Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Denial is not only a river in Egypt . . .

it's a river in the U.S. as well. I've mentioned this before but it seems like a good time to pay it a visit, since the world in general has its collective head up its ass in many ways. (Viz. Australia.)

Over geological time, the Mississippi River has continually changed its course. This has been known for a long time. Here's a map made in 1944 that shows some of the geological history that was already known back then. This happens because it flows across the flat midsection of the country and it meanders. On the outside of a meander the water moves faster and cuts into the bank. On the inside, it flows slowly and deposits sediment. So eventually it cuts a new channel. For example in 1876 the city of Vicksburg, which was formerly on the river, suddenly wasn't any more.

Too bad for Vicksburg (which was subsequently reconnected to the river by a canal), but that was only a local disaster. But if not for a massive engineering project called the Old River Control Structure, as of today the Mississippi would not flow through New Orleans. Rather, it would jump course and the main flow of the river would go down the Atchafalaya. If that doesn't sound like it would be such a bad thing:

a) Yes it would be very, very bad and
b) It will happen.

The Old River Control Structure is destined to fail, because sediment builds up downstream of it and continually increases the pressure. With the increasingly frequent and severe flooding caused by the Chinese Hoax, the likelihood of failure increases even faster. No-one can predict exactly when it will happen but when it does:

Barge traffic to and from New Orleans will become impossible. That means the U.S. will be unable to export agricultural products from the midwest, including 60% of the nation's grain exports, creating a global food shortage. Morgan City, Louisiana will be destroyed along with several small towns. Pipelines and electrical transmission lines that currently cross the Atchafalaya will also be destroyed. Vast areas will lose electricity and natural gas. One and a half million people will lose fresh water. [Update: This means that New Orleans will have to be abandoned.] Notice I use the future tense, not the conditional. All of this will happen.

There is a solution, which is to let it happen gradually. That will mean eventual abandonment of existing Mississippi River ports, and creation of new ones. Morgan City will replace New Orleans as the principle city at the mouth of the Mississippi. (It will have to be moved as well as greatly expanded.) The refineries and other infrastructure currently at the mouth of the Mississippi will have to be abandoned and rebuilt at the mouth of the Atchafalaya, but all that's going to happen anyway.

However, people are not sufficiently wise.

BTW I gave you the link to Part Three of the three-part Weather Underground series on this. You might want to start here.


Tuesday, January 14, 2020

It can be done

Dylan Scott tells the tale of Taiwan's successful implementation of single payer national health care. If you read the whole article you'll find a strange ambivalence. He seems to feel compelled to practice both-sideism and find a downside, but he fails to put it in context.

The purported downside is that health care costs keep rising so they have to choose between raising more revenues and restricting services. But that has nothing to do with the single payer system. That's true everywhere, no matter what kind of payment system, including in the U.S. In the UK, the Conservative governments have failed to provide enough revenue for the National Health Service for many years now, which has resulted in some problems with quality and waits for elective procedures, as well as physician burnout. But that's no an indictment of the concept, it's an indictment of the execution. Both the UK and Taiwanese systems are much more efficient than the U.S. system, by not squandering 20% or more on administration, marketing and profit; and they cover everybody.

Another problem in Taiwan is a shortage of doctors. Basically, the production of new physicians didn't keep up with the increased demand  once everybody got coverage. But this is also a solvable problem. It is expensive and does take a long time to make new M.D.s, but a lot of routine health care can be provided by professionals who are a lot cheaper and faster to produce -- physician assistants and nurse practitioners. If the Taiwanese would make that investment, they could solve that problem in a few years I would think.

Those issues aside, the program is extremely popular. Everybody's covered, out of pocket expenses are largely trivial, and the taxes that pay for it are less than the insurance premiums Americans have to pay -- whether they know it or not because they may be hidden in payroll deductions.

But, the bad news is that the system was created before Taiwan became a democracy. The unelected leadership implemented it based on recommendations from American policy specialist Uwe Reinhardt, and they didn't have to worry that it was unpopular at the time. But once it actually happened, it became extremely popular and has continued full strength under subsequent elected governments. And that's the problem we face. Medicare for All loses support when people realize that it will mean a big change from the status quo, which may be okay for many of them; and of course it is opposed by the insurance industry and many providers and suppliers who expect their own incomes will be squeezed, and probably rightly so.

So it's a daunting problem politically. But it's the right thing to do.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Sunday Sermonette: Bez does it all

Yep, he's not just a carpenter and a goldsmith and a perfumer, he's a tailor and a jeweler . . .

Thank God [sic] Exodus is almost over. There's one more chapter after this, then we get into Leviticus, which is maybe slightly more interesting than all of these specifications. However, the narrative doesn't start up again until Numbers. We're going to spend the next few months mired in the intricacies of various categories of rules, including believe it or not a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Skin Diseases. The interesting thing about these last few chapters of Exodus is that nobody pays any attention to them any more. The priestly garments described here in 39 are long forgotten. The whole thing seems pointless to us now but obviously it seemed very important to the people who took the trouble to write all of this down, and possibly to actually make this stuff although we can't know that it was ever real. Leviticus is different however. Both Jews and Christians basically pick and choose from it, although they choose differently. But which parts are still observed today and which are not seems largely arbitrary. Anyway, here is the description of the priestly garments. What it all means I cannot say. Well, one thing. Back in Exodus 28 we learned that the bell and pomegranate are to warn God that the priest is entering the holy place so that God doesn't kill him. God just isn't very aware, it seems.

