David Brooks lives on another planet

April 6, 2015

Picking on David Brooks seems to be something of a cottage industry—people like Charlie Pierce and driftglass seem to have the task well in hand.

But after hearing David Brooks’s latest round of sanctimonious scolding and scoffing on NPR last week I can’t remain silent. There’s a lot to object to in what Brooks said—like suggesting that the LGBTQ community should, instead of fighting for their legal rights, take more of a hands-off approach, you know, like Abraham Lincoln dealt with slavery. But I’m really here to pick on the lowest of the low-hanging fruit (emphasis added):


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When you hear the inevitable critics of the deal sound off, ask them a simple question – do you really think that this verifiable deal, if fully implemented, backed by the world’s major powers, is a worse option than the risk of another war in the Middle East?

CORNISH: David, is that a good starting point to come back with?

BROOKS: Well, it’s bogus (laughter). You know, those are not the options. I don’t think anybody wants a war [with Iran].

John R. Bolton:

The inescapable conclusion is that Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program. Nor will sanctions block its building a broad and deep weapons infrastructure. The inconvenient truth is that only military action . . . can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.

Joshua Muravchik:

What if force is the only way to block Iran from gaining nuclear weapons? That, in fact, is probably the reality. . . .

[O]nly military actions — by Israel against Iraq and Syria, and through the specter of U.S. force against Libya — have halted nuclear programs. Sanctions have never stopped a nuclear drive anywhere.

Does this mean that our only option is war? Yes. . . .

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX):

I think it’s time to bomb Iran

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ):

The Israelis will need to chart their own path of resistance. On the Iranian nuclear deal, they may have to go rogue. Let’s hope their warnings have not been mere bluffs.

I suppose David Brooks may be right, and it may be true that nobody wants a war. But that would require all these people, and the many others like them, to be lying through their teeth. So maybe it’s perfectly plausible after all…

Mountains and molehills

November 21, 2013

Sometimes in reading a book I will come across a seemingly innocuous statement that is so outright wrong, or that so clearly evinces a misunderstanding or lack of care on the author’s part, that I cannot bring myself to continue reading. This happens even (or perhaps especially) if the statement in question is at best tangentially or tenuously related to the subject of the book.

For example, I was looking forward to reading Scott Miller’s The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century, because I was curious about the turn-of-the-century Anarchist movement and the propaganda of the deed (my interest having been piqued by Joseph Conrad’s beautiful The Secret Agent; see also), as well as having an interest in the aggressive imperialist expansion the US was undertaking at the time. A book that promised to explore these issues seemed right up my alley (the author’s appearance on the Daily Show was interesting as well), and I was enjoying it thoroughly until I saw this near the end of the first chapter:

McKinley and the man who called himself Nieman lived in parallel yet vastly different worlds. Each could see that the Industrial Revolution was forever changing a nation that had long been proud of its simple, agrarian roots. Farmers were abandoning their plows for jobs in clanking, hissing factories. Steamy cities powered by desperately hopeful immigrants clawed into the countryside, and lording over it all was a new breed of American, the rapacious Wall Street tycoon.

For McKinley, these were signs of progress—a prosperous nation was a happy one—and he would do what he could to encourage America’s growing economic might. The strongest, most fit companies were allowed to gobble up the weakest until vast swaths of the economy were ruled by a handful of men who understood no economic law other than to produce as much as their straining factories could stand.

The phrase I’ve emphasized there is simply wrong. The tycoons who ran the factories didn’t follow an “economic law” of maximizing quantity of output, but of maximizing profit. The point of having a monopoly, or a combination, or a trust, or whatever, was to increase profits, which can mean a reduction in output, leading to artificial scarcity and a higher price. As this economics lecture puts it, “the monopoly produces too little output and charges too high a price compared to the efficient outcome generated by a perfectly competitive market.” As Henry Demarest Lloyd put it more memorably, writing in 1894:

The world, enriched by thousands of generations of toilers and thinkers, has reached a fertility which can give every human being a plenty undreamed of even in the Utopias. But between this plenty ripening on the boughs of our civilization and the people hungering for it step the “cornerers,” the syndicates, trusts, combinations, with the cry of “overproduction”—too much of everything. Holding back the riches of earth, sea, and sky from their fellows who famish and freeze in the dark, they declare to them that there is too much light and warmth and food. They assert the right, for their private profit, to regulate the consumption by the people of the necessaries of life, and to control production, not by the needs of humanity, but by the desires of a few for dividends. The coal syndicate thinks there is too much coal. There is too much iron, too much lumber, too much flour—for this or that syndicate.

