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Texas poker clubs

September 16, 2019

The “regulatory entrepreneurs” who have opened commercial poker clubs here in Texas still are traveling a rocky road. Though Houston has cracked down, at least one club is fighting back in the courts.

That first article describes the allowance that makes room for private games, like our neighborhood poker night: 1) it is in a private place, 2) all players take equal risk, and 3) there is no rake for the house. That makes it legal. What makes it fun is that the whiskey and chit-chat both flow freely. The players who chew tobacco generally manage not to dirty the table. The only time I recall a gun being brandished is when its owner was showing off a new purchase. Some of the players may have fresh caught fish, but it stays in the icebox. In all, a friendly, south Texas social gathering, the group a bit classier than that shown in José Malhoa’s painting. Los bebadores, or something like that.


Saudi Arabia

September 12, 2019

I’m old enough to remember when Reagan supported the mujahideen Afghanistan as freedom fighters, and that many American conservatives then thought their fundamentalist religion gave them something in common. So it doesn’t surprise me to read about Saudi Arabia hosting a delegation of American evangelists.

If you’re going to remember anything about 9/11, remember this: the House of Saud funds the Taliban and is behind the worldwide spread of Wahhibism, the fundamentalist form of Islam that spurred bin Laden, Omar Rahman, and many of the other Islamic terrorists who have struck the US and Europe in the last half century. Most of the 9/11 attackers were Saudi. The Kingdom is a tyranny with a horrid record on human rights. When school children generations from now read the history of our times, one thing that should cause them to scratch their heads is how, despite that, the US has seen the House of Saud as its bright and shiny friend, through both Republican and Democratic administrations. That may be changing soon. The House of Saud knows they have a friend in the current president, and will do what they can to keep him in power.

A bit on seeing

September 11, 2019

I suspect most computer science curricula include some reference to visual processing. Decades back, when I was in school, the puzzle of the optic nerve was an issue, since it seems too narrow a communications channel between the retina and the optical cortex. So it is fun to read of recent advances modeling that. What I wonder, of course, is whether that mathematical model explains any of the visual illusions that characterize our vision.

Some researchers at Stanford looking at how early childhood experience shapes the brain find that Pokémon engages eccentricity bias in children (cite). So be glad if you are old enough that the piece of visual cortex dedicated to that is instead trained on squirrels and geckos, as it should be.

Don’t fall for the apocalypse

September 10, 2019

I suspect there is a certain comfort that comes from believing in an imminent apocalypse. The major issues of the world are simplified, some fading into irrelevance, the others aligning with the end times. One can focus on the quotidian and the ultimate. What to have for breakfast, and who is allowed into heaven or the survival bunker.

People have been waiting for those end times for thousands of year. The apocalypse has yet to arrive. Instead, century after century, we continue to march into an ever more complex world. There are catastrophes aplenty, plagues and extinctions, wars and genocides. Trends that once seemed certain reverse. Twenty years past, liberals were hopeful that democracy’s spread was inexorable. Now, Shawn Rosenberg predicts that democracy will dissappear. I wouldn’t place money on either extreme. And who, five years ago, would have thought that US life expectancy, after its long and steady climb, would decline three years running, even while medical technology advances?

Human destruction of habitat and warming of the globe will shrink the natural world. But it is not going to end civilization in a few short decades. A hundred years from now, the world will be more complex, there still will be parts of nature remaining, and people then will argue how to manage those. Some of them, historically aware, might look back on the current time as an unfortunate step backwards, one that wreaked lasting harm. Much as many American historians look back on Reconstruction as lost opportunity, even its reworking of the Constitution soon derailed by conservative courts, to wait near a century before given their due.

Or maybe not. There might be significant political change in the next decade. The current time might be viewed as the last gasp of a reactionary generation soon swept from power. Even the near future is hard to predict.

We cannot now quantify the environmental harm from global warming, partly because we don’t know future human decisions, mostly because we poorly understand the interactions between climate and ecosystems. Some ecosystems that look fragile will prove to be more resilient than we now expect. Some that look resilient will collapse suddenly when not expected. Beyond obvious ones now most threatened, no biologist can predict which species will survive, which will go extinct, which will become invasive pests that threaten ecosystems where they are not yet. The changes will be myriad, will occur at unknown future time, and will interact in surprising ways. Though there will be many catastrophic losses, some impacting the economy, some affecting human life more directly, there will not be any bright lines crossed. The losses will just come, and still large parts of nature will remain. Our destruction of habitat in other ways may yet prove more damaging than global warming.

What won’t result from that is the apocalypse that Jonathan Frazen expects. Scientists rightly are criticizing that article. Franzen casts global warming both as the end game and as an issue of personal morality. That should be expected, given his novels, and fitting his apocalyptic mien. It leads him to regurgitate one of the fossil fuel industry’s favorite pieces of propaganda, that curtailing their product necessarily has harsh consequence for the public at large:

[O]verwhelming numbers of human beings, including millions of government-hating Americans, need to accept high taxes and severe curtailment of their familiar life styles without revolting. They must accept the reality of climate change and have faith in the extreme measures taken to combat it.

