A Book Cover That Judges You

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Alison Flood explains:

Thijs Biersteker of digital entrepreneurs Moore has created a book jacket that will open only when a reader shows no judgment. An integrated camera and facial recognition system scans the reader’s face, only unlocking the book – in the prototype, filled with creative work for the Art Directors Club Netherlands annual – when their expression is neutral.

“My aim was to create a book cover that is human and approachable hi-tech. If you approach the book, if you’re overexcited or your face shows a sceptical expression, the book will stay locked,” explains Biersteker on his website. “But if your expression is neutral (no judgment) the system will send an audio pulse and the book will unlock itself. I often worry about my scepticism and judgement getting in the way of my amazement. Judgment should never hinder the relentless enthusiasm of seeing things for the first time.”

Below, watch a video of how the cover works:

A Measly Epidemic

Thanks in part to anti-vaxxer hysteria – now getting a boost from Christie – the measles are making a comeback:

Between Jan. 1 to 30, 102 cases of the measles were reported to the CDC from 14 different states. The majority of the cases are from an ongoing outbreak linked to Disney California Adventure Park in Anaheim, Calif. The CDC says the majority of people who got measles were unvaccinated. … The people infected in the current outbreak have exposed others at the amusement park as well as schools, daycares, emergency departments, airplanes and outpatient clinics the CDC says. In 2014, the Unites States had the highest number of measles cases reported in over 20 years, at over 600 cases.

In response to the outbreak, the White House is urging “vaccine-hesitant” parents to make the right choice and get their kids their shots. Steven Salzberg lays the blame for the outbreak squarely at the feet of the Jenny McCarthyites:

The problem arises from California’s vaccine exemption policy: although public schools require kids to be vaccinated, parents can exempt their kids simply by saying they have a personal objection to vaccination. It’s not just California: only two states, Mississippi and West Virginia, don’t allow parents to claim a philosophical or religious exemption to vaccines  And Colorado has the worst rate of vaccination, at just 82%, primarily due to parents claiming a “philosophical” exemption.

These parents are the anti-vaxxers.

Thanks to them, we now have large pockets of unvaccinated children through whom epidemics can spread further an faster than we’ve seen in decades. The CDC reports that in 2014, 79% of measles cases in the U.S. involving unvaccinated people were the result of personal belief exemptions.

But as Julia Belluz voxplains, outbreaks like these aren’t simply the fault of such parents individually; the disease spreads in communities where vaccination rates are especially low:

It’s not actually a rising anti-vaxx tide or naturopathic, private school mothers driving a return of vaccine-preventable disease here. It’s not even low-income folks who wind up getting sick, and it’s especially not undocumented migrants bringing in viruses, the CDC’s [Jane] Seward says: “The people getting measles are those that travel abroad, come back, and live in a community among people who weren’t vaccinated.” Some years, we get 40 “importations.” Last year, there were about 65. “This is more than normal,” she added, “and it reflects travel patterns and where measles is active globally.”

The travelers spark outbreaks when they hit geographic clusters of unvaccinated people, like the one in Ohio [among the Amish community, where last year’s measles outbreak was centered]. These infectious disease powder kegs exist all across the US, waiting to be sparked.

Marcel Salathé considers what these anti-vaxxer pockets mean for our society’s herd immunity as a whole:

When we analyzed data from Twitter about sentiments on the influenza H1N1 vaccine during the swine flu pandemic in 2009, we found that negative sentiments were more contagious than positive sentiments, and that positive messages may even have back-fired, triggering more negative responses. And in measles outbreak after measles outbreak, we find that the vast majority of cases occurred in communities that had vaccination coverages that were way below average.

The sad truth is this: as long as there are communities that harbor strong negative views about vaccination, there will be outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases in those communities. These outbreaks will happen even if the population as a whole has achieved the vaccination coverage considered sufficient for herd immunity.

An exasperated Aaron Carroll outlines why failing to vaccinate against measles – which, as Michael Byrne reminds us, is a very nasty disease – is so dangerous:

The system breaks down, and outbreaks occur, when more people are susceptible. Everyone, for instance, is susceptible to Ebola at a certain point in the illness. So we have to be careful to quarantine people who are infected when they are sick. But Ebola is relatively hard to catch. It has an R nought of 2, meaning that an infected individual might infect, on average, 2 others. But measles has an R nought of 18. It’s one of the most infectious pathogens around.

Quarantining is difficult, if not impossible. The virus is unbelievable hardy and easy to catch. So the absolutely, positively best thing you can do it to be vaccinated. Period. I should point out that it also doesn’t matter to the outbreak why people remain unvaccinated and susceptible. It can be because of religious reasons. It can be because of irrational fear. It can be because they’re “hippies”. I don’t care – the outbreak is the same.

