Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: The X tribes of Israel

It's something of a puzzle why the Torah puts so much emphasis on the purported 12 tribes of Israel, since most of them never any explicit part to play in the later chronicles. Ten of them are said to have disappeared after the conquest of the region (I can't say Israel because it was not a unified kingdom) by the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III in 753 BC, shortly before Exodus was written. Also, the lists vary somewhat from place to place in the Bible. This is the first one.

Then Jacob called for his sons and said: “Gather around so I can tell you what will happen to you in days to come.
“Assemble and listen, sons of Jacob;
    listen to your father Israel.
“Reuben, you are my firstborn,
    my might, the first sign of my strength,
    excelling in honor, excelling in power.
Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel,
    for you went up onto your father’s bed,
    onto my couch and defiled it.
This refers to an incident described in two sentences in 35:22, which appears as a total non-sequitur and of which nothing is made at the time. Jacob's only response it seems, after many decades, is to dis Reuben now.
“Simeon and Levi are brothers—
    their swords[a] are weapons of violence.
Let me not enter their council,
    let me not join their assembly,
for they have killed men in their anger
    and hamstrung oxen as they pleased.
Cursed be their anger, so fierce,
    and their fury, so cruel!
I will scatter them in Jacob
    and disperse them in Israel.
This refers to the massacre of the entire city of  Shechem, who slept with their sister Dinah. Just a few verses back, Jacob took credit for it although as I said, he was actually against it at the time.
“Judah,[b] your brothers will praise you;
    your hand will be on the neck of your enemies;
    your father’s sons will bow down to you.
You are a lion’s cub, Judah;
    you return from the prey, my son.
Like a lion he crouches and lies down,
    like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
10 The scepter will not depart from Judah,
    nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,[c]
until he to whom it belongs[d] shall come
    and the obedience of the nations shall be his.
11 He will tether his donkey to a vine,
    his colt to the choicest branch;
he will wash his garments in wine,
    his robes in the blood of grapes.
12 His eyes will be darker than wine,
    his teeth whiter than milk.[e]
Not clear what all this poetic folderol is trying to say, but Judah eventually becomes the name of  the southern  kingdom.
13 “Zebulun will live by the seashore
    and become a haven for ships;
    his border will extend toward Sidon.
Actually in Numbers Zebulun is described as providing a lot of soldiers, but not as being maritime.
14 “Issachar is a rawboned[f] donkey
    lying down among the sheep pens.[g]
15 When he sees how good is his resting place
    and how pleasant is his land,
he will bend his shoulder to the burden
    and submit to forced labor.
 Nobody seems to know what this means, including apologists for the Bible. There is no indication at any time that the tribe of Issachar was reduced to servitude (apart of course from the general Egyptian captivity).
16 “Dan[h] will provide justice for his people
    as one of the tribes of Israel.
17 Dan will be a snake by the roadside,
    a viper along the path,
that bites the horse’s heels
    so that its rider tumbles backward.
Again, who knows what this means? Actually it's the tribe of Levi, not Dan, that ultimately becomes the caste of judges.
18 “I look for your deliverance, Lord.
19 “Gad[i] will be attacked by a band of raiders,
    but he will attack them at their heels.
20 “Asher’s food will be rich;
    he will provide delicacies fit for a king.
21 “Naphtali is a doe set free
    that bears beautiful fawns.[j]
22 “Joseph is a fruitful vine,
    a fruitful vine near a spring,
    whose branches climb over a wall.[k]
23 With bitterness archers attacked him;
    they shot at him with hostility.
24 But his bow remained steady,
    his strong arms stayed[l] limber,
because of the hand of the Mighty One of Jacob,
    because of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel,
25 because of your father’s God, who helps you,
    because of the Almighty,[m] who blesses you
with blessings of the skies above,
    blessings of the deep springs below,
    blessings of the breast and womb.
26 Your father’s blessings are greater
    than the blessings of the ancient mountains,
    than[n] the bounty of the age-old hills.
Let all these rest on the head of Joseph,
    on the brow of the prince among[o] his brothers.
It's a bit confusing, but because Jacob/Israel adopted Ephraim and Manessah, in some formulations their descendants constitute two separate tribes and there is no single tribe of Joseph. This is one reason why the lists of the 12 tribes vary. In any case, these are among the lost tribes.
27 “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf;
    in the morning he devours the prey,
    in the evening he divides the plunder.”
28 All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father said to them when he blessed them, giving each the blessing appropriate to him.

The Death of Jacob

29 Then he gave them these instructions: “I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, 30 the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre in Canaan, which Abraham bought along with the field as a burial place from Ephron the Hittite. 31 There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried, there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried, and there I buried Leah. 32 The field and the cave in it were bought from the Hittites.[p]
33 When Jacob had finished giving instructions to his sons, he drew his feet up into the bed, breathed his last and was gathered to his people.
In Genesis 46 God says to Jacob "“Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again." What God failed to mention is that he would come back dead.


