Robert Nisbet Quote

From “Twilight of Authority” (1975)

“I am afraid that the only lessons that have been truly learned in the whole Watergate business are to avoid such idiocies as tapes and illegal, unwarranted break-ins, and to restrict the operation of the fortuitous and the random to the smallest possible area. I would be astonished if the real lesson of Watergate – the Actonian principle that all power tends to corrupt, absolute power absolutely – were other than forgotten utterly once a crowd-pleasing President with the kind of luster a John F. Kennedy had for academy, press, and the world of intellectuals generally comes back into the White House.”

Dang.

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Hunter S Thompson on Experts

Perfect.

One of the few consistent traits shared by “experts” in any field is that they will almost never bet money on anything else that might turn up in public or whatever they call their convictions. That is why they are “experts.” They have waltzed through that minefield of high-risk commitments that separates politicians from gamblers, and once you’ve reached that plateau where you can pass for an expert, the best way to stay there is to hedge all your bets, private and public, so artistically that nothing short of a thing so bizarre that it can pass for an “act of God” can damage your high-priced reputation.

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Damn!

Dunbar beat me to today’s joke by 100 years!

“Then and Now”

THEN

He loved her, and through many years,
Had paid his fair devoted court,
Until she wearied, and with sneers
Turned all his ardent love to sport.

That night within his chamber lone,
He long sat writing by his bed
A note in which his heart made moan
For love; the morning found him dead.

NOW

Like him, a man of later day
Was jilted by the maid he sought,
And from her presence turned away,
Consumed by burning, bitter thought.

He sought his room to write–a curse
Like him before and die, I ween.
Ah no, he put his woes in verse,
And sold them to a magazine.

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Christmas Isn’t What it Used to Be

It’s funny how people complain about the loss of the timeless phrase “Merry Christmas.”

Here’s a poem from the early 20th century decrying the use of the phrase when it was more novel!

“Speakin’ O’ Christmas”

by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Breezes blowin’ middlin’ brisk,
Snow-flakes thro’ the air a-whisk,
Fallin’ kind o’ soft an’ light,
Not enough to make things white,
But jest sorter siftin’ down
So ‘s to cover up the brown
Of the dark world’s rugged ways
‘N’ make things look like holidays.
Not smoothed over, but jest specked,
Sorter strainin’ fur effect,
An’ not quite a-gittin’ through
What it started in to do.
Mercy sakes! it does seem queer
Christmas day is ‘most nigh here.
Somehow it don’t seem to me
Christmas like it used to be,–
Christmas with its ice an’ snow,
Christmas of the long ago.
You could feel its stir an’ hum
Weeks an’ weeks before it come;
Somethin’ in the atmosphere
Told you when the day was near,
Did n’t need no almanacs;
That was one o’ Nature’s fac’s.
Every cottage decked out gay–
Cedar wreaths an’ holly spray–
An’ the stores, how they were drest,
Tinsel tell you could n’t rest;
Every winder fixed up pat,
Candy canes, an’ things like that;
Noah’s arks, an’ guns, an’ dolls,
An’ all kinds o’ fol-de-rols.
Then with frosty bells a-chime,
Slidin’ down the hills o’ time,
Right amidst the fun an’ din
Christmas come a-bustlin’ in,
Raised his cheery voice to call
Out a welcome to us all;
Hale and hearty, strong an’ bluff,
That was Christmas, sure enough.
Snow knee-deep an’ coastin’ fine,
Frozen mill-ponds all ashine,
Seemin’ jest to lay in wait,
Beggin’ you to come an’ skate.
An’ you ‘d git your gal an’ go
Stumpin’ cheerily thro’ the snow,
Feelin’ pleased an’ skeert an’ warm
‘Cause she had a-holt yore arm.
Why, when Christmas come in, we
Spent the whole glad day in glee,
Havin’ fun an’ feastin’ high
An’ some courtin’ on the sly.
Bustin’ in some neighbor’s door
An’ then suddenly, before
He could give his voice a lift,
Yellin’ at him, “Christmas gift.”
Now sich things are never heard,
“Merry Christmas” is the word.
But it’s only change o’ name,
An’ means givin’ jest the same.
There ‘s too many new-styled ways
Now about the holidays.
I ‘d jest like once more to see
Christmas like it used to be!