Sarah Kliff revisits the anti-vaxxers’ spurious objections to inoculation and why they’re wrong:

Objections to vaccination among those healthy enough to get immunized (those of us over the age of one, essentially) typically just aren’t good enough to justify the risk. Much of it revolves around the safety of the vaccine. Even in the Amish community in Ohio, it wasn’t a religious belief that caused low vaccination rates — and laid the groundwork for a huge outbreak. Instead, it was news of two nearby children suffering complications from the shots that turned the community against vaccination.

So let’s clear that fact up here right now: the measles vaccine is, without a doubt, safe. Study after study after study confirms this. The study that suggested the measles vaccine was not safe — and had possible links to autism — was retracted by the academic journal Lancet in 2010. The researcher who published the study, Andrew Wakefield, was stripped of his medical license in Britain. Not only is the measles vaccine safe, it’s also incredibly effective.

And Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig mulls over why the anti-vaxx movement has gained ground in recent years, and why that’s cause for concern:

For Americans, the reality is that parents who refuse to vaccinate their children make their choice in relative comfort. Parents with toddlers today do not remember the scourges of prior centuries: the bubbling blisters of smallpox, the iron lungs of polio, the florid rash of measles that has, since 2010, taken the lives of over 4,500 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, most of them children under five. All of those things, thanks to time or distance, go out of thought and out of mind. Moreover, since most American childrenthanks to the good sense of most American parentsare still vaccinated, the likelihood that these plagues will come roaring back has always seemed distant. Now, perhaps not so much.

Lastly, Chris Ingraham breaks down vaccination rates by state and looks for patterns, though they’re actually hard to find:

Alabama usually accompanies Mississippi at the bottom of health rankings, but it does even better when it comes to vaccines — 77 percent of toddlers there are completely covered. Overall, state-level vaccine rates buck the familiar trend of “south= bad, northeast and west = good” that we see on countless other health measures. New Hampshire kids are well-vaccinated, but Vermont and Maine kids less so. Mississippi comes in at #12 in the rankings, while just across the river Arkansas is dead-last. California, currently in the news for a large measles outbreak at Disneyland, is squarely middle-of-the-pack at number 30.

It’s tough to tease out demographic patterns behind vaccination rates. In California, some affluent areas have lower vaccination rates than the average. But looking at all 50 states, there’s a small correlation between increased income and increased vaccination. Some people maintain that vaccine skepticism is strongest on the left, but the data don’t support that notion.

Looking At Looking Again

I wrote a review of the breakthrough gay drama about a year ago. I loved it. It spawned quite a thread here at the Dish. Money quote:

Along with Michael Lannan, Haigh is the first director and writer to actually bring no apparent cultural or ideological baggage to the subject matter. There is no shame here and no shadow of shame. There is simply living – in its complexity, realism, and elusive truth. To get to this point – past being either for or against homosexuality – is a real achievement.

Two of Slate‘s gay voices – June Thomas and J. Bryan Lowder – debate it today. Lowder really didn’t like the first season, for all the reasons I loved it. He didn’t seem to think it was gay enough. June has a different response, but her defense of the show this season is not exactly full-throated. I’ve been watching it again with Aaron, and last night, realized I was basically done with it.

Not because it distorts; it doesn’t much. Not because of its realism; I still love that. I just came to terms with the fact that I didn’t care about any of the characters. The lead – a dreadful, dumb, whiney pain-in-the-neck – is so irritating and shallow I actively want him to just disappear. I care not a flying fig what happens to him, unless it be some fatal accident. I don’t see a single redeeming feature in this man-child’s bland insipidity, or any skill in the empty performance given by Jonathan Groff. His British boyfriend? An asshole. But I actually care about this asshole a tiny bit more than any of the main characters. Because at least there is something in him to care about. June agrees:

Take Kevin, Patrick’s boss and sort of secret lover. He has more screen time this year, but he’s still secondary, yet I know him far better than I do Patrick, Agustín, or Dom. I know where he’s from, what his childhood was like, who his boyhood friends were, what card games he played, which pop group’s dance moves he copied. I don’t understand every bit of his psychology—is he just a standard adulterer who’ll never leave his official boyfriend for his bit on the side; is he sticking with John for the sake of a green card; or is he, like Patrick, Agustín, and Dom, lost and looking for direction? Still, he’s not a complete cipher, as the main protagonists are.

