Programming Notes and Quick Hits!

 

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Quick hits, see.

 

Sorry for the slow week. We’ll be doing a lot of blogging next week, as the Presidents of the United States and North Korea flip through their dictionaries to find the most obscure insults they can understand (Un will call Trump a “dew-beating wandrought” and Trump will respond with “very bad and very sick ‘Rocket Man'”). It’ll be fun.

I had a whole Quick Hits and Weekend Reads planned out, but as I went through the stuff I collected during the week, it was all really depressing. I understand that isn’t unusual here, but after another stupid and hateful week, just didn’t want to do to any of you.

If you’re interested, you can read about how 1.3 billion people live on environmentally and agriculturally degraded land, or how dangerous Pipeline 5 under the Great Lakes is (something we’ve talked about), or how lead in Flint’s water led to a far higher rate of fetal deaths and infertility, which the party of pro-life is content to ignore because privatizing water is a goal unto itself.

Or don’t read any of that! Have fun instead. Go play outside.

If you want one cheerful-ish read, the good people at Circle of Blue have an extensive report on how California’s Clean Water for All law is working. California was the first state to declare access to clean water a human right, and the impact that has had on distribution and sanitation has really borne fruit. Even during a drought, and even when water usage and distribution is a political football (see the surprising new block to the  Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta tunnel plan, which would have reengineered the state’s water supply), people in California are getting clean water.

That shows what happens when a government understands that water is for the people. It is a human right, a basic right, and our politics should be geared around ensuring that it works for everyone. It shouldn’t be based on figuring out who can profit from it.

But that’s not the GOP line. Everything should be sold. If it can be carved up, chopped up, and taken from people without political clout, it should be. Everything for profit. I swear to Moses, we’re about a year or two away from hearing Doocey say “Water isn’t a right, it’s a privilege!”

But the California experiment in basic decency serves as an elegant rebuttal to all that. So drink up, in whatever liquid you find fits a celebration. Even if things are dark, raise one up. Why not? Dark times call for good times. It’s the one light we have.

 

 

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The Roll of the Dice: What Egalitarian Hunter-Gatherers Know About Luck (And We’ve Forgotten)

 

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This picture might be overly bucolic, but there is no Fox News

 

In this week’s New Yorker, John Lanchester has a really interesting, humbling, and depressing read about how civilization turned out to be really bad for people in general. It made us unhealthier, more stressed, and, though he didn’t say it, downright meaner.

He says outright that the Neolithic Revolution is the worst thing that’s ever happened to humans, and that if we had slowed our roll a few hundred thou after harnessing fire, we’d be much happier.

That isn’t to say we’d be stupid. As Lanchester points out, there were literally thousands of years after the dawn of agriculture but before the rise of city-states. This was a time where there was art and some religion, mythologies, and knowledge about how the world worked. People, it seemed, didn’t resist collecting into civilization because they didn’t know how, but because it didn’t seem to make sense.

The whole article is really interesting, and points to some fascinating-sounding scholarship, but this might have been my favorite part.

The study of hunter-gatherers, who live for the day and do not accumulate surpluses, shows that humanity can live more or less as Keynes suggests. (Affluence without abundance- ed) It’s just that we’re choosing not to. A key to that lost or forsworn ability, Suzman suggests, lies in the ferocious egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers. For example, the most valuable thing a hunter can do is come back with meat. Unlike gathered plants, whose proceeds are “not subject to any strict conventions on sharing,” hunted meat is very carefully distributed according to protocol, and the people who eat the meat that is given to them go to great trouble to be rude about it. This ritual is called “insulting the meat,” and it is designed to make sure the hunter doesn’t get above himself and start thinking that he’s better than anyone else. “When a young man kills much meat,” a Bushman told the anthropologist Richard B. Lee, “he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. . . . We can’t accept this.” The insults are designed to “cool his heart and make him gentle.” For these hunter-gatherers, Suzman writes, “the sum of individual self-interest and the jealousy that policed it was a fiercely egalitarian society where profitable exchange, hierarchy, and significant material inequality were not tolerated.”

This egalitarian impulse, Suzman suggests, is central to the hunter-gatherer’s ability to live a life that is, on its own terms, affluent, but without abundance, without excess, and without competitive acquisition.

What really strikes me about this is how hunter-gatherer societies embrace and understand the role of luck in life. Think about it. You could be an amazing hunter, but if something else spooked the animals, they’re off and running before you unleash and arrow. You could throw a spear perfectly, but if the gazelle zigs left instead of right, it falls clattering to the earth, pointedly and pointlessly.

So much in life is about luck, chance, and circumstance. You could stumble into some sweet hunting grounds or be born rich. You could watch the prey you’ve been stalking get freaked by a bird and run off, or you could grow up in the shadow of industry that’s poisoning your water and putting lead in your brain, limiting opportunities in life.

