Thursday, June 29, 2017

NSA Cyberweapons gone Feral

Today's worry is all the havoc being wreaked around the world by massive cyberattacks that rely on techniques stolen from the NSA:
Two weeks ago, the United States — through the Department of Homeland Security — said it had evidence North Korea was responsible for a wave of attacks in May using ransomware called WannaCry that shut down hospitals, rail traffic and production lines. The attacks on Tuesday against targets in Ukraine, which spread worldwide, appeared more likely to be the work of Russian hackers, though no culprit has been formally identified.

In both cases, the attackers used hacking tools that exploited vulnerabilities in Microsoft software. The tools were stolen from the N.S.A., and a group called the Shadow Brokers made them public in April. The group first started offering N.S.A. weapons for sale in August, and recently even offered to provide N.S.A. exploits to paid monthly subscribers. . . .

For the American spy agency, which has invested billions of dollars developing an arsenal of weapons that have been used against the Iranian nuclear program, North Korea’s missile launches and Islamic State militants, what is unfolding across the world amounts to a digital nightmare. It was as if the Air Force lost some of its most sophisticated missiles and discovered an adversary was launching them against American allies — yet refused to respond, or even to acknowledge that the missiles were built for American use.
Here is the basic dilemma: the NSA employs programmers and code-breakers who look for vulnerabilities in computer systems, so they can exploit them to attack those systems or spy on their users. So when they find such a vulnerability, they don't tell anybody; if they did, the problems would be fixed. And if computer systems worked perfectly, the NSA wouldn't be able to hack them. Microsoft and other tech companies have cried foul over this, arguing that the government has a responsibility to let them know about any vulnerabilities it uncovers so that they can fix them. When you consider all the harm done by attacks like the WannaCry disaster, I think they have a point. What have we gained from spying that balances out the harm done by malicious hackers exploiting flaws the NSA has identified?

One of the pitfalls of power, at least since the Renaissance, has been the overvaluing of secret information and secret deeds. It is such a vast thrill to know secrets and to manipulate events from behind the scenes that leaders constantly fall into this trap. The U.S. spends gigantic sums on espionage and counter-espionage, and I for one think we don't come close to getting our money's worth. Every intelligence coup has to be balanced against the long-term damage done to our reputation across the world, and to our own democracy, by secret manipulations. Consider the generations of damage done to our relationship with Iran by the 1953 CIA-backed coup.

The situation at home is just as bad. Americans don't trust our government, I think one of the biggest reasons is the reality of our vast secret operations, a shadow realm bigger than the whole government was in 1900. People think the government is lying to them, and hiding things from them, because to keep its secrets the government lies and hides every day. I am no kind of conspiracy fanatic, but I am sure that I read some government lie or piece of misinformation every single day. Plus, every time we increase spending on secret operations to address some new threat we have to hire more people, and recent events have shown that numerous NSA employees and contractors are not at all on board with the agency's agenda. This is simply inevitable when you have 50,000 employees with Top Secret clearances.

I understand that spying and secrets have always been the coin of international relations, so I don't think we are going to shutter the CIA or the NSA. But our politicians need to set aside the thrill of being privileged insiders who know the real score and measure secret actions against real-world concerns like protecting ordinary citizens from cyberattacks.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Hats of Ascot

Rich British women and their hats.

Middle Earth, Hogwarts, and Modern Society

High fantasy has a political problem, which is that magic is aristocratic. One of the most basic components to all the ancient magical traditions I know of is that magic comes from outside: you inherit it from your ancestors, or receive it from the gods. When it arrives, it separates the recipient from the rest of us. This is equally true of non-magic but basically magical heroism, like that of Achilles or Lancelot: heroes are born, or made by divine intervention. You can't become one, no matter how hard you try. So any world dominated by magical heroes and heroines is of necessity an aristocratic world, in which the chosen do great things while the masses get on with their humdrum lives. The fate of the universe always hinges on the choices and deeds of the mighty. The most the the rest of us can hope for is to be foot soldiers in the heroes' armies, Men of Gondor or Uruk Hai.

So it is hardly surprising that the creators of modern fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, were political reactionaries. Lord Dunsany was an actual lord who resided for most of his life in his family castle. H.P. Lovecraft was a racist snob sure that desegregation and immigration would destroy Anglo Saxon civilization. These men immersed themselves in medievalism partly because they preferred medieval politics to the grubby vote-getting and trade unionism of modernity. In fantasy, when the true king holds the throne, the dead tree blooms and the kingdom thrives; when the masses rise up and threaten their betters, Cthulhu is unleashed.