  1. Genesis 49:5 The meaning of the Hebrew for this word is uncertain.
  2. Genesis 49:8 Judah sounds like and may be derived from the Hebrew for praise.
  3. Genesis 49:10 Or from his descendants
  4. Genesis 49:10 Or to whom tribute belongs; the meaning of the Hebrew for this phrase is uncertain.
  5. Genesis 49:12 Or will be dull from wine, / his teeth white from milk
  6. Genesis 49:14 Or strong
  7. Genesis 49:14 Or the campfires; or the saddlebags
  8. Genesis 49:16 Dan here means he provides justice.
  9. Genesis 49:19 Gad sounds like the Hebrew for attack and also for band of raiders.
  10. Genesis 49:21 Or free; / he utters beautiful words
  11. Genesis 49:22 Or Joseph is a wild colt, / a wild colt near a spring, / a wild donkey on a terraced hill
  12. Genesis 49:24 Or archers will attack … will shoot … will remain … will stay
  13. Genesis 49:25 Hebrew Shaddai
  14. Genesis 49:26 Or of my progenitors, / as great as
  15. Genesis 49:26 Or of the one separated from
  16. Genesis 49:32 Or the descendants of Heth

Saturday, March 30, 2019


"Socialism" is just a word, like all words. But it's a particularly mushy one. It has meant everything from Stalinism, to most of Western Europe for most of the post-WWII decades including what are today the happiest nations in the world (which are Scandinavian, happy despite the long dark winters). Broadly, if it means anything at all, it means believing that government has to manage capitalism for the greater good. In other words it means accepting the indisputable fact (except to libertarians, who are insane) that there is no such thing as a free market™. Markets are not forces of nature, they are created, and shaped by government, which makes contract and property law, creates money, and creates and maintains the public goods essential to the functioning of capitalism. The question is how markets will be managed, and for whose benefit.

So, for example, if you say that taxing rich people to provide some form of benefit to the less fortunate is "socialism," all you are really saying is a) for unspecified reasons you don't like to tax rich people and/or benefit the less fortunate and b) you are calling that "socialism" because you use socialism as a term of disparagement. You aren't actually making an argument, you are just putting meaningless words together.

Update: One of my goals in maintaining this blog is to explicate and promote critical thinking. So let me make a couple of obvious points.

If you are committed to interpreting the word "socialism'" as meaning "the abolition of private property" then you are obviously being a total idiot if you yell "socialism" when someone proposes single payer health are or taxing rich people to pay for free higher education or child care. You can't have it both ways, assuming you are capable of rational thought.

BTW I am a beta tester for The Nation crossword puzzles and word definitions come up all the time. Merriam  Webster is the world's worst dictionary. They seem to have no concept of actual current usage. In any case, what the dictionary says is irrelevant if we are discussing what particular people actually mean by a word.

I once actually had what passed for a conversation with a guy who claimed that the concept of organic produce was meaningless because organic means "carbon compounds" and all produce consists of carbon compounds. Again, that is not argument, it is idiocy. Word have multiple meaning which must be understood in context.

I will not allow comments by people who are incapable of logical thought.

Update to the update: As I have said, words often have multiple meanings. If you want to engage in a discussion, then you need to accept the meanings of words as they are intended. "Socialism" does generally imply that government owns "important businesses and means of production." Well guess what? The United States is a socialist society! The government owns most of elementary and secondary education, and a good part of higher education. The government owns the roads, bridges, airports, and seaports. The government owns the biggest insurance company -- Medicare -- and shares ownership of insurance for poor people -- Medicaid -- with the states. The government owns the health care system for veterans and Native Americans, and many states and municipalities also own hospitals. I could go on. So it's a matter of degree, actually. Again, the point is, just deciding that the label is disparaging and that you're advancing a discussion in some way by saying "If you call it socialism, ergo it's bad" is inane. Same goes with demonization of the word "liberal." Meaningful discussion is about facts and ideas, not which words we happen to like.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Want to set some money on fire?

Then buy Lyft stock. I'm sorry folks, but Uber and Lyft are the most egregious scams since Bernie Madoff. Shills tout their stock by pointing to their massive revenue growth but they lose money with every transaction. The faster their revenue grows, the more money they lose and the faster they burn through their capital. Furthermore they have no discernible path to ever making a single penny in profit.

They are already squeezing their drivers as hard as they can and there is not one more drop of juice to be had there. And if they raise prices to the point where they can be profitable, competitors will jump in because the barriers to entry in this business are insignificant. The only reason they don't have more competition now is because nobody else is stupid enough to flush money down the toilet.

The taxi business was profitable because you had to buy one of a limited number of medallions. Restricting the supply kept the price of taxi service high enough to make money. That's why taxi medallions were worth a lot of money.

Now the ride sharing companies are claiming that eventually they'll have self-driving cars, and then they can be profitable because they won't have to pay drivers any more. I don't actually believe that, but even if I'm wrong, if self-driving cars ever actually work then anybody can set up a competing business and there will be no value in Lyft stock.

Can I interest you in some tulip bulbs?

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Insignificant significance

Here's a new commentary on the concept of statistical significance  which I like because it's written in plain language and its accessible to people who haven't taken statistics courses. I have discussed this before but maybe not lately. It's bothered me ever since I studied environmental toxicology back in the 1980s.

In a pistachio shell, the basic idea of a P value is that you are looking at a difference between two groups of people or other entities, which differ in some other way. For example, one group has been exposed to some environmental agent and the other has not, and you want to know if they differ in their risk for some outcome such as cancer. (That's a very common example.) You will likely see that the incidence of cancer is different between the two groups -- it would be unlikely for it to be identical just because of random chance. But is it different enough to conclude that the exposure really makes a difference? The P value is supposed to represent the probability of getting the observed difference if there was no real difference between the groups.

Completely arbitrarily, at some point in the dark backward and abysm of time, it became conventional to conclude that the difference is real if P <.05, in other words that the probability of the observed difference assuming no real difference is less than 5%. If P > .05, you're supposed to say that the difference is "not statistically significant." However, generally speaking investigators conclude that no real difference exists.

This is wrong on both side of the .05 design, although lately most of the concern about it has been that many (indeed most) statistically significant conclusions are wrong. But as the linked essay argues, it works both ways. One common error of inference I have encountered as a reviewer occurs when investigators look at subgroups. For example, a finding is statistically significant in women but not in men, because P=.03 in women and P=.07 in men. The investigators then conclude that the agent is toxic for women but not for men. This is completely wrong. You have to test the interaction, in other words determine whether the groups are different from each other. But even then you'll get a P value.

