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Congratulations, President Biden

January 20, 2021

Joe Biden was in my bottom tier of Democratic candidates, along with the novelist, the cult member, and the self-styled socialist. Fortunately, it was Sanders whom I shorted in the prediction markets.

Despite my dismal view and expectations, Biden handily won the primary. He then won the general election by healthy popular and electoral majorities, handing a stinging repudiation to an incumbent. Unlike any other presidents-elect past, he then had to fend off a variety of attempts by his opponent to overturn or obviate the election results.

Some critics might complain that he didn’t do much during any of that, and so doesn’t really deserve that much credit. Those critics overestimate their own vision. I seriously doubt that they or I in the same position would have succeeded. There was much more political savvy being plied than most will realize. Any such criticism is like complaining of someone sailing, that it looks that he doesn’t hardly do anything, while someone in another boat is frantically doing all sorts of things. The first sailor may well do better, because he knows what needs to be done. It is high past time for Americans to start understanding that show doesn’t reflect substance.

Whether Biden successfully helms through the perilous waters ahead we will have to wait and watch.  For now, he is owed congratulations and thanks. As much of the world exhales. 

More democracy, please

January 19, 2021

While I am glad that the Republicans have lost power, I am not overly optimistic about what the Democrats will do. This seems like a good time to state up front how I will measure them. That has little to do with issues that are normally considered policy, from taxes and healthcare to military posture and trade. Rather, what is higher priority to me now are issues that go to the heart of the structural problems with our democracy. To put a stake in the ground, I will set three measures. 1) How many current DACA recipients are made citizens? Ideally, I would like to see short legislation that makes them all citizens, passed and signed next week, prior to broader immigration reform. I doubt that will happen, and so we must see if broader reform can be done. 2) Is the larger part of DC made a state? Now, yes, Puerto Rico, also. In my dreams, I would like to see urban areas break apart from Texas as their own states: Austin, Houston, El Paso. And from other states. If rural New Yorkers are tired of the city dominating their politics, the solution to that is to make states of Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and The Bronx. But as a measure, I will consider it a success if DC is made so. 3) Is substantive anti-corruption legislation passed? Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should bring back her bill banning congressmen from owning stock in individual companies, and extend its reach to all federal employees, including the president. I will be happy with any steps in that direction.

Martyrs for lies

January 18, 2021

Ashli Babbitt was one of those fabled Obama voters who turned to MAGA and QAnon. Reading about that fails to reveal a common political thread or demographic interest group. What it shows is how those who are dumb and idealistic get sucked into cult-like thinking. She was no hero. She was a believer who died for the lies of her leader.

Trump will issue pardons in the next few days. None will help his followers who stormed the Capitol. That is not in his interest. He hasn’t publicly used the dodge that it was antifa. There is a report he is toying with that. It’s interesting to ponder how the messaging from the right-wing media would differ, had the storming of the Capitol succeeded in stopping the electoral college process? I suspect many of the writers working so hard to exculpate Trump from that would instead be praising those who answered his call. Those now facing criminal charges are discovering what happens to the foot soldiers of failed insurrections. They face not only the wrath of those they targeted, but are abandoned and disowned by those who pushed them into the fray.

Many of those who participated came from normal walks of life, with not much unusual in their profile before. A Texas real estate agent. A Georgia investment manager,  who committed suicide after being arrested. A healthcare worker, turned in by her own daughter. Their lives now are derailed by their participation in a cult-like political movement. They viewed themselves as patriots. Were they any more radical than others wearing MAGA hats and repeating QAnon memes? Or just better positioned to act?

Erick Trickey looks at today’s MAGA movement as a continuation of yesterday’s Birchers. The delusions are so similar that sometimes it seems a mere text replace updates them. Yesterday, the deep state was run by a communist cabal. Today, by a pedophile ring. Yesterday, it was the Rothschilds pulling the secret strings. Today, George Soros. Underlying it all is staggering ignorance of how institutions work, parading as cryptic knowledge. The large difference is that, yesterday, the conservative movement fought and marginalized the Birchers. Today, the conspiracists rule the movement.

