November 2014 Archives
My wife and I just finished "How I Met Your Mother", and boy was the finale a downer.
I was prepared to dislike the Mother purely due to all the build-up over the course of the show, but she was actually pretty great. Oh, too bad she dies in the finale. What the what? As the Daughter told Ted, was the whole story about the Mother just an excuse to go on and on about Robin?
After multiple seasons building up to Barney and Robin's wedding, they get divorced 10 minutes later? All the character development Barney went through gets thrown out the window, along with his character. Sure, in "real life" Barney and Robin probably shouldn't have gotten married. But c'mon, this is a TV show! Can't they have a happy ending? Or at least spare us the dramatic build-up for zero payoff. Then Barney gets a filia ex machina dropped in his lap and has yet another conversion. That sticks? Who knows.
And finally... Ted and Robin? Seriously? Robin is Ted's true love? Blah.
If it weren't for Marshall and Lily anchoring the show it would have ended as total crap. Just pretend the last two episodes don't exist and make up your own ending.
Everyone loves the idea of the longsword, but did you know that poleaxes are much more effective weapons? Swords are a lot easier to carry around, which is probably why action heroes favor them.
The poleaxe is generally accepted to have been the knightly weapon of choice for dismounted combat. Many surviving examples are of high quality and decoration, which supports the idea that polaxes were used mostly by well-to-do soldiers. This is not exclusive, as The Wallace Collection's A925 is an example of an unadorned poleaxe. It is commonly acknowledged that poleaxes were favorite dueling weapons as well. There is even a slightly modified type, called a hache in French, which was used primarily for duels. This weapon had a 6-7 foot long haft and a rondel guard on each side of the grip.
Don't bring a longsword to a poleaxe fight.
Yesterday President Obama issued an executive order declaring that up to five million illegal immigrants will not be deported, and will eventually be given work visas. It seems obvious that the President exceeded his authority, and he did so for at least three reasons: to ease the suffering of millions of people, to win Hispanic affection for the Democrats, and to poke the Republicans in the eye.
Republicans are up in arms over the President's imperial overreach, and their anger is justified. The President intentionally provoked it.
However, everyone needs to settle down. It's important to remember that there are more than ten million people here in the country illegally, and the vast majority of them have committed no crime other than their illegal presence. They're already here, and there's no practical way to "make them leave", no matter how strongly you feel about it. It's just not going to happen. America is not going to forcibly deport ten million people. This executive order didn't "create facts on the ground", it responded to facts on the ground: the people are already here.
Furthermore, President Obama could have Constitutionally issued pardons to each illegal immigrant individually if he wanted to, and there's nothing Congress or any future president could have done about it.
So, while the method and motivation behind this amnesty are troubling, it isn't the end of the republic. 99% of these illegal immigrants will make great Americans. The fact is, America's ambivalence to illegal immigration has led us to where we are now, and we really have no choice but to regularize their presence. If there's a national consensus to avoid this situation in the future, then Congress will have to pass some laws that will actually prevent it, and we citizens will have to elect presidents who will enforce those laws.
My daughters have been watching a lot of "Frozen" recently (of course) and I dreamt an epilogue for the movie last night:
Prime Minister to Queen Elsa: We're all glad you're back, Queen Elsa!
Queen Elsa: Yep, everyone is fine again! Better than ever.
PM: Actually we're not... [one of my favorite lines from the movie -- MW]
QE: What's going on now?
PM: Well, we're all going to starve to death. All our crops died when you temporarily cursed the land with eternal winter. Do you think you can use your magic to bring the crops back to life?
QE: I don't think so.
PM: We'll have to dig into the royal treasury then. Maybe we can buy food from our biggest trading partner: Weselton.
QE: Um... actually I just banished that guy and promised we'd never trade with him again.
PM: Ok... what about the Southern Isles? Prince Hans was instrumental in protecting the kingdom while you were... "away". I'm sure his kingdom would help us out.
QE: Right... so, I banished him too. But on the plus side, I met a guy who runs an ice business. He's dating my sister now, so I'm sure he'll give us a discount.
PM: A discount on ice.
Obviously Glenn Reynolds has the best Shirtgate roundup. Matt Taylor should hold his head high.
Conservative Party London Mayor Boris Johnson comes to the defense of Philae mission astrophysicist Matt Taylor and his sartorial whimsy. Here's a picture of the supposedly offensive shirt:
Says Mayor Johnson:
This mission is a colossal achievement. Millions of us have been watching Philae's heart-stopping journey. Everyone in this country should be proud of Dr Taylor and his colleagues, and he has every right to let his feelings show.
