THE SINGULARITY

The Epstein thing is fascinating, as perhaps the only current example of an issue where nobody will trust or accept the official view of events irrespective of political beliefs.

People want the world to be more interesting than it is. People want life to be like the movies. That is the basic appeal of conspiracy theories. Plus, speculating is fun. No, seriously. It is. I get it. In this case and as usual, it requires people to assert with a high degree of confidence that they know how something works without really having any idea what they're talking about.

Obviously Epstein's death is extremely suspicious at best. However, a few things need clarifying before we can jump with any reasonable certainty to "omg murder."

First of all, the idea that an aged pedophile would kill himself in prison is plausible and given more credence by Epstein's previous suicide attempt (or maybe attempts). In a vacuum, it isn't hard to believe at all that he would commit suicide.

The question on which every suggestion that he was murdered (or was somehow the victim of foul play) hinges is: what does "suicide watch" mean in the context of the facility where he was held? This is where everyone's rampant speculation has really blossomed. Suddenly the world is full of experts who know what a Federal correctional facility's suicide watch is like.

If "suicide watch" means that someone walks past the cells every 3-5 minutes to check on the occupants, then it is entirely plausible that a person could commit suicide under those conditions.

If "suicide watch" means that the person is under nonstop observation (presumably by camera) then it becomes considerably less plausible. It would be very difficult, in fact, to believe that someone watching Epstein hang himself would neither notice what was happening nor have time to intervene.

Yet even under the latter conditions, it's not impossible that this really was suicide. Have you ever met a prison guard? They're like cops, but lazier. It's also not impossible that someone tasked with staring at a bank of monitors for hours on end could let their attention wander. Maybe the people responsible for watching him are just bad at their job. That's not hard to imagine.

With all that said, the idea of a high profile inmate on suicide watch committing suicide without intervention is highly suspicious. It makes perfect sense that ears would perk up and that everyone would reflexively question that version of events. I cannot imagine what kind of investigation could be done that would produce a result that would NOT be rejected by a large part of the population, but I hope a more complete version of events emerges. Whatever happened, conspiracy theories about this event will persist until long after this presidency ends.

DANGEROUS PIEROGI

Ten days ago Question Cathy and I were driving to Pierogi Festival in lovely (not lovely) Whiting, Indiana. It is the kind of thing one does when 1) Whiting, IN is not far, 2) the weather is good, 3) it's as good as any option for a random summer Friday, and 4) pierogi are good.

I am not a huge fan of big crowds, of events like music festivals or parades where masses of sweaty people I very much would not like were I to know them are shoved ass-to-nuts against one another. I don't like being massively sweaty, being touched and pushed and jostled by strangers, and generally having to deal firsthand with idiots behaving like idiots. But, pierogi.

Instinctively, the first thing I did when we arrived on the one main street along which Pierogi Fest is set up was check that the street was blocked off properly at its beginning and end points. By "properly" I mean with something large and heavy enough to deter a vehicle-ramming attack, because that's just a thing that happens regularly now.

Then I did a 360 scan for cops (so they could engage the mass shooter after he only managed to get off maybe 50 rounds) and alleys or side streets we could use to quickly get off the crowded street. There were none. The lack of entry and exit points from the street, once we were swallowed up by the crowd, made me nervous.

This is just what we have to do now, I guess. The pierogi were good. But on the ride home, Question Cathy admitted that although she felt silly, she had been hesitant about the event because of the potential that someone would show up and start shooting for no reason. I allowed that I felt exactly the same, and we both enjoyed the amusing idea that anything as tame as a festival to celebrate Polish ravioli would ever, in a million years, be a terrorist target.

The next morning we woke up to find that someone shot and killed three people at Garlic Festival in Gilroy, CA, known worldwide for its garlic ice cream and a guy dressed up as a giant garlic mascot.

This is how we live now, I guess. We have to calculate the risk of being killed at small-town food festivals before leaving the house.

IT'S 2019 AND THINGS REMAIN NOT OK

By popular demand on the Facebook group, I'm doing another run of the timely "None of this is OK" shirts. The front design is unchanged. The back is blank and there is small "Mass for Shut-ins" text on the right sleeve (to help me get the podcast out there). The sleeve text is a nice change of pace and looks a little more stylish than back text, I think.