Actually, Agustín and Dom are the only two faintly likable main characters in the show. And although both are good actors (disclosure: Murray Bartlett is a friend), they have very little to work with, as they try to bring them to life. And at some point, you can’t keep watching a series where every character is as unlikable as they are shallowly conceived. In the end, I’m afraid, the writing of the main characters is slowly killing off the show for me. I’ll keep watching to see if the occasional twitches of life and texture can repair the character waste-land. But, sadly, my hopes aren’t high.

A History Divided

The Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie tours the National Museum of her native country, noting that “it’s the pre-Islamic parts that most interest me”:

In the centre of the [Late Harappan (or Indus Valley Civilisation) Room], on a podium of his dish_priestkingown, is that most iconic of the Indus Valley Civilisation’s artefacts: the priest-king. Unlike many of the other objects in the museum, there’s an approximate date attached to the soapstone figure: 2500-1500 BC. I look closely at the priest-king’s combed-back hair and cropped beard, his patterned cloak, the circlet at his brow. For years a replica of this figure looked out from one of the bookshelves in my family home, mysterious and distant, and now that I’m standing in front of the original I feel … quite certain it’s another replica.

At this point the director of the museum, Mr Bukhari, walks in and I ask him straight. “The original is kept somewhere,” he says, smiling a little sadly. “It’s a national symbol. We can’t take risks with it.”

With just those few words he transforms my combative attitude.What pressures there must be in running a museum that requires a Koranic inscription at its entrance to try and ward off attacks. The object that should be the centrepiece of the museum—the one Mr Bukhari describes as a “national symbol”—has to be hidden away “somewhere” that can’t be named. …

I look at what is here despite the clear paucity of funding, the external threats, the impossibility of creating a single national narrative for a country as divided about its reason for existing as Pakistan. An elderly relative who was already an adult when Pakistan was created in 1947 often remarks that at the moment of its birth the country had two opposing claims whispered into its ears: “you are a sovereign nation”, and “you are part of the Muslim world”. In this museum, both those claims are given space, and it is for those of us who wander from the Muslim Room to the Gandhara Room to the Hindu Sculpture Room to the Coin Room to the Quran Gallery to see if we can knit a single narrative out of them or if we wish to privilege one over the other. Is a nation bound by geography or ideology? If the National Museum is forcing me to think again about these questions, to which as a novelist I’ve already given so much thought, isn’t that a mark of its success?

(Image of Indus Priest/King Statue on display in the National Museum of Pakistan via Wikimedia Commons)

Will Marriage Equality Remain A Wedge Issue?

Sargent spots a divide in the GOP presidential field:

Marco Rubio, Mitt Romney, and Jeb Bush are calling for respect for the courts’ decisions on this matter and/or respect and understanding for people on both sides of the issue. But Ted Cruz and Bobby Jindal are suggesting continued resistance; both have talked about a Constitutional marriage amendment.

He wonders how this will impact the primaries:

Candidates who are striving for (relative) moderation on gay marriage, such as Bush, Rubio, and Romney, are framing their position as rooted in conservative values: Respect for the rule of law and/or for those (even gays and lesbians) who want to enshrine lifetime commitments to one another. Will that assuage GOP primary voters?

Perhaps, as Ross Douthat has suggested, continued resistance wouldn’t gain any traction among Republican primary voters in any case, largely because even many religious conservatives think this cultural battle is already lost. But if opposition to marriage equality does indeed remain deep among evangelicals, it could prove a tempting exploitation target indeed for the likes of Cruz and Jindal.

Whatever happens, Suderman expects that this will be last election where marriage equality is a factor:

Depending on who wins the Republican primary, that debate will probably bleed into the general election campaign to some degree, although I wouldn’t expect it to be a major issue, unless the GOP candidate really fumbles the response or decides to make it a major issue—which, given the way the polls are running, is probably not a great idea.

After that, however, I suspect that it will be over. Not over in the sense that no one in America ever speaks a word in opposition to gay marriage again, but over in the sense of it being a meaningful political issue. As Ross Douthat has suggested (and as Sargent notes), evangelicals may simply view the fight as lost and decide to let the issue rest.

But more than that, Republican candidates are likely to have a harder time generating support by opposing gay marriage, because there are likely to be fewer and fewer Republican voters who oppose it.

The Humanity In Losing A Pet

In an essay sharing how the death of her cat was easier – and better handled by caregivers – than the death of her parents, Margo Rabb recalls the end of that final trip to the vet’s office:

In Juliet’s office [at the clinic], they let me stay on their couch with Sophie’s body for as long as I wanted. My husband left work and met me there. “How long do you want to stay?” he asked me, staring at her body on my lap. “Forever,” I said. I pictured myself wandering around the city, still holding my dead cat. Maybe my friends wouldn’t notice. Maybe they’d mistake her for a fur stole. When I’d told them about Sophie’s diagnosis, weeping, sometimes I felt ashamed to admit that I felt such deep grief over a cat. I wrote in my diary: “The strange thing is it’s not dissimilar from the grief I felt for Mommy and Daddy — how the grief displaces everything, and nothing feels the same anymore.”