Which brings me to Harry Potter and Hogwarts, just now celebrating their 20th anniversary. Harry Potter was a huge part of growing up for my three older children, and I loved reading the first four books to them and enjoying the later books and the movies by their sides. I will always be grateful to J.K. Rowling for the gift of so many happy hours with my children, so many shared wonders.

But Harry Potter's world has dubious politics of  its own. (Ross Douthat has as essay on this in the Times today, but nothing he says is original: Potter fans have been hashing over these questions for a decade.) Rowling has imagined a whole world of wizardry that exists in parallel to our own, side by side but invisible to us. Wizards have amazing powers – flying, teleportation, changing shape, killing with a word – and their world is full of excitement and adventure, much of it deriving from conflicts between good wizards and bad. Though all wizards are amazing, you see, they are not all good. Anyway this all goes on beyond the ken of normal, non-magical folk, whom wizards call Muggles.

The centerpiece of Rowling's magical world is a school, Hogwarts. All the children of Britain's wizards come there, except for the few unfortunate "squibs" who are born to wizard families but lack the necessary innate gift. One of the hot political conflicts in the wizard world is whether Muggle children born with magical gifts should be allowed into Hogwarts and trained to use their power; nice, liberal wizards welcome these freaks, but bad wizards call them filthy Mud Bloods and want to drive them out. Nice, liberal wizards do not think that most Muggles should be given this chance, because after all they don't have the magical gift; no, most Muggles are better off not even knowing that the wizarding world exists.

And what socio-political system does this remind you of? Well, for some people it reeks of the neo-liberal meritocracy. Hogwarts plays the role of Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale, taking in the children of the elite, along with a few freakishly talented sons and daughters of regular folk, and training them to take their appointed role as leaders of the magical world. While Muggles go to work and watch television, the magical elite battle dragons, break into cursed tombs, and war with each other for control of their exciting little world. While most of us real world folk live like Muggles, a few of the Oxbridge-Ivy League elite pick those careers that somehow combine your greatest passion with the world's greatest need, or else go to Wall Street or Silicon Valley and get rich. There is no question about their right to do this, because after all they have the magic and the training and we do not. The only matter of political importance is making sure that talented people born in the lower ranks are able to enter the elite – "Right to Rise," Jeb Bush called this during his ill-fated presidential campaign. Because domination by the elite is just the way things are.

The world of Hogwarts is gender-neutral and multi-racial, just like the new British elite. But it is still very much an elite world, in which the talented get perks and privileges beyond the ken of normal humans.

Personally I've never minded either Tolkien's politics or Rowling's. My artistic tastes have never matched my politics, and I have come to accept this. Attempts to create non-aristocratic, progressive fantasy world usually strike me as ridiculous. (Although Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus novels have an interesting take.) For me, a story can't feel magical unless it draws on old traditions, and the old traditions are aristocratic traditions. I find old Europe fascinating, which is how I ended up with a Ph.D. in medieval history. It never bothers me when the world I read about is dominated by political, social or religious ideas foreign to my own; in fact that is part of what I like about history and anthropology. When modern politics intrudes into fantasy, my suspension of disbelief is broken. If you are the same, read Tolkien and Harry Potter to your children, or to yourself. If you are bothered by the politics you should probably stay away from fantasy altogether.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Paul Grabwinkler

Portrait of an unknown woman, 1927

Walker Percy Explains the Rise of Inequality

Yesterday I stumbled across this, printed on a t-shirt:
Ours is the only civilization in history which has enshrined mediocrity as its national ideal. . . . True, our moral fiber is rotten. Our national character stinks to high heaven. But we are kinder than ever.
It's a quotation from The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, published in 1961. It sums up how many elite Americans felt about the 1950s: a boring, sordid time, when the mass culture was Leave it to Beaver, politics was Eisenhower balancing the budget, and the iconic vehicle was not a Packard or a Tesla but the 57 Chevy. Kept from filthy riches by 90% income taxes, the business elite focused gaining status by being more respectable than everyone else. The serious artists reacted by creating Abstract Expressionism, Beat Poetry, and other forms designed to be completely impenetrable to the Levittown masses in their horrible little suburban houses. The intellectuals seethed and scorned.