Forbes wants businesses to blacklist Trump’s hired liars. I suspect the right-wing ecosystem will provide cushy landing spots for McEnany and company. Those who knowingly ply the lies do better than those downstream.

Adhesives

January 13, 2021

How to get things to stick together has been a fundamental problem for tens (hundreds?) of thousands of years. Adhesives were advanced technology for the Neanderthals. And still are, for everything from boats and planes, to electronics and satellites.

Waves, all the way down

January 12, 2021

Sabine Hossenfelder derives the Born rule from a symmetry requirement regarding transition probabilities. Curiouser and curiouser. 

Mathematicians work hard at estimating the probabilities for rogue waves. That has importance to mariners and insurers, both.  

The day is so pretty, I doubt any wave was to blame for the capsize shown. I’ve never seen a Melges 24 do that. I did once see someone fall off one during a race. That might have been caused by a small bump in the bay. We circled back for her, but her own boat already was getting her back aboard. 

The second dose

January 11, 2021

Biden plans to more quickly push out available vaccine doses, relying on manufacturing commitment and capability to provide a timely second dose. That seems quite reasonable to me. So long as it doesn’t cause a long delay between doses. A virologist points out that a large populace of partially immune people creates the perfect environment for the evolution of coronavirus variants that are resistant to the vaccine. Let’s hope those who get a first dose are mostly diligent about getting a timely second.

In Texas, as with other states, bad planning has delayed the uptake. Here in Corpus Christi, the city’s vaccine registration website failed yesterday, on its launch. It’s hard to worry about a second dose, when the first still seems so distant.

Vaccination is such an old practice that we don’t know its full history.

The coup’s climax

January 7, 2021

Trump’s coup attempt did not begin yesterday. It began with his lies about the election. Those set up his subsequent acts and directed his base to the cause. That linked article is from late November. Demanding that Pence reject the results of the electoral college and instigating a riot at the capitol during the confirmation process are just his latest moves. 

As I wrote three weeks past, I expect the coup to fail. The worrisome thing is that Trump has come so close. I frequently hear TV pundits say that Pence “cannot” do what Trump wants. Which is a bit silly. Someone handed an envelope can do most anything they want with it, and say anything while doing so. It’s true that the law requires Pence to act in a specific fashion, as he explains in his letter to Congress. But the law is just more words on paper, taking meaning only through the actions of those responsible for upholding it. One of the common things that happens in a coup is that its participants re-interpret those words for their own benefit. Trump is failing because he went into his coup without adequate preparation, without the right confederates where he needed them. How would things have played out differently if he had just a few more committed allies in key positions? A VP who would do his will, and some state officials who would “find” the votes he demanded? Had he been more savvy, could he have cultivated or placed such confederates in the months preceding the election?

The populist movement Trump rode to power wanted their strong man, their Franco, their Mussolini. Instead, they chose as their champion a reality TV celebrity playing at that. Someone who went to commit a coup without planning adequately. Someone who blunders into rash acts rather than preparing and then pulling the trigger. Next time, they might get someone who is a better fit, someone more vicious and with more political skill. That movement was there before Trump, and will be there after. It ultimately is responsible for this ugly turn in US politics. Those in it don’t need to run away from Trump. They need to run away from their pundits and their media and their conspiracy theories. You get no credit for saying you don’t support the rioters who stormed the Capitol today, unless you first condemn the lie on which they acted, that the election was stolen. Romney is quite right to point the finger at his fellow Republicans who went along with that lie while it was the convenient thing to do.

There have been a few resignations from White House staff. They are late. And if they try to pretend that Trump’s behavior yesterday was unexpected, they are dishonest. Trump came to power and wielded it by weaponizing lies and conspiracy theories. Those are the life blood of the movement he rode to power. What he did yesterday was just a continuation of what he has done since first running for office. There is no surprise here. When you go to serve a pathological liar, a conman, a would-be cult leader, eventually you get bit. Trying to move away at that point is much like rethinking a leopard as a pet, after it chews off your leg. Yes, Congress should have impeached and convicted Trump last night. But the Senate should have convicted when he first was impeached. Yes, Pence should assume power through the 25th amendment. Though normally not useful for removing a willful president, it works for that in the last twenty days of a president’s term.