DUE TO FEEDBACK FROM PREVIOUS BUYERS that the women's V-Necks were too small, I have a new brand for those. The Men's / Unisex / Crewneck shirts remain unchanged: Navy blue Canvas brand. Canvas sizing chart available here. Sizes S – XXL. Contact me if you need 3XL – sometimes they are available. Shoot me a message and I'll do my best. For Women's V-Neck in Indigo (very similar color to the navy blue Canvas) see the size chart below for the Next Level brand (click to enlarge). The best way to pick the right size is to measure a t-shirt you already have and like the way it fits. The Canvas / Men's are 100% cotton; the Next Level Women's V-neck are 60/40 blend.

This is a pre-order and you will receive your shirts in about 3-4 weeks, depending on how busy the printer is. $20.20 (slight upcharge for XXL) plus $5 s/h in the USA, $14 s/h for all other countries. I'm sorry about that, but package shipping overseas (incl. Canada) has gotten incredibly expensive lately.

Order via the PayPal buttons below; double-check that you are ordering the correct size and quantity you need, please! Do not use the first button (domestic) to order shirts being shipped outside the USA.

DOMESTIC ORDERS:


Domestic Orders (USA)




NON-USA ORDERS:


Domestic Orders (USA)




NPF: REPEATED PLAY

(Editorial note: Sorry for the lack of updates lately. I have been suffering a bout of Writing Fatigue attempting to keep up with my podcast schedule, freelance work, book project, and more. Once I adjust and get accustomed to the new routine I will be back closer to normal)

A fun survey puts a numerical value to male overconfidence, as apparently 1 in 8 men in this sample believe that they could score a point against Serena Williams in a tennis match. Because, you know, she’s a woman. I guess Mr. Plays Tennis at the Y Occasionally thinks that simply being a guy holding a tennis racket immediately puts him in a position to have some level of success against a woman, any woman, including one who dominated her sport in a way few athletes ever have.

In fairness, “score a point” is a low bar. It’s quite a bit different from saying you could win. Nevertheless, I don’t know if these people are more sexist or more delusional. I’ve known plenty of men who in complete seriousness believed they could compete, or at least survive, on some level in an athletic competition with professionals. “If you gave me the ball once, I bet I could run for a couple yards” or whatever.

This is, of course, idiotic. The 350 pounders in the NFL – guys who can bench press 500 pounds and also run faster than any normal person could ever run if his life depended on it. Remember the commercial with Don Cheadle running against then-star NFLer Dante Hall? Cheadle breaks into a sprint, then Hall begins to run and passes him as though he is literally standing still. “And I’m pretty fast…” Cheadle wheezes.

Trust me, you can’t. Whatever you think you could do, you can’t. Having been at an NFL training camp with a press pass, on the field up close and personal, even the bad players who don’t make the team are an order of magnitude better than your “I’m pretty athletic” member of the normal population.

An interesting caveat, though, takes me back to a thought experiment I participated in during grad school. Here’s a more interesting question: If any recreational tennis player played Serena Williams an infinite, or at least a very large, number of times, would he or she eventually score a point?

Repeated to infinity, yes. Repeated a large number of times, probably. The odds are extremely low but, unless one happens to be physically incapable of holding and swinging the tennis racket or seeing the ball, non-zero.

I’m going to switch to baseball simply because I don’t understand tennis. It’s the same principle.

I blow at baseball. I couldn’t even play tee ball well. But I can swing a bat. Could I get a hit off a major league pitcher? On the surface the answer is “Absolutely not.” But what if, hypothetically and nonsensically, a Major League team decided to start me every game for a full season? What if I used 700-750 plate appearances (attempts) and swung the bat at every pitch that came anywhere near the plate?

There’s still a very good chance I would bat .000 for the season. But the thing is, the combined act of the pitcher throwing at the plate and me swinging over the plate means that simply by chance the bat and ball will meet some small percentage of the time. Purely by accident. He happened to throw it in the exact spot I managed to maneuver the bat into. No “skill” involved on my part at all.

Now we have to consider the odds that if the ball and bat are hitting one another, will the ball ever land in a place that would get me a hit? Again, it’s a question of randomness and the law of large samples. If I bat enough times, I *will* eventually get a hit. It’s going to happen, even if it takes a million times at bat.

So on that note, I suppose it is *possible* that a person could score a point off of Serena Williams given an unlimited number of opportunities to do so. You might have to stand there playing game after game for several years, but your racket will accidentally hit her serve a couple times and one of those, eventually, will score you a point. But as for doing it in a single game? You quite literally have better odds of winning Powerball or of being struck by lightning during your match.