The majority have never been able to buy enough of anything; but this minority have too much of everything to sell.

Miller doesn’t come across as sympathetic to the tycoons—he describes them as “tycoon[s]”, for one thing, and as “lording over” the rest of society. Nor does he come across as supportive of militarist expansion; he goes on a few sentences later to characterize the US as “proceed[ing] to acquire foreign territories with all the skill and grace of a hungry Labrador retriever eating dinner—at once sloppy, excited, ravenous, clumsy, and oblivious” and “lurch[ing] at the chance to snatch territory in the Caribbean and the Pacific, annex Hawaii, and begin what would become a familiar pattern of sending troops to foreign shores to ‘defend American interests.'”

To the extent that his descriptions and word choices here suggest normative political opinions about what he’s describing, I tend to agree with him. Maybe he’s trying to go out of his way to say mean things about tycoons by calling them “men who understood no economic law other than” something-something, evoking a Gordon-Gekko–like deliberate lack of concern for the human consequences of their greed. Perhaps he’s even attempting to channel the fury directed at those tycoons at the time. But in doing so he completely misunderstands or misstates the profit motive, the economic objection to monopolies, as well as a major popular objection to tycoons around the time he’s describing. In a book about the radicalization of Leon Czolgosz and McKinley’s views on his own presidency, the motivations of tycoons would seem to be a minor point. But if Miller gets that wrong, what else does he get wrong? Maybe chapters 2–34 are absolutely wonderful but I just can’t get past that sentence in chapter 1.

* * *

I couldn’t bring myself to continue Scott Miller’s book because of what’s more or less a quibble, yet I had no problem finishing a book that seemed to have a howler on every page: The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, both of whom write for The Economist. As befits men who write for that publication, they produced a book that I can best describe as “glib”, “facile”, and “rather interesting”.

I tried to like this book, but found it impossible, in large part due to the breathtaking levels of understatement and disingenuousness. This is a book that sums up Russia’s post-Soviet privatization as “far from an unqualified success”. (The Economist has referred to it as an “insiderish carve-up of the country’s assets”, described it as “the so-called ‘shares-for-loans’ scheme under which controlling stakes in Russia’s biggest and most valuable state firms were handed out to a charmed circle of bankers at knock-down prices back in 1995”, and called it “infamous” and “indefensible from almost any point of view” while oddly and incongruously saying “it worked”, having also noted that it “had left most Russians so miserably poor, but made the country’s tycoons so rich”; The Guardian has said it “usher[ed] in the most cataclysmic peacetime economic collapse of an industrial country in history.”)

This is a book where, in a chapter on multinational corporations and how they’re tragically misunderstood, the closest the authors come to acknowledging companies like United Fruit and all the shit they pulled is by saying: “In the Depression-racked 1930s, a miserable time for multinationals of all sorts, the Americans found their fastest growth in Latin America.”

This is a book that argues that “[m]odern debates about shareholder capitalism often obscure the fact that many of the best Anglo-Saxon companies have happily shouldered social obligations without much prompting from government”. Even ignoring all the weasel words in that quote, it’s extremely disingenuous to suggest or imply that there are only two ways to get companies to change their behavior: corporate beneficence or government prompting. This false dichotomy is especially ridiculous when one of the cited examples is Procter & Gamble instituting 8-hour days in 1918—while it’s true P&G’s decision came well in advance of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the company only “happily shouldered” a shorter workday after decades of non-corporate and non-governmental action and agitation demanding 8-hour days (and after some other industries already had federal 8-hour laws in place, natch).

This is a book, published in 2003, that argues that in the aftermath of Enron and WorldCom, “the ‘bad apples’ school had been proved right in one respect: the market began to correct itself”, so any additional regulation would probably be counterproductive and unnecessary.