Looking back from the cruel, exciting 21st century we now recognize that the 50s and early 60s were the most economically equal time in American history. The elite seethed partly because the masses had more of the money than ever before, and through their taste in television, movies and music were setting the cultural tone like never before. Artistes recoiled from the spreading suburbs, but in those suburbs, for the first time in human history, ordinary working people were able to afford decent houses.

I don't have time to get into everything that was wrong with the 1950s, which we all know about. But think about the basic socio-economic facts: that was what an economically equal America was like. That was when television and Hollywood catered to the tastes of the real masses. That was also when our politics was least partisan, with the most bipartisanship in Congress and the most split-ticket voting.

And the nation couldn't stand it. It all seemed like a straight jacket of conformity, a gray prison we couldn't wait to burst out of. And by the nation here I mean mainly the elites. The businessmen hated the high taxes, the corporate conformity, the way union contracts and oligopolies limited their ability to create, innovate, and get rich. The feminists hated suburban motherhood. Black leaders hated the polite racism, which was sometimes more galling than the mailed fist kind had been. Young college students hated the path laid out before them toward corporate offices and suburban houses and longed for something more authentic. The intellectuals hated everything. The Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War provided the spark, but the explosion was coming anyway. Our restless, ambitious country was not going to sit still in identical suburban houses watching three tv channels, voting for tweedledum or tweedledee. We could not accept mediocrity as a national principle.

Everything that has happened since has been about breaking free: from rigid gender roles, from segregation, from television shows pitched to the average suburban family, from a static business world defined by starched white shirts and ever more tightly controlled factories. And we got our revolution: women's rights, minority rights, gay rights, trans rights, 500 television channels, the internet, the global economy, universities with no curricula and no grades, a flood of immigrants bringing a hundred new cuisines, designer drugs, a hundred kinds of music, an upper middle class numbering millions with huge houses, swanky cars, and foreign vacations.

The price was the collapse of economic equality and the disappearance of any unifying culture. And a political echo: the people who miss that world, both its economic equality and its cultural conformity, the people who elected Nixon and have now elected Trump. Because not everybody thought Levittown was a disaster, or that Leave it to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show were tedious dreck. For many people, that was America at its best. And every time you mourn our own problems – inequality, partisan rancor, a business world dominated by egomaniacal billionaires – think on the 1950s. Because any equal America, any America really run in the interests of working people, is going to be a lot more like that.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Rembrandt, Crucifixion

The CBO on the Senate Health Plan

I have followed this year's health care debate with some care, because I think 1) American health care is a mess, 2) Obamacare is somewhat helpful but no kind of solution, and 3) I agree with some libertarians in finding the whole insurance model a bizarre way to pay for anything, guaranteed to add fantastically to the cost.

So I've been wondering if Republicans would come up with anything helpful. Not expecting that they would, mind you, just curious.

I think the answer is supplied by the Congressional Budget Office in their analysis of the Senate plan. The Senate plan rescinds Obama's Medicaid expansion and substitutes tax credits that are supposed to help the working poor buy private insurance instead. The CBO finds that the private insurance likely to be offered on the Senate's terms will be so expensive and so useless (deductibles up to $6,000/year) that "few low-income people would purchase any plan." Plus the law repeals Obamacare's ban on pre-existing condition bans, so these folks won't be able to get insurance if they do get sick, so they're screwed all around.

As a theoretical construct, it makes sense to me that the way to limit health care costs is to have people pay more of the cost out of their own pockets; a model in which the patient pays none of the bill and doctors get paid more the more care they provides seems like a golden road to spiraling costs. The problem is that American health care is so expensive that without massive government help, a third of the country simply can't afford it. Therefore the Senate's cuts mean millions more will go without.

I suppose a real libertarian would say that while this hurts in the short term, it is what we need because it will lead to the proliferation of cheap "minute clinics" and the like that poor people could actually afford. There is something to this; within my lifetime most hospital patients slept in wards rather than private rooms, which cost a lot more. But I can't see it working; cheap health care would require a revolution, not just in health care, but in our whole social expectation that doctors will be well-paid experts. We would have to eliminate all the limits on who can practice medicine, and do away with medical malpractice claims, and probably a hundred other things. And I still don't think we could do it.

The only way to provide health care to poor Americans is massive government subsidies. The Republicans have had their chance now to show that this isn't true, and they have not come up with any solution. Cutting the subsidies means less care, no matter how you try to hide it.

