Posted in Rants on August 14th, 2014 by Ed

People have a very difficult time distinguishing between impossible and implausible.

In high school I got into an extended debate with a fellow baseball fan about whether a particular set of circumstances was possible on the field. I argued that it was impossible for a ball to strike the top of the outfield wall without either going over the wall for a home run or back onto the field of play for a hit. It was not possible, in other words, for the ball to hit the top of the wall and then come back down to hit the top of the wall a second time. It simply could not be possible for a ball hit from a great distance at high speed to strike the very narrow top of a wall from a sharp angle of approach (while rotating, by the way) and essentially bounce straight up and down. That would be like flinging a rock into a lake and having it bounce straight up rather than skip or sink. Some laws of physics can't be violated.

Never being the kind to back down (and being friends mostly because we were both awkward nerds) he endeavored to prove me wrong with high school physics and geometry. He put a good deal of time into drawing up a scenario under which the ball could do exactly that – if the wall had exactly x density and was struck at y speed and z angle with the wind blowing inward at b miles per hour, the ball could do exactly that. While not confident in his 15 year old mastery of physics nor my ability to pick out the potential flaws in his argument, I relented. It was not strictly impossible – just highly unlikely.

It has been many years since we spoke, but I bet that my friend and fellow White Sox fan remembered our adolescent dispute a couple weeks ago when, giving the finger to physics and common sense, Adam Dunn mashed a ball that hit the top of the wall. Twice. And then returned to the field.

Some things are impossible; they literally cannot be done, like fitting a square peg through a round hole (provided the width of the square is not smaller than the diameter of the circle, pedants). But most things, even the ones we ordinarily think of as impossible, are merely implausible. This causes a pair of problems that have, over time, birthed a million conspiracy theories and plain bad arguments.

First, people have a tendency to conclude that if something is highly implausible it is not possible. For example, it is quite implausible that on 9-11, three lightly trained terrorist-pilots who had never previously flown real airliners could steer them into stationary targets including the Pentagon, which is less than ten stories (75 feet) tall. It strains belief. The odds against it must be large. But it happened. The Truthers, however, have seized upon the improbability of the chain of events to bolster their argument. Since it is unlikely to have happened, it couldn't have happened.

Second, people tend to do the opposite as well and argue that as long as something is not impossible, it is a perfectly useful explanation of events. And any argument that can't be 100% ruled out is as good as any other, according to the world's most annoying motivated reasoners. For example, oh, I don't know…if it's possible that an unarmed black kid decided to try to get the gun away from a cop – so he could, I guess, kill him? That was the plan? Kill the cop? – then that version of events is the perfectly correct one for people who really want to believe in a chain of events that exonerates the police.

In short, when all available evidence suggests that x happened, the fact that x is implausible is irrelevant. Conversely, when all available evidence suggests that x didn't happen, the fact that x is plausible rather than impossible doesn't bolster the argument. Logic doesn't care how likely or unlikely things "seem."

Is it possible than in a moment of panic, an unarmed teen with no criminal record decided that he would lunge for a cop's gun when the officer told him to walk on the sidewalk instead of the street. I mean, that could feasibly happen. For something so highly implausible to emerge as the definitive account of the events, though, would require a good deal of supporting evidence. When the tale goes contrary to all of the available evidence, its implausibility becomes a serious liability.

You believe that Adam Dunn did something really implausible because I showed you a video of it happening. If, instead, I merely told you that I saw it happen, you'd be skeptical. That skepticism would increase if I couldn't produce anyone else who attended the game and claimed to see it. It would all but disappear if a parade of eyewitnesses contradicted me and said that the ball went straight over the wall. At that point, the only way you would believe that it happened is if you had some unusual faith in my honesty…or you really wanted to believe it.


Posted in Quick Hits on August 13th, 2014 by Ed

This is such an amazingly, staggeringly terrible idea that it is hard to believe anyone would even try it. I mean, it's essentially the plot of Minority Report. Then you think on it for a moment and realize that this is exactly the kind of thing that we were bound to try at some point:

Risk-assessment advocates say it’s a no-brainer: Who could oppose “smarter” sentencing? But Mr. Holder is right to pick this fight. As currently used, the practice is deeply unfair, and almost certainly unconstitutional. It contravenes the principle that punishment should depend on what a defendant did, not on who he is or how much money he has.