The only thing really threatened by shifting away from fossil fuels is future revenues for the fossil fuel industry. The only tax needed is on such fuels, and its revenues can be used to offset those taxes that the rest of us pay.

Don’t fall for the apocalypse. That simplification is fit only for comic books, horror novels, and maybe morality tales. Global warming will remain a complex topic for decades to come. Its importance will have to share attention with various issues also important, from other kinds of pollution and the weakening of the nation-state, to some not yet on our radar that will be soon. Pointing that out provides no defense to the shills for the fossil fuel industry, or worse, to those who would just as soon burn the natural environment along with everything else. Rather, it just states the nature of the world in which we live, and girds us for political battles that will continue, and that will extend in new directions.

Obligatory Disclaimer: I live in a hurricane zone. We keep prepared for that in various ways. There is a difference between being prepared and being a prepper, between hurricanes and the end of days. A large part of the tragedy the Bahamas now suffers is political. The US should open its doors. Instead, we are ruled by a charlatan who stokes fear and rage at the expense of human decency.

The telling non-lie

September 9, 2019

Here’s the thing: No one cares about Trump’s original misstatement that Alabama likely would be hit by Dorian. Everyone gets things wrong sometimes. That doesn’t make someone a liar or a conman or a would-be strongman. When called on it by the press, what most any other politician or businessman or senior military officer would have done is the mature and right thing. “Oh? Maybe I have that wrong. I’ll take a second look. Meanwhile, listen to NOAA. They know what they are doing and those in southeastern states should be heeding their forecasts and warnings.” Leaders know to rely on their experts for domain knowledge. They also know when speaking publicly that they will misstep from time to time, due to normal human lapse. And they know not to turn an ordinary misstep into a shitstorm. Self-correction is second-hand to most anyone who has had to lead a team.

It’s what Trump did next that shows him a liar and a conman and a would-be strongman. He doubled down. Even though the original misstep didn’t matter at all, he doubled and re-doubled. He tweeted that almost all of the old model paths, shown right, go through Alabama. Which might lead one to wonder if he knows where Alabama is. That justly earned him a pants-on-fire fact check. He created a tweet-storm of other defenses. He led NOAA, a science agency, into internal squabbling between the political appointees trying to defend him, and the professionals wanting to retain their reputation for honest work. Which rift culminated in the former ordering the latter to go along with the party line. Those lies and strongman tactics were not the result of one misstatement. They happened over days, given his consideration and attention. This shitstorm came from the top.

He took something perhaps innocent and certainly non-consequential, and instinctively wrapped it in bullshit and corruption. His hirelings, selected for their loyalty to him, all stood by his side. Making this one more of the many scandals revealing the nature of this administration.

Update #1: Jonathan Chait paints the pattern.

Update #2: As expected, there is evidence that the political pressure on NOAA came from the White House.


September 6, 2019

There is remarkably little action when sailing a small sailboat a relatively long distance. There’s always some sort of autopilot at the helm. The usual tasks — keeping watch, adjusting course and sails, preparing food — become routine. The crew, living days or weeks on a little patch with only a hundred square feet of standing area, if that, soon get over the newness of strangers. In the case where the crew are brought together for the delivery.

A storm and dismasting and loss of one of the two crew — told in the movie Adrift — turns that into a gripping survival story. That story likely was difficult to turn into a film, because of the lack of visual action that such survival entails. “Another day salvaging supplies, managing the boat, tending to one’s physical health, and sitting exhausted.” That wouldn’t much keep the audience. So I understand why the filmmakers introduced a story-telling conceit.

What struck me about the movie was that it portrays small boat sailing and the culture around it without causing me to break into laughter in every scene. Which is unusual. Most movies featuring that are far, far from the reality. There were several things, including the title, that caused me a shake or two of the head. That is inevitable. A film cannot be completely veridical. It still struck me as better in that regard than most any other I had seen. Fitting, given that it is based on a true story. I am glad to read that Tami Oldham still is sailing. Photo shows a brand new sailor on a small sailboat more than twice her age.

Buried truths

September 5, 2019

This article on McKrae Game, a former leader of the evangelical movement to “cure” homosexuality, shows well how much those who fool others often first fool themselves. It is worth reading, whether or not you ever have been religious. Even those in that story one might see as innocent participate willingly in the fantasy. Such as his ex-wife, who also bought into what their religion was teaching as a basis for their marriage.

Eve Fairbanks writes about Confederate rhetoric, and how they painted themselves as the oppressed minority standing up for reason and freedom.

What often buries truth is desire. McKrae Game wanted to think his religion was teaching him how to live well. Confederates wanted to think their cause righteous and noble. Millions of Americans — not just Marianne Williamson — want to think their prayers and good thoughts can change the weather. None of them ever should be president, either.