39 Of the blue, purple, and crimson yarns they made finely worked vestments, for ministering in the holy place; they made the sacred vestments for Aaron; as the Lord had commanded Moses.
He made the ephod of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen. Gold leaf was hammered out and cut into threads to work into the blue, purple, and crimson yarns and into the fine twisted linen, in skilled design. They made for the ephod shoulder-pieces, joined to it at its two edges. The decorated band on it was of the same materials and workmanship, of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen; as the Lord had commanded Moses.
The onyx stones were prepared, enclosed in settings of gold filigree and engraved like the engravings of a signet, according to the names of the sons of Israel. He set them on the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, to be stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel; as the Lord had commanded Moses.
He made the breastpiece, in skilled work, like the work of the ephod, of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen. It was square; the breastpiece was made double, a span in length and a span in width when doubled. 10 They set in it four rows of stones. A row of carnelian,[a] chrysolite, and emerald was the first row; 11 and the second row, a turquoise, a sapphire,[b] and a moonstone; 12 and the third row, a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst; 13 and the fourth row, a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper; they were enclosed in settings of gold filigree. 14 There were twelve stones with names corresponding to the names of the sons of Israel; they were like signets, each engraved with its name, for the twelve tribes. 15 They made on the breastpiece chains of pure gold, twisted like cords; 16 and they made two settings of gold filigree and two gold rings, and put the two rings on the two edges of the breastpiece; 17 and they put the two cords of gold in the two rings at the edges of the breastpiece. 18 Two ends of the two cords they had attached to the two settings of filigree; in this way they attached it in front to the shoulder-pieces of the ephod. 19 Then they made two rings of gold, and put them at the two ends of the breastpiece, on its inside edge next to the ephod. 20 They made two rings of gold, and attached them in front to the lower part of the two shoulder-pieces of the ephod, at its joining above the decorated band of the ephod. 21 They bound the breastpiece by its rings to the rings of the ephod with a blue cord, so that it should lie on the decorated band of the ephod, and that the breastpiece should not come loose from the ephod; as the Lord had commanded Moses.
22 He also made the robe of the ephod woven all of blue yarn; 23 and the opening of the robe in the middle of it was like the opening in a coat of mail,[c] with a binding around the opening, so that it might not be torn. 24 On the lower hem of the robe they made pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen. 25 They also made bells of pure gold, and put the bells between the pomegranates on the lower hem of the robe all around, between the pomegranates; 26 a bell and a pomegranate, a bell and a pomegranate all around on the lower hem of the robe for ministering; as the Lord had commanded Moses.
27 They also made the tunics, woven of fine linen, for Aaron and his sons, 28 and the turban of fine linen, and the headdresses of fine linen, and the linen undergarments of fine twisted linen, 29 and the sash of fine twisted linen, and of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, embroidered with needlework; as the Lord had commanded Moses.
30 They made the rosette of the holy diadem of pure gold, and wrote on it an inscription, like the engraving of a signet, “Holy to the Lord.” 31 They tied to it a blue cord, to fasten it on the turban above; as the Lord had commanded Moses.

The Work Completed

32 In this way all the work of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting was finished; the Israelites had done everything just as the Lord had commanded Moses. 33 Then they brought the tabernacle to Moses, the tent and all its utensils, its hooks, its frames, its bars, its pillars, and its bases; 34 the covering of tanned rams’ skins and the covering of fine leather,[d] and the curtain for the screen; 35 the ark of the covenant[e] with its poles and the mercy seat;[f] 36 the table with all its utensils, and the bread of the Presence; 37 the pure lampstand with its lamps set on it and all its utensils, and the oil for the light; 38 the golden altar, the anointing oil and the fragrant incense, and the screen for the entrance of the tent; 39 the bronze altar, and its grating of bronze, its poles, and all its utensils; the basin with its stand; 40 the hangings of the court, its pillars, and its bases, and the screen for the gate of the court, its cords, and its pegs; and all the utensils for the service of the tabernacle, for the tent of meeting; 41 the finely worked vestments for ministering in the holy place, the sacred vestments for the priest Aaron, and the vestments of his sons to serve as priests. 42 The Israelites had done all of the work just as the Lord had commanded Moses. 43 When Moses saw that they had done all the work just as the Lord had commanded, he blessed them.

Footnotes:

  1. Exodus 39:10 The identification of several of these stones is uncertain
  2. Exodus 39:11 Or lapis lazuli
  3. Exodus 39:23 Meaning of Heb uncertain
  4. Exodus 39:34 Meaning of Heb uncertain
  5. Exodus 39:35 Or treaty, or testimony; Heb eduth
  6. Exodus 39:35 Or the cover

Thursday, January 09, 2020

The Growing Importance of Medical Intervention

For most of the years while I was coming up in the world of public health and social policy, it was accepted truth that medical intervention made only a small contribution to population health. Quantifying "population health" as a single entity is obviously highly problematic. There are many components that people will value differently. There is mean life expectancy at birth, which is a common measure that is not terribly difficult to calculate; although as I have explained here before and won't bother to do again right now it's a fictitious construct that does not predict how long you actually have to live. Rather it's a snapshot of the ages at which people are dying today.

Regardless, there's a lot it doesn't tell you. Even with regard to lifespan, a few people living to a ridiculously old age will pull it up but maybe we care more about how many people get to live whatever we might consider to be a "full lifespan," which conventionally has been three-score years and ten, i.e. 70. Maybe we care more about relatively early deaths rather than extremely long lives, in other words. It also doesn't say anything about inequity. And of course it doesn't say how healthy people are or how rewarding or happy their lives are. There are measures called Quality Adjusted Life Years and Disability Adjusted Life Years that try to provide aggregated measures of longevity and well-being combined, but they are highly value laden and controversial. (Again, I've discussed these before, you can look them up.)

Nevertheless, people would try to quantify the contribution of medical intervention and you'd typically see estimates ranging from 20% to 50%. The remainder is a consequence of the social and physical environment (given that genetic heritage isn't really controllable and is taken as given). Since the social environment strongly determines our physical environment -- including diet, exposure to pollution, occupational risk, psycho-social stress and so on -- these are often summarized as Social Determinants of Health, or SDH. One respected thinker, Ivan Illich, even made an argument that many found convincing, that medical intervention was a net negative for humanity (mostly in a book titled Medical Nemesis).