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Poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Dunbar’s a bit stilted for my taste, though when he confirms my biases I waver in that judgment.

“Religion” (1913)

I am no priest of crooks nor creeds,
For human wants and human needs
Are more to me than prophets’ deeds;
And human tears and human cares
Affect me more than human prayers.

Go, cease your wail, lugubrious saint!
You fret high Heaven with your plaint.
Is this the “Christian’s joy” you paint?
Is this the Christian’s boasted bliss?
Avails your faith no more than this?

Take up your arms, come out with me,
Let Heav’n alone; humanity
Needs more and Heaven less from thee.
With pity for mankind look ‘round;
Help them to rise—and Heaven is found.

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Terrible Boardgame Idea

Monopsony

All property cards are doled out at the beginning. They represent
local industries.

Every turn you gain 100 dollars in revenue.

For every property you have, every turn you lose x dollars in labor
costs to all other players.

x = percent of properties your opponents hold, e.g. if you control
10/40 properties, you lose 75 dollars per turn.

If you have all properties of a single color, you have monopsony over
one local industry. You can drop the labor costs now. Those properties
no longer count for anyone when tallying x.

At beginning of each turn, each player must put one property up for
auction. Everyone, including the person auctioning the property, may bid.

First person to control all the jobs wins.

Posted in economics, Games | 4 Comments

Responding to Creationists

Sometimes, when I hear debates, I imagine how I would’ve liked to respond. Of course, in my head, I’m very fluent and never interrupted. Still, it occurred to me that some of these thoughts might be of interest to my readers.

My Internet soulmate Phil Plait recently wrote an article about a creationist state senator from Louisiana who asked for examples of evolution. The respondent (a science teacher), explained the Lenski bacteria experiment. The senator followed up by asking if “they evolved into a person.”

A person who enjoys debate might note that it’s a textbook example of shifting goalposts. In fact, in this case, the senator shifted the goalpost about 4 billion years, then stuck a straw man on it.

A person who is of sound mind, like the surprisingly patient science teacher, would shake her head and try in vain to assess the meaning of such a question.

As I was taking a walk this morning, it occurred to me that the best path for questions such as these – questions that are either breathtakingly ignorant at best or worthlessly rhetorical at worst – would be to just answer them to the best of your ability.

To that end, here’s my shot. I’m just doing a quick writeup, but I suspect hundreds of thousands of words could be written on this topic, and a lot of statistical analysis could be brought to bear:

“Just to clarify, to make sure I understand the question – you’re asking whether bacteria turned into people during a 20 year experiment? I want to make sure I get it right because it’s an unusual question, but I take it to be an honest one. Surely, someone who has concern over teaching the truth to children wouldn’t employ sarcasm in a question and waste the time of the busy people testifying here today.

The short answer is that the bacteria did not turn into people. The reason why has to do with a number of factors.”

(At this point, one would hope, the senator would protest. But hey, it was an honest question, right?)

“For one thing, bacteria are generally asexual, whereas humans are sexual. As it happens, E. Coli are asexual. So, in order for them to make a baby human, you’d have to first have them split into males and females. We know this is possible, because there are somewhat near relatives to E. Coli who conjugate.

Supposing this happens, you’d still have problems. As you may know, humans are bigger than bacteria. Assuming that E. Coli were able to act as a womb, it would have to be a very big bacterium to hold a human child.

But let’s suppose the E. Coli worked out a way to do this. It still wouldn’t have all the developmental information to make a human. It may be the case that growing up inside a massive mutant bacterium creates epigenetic problems for the baby, but this hasn’t been studied. In fact, before your very insightful question, I doubt anyone even thought of it.

Lastly, supposing even this could be worked out, there would probably be social problems for the child. It might have trouble relating to its parents, for example. They’d probably want it to carry on in the family tradition of making people vomit, whereas the child might want to be a painter or a poet.