"Significant" P values often lead to wrong conclusions for many reasons. A very common one is that the investigators made many comparisons, and one or two of them fell out with P < .05. But the real probability if you made, say, ten observations of getting one "significant" one is 50%. You haven't shown anything at all. On the other hand the conclusion might be true. If you're trying to decide whether, say, some exposure is toxic you don't want to conclude that it isn't just because your P value is .06.

So we need to change the culture of science around this issue. We know that science has managed to keep progressing in spite of its many cultural flaws, but we need to do better. This is one area where there is a good, robust, self examination going on.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Freedumb of speech

No need for a link, everyone is aware I think of the controversies surrounding what is broadly described as issues of freedom of speech in higher education. This is something I think about a lot and in fact I have some personal responsibility for the discussion in our department.

First a few important conceptual distinctions. The First Amendment right to freedom of speech pertains only to government. In fact as written it literally constrains only the congress; however the courts have construed it to apply to the executive (which carries out the laws) and to apply to the states, by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment. And of course it does not mean that government cannot limit speech at all. Speech which is libelous, which furthers criminal conspiracy or perpetrates fraud, discloses classified information, incites to violence, or breaches contract (e.g. non-disclosure agreements) may be subject to civil or criminal repercussions.

State universities are public agencies and therefore do have some First Amendment constraints. I'll put that in the parking lot for now and talk about private universities and colleges. The First Amendment has nothing to do with any private agent. The editors of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones and Breitbart News can decide what to publish or not to publish. Freedom of the press, in other words, pertains to people who own presses. This has always been true. In fact it is the essence of the First Amendment that you are free to promote whatever ideology or point of view you like provided it does not run afoul of the limitations specified in the previous paragraph.

The same is true private colleges and universities. I don't see the people who complain about restriction of free speech at Ivy League universities complaining about Liberty University, Oral Roberts, or Bob Jones. They very clearly and explicitly promote particular versions of Christianity and political conservatism, and don't generally invite atheists or leftists to speak, or allow their students and professors to denounce Christianity. In fact as far as I know right now there aren't any accredited institutions of higher education in the U.S. that are the leftist counterparts of those institutions. The only reason controversy arises at all is because people have different expectations of secular institutions of higher education.

So what are the policies here at a very old Ivy League university in an old New England city? Well, in the first place, there is a high value placed on scientific rigor. You won't find a creationists in the biology department or a climate change denier in the Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences department not because those positions are politically incorrect, but because they are scientifically invalid. Nobody who holds those positions is going to get hired, and if they sneak through they won't get tenure. Academic freedom rests on truth. (That's the motto of Harvard, by the way, only in Latin.)

Okay, facts can sometimes be in dispute. That's a lot of what we do here, try to sort out those disputed facts and get to the truth. That requires that we be able to speak freely to more powerful or prominent people, that we interact constructively, and also that we have fairly thick skins. Getting criticism of your work, even pretty painful criticism, is a major occupational hazard. But . . .

It needs to be substantive. Gratuitous insults and ad hominem attacks are not okay. The Department Chair, or in some circumstances a dean, might talk to you about that. And that leads us to . . .

Valuing diversity of opinion, background, personality, values and yes, ideology requires the imposition of certain constraints. If your freedom to swing your fist stops at the end of my nose, your freedom of speech stops at intimidation, devaluing or demeaning people, gratuitous insults -- and that includes racism, sexism, sexual harassment, discrimination, and lots of other stuff that some people seem to think is okay. These are contrary to freedom of speech. If we want to have a free exchange of [truthful] ideas, we need to respect each other. Now, exactly what is okay and not okay is often arguable. You can't write rigid rules. People have different reactions to humor and irony, to invidious characterization that somebody might think is justified. All of this needs to be continually discussed and processed and disputed and learned.

But no, Steve Bannon is not welcome to speak here. Not as far as I'm concerned.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: Matters of great portent that don't matter

A central concern of Genesis, as we have seen, is tracing the line of descent of the people who become the Jews. Who's in and who's out, as determined in large part by actions of the family patriarchs. When Isaac is deceived into blessing Jacob rather than Esau, Jacob becomes the ancestor of the Jews.

So now Genesis 48 has a parallel story about Ephraim and Manasseh. It's not quite as portentous -- they're both still Jews, but one gets a bigger share of the inheritance. Okay, but why is this story important? It turns out that by the time it is written, in the 6th century BCE, both of their tribes have long since disappeared. Indeed, all of this concern with the sons of Jacob and the 12 tribes is hard to explain. As we go along in later books, the listing of the tribes actually varies somewhat but ultimately there are only two. The question of the lost tribes, and whether they ever existed, is vexed. But the point of it all escapes me.

Some time later Joseph was told, “Your father is ill.” So he took his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim along with him. When Jacob was told, “Your son Joseph has come to you,” Israel rallied his strength and sat up on the bed.
Again his name shifts back and forth at random.