Leonard Mlodinow covers some of this in his infinitely interesting book about probability in ordinary life, The Drunkard’s Walk. Even if the probability of something happening is infinitesimally small – me getting a hit, ever – that is different than the probability being zero. Very few things are, strictly speaking, impossible. They are only impossible in practice because their odds are so incredibly low that you cannot achieve the number of attempts it would take you to succeed.

Given infinite time and infinite typewriters, monkeys would eventually write Macbeth. That is a far cry, however, from saying that the monkeys can probably write Macbeth if you give them a chance – a statement that implies something well short of billions of years’ worth of repeated attempts.

NONE OF THIS IS OK: SCRATCH & DENT

I have some slightly imperfect "None of this is OK" shirts – all men's/unisex in limited sizes. $10 with shipping included (USA shipping only please). These shirts are all fine, honestly, but because I'm a perfectionist I toss aside the ones where the logo is maybe a tiny bit crooked or the screenprint is a little spotty.

In any case, they're cheap and they still get the point across, and you probably won't even notice whatever is wrong with them.


Domestic Orders (USA)




THE SCARCITY ECONOMY

Lots of talk this week about higher education, specifically student loan debt forgiveness. Any plan that forgives student debt would have to be paired with some sort of plan for free public school, or else it would simply degenerate into spiraling tuition costs ("Who cares, just borrow it and never pay it back, kids!") and an indirect subsidy of higher education through the worst possible means.

There is a lot of resistance to free higher education in any of the forms that left-leaning candidates have proposed it, most of which fall into the predictable "Yeah well who's gonna PAY for it huh?" trough that American political discourse uses whenever something that doesn't directly and obviously benefit the wealthy is proposed. But I think there are two other important things going on with the resistance to free or at least heavily subsidized college.

One is that the "Education is the silver bullet" mantra on the center-left would be undermined. Right now we can keep convincing people that their economic struggles are their own fault; if only you had the right skills you'd be doing so much better! We are already seeing a generation that has discovered the flaws with that argument. It turns out, of course, that many of the problems with the job markets and the economy are structural and not at all within the control of the individual. Sure, go get yourself all the fancy skills you can. When the jobs are being shipped overseas or turned into gig economy, no-benefits type work, those skills aren't going to feel very valuable. And the constant emphasis on the "right" skills is a canard; what skills are in high demand changes constantly, and encouraging students to flock toward whatever the hot skill of the moment might be has long term consequences that will appear in 20 years when that skill is decidedly no longer hot.

The second issue is that, to be crass, credentials are only valuable if there is some scarcity. Education is always valuable in the abstract, improving what the individual knows and can do. But when high school graduation rates neared 90%, what happened to a high school diploma? It became nearly worthless except as a basic entree into employment. The same thing has started to happen to the Bachelor's Degree. With more than 1/3 of adults holding one in the U.S., it's often not worth much on the job market (mileage varying based on field and brand name). If the theoretical everyone has one, no one is going to benefit from having one.

So to some extent – and sadly this is quite logical – a lot of the opposition to truly throwing open the doors to higher education comes from people with higher ed credentials who don't want to see the inevitable watering-down of the things they've used to establish professional success. We're looking at a pool of politically important, professionally successful people who are thinking, I paid out the ass for my kid to go to ____ and now people are just gonna get a BA for free? It's not the most attractive logic (and not enough of a reason on its own not to make a public policy that benefits society as a whole) but I certainly understand it. I have an advanced degree, and if everyone in America suddenly had an advanced degree it would be worth significantly less (if that's possible). So, I get it.

That said, only people who completely ignore the numbers and the inequity of what this generation has been subjected to in order to get the college degrees we tell them they absolutely MUST have can argue that we don't need to do something aggressive about student debt. Look at what has happened to college tuition since 2000 and stop pretending like your experiences going to college in the 70s and 80s is in any way meaningful to the current conversation. This really is a debt "crisis" and it's impacting every area of the economy down the line. People aren't buying houses, cars, investments, vacations, and all that other crap we tell people they should do (for their own long-term economic good, but moreso because our economy depends on people doing those things) because they can't afford it.

I understand the resistance, but this isn't a problem that can be ignored. And it's better to start with the most aggressive possible idea – free college period, debt forgiveness period – since you know whatever "solution" eventually gets out of Congress is going to be watered down a million times anyway. Don't do the watering-down up front. I thought we learned that lesson in 2009.

