Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Knowing We Flourish

Been thinking about human flourishing.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Music Post

You've earned a music post. Here you go. They're both about people fading.

You know what? You deserve something more upbeat too, like "New York New York." Here you go (I can't embed this one).

Thursday, May 25, 2017

What Profit

On Wednesday, British* reporter Ben Jacobs was asking congressional candidate Greg Gianforte a question about the recent CBO report on Trumpcare when Gianforte allegedly assaulted him. Gianforte has been charged with misdemeanor assault. I used the word "allegedly," but the audio recording of the incident, which you can hear at the Guardian (Jacobs's employer), makes it seem highly likely that Jacobs's version of events is accurate. (By contrast, the Gianforte campaign released a statement that flatly contradicted what can be heard on the audio recording.)

People were trying to piece things together on Twitter, and the following exchange occurred (note, Mandel is an editor at the New York Post):

I quickly scrolled through @Alexa_Bella's timeline, and she is clearly a strong supporter of Greg Gianforte. She offered no evidence (e.g. pictures, corroborating accounts) to support her claim that Jacobs grabbed Gianforte's wrist and then they both fell over. (Note that this is what the Gianforte campaign claimed happened. However, @Alexa_Bella's tweets did not precede the Gianforte campaign statement, so it would have been possible for her to parrot the campaign's version of events. Had she tweeted her story immediately, it might have gained some credibility from its correspondence to the campaign's statement.)

Of course there was some doubt as to the veracity of the "eyewitness" tweets quoted above:

I decided to see how this account held up over time.

Last night the sheriff in the county where the alleged assault took place stated that there were six people in the room at the time of the incident. Of course Ben Jacobs and Greg Gianforte were there. There were three Fox News journalists (who corroborated Jacobs's version of events). There was one other person whose identity I don't know. Of course, it seems that person would have to be @Alexa_Bella for her statement to be true. So I followed up:
And I got this reply:
McKinley is extremely partisan, as a cursory glance at her Twitter timeline will make clear. So it's unsurprising to me that she would weigh evidence in a way that leads to her preferred conclusion (in this case, that there is at least some doubt as to whether Gianforte assaulted Jacobs). Remember the extremely short term nature of the deception that is required. Voting will wrap up tonight. The key thing is to muddy the waters, even if only for a few hours. And this was the purpose to which @Alexa_Bella's almost certainly dishonest narrative was put. (Note that her account is now locked, but her tweets live on in the screenshot shown above.) Once the race is over, Republicans can either continue to minimize his actions (if he wins) or emphasize them as an explanation for his loss. Strategically, this is the right move, but it requires an astonishing level of dishonesty.

And so I'll wrap this up by noting that this woman forever tarnished her reputation for honesty for the purpose of... electing Greg Gianforte to what is almost certain to be only a 1.5-year stint in Congress? The debasement of vast numbers of conservatives in this country is an ongoing and depressing phenomenon, and it extends from the very top of the Republican Party all the way down through random people on Twitter.

* The media has reported that Ben Jacobs is from Baltimore, and a few people on Twitter have repeated that claim. This flies in the face of everything Dave Weigel has tweeted about Ben Jacobs in the last several years, and I refuse to believe it.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Venture Cities

One of my old hobbyhorses is the failure to build transit-oriented cities in the U.S. The few transit-oriented cities we have grew during a time when cars were expensive or nonexistent, and their density made them especially suitable for things like subways. Today there is a chicken-and-egg problem, though, because a small city will pretty much never be a good candidate for grade-separated transit, and by the time it is a big city its car-driven pattern of development will likely have pushed it to develop in a way that is still unsuitable for grade-separated transit. Furthermore, tunneling through developed areas is very expensive relative to digging tunnels in the open countryside.

It seems as though you could build a planned city from scratch that would avoid these problems. You would do something like this: Dig a bunch of subway tunnels, but only lay track in one of them. Build a modest "downtown" area at one end and brownstone/row-house type neighborhoods along the rest of the line. Alternatively, don't install any track, just run bus lines on the roads where the subway lines will eventually go. You can also leave certain empty lots near future train stations, or build temporary, cheap, easy-to-tear-down buildings there.

The point is that as the city grows, you can start "turning on" subway lines and allowing the construction of tall/dense buildings near the stations. Eventually you would have one of the most walkable, dense cities in the country, which would create a type of real estate for which demand is high and competition is virtually nonexistent (in the U.S.). And your subway system would be far better and cheaper than New York's.