Jacob said to Joseph, “God Almighty[a] appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and there he blessed me and said to me, ‘I am going to make you fruitful and increase your numbers. I will make you a community of peoples, and I will give this land as an everlasting possession to your descendants after you.’
“Now then, your two sons born to you in Egypt before I came to you here will be reckoned as mine; Ephraim and Manasseh will be mine, just as Reuben and Simeon are mine. Any children born to you after them will be yours; in the territory they inherit they will be reckoned under the names of their brothers. As I was returning from Paddan,[b] to my sorrow Rachel died in the land of Canaan while we were still on the way, a little distance from Ephrath. So I buried her there beside the road to Ephrath” (that is, Bethlehem).
This seems a digression but okay, Jacob is on is deathbed so he is rambling.  By adopting Joseph's sons, Jacob raises the status of Joseph in the patriarchy, as Joseph is not Jacob's firstborn. That seems to be the point of this.
When Israel saw the sons of Joseph, he asked, “Who are these?”
“They are the sons God has given me here,” Joseph said to his father.
Then Israel said, “Bring them to me so I may bless them.”
10 Now Israel’s eyes were failing because of old age, and he could hardly see. So Joseph brought his sons close to him, and his father kissed them and embraced them.
11 Israel said to Joseph, “I never expected to see your face again, and now God has allowed me to see your children too.”
12 Then Joseph removed them from Israel’s knees and bowed down with his face to the ground. 13 And Joseph took both of them, Ephraim on his right toward Israel’s left hand and Manasseh on his left toward Israel’s right hand, and brought them close to him. 14 But Israel reached out his right hand and put it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger, and crossing his arms, he put his left hand on Manasseh’s head, even though Manasseh was the firstborn.
15 Then he blessed Joseph and said,
“May the God before whom my fathers
    Abraham and Isaac walked faithfully,
the God who has been my shepherd
    all my life to this day,
16 the Angel who has delivered me from all harm
    —may he bless these boys.
May they be called by my name
    and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac,
and may they increase greatly
    on the earth.”
17 When Joseph saw his father placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head he was displeased; so he took hold of his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. 18 Joseph said to him, “No, my father, this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head.”
19 But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know. He too will become a people, and he too will become great. Nevertheless, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his descendants will become a group of nations.” 20 He blessed them that day and said,
“In your[c] name will Israel pronounce this blessing:
    ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’”
So he put Ephraim ahead of Manasseh.
21 Then Israel said to Joseph, “I am about to die, but God will be with you[d] and take you[e] back to the land of your[f] fathers. 22 And to you I give one more ridge of land[g] than to your brothers, the ridge I took from the Amorites with my sword and my bow.”
Well actually no. As you may recall, Jacob's sons Simeon and Levi avenged the rape of their sister Dinah by massacring the men of Shechem and enslaving their women and children. Jacob was against it. And again, why does it matter whether Ephraim or Manasseh are foremost? It has no consequence at any time in the story to come. I will say that in my background reading for this post it seems to puzzle some of the rabbis as well.


  1. Genesis 48:3 Hebrew El-Shaddai
  2. Genesis 48:7 That is, Northwest Mesopotamia
  3. Genesis 48:20 The Hebrew is singular.
  4. Genesis 48:21 The Hebrew is plural.
  5. Genesis 48:21 The Hebrew is plural.
  6. Genesis 48:21 The Hebrew is plural.
  7. Genesis 48:22 The Hebrew for ridge of land is identical with the place name Shechem

Thursday, March 21, 2019

College Admission Fraud: Weirdness Department

The recent flapdoodle has reminded me of a very strange incident my freshman year. That was a while ago, okay? They had us show up a few days before the start of classes for orientation -- you know, which way is south, don't climb the water tower (which we wouldn't have thought of doing if they hadn't told us not to), meet with your advisor, have the athletic department determine if you were worthy of their interest, all that sort of thing.

They also tried to engineer ways of getting acquainted with your fellow students. One of these was folk dancing, which definitely did not interest me but for lack of anything better to do I stopped by to watch. It was in the field house, so I was leaning against the rail gawking at the bizarre spectacle of preppies from New Jersey learning how to do-si-do. The guy standing next to me was wearing sandles, cut off shorts and a tie-died t-shirt but he didn't have the long hair that normally would have gone with it in those days. I tried talking with him. He was quite aloof, didn't seem interested in striking up an acquaintance. He looked a bit older than a freshman so I asked him about that. He said he'd been in the army but he didn't want to talk about it. That was understandable, the Vietnam war was going on.

Anyway our paths didn't really cross after that, but people told me about this guy in their classes who seemed to have taken the course before. He went on about the pre-Raphaelites in the first class of a Victorian literature course, talked about the history of political development in Venezuela in the first week of poli-sci 101. All in all he was exceedingly obnoxious.

Six weeks or so into the semester the grapevine informed me that he had not, in fact, been in the army. He had spent the previous four years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, attending the World's Greatest University, from which he had in fact graduated. He had somehow ginned up a fake application to a small liberal arts college in the Philadelphia suburbs, gotten admitted, and there he was. I don't know how they caught him but I do know that the deans waxed mightily wroth.

As for how he managed to do this, obviously his SAT scores would still be good. However, it would seem difficult for him to get letters of recommendation from high school teachers since presumably they would have known he was admitted to Harvard. Maybe he could get away with telling them he had decided not to attend after all but wanted to go to college now, and they wouldn't have any way of knowing. It seems odd, however, that the admissions office didn't want to see his letter of discharge or get a recommendation from a commanding officer. In any case, this was a very expensive stunt. He must have been a rich kid.

As for why he did it, it seems he told the deans he was planning to write a book. I have a hard time imagining what he had in mind. "I scammed the admissions office and became a college freshman for the second time even though I had already graduated, and I was an obnoxious know-it-all in class. I'm sure you will find this story very fascinating." I don't know if they sued him or tried to have him prosecuted. I think they didn't want to generate any publicity about this, so maybe not. Anyway maybe I'll turn it into a novel some day.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Scamming: A Great American Tradition

I don't actually know if the U.S. is particularly susceptible to con artists but they feature prominently in our high culture, popular culture, and actual history. From Melville's lightning rod salesman to The Music Man to Elmer Gantry they're a familiar literary character. Snake oil salesmen are still alive and well, they're mass marketing their wares through  GNC and CVS. WorldCom, Enron, Bernie Madoff - and of course the current Resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, whose entire life has been a scam.

The new HBO documentary about Elizabeth Holmes has prompted a lot of talk about grand con games. What is perhaps most interesting about her story is that she took in so many people who seemingly should have known better. This includes not only the investors who blew $9 billion (yep, that's right) but physician-scientists and biologists who sat on the board of directors, who presumably are trained to ask for actual evidence of her claims.

