Archive for December, 2011

Christmas Coincidence

December 23, 2011 Leave a comment

Here’s a fun fact about mistletoe to share at your Christmas parties. Mistletoe is a flowering (and parasitic) plant from the order Santalales. I assume that means Dr. Claus discovered and named the plant in his brief stint as a taxonomist.

Categories: Science Tags:

Hitch, Remembered

December 22, 2011 1 comment

(Karin Cooper/Getty Images)

As I never tire of saying, heat is not the antithesis of light but rather the source of it. -CH

Hitchens on Hannity and Colmes:

(watch to the end to hear one of Hitch’s most memorable lines)


Hitchens in his 3-part series on “self-improvement”:

The trouble with bad habits is that they are mutually reinforcing. And, just as a bank won’t lend you money unless you are too rich to need it, exercise is a pastime only for those who are already slender and physically fit. It just isn’t so much fun when you have a marked tendency to wheeze and throw up, and a cannonball of a belly sloshing around inside the baggy garments. In my case, most of my bad habits are connected with the only way I know to make a living. In order to keep reading and writing, I need the junky energy that scotch can provide, and the intense short-term concentration that nicotine can help supply. To be crouched over a book or a keyboard, with these conditions of mingled reverie and alertness, is my highest happiness. (Upon having visited the doctor, Jean-Paul Sartre was offered the following alternative: Give up cigarettes and carry on into a quiet old age and a normal death, or keep smoking and have his toes cut off. Then his feet. Then his legs. Assessing his prospects, Sartre told Simone de Beauvoir he “wanted to think it over.” He actually did retire his gaspers, but only briefly. Later that year, asked to name the most important thing in his life, he replied, “Everything. Living. Smoking.”)

Ian McEwan on visiting Hitch in the hospital:

And so this was how it would go: talk about books and politics, then he dozed while I read or wrote, then more talk, then we both read. The intensive care unit room was crammed with flickering machines and sustaining tubes, but they seemed almost decorative. Books, journalism, the ideas behind both, conquered the sterile space, or warmed it, they raised it to the condition of a good university library. And they protected us from the bleak high-rise view through the plate glass windows, of that world, in Larkin’s lines, whose loves and chances “are beyond the stretch/Of any hand from here!”

An acquaintance of mine, Sohrab Ahmari, writing in the Huffington Post:

Consider a brief but devastating description of Iranians’ scarred psyches in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War. Iran’s problem, Hitchens explained, “is that the country is afflicted with a vast population of grieving parents and relatives, whose sons and daughters and nephews and nieces were thrown away in the ghastly eight-year war with Saddam Hussein, and who were forced to applaud the evil ‘human wave’ tactics of shady clergymen who promised heaven to the credulous but never cared to risk martyrdom themselves.”

I was even more moved by the author’s intuitive grasp of a certain Persian spirit that eludes most non-Iranians. Here was an Anglo-American journalist drinking Persian moonshine and trading verses from the 11th-century poet Omar Khayyam with his local fixer — all while walking the streets of Neyshabur! Studying Khayyam’s poetry

Glenn Greenwald not letting Hitchens or his admirers off the hook:

There’s one other aspect to the adulation of Hitchens that’s quite revealing. There seems to be this sense that his excellent facility with prose excuses his sins. Part of that is the by-product of America’s refusal to come to terms with just how heinous and destructive was the attack on Iraq. That act of aggression is still viewed as a mere run-of-the-mill “mistake” — hey, we all make them, so we shouldn’t hold it against Hitch – rather than what it is: the generation’s worst political crime, one for which he remained fully unrepentant and even proud. But what these paeans to Hitchens reflect even more so is the warped values of our political and media culture: once someone is sufficiently embedded within that circle, they are intrinsically worthy of admiration and respect, no matter what it is that they actually do.

Hitch vs Blair, a taste:

Dan Dennett on Hitchens calling out Rabbi Shmuley Boteach for lying about Darwin:

Why hadn’t I interrupted? Why had I let this disgusting tirade continue, politely waiting my turn? Because I was in diplomacy mode, polite and respectful, in a foreign country, following my host’s directions for how to conduct the debate. But what Christopher showed me–and I keep it in mind now wherever I speak–is that there is a time for politeness and there is a time when you are obliged to be rude, as rude as you have to be to stop such pollution of young minds in its tracks with a quick, unignorable shock. Of course I knew that as a general principle, but I needed to be reminded, to be awakened from my diplomatic slumbers by his example.

Hitchens on a self-censoring press:

Take, just for an example, the obituaries for Earl Butz, a once-important Republican politician who served presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford as secretary for agriculture until compelled to resign after making a loutish and humorless observation in the hearing of the Watergate whistle-blower John Dean. In the words of his New York Times obituarist, Butz (who “died in his sleep while visiting his son William,” which, I must say, makes the male offspring sound exceptionally soporific) had “described blacks as ‘coloreds’ who wanted only three things—satisfying sex, loose shoes and a warm bathroom.” There isn’t a grown-up person with a memory of 1976 who doesn’t recall that Butz said that Americans of African descent required only “a tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit.” Had this witless bigotry not been reported accurately, he might have held onto his job. But any reader of the paper who was less than 50 years old could have read right past the relevant sentence without having the least idea of what the original controversy had been “about.”