Except, of course, that he wasn't crying with relief. He wasn't weeping with sheer excitement at this interstellar rendezvous. I am afraid he was crying because he felt he had sinned. He was overcome with guilt and shame for wearing what some people decided was an "inappropriate" shirt on television. "I have made a big mistake," he said brokenly. "I have offended people and I am sorry about this."
I watched that clip of Dr Taylor's apology - at the moment of his supreme professional triumph - and I felt the red mist come down. It was like something from the show trials of Stalin, or from the sobbing testimony of the enemies of Kim Il-sung, before they were taken away and shot. It was like a scene from Mao's cultural revolution when weeping intellectuals were forced to confess their crimes against the people.
Why was he forced into this humiliation? Because he was subjected to an unrelenting tweetstorm of abuse. He was bombarded across the internet with a hurtling dustcloud of hate, orchestrated by lobby groups and politically correct media organisations.
And so I want, naturally, to defend this blameless man. And as for all those who have monstered him and convicted him in the kangaroo court of the web - they should all be ashamed of themselves.
Let's celebrate the brilliance of Dr. Taylor and the rest of the Philae team and reserve our faux outrage for really offensive shirts.
I recently received a review copy of "Healing the Heart of Democracy" by Parker J. Palmer and I learned from its perspective, but I fundamentally disagree with Dr. Palmer's main thesis. The book is a high-minded appeal to heal the divisions that polarize American democracy, and although it's inspiring perhaps I'm too much of a cynic to buy in.
Dr. Palmer lays out his thesis best in the introduction:
But these days, "We the People" have a great deal of trouble talking across our lines of difference about the common good -- so much trouble that many of us doubt the very concept of a "common good." Deformed by a divisive political culture, we're less inclined to differ with each other honestly than to demonize each other mercilessly. That's why it's so seductive to gather with folks who share our view of what's wrong and do little more than complain about all those "wrongdoers" who aren't in the room.
If we want to "create a politics worthy of the human spirit," [the book's subtitle -- MW] we must find ways to bridge our differences, whether they are defined by age, gender, class, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or political ideology. Then we must seen patches of common ground on the issues we care most about. This is more than a feel-good exercise. If we cannot reach a rough consensus on what most of us want, we have no way to hold our elected officials accountable to the will of the people.
Whew, there's a lot there! Where to begin? First, let me applaud Dr. Palmer for his aspiration. At the micro-level, no one would want a family, church, or workplace as fractured as the American citizenry as a whole. So wouldn't it be nice if we citizens could agree more with each other? However, even this aspiration immediately undercuts Dr. Palmer's thesis: we get to choose our church and workplace, and we get to politely avoid controversial topics when among family. As a result of these choices, we "gather with folks who share our view of what's wrong" in order to create a more pleasant environment for ourselves.
Reading the book (and having just searched the index), it appears to me that Dr. Palmer neglects to consider the impact of the median voter theorem on America's two-party political system. This impact is two-fold (at least) as it relates to his thesis.
- The median voter is defined based on one or more issues that are not accepted as part of the "common good".
- The two parties will always be fighting for the median voter.
In the first case, any issue for which there is common ground among voters will not be the deciding factor for the median voter. The two parties may disagree on this issue (even vehemently), but the voters with strong opinions will have already gravitated to their chosen sides and will not be the median voter. Alternatively, an issue which is accepted by a sizable majority of the population will simply not be in the political spotlight. No one fights over common ground, so it's easy to ignore it. Dr. Palmer appears to do so, and makes no allowance for the huge shifts in common ground that have occurred over the past century. Issues that were once contentious are not anymore: alcohol prohibition, women's suffrage, entering World War 2, capitalism vs. communism, engagement with China, civil rights for black Americans, no-fault divorce, tolerance of homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, contraception (and for unmarried women). The list goes on and on. Within the past century these issues were politically divisive, but now our political system has successfully settled them -- many people still disagree with the majority consensus, and they're free to do so, but the divisions have few political implications. The "common ground" of American politics is huge.
As for the second implication, conflict over the median voter is not a sign of sickness, it's a sign that our democracy is working as intended. It's great for everyone to remain civil and on-topic, but the two parties should vigorously contest the issues that matter to the median voter. Eventually one position will convince enough people that the dividing line will shift and the issue at hand will no longer be a concern for the median voter. This is how the system is supposed to work.
For example, Dr. Palmer makes a brief mention of abortion but focuses entirely on a personal emotions surrounding the issue without considering the underlying political environment. The primary reason that abortion is so divisive is that Roe v. Wade undermined the normal political process by decreeing that abortion is a Constitutional right -- the Supreme Court basically took the ball away from the game and thereby prevented the citizenry from gradually reaching consensus. This was a dangerous precedent, and one way that we Americans can help improve our political climate is to strongly prefer that our differences be resolved by legislation rather than by the courts.