The main lesson, as Melanie McFarland sees it in the linked review, is that style triumphed over substance. Holmes had the right look and the right technobabble, and that seduced people who wanted to believe.

Unfortunately it works the same way in politics, to a large extent. As political scientists Richard Reeves says:

"It's a painful truth to recognize that policy is less important than we like to think it is," Reeves said. "We are increasingly seeing that political brands matter more than policy platforms."
Following the 2016 election, Reeves published an essay for Brookings, "The real loser of the 2016 campaign is policy," in which he argued that Trump "offered the most vivid example of the sundering of policy from politics."
"What Donald Trump did during the campaign was to paint in a very broad brush," Reeves said. "Rather than having a debate about immigration policy in the round, [Trump asked], 'Are you for or against the wall? Are you for or against the Muslim ban?'

Reeves gives [Elizabeth] Warren credit for her deep work on policy. But he says there is a lot of evidence that voters often decide first who they like before they consider which policies they support. For Warren, that means a big challenge could come from someone like O'Rourke, the former Texas congressman, whose policy positions remain vague and unformed, but who is able to ride (literally) his brand.
"There's that famous video of him kind of skateboarding onto a stage before speaking," Reeves said. "It's really difficult to imagine Elizabeth Warren doing that, and I'm not recommending that she tries."
Of course, it doesn't help that the corporate media is more interested in style (Oh no, he isn't wearing a flag lapel pin! He put mustard on a hamburger!) and horse race coverage than they are in policy. I don't know what we can do about this. 

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: Ripoff of the millennium

I'm guessing you've never heard a real sermon preached about Genesis 47. In fact I suspect that very few people are even aware of it. It gets real ugly. Here goes.

Joseph went and told Pharaoh, “My father and brothers, with their flocks and herds and everything they own, have come from the land of Canaan and are now in Goshen.” He chose five of his brothers and presented them before Pharaoh.
Pharaoh asked the brothers, “What is your occupation?”
“Your servants are shepherds,” they replied to Pharaoh, “just as our fathers were.” They also said to him, “We have come to live here for a while, because the famine is severe in Canaan and your servants’ flocks have no pasture. So now, please let your servants settle in Goshen.”
Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Your father and your brothers have come to you, and the land of Egypt is before you; settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land. Let them live in Goshen. And if you know of any among them with special ability, put them in charge of my own livestock.”
Hmm. Wait a minute. How did the last chapter end? Oh yeah: "‘What is your occupation?’ 34 you should answer, ‘Your servants have tended livestock from our boyhood on, just as our fathers did.’ Then you will be allowed to settle in the region of Goshen, for all shepherds are detestable to the Egyptians.”  But it turns out that Pharaoh owns livestock himself. Indeed, although as I said last week one study of several mummies found they had a largely plant-based diet, in fact the ancient egyptians did keep cattle and consume meat.
Then Joseph brought his father Jacob in and presented him before Pharaoh. After Jacob blessed[a] Pharaoh, Pharaoh asked him, “How old are you?”
And Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty. My years have been few and difficult, and they do not equal the years of the pilgrimage of my fathers.” 10 Then Jacob blessed[b] Pharaoh and went out from his presence.
Not sure why Jacob/Israel refers to his life as "the years of my pilgrimage." Of course 130 years doesn't seem like few. Throughout Genesis lifespans seem generally to decline toward reality. By the time we get to Exodus they become more or less normal.
11 So Joseph settled his father and his brothers in Egypt and gave them property in the best part of the land, the district of Rameses, as Pharaoh directed. 12 Joseph also provided his father and his brothers and all his father’s household with food, according to the number of their children.
Why is it called the district of Rameses? I thought it was Goshen.

13 There was no food, however, in the whole region because the famine was severe; both Egypt and Canaan wasted away because of the famine. 14 Joseph collected all the money that was to be found in Egypt and Canaan in payment for the grain they were buying, and he brought it to Pharaoh’s palace. 15 When the money of the people of Egypt and Canaan was gone, all Egypt came to Joseph and said, “Give us food. Why should we die before your eyes? Our money is all gone.”
Here is a description of the ancient Egyptian economy. Coined money was not introduced until around 500 BCE, about when this was written but 2,000 years after it purportedly happened. It was largely a barter economy. Here's another source that makes clear this was a barter economy, there was no money
16 “Then bring your livestock,” said Joseph. “I will sell you food in exchange for your livestock, since your money is gone.” 17 So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and he gave them food in exchange for their horses, their sheep and goats, their cattle and donkeys. And he brought them through that year with food in exchange for all their livestock.
18 When that year was over, they came to him the following year and said, “We cannot hide from our lord the fact that since our money is gone and our livestock belongs to you, there is nothing left for our lord except our bodies and our land. 19 Why should we perish before your eyes—we and our land as well? Buy us and our land in exchange for food, and we with our land will be in bondage to Pharaoh. Give us seed so that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become desolate.”
20 So Joseph bought all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh. The Egyptians, one and all, sold their fields, because the famine was too severe for them. The land became Pharaoh’s, 21 and Joseph reduced the people to servitude,[c] from one end of Egypt to the other.
Okay, so remember what happened. Joseph confiscated the grain from the farmers in the first place, then he sold it back to them and turned what had apparently been a society of free farmers into a vast slave plantation. As the footnote indicates "reduced the people to servitude" may actually have read "moved the people into cities," but that doesn't make much sense since they continue to farm. In fact Egypt was largely a land of small peasant villages, with merchants, artisans, and priests in the cities.
22 However, he did not buy the land of the priests, because they received a regular allotment from Pharaoh and had food enough from the allotment Pharaoh gave them. That is why they did not sell their land.
Of course.
23 Joseph said to the people, “Now that I have bought you and your land today for Pharaoh, here is seed for you so you can plant the ground. 24 But when the crop comes in, give a fifth of it to Pharaoh. The other four-fifths you may keep as seed for the fields and as food for yourselves and your households and your children.”
25 “You have saved our lives,” they said. “May we find favor in the eyes of our lord; we will be in bondage to Pharaoh.”
26 So Joseph established it as a law concerning land in Egypt—still in force today—that a fifth of the produce belongs to Pharaoh. It was only the land of the priests that did not become Pharaoh’s.
Apparently taxation in ancient Egypt did amount to approximately 20% of produce. However, it was not only used to support Pharaoh's armies and tomb-building enterprises, some of it was redistributed in hard times.
27 Now the Israelites settled in Egypt in the region of Goshen. They acquired property there and were fruitful and increased greatly in number.
28 Jacob lived in Egypt seventeen years, and the years of his life were a hundred and forty-seven. 29 When the time drew near for Israel to die, he called for his son Joseph and said to him, “If I have found favor in your eyes, put your hand under my thigh and promise that you will show me kindness and faithfulness.
In other words, grab my nuts. Thankfully, this custom seems to have ended at this point.
Do not bury me in Egypt, 30 but when I rest with my fathers, carry me out of Egypt and bury me where they are buried.”
“I will do as you say,” he said.
31 “Swear to me,” he said. Then Joseph swore to him, and Israel worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.[d]