My complaint about Scott Miller’s book is a mere niggle in comparison to all that, yet I had no problem finishing The Company. Perhaps that was because, again befitting their tenure writing for The Economist, Micklethwait and Wooldridge proudly and openly wear their biases on their sleeve. It’s not a minor quibble I have with them, but a deeper and more substantive disagreement.

* * *

What prompted this post is the book I recently picked up, having for a while looked forward to enjoying it: Edward Dolnick’s The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society & the Birth of the Modern World. I’m interested in the history of science, and Newton was by all accounts a hell of a character.

The preface to the book opens by mentioning “the late 1600s” and goes on to describe the lack of hygiene in Europe around that time. On page xvi, shortly after Dolnick mentions particular occurrences in 1599 and 1715, he includes this in a footnote: “The historian Jules Michelet described the Middle Ages as ‘a thousand years without a bath.'” I found that footnote a bit perplexing for a couple of reasons.

First, I just finished reading Life in a Medieval City by Joseph and Frances Gies, which mentions the public baths in mid-13th-century Troyes and describes how, even if the masses bathed infrequently, in burghers’ homes “[p]erhaps once a week a wooden tub for bathing is set up, and servants lug up buckets that have been heated over the kitchen fire.” So the footnote’s description of the middle ages seems wrong. There’s an endnote corresponding to the footnote, in fact, where Dolnick cites Katherine Ashenburg’s The Dirt on Clean, stating: “Ashenburg notes that Michelet exaggerated. She puts the correct figure at four centuries.” I tracked down Ashenburg’s book, and it turns out she quotes Michelet as part of a discussion of “the medieval interlude of cleanliness”:

When the Crusaders returned from the East, they brought with them the news of Turkish baths, and for a few centuries medieval people enjoyed warm water, communal baths and plentiful opportunities for sexual hijinks. Although ecclesiastical disapproval and the threat of syphilis cast a shadow over the bathhouses, it was the devastating plagues of the fourteenth century that closed their doors in most of Europe. The French historian Jules Michelet called the years that followed “a thousand years without a bath”—in fact, four hundred years without a bath would be more accurate.

So the author Dolnick cites in the endnote to the footnote agrees with what I read in the Gieses’ book about the existence and use of public baths in the medieval period. If you’re going to include an endnote that contradicts or at least heavily qualifies the footnote it refers to, why not put the qualification in the footnote itself?[1]

Second, what’s the relevance of the quote in the footnote in the first place? The late 1600s aren’t the “Middle Ages”, after all. Even allowing for some flexibility and overlap in definitions, and acknowledging that there aren’t bright lines demarcating historical eras, the middle ages ended well before the 17th century. Wikipedia says (lol) the middle ages “lasted . . . to the 15th century”; if you want to find an entry in Wikipedia’s list of “Periods of the history of Europe” that includes the late 1600s, you need to go past “Renaissance” (and the ASCII-art breasts someone recently inserted in one of the section headings in “English Renaissance“) and settle on “Early modern Europe“, which Wikipedia defines as having begun “in the late 15th century or early 16th century”, much earlier than the time period the book addresses.

OK, OK, maybe I’m focusing too much on that footnote—let’s assume Dolnick is well aware that the late 17th century isn’t the middle ages, and just included the footnote as a way to work in a quote that he really liked. Can’t fault the man for that; I’ve been known to do it myself. So I read on and find this, starting on the next page:

Nature’s laws were vast in range but few in number; God’s operating manual filled only a line or two. . . . God was a mathematician, seventeenth-century scientists firmly believed. He had written His laws in a mathematical code. Their task was to find the key.

My focus is largely on the climax of the story, especially Newton’s unveiling, in 1687, of his theory of gravitation. But Newton’s astonishing achievement built on the work of such titans as Descartes, Galileo, and Kepler, who themselves had deciphered paragraphs and even whole pages of God’s cosmic code.

So Descartes, Galileo, and Kepler deciphered whole pages of an operating manual only a line or two long? Ugh. What if I press on?

Chapter 1 is entitled “London, 1660.” The second-to-last paragraph begins as follows:

In temperament Newton had little enough in common with the other men of the Royal Society. But all the early scientists shared a mental landscape. They all lived precariously between two worlds, the medieval one they had grown up in and a new one they had only glimpsed.