The experience left her looking for answers:

Was it because Sophie was an animal that her loss was easier to bear, and easier for [my veterinarians] to give comfort? Or was it luck and the lack of it, to have encountered gentle care for my cat and harsh care for my parents?

In “A Natural History of Love,” Diane Ackerman writes that pets “help bridge that no-man’s-land between us and Nature.” When I think now of Sophie’s last days, I think that, because she was an animal, her loss felt more a part of the natural order, with its inevitable seasons and cycles of life and death. Humans spend so much of our lives railing against the idea of dying, or pretending that it doesn’t exist, or dreaming of eternal youth, or wishing to prolong our lives — and maybe it’s that fighting that made the experience of my parents’ deaths feel unbearable and inhumane, and made the death of my cat seem exceptionally human.

Meanwhile, a Dish reader wrote recently:

We just had to say goodbye to our 14-year-old golden lab, Honza. The experience reminded me of the wonderful thread you started in the summer of 2013 when you had to say farewell to Dusty. My wife dug out the thread and sent it to me this morning. Having read it again, with tears streaming down my cheeks, I was amazed at how similar the situation we encountered was to those of your readers and I hope by writing this it helps to dispel the grief, because it is intense. I cannot believe how hard this has hit me. I’m a northerner, for goodness sake, and am not supposed to react like this.


Maybe it’s because even her name had deep meaning for us. Honza is a Czech nickname given, seemingly automatically, to anyone named Jan. In 1999 we invited into our home as an au pair a delightful young man called Jan who always introduced himself as “Honza”. He came to befriend our Asperger’s suffering oldest son and provide the companionship he was failing to find among his peers. It worked beyond our wildest expectations, and after 18 months with us he was woven into the fabric of family life. Concurrent with his departure, in September 2000, we had to let go of our first dog, Guido, whom Honza (the man) had helped nurse in his final months. My wife immediately went on the hunt for a replacement and found a golden lab puppy, funnily enough, in my home town in Lancashire. My mum brought her down south in a shoe box on her lap, and because the house seemed lacking somehow without someone calling, “Honza”, every few minutes her name was quickly established – (when Honza, the man, heard we had called a female, Honza, he christened his female cat “Andy”, but that’s another story).

IMG_0269Suffice it to say, Honza (the dog) was a great hit. Our middle son, Alex, rapidly formed a rapport with her that lasted until the end. She was, in his mind anyway, “his dog”, and she always treated him more as a fellow puppy than a human. Once she went wandering and a kindly neighbour took her in but without her collar on (for some reason), she had no idea who Honza belonged to. I’ve never seen my wife so frantic as we all headed into the night to find her. It was Alex’s shouting that she eventually responded to. Her barking led us to the right house and all ended well.

Honza also gave my wife great comfort during my all-too-frequent business trips away. In an all-male household, she felt she could watch “girlie TV” with Honza at her feet, and it was my wife who walked her the most, going for miles along trails and country paths together.

Starting last year, she had increasing trouble walking and her appetite varied. And then a tumour appeared on her left hind leg. In recent weeks, as the tumour grew and the stiffness increased, her spirit stayed buoyant and even, maybe, increased. While I was busy counselling preparedness for the end to everyone, she seemed to contradict me at every turn. We got through Christmas with our usual house full, but by New Year’s I noticed a deterioration. The accidents increased as she found it too difficult to get up. On Friday, Jan 2nd, we went out with friends. On the way back we agreed it was now only a matter of “weeks”. The tumour had grown again and was now weeping.

The boys took their last photos with her and she was fed her favourite snacks. Then unnamed (34)Alex carried her to the car. At the vet’s she was remarkably calm. In fact, once inside the reception area, she looked great and I commented that the vet would probably recommend we keep persevering with her treatments. However, once inside the little surgery, she could barely stand. And after the tube was placed in her veins, she just flopped down. We sat down with her as the vet administered the dose. As Honza was looking up at me and then, finally, Alex, there was a last wag of the tail. Everyone drew comfort from this last act as though she was telling us that “it’s ok”.