THE BIG SHIFT

The NYT dropped a serious piece of crap on Sunday based on a flawed premise about responsibility for (and, concurrently, solutions to) climate change. "If Seeing the World Helps Ruin It, Should We Stay Home?" they ask, hinting darkly, "In the age of global warming, traveling — by plane, boat or car — is a fraught choice. And yet the world beckons."

A fraught choice? Only if you accept the ridiculous premise that your choice to use a plastic straw or fly commercial to London is really the cause of or solution to climate change.

Climate change is a collective problem, caused primarily by the decisions of nation- or planet-level actors. The petrochemical industry causes climate change. Car dependence causes climate change. Heavy industry causes climate change. Use of unrecyclable throw-away crap causes climate change. More than anything, electricity generation from burning fossil fuel causes climate change.

It is facile, stupid, and wrong to suggest that because you drive or use electricity that you, Joe Blow, are the one who either caused the problem or can solve it. You didn't make the choice to subsidize oil, coal, and gas-burning power plants – you have to live with it. You didn't decide to lay the entire United States out physically and geographically on the presumption that everyone has a car and fuel is cheap. And your decision to stop driving or buying gas will not make one goddamn bit of difference absent meaningful collective action from others.

You are one person who lives within a system that caused, and can help abate, climate change. That system is what needs to change, not you. Guilting you and I about our personal choices on the premise that those choices cause, prolong, or could solve climate change is just gratuitous. Worse, it's an industry-backed tactic for excusing their inaction by shifting the blame from the collective to the individual level.

Your decisions can no more stop climate change than your personal decision not to be racist can solve racism, or than your decision to be honest solves the problem of lying. Your contribution to the problem is a spit in the ocean, yet the parties most responsible have a vested interest in making you feel like it is up to you personally to decide whether or not the problem persists.

It's idiotic logic. Reject it.

FITS THE DESCRIPTION

I saw something shitty last week.

I'm at an event with thousands (literally) of high school teachers and college faculty. I was sitting in the lobby drinking coffee at a convention center when a man walked in. He was old. And black. He looked really disheveled. But that's hardly out of the ordinary. He had crazy, untamed hair (common among Old Man Professors; 10% of the men here have his haircut). He was dressed very badly, essentially in an untucked rumpled shirt and pajama bottoms (We are all extremely dressed down, because we have very long days and the emphasis is on dressing strictly for comfort; I haven't worn pants without an elastic waistband the whole time).

He had no badge, so the security guard – note that this was a locally staffed person from a temp agency, unaffiliated in any way with the event or its organizers – told him he couldn't come in. He explained that everyone has to come in without a badge the first time because you have to go inside to register and get your badge. You know. Pretty logical.

I had just done this exact thing the previous day. Thousands of other people did it too. The vast majority were disheveled. Many were also old. Many were also dressed like hobos. But few were also black.

The security guard kept telling him he could not enter, and finally he just came in. He had explained himself at least three times. She kept physically getting in front of him and trying to block him. He said multiple times, don't touch me. She did not. But she went into full, SIR, I'M ASKING YOU TO LEAVE mode. Within 10 seconds she was on a walkie-talkie calling for a police officer. A cop showed up.

So here, for the millionth time, an armed police officer was brought to confront a black man doing exactly nothing wrong, and exactly what everyone around him was also doing. The cop did not do anything. But he was there, and armed. Even if there was a 0.0001% chance the situation could have gone badly, that's 0.0001% higher than when I walked into a bland convention center to register for an event I was invited to be at. And odds of 0.0001% eventually get someone if this scenario is repeated often enough.

The whole time I'm watching this and thinking, this is how people end up getting shot. The wrong cop shows up on the wrong day in the wrong mood and confronts something less than total obedience from a black man and the tasers and guns come out, or someone ends up face-down on the ground with a knee in their back, or someone ends up in handcuffs.

There was no reason at all for that cop to be there. And it's not his fault he was there; it was his job to show up when called. The problem was that another middle aged white woman looked at someone and concluded that because he is a black man the police needed to be summoned.

Stop calling the police on black men who aren't doing anything other than existing. Thanks.

OUT OF TOUCH

Universal health care – in whatever flavor one envisions – is a popular idea and Democrats had success in 2018 with many congressional candidates who emphasized it. So it's extra puzzling why the national leadership is so timid about embracing it. Everybody understands that it's not something that could be accomplished with a magic wand or without concessions in the legislative process; but the inability / unwillingness to at least declare confidently "This is a goal we have, we want to achieve this" is really telling. Alex Pareene (ex-Wonkette, for those of you into that) has a great take in The New Republic regarding the incomprehensible "let's try to please everyone" position congressional Democrats are trying to stake out on prescription drug prices.

