is the tendency to attribute consequences to - or expect consequences as the result of - a universal force that restores moral balance. This belief generally implies that in the existence of cosmic justice, destiny, divine providence, desert, stability, or order, and has high potential to result in fallacy, especially when used to rationalize people's misfortune on the grounds that they "deserve" it.
As I once sighed to a college classmate who asked whether I'd managed to get through "Inquiry Concerning the Distinctness of the Principles of Natural Theology and Morality": I Kant. I just really just Kant.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Huge Discount on Awesome Pancake and Dessert Mixes

This year I've been trying to make killer pancakes. I bought arcane flours, followed labyrinthian recipes, and generally went completely overboard trying to recreate the pancakes of my memories (which no longer seem to be available in the usual places, e.g. diners). Alas, nothing turned out quite right. I began to wonder whether great pancakes belonged to a previous age. Perhaps this new century is post-flapjack.

I kept hearing about a brand called Kodiak Cakes. They sell a boxed mix, hard to find, and you just add water. Results, everyone agrees, are awesome. Perfect. Beyond all reasonable expectation. Their Amazon reviews are almost entirely 5-star, and even chowhounds breathlessly praise them. I was very very suspicious.

My favorite food writer, John Thorne, once wrote a typically wise essay* about "Truly Awful Recipes".
" perpetual motion machines and no-diet weight-loss schemes, [they're] recognized by what they promise: something always a little too good, too easy to be true. Recipes that conjure instant elegance from dross: scrumptious canap├ęs from biscuit mix and processed cheese; creamy casseroles from canned soups and celery salt; magically moist chicken from flavored bread crumbs and Hellmann's mayonnaise."
We're easily suckered by such prospects, he notes. Every cook seems to harbor the secret yearning for really stupid, really easy recipes that produce magical results. Thorne never quite discredits this sort of thing. In fact, he has just such a recipe of his own - a nauseating-sounding combination he whips into chocolate cake that's "rich, moist, and fairly oozing chocolate flavor." Yet ever since I first read this essay, years ago, I've remained tightly skeptical toward too-convenient-to-be-true, too-stupid-to-be-delicious food propositions. And so I resisted the temptation of the Kodiak mixes.

But then I tried them. And the pancakes were unbelievable. Add water. Whisk. Go. Perfect pancakes. Walla.

Their brownie mix seems equally good, if you believe the reviews. Again, just add water. They're low fat, low-sugar, and made from healthful ingredients. These guys appear to have solved something no one else has ever solved. Why they're not a titanic billion dollar corporation, I do not understand. But since they remain a sleepy little company, we have no choice but to order their stuff online, in multiple boxes (exception: the pancake mix is available at Target).

I wrote to Kodiak Cakes to confirm that there's nowhere in the northeast to buy a single box of brownie mix (which I haven't tried), or, for that matter, the just-add-water oatmeal dark chocolate cookie mix. Amazon sells all the stuff, but who wants six boxes of cookie mixes?

The marketing director wrote back, commiserating about the spotty availability, and offering a whopping 40% discount on web orders, good through 2/28. Just use coupon code CHOWHOUND

I just ordered a flapjack sampler pack, a dessert mix sampler, and, only because I really really trust these guys, a syrup sampler pack (raspberry, mountain berry, and marion berry). The $70 order, discounted, came to only $49. Not cheap, but I can delve into the full range of goodness. I'm hoarding water as I await delivery.

* - Thorne's essay appears in his first book, "Simple Cooking", which you should own - especially for a lousy $8 on Kindle).

Friday, February 6, 2015

Deep Thoughts on Toilet Paper

I am not a conservationist. Yet I did find this argument against toilet paper compelling. The writer recommends, in passing, an item called the TOTO washlet, which I curiously looked up on Amazon, and found that it's well Amazon users who've turned their euphemism settings up to "high".

Language digression: when will people recognize that euphemisms are always ickier than straight discussion of the thing they're dancing around? Much as I find the phrase "the N word" far more offensive than "nigger", the repeated use of "freshness" in reviews for this product strikes me as downright revolting....whereas "shooting water at your butt" (in the words of one renegade reviewer) barely twitches my shock-meter.

"Freshness" hardly masks the prissy disgust; one can just smell the shit (similarly, "the N word" binds up megatons more racism than a flat-out utterance of the stupid word).

So where was I? Ah, yes: shooting water at your butt. I agree with the Quora guy that toilet paper is really silly....and imperfect....and wasteful...and expensive. And the "freshness" (I can't even look at that word now) oriented reviewers on Amazon seem to consider this washlet thing The Solution.

I may try it - and I'd like to say I'll report back. But, really, I won't. There are some realms where I prefer not to shine my critical reviewing skills. But, if you want, do your own diligence.

And, hey, stay fresh out there....

Update: check out a perspective-flipping discussion titled "I have heard that most Indians don't use toilet paper..." The cleverest and most persuasive posting therein is also the shortest one.

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