Photo shows Robert Cobb Kennedy, who was executed for a terrorist attack on New York City during the Civil War. One of the redhats yesterday carried his flag in the Capitol.

Thank you, Georgia, and a tremendous thank you to Stacey Abrams:

Cellular biology

January 6, 2021

The eukaryotic cell is a fascinating thing, not the least because it is the building block for every living thing you can see with the naked eye. It has a complex internal structure, with the organism’s “source code,” the DNA, kept inside the nucleus, protein synthesis done by separate organelles, and machinery to carry pieces of genetic code as needed between the two. There is still much unknown about how different tissues regulate their proteome. Young science nerds would do well to take a course in cellular biology. I worry about senescent cells when realizing that it was forty years past that I did so.

I am not surprised when I see the people who haven’t studied biology propagate the notion that an mRNA drug alters the DNA. They speak from rank ignorance. But it does surprise me when a pharmacist falls for that conspiracy theory. Are they not required to study some cellular biology? Or in this case, did his belief in various conspiracy theories just override whatever he might have learned from that?

Georgia’s election

January 5, 2021

Like good nursing care and safe air travel, democratic elections rely on many unsung workers who believe in doing a good job because they believe they are doing something important. Georgia’s voting implementation manager, Gabriel Sterling, gave a press conference yesterday debunking many of the conspiracy theories about the general election there, from the ballots under the table to dead people voting. While addressing public concerns is a necessary part of running an election, I doubt Sterling ever thought he would be fighting a US president purposely spreading lies to overturn an election.

I disagree with him on one point. Georgian Republicans should stay home. Not because they have doubts about the electoral process there. Rather, because they should listen to Trump’s crooked call trying to extort Raffensperger, and to the press conference linked above. Those should leave any honest Republican so disgusted with a party that has weaponized conspiracy theories that they cannot bring themselves to support it today. It would, of course, be unprofessional for Sterling to say such a thing, since his job requires him not to act for one party or the other, even when one is attacking democracy. Those of us not so constrained can point to the obvious.  

Trump’s masterclass

January 4, 2021

Having listened to the entire call between Trump and Raffensperger, what struck me is that it is a masterclass in how those running pyramid schemes, swindlers, cult leaders, and other conmen impress their will on others. They say complete nonsense with nonchalance. (In the call, trump claims his rally sizes and the pronouncements of politicians “prove” he carried Georgia.) They claim to want truth, even as they mouth blatant lies. They have not one explanation, but dozens. Those in their way are the real liars, even just the professional and unbiased investigators doing their jobs. You should be with them, tied by history or party or whatever link they can imagine. You want to do what they are asking, because that will bring you respect and success. They’re not wanting everything they deserve, just a small thing. All they want now is one assent. Others you respect are going along. (Trump claimed that other states’ officials would flip them.) They can’t understand why you’re putting up so much resistance. They ignore contrary facts. And they will repeat this spiel on and on and on and on and on. In confidence, and with tone and fashion that suggests what they are doing is perfectly ordinary.

I encourage young people to listen to that phone call. Ignoring its political context, it is a rare example of how that breed works. If ever you find someone treating you (or someone else) in that fashion, do whatever is necessary to get away from them. Even if that means quitting your job, leaving a support group, fleeing a church, rejecting a lover, divorcing a spouse, estranging a relative. If it requires going to court, don’t believe their predictions and threats. Trump’s team on the election has routinely lost its court cases, because courts require evidence, and give short shrift to conspiracy theories and nonsense. Pathological liars will do you great harm if you let them in. When you recognize one, do whatever is necessary to get them away from your life. Far and permanently away.

Let’s hope this one soon is removed from national politics. Unlike many, I expect Trump will continue to occupy the headlines, even then. His corruption has been broad. We will not know the extent of it for years. He may be in court far more than he wants.

Photo shows Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Lancaster Dodd, The Master. Hollywood typically portrays conmen with far more sympathy than they deserve.