There’s that “medieval” again, now being applied to the childhoods of people who were doing science in the second half of the 17th century. Is Dolnick being metaphorical in its use, saying that they were born into a more superstitious period than the one they helped define? Or is he really defining the middle ages as extending into the 1600s?

Maybe chapters 2–52 are absolutely wonderful but I just can’t get past those remarks in the preface and chapter 1.

* * *

[1] As for my own footnote/endnote . . . I am taking no position regarding the accuracy of Ashenburg’s apparent statement that Michelet was describing “the years that followed” “the devastating plagues of the fourteenth century”, as opposed to including any earlier period within his “thousand years”. Gutenberg appears to have a different translation of Michelet’s work; the thousand-year remark is rendered there (itself in a footnote, of course) as follows:

Leprosy has been traced to Asia and the Crusades; but Europe had it in herself. The war declared by the Middle Ages against the flesh and all cleanliness bore its fruits. More than one saint boasted of having never washed even his hands. And how much did the rest wash? To have stripped for a moment would have been sinful. The worldlings carefully follow the teaching of the monks. This subtle and refined society, which sacrificed marriage and seemed inspired only with the poetry of adultery, preserved a strange scruple on a point so harmless. It dreaded all cleansing, as so much defilement. There was no bathing for a thousand years!

For what it’s worth, this rendition seems much more likely to be intentionally hyperbolic or exaggerated.

On Tobacco

June 22, 2009

Kretek (clove) cigarettes are illegal in the United States of America, or at least they will be three months from today. Earlier today, the President signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act into law.

Some of the Act’s provisions, like requiring disclosure of all the ingredients in a pack of cigarettes, seem sound.

Others seem harmless. European smokers migrated from Marlboro “Light” and “Ultra Light” to “Gold” and “Silver” without a hitch. I don’t imagine banning terms like “Light” and “Mild” in the US will have much of a different result. And as for graphic warning labels, everyone already knows cigarettes are bad for them. I guess maybe a label might, somehow, keep a 14-year-old who was on the fence about smoking from starting. But it sure as shit isn’t going to get anybody to quit.

Still other provisions, though, seem somewhat ominous despite their ostensibly good intentions. Section 907(a)(1)(A) of the Act provides that (emphasis added):

Beginning 3 months after the date of enactment of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, a cigarette or any of its component parts (including the tobacco, filter, or paper) shall not contain, as a constituent (including a smoke constituent) or additive, an artificial or natural flavor (other than tobacco or menthol) or an herb or spice, including strawberry, grape, orange, clove, cinnamon, pineapple, vanilla, coconut, licorice, cocoa, chocolate, cherry, or coffee, that is a characterizing flavor of the tobacco product or tobacco smoke.

I note that menthol is specifically exempted from the ban on flavors. I also note that Philip Morris, one of the largest tobacco producers, sells an awful lot of menthol cigarettes, has donated lavishly to the election campaigns of many Congresspersons, and apparently was a supporter of the Act. I also note that some smaller, foreign-owned tobacco companies, like Djarum, exclusively sell clove cigarettes. RJ Reynolds sells some flavored tobacco, notably in the Camel line, but none of the major domestic tobacco companies are anywhere near as deeply invested in flavored cigarettes as some of their foreign competition. I can’t help thinking that, maybe, the big US tobacco companies, well aware that there is no political will for an outright and total ban on tobacco in general, lobbied for and magnanimously agreed to what amounts to an outright and total ban on some of their niche competitors.

Section 906(d)(4)(A) provides that:

The Secretary shall—

(i) within 18 months after the date of enactment of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, promulgate regulations regarding the sale and distribution of tobacco products that occur through means other than a direct, face-to-face exchange between a retailer and a consumer in order to prevent the sale and distribution of tobacco products to individuals who have not attained the minimum age established by applicable law for the purchase of such products, including requirements for age verification; and

(ii) within 2 years after such date of enactment, issue regulations to address the promotion and marketing of tobacco products that are sold or distributed through means other than a direct, face-to-face exchange between a retailer and a consumer in order to protect individuals who have not attained the minimum age established by applicable law for the purchase of such products.