So, for all these reasons and many more, during this 20 year experiment on a small colony of bacteria, no people were produced. Mind you, I’ve only read the paper. It’s possible Dr. Lenski actually did produce some humans, but thought the results were less interesting than the evolution of the ability to metabolize citrate.

I hope that answers your question. It’s very nice to see this level of honest curiosity in the halls of government. The public may be under the impression that senators summon citizens away from their jobs purely for political show, so that our elected officials can attempt to score political points on issues of science and education. But, let those cynics note, that though that ugliness may exist elsewhere, the Louisiana senate will ever be the dwelling place of honest seekers for truth.

I hope you found that response as useful as I found the question. It was every bit as sincere.

Do you have any more?”

Posted in creationism, essay, Science | 13 Comments

On Soda and Bad Behavior

A few years ago, there was a somewhat famous article about a bagel man who sold bagels on the honor system. You can read it here. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/06/magazine/06BAGEL.html?pagewanted=all

For this essay, here’s the salient quote: “He also says he believes that employees further up the corporate ladder cheat more than those down below. He reached this conclusion in part after delivering for years to one company spread out over three floors — an executive floor on top and two lower floors with sales, service and administrative employees. Maybe, he says, the executives stole bagels out of a sense of entitlement. (Or maybe cheating is how they got to be executives.)”

Now, I’m not one to defend dickheads, but I had an interesting experience today that made me rethink the above assumption.

When I was living in LA and scraping by, I never got soda when I grabbed lunch at work. If you’re looking to save money, soda is a good place to start. It’s not the least bit healthy, it’s expensive, and when you stop drinking it for a while you don’t miss it. But, I had a frequent experience back then that’d go something like this: Order a water, go to the soda fountain, note to self that it would be very easy to put soda (or SOME flavoring) in water, reject that option). At least in my recollection, this sort of thing had a serious moral character to it. I still remember, for example, that once my car had been impounded, and the man at the garage accidentally underbilled me for $100. I remember having a genuine moral crisis. I could’ve really used the money, but at the same time, I didn’t want to screw over the garage guy who was probably as broke as I. So… dammit… I had him bill me the remaining $100.

Today, I am much more well off than then. Without going into numbers, I probably make ~10x what I did in the time I’m describing. Mind you, my income was pretty damn low back then, and I’m not accounting for inflation, but the point is that I’m quite a bit more comfortable now. I have an espresso machine. I shop at Whole Foods. You get the idea.

As it happens, I still get water instead of soda. Mostly this is because I’ve lost the taste for it, but it also bugs me on principle that a company can charge you 2 bucks for a little syrup and CO2 bubbles. I found myself at the soda fountain again, and had the same train of thought. “I could put a little lemonade or something in this water, which would make it a little better.” Although I didn’t do it, I noted that I was mostly refusing out of habit. That is, the decision didn’t have the same moral character as it once did for me. I thought about this a bit, and I came up with an idea that might offer an alternate explanation for the bagel man’s story.

I realized that when I was less affluent, “stealing” the 2 bucks worth of soda was more serious. 2 bucks isn’t a lot of money, but when you’re watching your budget carefully, you’re often thinking about matters in the vicinity of two dollars (e.g. this item is $1 a pound, that one is $1.50). Now that I’m a bit better off (thank you all, dear readers, for that!), I’m unlikely to change my views of anything over a matter of $2.

Suppose we then talk about a quantity: cost of an item per income. I’ll call it c for short.

For an individual fast food franchise, c probably doesn’t change for soda over time very much. However, for an individual buyer, it does. Between the age of 25 and 30, the c for a soda for me personally probably fell about about 90%. That is, it went from important to negligible.

So, even though I know intellectually that it’d be the same “crime” to take a little soda as it was back then, I didn’t emotionally feel a moral quality to it. This may be because I’ve grown evil, but I am inclined to think it has more to do with the change in c. Because c is smaller, the crime seems smaller as well.

We all agree that it’s not really a crime to steal, say, a single grain of rice from someone. We all agree that it IS a crime to steal truck full of rice from someone. But, it’s worth noting that the value of a rice grain scales with the affluence of the buyer, and so our view of morality is in some way lensed by affluence.