The basic problem is that the risk scores are not based on the defendant’s crime. They are primarily or wholly based on prior characteristics: criminal history (a legitimate criterion), but also factors unrelated to conduct. Specifics vary across states, but common factors include unemployment, marital status, age, education, finances, neighborhood, and family background, including family members’ criminal history.

Such factors are usually considered inappropriate for sentencing; if anything, some might be mitigating circumstances. But in the new, profiling-based sentencing regimen, markers of socioeconomic disadvantage increase a defendant’s risk score, and most likely his sentence.

It's pseudoscience at its most dangerous, with the false precision of tables and formulas and point systems coming together to create a matrix of your criminal future. Funny how reactionary assholes are rabidly anti-science and anti-intellectual until someone at the right think tank cooks up a Rube Goldberg machine that produces the exact results they want.


Posted in Quick Hits on August 12th, 2014 by Ed

Another great day in a country in which it's far safer to be a white male openly walking around with a deadly weapon than a black male armed with either a fake gun (while in the fake gun aisle at Wal-Mart) or nothing at all. Rest assured, though, that when the cops gun down another black guy on suspicion of being a black guy with a gun (I mean, They all carry guns, right? To use against our womenfolk?) the news will focus on reporting about a handful of people who vandalized and looted a QuikTrip rather than the fact that the police added another name to the list of unarmed black men shot for being Probably Armed black men.


Gosh I sure hope that QT is alright.


Posted in Rants on August 11th, 2014 by Ed

I see American society, and most societies around the world, as a hierarchy of three groups. At the top is the 10% of the population that owns all of the wealth and controls all of the institutions. Within this group is an even smaller elite that really owns everything, but for the moment let's set that aside and take a slightly more expansive view of who is included among the Haves. The second group is the 75% of the population that exists in the margin between comfort and total ruin. This includes (unless some of you are wealthier than I realize) all of us who essentially live paycheck-to-paycheck or close thereto, from menial service industry jobs to well-compensated professionals. Even those of us who are doing well aren't truly wealthy, though, since we're never more than a stone's throw from ruin. The people who have real power compensate us because we're in some way economically useful to them, allowing them to make more money and/or live more leisurely lives. They also ensure that we graduate college with enough debt to be servile in perpetuity, in addition to or instead of running up enough credit card debt to keep us in a state of constant readiness to accept whatever terms of employment and existence they dictate. Here, have another payday loan and pre-approved Platinum Card.

The third group is the bottom 10-15% of society. To the people in power, these people serve no purpose. They have no economically valuable skills to exploit. You just have to get rid of them somehow. And that's what the War on Drugs is all about. In a society that doesn't want to pay to educate its population well or pay for a social safety net or strive for full, well paid employment as an economic policy goal, there are only two options for dealing with the third group. In many countries around the world the leaders can just send out death squads and various uniformed skull-crackers to physically eliminate them. The second option preferred by societies like ours that fancy themselves above such tactics is mass incarceration. And the nice part about incarceration, aside from appearing more Civilized and Proper, is that the ownership class can profit handsomely from it and you can pay some of the would-be useless people to lock up and watch the others.

We are very slowly beginning to dismantle the War on Drugs as an act of national policy faith. We are doing this, and I sincerely believe that within a decade or two it will be complete, for all the wrong reasons. We're moving toward sentencing reform and marijuana legalization not because our previous policies make no sense but because states cannot afford the gargantuan systems of incarceration, punishment, and monitoring that they built beginning in the 1970s. With large states spending literal billions annually to maintain their leviathan departments of "corrections", it is finally dawning on some formerly gung ho drug crusaders that filling the prisons, jails, and parole systems with non-violent drug offenders is remarkably expensive. Add to that the fact that cash-strapped state and local governments realize what a tax cash cow marijuana is and it seems clear now that the first few dominoes have fallen that drug legalization is going to continue to spread in the near future.

I wonder, then, what will be the new national policy toward the third group in society – the underclass for which there is no practical economic use. We sure as hell aren't investing in education to increase the balance of useful skills. We aren't creating more jobs, and in fact there are not enough to go around even for people who do have the skills and willingness to work these days. My guess – and this is why I've been talking about "Brazilification" of the American economy for years now – is that we will take that final step toward Second World status as a nation by allowing First World wealth and opulence to exist immediately alongside massive levels of desperate Third World poverty. Of course poverty is already visible in the U.S., but there is another level of economic and physical segregation – think Rio or Mexico City – of inequality for us to achieve. We see it already in places like Chicago where rich, perfectly safe neighborhoods are cordoned off by law enforcement and local government to coexist alongside poor neighborhoods that are essentially free fire zones where city services barely operate, infrastructure is crumbling, and the policing policy is "Call us when there is a corpse to pick up."