I respect and applaud the desire to keep cigarettes out of kids’ hands. But I can’t help thinking that, maybe, the real reason to regulate remote sales of cigarettes has to do with tax revenue. New York State, for example, levies a fairly high tax on each pack of cigarettes sold. New York City adds another tax on top of that. The net result of those taxes is that smokers who can afford to do so tend to order cigarettes a few cartons at a time over the internet from vendors in different jurisdictions where smokes are cheaper. Banning non-face-to-face sales would “protect the children” while, conveniently, raising some states’ tax revenues.

Speaking of which. Does it bug anybody else that a lot of states are now rather heavily dependent on the revenue they make from taxing cigarettes? If everyone magically stopped smoking, in addition to the huge job loss that would result many states would instantly lose income streams they’ve come to rely on. Just as the tobacco companies’ own halfhearted stop-smoking campaigns ring hollow, so too do statements by many state actors.

Note that I’m not even a smoker. But I did used to enjoy a clove every now and again, and I will be rather sad to see them go. And I think it’s hypocritical for anyone to bemoan smoking while simultaneously exploiting people’s nicotine addictions to help out with a budget.

Open Letter to John McCain

October 15, 2008

Dear Mr McCain:

Why do you hate science?

I will be going to a planetarium this week-end to spite you.

Literati’s Law of Averages

September 30, 2008

As defined in Roger Ebert’s Movie Glossary, Literati’s Law of Averages states:

When any character in a movie is reading a book, the page he is reading always will be in the exact center of the book.

Seldom has there been a more egregious example of this law, assuming it can be extended to television as well, than in the following stills from The Sopranos.

First, we have a close-up of the book Carmen Soprano is reading: a real-estate sales exam study book, clearly open to the first page of chapter 1.

The very next shot is a reverse-angle shot, showing Carmen holding the book. It’s been clearly established that she’s just started the book (see the picture above), yet the book is open to its exact center. Maybe it just has an extremely long table of contents, introduction, foreword, and so on?

It’s made all the more infuriating by this counterexample from another Sopranos episode. AJ is reading A People’s History of the United States and finding out about Christopher Columbus’s wacky adventures in enslaving and genociding the Arawaks. This is recounted at the very beginning of the book, as it happens, and AJ’s book is opened to the very beginning.

I guess it’s a function of having different directors for different episodes, but it’s kind of annoying that they got it right once and got it horribly, horribly wrong another time. (And for the record, the real estate example was the horribly wrong one.)

Back in the groove

August 18, 2008

You can tell I’m back in school because the trash can in my kitchen is overflowing and includes a precarious stack of take-out containers. (I swear, I’ll get to it soon.) Also by my backpack crammed full of weighty tomes. This time, they’re on topics like civil procedure and torts rather than aerodynamics and solid mechanics, but they’re still just as dense, jargon-filled, and pricey. Good times.

Not even kidding, by the way. Thus far it has absolutely been good times. A bunch of reading already, but it’s actually been quite interesting. I am enjoying this.

In other news: I’m extremely unhappy with some aspects of my Very Expensive University’s IT setup. They maintain a “portal” providing access to a bunch of different things, like schoolwide announcements, class listings, assigned reading, syllabi, email, and so on. Even before I was enrolled, I was granted limited portal access as an admitted student. At that time, I created a username and password for the portal, which later served as my username and password for school email. As was my wont, I selected a password that was mixed-case, included numerals, and didn’t have any dictionary words in it—you know, a “good” password. So far, so good.

The problem arose when I attempted to log in to the school’s wireless internet connection. My http traffic was redirected, as expected, to a login page. I’d been assured that my portal credentials would serve as my WiFi credentials as well—but every time I tried to log in to WiFi, I was informed that my credentials were invalid. I checked and doublechecked them, and made sure they still allowed me to check my email at the dedicated email stations around the corner.

So I made my way over to the help desk and explained my problem. The helpful and friendly (and patient—I was far from the only person asking for help at the same time) operator asked for my VEU student ID, which I provided her. She typed some stuff into her computer and started copying information from her screen to a sticky note, which she proceeded to show me.