If the compunction about theft has anything to do with c, ironically, needing something less might (in certain situations) make you MORE likely to steal it.

Posted in economics, essay | 15 Comments

A Mark Twain Passage in Honor of the Anniversary of Christopher Hitchens’ Death

From “Letters from the Earth,” which you should read, asshole.

Letter VII

Noah and his family were saved — if that could be called an advantage. I throw in the if for the reason that there has never been an intelligent person of the age of sixty who would consent to live his life over again. His or anyone else’s. The Family were saved, yes, but they were not comfortable, for they were full of microbes. Full to the eyebrows; fat with them, obese with them, distended like balloons. It was a disagreeable condition, but it could not be helped, because enough microbes had to be saved to supply the future races of men with desolating diseases, and there were but eight persons on board to serve as hotels for them. The microbes were by far the most important part of the Ark’s cargo, and the part the Creator was most anxious about and most infatuated with. They had to have good nourishment and pleasant accommodations. There were typhoid germs, and cholera germs, and hydrophobia germs, and lockjaw germs, and consumption germs, and black-plague germs, and some hundreds of other aristocrats, specially precious creations, golden bearers of God’s love to man, blessed gifts of the infatuated Father to his children — all of which had to be sumptuously housed and richly entertained; these were located in the choicest places the interiors of the Family could furnish: in the lungs, in the heart, in the brain, in the kidneys, in the blood, in the guts. In the guts particularly. The great intestine was the favorite resort. There they gathered, by countless billions, and worked, and fed, and squirmed, and sang hymns of praise and thanksgiving; and at night when it was quiet you could hear the soft murmur of it. The large intestine was in effect their heaven. They stuffed it solid; they made it as rigid as a coil of gaspipe. They took pride in this. Their principal hymn made gratified reference to it:

Constipation, O Constipation,

The Joyful sound proclaim

Till man’s remotest entrail

Shall praise its Maker’s name

The discomforts furnished by the Ark were many and various. The family had to live right in the presence of the multitudinous animals, and breathe the distressing stench they make and be deafened day and night with the thunder-crash of noise their roarings and screechings produced; and in additions to these intolerable discomforts it was a peculiarly trying place for the ladies, for they could look in no direction without seeing some thousands of the creatures engaged in multiplying and replenishing. And then, there were the flies. They swarmed everywhere, and persecuted the Family all day long. They were the first animals up, in the morning, and the last ones down, at night. But they must not be killed, they must not be injured, they were sacred, their origin was divine, they were the special pets of the Creator, his darlings.

By and by the other creatures would be distributed here and there about the earth — scattered: the tigers to India, the lions and the elephants to the vacant desert and the secret places of the jungle, the birds to the boundless regions of empty space, the insects to one or another climate, according to nature and requirement; but the fly? He is of no nationality; all the climates are his home, all the globe is his province, all creatures that breathe are his prey, and unto them all he is a scourge and a hell.

To man he is a divine ambassador, a minister plenipotentiary, the Creator’s special representative. He infests him in his cradle; clings in bunches to his gummy eyelids; buzzes and bites and harries him, robbing him of his sleep and his weary mother of her strength in those long vigils which she devotes to protecting her child from this pest’s persecutions. The fly harries the sick man in his home, in the hospital, even on his deathbed at his last gasp. Pesters him at his meals; previously hunts up patients suffering from loathsome and deadly diseases; wades in their sores, gaums its legs with a million death-dealing germs; then comes to that healthy man’s table and wipes these things off on the butter and discharges a bowel-load of typhoid germs and excrement on his batter-cakes. The housefly wrecks more human constitutions and destroys more human lives than all God’s multitude of misery-messengers and death-agents put together.