  1. Genesis 47:7 Or greeted
  2. Genesis 47:10 Or said farewell to
  3. Genesis 47:21 Samaritan Pentateuch and Septuagint (see also Vulgate); Masoretic Text and he moved the people into the cities
  4. Genesis 47:31 Or Israel bowed down at the head of his bed

Friday, March 15, 2019

College Admissions

A commenter on the previous post prompted me to get to this now - I was indeed intending to. Obviously I don't personally have anything to do with admissions here, since I'm just a humble professor, not the synchronized archery coach. I am acutely conscious that a degree from our institution is a golden ticket. Admissions committees at highly selective colleges and universities are sorting people into buckets with radically different life chances.

Selectivity is actually the whole point -- an Ivy League degree wouldn't be worth as much if anybody could get one. The ostensible purpose of the four years undergraduates spend here is the development of broad knowledge and skills that will equip them to contribute to the betterment of humanity. Our institution proclaims its mission for undergraduate education here, although I would say there are a lot of tacit assumptions there. The anonymous voice says:
A Brown education is a catalyst for creativity and entrepreneurship. Students at Brown are free to imagine and create their own course of study, integrating their major areas of interest into a broader program of liberal learning. Working with a network of teachers and advisors, students develop important skills of planning, communication, self-advocacy, and resilience. . . .

The success of Brown’s graduates in a huge range of fields underscores that our unique approach to education works. Brown students are driven, individual, highly inquisitive scholars and energetic leaders.
Okay, this is true. We really do care about this. We work hard to help our students learn and reflect and grow. And I hope that graduates do for the most part go on to contribute to the betterment of humanity, although there seem to be an inordinate number of them who aspire to a career in hedge fund management. But there is also an unspoken outcome of a Brown education: the credential. That will get you onto the first rung of the ladder and continue to guild your resume for the rest of your life. That will likely matter more than whatever you actually learned here.

So people are legitimately outraged by the revelation that some rich people cheated to get their kids into selective universities. So far no claims have emerged that we were among them, but these few cases of fraud are of little consequence compared to the "legitimate" admissions policy. Children from affluent and wealthy families routinely have a tremendous advantage. Part of it is the resources to prep for the SAT, get your essay expertly ghost written, and build up a resume of the sorts of activities that admissions committees value. There are also preferences given to children of alumni, and donors.

Then there are preferences for "athletes." People think of jock universities with a lot of African American basketball and football players, but the vast majority of college athletes, who get preferential admission even here (though we don't have athletic scholarships per se) engage in sports that nobody pays attention to but mostly rich kids get a chance to do: rowing, tennis, water polo, lacrosse, sailing, golf -- that sort of thing. Preferential admission for these sports is an affirmative action program for affluent white kids.

We do nonetheless manage to have a fairly diverse student body, and they do find a way to admit some students who don't come from privilege. But the chances still skew toward the affluent and wealthy. The cheating is really not the issue.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Public Health 101

I have been employed in the field of public health in one way or another for more than 30 years. So I take the term for granted, along with the concepts it embodies and the nature of the work that is done by public health researchers and practitioners. So I continually have to remind myself that many, if not most people, don't know what "public health" means. Often, people seem to think that it means providing medical services to poor people. Some people think it just means infectious disease control.

I work at a school of public health and I do public health research and I teach public health. So here are three definitions I offer to my students in an introductory lecture to my introductory course in public health. So I really do know what it means.

Definition 1 is from the Institute of Medicine, in 1988:

‘the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting health … through organized community effort’

That's succinct. As you can readily see, it would include such activities as reducing the rate at which people are shot. Why is the Institute of Medicine defining public health? Good question! Medicine does focus on the individual, while public health addresses the population level. But physicians have come to care more about public health than they did in the past because they know that medical intervention accounts for less than half of health and longevity.

Definition 2 is from Harvard professor C.E. Winslow, in 1932. He was a founder of the field.

Public Health is the science and the art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting physical health and efficiency through organized community efforts for the sanitation of the environment, the control of community infections, the education of the individual in principles of personal hygiene, the organization of medical and nursing service for the early diagnosis and preventive treatment of disease, and the development of the social machinery which will ensure to every individual in the community a standard of living adequate for the maintenance of health; organizing these benefits in such fashion as to enable every citizen to realize his birthright of health and longevity.”
As you can see he includes medicine, particularly early diagnosis and prevention, as a part of public health, but only a small part.