Dueling Studies on Seattle's $13/hour Minimum Wage

Two studies have come out recently on the broader economic effects of Seattle's experiment in dramatically raising the minimum wage. Broadly speaking, studies have found that the modest minimum wage increases we have seen in the past have had little effect on the number of jobs or hours worked. But there haven't been any studies on the sort of dramatic increases being tried now, because we have never tried that before.

The first study was from the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at Berkeley, which is a lefty activist group. They found that neither the first increase (from $9.47 to $11.00/hour) nor the second (from $11.00 to $13.00/hour) had any meaningful impact on the number of jobs or the hours worked, so (they say) the increase was a major net gain for workers.

The second report was from the Minimum Wage Study at the University of Washington, an entity created by the state specifically to study the impact of the new minimum wage. They found that the first increase, to $11.00, caused a 1.9% decrease in the number of hours worked by low-wage workers in the city, which as they say is insignificant and might just be statistical noise. But they find that the second increase led to a decline of about 10% in hours worked, which means the increase was a net loss to low-wage workers of about $100 million per year.

The authors of the Minimum Wage Study report note that unnamed others have found different results, but they say their results are different because their study is better. As they would.

Kevin Drum:
This study is more pessimistic than previous studies, but it’s well done and scrupulously honest. Nor should it necessarily be a surprise. There’s a mountain of evidence that modest increases in the minimum wage have little effect on low-wage jobs, but the key word here is modest. We’ve never tested how high the minimum wage can go before it starts to have a serious impact on low-wage jobs, because no one has ever raised the minimum wage more than modestly. This means that the question of how high the minimum wage can go is an empirical one—and there’s no special reason to think it’s $15. It could be higher or lower. And if this study holds up, the answer at the moment is around $12.

One other thing worth noting: Among other rich countries, the minimum wage is roughly 50 percent of the median wage. Depending on how you measure it, that comes to $11-$13 in the United States. So if the ideal minimum wage turns out to be $12 per hour—roughly the same as it was in the 60s—no one should be taken aback.
Economists are going to be fighting over this for a while, and I won't pretend to know who is right. But it seems to me almost a logical necessity that some level of the minimum wage would wreck the economy (for example by driving many jobs underground or off-books), and the $15/hour figure that has become a progressive mantra was not arrived at on the basis of careful calculation. Based on what I have been able to read, the Minimum Wage Study seems like a much less biased entity than the IRLE, which doesn't even pretend to be balanced. So my gut goes with this latest study.

On the other hand all the careful Democrats (Obama, Hillary, me) responded to the $15/hour campaign by saying, "we should raise the minimum wage but maybe not in such a radical way – how about $12/hour?" so maybe I should be especially skeptical of a study that seems to confirm all my own biases.

Burma: What Democracy Can't Do

Depressing news from Burma, where democracy has only made the country's ethnic conflicts worse. We all cheered when pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and led her party to a landslide victory over parties backing the half-mad generals of the military junta.

But as soon as democracy seemed on the rise, the non-Burmese peoples of the country's mountainous north began to agitate for independence. The people of the north (Karen, Kachin, Mon, San and others) were never really ruled by the Burmese until the British conquered them and attached them to their colony of Burma. When Burma was granted independence, British officials who knew the north warned that the hill peoples would not accept Burmese domination, and they have not. Burma's early post-colonial leaders promised seven ethnic minorities an eventual referendum on independence, but that never happened. The ongoing conflict has been one of the main reasons, or at least pretexts, for the military's big role in Burmese politics, and the military has for decades been strongly against independence or autonomy for minority groups.

Aung San Suu Kyi, to her credit, has tried to organize talks with no preconditions, but the military has balked, and so have many members of the pro-democracy movement. So she has moved very cautiously. Peace talks have also been opposed by some of the ethnic rebel groups, some of which have been accused by Human Rights Watch of being little more than drug-smuggling gangs. While the government dithers and the generals work to prevent any real dialogue, the conflict worsens. And that's without even getting into the problem of the Rohingya, Muslims who look more like Bangladeshis than other Burmese and who are considered by most Burmese to be recent interlopers not deserving of even the restrained oppression meted out to long-resident minorities.

One thing democracy cannot do, it seems, is to resolve conflicts among groups of people who are not sure they want to be in a country together at all.

A Roman Commander, Second Century CE

Bust of a Roman commander, probably dating to the second century. Recently sold by the Denver Art Museum to raise money; it fetched $930,000.