I mean, even Trump gets this. He runs around saying "We need lower drug prices!" He's not doing anything to actually bring that about, and in fact he's done as much to protect the pharmaceutical industry as any president including George W. Bush. But he gets that people want to hear it. He gets that it's an almost embarrassingly easy political point to score. "Let's lower those drug prices!" Nearly everyone who isn't a pharma executive or salesperson can relate! Easily!

Instead – segue! – they're stuck in their inevitable, terminal cycles of technocratic fixes that A) nobody understands and B) are obviously designed to protect drug industry profits because the biggest priority seems to be not upsetting drug companies. And that mindset, the mindset of tweaks and tax credits and complicated, unworkable, Wall Street friendly administrative nightmares, is one the party absolutely needs to get beyond. Samuel Moyn's review of the new book by Cass Sunstein makes this point well. As Mike Konczal notes, "It is dangerous to approach the economy – now, with so much on the line, with the threat of the far right near – as a set of glib information problems, instead of one shot through with instability, massive imbalances of resources, deprivation and pervasive private power."

How they are not campaigning by shouting "The drug industry sucks! Nationalize that fucker!" is beyond me. They're letting Trump – DONALD TRUMP – beat the from the LEFT on this issue. The nature of our policy making process, of course, makes it impossible to guarantee delivery on such a bold promise. But for fuck's sake, will someone at least aim a little higher? Give people something aspirational to think about? A higher ideal that speaks to people in language other than bureaucratic "Well first we'll set up some exchanges" kind?

Of course not. Let's just nominate Joe Biden instead and try to guilt the Democratic base into being excited about it. Worked great in 2016.

THE RABBIT HOLE

A random Twitter user named Gwen Snyder offered the world a simple observation that more or less blew half of the internet's mind last week.

As someone who gets contacted / threatened by a lot of random weirdos, Gwen apparently got fairly adept at checking people out on Facebook to see what kind of nut she's dealing with. I get a lot of weird contacts too, although nothing that ever made me legitimately worried that I might be in danger – more the 'obsessive internet guy who wants attention' variety. But I do usually look at profiles when someone is really pestering me; not the one comment telling me I'm an asshole type, but the kind that sends private messages by the dozens. Usually it's obvious with one glance that the guy (it's usually a guy, but surprisingly not always) is standard issue alt-right garbage. Lots of Facebook timeline posts about white genocide, lots of "snowflake" memes, etc.

Gwen points out something I never knew, which is that if you look at which pages a Facebook user has "Liked" it lists them in chronological order. This is different than the "likes" a person makes on regular posts – it doesn't track those in any way other users can see. But if you like pages (Chicago Bears, Gin and Tacos, CBS News, whatever) it lists them in the order you liked them. So she found that it was easy in many cases not only to see that the person bothering her is now into the white nationalist discourse, but how they got there.

She takes us through the example of a guy in Philadelphia whose "likes" began with normal "middle aged urban white guy" preferences – the local news networks and newspapers, local elected officials (both parties), Philadelphia sports teams, and some generic "we support our police" type stuff. Then he discovered Fox News and everything changed. Soon it was a parade of Fox News personalities, then the more prominent right-wing internet presences that Fox promotes (Turning Point USA, Ben Shapiro, Brietbart, etc.) Then came the hardcore Trump sites – not just Trump himself, but the "we love our hero president" meme factory groups on Facebook. Then, especially once he crossed the threshold into Breitbart territory, came the explicitly far-right / white power stuff.

It literally tracks step-by-step the process of this guy becoming a white nationalist threatening to kill people on Twitter, whereas he was once a normal Average Joe who liked going to pancake breakfast fund raisers for the local Fire Department and thought his Democratic mayor wasn't half-bad. We've all seen people we know go through this process but couldn't really quantify it. It turns out that Facebook tracks the evolution pretty systematically.

Fox News absolutely is a gateway drug. It's not just what Fox itself covers – it's the way it introduces addicts to the broader universe of the right wing internet. And it doesn't take long before the user is introduced to the Harder Stuff. The journey from Fox & Friends to explicit white supremacy is surprisingly short.

As Gwen demonstrates toward the end of her thread, this kind of progression doesn't go unnoticed. Her "friend" was identified quickly by local white power groups in Philadelphia and followed on Facebook. They know a good potential recruit when they see one – and they know where to look.