David Frum recalling experiences with Hitch:

Hitchens was not one of those romantics who fetishized “dialogue.” Far from suffering fools gladly, he delighted in making fools suffer. When he heard that another friend, a professor, had a habit of seducing female students in his writing seminars, he shook his head pityingly. “It’s not worth it. Afterward, you have to read their short stories.”

Hitchens on Islamic terrorists and 9/11, excerpted from god is Not Great:

This puts the confrontation between faith and civilization on a whole new footing. Until relatively recently, those who adopted the clerical path had to pay a heavy price for it. Their societies would decay, their economies would contract, their best minds would go to waste or take themselves elsewhere, and they would consistently be outdone by societies that had learned to tame and sequester the religious impulse. A country like Afghanistan would simply rot. Bad enough as this was, it became worse on September 11, 2001, when from Afghanistan the holy order was given to annex two famous achievements of modernism – the high-rise building and the jet aircraft – and use them for immolation and human sacrifice. The succeeding stage, very plainly announced in hysterical sermons, was to be the moment when apocalyptic nihilists coincided with Armageddon weaponry. Faith-based fanatics could not design anything useful or beautiful as a skyscraper or a passenger aircraft. But, continuing their long history of plagiarism, they could borrow and steal these things and use them as a negation. 

Kevin Drum thinks his writing on politics is overrated:

De gustibus non est disputandum. I have the mind of an engineer, so maybe his style was just never going to appeal to me. But his personal charisma aside, he sure seems to have combined almost appallingly poor political judgment with a rambling writing style that too often used its considerable (and genuine) erudition as a mask for its lack of a really sharp, well argued point. I never had anything much against the guy, but really, the hagiography is getting a little too thick to bear.

Sam Harris on what Hitchens’ contributions to life:

One of the joys of living in a world filled with stupidity and hypocrisy was to see Hitch respond. That pleasure is now denied us. The problems that drew his attention remain—and so does the record of his brilliance, courage, erudition, and good humor in the face of outrage. But his absence will leave an enormous void in the years to come. Hitch lived an extraordinarily large life. (Read his memoir, Hitch-22, and marvel.) It was too short, to be sure—and one can only imagine what another two decades might have brought out of him—but Hitch produced more fine work, read more books, met more interesting people, and won more arguments than most of us could in several centuries.

(more photos of Hitchens’ disobedience by Christian Witkin)

Hitchens in Vanity Fair on petty laws:

The lawbreaking itch is not always an anarchic one. In the first place, the human personality has (or ought to have) a natural resistance to coercion. We don’t like to be pushed and shoved, even if it’s in a direction we might choose to go. In the second place, the human personality has (or ought to have) a natural sense of the preposterous. Thus, just behind my apartment building in Washington there is an official sign saying, drug-free zone. I think this comic inscription may be because it’s close to a schoolyard. And a few years back, one of our suburbs announced by a municipal ordinance that it was a “nuclear-free zone.” I don’t wish to break the first law, though if I did wish to do so it would take me, or any other local resident, no more than one phone call and a 10-minute wait. I did, at least for a while, pine to break the “nuclear-free” regulation, on grounds of absurdity alone, but eventually decided that it would be too much trouble.

So there are laws that are defensible but unenforceable, and there are laws impossible to infringe. But in the New York of Mayor Bloomberg, there are laws that are not possible to obey, and that nobody can respect, and that are enforced by arbitrary power. The essence of tyranny is not iron law. It is capricious law.

An extensive Daily Dish collection of and tribute to Hitch.

Categories: Christopher Hitchens

Cloud Connection

December 20, 2011 1 comment

There’s an upcoming service on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines that sounds “horrible” to Matthew Yglesias:

[Passengers] will soon be able to use their Facebook and LinkedIn profiles to find passengers with similar interests—as long as there’s mutual consent in viewing personal information.” – Rachel Klein in Fodors.

He asks, “Why would anyone ever want to do this?”

Umm… Mile-High Club?

(Bruce Dale, National Geographic)

Categories: Travel Tags:

Comparing Inequality

December 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Kim Jong Il’s death has a lot of people talking about the terrible suffering in that totalitarian state. Comparing it to the world and to South Korea in particular provides a useful perspective. Income inequality in the US is nothing compared to the misery caused by Kim Jong Il, but I found it fascinating how similarly economic inequality looks comparing North and South Korea with the top 1% and the lowest quintile in the United States.

Can you guess which graph is Per Capita GDP for North vs South Korea and which graph is US real average after-tax income?

Answer after the jump:

Read more…

Categories: Economics Tags: ,

Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011

December 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Christopher Hitchens is dead. Hitch shared a birthday with Thomas Jefferson and the day of his death, December 15th, officially marked the end of prohibition. Let us raise our glasses to one of humanity’s strongest advocates.

One of my favorite speeches.

He recently wrote for Vanity Fair here.

He’ll be missed.