Several things struck me about the experience and those posted by your readers. As a bloke, I really didn’t want to be there. I’m glad I was, but my first instinct was to avoid it. One of your readers said that most women stay but only 50% of men. Maybe it’s the fear of breaking down in front of strangers, but I understand why men want to avoid it. Also, the calmness of the whole thing. To me – and I’m no David Attenborough – it was that she was with her pack. In the wild, I guess, when you can’t keep up the pack, it just leaves you behind. But Honza’s pack stayed with her. That’s why she battled on through pain and discomfort, and I’m sure she was comforted by the fact that she wasn’t abandoned at the end.

So farewell then, Honza. Your passing has saddened us all, but you will always be with us.

The Left’s Intensifying War On Liberalism

To say I stood up and cheered as I finished reading Jon Chait’s new essay on the resurgence of a toxic political correctness on the left would be an understatement. There’s some great reporting in it that really helps put into context what the new guardians of the identity politics left are up to. Here’s one nugget:

Last March at University of ­California–Santa Barbara, in, ironically, a “free-speech zone,” a 16-year-old anti-abortion protester named Thrin Short and her 21-year-old sister Joan displayed a sign arrayed with graphic images of aborted fetuses. They caught the attention of Mireille Miller-Young, a professor of feminist studies. Miller-Young, angered by the sign, demanded that they take it down. When they refused, Miller-Young snatched the sign, took it back to her office to destroy it, and shoved one of the Short sisters on the way.

Speaking to police after the altercation, Miller-Young told them that the images of the fetuses had “triggered” her and violated her “personal right to go to work and not be in harm.” A Facebook group called “UCSB Microaggressions” declared themselves “in solidarity” with Miller-Young and urged the campus “to provide as much support as possible.” By the prevailing standards of the American criminal-justice system, Miller-Young had engaged in vandalism, battery, and robbery. By the logic of the p.c. movement, she was the victim of a trigger and had acted in the righteous cause of social justice.

Chait has lots more where that came from. But the essay really deepens in the comparison between the early 1990s – when political correctness made its first appearance – and now. The difference is that the illiberal policing of speech, the demonizing of dissent, and extreme identity politics have now transcended the academy and arrived in social media with a vengeance. Twitter and Facebook encourage mutually reassuring groupthink, in which individuals are required to “like” anything that isn’t white, male, cisgendered etc.,  in which an ideology is enforced by un-friending those with other views instead of engaging them, and in which large numbers of Twitter-users can descend on a racist/sexist/homophobic etc miscreant and destroy his or her career and social life in pursuit of racial/gender/orientation “social justice”.

I’m an established blogger with an independent site and have witnessed several such campaigns now – and they cannot but exact a toll. I’m fine with being called a self-hating gay or homophobe or misogynist or racist or anti-Semite, but what of those with much less independence? People with media jobs in which any deviation from the p.c. norm renders them anathema to their peers, those in the academy who are terrified of committing a “micro-aggression”, those in minorities who may actually have a different non-leftist view of reality: what pressure are they being put under right now?

It seems to me they are being intimidated by an ideology that utterly rejects the notion that free speech – including views with which one strongly disagrees – can actually advance social justice, and by a view of the world that sees liberal society entirely in terms of “power” rather than freedom. And if you look across the non-conservative online media, this orthodoxy is now close to absolute. The few brave enough to take on these language and culture police – I think of Emily Yoffe’s superb piece on campus rape in Slate – will get slimed and ostracized or ignored. Once you commit a heresy, you cannot recover. You must, in fact, be air-brushed out of the debate entirely.

The right has its own version of this, of course. Many of us dissenters were purged and rendered anathema years ago. But look where that has actually left today’s GOP. It’s turned into this. And the left’s new absolutism on identity politics – now taken to an absurd degree – should, in my view, worry liberals more. Because it is a direct attack on basic liberal principles. Chait:

Politics in a democracy is still based on getting people to agree with you, not making them afraid to disagree. The historical record of political movements that sought to expand freedom for the oppressed by eliminating it for their enemies is dismal. The historical record of American liberalism, which has extended social freedoms to blacks, Jews, gays, and women, is glorious. And that glory rests in its confidence in the ultimate power of reason, not coercion, to triumph.

And reason is not constrained by gender or race or orientation or anything else.

One tip of this spear is related to sexual orientation, of course, in which some parts of the gay left are back to what they love most of all: “eliminating freedom for their enemies”. And you can see why.