It is still true that SDH are probably more important than doctors, and even more strongly if you compare rich and poor countries and counties within the U.S. Nevertheless the relative contribution of medicine has increased somewhat, in many people's opinion which I largely share. It's been a slow process with plenty of two steps forward and one step back; and plenty of bad mistakes along the way including treatments which indeed do more harm than good. Nevertheless the general direction has turned out to be positive in the long term. Bad news: It's gotten more expensive, which means that medical services eat up more and more of the economy and there's a cost to that. We might get more bang by spending some of the bucks elsewhere, which is no contradiction to the claim that medicine is now contributing more to health and well-being.

An important case in point is the cancer death rate. You can read all about it here. The overall age adjusted cancer death rate has fallen steadily since 1991 through 2017, resulting in 2.9 million fewer deaths from cancer than had the peak rate persisted. (This is the age adjusted rate, which they don't bother to mention most of the time. Actually the raw number of cancer deaths has increased because there are more people and they tend to be older, but you have to wipe those facts out when you think about this.) The rather novel message is that most of this is due to improved treatment. Yes, the biggest contributor is lung cancer deaths and yes, lower smoking rates are part of that, but better treatment is just as important. Better treatment for myeloproliferative disorders (leukemia), melanoma, breast cancer and prostate cancer also contribute. Lots of cancer is now definitively curable, and lots more has greatly increased survival time, though not necessarily with great quality of life. All of this means a cancer diagnosis doesn't have to be as terrifying and final as it used to be.

On the other hand a lot of this treatment is very expensive. On the one hand that means that universal access to affordable health care is more important than ever, on the other hand it means it's harder to pay for. But that's the way it is. We'll keep this context in mind in future discussions of public health and health care policy.


Sunday, January 05, 2020

Regrettable News

Sadly, I events have motivated me to re-launch the blog formerly known as Today in Iraq, Iraq today, Today in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Today in Afghanistan. I have also retitled it, Today in the Endless War. I will make appropriate changes to the sidebars in due course. I am profoundly sorry, and angry, that this occasion has arisen.

Sunday Sermonette: A whole lotta loot

Exodus 38 continues the repetitive, mind numbing description of the tabernacle. The interesting part is at the end, however. According to Skeptics Annotated Bible, the amount of metal used for the tabernacle works out to a metric ton of gold (i.e. 1,000 kg), 3.5 metric tons of silver, and 2.45 metric tons of bronze. According to my calculations, the gold alone would be worth more than 54 million dollars today. This is particularly strange because, as you may recall, all of their gold has already been melted down to make the golden calf and then destroyed.

Also rather strange is that there are 603,555 men in the group, and therefore a couple of million women and children. There were 70 Hebrews about 400 years ago in Exodus 1. That's being fruitful and multiplying for sure. Also, too, they're eating one hell of a lot of manna.

38 He made the altar of burnt offering also of acacia wood; it was five cubits long, and five cubits wide; it was square, and three cubits high. He made horns for it on its four corners; its horns were of one piece with it, and he overlaid it with bronze. He made all the utensils of the altar, the pots, the shovels, the basins, the forks, and the firepans: all its utensils he made of bronze. He made for the altar a grating, a network of bronze, under its ledge, extending halfway down. He cast four rings on the four corners of the bronze grating to hold the poles; he made the poles of acacia wood, and overlaid them with bronze. And he put the poles through the rings on the sides of the altar, to carry it with them; he made it hollow, with boards.
He made the basin of bronze with its stand of bronze, from the mirrors of the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.

He made the court; for the south side the hangings of the court were of fine twisted linen, one hundred cubits long; 10 its twenty pillars and their twenty bases were of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their bands were of silver. 11 For the north side there were hangings one hundred cubits long; its twenty pillars and their twenty bases were of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their bands were of silver. 12 For the west side there were hangings fifty cubits long, with ten pillars and ten bases; the hooks of the pillars and their bands were of silver. 13 And for the front to the east, fifty cubits. 14 The hangings for one side of the gate were fifteen cubits, with three pillars and three bases. 15 And so for the other side; on each side of the gate of the court were hangings of fifteen cubits, with three pillars and three bases. 16 All the hangings around the court were of fine twisted linen. 17 The bases for the pillars were of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their bands were of silver; the overlaying of their capitals was also of silver, and all the pillars of the court were banded with silver. 18 The screen for the entrance to the court was embroidered with needlework in blue, purple, and crimson yarns and fine twisted linen. It was twenty cubits long and, along the width of it, five cubits high, corresponding to the hangings of the court. 19 There were four pillars; their four bases were of bronze, their hooks of silver, and the overlaying of their capitals and their bands of silver. 20 All the pegs for the tabernacle and for the court all around were of bronze.

21 These are the records of the tabernacle, the tabernacle of the covenant,[a] which were drawn up at the commandment of Moses, the work of the Levites being under the direction of Ithamar son of the priest Aaron. 22 Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, made all that the Lord commanded Moses; 23 and with him was Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, engraver, designer, and embroiderer in blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and in fine linen.
24 All the gold that was used for the work, in all the construction of the sanctuary, the gold from the offering, was twenty-nine talents and seven hundred thirty shekels, measured by the sanctuary shekel. 25 The silver from those of the congregation who were counted was one hundred talents and one thousand seven hundred seventy-five shekels, measured by the sanctuary shekel; 26 a beka a head (that is, half a shekel, measured by the sanctuary shekel), for everyone who was counted in the census, from twenty years old and upward, for six hundred three thousand, five hundred fifty men. 27 The hundred talents of silver were for casting the bases of the sanctuary, and the bases of the curtain; one hundred bases for the hundred talents, a talent for a base. 28 Of the thousand seven hundred seventy-five shekels he made hooks for the pillars, and overlaid their capitals and made bands for them. 29 The bronze that was contributed was seventy talents, and two thousand four hundred shekels; 30 with it he made the bases for the entrance of the tent of meeting, the bronze altar and the bronze grating for it and all the utensils of the altar, 31 the bases all around the court, and the bases of the gate of the court, all the pegs of the tabernacle, and all the pegs around the court.