Where I'm going with this is that it seems strange to me that private equity or venture capital or whatever hasn't funded such a thing. I think the answer is simply that politics are hard. A big investment is subject to expropriation, which is a dirty word, but could refer to something as simple as the residents of the city or state voting to change the zoning laws. Democracy has a tense relationship with large-scale private-sector development.

I hope this is a problem that can be solved, though. A state with a sufficiently motivated legislature could presumably write laws and sign contracts that would bind it pretty strongly to support the venture. Of course that's only likely in a blue state, which means we would be building another dense, walkable city in a place where its (likely Democratic-leaning) residents would have relatively little effect on the Electoral College. So it's not an idea that is free from problems. But I hope that it is tried by someone with the capital and the ability to pull it off.

Unpopular Obama

Very quick post, simply to note that Obama was quite unpopular throughout most of his presidency. Moreover, he provoked sheer rage in a large minority of the population. This is an important fact to remember as we consider the future of the Democratic Party. I am not now trying to re-litigate the 2016 primaries. But it's worth noting that for all his personal electoral success, Obama was a highly unpopular President whose unpopularity helped drive large Democratic losses down the ballot. And the crazy thing is that I think this had almost nothing to do with Barack Obama! My hypothesis is that practically any Democratic politician can be made comparably unpopular, because the conservatives have developed an extremely effective multi-pronged propaganda machine. (Thoughts inspired by this Richmond Ramsey post via David Frum. By the way, what idiot called it Frum Forum instead of View Frum Nowhere?)

[Edited to add: Nancy Pelosi is also extremely unpopular. I'm not saying it's trivially easy for conservatives to take down big-name Democrats, but it's something they seem to have the ability to do, and it appears to be a fact of life we'll have to live with for the foreseeable future.]

Monday, May 22, 2017

Racist Memes

A white college student is accused of killing a black college student (they attended different colleges), and it has been reported that the defendant is a member of the "Alt-Reich Nation" Facebook group. Of course the defendant is entitled to a presumption of innocence as a legal matter, and anyway I'm only in possession of what facts the media has reported. But it doesn't look good.

This reminds me of a piece that Jesse Singal wrote last fall. The piece explores the motivations of the trolls who generate and spread racist and anti-Semitic memes such as the "Pepe" meme that became so notorious during the 2016 election. Singal points out that the standard (and understandable) outrage that these memes generate is mostly what drives their creation, and he argues that people who criticize the memes fail to understand the motives behind them, which are not necessarily racist. (In fairness to Singal, he points out that it's not the victim's job to assess the intent of someone posting Holocaust memes.)

Anyway assuming the allegations in the college stabbing are true, and assuming the killer was motivated by racist materials shared virally online, I think this points to an important factor that Singal's piece mostly didn't address, which is that the underlying intent of the racist memes is of limited relevance to their effect on the world. The people spreading racist memes must be held to account even if they are not themselves racist.

But another way of putting it is that racism isn't just about intent. The introduction to Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night says, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." If you spend your time spreading racist ideas, riling people up, making them feel bad and oppressed, then maybe we can say that you are engaged in racism, despite your protestations that you are "not a racist."

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Consensus

I've noticed a strong convergence on Twitter toward a sort of grand unified theory of Trump, focusing on his extremely abnormal psychology and our resulting inability to comprehend him. Of course many of us have had a general sense of this for a long time, even before he launched his presidential campaign, but the accumulated evidence has become staggering. Here are some recent examples, in no particular order.

That last tweet refers to Trump's decision to fire Comey after allegedly asking Comey to call off his investigation of Mike Flynn. That is to say, he fired a man he knew to have direct personal knowledge of his own (Trump's) interference in the investigation. It is impossible to imagine why anyone would follow that course of action, and it is easy to see why Podhoretz was uncomfortable. However, there has been no convincing denial of the allegations, and it appears that the uncomfortable explanation is that Trump's mind is deeply dysfunctional.

Ross Douthat put it this way:

Read the things that these people, members of his inner circle, his personally selected appointees, say daily through anonymous quotations to the press. (And I assure you they say worse off the record.) They have no respect for him, indeed they seem to palpitate with contempt for him, and to regard their mission as equivalent to being stewards for a syphilitic emperor.
 As I said, people's thoughts seem to be converging rapidly. A consensus is forming. Unfortunately it is far too late, and I see only a slight chance of Trump being removed from office. There is a slightly higher chance that he will resign, but I wouldn't count on it. Our nation is led by a man who is childish and damaged, and there is little we can do about it.