Shem was full of hookworms. It is wonderful, the thorough and comprehensive study which the Creator devoted to the great work of making man miserable. I have said he devised a special affliction-agent for each and every detail of man’s structure, overlooking not a single one, and I said the truth. Many poor people have to go barefoot, because they cannot afford shoes. The Creator saw his opportunity. I will remark, in passing, that he always has his eye on the poor. Nine-tenths of his disease-inventions were intended for the poor, and they get them. The well-to-do get only what is left over. Do not suspect me of speaking unheedfully, for it is not so: the vast bulk of the Creator’s affliction-inventions are specially designed for the persecution of the poor. You could guess this by the fact that one of the pulpit’s finest and commonest names for the Creator is “The Friend of the Poor.” Under no circumstances does the pulpit ever pay the Creator a compliment that has a vestige of truth in it. The poor’s most implacable and unwearying enemy is their Father in Heaven. The poor’s only real friend is their fellow man. He is sorry for them, he pities them, and he shows it by his deeds. He does much to relieve their distresses; and in every case their Father in Heaven gets the credit of it.

Just so with diseases. If science exterminates a disease which has been working for God, it is God that gets the credit, and all the pulpits break into grateful advertising-raptures and call attention to how good he is! Yes, he has done it. Perhaps he has waited a thousand years before doing it. That is nothing; the pulpit says he was thinking about it all the time. When exasperated men rise up and sweep away an age-long tyranny and set a nation free, the first thing the delighted pulpit does is to advertise it as God’s work, and invite the people to get down on their knees and pour out their thanks to him for it. And the pulpit says with admiring emotion, “Let tyrants understand that the Eye that never sleeps is upon them; and let them remember that the Lord our God will not always be patient, but will loose the whirlwinds of his wrath upon them in his appointed day.”

They forget to mention that he is the slowest mover in the universe; that his Eye that never sleeps, might as well, since it takes it a century to see what any other eye would see in a week; that in all history there is not an instance where he thought of a noble deed first, but always thought of it just a little after somebody else had thought of it and done it. He arrives then, and annexes the dividend.

Very well, six thousand years ago Shem was full of hookworms. Microscopic in size, invisible to the unaided eye. All of the Creator’s specially deadly disease-producers are invisible. It is an ingenious idea. For thousands of years it kept man from getting at the roots of his maladies, and defeated his attempts to master them. It is only very recently that science has succeeded in exposing some of these treacheries.

The very latest of these blessed triumphs of science is the discovery and identification of the ambuscaded assassin which goes by the name of the hookworm. Its special prey is the barefooted poor. It lies in wait in warm regions and sandy places and digs its way into their unprotected feet.

The hookworm was discovered two or three years ago by a physician, who had been patiently studying its victims for a long time. The disease induced by the hookworm had been doing its evil work here and there in the earth ever since Shem landed on Ararat, but it was never suspected to be a disease at all. The people who had it were merely supposed to be lazy, and were therefore despised and made fun of, when they should have been pitied. The hookworm is a peculiarly sneaking and underhanded invention, and has done its surreptitious work unmolested for ages; but that physician and his helpers will exterminate it now.

God is back of this. He has been thinking about it for six thousand years, and making up his mind. The idea of exterminating the hookworm was his. He came very near doing it before Dr. Charles Wardell Stiles did. But he is in time to get the credit of it. He always is.

It is going to cost a million dollars. He was probably just in the act of contributing that sum when a man pushed in ahead of him — as usual. Mr. Rockefeller. He furnishes the million, but the credit will go elsewhere — as usual. This morning’s journal tells us something about the hookworm’s operations:

The hookworm parasites often so lower the vitality of those who are affected as to retard their physical and mental development, render them more susceptible to other diseases, make labor less efficient, and in the sections where the malady is most prevalent greatly increase the death rate from consumption, pneumonia, typhoid fever and malaria. It has been shown that the lowered vitality of multitudes, long attributed to malaria and climate and seriously affecting economic development, is in fact due in some districts to this parasite. The disease is by no means confined to any one class; it takes its toll of suffering and death from the highly intelligent and well to do as well as from the less fortunate. It is a conservative estimate that two millions of our people are affected by this parasite. The disease is more common and more serious in children of school age than in other persons.

Widespread and serious as the infection is, there is still a most encouraging outlook. The disease can be easily recognized, readily and effectively treated and by simple and proper sanitary precautions successfully prevented [with God's help].

The poor children are under the Eye that never sleeps, you see. They have had that ill luck in all the ages. They and “the Lord’s poor” — as the sarcastic phrase goes — have never been able to get away from that Eye’s attentions.