Footnotes:

  1. Exodus 38:21 Or treaty, or testimony; Heb eduth



Friday, January 03, 2020

Bullet List

Too much going on for one post today.

1. Sock puppet?

We have a reader who is obsessed with his false conclusion that the commenter Don Quixote is actually my sock puppet. I ask you please to stop wasting your time and mine with this delusion. We do know each other, but we have seen each other once in the past 15 years or so. I live in Connecticut and he lives in the midwest, more than 1,000 miles away. Whatever I have to say, I am more than happy to say in my own name, and I do. BTW I am not known as Michael.

2. Mad King

Your Intertubes are all aflutter with speculation and discussion about the neurodegenerative disease many believe is affecting the Resident. Lapsed economist Duncan Black has perceived dementia for a long time, while wisely declining to offer a specific diagnosis. I take the same stance. I am not a neurologist, and even if I were and had the opportunity to examine the subject, it is actually not possible to definitively classify most forms of dementia except by autopsy. And autopsy is normally counterindicated in a living patient. So arguments about whether we are seeing Progressive Supranuclear Palsy or Primary Progressive Aphasia or whatever are feckless and a meaningless distraction.

However, diagnostic labeling aside, a few things are apparent. The observable symptoms began with disordered speech, and speech disorder continues to be the most prominent and apparent manifestation. This includes increasingly impoverished vocabulary, strange word substitutions (oranges for origins), repetitiveness, abrupt and clanging digressions, episodes of dissolving syntax and at the worst, word salad.

In addition to the obviously progressive aphasia, many people perceive declining motor skills. His gait seems lumbering and his gestures are increasingly awkward. He no longer gestures with his hands as he once did; rather his arms move in a characteristic accordion playing motion while his hands are rigid. He appears to be wearing some sort of a back brace which is visible under his jacket. His behavior is increasingly weird, as the sharpie incident attests. This all appears to be some form of frontotemporal dementia. The rate of progress is unpredictable but many actual experts have commented on the likelihood of dementia including psychiatrist Seth Norrholm, psychologist Jon Gartner, as well as journalists who have observed numerous disturbing incidents including Paul Waldman, and various others. I don't like to give any credit to the coward Anonymous but he's pretty clear that the Resident is losing his marbles. If this progresses much further he will no longer be presentable in public. We'll see if he's capable or reading the SOTU speech from the teleprompter soon enough.

3. War

I fear I may have to revive the Today in Iraq and Afghanistan blog, and add Iran to the title. I'll make my own comments brief right now; it's not clear how this will unfold. But let me refer you to some knowledgeable resources.

The Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution gets a lot of its funding from pro-Israeli sources and seldom offers criticism of Israel. Nevertheless I find that senior fellow Daniel Byman provides an informative perspective. It is true that that Quds force, headed by Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani who the U.S. assassinated this morning, has been responsible for many attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, and that the Quds brigade provides assistance to various actors in the Middle East who the U.S. does not like. (Regarding the former, remember that the U.S. invaded Iraq in an illegal war of aggression and that the militias the Quds force assisted considered themselves to be acting in defense of their country. This is the point of view of many people in Iraq, including the Iranian-aligned militias and political leaders who continue to campaign for U.S. forces to leave.) Byman recognizes all this but makes the pragmatic argument that the U.S. action is likely to have severe adverse consequences and there does not seem to be any overarching strategy behind it. Juan Cole is equally, if not more worried. He sees this as a desperate attempt to change the subject from Trump's corruption and the ongoing impeachment action in Congress. He provides a lot of context and some international perspective.

Maybe I'll write about Australia tomorrow.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Personal Responsibility

A fundamental assumption of libertarianism, and of ordinary conservatism, is that people's lot in life is generally deserved. Poor people, substance abusers, offenders -- they didn't work hard enough, they are moral failures, they don't love Jesus, whatever, it's their own fault. People who are economically and socially successful earned what they have. Social problems are individual problems -- if we try to help the unfortunate, we just enable their failings.

Back in the 1990s (while Bill Clinton was president) the CDC cosponsored a study with Kaiser-Permanente on what are called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE). Sure, we all have adverse experiences in childhood and right on through life. But it's a matter of degree. An official ACE doesn't mean you fell and broke your arm, or even that a bully stole your lunch money or your crush didn't like you back. ACEs are really traumatic experiences, such as witnessing or experiencing serious violence -- including being a victim of abuse -- having a family member attempt or complete suicide, and living in a family with mental illness or addiction. CDC offers a brief fact sheet here.

You might be surprised how common these are. More than 60% of people report having experienced at least one, and some 16% reported four or more. Here's the big point: these are strongly associated with problems in adulthood. To quote the CDC fact sheet:

ACEs can have lasting, negative effects on health, well-being, and opportunity. These experiences can increase the risks of injury, sexually transmitted infections, maternal and child health problems, teen pregnancy, involvement in sex trafficking, and a wide range of chronic diseases and leading causes of death such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and suicide.
ACEs and associated conditions, such as living in under-resourced or racially segregated neighborhoods, frequently moving, and experiencing food insecurity, can cause toxic stress (extended or prolonged stress). Toxic stress from ACEs can change brain development and affect such things as attention, decision-making, learning, and response to stress.
Children growing up with toxic stress may have difficulty forming healthy and stable relationships. They may also have unstable work histories as adults and struggle with finances, jobs, and depression throughout life. These effects can also be passed on to their own children. Some children may face further exposure to toxic stress from historical and ongoing traumas due to systemic racism or the impacts of poverty resulting from limited educational and economic opportunities.
The associations are complex and multifarious -- they can't be neatly summarized. If you're interested you can find a bibliography here. But the point is, we don't make ourselves. Sure, some people overcome adversity, but they generally do it with a lot of help. The world is not naturally just. Our lot in life has a whole lot to do with the good or bad fortune of our childhood. And children are not at fault for what happens to them. We have to make justice, and that means taking affirmative action.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Truth vs. the conservative movement

It isn't news, but the New York Times has done a retrospective summarizing the current Administration's war on science. Because of the paywall, you might want to go to this Daily Kos diary that summarizes it, with some supplementary links.