If we're not going to incarcerate or employ everyone and we have no intention of creating a social welfare system that allows people to live like human beings even if they lack the Puritan sacrament of daily toil for a soulless corporation, then there really is no other option.

(PS: Don't worry, we'll still incarcerate tons of people even if the WoD is scaled back. I promise.)


Posted in No Politics Friday on August 7th, 2014 by Ed

So this meme is going around:


Let's just say that is exactly what Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce want us to think.


Posted in Quick Hits on August 6th, 2014 by Ed

I usually use the Gin and Tacos Facebook page to make (attempt) jokes throughout the day. Recently I unleashed this howler, with an excellent rejoinder from a Mr. Martin:


His joke got me thinking about the thousands of words written over the last few months about the disaster that is the Brownback administration in Kansas. Specifically, I wish I had a better understanding of the mindset of people who vote for someone like Brownback. Mr. Martin and I may have been (mostly) kidding, but as usual there may be a kernel of truth. Do conservatives actually think, "I'm voting for Brownback because things will get better once he is Governor!" or have they simply embraced nihilism and chosen the person they believe will do the best job of destroying the state?

I know enough Republicans to know that they are not all frothy-mouthed sociopaths even if the people they're electing lately are. But a guy like Brownback is so obviously devoid of any skills other than destroying government that it's hard to envision voting for him with any other end result in mind. They do everything but come out and promise to burn the country to the ground, so help them God. The next logical question, then, is why so many people think that when their Teabagging elected officials succeed at destroying the state, Republican voters will survive the ensuing chaos. I mean, who needs government infrastructure or a functioning economy when you've got a whole buncha bad-ass guns and a yard full of buried Glenn Beck gold?


Posted in Rants on August 4th, 2014 by Ed

In his younger days, Walter Lippmann wrote the following about Henry Ford. Mr. Ford, as you are all no doubt aware, was staggeringly successful, wealthy, and nuts. He devoted as much or more energy to spreading his ideals (a curious mixture of Jeffersonian pastoralism, pacifism, worship of industry, and rabid anti-Semitism) as he did to making cars. In hindsight, of course, we ask why someone with an 8th-grade education and innate engineering skills would think himself qualified to rebuild society and reshape Americans to conform to his theories. Said Lippmann:

We Americans have little faith in special knowledge, and only with the greatest difficulty is the idea being forced upon us that not every man is capable of doing every job. But Mr. Ford belongs to the traditions of self-made men, to that primitive Americanism which has held the theory that a successful manufacturer could turn his hand with equal success to every other occupation. It is this tendency in America which installs untrained rich men in difficult diplomatic posts, which puts businessmen at the head of technical bureaus of the government, and permits business men to dominate the educational policies of so many universities. Mr. Ford is neither a crank nor a freak; he is merely the logical exponent of American prejudices about wealth and success.

He wrote that about a century ago and almost nothing has changed in the interim. We still elect rich people who appoint other rich people to do jobs about which they know nothing on the unspoken assumption that anyone who has made (or worse, inherited) a lot of money must be good at everything. The part about appointing people to university boards of regents and trustees based on wealth is something that I've covered before and is a bigger problem than most people would imagine.

One thing that has changed, however, is that the ultra-wealthy no longer engage in the kind of utopian social engineering schemes that were all the rage around the turn of the century. It was hard to find a robber baron or other holder of great wealth who didn't have some crackpot idea about remaking society based on whatever pet cause he (or more rarely, she) happened to have: vegetarianism, spiritualism, Luddite leanings, socialism, free love, worship of the soybean, etc. Today a more skeptical society – more skeptical about some things, that is – would brand these people insane in a heartbeat. Imagine Henry Ford's lectures about International Jewry today or Bill Gates talking about building a utopian community where everyone farmed cassava and lived in group quarters. That would be…weird. Hell, it was already weird in Ford's time. Look at the way candy magnate Robert Welch's one-man anticommunist crusade, the John Birch Society, transitioned from a small but relevant force to a tiny fringe group of complete lunatics to see how attitudes toward the eccentric obsessions of the rich have changed over time.