If reason has no chance against the homophobic patriarchy, and one side is always going to be far more powerful in numbers than the other, almost anything short of violence is justified in order to correct the imbalance. The “victim”, after all, is always right. Gay beats straight; but queer beats gay; and trans beats queer. No stone must be unturned in this constant struggle against unrelenting aggression and oppression. In the end, they may even run out of letters to add to LGBTQIA. And all of the “hate”, we are told, is just as brutal as it ever was. And so the struggle must not ease up with success after success, but must instead be ever-more vigiliant against hetero-hegemony. So small businesses who aren’t down with gay marriages have to be sued, rather than let be; religious liberty must be scoffed at or constrained, rather than embraced; individual homophobic sinners must be forced to resign or repent or both, and there is no mercy for those who once might have opposed, say, marriage equality but now don’t. The only “dialogue” much of the p.c. gay left wants with its sinners is a groveling apology for having a different point of view. There are few things in a free society more illiberal than that.

And the paradox of this within the gay rights movement is an astounding one. For the past twenty years, the open, free-wheeling arguments for marriage equality and military service have persuaded, yes, persuaded, Americans with remarkable speed that reform was right and necessary. Yes: the arguments. If you want to argue that no social progress can come without coercion or suppression of free speech, you have to deal with the empirical fact that old-fashioned liberalism brought gay equality to America far, far faster than identity politics leftism. It was liberalism – not leftism – that gave us this breakthrough. And when Alabama is on the verge of issuing marriage licenses to its citizens, it is the kind of breakthrough that is rightly deemed historic. But instead of absorbing that fact and being proud of it and seeking magnanimity and wondering if other social justice movements might learn from this astonishing success for liberalism and social progress, some on the gay left see only further struggle against an eternally repressive heterosexist regime, demanding more and more sensitivity for slighter and slighter transgressions and actually getting more radicalized – and feeling more victimized and aggrieved – in the process.

Which reveals how dismal this kind of politics is, how bitter and rancid it so quickly becomes, how infantilizing it is. Any “success ” for one minority means merely that the oppression has been shifted temporarily elsewhere. Or it means that we dissenters in a minority have internalized our own oppression (by embracing the patriarchy of civil marriage, or structural hegemonic violence in the military) and are blind to even greater oppression beyond the next curtain of social justice consciousness. Or we find out in bitter debates about who is the biggest sinner, that in some cases, are actually more white than we are female; or more black than we are trans; and on and on. This process has no end. And almost as soon as it begins, many people in the gay rights movement or in feminist movement will soon find themselves under attack for not being sufficiently enlightened, and, in fact, for being complicit and even active in others’ oppression. Chait has a great dissection of what Michelle Goldberg has also observed among some contemporary feminists – an acrid, self-defeating, demoralizing and emotionally crippling form of internecine warfare that persuades no one outside the ever tightening circle of true believers.

Someone has to stand up to this, with more credibility with liberals than I will ever have. Freddie has; Yoffe did; Goldberg went there; and now Chait has written the liberal manifesto to fight back. Read it.

(Sidebar thumbnail by Cezary Borysiuk)

What Is Humanity’s Greatest Invention? Ctd

A reader notes that “the movie Donnie Darko included an exchange on this very question“:

Another reader raises his hand: “Uh, what about language?” Another picks “writing, of course”:

Speech is encoded in our DNA as the way we transmit information from one person to another.  Writing is not.  Yet writing functions as a kind of disembodied DNA.  We can transmit any kind of information, from personal to cultural to technological through writing.  Writing is what makes it possible for us to know how much is owed or due to thousands of other people, at a glance. It is how we transmit religious traditions, with great fidelity, over generations, and it is how we speak to others long after we are dead.   A single person, knowing how to read and armed with just a few basic ideas, could rebuild civilization in a week if he had access to a decent small-town library.  Nothing else even comes close.

Another goes with:


Man, I love cheese.

Another recommends a recent book on the subject, How We Got to Here, by Steven Johnson:

It’s an excellent and engaging description of how the “invention” of glass, cold, sound, clean, time and light, and the inventions that flowed from those six items, did more to shape who we are today than other inventions. People can disagree with his list, thinking something more critical was left out, or something less critical was overblown by his descriptions in the book, but I can’t think of a more thoughtful, non-philosophical list of inventions that truly made a difference.

Another reader doesn’t buy the invention put forth by a previous one:

“Double-blind experiment”? Oh, please. It is as rife with problems as religion.  Our assumptions that it is better is, in fact, part of the problem.  Just think about Lipitor/statins or HRT, to name two high-profile drugs that were run through all the double-blind studies you could think of that both turned out to have issues.  And while not exactly double-blind, the Tuskegee experiments show that science is just as fallible as humans generally.