The story is that the administration has been systematically destroying the federal government's scientific resources, and purging scientific expertise and even generally known facts from the decision making process. To quote the Times story:

In just three years, the Trump administration has diminished the role of science in federal policymaking while halting or disrupting research projects nationwide, marking a transformation of the federal government whose effects, experts said, could reverberate for years. Political appointees have shut down government studies, reduced the influence of scientists over regulatory decisions and in some cases pressured researchers not to speak publicly. The administration has particularly challenged scientific findings related to the environment and public health opposed by industries such as oil drilling and coal mining. It has also impeded research around human-caused climate change, which President Donald Trump has dismissed despite a global scientific consensus.
I've discussed some of this before, in this space. The reason this is happening is simple, as Stephen Colbert has explained: Reality has a well-known liberal bias. If we believe that ultrafine particle pollution kills people, that toxins in the water supply sicken and kill people, then we would have to conclude that the Free Market™ does not magically make the world wonderful. We would have to draw the same conclusion if burning fossil fuels causes destructive climate change. If we were to believe those Chinese hoaxes, then billionaires would not be free to enrich themselves by poisoning us and destroying civilization. That would be a violation of the sacrality of the Free Market™, so none of it can possibly be true.

And those scientists must all be commies.

Well, if you voted for him, you must agree with all that. Too bad about all those hundreds of years of scientific progress since The Enlightenment. Obviously that was all a hoax. Things were so much better in the 14th Century.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: Deja vu all over again

I must warn you: the four remaining chapters of  Exodus, and all of Leviticus, are tedious beyond description. They have almost no relevance to Christians, and limited relevance to contemporary Jews. Even orthodox Jews take only a few principles from this, such as not eating pork or shellfish. The narrative stops and instead we are given long, very specific lists of rules. There isn't any evident underlying or organizing ethical philosophy behind this.

Some of the rules have to do with how God wants to be worshiped. This has been a particular emphasis in Exodus and it's largely the focus on which the book concludes. Leviticus has a whole lot about what you can and cannot eat, what is and is not "unclean," what we would classify as civil and criminal property law, familial obligations, what we would classify as medical diagnosis (although rather than treatment, the response is likely to be exile), sexual morality . Some of it has a perceivable practical basis, some of it we can speculate about, some of it seems arbitrary or preposterous. It describes a patriarchal, strongly hierarchical and rigidly organized society. And as I say, nobody alive observes more than a small percentage of it.

About Exodus 37, which we reproduce today, I have nothing really to say. God has given these instructions already (twice!) and now we hear the whole thing again, framed as Bezalel actually carrying them out, with some additional small details added, of no evident import. Since Jews are no longer pastoral nomads, their temples are no longer portable and in any case they don't resemble this one. And that was already true at the time the Torah was compiled. Why the scribes were so interested in this we cannot say.

37 Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood; it was two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. He overlaid it with pure gold inside and outside, and made a molding of gold around it. He cast for it four rings of gold for its four feet, two rings on its one side and two rings on its other side. He made poles of acacia wood, and overlaid them with gold, and put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, to carry the ark. He made a mercy seat[a] of pure gold; two cubits and a half was its length, and a cubit and a half its width. He made two cherubim of hammered gold; at the two ends of the mercy seat[b] he made them, one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other end; of one piece with the mercy seat[c] he made the cherubim at its two ends. The cherubim spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat[d] with their wings. They faced one another; the faces of the cherubim were turned toward the mercy seat.[e]

10 He also made the table of acacia wood, two cubits long, one cubit wide, and a cubit and a half high. 11 He overlaid it with pure gold, and made a molding of gold around it. 12 He made around it a rim a handbreadth wide, and made a molding of gold around the rim. 13 He cast for it four rings of gold, and fastened the rings to the four corners at its four legs. 14 The rings that held the poles used for carrying the table were close to the rim. 15 He made the poles of acacia wood to carry the table, and overlaid them with gold. 16 And he made the vessels of pure gold that were to be on the table, its plates and dishes for incense, and its bowls and flagons with which to pour drink offerings.

17 He also made the lampstand of pure gold. The base and the shaft of the lampstand were made of hammered work; its cups, its calyxes, and its petals were of one piece with it. 18 There were six branches going out of its sides, three branches of the lampstand out of one side of it and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side of it; 19 three cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with calyx and petals, on one branch, and three cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with calyx and petals, on the other branch—so for the six branches going out of the lampstand. 20 On the lampstand itself there were four cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with its calyxes and petals. 21 There was a calyx of one piece with it under the first pair of branches, a calyx of one piece with it under the next pair of branches, and a calyx of one piece with it under the last pair of branches. 22 Their calyxes and their branches were of one piece with it, the whole of it one hammered piece of pure gold. 23 He made its seven lamps and its snuffers and its trays of pure gold. 24 He made it and all its utensils of a talent of pure gold.

25 He made the altar of incense of acacia wood, one cubit long, and one cubit wide; it was square, and was two cubits high; its horns were of one piece with it. 26 He overlaid it with pure gold, its top, and its sides all around, and its horns; and he made for it a molding of gold all around, 27 and made two golden rings for it under its molding, on two opposite sides of it, to hold the poles with which to carry it. 28 And he made the poles of acacia wood, and overlaid them with gold.

29 He made the holy anointing oil also, and the pure fragrant incense, blended as by the perfumer.

Footnotes:

  1. Exodus 37:6 Or a cover
  2. Exodus 37:7 Or the cover
  3. Exodus 37:8 Or the cover
  4. Exodus 37:9 Or the cover
  5. Exodus 37:9 Or the cover

Saturday, December 28, 2019

On "On Bullshit"

"On Bullshit" is a well-known essay by philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt. Princeton University Press for some reason published it as a tiny book, but you can enter the title into your favorite Internet search engine and find a free PDF. It's only about 20 pages if you care to read.