The (Non) Domestication of Cats

A major new study has been published on the historical genetics of house cats and their ancestors. The findings are very interesting, even though they confirm what most people had long suspected. First they show that all domestic cats are descended from one subspecies of wild cats, Felis silvestris lybica, native to north Africa and the Middle East (in the picture above). It seems that the first cats to live with humans began hanging around farming villages in the Middle East before 6000 BCE. Then in classical times cats from Egypt spread widely across Europe and west Asia; modern domestic cats are descended from those two groups. The study shows that cats found in human settlements remained genetically nearly identical to wild cats until the middle ages, when they began to be bred for different color types and so on.

So modern domestic cats are different from their wild ancestors. But they are much more similar to wild cats than dogs, horses, cows, or pigs are to their wild ancestors, and they lack the common suite of features (all based on neoteny, that is, looking more like babies) that is shared by other domesticated mammals.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Piet Oudolf and Rick Darke, Gardens of the High Line

I'm writing this post to recommend an amazingly beautiful book, Gardens of the High Line by Piet Oudolf and Rick Darke (Timber Press, 2017). Oudolf, one of the hottest landscape designers in the world, was the main designer of these gardens, and I believe Darke is responsible for the gorgeous photographs. The result of their collaboration may be the most beautiful garden book I have ever seen.

The other reason I am writing this post is because I recently learned, through a professional project, about the modernist tradition in landscape architecture. There is such a thing, and the dominant tendency is the creation of landscapes that look natural, except better. There are parklands around Washington that were carefully laid out in this way, but until I did this recent study I had no idea that they had been landscaped at all. They just look natural; that is, until you take time to consider how the trees vary in shape and height, how well placed the dogwoods are to light up the spring woods, how the Fall colors sparkle. Piet Oudolf is a master of this style; every plant along the mile long High Line was carefully selected and placed, and much of the result looks like the above: a meadow, you think, not much different from the weeds that grew here before the park was built.

But these landscapes bloom in unnatural profusion, with stunning variety.

They have interest in every season.

Including winter, because many plants were chosen for their interesting, long-lasting seed pods. The meadow plants are not cut back until early spring, just before they start growing again.

Given the limitations imposed on the designers – this is after all an elevated rail line, unsuitable for large trees, exposed to a hostile urban environment – the result astonishes. And this book brings it vividly to life.

A Definition of Materialism

In the face of a hubristic humanism, it insists on our solidarity with the commonplace stuff of the world, thus cultivating the virtue of humility. Dismayed by the fantasy that human beings are wholly self-determining, it recalls to us our dependence on our surroundings and on each other.

–Terry Eagleton

Pilgrimage Scroll

Details from a scroll showing a Shiite pilgrimage, purchased by cartographer Carsten Niebuhr in Karbala, Iraq, 1761-1767. Source.

Solar Power in India

India's biggest coal company just announced that it is closing 37 of its least productive mines, partly because of competition from solar power. In recent auctions solar companies have been bidding to supply power for record low amounts, as little as 2.44 Rs/kilowatt hour, which works out to about 4 cents. That's with no subsidies. Coal-generated electricity in India costs at least 3.2 Rs/kwh, or 5 cents. The government recently predicted India would generate 57 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2027, far beyond the target set in the Paris Accords.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Jean-Léon Gérôme

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 – 1904) was a French academic painter and sculptor. Like the other French academic painters I have featured he came from a bourgeois family, worked as an assistant to a notable artist (in his case Paul Delaroche), attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and entered the competition for the Prix de Rome scholarship. Gérôme failed to win a scholarship because his drawing was "inadequate," so he stayed in Paris kept painting. (One of Gérôme's most famous works, Pygmalion and Galatea, 1890)

Gérôme's first success came with this painting, Young Greeks watching a Cock Fight, which he entered in the Salon of 1846. It perfectly caught the spirit of the times, with its slick finish and "Neo-Greek" theme, and Gérôme embarked immediately on a career as a professional painter.

Bacchante, 1853.

One of my favorite paintings that resides in Baltimore, Duel after the Masquerade, c 1857. I always assumed this must be a well-known story, perhaps from a famous novel, but apparently Gérôme conceived this oddity by himself.