Instead, today's rich try to normalize their efforts at social engineering by explicitly steering them toward politics. Electoral politics and governing in 1920 looked almost nothing like they do today, and the ultra-rich treated the political world as a minor sideshow compared to the almost limitless power of the oligarchy. Whether it's the Koch Brothers' economic and political brainwashing campaign or the Gates-Zuckerberg-Everyone Else heavy involvement in "education reform" and charter schools, the rich express the same impulse to remake society in a different manner today. Some of it, certainly, is motivated by plain greed; lowering taxes, staying on top of wealthy-specific issues like the estate tax, and securing fat government contracts are all as important as ever to the people pouring money into the political process. Underlying it all, though, is that "primitive Americanism" Lippmann identified, the idea that he who is good at making money knows best about everything. That they've gotten more media savvy about how they do their paternalistic meddling under the guise of charitable giving or political activism does not change the motive.


Posted in Quick Hits on August 4th, 2014 by Ed

Political scientists have been well aware since the early 1960s that what most people know about politics and government is minimal and that their beliefs lack constraint. Constraint is the idea that the things one believes should make sense together. Philip Converse (who is still alive, believe it or not) made his name by demonstrating that only a small percentage of Americans constrain their thinking in ideological terms. In the past decade or two we've seen an explosion of the use of ideological terms – liberal, conservative, socialist – but that doesn't mean they are used correctly. To the average crank, "liberal" means "Stuff I don't like."

This is not news to anyone. Whether you keep yourself current on public opinion data, study political science, or merely listen to the nonsense ideas people express constantly about politics, we recognize that opinions about one issue are not necessarily connected to opinions on another. This is true of Americans of any demographic, although better educated people tend to have slightly more coherent belief systems.

Writers who need to generate some content but can't think of a good idea can reliably churn out a "Look how stupid Americans are!" piece using polling data. It's hardly surprising. That said, I think most of us were a little floored to see just how little sense the political beliefs of "millennials" make. As in, they appear to make no sense at all.

This made the rounds online recently, and they do require some caveats. One is that young people generally know the least about politics, and this is not unique to the current crop. The second is that it is possible to have somewhat useful political beliefs without being able to answer the kind of questions that academics and pollsters expect you to be able to answer. Even with those caveats, this is pretty bad. A couple things stand out.

Even more than most Americans, their beliefs appear to hinge on how things are pitched and what terms are used. They are repelled by the term "Obamacare" to a greater extent than their elders, despite liking Obama and being supportive of national healthcare (What?). It seems that these responses are twisted by opposing forces – these kids have been bombarded by conservative propaganda since birth (hence their allergy to terms like "liberal" and "Obamacare") while their own political preferences, to the extent that they have any, are not nearly as paleolithic. The years of Fox News and Tea Party-themed lectures from dad lead to them rejecting things that contain the wrong keywords – Government bad! Liberal bad! Taxes evil! – but that aversion is not necessarily connected to any of their actual opinions.

Perhaps I'm trying too hard to read something into the aggregate data; maybe they really are as ignorant as the numerous "OMG look at how dumb they are" pieces suggest. Nonetheless, the data imply that things won't be getting much better in the foreseeable future.


Posted in No Politics Friday on July 31st, 2014 by Ed

Last weekend I journeyed to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY to see the induction ceremony for three first ballot players including my favorite player as a kid, Frank "Big Hurt" Thomas. Though Cooperstown is convenient to nothing – the trip involved phrases like "only 80 minutes from Binghamton" – this really is a baseball fan's version of the Hajj. Cooperstown is a surprisingly tiny town, though, and when jammed with 50,000+ visitors it can be quite chaotic. So the practical part of my brain recommends visiting sometime other than induction weekend if you dislike huge crowds.

The best part of the museum is listening to random strangers sharing their memories with anyone in earshot, since I think that is one of the primary reasons that people develop an attachment to the sport: "I was at that game with my dad in '72" or "My mom listened to Jack Buck on KMOX every game for thirty years" or "Our first date was at a Braves game and Eddie Mathews hit a home run in the 10th inning" or even more general comments like (actual quote) "Man, Willie McCovey hit the ball like it owed him money." You would not be too far off base (SWIDT?) to conclude that the experience isn't entirely about baseball for most of the visitors. Ask an American male to talk about his father and there's a good chance that stories about going to ballgames will be involved.