But you don't have to. Frankfurt's basic concept is that the difference between lying and bullshit begins with recognizing that a liar knowingly utters (in speech or writing) falsehood. Being aware of the difference between truth and fiction and concerned that the audience may detect deception, the liar must use artifice to align his or her representation with facts otherwise known. In this way, the liar pays honor to truth.

In contrast the bullshitter does not care about truth. He (most likely) may not even know it. A common occasion for bullshit is ignorance. The bullshitter just says whatever is useful, whether to make himself appear not to be ignorant or for some further end. But the bullshitter may also know on some level that his representations are false. It just doesn't matter. He makes no attempt to align his bullshit with evidence because he presumes that his audience doesn't care either, or won't be bothered to investigate. This is what is really happening with what the Washington Post fact checkers label as Donald Trump's 15 daily lies. They are actually bullshit. Does he believe that his inaugural crowd was the biggest ever, that there were 3 million fraudulent votes cast for Hillary Clinton, or that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese? It doesn't matter. Truth is irrelevant to him.

I maintain, however, that there is another form of bullshit, in which the bullshit assertion is literally true. The bullshit lies in representing or implying that the literally true assertion has some significance or meaning that it does not. A good example is this purported "fact check" about Adam Schiff, which the Bullshitter-in-Chief's cultists think is somehow of great significance and somehow discredits or deligitimizes the House investigation into the BiC's treasonous behavior.

Schiff told reporters that "We [meaning the House Judiciary Committee] have not spoken directly with the whistleblower." The purported "fact check" is that the whistleblower had in fact communicated with a member of the committee staff who told him to get a lawyer and file a complaint with the Inspector General. That's it. Now, I personally think that Schiff's statement was literally true: no member of the Judiciary Committee had then, or has now, spoken directly with the whistleblower, and Schiff was not aware of the person's identity. But so what? This does not matter at all, it has no bearing on the salient facts of the matter nor does it impugn any of the evidence ultimately provided to the committee or to the public.

But this is now a very common tactic of bullshitters. Make people waste their time with irrelevant distractions, pretending that they are somehow important, and getting reporters to go down those rabbit holes which, as we see, they are entirely eager to do. That was actually the basic use of the stolen DNC e-mails. There was nothing of importance in them, but they nevertheless sucked up half of the verbiage in the New York Times.

So I resolve, as a New Year's resolution, not to waste my time with any form of bullshit.

And let me just add, I have been accused of only publishing comments I agree with. This is false as one can readily determine empirically if one has been reading. I frequently publish comments with which I do not agree, and often respond to them, or leave it to others to do so. What I do not publish are comments which are inane, offensive, or as I now understand, bullshit. As I say, I will not waste my time with it.

Also, too believe me, I am perfectly capable of rebutting every idiotic comment. As I say, I just can't be bothered to waste my time. I prefer to engage in intelligent discourse. And bullshit is perfectly easy to recognize if you want to. That's part of it's essence -- it's intended for the benefit of people who don't give any more of a shit about the truth than the bullshitter.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

A digression

But one I probably ought to take. The Clinton impeachment is irrelevant to the present situation, which concerns a completely different factual basis. It is even less relevant to the question of the current Resident's mental and moral condition and his fitness for office, which is what my previous post is about. In other words, it's an attempt to change the subject, a typical troll tactic.

So I'll take the subject change right here. Regarding the exact nature of Mr. Clinton's misconduct, I believe that Paula Jones initiated the activity. I don't think Clinton demanded it of her and I don't think he promised her anything in exchange. Nevertheless she expected to get something for it and she was understandably angry when she didn't, and felt exploited. Monica Lewinsky fully stipulated that she initiated the relationship.

Nevertheless, Clinton was absolutely obliged to refuse them both. His conduct was grossly unethical and also incredibly foolish. In the case of Lewinsky, who was besotted and barely an adult, it was irresponsible and contemptible. And by the way, I've had students come on to me and I know never to go there.

However, the articles of impeachment did not address the underlying conduct, but only deceit. I think the allegations of subornation lacked an adequate factual basis, but Clinton undoubtedly lied personally, both in public and under oath. The argument against removal from office hinges on the misconduct not being related to his official duties as president.

I think that if a similar set of circumstances were to occur today -- which is obviously highly unlikely -- it would be incumbent on all Democratic party leaders, elected officials, and people who generally support Democrats to demand the perpetrator's resignation. This would certainly be the case for members of Congress, and all state officials. The culture has changed. We don't tolerate this any more. Viz. Al Franken, whose sins are much lesser. The integrity of the party would demand it. Obviously, Republicans don't feel that way, but hypocrisy is their middle name.

If Clinton had been removed from office or resigned, what might that have meant for the 2000 election? Counterfactual history is probably a fool's game, but Al Gore might well have been better off running as the incumbent with the baggage of Clinton's misbehavior much lightened, in which case the election would not have been close enough to steal, there would have been no Iraq war, and we'd be living in a completely different timeline. As they circle the wagons around their mad king, Republicans might want to think about that.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

A mystery

We seldom examine the assumption that achieving wealth and power requires some degree of cunning and awareness. Sure, you can be evil, and you don't necessarily need to be good at math, and you can subscribe to various false beliefs, but you need to be able to match intentions to results, communicate coherently, and competently execute plans, right?

Well, no. There's the president's personal lawyer, who also owns a "consulting" firm that rakes in millions of dollars for, err, doing something. I've linked to a summary but you can read the full report of the interview here. The guy is certifiably wacko and totally incompetent at lawyering, cyber-security, investigating, and anything else he supposedly does professionally. But there he is. Read the whole thing, but I especially enjoyed this part:

As we sped uptown, he spoke in monologue about the scandal he co-created, weaving one made-up talking point into another and another. He said former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, whom he calls Santa Maria Yovanovitch, is “controlled” by George Soros. “He put all four ambassadors there. And he’s employing the FBI agents.” I told him he sounded crazy, but he insisted he wasn’t.
“Don’t tell me I’m anti-Semitic if I oppose him,” he said. “Soros is hardly a Jew. I’m more of a Jew than Soros is. I probably know more about — he doesn’t go to church, he doesn’t go to religion — synagogue. He doesn’t belong to a synagogue, he doesn’t support Israel, he’s an enemy of Israel. He’s elected eight anarchist DA’s in the United States. He’s a horrible human being.”