Gérôme ended up as one of the three full professors at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, a post near the pinnacle of the academic art world. The school was limited to French citizens, but Gérôme also took on many foreigners as private students, notably the Americans Mary Cassatt and Thomas Eakins. (Diogenes, 1860)

The Execution of Marshall Ney, 1868. Ney was one of Napoleon's greatest lieutenants and he was condemned by the victorious allies after Waterloo. This painting was criticized when first exhibited as being too recent and painful a subject for a history painting.

In 1853, thanks to a generous stipend from the government of Napoleon III, Gérôme traveled to Istanbul. He loved the East and returned at least thrice more, to Greece and Turkey in 1854, to Egypt in 1856, and a three month grand tour in 1868. His orientalist paintings were (and still are) hugely popular. Above, Prayer in the Mosque (1871) and The Snake Charmer (1879). Gérôme did his share of eroticized, exotic images of the East – after all, that was what sold – but I think a painting like Prayer in the Mosque shows his broader interest in Muslim culture.

Heads of the Rebel Beys at the Mosque of el Hasanein, Cairo, 1866. Orientalism had two sides, the erotic and the violent. But there is nothing inauthentic about the subject matter, since the Ottomons still displayed the heads of criminals and especially rebels into the 20th century.

Bashi-Bazouk, 1869. The Bashi-Bazouk – "headless ones" – were unpaid irregular soldiers who fought for the Ottomans in hope of plunder. Gérôme found them fascinating and painted them many times. He did this painting in Paris by dressing a model in clothes he had bought during his most recent trip to the Middle East.

A Carpet Merchant in Cairo, 1887.

The second half of Gérôme's career coincided with the decline of academic painting, under assault from Impressionists who hated the technique, Realists who despised the subject matter, and proto-modernists who hated everything. Gérôme fought back, so he was for decades prominent in the quarrels of the European art world. Gérôme acknowledged the criticisms of academic painting mainly by trying to broaden its subject matter and craft new, distinctive images. Like the Pygmalion and Galatea at the top of the post and this one, Truth Coming out of her Well to Shame Mankind, 1896.

Jerusalem, or, Consummatum Est.

Health Insurance and Health: the Latest Science

There is a long-running debate about whether health insurance really makes people healthier; some studies have found not much effect either on death rates or on whether people with chronic conditions like diabetes do better with insurance. Other studies have found big effects. The problem is complicated because in America having health insurance tends to go together with other stuff that we know effects health, like education and income. Once you correct for these things, some studies have found that people with insurance get more health care but don't end up healthier.

Via Marginal Revolution, here is a big new paper by three top academics reviewing all the recent evidence on the question. I would summarize it as follows:
  • health insurance leads to a significant improvement in people's financial situation: fewer bankruptcies, fewer run-ins with bill collectors;
  • health insurance leads to a general reduction in life stress;
  • health insurance leads to a large (circa 30%) reduction in depression, probably through a combination of stress reduction and treatment;
  • health insurance leads to modest improvements in the lives of people with chronic conditions;
  • health insurance leads people to feel better about their health, with more reporting good health and fewer reporting bad; this sounds trivial but actually over a ten-year period people who say they have poor health have a mortality rate two to eight times higher than people who report good health, so it is one of the most powerful measures we have;
  • health insurance leads to a reduction in mortality rates equal to one fewer death per year for each 239 to 830 people who get insurance
The numbers for mortality are difficult partly because none of these studies has covered more than a decade, and people die for all sorts of reasons that health insurance can't touch. Hence the wide range of the estimates. But even one death/year for each 830 people is a significant number; if the CBO is right and the House health care plan would lead to 20 million people losing insurance, that adds up to 24,000 additional deaths per year. Plus we know that poor Americans have higher death rates than poor Europeans and Japanese who all have health insurance, so the macro-scale picture fits with this conclusion.

None of this is cheap, of course; one study found that one life was saved for each $327,000 to $867,000 the government spends on Medicaid expansion.

Some libertarians have argued that having insurance doesn't matter because poor people manage to get the most important care by showing up at emergency rooms, and this is true to some extent. But I find this to be a bizarre argument, because the cost of their care has to be paid by someone, and under the current system that means it is paid by people who do have insurance. Does that make sense?

Plus, you know, Americans say they are upset about inequality. Pretty much the only significant thing the government has done recently to fight this problem is Obamacare, which takes hundreds of billions from the rich to give the working class health insurance. I think that is a good idea.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Bad Orcas

National Post:
The orcas will wait all day for a fisher to accumulate a catch of halibut, and then deftly rob them blind. They will relentlessly stalk individual fishing boats, sometimes forcing them back into port.