The third definition is from the textbook I use, by M. Schneider:

At its most idealistic, public health is a broad social movement, a campaign to maximize health for everyone in the population through distributing benefits and responsibilities in an equitable way.  Health is therefore “a political endeavor as much as, or at times even more than, a medical one.”
 Public health is multi-disciplinary. It is defined by its mission, not any specific set of analytical or practical skills. You can get a degree in public health, up to a doctorate, meaning you probably know about a lot of stuff but some of it in less depth than a specialist in public health:

Human Biology
Environmental Toxicology
Political Science
Urban Planning
Civil Engineering . . .

And a whole lot more. We do research that informs every government agency from the Environmental Protection Agency to the National Transportation Safety Board to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense.

Just so we're clear.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Red flag laws

Zeoli and Webster, in the new JAMA, discuss "red flag" laws. These are laws that prohibit gun ownership by people with histories of violent felonies and/or people who have domestic violence restraining orders; or allow concerned family members or others to ask a court to prohibit someone who is at high risk of suicide or violence from possessing a firearm. These mean that yes, the people are required to surrender weapons they own and the police can confiscate them.

They have not so far resulted in the shootouts Mojrim fears, and they are associated with modest reductions in homicides and suicides. Not huge, but they do save lives. The courts have consistently upheld such laws and they have popular support. I would also favor requiring that guns be stored in safes. They are only enforceable post hoc, but they do provide recourse when people are negligent and others might get the message.

Also, we might consider taking guns away from complete doofuses.

Update: To claim that firearm injuries are not a public health issue is to prove that you need a proctoscope  to find your head. Injury prevention is one of the core functions of public health, obviously. 

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: Useless factoids

Genesis 46 is kind of a strange object. Why do we need this enumeration of male descendants, most of whose names we will never see again and who have no individually identifiable role in the plot? Remember that this entire story is fiction, made up nearly 2,000 years after it supposedly happened. I'll get to that.

 So Israel set out with all that was his, and when he reached Beersheba, he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac.
And God spoke to Israel in a vision at night and said, “Jacob! Jacob!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
Sometimes the man is named Israel and sometimes he's named Jacob, seemingly at random.
“I am God, the God of your father,” he said. “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes.”
As we know, God is lying. He will not make Israel a great nation in Egypt, they will be enslaved there. Hmm.
Then Jacob left Beersheba, and Israel’s sons took their father Jacob and their children and their wives in the carts that Pharaoh had sent to transport him. So Jacob and all his offspring went to Egypt, taking with them their livestock and the possessions they had acquired in Canaan. Jacob brought with him to Egypt his sons and grandsons and his daughters and granddaughters—all his offspring.
These are the names of the sons of Israel (Jacob and his descendants) who went to Egypt:
Reuben the firstborn of Jacob.
The sons of Reuben:
Hanok, Pallu, Hezron and Karmi.
10 The sons of Simeon:
Jemuel, Jamin, Ohad, Jakin, Zohar and Shaul the son of a Canaanite woman.
11 The sons of Levi:
Gershon, Kohath and Merari.
12 The sons of Judah:
Er, Onan, Shelah, Perez and Zerah (but Er and Onan had died in the land of Canaan).
The sons of Perez:
Hezron and Hamul.
13 The sons of Issachar:
Tola, Puah,[a] Jashub[b] and Shimron.
14 The sons of Zebulun:
Sered, Elon and Jahleel.
15 These were the sons Leah bore to Jacob in Paddan Aram,[c] besides his daughter Dinah. These sons and daughters of his were thirty-three in all.
Actually, if you count them, there are 32. Just sayin'.
16 The sons of Gad:
Zephon,[d] Haggi, Shuni, Ezbon, Eri, Arodi and Areli.
17 The sons of Asher:
Imnah, Ishvah, Ishvi and Beriah.
Their sister was Serah.
The sons of Beriah:
Heber and Malkiel.
18 These were the children born to Jacob by Zilpah, whom Laban had given to his daughter Leah—sixteen in all.
19 The sons of Jacob’s wife Rachel:
Joseph and Benjamin. 20 In Egypt, Manasseh and Ephraim were born to Joseph by Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On.[e]
21 The sons of Benjamin:
Bela, Beker, Ashbel, Gera, Naaman, Ehi, Rosh, Muppim, Huppim and Ard.
Wow that's weird! Two weeks ago Benjamin was a little boy. Now he has ten sons.
22 These were the sons of Rachel who were born to Jacob—fourteen in all.
23 The son of Dan:
24 The sons of Naphtali:
Jahziel, Guni, Jezer and Shillem.
25 These were the sons born to Jacob by Bilhah, whom Laban had given to his daughter Rachel—seven in all.
26 All those who went to Egypt with Jacob—those who were his direct descendants, not counting his sons’ wives—numbered sixty-six persons. 27 With the two sons[f] who had been born to Joseph in Egypt, the members of Jacob’s family, which went to Egypt, were seventy[g] in all.
28 Now Jacob sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph to get directions to Goshen. When they arrived in the region of Goshen, 29 Joseph had his chariot made ready and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel. As soon as Joseph appeared before him, he threw his arms around his father[h] and wept for a long time.
The name Goshen does not occur anywhere but here. It does not correspond to any known place name in any language. It is odd that Pharaoh would give some of his best land to these strangers, but we don't know where it was.
30 Israel said to Joseph, “Now I am ready to die, since I have seen for myself that you are still alive.”
31 Then Joseph said to his brothers and to his father’s household, “I will go up and speak to Pharaoh and will say to him, ‘My brothers and my father’s household, who were living in the land of Canaan, have come to me. 32 The men are shepherds; they tend livestock, and they have brought along their flocks and herds and everything they own.’ 33 When Pharaoh calls you in and asks, ‘What is your occupation?’ 34 you should answer, ‘Your servants have tended livestock from our boyhood on, just as our fathers did.’ Then you will be allowed to settle in the region of Goshen, for all shepherds are detestable to the Egyptians.”
This is evidently supposed to be the explanation. Goshen must be a fairly remote part of Pharaoh's domain, where he can offload the detestable shepherds. It is true that the ancient Egyptians were largely vegetarian, although it is not as far as I know established that they had any taboo about herding or meat eating. Most early agriculturists ate a plant-based diet simply because it's more efficient to consume grain directly than to feed it to animals. So this makes some sense: if Pharaoh had land suitable for grazing he might have wanted to establish some shepherds there. However,  there is no evidence of Hebrew presence in Egypt, and indeed the archaeological evidence is clear that they inhabited Canaan continuously.