And then there's his boss, the object of adoration by millions and beneficiary of the unshakeable, servile loyalty and sycophancy of every elected Republican politician. No doubt you have read about his immortal words of wisdom before the Fascist Youth of America:

I never understood wind. I know windmills very much, I have studied it better than anybody. I know it is very expensive. They are made in China and Germany mostly, very few made here, almost none, * but they are manufactured, tremendous — if you are into this — tremendous fumes and gases are spewing into the atmosphere. You know we have a world, right? So the world is tiny compared to the universe. So tremendous, tremendous amount of fumes and everything. You talk about the carbon footprint, fumes are spewing into the air, right spewing, whether it is China or Germany, is going into the air. A windmill will kill many bald eagles. After a certain number, they make you turn the windmill off, that is true. By the way, they make you turn it off. And yet, if you killed one, they put you in jail. That is OK. But why is it OK for windmills to destroy the bird population?

Of course they cheered wildly.  The brain rot has infected the entire cult. Must be prions.

* Actually the dominant manufacturer of wind turbines in the United States is GE, which makes them in the good old US of A. Just to set the record straight. There are also two German multinationals that make wind turbines for the U.S. market, and they too have plants in the U.S.

Update: After I posted, I found this Jen Sorenson cartoon.  Apparently we need to sell reason and sanity to the people because right now they aren't buying it.

Also, too As the state of Virginia prepared for a major bridge and tunnel expansion in the tidewaters of the Chesapeake Bay last year, engineers understood that the nesting grounds of 25,000 gulls, black skimmers, royal terns and other seabirds were about to be plowed under.
To compensate, they considered developing an artificial island as a safe haven. Then in June 2018, the Trump administration stepped in. While the federal government “appreciates” the state’s efforts, new rules in Washington had eliminated criminal penalties for “incidental” migratory bird deaths, administration officials advised. Such conservation measures were now “purely voluntary.
The state ended its island planning.
The island is one of dozens of bird-preservation efforts that have fallen away in the wake of a policy change in 2017 that was billed merely as a technical clarification to a century-old law protecting migratory birds. Across the country birds have been killed and nests destroyed by oil spills, construction crews and chemical contamination, all with no response from the federal government, according to emails, memos and other documents viewed by The New York Times. Not only has the administration stopped investigating most bird deaths, the documents show, it has discouraged local governments and businesses from taking precautionary measures to protect birds.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: Crass materialism

As I have warned you, the remainder of Exodus is an unbearably tedious, repetitive and evidently pointless description of the tabernacle and its associated paraphernalia. You may ask:

a) Why do the compilers of this text subject us to this? What is its theological importance, and why the multiple repetitions of seemingly meaningless details?
b) How is it that a bunch of runaway slaves, who are camping out in the desert and subsisting on fungus, have such mass quantities of luxury goods?

Thank you for asking! First, I remind you of Christopher Beha's review of John Barton's History of the Bible. Beha writes:

Clearly the Torah's earliest editors were aware of its discrepancies, which must not have been a cause of great embarrassment, or else they would have corrected at a time when the "official" version of these text was still unsettled. Far from cleaning up such problems, these scribes actually introduced them in the process of combining competing narratives. To Barton, this suggests that the Torah was meant as a kind of archive, designed 'to insure that no piece of tradition got lost.' Adding a narrative thread to the scroll was the only reliable way to preserve it, and there was no reason why it had to be perfectly reconciled with any other thread.
So to answer the first question, multiple descriptions of the tabernacle and its construction existed, so the scribes compiled them all because they were essentially making a library, not a single crafted narrative. So while this must be important enough for some reason to have been written down in the first place and then reproduced here, there doesn't have to be any particular justification for the repetition and whatever small discrepancies may exist among the versions.

The importance, I would imagine, depends first that the tabernacle did in fact exist at some time, and these are descriptions of a real construction.  The people who wrote this are priests and obviously they're the ones who actually get to luxuriate in the fancy digs and smell the incense and chow down on the offerings. God in reality doesn't actually get a cut. It does not seem at all mysterious that priests would insist that people are expected to make major material contributions to the glory of God.

However, the tabernacle was not constructed while the Hebrews were wandering in the desert, because that never happened. This whole story is fictitious, from the Egyptian captivity to Moses climbing the mountain and coming back down. The Hebrews emerged in Canaan, and were presumably settled and prosperous when they constructed this symbol of their God's glory and their own affluence. The scribes placed it at the time of lawgiving, however, to emphasize it's central importance and legitimacy as a religious duty.

That is the real point of today's post. I am now going to reproduce Exodus 36 just to be faithful to the project, but I don't necessarily recommend that you read it.