Most chilling of all, this is new: After decades of relatively peaceful coexistence with cod and halibut fishers off the coast of Alaska, the region’s orcas appear to be turning on them in greater numbers.

“We’ve been chased out of the Bering Sea,” said Paul Clampitt, Washington State-based co-owner of the F/V Augustine.

Like many boats, the Augustine has tried electronic noisemakers to ward off the animals, but the orcas simply got used to them.

“It became a dinner bell,” said Clampitt.

John McHenry, owner of the F/V Seymour, described orca pods near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands as being like a “motorcycle gang.”

A report this week in the Alaska Dispatch News outlined instances of aggressive orcas harassing boats relentlessly — even refusing to leave after a desperate skipper cut the engine and drifted silently for 18 hours.

“It’s gotten completely out of control,” Alaska fisherman Jay Hebert told the paper.

Fishing lines are also being pillaged by sperm whales, the large square-headed whale best known as the white whale in Moby Dick.

“Since 1997, reports of depredation have increased dramatically,” noted a report by the Southeast Alaska Sperm Whale Avoidance Project.
Above is a still from a video showing a big sperm whale stealing fish from a line.

I wonder when we will reach the limits of our tolerance for wild predators. Big predators eat a lot; there was a case a few years back in which clever sea lions ate almost all of the endangered salmon lining up to use the fish ladder at a big California dam. Orcas have lately been eating lots of sea otters, making people wonder about their future.

Plus when it comes to fish, there are only so many in the sea, and the more orcas eat the fewer there are for us. I would not be surprised to see major fishing nations starting to kill toothed whales within the next few years, because of the competition for fish.

Random Summer Flowers

Bottom photo from my garden, the few daylilies that the deer missed on their catastrophic flower-eating raid Tuesday night. The rest were taken within a block or two of my office.

Racism, Liberalism, and avoiding Civil War

Scott Alexander is frustrated with liberals who keep trying to end political debates by crying "racism". So he wrote a long, long post that begins with an extended discussion of what the word "racism" means, and proceeds to a discussion of what the word "murderism" would mean, takes up the difficulty of understanding people from other cultures, and concludes with a plea that we need to try harder "because it’s the only alternative to having another civil war." An extract:
There are a bunch more frameworks like this, but they all share the common warning that cross-cultural communication is really hard, and so a lot of the concerns of people who aren’t like us will probably sound like nonsense. And most of them say that our demographic – well-educated people proud of our commitment to logic and reason – are at especially high risk of just dismissing everyone else as too dumb to matter. The solution is the same as it’s always been: hard work, renewed commitment to liberal values, and a hefty dose of the Principle of Charity.

Racism-as-murderism is the opposite. It’s a powerful tool of dehumanization. It’s not that other people have a different culture than you. It’s not that other people have different values than you. It’s not that other people have reasoned their way to different conclusions from you. And it’s not even that other people are honestly misinformed or ignorant, in a way that implies you might ever be honestly misinformed or ignorant about something. It’s that people who disagree with you are motivated by pure hatred, by an irrational mind-virus that causes them to reject every normal human value in favor of just wanting to hurt people who look different from them.

This frees you from any obligation to do the hard work of trying to understand other people, or the hard work of changing minds, or the hard work of questioning your own beliefs, or the hard work of compromise, or even the hard work of remembering that at the end of the day your enemies are still your countrymen. It frees you from any hard work at all. You are right about everything, your enemies are inhuman monsters who desire only hatred and death, and the only “work” you have to do is complain on Twitter about how racist everyone else is.

I guess it sounds like I’m upset that we’re not very good at solving difficult cross-cultural communication problems which require deep and genuine effort to understand the other person’s subtly different value system. I’m not upset that we can’t solve those. Those are hard. I’m upset because we’re not even at the point where someone can say “I’m worried about terrorism,” without being forced to go through an interminable and ultimately-impossible process of proving to a random assortment of trolls and gatekeepers that they actually worry about terrorism and it’s not just all a ruse to cover up that they secretly hate everyone with brown skin. I’m saying that when an area of the country suffers an epidemic of suicides and overdoses, increasing mortality, increasing unemployment, social decay, and general hopelessness, and then they say they’re angry, we counter with “Are you really angry? Is ‘angry’ just a code word for ‘racist’?” I’m saying we’re being challenged with a moonshot-level problem, and instead we’re slapping our face with our own hand and saying “STOP HITTING YOURSELF!”