Categories: Christopher Hitchens

Media Bias isn’t the Real Problem

December 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Media consumers on all political sides like complaining about bias. Conservatives deride liberal bias, while liberals are endlessly angered by the right-wing advocacy of Fox News. Straight-up dishonest propaganda is clearly harmful, but most viewers of MSNBC or Fox News know they’re getting a progressive or a conservative perspective and it’s up to them to search out other viewpoints.  We all suffer from some level of confirmation bias, but it’s easy enough if you try to check out different sources that challenge your beliefs. I know if I mostly read Krugman, Klein, and Yglesias I should spend some time reading Caplan, Sumner, and Mankiw.

But only major media outlets tend to get interviews with our political officials and hold them accountable directly. When you watch those interviews it becomes clear that that the trouble with journalism today isn’t bias, it’s deference. Conor Friedersdorf shows how 60 Minutes completely fail the public when interviewing the president.

What this interview represents — like so many broadcast news interviews with sitting politicians and high level bureaucrats — is the charade of asking tough questions to hold the president accountable. And the utter failure to ask any actually tough questions, to unearth any new facts of significance, to force any sort of reckoning before the television cameras on a matter of importance. If I were advising Obama, I’d make sure that Kroft got the next exclusive interview too.

Please read his whole piece – the questions Kroft asks… just go read it!

(Penguin begging for food – steven herteleer)

Categories: media Tags:

Straight Lying

December 14, 2011 Leave a comment

Wow. I’ve dealt with how graphs and statistics can be used to mislead, but Fox News sinks to a new low by this blatantly inaccurate and dishonest visual. I’ve added a straight line so you know your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you. They actually make 8.6% unemployment higher than 8.9 and 8.8%:

(h/t Dave)

Categories: media Tags:

Benefits and Disincentives

December 14, 2011 Leave a comment

Congress is once again debating an extension of unemployment benefits amidst our non-recovery from the recession. Economist Scott Sumner pleads with progressive bloggers to remember that whether UI benefits have disincentive effects (i.e. encourage them not to get jobs) or not is an empirical question. He’s right and it’s absurd to think that extending UI would have no effect on employment:

The statistical evidence on UI is overwhelming significant.  When the UI benefits maxed out at 26 weeks, there was a spike in the number re-employed right after the benefits ran out.  That’s not to say the benefits are necessarily inefficient, if the spike was due to the income effect then UI might actually make the job market more efficient.  But it’s hard to dispute the fact that UI insurance does have some effect on labor supply.

Whether or not progressives on the whole acknowledge this enough or not, I’m not sure, but anyone interested in helping the most people are right to focus on more important figures. There is no evidence that extending UI benefits is significantly reducing the labor supply.

These aren’t perfect proxies but, as you can see, unemployment duration among people ineligible for UI (blue line) is roughly the same for those eligible (red line). Furthermore, even if you were to completely eliminate UI benefits, there just aren’t enough job openings for the unemployed to fill.

(via Jared Bernstein)

Too many conservatives seemingly believe that we need to make a moral statement rather than helping the unemployed. Even if removing benefits would knock half a point off the unemployment rate as some studies have found and the multiplier effect of giving cash to likely spenders isn’t as powerful as other studies have found, we’d be hurting the vast majority of the unemployed. They’d be stuck without jobs or vital benefits.

Just to preempt some people who might wonder why 3.4 million unemployed haven’t filled those job openings, it’s important to remember that many of those job openings do get filled. A large portion of the openings are part of the normal churn of openings and fillings. Another portion is due to skills-mismatch (an unemployed construction worker isn’t about to fill a job opening for a hedge fund manager). And some jobs are open because policies like the mortgage interest deduction distorted the market away from renting, which sometimes traps people from being able to move to where the jobs are available.

Job openings are usually higher in healthier economies:

Categories: Economy Tags:

Steady Judgment

December 9, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve been reading Glenn Greenwald’s radicalizing new book, With Liberty and Justice for Some, which advances the extremist thesis that all citizens should be subject to the rule of law. Of course, that’s just a redundant way of saying that we should have a rule of law.

In a striking example of America’s two-tiered justice system, Greenwald explains how the biggest telecom companies got retroactive legal immunity from Congress after knowingly and blatantly breaking federal law by providing the government access to its customers’ telecommunications without a warrant. That’s all interesting enough, but what I did not know was that judge Vaughn Walker ruled that AT&T obviously acted illegally. Walker resisted abandoning the rule of law for America’s largest companies and their political advocates. Judge Vaughn Walker is the same judge I praised as a modern Jeremy Bentham after his lucid and methodical decision overturning California’s prop 8.

Researching Walker for this post, I learned he’s now retired. This conservative judge, appointed by Reagan and Bush, Sr. and opposed by Nancy Pelosi for “perceived insensitivity to gays and the poor,” turned out to be a champion of the rule of law in a world where the political class has forgotten its meaning.

An Important Reminder

December 9, 2011 Leave a comment

Correlation does not mean causation. My favorite:

Click for more.

(via The Daily Dish)

Of course that reminds me of this classic:


Categories: Statistics
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