Another reader responds to the one who summarized Yuval Noah Harari’s view that “a company exists because everyone agrees that it does”:

This is a gross over-simplification of an issue involving the difference between abstractions and concretions in reality.  To use a different analogy, I can speak of the jar of coins I keep at home.  It’s something I’ve had for a while, so everyone agrees about the “imagined reality” of the jar.  It’s not necessarily a jar of coins, is it?  However, were I to take the jar to the bank, leaving only an empty container, and ask someone how much money I have in my jar of coins, they would quickly reply with “None!”

However, if I had not yet stored any coins in this jar, it being a new construct, something I just decided I would use to store my loose change, and I were to ask the same question, I would be met with quizzical looks.  This is because the concretion of the jar was not elevated to my abstraction of it; its reality did not live up to my imagination.

Going back to the given analogy of a company – a company only exists in “imagined reality” because there is a definite concrete reality to back it up.  The State of Delaware allows an organization right to a title in so far as there are actual physical, monetary and personnel assets to back up that claim.  So we aren’t as much allowing arbitrary definitions to permeate society as much as we are allowing rhetoric to help define that which already exists.

The company already exists; we’ve just applied a definition to it.  Not the other way around.

Another gets silly:

As much as I enjoy considering a chemical company as an imaginary structure, as a science nerd I should point out that there are limitations to this view of human activity.  Perhaps the best demonstration of the limits of human belief would be a 1970s sketch from Monty Python, regarding an architect who erects tower block apartments by hypnosis. The apartments remain perfectly serviceable as long as the residents continue to believe in them, but when a BBC reporter begins a sustained line of probing questions, all hell breaks loose:

A Best Guess At Our Future Deficits


Deficits are predicted to rise somewhat in the near future:

The U.S. deficit will fall to its lowest level since 2007, but it is expected to begin rising quickly after 2018, according to a new report from the Congressional Budget Office. The difference between federal spending and revenue will fall to $468 billion or 2.6% of GDP this fiscal year, which is the lowest level since 2007, the CBO says. The deficit will continue to fall slightly in 2016 and hold steady in 2017. But then it will begin rising once more, reaching 3.0% of GDP in 2019 and 4.0% in 2025.

Matt Klein looks at the causes of those larger deficits:

More than all of the projected increase in the US federal budget deficit between now and 2025 is expected to come from higher interest payments on the existing debt.

He goes on to wonder whether those larger deficits will materialize. Krugman seconds Klein:

CBO shows the ratio of debt to GDP barely rising; just about all the rise in payments comes from an assumption that interest rates will rise. And as both Klein and I have tried to explain, we don’t really know that; there’s a plausible case that it’s wrong.

 I’m not attacking CBO, which needs to make some kind of rate assumption. But if you read someone trying to resurrect deficit panic, bear in mind that even the modest rise in the new projections is just an assumption, with nothing solid behind it.

 focuses on the uncertainty of Medicare spending. She questions the continuation of the “phenomenally slow growth in Medicare spending in recent years”:

Though some of this slowdown is well understood—reflecting payment cuts under the Affordable Care Act and the expiration of patents of a number of blockbuster drugs—much of the slowdown in Medicare spending is not understood by analysts.  CBO’s research suggests that the Medicare slowdown does not appear to be attributable to the recession, and my work, using a variety of data sources, concurs.

CBO has made the not-unreasonable assumption that this slowdown will persist for some time.  But, because we don’t understand why Medicare spending has slowed, this assumption must be viewed as highly uncertain.  It is possible that, rather than persisting, the slowdown could reverse itself, and spending growth could surprise us on the upside in coming years.

Josh Zumbrun pays attention to the growth estimates:

These small deficits may seem surprising given the ferocity of Congress’s recent budget battles. But perhaps even more noteworthy is the economic forecast underlying it. The CBO currently estimates the recovery will continue through at least the end of 2017. If correct, that will be a 102-month economic recovery: the third-longest in U.S. history. The CBO’s forecasts for growth are not that different from the Federal Reserve’s, where policy makers also forecast at least three more years of economic expansion.

Finally, William Gale keeps in mind that the Great Recession pushed “public debt to all-time peace-time highs relative to the size of the economy”:

The debt-GDP ratio stands at 74 percent currently, up from an average of 37 percent in 1957-2007, the 50 years before the Great Recession, and a value of 35 percent as of 2007. The only time in U.S. history that the debt-GDP ratio has been higher is during and just after World War II, when the massive mobilization effort raised debt to more than 100 percent of GDP. …

The current high level of debt is not a crisis by any means. We are not Greece or even close. We do not need immediate cuts in spending or tax increases; indeed, they would probably be harmful to overall growth, as the economy is still in recovery mode. But the high debt level is not good news, and it is a problem to keep an eye on.