  1. Genesis 46:13 Samaritan Pentateuch and Syriac (see also 1 Chron. 7:1); Masoretic Text Puvah
  2. Genesis 46:13 Samaritan Pentateuch and some Septuagint manuscripts (see also Num. 26:24 and 1 Chron. 7:1); Masoretic Text Iob
  3. Genesis 46:15 That is, Northwest Mesopotamia
  4. Genesis 46:16 Samaritan Pentateuch and Septuagint (see also Num. 26:15); Masoretic Text Ziphion
  5. Genesis 46:20 That is, Heliopolis
  6. Genesis 46:27 Hebrew; Septuagint the nine children

Friday, March 08, 2019

Facts are stupid things: gun violence edition

We often hear claims that firearm regulation just doesn't work. People who want to get guns and shoot people are going to do it anyway. Conversely, making it easy for peaceful citizens to obtain and carry guns means that people can protect themselves and make us all safer. This is just BS the NRA pulls out of an orifice -- there is plenty of evidence that it's the opposite of the truth.

These investigators ran a regression over 17 years of the rate of mass shootings in states on the permissiveness of their firearm laws. There are various definitions of mass shootings, but they use a relatively non-restrictive one: four or more people killed in a single incident. Most firearm deaths are actually suicides and most homicides do not result from mass shootings, but these events get a lot of attention. The findings are stark and quite compelling:

Table 1 shows that in fully adjusted models, a 10 unit increase in state gun law permissiveness was associated with a significant 11.5% (95% confidence interval 4.2% to 19.3%, P=0.002) higher rate of mass shootings. A 10% increase in state gun ownership was associated with a significant 35.1% (12.7% to 62.7%, P=0.001) higher rate of mass shootings.
The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is not letting have a gun in the first place.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

The Definition of Science

It's astonishing the rhetorical and cognitive contortions climate change deniers and flat earthers will go through to keep living in their fantasy worlds. Climate science is incontrovertibly real science, which by rigorous and multiple lines of inquiry has reached conclusions as certain as any can be that humans, by spewing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, are causing overall warming of the troposphere and oceans. This in turn causes multiple changes in weather patterns including wetter and more powerful storms, more heat waves, droughts and associated wildfires, and severe ecological disruption, among other consequences.

It is true that climate science is at the highest, most integrative level, not experimental. There isn't a second earth where we aren't spewing greenhouse gases to which we can compare this one. But astronomy, cosmology, paleontology, and many other perfectly respectable sciences do not have much room for grand experiment either. However, experiments do provide much of the underlying scaffolding of knowledge for these observational sciences. For example, astronomy and cosmology depend on physics which is experimentally testable here on earth, and paleontologists also use physics and chemistry to test their observational and deductive methods.

There is a sort of junior high school mantra that people often chant to the effect that correlation can't prove causation, and a naive concept that only randomized controlled trials constitute "science." This is not true. Causation can be established by deduction from multiple facts and known relationships. In the case of climate science it's not even complicated, arcane or difficult. Svante Arrhenius in 1896 deduced the relationship between the CO2 content of the atmosphere and surface temperature. The mechanism is well understood and has indeed been confirmed my innumerable experiments. The atmosphere is largely transparent to visible light (which is why it's visible -- we evolved to be able to see wavelengths that penetrate the atmosphere). The ground and ocean are warmed by sunlight, and re-emit the energy in the infrared range, to which CO2 and methane are largely opaque. That's why an infrared photograph looks like it's taken in fog, and the range of visibility is low. The CO2 is in turn warmed by absorbing these photons and transfers its energy to the atmosphere and oceans with which it interacts. We know that this is why the earth is at a habitable temperature. We also know that as the CO2 (and methane) concentration in the atmosphere increases, so will the temperature.

This is not hypothesis, it is a fact as well known as any there is. We know that the seasons are caused by the inclination of the earth's axis of rotation to the plane of its orbit around the sun. We know that more CO2 in the atmosphere makes it warmer. Both of these facts are of equal stature. It is possible by various means to deduce the climate and CO2 concentration of the atmosphere in epochs both recent and long past. Global climate correlates with CO2 concentration in accordance with prediction. This is also true for the recent past for which we have direct, detailed records.

Scientists' observations of the atmosphere, with the benefit of satellites and global networks of sensors, have become more and more detailed. Combined with known physics and chemistry and yes, experiment, this enables them to relate atmospheric behavior with temperature, and to develop predictive models -- models which are then confirmed by events. There are obviously uncertainties in some predictions, but these are reduced as more observations and more detailed  models come into play.

I am very puzzled why people who have no training in a scientific subject think they know more than people who have devoted their lives to learning and research in the field. In any event, I hereby remind all readers of a policy which I announced some time ago and hereby reiterate:

Climate change denial is not permitted in comments here. We will not have a debate about it. There is no debate, there is no controversy, and I will not dignify willful ignorance with any further response.

Update: This post is about climate science, not the morality of abortion. I am generally disposed against comments that are radically off-topic or make category errors.