Yes, the poor, the humble, the ignorant — they are the ones that catch it. Take the “Sleeping Sickness,” of Africa. This atrocious cruelty has for its victims a race of ignorant and unoffending blacks whom God placed in a remote wilderness, and bent his parental Eye upon them — the one that never sleeps when there is a chance to breed sorrow for somebody. He arranged for these people before the Flood. The chosen agent was a fly, related to the tsetse; the tsetse is a fly which has command of the Zambezi country and stings cattle and horses to death, thus rendering that region uninhabitable by man. The tsetse’s awful relative deposits a microbe which produces the Sleeping Sickness. Ham was full of these microbes, and when the voyage was over he discharged them in Africa and the havoc began, never to find amelioration until six thousand years should go by and science should pry into the mystery and hunt out the cause of the disease. The pious nations are now thanking God, and praising him for coming to the rescue of his poor blacks. The pulpit says the praise is due to him. He is surely a curious Being. He commits a fearful crime, continues that crime unbroken for six thousand years, and is then entitled to praise because he suggests to somebody else to modify its severities. He is called patient, and he certainly must be patient, or he would have sunk the pulpit in perdition ages ago for the ghastly compliments it pays him.

Science has this to say about the Sleeping Sickness, otherwise called the Negro Lethargy:

It is characterized by periods of sleep recurring at intervals. The disease lasts from four months to four years, and is always fatal. The victim appears at first languid, weak, pallid, and stupid. His eyelids become puffy, an eruption appears on his skin. He falls asleep while talking, eating, or working. As the disease progresses he is fed with difficulty and becomes much emaciated. The failure of nutrition and the appearance of bedsores are followed by convulsions and death. Some patients become insane.

It is he whom Church and people call Our Father in Heaven who has invented the fly and sent him to inflict this dreary long misery and melancholy and wretchedness, and decay of body and mind, upon a poor savage who has done that Great Criminal no harm. There isn’t a man in the world who doesn’t pity that poor black sufferer, and there isn’t a man that wouldn’t make him whole if he could. To find the one person who has no pity for him you must go to heaven; to find the one person who is able to heal him and couldn’t be persuaded to do it, you must go to the same place. There is only one father cruel enough to afflict his child with that horrible disease — only one. Not all the eternities can produce another one. Do you like reproachful poetical indignations warmly expressed? Here is one, hot from the heart of a slave:

Man’s inhumanity to man

Makes countless thousands mourn!

I will tell you a pleasant tale which has in it a touch of pathos. A man got religion, and asked the priest what he must do to be worthy of his new estate. The priest said, “Imitate our Father in Heaven, learn to be like him.” The man studied his Bible diligently and thoroughly and understandingly, and then with prayers for heavenly guidance instituted his imitations. He tricked his wife into falling downstairs, and she broke her back and became a paralytic for life; he betrayed his brother into the hands of a sharper, who robbed him of his all and landed him in the almshouse; he inoculated one son with hookworms, another with the sleeping sickness, another with gonorrhea; he furnished one daughter with scarlet fever and ushered her into her teens deaf, dumb, and blind for life; and after helping a rascal seduce the remaining one, he closed his doors against her and she died in a brothel cursing him. Then he reported to the priest, who said that that was no way to imitate his Father in Heaven. The convert asked wherein he had failed, but the priest changed the subject and inquired what kind of weather he was having, up his way.

Posted in atheism, Quote | Leave a comment

Quote from Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

It must have been three days after the Barcelona fighting ended that we returned to the front. After the fighting–more particularly after the slanging-match in the newspapers–it was difficult to think about this war in quite the same naively idealistic manner as before. I suppose there is no one who spent more than a few weeks in Spain without being in some degree disillusioned. My mind went back to the newspaper correspondent whom I had met my first day in Barcelona, and who said to me: ‘This war is a racket the same as any other.’ The remark had shocked me deeply, and at that time (December) I do not believe it was true; it was not true even now, in May; but it was becoming truer. The fact is that every war suffers a kind of progressive degradation with every month that it continues, because such things as individual liberty and a truthful press are simply not compatible with military efficiency.

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