Things happen. As we’ve grown as a species, we’ve invented new ways to heighten the role of luck, the roll of the dice. Capitalism exacerbates this, with all its talk of meritocracy. Racism, prejudice, and borders make it stronger. Where you are born and to whom you are born make more a difference than who you are.

Hell, luck can extend to the random sequencing of a genetic code, a little glitch that makes you sicker or weaker or less able to rise up. That’s luck.

Paul Newman, in talking about his camp for sick children, had one of my favorite quotes about luck in life.

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No! You’re not allowed to be this handsome and wise!

 

I wanted, I think, to acknowledge Luck: the chance of it, the benevolence of it in my life, and the brutality of it in the lives of others; made especially savage for children because they may not be allowed the good fortune of a lifetime to correct it.

And we’ve set up a society that refuses to recognize that. We’ve set up a society where the national myths are that you deserve your fate, and that there are many people who deserve to suffer. If they are suffering, ipso facto, they must deserve it. And they should suffer more, so that the luckier, who never consider their fortune anything just the justifications of virtue, can have more.

You may have recognized this as a summation of the Republican platform. It’s made crystal clear in their multiple attempts to repeal the ACA (and how goddamn happy Paul Ryan was when he thought he did).

Because that’s what repeal really is. It is saying that if you work three jobs, none of which have health care, you don’t deserve it. If you have a pre-existing condition, that’s too bad. If you live in a state with a Republican governor, too bad. If your cancer becomes metatastic and you can’t afford care, well, them’s the breaks.

That comes from the inability to understand that life is about luck. It’s about the driver looking up just in time to slam on her brakes before she t-bones you. Another second, another half-second, and you face a lifetime of therapy and mounting bills. There’s no virtue there. That’s only chance. The same as if you had entered the intersection a half-second earlier and were in her way.

Our system shouldn’t be about ignoring luck. It shouldn’t imagine that the person who happens to have the most meat at any given moment is the bravest, the best, and the most worthy. Our adherence to that superstition puts us far behind hunter-gatherer socieites. We’re less wise, less moral, and less knowledgeable about the world. We’re just less.

(h/t to Allison, Dee, and Bill Breeding for the breakfast conversation about this piece that made me think about luck and who we are. Always my favorite people to talk to.)

Is Iran Rogue for Arming The Houthis? Only If You Think the US Should Determine What Happens in the Middle East

 

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Pictured: Not the US

 

It’s been a big couple of day for people pointing out Iran’s involvement in Yemen’s cruel and generationally-destructive civil war. The Times had a pretty big story about it, relying on the unbiased reporting of the United States.

The top American admiral in the Middle East said on Monday that Iran continues to smuggle illicit weapons and technology into Yemen, stoking the civil strife there and enabling Iranian-backed rebels to fire missiles into neighboring Saudi Arabia that are more precise and far-reaching.

Iran has been repeatedly accused of providing arms helping to fuel one side of the war in Yemen, in which rebels from the country’s north, the Houthis, ousted the government from the capital of Sana in 2014.

The officer, Vice Adm. Kevin M. Donegan, said that Iran is sustaining the Houthis with an increasingly potent arsenal of anti-ship and ballistic missiles, deadly sea mines and even explosive boats that have attacked allied ships in the Red Sea or Saudi territory across Yemen’s northern border. The United States, the Yemeni government and their allies in the region have retaliated with strikes of their own and recaptured some Houthi-held coastal areas to help blunt threats to international shipping, but the peril persists, the admiral said.

This is an…interesting spin on this. To be clear, it is almost certainly true. Though initial Iranian involvement in the Houthi conflict (dating back to 2004) was clearly exaggerated, as there weren’t any real links between the Houthi version of Shi’ism and Iran’s Twelverism, Iranian influence and involvement have grown disastrously.

But one of the main reasons Iranian involvement has grown is because of increased involvement by Saudi Arabia, its regional and sectarian rival. Saudi Arabia wanted to break the Houthi rebellion and support their chosen President, and so invaded, with horrifying results.

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Guardian: Miss Universe May Be Key to Trump/Moscow Connection

 

 

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This televised appraisal of overly-tall brunettes will be in history books. 

 

It’s just too perfect

The 2013 pageant has become a focal point for the simultaneous investigations, led by special counsel Robert Mueller and congressional committees, into whether associates of Trump colluded with Russian officials to help them win the 2016 US presidential election.

Investigators are examining closely efforts apparently made by the Russian government to pass Trump’s team damaging information on Hillary Clinton, using Trump’s politically-connected Miss Universe business partners as couriers.