“The Most Feminist Show On Television”

That’s what Amy Sullivan calls The Fall:

The show, which stars Gillian Anderson in her first major television role since The X-Files went off the air in 2002, came under heavy criticism when the first season aired in 2013 for complaints that it glamorized violence against women. Serial killer Paul Spector (Fifty Shades of Grey’s Jamie Dornan) revels in the “aestheticism” of posing the nude bodies of his victims, washing their skin and painting their nails after he’s killed them. Some critics thought the show went beyond simply telling a story to the point of sharing Spector’s obsession with the women’s bodies.

I can certainly sympathize with fatigue over the seemingly endless tally of dead women on television. … But the debate over The Fall’s first season obscured the show’s revolutionary treatment of women and the topic of sexual power. In fact, I haven’t seen another program that so directly challenges and rewrites the traditional conventions of crime dramas, starting with Anderson as DSI Stella Gibson, a highly-regarded London cop who gets called to Belfast because investigators there need her expertise on a murder case.

Refreshingly, none of the tropes we’ve been trained to expect in a story about a powerful woman play out. Nobody resents Gibson’s appearance on the scene or questions her authority. Her gender is a non-issue; subordinates hop to when she enters a room and they follow her commands without question. Gibson doesn’t try to submerge her femininity and stomp around barking out orders. In Anderson’s restrained yet compelling performance, Gibson is cool, calm, and always chic, with the most fabulous coat in detectivedom.

I discovered it a couple weeks ago and now just have the final episode to watch. I can’t express how smart the series is, and how superb and commanding Gillian Anderson is as Stella Gibson. This is the feminism I believe in: a woman totally in charge of her life and of her career, whose authority is unquestioned, whose complexity and brilliance are celebrated, who utterly owns her sexuality and deploys it as coolly and as aggressively as any man would. At no point did I fear for a vulnerable Stella Gibson, even as I was deeply moved by her own female take on the victims of rape and murder, and even though she was obviously at times in great danger. I saw instead a master investigator whose nail-biting duel with a disturbed (and way hot) serial murderer became gladiatorial. Somehow gender slipped away from relevance, even as Anderson’s gender was absolutely integrated into her entire character. That’s new and powerful. It makes Girls seem as adolescent as it actually is.

Charlotte Alter is also a fan of the BBC series, now available on Netflix streaming:

[T]here’s little doubt that The Fall is great for women. …

[Stella is] brilliant, unflappable, and sexually liberated — she makes a habit of selecting male co-workers for one-night-stands, then quickly discarding them. When a male colleague questions her about her sexual habits, she coolly points out his double standard by comparing his alarm to the ease with which he handles men doing the same thing. “Woman f—s man. Woman, subject: man, object,” she says. “That’s not so comfortable for you, is it?”

Madeleine Davies joins the chorus of praise:

Gibson is the type of detective who will continue to remember the women murdered as people rather than cases and, when alone, will weep for them. She’s also the type of detective who can break a man’s nose with a quick upper cut or, with calculating detachment, sit across from a dangerous criminal in an interrogation room as he hurls abuse at her. She’s smart, brave, capable and unapologetically sexual—a matinee idol for a modern-day feminist.

Some have said that The Fall—a series that’s second season arrived on Netflix this past weekend—is misogynistic, but it’s a shallow critique. While it’s true that women are frequently treated as objects or lesser in the show, they’re never treated as objects or lesser by the show. In fact, rarely has a series hit back at misogyny so relentlessly, sometimes to the point where it almost feels cruel in its portrayal of male characters, all of whom—even the most innocent—find ways to demean the women in their lives.

Alyssa Rosenberg also examines how the show portrays men:

[The Fall] raises an issue that is a live current in U.S. debates over gender and sexual violence, suggesting that all men are capable of terrible things. That’s the sort of sentiment that anti-feminists accuse feminists of using to smear innocent men, and that most U.S. feminists would aggressively deny believing. But by leaning into it, “The Fall” has made fascinating, discomfiting television.  “I think one of the reasons why ‘The Fall’ has some of the impact that it seems to have is because it posits the notion that Spector is on a continuum of male behavior,” [writer/director Allan] Cubitt told me at the Television Critics Association press tour earlier this month. …

But there’s a subtlety to “The Fall” that prevents it from becoming some sort of railing stereotype. The second season looks hard at what [serial killer] Paul means to his family, particularly his daughter, and the ways in which the skills that make him a killer also make him a good, encouraging father to her. Humans succumb to their worst desires and impulses sometimes. But we also sometimes succeed in overcoming them.

It’s grown-up TV. You should watch it if you can. And that above scene is way hotter when it’s not edited by YouTube.