On the sticky note were written my username and my password. Even worse, it wasn’t actually the password I’d set for myself, since it had been converted to lowercase. It turns out the reason I couldn’t log in was that the WiFi authentication was expecting my password all in lowercase.

Can you get any further from best practices? Not just storing the passwords as cleartext, which is bad enough, but forcing them to lowercase. I can’t decide which upsets me more.

Same old song and dance

June 9, 2008

One of these days, or weeks or months or years, I’m going to remember that there are people who are more than willing to help me, and who don’t want me to fail horribly. And one of these days, it is to be hoped, I’ll let myself be helped before it’s too late—even if it means asking for help. I swear.

Note: I’m not too proud to ask for help, I just really really hate bothering or inconveniencing people. Which sometimes makes me end up inconveniencing people a thousand times worse down the road, when something eminently preventable spirals or festers or snowballs out of control.

So, yeah.

In other news, I saw The Tallest Man on Earth yesterday, and he put on a great show. He briefly forgot the words to one of his own songs, but these things happen. Plus, he covered for it pretty well, and it was a very friendly & appreciative crowd. Also, Mr on Earth himself is quite a friendly and good-natured guy. A+++, would see again.


May 29, 2008

Speaking of corn… Considering that the cows that provide the beef are fed a diet of corn and basically every other ingredient is sweetened with corn, you could argue that McDonald’s really serves cornburgers.

And speaking of speaking of corn, what a fortuitous billboard to drive past while having the above discussion:

a billboard, or a billboard like it????????
What is it supposed to mean? Is it some kind of puzzle where a picture of a Big Mac represents a certain value? Is it a rebus? I really can’t be sure.

The most obvious interpretation might be “100% beef”. But that would mean that “Big Mac” symbolizes zero. I doubt that suggesting McDonald’s’ flagship product equates to nothingness is what Ronald’s ad mavens had in mind.

Yet the only other plausible interpretation I could come up with [1] was “1% beef”, just outright ignoring the non-ASCII characters. [2] And that seems even more ridiculous, and even less like it would be the desired message.

But if it’s “100% beef”, it’s unclear what the percentage would be referring to. The only antecedent on the billboard itself is an entire Big Mac; buns, cheese, Thousand Island secret sauce, and all. Unless they’re making their bread out of beef these days, the overall beef percentage in a Big Mac is well below unity, regardless of whether you’re measuring by weight or volume.

A lot of these problems could have been avoided if they’d just used hamburger patties as zeroes, and put a huge Big Mac behind the text. Patties are a good deal rounder than entire burgers [3], so they’re a more straightforward stand-in for zeroes [4]; and equating a patty to zero wouldn’t be as belittling to the brand. Plus, the patties themselves are (or should be) an awful lot closer to 100% beef than the sandwiches as wholes.

Though now I’m tempted to try a proper hamburger sandwich (think “bread sandwich”, but with hamburgers rather than slices of bread).

* * *

[1] I’m assuming base 10 here. This billboard is from McDonald’s, after all, not Google.

[2] Is there a Unicode codepoint for “Big Mac”? How about “hamburger”?

[3] Were this a Wendy’s billboard, their square patties would present an entirely different set of problems. But that’s for a different discussion.

[4] Of course, zeroes usually aren’t perfectly round either, which I’ve been known to complain about in other advertisements. But no matter how you render your zeroes, they’re going to look more similar to hamburger patties than to hamburger sandwiches, so the point remains.

For shame

May 5, 2008

I thought that carton of ice cream looked a bit different from how I remembered. Take a look at this picture (new carton on top, old one on the bottom):

The incredible shrinking ice cream

I’m disappointed in you, Breyer’s. You used to have integrity.

Song of the Moment: «Fratres (for 12 cellos)» — Arvo Pärt


March 24, 2008

I’ve never cared in the least about the NCAA tournament, and I’ve never followed college basketball. (I attended a few Princeton games years ago, but that’s mostly just because my dad is a huge fan of Pete Carril’s system.) So I wouldn’t have entered the office NCAA pool, except that my boss basically insisted on it.

Then UConn went and lost in the first round and blew everything to hell. Thanks a lot, Huskies.

Song of the Moment: «The Chokin’ Kind» — Joe Simon

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