They are also looking into the $20m fee that Trump collected for putting on the pageant from those same business partners – along with extraordinary allegations about Trump’s private conduct behind closed doors at the Ritz-Carlton hotel during his 2013 stay in Moscow.

The Guardian has learned of additional, previously unreported, connections between Trump’s business partners on the pageant and Russia’s government. The ties are likely to attract further scrutiny by investigators who are already biting at the heels of Trump associates.

This administration, and the entire political career of the ridiculous Current Occupant, have been defined by a few things: racism, ignorance, corruption, bluster, bullying, cowardice, empty machismo, vainglorious self-assurance, petty feuding, and no-skinned narcissism. But, aside from horrible destructive policies, what might best define the Trump era is just how fucking tacky it is.

Everything about Trump has always been tacky and vulgar. The gilded bravado, the phony TV persona, the desperate striving for approval masked as condescending confidence. The constant boasts about money, often to people who had much, much more (though always to people who had much, much less).

It’s not just that Trump has always been defined by tackiness; it’s that he has helped define it, from the bloated decadence of the 80s to the phony-conflict fake-strongman nausea of the reality show 2000s, his gross imprint has been a weight on our culture. He’s not solely responsible, but he did help create, and clearly thrived in, the worship of wealth, the addiction to ginned-up drama, and the deference toward TV ringmasters that paved the way to his Presidency.

So it is fitting that his true political career may have been partially launched by the glittery tackiness of Miss Universe, where, according to The Guardian he really became more entangled with the middle rings of Putinism, who used flattery and access to impress the world’s easiest mark.

Most people in the story, including the ridiculous Rob Goldstone, are present at the now-key Don Jr. meeting with a bunch of Russian insiders. The Miss Universe pagent is the nexus at which the key players start to gain influence in the Trump inner circle, access that eventually led to them working to put Trump in the White House.

That last sentence, by the way, ought to be the lead line in the obituary for our idiot times.

Anyway, read the whole piece. It points to where Mueller will be looking, the whole cast of characters that through “friendship” and money sought to manipulate, use, and support the Trump family in an attempt to both undermine our democracy and make more money. That it worked shows volumes about the emptiness of America’s worst family, but it wouldn’t have worked without the rest of our dumb, and essentially tacky, culture playing along.

Miss Universe! That’s where this all really got started. It’s almost too perfect.

(By the way, there is one mitigating factor for Trump in this, in a part that is painted as evidence of more collusion.

It is not known whether Trump met any associates of Putin in lieu of the president himself, but he certainly claimed to have.

“I was with the top-level people, both oligarchs and generals, and top-of-the-government people,” he said in a radio interview in 2015. “I can’t go further than that, but I will tell you that I met the top people, and the relationship was extraordinary.”

When Trump brags about meeting the best people because he’s the best, but says he can’t tell you more, he’s lying. He’s a terrible con man, and this is his obvious tell. He’s so desperate for approval. That’s the hardest part about this: it’s impossible to use anything Trump says as evidence, because he is simply always, always lying.)

Weekend Good Reads and Quick Thoughts: Chelsea Manning, Gitmo, The Sinking East Coast, and More

This is the last weekend of the year you are legally allowed to listen to this song. 

I always want to do “Quick Hits” and such because I think they’ll be shorter, but they never are. Anyway, here are a few scatterings on some stories as well as things you should read, if you don’t have anything else going on during summer weekend, as summer blazes up once again to send us into the fall.

Let’s do this gossip column style.

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End of Mission: Farewell To Cassini

 Subsitute “Cassini” for “Yoshimi” and this really, really works. 

If you’re up right now, you should be tuned into space.com, or NASA, to watch live coverage of the end of Cassini (or, more accurately, the Cassini-Huygens missions).

As it is on, streaming live, the scientist on the air is saying “this is our last image of Enceladus”, limned against an alien sky, that alien world which Cassini showed us might have the conditions for life, and if it doesn’t have life yet, it could so in the future. It could so long after we’re gone. The universe goes on.

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Actual picture of a moon of Saturn

This blog is officially pessimistic about the future of humanity, and the discoveries of Cassini certainly make it clear that we barely exist in this vastness, but it also reminds us that we do. That we’re here. That we all have the enormous and impossible privilege of living in a time where we send satellites to Saturn, where they can take pictures of incredible alien worlds, distant and ringed by the debris of billions of years.

It’s only a few minutes until we get the last signal from Cassini, a decades-long mission whose data will give scientists materials for decades. The discoveries they have made, and will continue to make, teach us about the workings of the solar system, and the universe, and our place in it, our tiny and remarkable spot in this far, remote ring.