The worst part of the visit had nothing to do with the museum, but to our new obsession as a society with taking pictures of absolutely everything without pausing to ask why. The main attraction at the museum is the hall of plaques for each member of the Hall, which on the Saturday of induction weekend was mobbed with 1000+ people at any given moment. And almost all of them were crowded inches away from the plaques taking pictures with smartphones. This both puzzled and irritated me, since it made actually seeing anything (You know, having the experience of actually being there as opposed to taking pictures to put on Facebook) nearly impossible. Sure, everyone wants to take some pictures on vacation. But cameraphone close-ups of the plaques? Really? Two hundred of them? I don't get that at all. There are pictures of every single one on the Hall of Fame website. Or rather than crowding around Hank Aaron's plaque, for example, and making it impossible for anyone to see it or get near it, you could google image search "Hank Aaron plaque" and find dozens of pictures, some in high resolution, that are better than the crappy picture you take with your phone. I understand why people like taking pictures of themselves in famous places, but taking pictures of inanimate objects doesn't make a lot of sense. I see this constantly now at art museums too – do you think your phone is going to take a better picture of The Death of Marat than the hundreds available in books and online? Can't we just put the goddamn phones down and enjoy the experience of being there? Of actually seeing something rather than seeing a reproduction of it?

All that said, I did take this picture featuring my left hand:


When your plaque includes phrases like "excellent bunter" and "enthusiastic baserunner" you probably don't belong in the Hall of Fame. Being like the fifth-best player on your own team doesn't help either. Another one of the Veterans Committee's greatest hits.


Posted in Rants on July 30th, 2014 by Ed

I live in an economically depressed Rust Belt city. One of the things that came as a shock for the first few months was the vast quantity of able bodied adults who spend normal business hours wandering the city doing god-knows-what. This is to be expected, of course, given that there are hardly any jobs to be had here and even fewer worth having. Like most places that fall on hard times, there is a powerful feeling of idleness here (which I contribute to during the summer months by working without a fixed schedule). I might be making unwarranted assumptions; for example, some of the people doing nothing in particular by day may work at night. Nonetheless, let's tilt the rhetorical playing field in favor of the "Get a job, you bums!" argument and assume that they're unemployed.

We are told constantly that even if the jobs available are minimum wage, 30 hour per week ones that won't earn us enough to meet ends, we should work to experience the "dignity of work." I've been hearing that phrase since I was old enough to understand it. Paul Ryan likes to say it a lot, as does any other right-wing gasbag worth his think tank paychecks. The theory appears to be that even if you're staggeringly poor, you should work because, like, it will build your character or something. You'll feel rewarded and motivated and productive and then your life will start to improve. I think. The trope is usually followed with a reminder that the Economics for Tots version of capitalism dictates that if you work hard, your rewards will increase over time.

Whenever I hear this I wonder if anyone – rich, poor, Unitarian, etc. – actually feels this way. Is the feeling we have at our jobs accurately described as "dignity"? Most jobs, especially the service industry type most likely available in a place like this, treat people with the antithesis of dignity. They are degrading, occasionally humiliating. Your employer and the people you serve will both treat you like shit a lot of the time. And you will find that, surprisingly, working harder doesn't necessarily lead to making more money or getting a less terrible job. Working harder just makes your employer better off. Even if the job is pleasant you'll find that living on minimum wage isn't exactly a dignified experience.

Look, I get it. I get the Protestant Ethic thing, the idea that being productive in some way is good for us. Personally I find being inactive, unproductive, and idle to be tremendously depressing. I feel bad about myself when it happens. At the same time, we should all feel comfortable embracing the fact that jobs are mostly terrible. Working may give us dignity, but being at work certainly doesn't. A job is a thing we do to make a living, not a conduit for spiritual advancement. Reducing unemployment would be great, but can we drop the Cotton Mather bullshit?

The most obvious flaw in the "dignity of work" argument (aside from the reality of how little actual work the super-wealthy do on a daily basis) is embedded in conservatives' own rhetoric about minimum wage employment. These jobs, they remind us, are not really meant to provide someone with a living. Fast food and retail jobs are for high school kids to make some extra spending money part time for a few years before moving on to something more substantial. To close the circle of illogic, then, the people I see wandering around at 2 PM on a Tuesday afternoon should go get a job at McDonald's to experience the Dignity of Work, even though that job does not, and is not intended to, pay enough for an adult to make a living. Cool.

I'd agree that work, in the sense of a purpose or goal toward which we direct ourselves, contributes to giving life meaning and purpose. There is dignity to be found in that kind of work. What people like Paul Ryan do is conflate "work" and "job", distorting the phrase to the point of making it meaningless at best and false at worst. If anyone has found dignity in waiting tables at Denny's and getting stiffed on tips I'd like to meet them.