Finally , Dr. Palmer's list of differences is mis-aimed: "age, gender, class, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or political ideology". This list accuses the American citizenry of harboring deep divisions due to surface-level bigotry -- a severe misdiagnosis. It's true that some Americans are unreasoning bigots, but for the most part our disagreements are due to significant, substantial differences in our goals and beliefs. Dr. Palmer throws in the word "ideology", which in modern usage is an epithet, to discredit the legitimacy of the political disagreements. Some divisions do line up around the characteristics Dr. Palmer lists, but it's not the characteristics per se that cause the differences; cause-and-effect may run the other way entirely, or the characteristics and underlying beliefs may simply be coincident.
Ultimately, "Healing the Heart of Democracy" is a well-meaning book, but it rings hollow by relying on an underlying belief in the inherent goodness of mankind. I don't history bears out that belief, and I think that our competitive two-party political system with its separation-of-powers is a brilliant approach to mitigating our inherent selfishness. Disagreements should be civil and purposeful, but contentious politicking is not a new thing -- it's been around for millennium and isn't going anywhere. Rather than attempting to fix the surface-level symptoms of our divisions, America would be best-served by strengthening our separation-of-powers, increasing transparency, eliminating politicization in the bureaucracy, and ensuring clean elections.
Obamacare has decimated elected Democrats around the country but it's been good for at least one person: Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber has been paid millions of dollars as a "consultant" for the federal government and numerous state governments. It's pretty offensive that a person with such little respect for the American public has so flagrantly enriched himself at the public trough.
Those "stupid" people have been extremely generous to Mr. Gruber. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2010 investigated the $297,600 that the Department of Health and Human Services paid Mr. Gruber to sing the praises of the health care scheme. Congress -- or part of Congress -- was concerned that this payoff violated a federal law against paid government propaganda, but the GAO said it wasn't a violation because Mr. Gruber had written his propaganda on his own time. Officially, he was paid only to "analyze various health care reform proposals and identify cost and coverage implications."
This is an extraordinarily lucrative enterprise in the age of Obamacare that Mr. Gruber himself brought about. Individual states have lavished taxpayer cash on Mr. Gruber in return for cookie-cutter reports that describe the impact of Obamacare for each of the several states.
Minnesota, for example, used federal Obamacare grants to pay Mr. Gruber to attend one meeting, participate in a biweekly email list and print a copy of the report, all for $329,000. Wisconsin paid Mr. Gruber $400,000 for the same material, requested by the office of then-Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat. When the report was presented, Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, didn't want Mr. Gruber at the news conference. Vermont is paying him another $400,000. Such a deal!
Or, if you prefer a more acerbic conclusion, taxpayers paid Jonathan Gruber in the mid-six-figures to lie to them, and then brag about it to all of his friends and fans later.
Congratulations to the European Space Agency for a fantastic accomplishment! The probe Philae has landed softly on its target comet.
The basic idea behind Boltsmann brains is that if intelligence arose randomly in the universe, it's vastly more likely to arise as a lone speck of order in an "entropic soup" than to arise in the middle of a huge bubble of order like we observe around us. Most significantly, it's an approach for refuting the selection bias argument against the anthropic principle.
Boltzmann proposed that we and our observed low-entropy world are a random fluctuation in a higher-entropy universe. Even in a near-equilibrium state, there will be stochastic fluctuations in the level of entropy. The most common fluctuations will be relatively small, resulting in only small amounts of organization, while larger fluctuations and their resulting greater levels of organization will be comparatively more rare. Large fluctuations would be almost inconceivably rare, but are made possible by the enormous size of the universe and by the idea that if we are the results of a fluctuation, there is a "selection bias": we observe this very unlikely universe because the unlikely conditions are necessary for us to be here, an expression of the anthropic principle.
The Boltzmann brain paradox is that any observers (self-aware brains with memories like we have, which includes our brains) are therefore far more likely to be Boltzmann brains than evolved brains, thereby at the same time also refuting the selection-bias argument. If our current level of organization, having many self-aware entities, is a result of a random fluctuation, it is much less likely than a level of organization which only creates stand-alone self-aware entities. For every universe with the level of organization we see, there should be an enormous number of lone Boltzmann brains floating around in unorganized environments. In an infinite universe, the number of self-aware brains that spontaneously randomly form out of the chaos, complete with false memories of a life like ours, should vastly outnumber the real brains evolved from an inconceivably rare local fluctuation the size of the observable universe.
Republicans managed to avoid any embarrassing gaffes this year and finally won control of Congress from a faltering Democratic Party. It's common for midterm elections in a president's second term to go against his party, and this election was no exception. The Democrats were thoroughly repudiated by voters, in a sign that President Obama has done little to lift up his party despite his two strong presidential wins.