Cassini has been dipping into the rings of Saturn for a few months, ready for its final plunge, and even now is learning more about this austere and bizarre planet. It’s scoping out the atmosphere, giving us data on what Saturn actually is, even as it arcs toward its own death.

It’s impossible not to ascribe heroic motivations to the little guy, giving us knowledge about our own small place until the moment it dies. Its antennas will be sending us messages until the last moment of annihiliation, a beautiful goodbye.

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These are the actual rings of Saturn

Think about Saturn. It’s the first world you knew that was recognizeably alien, because it is so weird. Mars is the stuff of myth and legend, of course, and the hellscape of Venus is horrifying because it demonstrates how cosmically close we are to being nothing but brimstone, but Saturn is pure science fiction. It’s the world that looks most different from ours.

Our planet doesn’t have rings. Neither do any of the other planets. Saturn is strange. It shows the vastness of the universe, even in our solar system. Even in the nearness of our orbit. It has the debris of crushed planets and infinite, infinitesimal dust born billions of years ago, coalescing elliptically and spinning endlessly without any concern for our pettiness. It is, and it isn’t, in a shudderingly inhuman way.

Yeah, but goddamn, we have a satellite there right now, for about seven more minutes. It is traveling, the broadcaster tells me, at 75,000 miles an hour “breathlessly toward the end of mission.” What an achievement! What an impossible accomplishment.

And think of it. In six minutes it will transmit its last messages. Those will take less than an hour to transverse our solar system, far more distance than any human has ever experienced. They’ll run through the cold empty spaces, giving us its last gasp of knowledge, sending us information even after it burns and dies so far away from everyone who has ever cared about it.

Two minutes now.

It is plunging. “The spacecraft is losing the battle with the atmosphere.” It’s being pulled into its final throes. 30 seconds. It is about to be turned briefly into fire, and then nothingness.

“Signal from the spacecraft is gone, and in the next 30 seconds, so will be the spacecraft…I’m going to call this end of mission.”

And so it is over. The spacecraft is gone, even as its last lonely messages shoot across the 746 million miles that separate our worlds at their closest. Those 746 million miles that make the difference between our literature and nothingness, between everything you’ve ever known and the deadness of eternity. Between your memories and a planet that doesn’t care, doesn’t recognize, and doesn’t know anything you’ve ever felt.

But isn’t that exciting? In the smallness of our lives people sent a satellite to Saturn, looked at the seas of Titans, the gullies of an alien moon, the watery plumes from the south pole of Encedalus. We’ve learned more about the universe in the briefest candle of our time here than anyone in humanity’s short history.

So maybe there is hope. We’re short-minded and stupid and do dumb stuff all the time, and we seem to be rushing toward catastrophe. Maybe in a billion years the life that might yet develop on Encedalus will send a probe toward earth, or whatever name they’ll give it, plucked from their own shoaled mythologies, and maybe discover in the wreckage that there was once a civilization here.

Maybe they’ll see that we had weapons of fierce and terrifying power, and that we had covered our lands in plastic, and that we choked the seas. And maybe they’ll see that we built structures that touched the sky. Maybe they’ll see that we couldn’t sustain this wild gift we stumbled upon. But maybe they’ll see something else.

Maybe they’ll find a buried record of what humans accomplished even as we rushed toward our own end. Maybe they’ll see that brilliant, dedicated people created a small bleeping hero that touched their home somewhere in the distance of time, in the past that seemed dead to them. And they’ll understand that their place in the infinity of space is as small as ours, but also understand that, in a real sense, it is all-encompassing. It is all they have, and all they’ll ever have. And maybe that will change them.

Maybe we’ll briefly meet, ghosts across time, a fading signal rushing bravely through the darkness.

Maybe, this isn’t the end.

The One Flaw With Bernie’s “Medicare for All” Bill: The Finger Thing Means The Taxes!

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I support universal healthcare, though I don’t know anything about it. This makes me like most people! And while I think Bernie’s plan is a good one, like him, I also know it has no chance at success. For now. But I love that he keeps moving the conversation to the left, making it more and more normal. Why are we the only developed country where not dying in the streets because you’re poor is considered a privilege, and something to be earned?

Well, there are a lot of answers to that. But part of it, I think, can be found in this poll from The Guardian.

Since Sanders launched his presidential campaign in May 2015, public support for universal healthcare has climbed. Where 46% of the public supported such a system in 2008 and 2009, a recent Kaiser poll found 53% now support the idea.

But that same survey found that when respondents were told that a universal healthcare plan might give the government “too much control,” or that it might increases taxes, opposition spiked from 43% to 62% and 60% respectively – perhaps a sign of the major political and policy fights that lie ahead.

As always, The Simpsons summed it up beautifully in this one-minute clip.

“The finger thing means the taxes” might be my most-quoted line ever.