36 Bezalel and Oholiab and every skillful one to whom the Lord has given skill and understanding to know how to do any work in the construction of the sanctuary shall work in accordance with all that the Lord has commanded.
Moses then called Bezalel and Oholiab and every skillful one to whom the Lord had given skill, everyone whose heart was stirred to come to do the work; and they received from Moses all the freewill offerings that the Israelites had brought for doing the work on the sanctuary. They still kept bringing him freewill offerings every morning, so that all the artisans who were doing every sort of task on the sanctuary came, each from the task being performed, and said to Moses, “The people are bringing much more than enough for doing the work that the Lord has commanded us to do.” So Moses gave command, and word was proclaimed throughout the camp: “No man or woman is to make anything else as an offering for the sanctuary.” So the people were restrained from bringing; for what they had already brought was more than enough to do all the work.
All those with skill among the workers made the tabernacle with ten curtains; they were made of fine twisted linen, and blue, purple, and crimson yarns, with cherubim skillfully worked into them. The length of each curtain was twenty-eight cubits, and the width of each curtain four cubits; all the curtains were of the same size.
10 He joined five curtains to one another, and the other five curtains he joined to one another. 11 He made loops of blue on the edge of the outermost curtain of the first set; likewise he made them on the edge of the outermost curtain of the second set; 12 he made fifty loops on the one curtain, and he made fifty loops on the edge of the curtain that was in the second set; the loops were opposite one another. 13 And he made fifty clasps of gold, and joined the curtains one to the other with clasps; so the tabernacle was one whole.
14 He also made curtains of goats’ hair for a tent over the tabernacle; he made eleven curtains. 15 The length of each curtain was thirty cubits, and the width of each curtain four cubits; the eleven curtains were of the same size. 16 He joined five curtains by themselves, and six curtains by themselves. 17 He made fifty loops on the edge of the outermost curtain of the one set, and fifty loops on the edge of the other connecting curtain. 18 He made fifty clasps of bronze to join the tent together so that it might be one whole. 19 And he made for the tent a covering of tanned rams’ skins and an outer covering of fine leather.[a]
20 Then he made the upright frames for the tabernacle of acacia wood. 21 Ten cubits was the length of a frame, and a cubit and a half the width of each frame. 22 Each frame had two pegs for fitting together; he did this for all the frames of the tabernacle. 23 The frames for the tabernacle he made in this way: twenty frames for the south side; 24 and he made forty bases of silver under the twenty frames, two bases under the first frame for its two pegs, and two bases under the next frame for its two pegs. 25 For the second side of the tabernacle, on the north side, he made twenty frames 26 and their forty bases of silver, two bases under the first frame and two bases under the next frame. 27 For the rear of the tabernacle westward he made six frames. 28 He made two frames for corners of the tabernacle in the rear. 29 They were separate beneath, but joined at the top, at the first ring; he made two of them in this way, for the two corners. 30 There were eight frames with their bases of silver: sixteen bases, under every frame two bases.
31 He made bars of acacia wood, five for the frames of the one side of the tabernacle, 32 and five bars for the frames of the other side of the tabernacle, and five bars for the frames of the tabernacle at the rear westward. 33 He made the middle bar to pass through from end to end halfway up the frames. 34 And he overlaid the frames with gold, and made rings of gold for them to hold the bars, and overlaid the bars with gold.
35 He made the curtain of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen, with cherubim skillfully worked into it. 36 For it he made four pillars of acacia, and overlaid them with gold; their hooks were of gold, and he cast for them four bases of silver. 37 He also made a screen for the entrance to the tent, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen, embroidered with needlework; 38 and its five pillars with their hooks. He overlaid their capitals and their bases with gold, but their five bases were of bronze.

Footnotes:

  1. Exodus 36:19 Meaning of Heb uncertain

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Long Emergency: Roast Koala

Australia is now experiencing the hottest weather ever recorded there. For those of you who don't grok Celsius, the average temperature across the entire continent was about 105 degrees Fahrenheit. And it's predicted to get even hotter. Temperatures on Wednesday in some places reached 119 degrees. (It's Wednesday here as I write but still the wee hours of Thursday there.) As you may already know, this baking heat is accompanied by a lengthy drought and raging wildfires. Sydney is enveloped in smoke while some 70 fires are burning in Queensland forcing evacuations. The worst fire season has been in New South Wales where fires have burned an area larger than, well, Wales.

If this continues gets any worse, much of Australia will simply be uninhabitable. Despite all this, a poll finds that the average Australian is willing to spend only $200 a year to combat climate change. Nevertheless, that adds up to a fair amount of money -- about $4 billion -- but that's still only 10% of what the country spends on its military. (Note that this is an island nation that is threatened by exactly nobody.)

Still, it's enough to put rooftop solar on 1 million houses -- each year, which means that every Australian house could have rooftop solar in a decade. And BTW that means everybody gets free electricity for 20 years. (A few more years and you could give everybody energy storage systems.) And it's enough to do a whole lot more, which you can read about at the link. And obviously, if people chip in $400 they could do everything twice as fast.

Do you think Americans can afford $200 a year apiece? To save us from disaster? And even get the money back from the investment? It doesn't seem like a bad deal to me.


Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The very strange world of today

Via Brad DeLong, an analysis of archaeological data that shows a sharp rise in living standards (PDF) in the Roman Empire around Year 1, followed by the well known decline and fall and the long languishment of the Dark Ages. Author Willem Jongman offers no particular explanation for the rise,  and he rather lamely blames the fall on the Antonine plague and climate change. In any case, I draw attention to this because it is the only strong precedent for the astonishing developments of the past two and a half centuries.

While many people do still live at a bare subsistence level, that was the norm for the vast majority of humans until something a bit mysterious happened around the late 18th Century. Now it is no longer the norm in most of the world and in fact the typical human in the U.S. and Western Europe enjoys a standard of living, a life expectancy and standard of health that the kings and emperors of the 18th Century would envy, in fact could not have imagined. That we achieve this by consuming the carrying capacity of the earth, sea and atmosphere, and will soon hit a wall at 100 mph we will leave aside for now. The anomaly itself is what I want to discuss.

Whatever led to the Roman abundance, it wasn't much to do with technology. The major technologies of iron, domesticated horses, and Mediterranean navigation preceded the Romans. It was something about their social organization. They did have entrepreneurship, factories, a form of capitalism if you like, but that was also not unprecedented. In any case the Industrial Revolution was a wholly new phenomenon, a sudden onset, steadily accelerating explosion of productive technology. By now the pace of invention and the constant churn of change is part of the fabric of our lives. We take it for granted. Fears that "future shock" would overwhelm us seem to have been misplaced. We live with this as the norm and we hear cries of alarm when it seems it might be slowing down.

Many are skeptical that this constitutes "progress." We lose a lot along with what we gain, and whether the direction is all good is a subjective question. I'm happy to discuss and argue about that. But what I want today is just to ask us to stop taking it for granted. Step back and look at it. Try to understand it, and all its implications. Ponder how very strange this era is in history, for better or for worse, and what its end may be like.