People talk about “liberalism” as if it’s just another word for capitalism, or libertarianism, or vague center-left-Democratic Clintonism. Liberalism is none of these things. Liberalism is a technology for preventing civil war. It was forged in the fires of Hell – the horrors of the endless seventeenth century religious wars. For a hundred years, Europe tore itself apart in some of the most brutal ways imaginable – until finally, from the burning wreckage, we drew forth this amazing piece of alien machinery. A machine that, when tuned just right, let people live together peacefully without doing the “kill people for being Protestant” thing. Popular historical strategies for dealing with differences have included: brutally enforced conformity, brutally efficient genocide, and making sure to keep the alien machine tuned really really carefully.

And when I see someone try to smash this machinery with a sledgehammer, it’s usually followed by an appeal to “but racists!”

You say we must protect freedom of speech. But would you protect the free speech of racists?

You say people shouldn’t get fired for personal opinions that don’t affect their work. But would you let racists keep their jobs?

You say we try to solve disagreements respectfully through rational debate. But would you try to rationally debate racists?

You say people should be allowed to follow their religion without interference. But what if religion is just a cover for racism?

You say we need to understand that people we disagree with can sometimes have some good points. Are you saying we should try to learn things from racists?

You say there’s a taboo on solving political disagreements by punching people. Are you saying that we can’t punch racists?

The argument goes: liberalism assumes good faith and shared values. It assumes that, at the end of the day, whether you’re Catholic or Protestant, you can still be a basically good person. . . . Some people prefer liberty to safety, other people prefer safety to liberty, but if the voters choose the wrong one then at least they’ve erred in an understandable way by preferring one real value to another.

But if there’s some group out there who aren’t connected to normal human values at all, some group that’s deliberately rejected reason; if they’re willing to throw liberty and safety under the bus in pursuit of some kind of dark irrational hatred which is their only terminal goal – then the whole project falls apart. Dialogue based on mutual trust may be all nice and well when it’s supposed to help us choose the optimal balance between liberty and safety, but if you give a platform to the people whose only value is hatred, then they’re just screwing over everybody. . . .

And I agree with this chain of logic. Using violence to enforce conformity to social norms has always been the historical response. We invented liberalism to try to avoid having to do that, but you can’t liberalism with people who refuse reason and are motivated by hatred. If you give the franchise to green pointy-fanged monsters, they’re just going to vote for the “Barbecue And Eat All Humans” party. If such people existed and made up a substantial portion of the population, liberalism becomes impossible, and we should go back to just using violence to enforce our will on the people who disagree with us. Assuming they don’t cooperate with our strategy of violently suppressing them, that means civil war.
I think we're a long way from civil war, but as I keep saying it is the logical end point of our politics.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Self-Branding for Experts

Dutch art investigator Arthur Brand made it into the news this week by promising to recover, before the end of the year, the paintings stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum back in 1990. Which was a great publicity stunt in itself, but that is only the beginning of his public relations genius. In the course of reading half a dozen stories about him, I have found him described as a "vigilante art hunter," a "super sleuth," and "the Indiana Jones of the art world." Impressive, Mr. Brand. Now find the paintings.

Stonehenge Backwards

Everybody knows that Stonehenge points toward the midsummer sunrise. Which it does, viewed from a certain angle. In the computer rendering above, the midsummer sunrise is along the line extending toward the upper right.

But what if the monument actually pointed in the other direction? Because if you follow the line that extends toward the lower left, that points toward the midwinter sunset. (Isn't astronomy cool? No wonder people used to be so obsessed with it.) This photograph of a model shows how impressive it might have been to watch that sunset through the tallest trilithon.

There is other evidence that Stonehenge was mainly a midwinter temple. Deposits of sheep and cow bones from feasting have been found nearby, and they seem to have been butchered in winter, not summer. The other grand neolithic monuments of the region (e.g., Newgrange in Ireland) are generally focused on midwinter astronomy.

Plus, the European tradition as a whole just puts a lot more emphasis on the midwinter solstice than midsummer; compare Christmas to St. John's Day or July 4th to get the general idea.

Obviously we don't know and may never, and anyway the monument could equally well serve both functions. But sometimes I find it fascinating  to turn  things around and look at them from the opposite direction.