Riding a powerful wave of voter discontent, resurgent Republicans captured control of the Senate and tightened their grip on the House Tuesday night in elections certain to complicate President Barack Obama's final two years in office.
Republicans also did well in governorships across the country, though the final tally isn't known yet.
There were 36 gubernatorial elections on the ballot, and several incumbents struggled against challengers. Tom Wolf captured the Pennsylvania statehouse for the Democrats, defeating Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn lost in Illinois, Obama's home state. Republican Larry Hogan scored one of the night's biggest upsets, in Maryland.
Republican Charlie Baker was elected governor of Massachusetts. Maine's blunt-speaking Republican governor, Paul LePage, won a second term after a three-way race that focused on whether he was a divisive presence in state government.
So now the real question is: can the Republicans govern? We know that the Democrats were incompetent and more obsessed with protecting Obama's image than running the country. Hopefully the Republicans will focus their energy on effective governance and not on merely embarrassing the President.
Here are a few things to look for in the coming weeks and months:
- How do the demographics of the vote break down? Did Republicans make any gains with women, blacks, or Hispanics?
- Will Obama nominate an attorney general during the lame duck session?
- Will Obama follow through on his immigration agenda?
- Will any liberal Supreme Court justices resign so that Obama can make an appointment during the lame duck session?
- Will the Republicans force Democrats to vote on a straight repeal of Obamacare?
- Will the Republicans force Obama to veto a law authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline?
- Will we ever get to the bottom of the IRS abuse from 2012? Or Benghazi? Or Fast and Furious? Or any of the other scandals the Senate Democrats helped bury?
- Will the Republicans waste their governing opportunity chasing scandals that no one cares about anymore?
Finally, the AP story notes that "the elections' $4 billion price tag spending was unprecedented for a non-presidential year", but is that really a lot of money to spend disputing the governing direction of the most powerful nation on the planet? Coca Cola's marketing budget exceeded $4 billion in 2011.
To avoid sickness we're all taught to wash our hands, cover our mouths when we cough or sneeze, and avoid touching our face. However, for most of my life I viewed the prospect of getting sick as a binary state: either I caught something or I didn't. As I got older I considered that I might get less sick if I reduce my exposure to infected fluids, even if I couldn't avoid getting sick entirely. I read about attenuated vaccines that contained live viruses but didn't make their recipients sick (usually). As I investigated further, I finally came across a description of viral load and the puzzle pieces fell into place. Why hadn't anyone told me about this concept as a kid? Maybe most people don't know that infections aren't binary! So what is viral load?
Viral load, also known as viral burden, viral titre or viral titer, is a measure of the severity of an active viral infection, and can be calculated by estimating the live amount of virus in an involved body fluid.
Basically, it's how many copies of a virus you've got in your body: your infection (and immune response) is worse if you've got more of the virus. Your kid gives you a lot of virus copies when she sneezes into your open eyes, and you're likely to get sick more severely and more quickly. This is significant especially as a parent because it's impossible to avoid contamination from a sick kid completely, but you can reduce the severity of your eventual sickness if you work to minimize your viral load.
Viral load is also an important factor when it comes to Ebola infections:
The relatively swift recoveries of Vinson and Pham might also be attributed to their personal protective equipment (PPE) they were wearing when they treated Duncan.
While some nurses at the Texas hospital reportedly complained about PPE that left their necks exposed, at least Vinson was suited up.
"She was wearing personal protective equipment during the care of her patient in Dallas, and therefore it is quite likely that the amount of virus she was exposed to was substantially less than what we see in patients who get infected in less developed countries," Ribner said.
"And we also know that the higher the viral load that you get infected with, the more severe your disease is likely to be."
"Infection" is a continuum. Even when you can't avoid exposure entirely, you can minimize the severity of your illness by minimizing your viral load.
The best response ever to "sell me this pen"? Well, according to the author anyway! His pitch framework is pretty solid and could be helpful even if you aren't a sales professional:
There are exactly four sales skills the interviewer is looking to see when you answer:
- how you gather information
- how you respond to information
- how you deliver information
- and how you ask for something (closing)
I know I've shared it before, but Glengarry Glen Ross has the best sales motivational ever:
Watch it at least once a year. One type of person will be motivated, and another will scoff at the abuse.
Since my wife turned me on to podcasts (yeah, I'm ten years behind) it seems like I've stopped listening to NPR in the car. Thanks to my revived interest in Dungeons and Dragons I'm currently listening through the back episodes of NPC Cast. D&D fifth edition is pretty cool, and I'm having a great time DM-ing two games, one with my wife and one with my brothers. We're playing through the Starter Set adventure, "Lost Mine of Phandelver", and everyone seems to be enjoying it.