By the way, as I hazily pointed out earlier, all of this is grounds for humility in our efforts to understand what is going on. Trump is predictable in some ways and insanely hard to predict in others. The fact that we've put ourselves at the mercy of this man is the bizarre, incredibly scary tragedy of our times.

Fake News

Very quick point. The concept of "fake news" has become a toxic idea spreading within our political system. It is a way of dismissing inconvenient facts, and it is a major aspect of our collective inability to process information.
This is seen as a disease of the right, and it is undoubtedly most prevalent there. But cases are starting to pop up all over the left too. I noticed this during the 2016 primaries, when Sanders supporters went into full-on reality-denial mode. Clinton would win a state, and as the results came in the vote tally would change in each precinct or whatever. Sometimes the media outlet reporting the results would make a mistake, and the numbers would have to be revised. Sanders supporters became convinced that what was really going on was that poll workers were destroying ballots to rig the election for Clinton.

Anyway my point is that no one is immune from this stuff. The other point I'd make is that avoiding this stuff is partly a personal virtue, or obligation if you prefer to think of it that way (resisting the temptation to comfort yourself by avoiding the truth), but also partly a social norm that must be enforced. If you don't want the left to turn into a mirror image of the right, I suggest talking to your friends if you see them going down this road. In the very short run you can "do better" politically by spreading nonsense, but it is catastrophic over time, as the conservative movement amply demonstrates. We must maintain standards, for our own sake and because it's the right thing to do.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Comey Memo

Folks I can't keep up with this shit. I'll just note that it seems increasingly clear that Donald Trump suffers from pretty severe mental limitations. You have to assess everything in light of that. It's typically not exculpatory, but it does explain why people might believe they have a moral duty to serve in his administration or whatever. A child commands the most powerful military in the world.

Troubling Passages

This passage from the New York Times is rightly getting a lot of attention on Twitter:
In private, three administration officials conceded that they could not publicly articulate their most compelling — and honest — defense of the president: that Mr. Trump, a hasty and indifferent reader of printed briefing materials, simply did not possess the interest or knowledge of the granular details of intelligence gathering to leak specific sources and methods of intelligence gathering that would do harm to United States allies.
However, I haven't seen anyone point out that it doesn't make much sense. When McMaster made his non-denial denial, he claimed that Trump hadn't said anything about sources and methods. This was recognized as non-responsive because the story was that the information divulged by Trump bore on those issues without expressly including them. If I tell my wife that she is a better kisser than her sister, all I've technically revealed is a personal preference. I haven't said anything about who has and hasn't kissed me. But my wife might well wonder how I came to possess the knowledge necessary to make an informed judgment about my preferences in that area.

Another View of the Cathedral

This tweet makes an important point:
Last night, on my Twitter feed, I watched as several journalists easily navigated through the bullshit that was being peddled by Masterson as he "denied" that Trump shared classified information with the Russians. I like to think I would have been able to figure this out on my own, but I'm honestly not sure. Certainly I needed guidance to understand the nuances.

This is an example of a skill that I imagine is actually not that hard to learn with practice. It's much like reading a contract or a law. You learn to recognize certain patterns, certain formulations, that repeat themselves over and over.

But plenty of people understood Masterson to be saying that the Washington Post was wrong. This is because his words strongly implied that conclusion to an ordinary audience. Therefore if you weren't accustomed to parsing statements carefully, you were easily led astray. (Masterson has, or had, a fair amount of credibility, so a serious denial from him would have meant something.)

Now it's important to note that even fairly smart people could be misled by this. Not because they're incapable of parsing a carefully worded statement, but because they assume that Masterson has enough integrity not to say something the literal meaning of which is opposite to (or at least starkly different from) the meaning that a normal audience would attribute to it. In other words, a lot of people have a "thick" conception of what it means to be truthful, at least when a "real" person (not a lawyer or a spokesman) is speaking.

Anyway I point this out to explain how different people's experience of a story like this can be. Some people were whipsawed by the night's events, but to a certain (dare I say "elite") audience, everything unfolded in a pretty coherent way. It seems like yet another class distinction in our society, not driven by income exactly, but by a certain facility for processing information.

Edited to add the following.

Inevitably, this happened:
I'm going to need to write some posts on anti-elitism. The thought I have right now is that a tremendous amount of mischief can be done by camouflaging idiotic prideful ignorance as some kind of egalitarian anti-snobbishness. I realize this is an utterly banal thought, but it seems pretty central to our political discourse these days, so I will mull it over.