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March 22, 2018

If you think being stung by bees is a good way to treat muscle tightness, you may be a ripe target for Gwyneth Paltrow’s
. Unfortunately, you may indeed lose more than your money.


The blind will see

March 21, 2018

Macular degeneration is the major cause of blindness in the US, the UK, and I suspect most of the developed world. It is one of those chronic diseases of aging that hits some people, whose cause is not well understood, that currently is difficult to treat. So it may be a milestone that retinal surgeons with the University College of London have restored sight to two people blind from macular degeneration, using embryonic stem cells. (Cite.) The lead author says:

It’s incredibly exciting. As you get older, parts of you stop working and for the first time we’ve been able to take a cell and make it into a specific part of the eye that’s failing and put it back in the eye and get vision back.

They hope to turn this into a standard treatment in a few years.

The pedestrian killed

March 20, 2018

Alas, a woman walking her bicycle across a street in Tempe, Arizona has been killed by an automated car. This is important:

Police say the investigation so far does not indicate the SUV slowed down before hitting Herzberg.

Automated vehicles need sensors that are at least as good as the average human eye at recognizing pedestrians and bicyclists. Of course, I’m assuming the control software, on recognizing a pedestrian in the street — or any object that size — would have stopped or at least slowed, rather than hitting it at full speed.

Update: The pedestrian may have been at fault, and the vehicle may have done as well as could be expected.

The gun myth

March 19, 2018

The theme goes like this. A small band of heroes, trained to weapons from a young age, faithful to traditional values and belief, by sheer gallantry and martial skill defeat an enemy, either savages or organized villains or a bad nation’s army, giving birth to freedom for their people and creating a future safe to raise families of like valor. It makes for fun fiction. Thousands of science fiction novels spoon feed that theme to fans. Heinlein himself wrote more than one book incorporating it. It is been woven into historical settings, medieval Europe, ancient Greece, and the American west. Those almost have the feel of history. As do the frequent works from comic strip to TV shows that paint the American War of Independence as fitting that.

And it is complete fantasy. Political liberty never, ever has been won in that fashion.

The personal liberty we enjoy in the US and other modern democracies has many roots. Early proponents of the rule of law chipped away at the prerogative of the chief executive, giving power to courts and civil institutions. What now is damned by a capricious executive as the deep state. Political movements again and again fought for gains large and small. The abolition movement led to the end of slavery in the British empire, and eventually to the American Civil War. The suffragettes both brought women the vote and made them more equal citizens. Labor movements led to laws from those banning child labor to ones protecting workers against wage theft. The civil rights marchers fought Jim Crow and brought about a variety of laws protecting individuals from the creation of an economic environment that kept them corralled. The champions of gay rights and marriage changed both law and custom.

In much of this, courts played a major role. In the US, it was only by a long sequence of 20th century court decisions that much of the Bill of Rights was incorporated into the 14th amendment, thus providing actual rights, rather than merely limiting the federal government. It always was state governments that most controlled their citizens. It is fair to note that the courts never have been far ahead of cultural changes in this regard. Though those 20th c. decisions expanded personal liberty, they follow 19th c. decisions that gave a very narrow reading to the 14th amendment, narrower than its chief framer intended.

And yes, there were soldiers responsible and blood spilt. In the US, the military victory most notable for expanding American freedom was that of the Union Army. Not only did that free the slaves, it also gave the radical Republicans the political space needed to push through the post-war amendments. That included not just the 13th freeing slaves, but the 14th discussed above, and 15th securing voting rights. These are the cornerstones for much of the expansion of civil liberty in the 20th century, that all Americans today take as a standard part of their political environment.

The Union army was quite far from the heroes of the fantasy above. They were an army made in a different fashion, common people, many conscripts, trained to purpose, dispatched en masse, organized and fed and eventually mustered out by bureaucracy, winning the day not through the personal gallantry of their leaders, but through their efficiency, the political will wielded by Lincoln, and the commercial strength of the Union.

In short, the Union seems more like the enemy in that theme. Americans who engage in the fantasy that it is their personal arms that secure American freedom seem quite often to glamorize the Confederacy. They imagine the Confederate army made up of citizen-soldiers, who learned their use of guns at home. They paint the south’s leaders as a kind of knighthood, whose most glorious heroes are carved into Stone Mountain. While those images also are part myth, what is true about the south is that its leaders, the plantation owners, always did have to exert a large degree of force under personal command, in order to maintain a slave economy. They really were fighting for the freedom of a somewhat martial aristocracy to maintain its wealth and privilege. In the decades after their defeat, armed whites would again and again massacre former slaves and their children, trying to maintain some remnant of that social order. That history of the private use of arms in the US is all too real.

So now, those who fantasize that their guns have something to do with freedom propose the creation of semi-militarized schools. They want armed teachers. They want more armed guards. They want more secure entry and exit. And they somehow think this is creating freedom, rather than teaching our children to live in a police state.

A crucial aspect of political liberty is that people are able to go about their travels and their days in relative safety. And not just those able and willing to go armed, but also children and those with various degrees of physical capacity and those who have no interest in martial practice.

I remember when I worked in Geel, some years back, every weekday morning, the roads in town would be flooded with children, riding their bikes to school, and likewise in the afternoon, going home. On Friday evenings, adults would go to the bars and restaurants around the town square. High school students would come join their parents or friends for a beer. It is legal to drink wine and beer in Belgium at 16. Younger students would play in the square, parents not hovering the way they do in the states. Likewise in Spain, I more often saw young people traveling and in public unaccompanied than I do in the US. In quite a real sense, young people are more free in other parts of the democratic world than they are here. And hence, learning freedom. That requires a civic order and a commitment to open society that is taught and propagated and consciously upheld.

That freedom is shriveling in the US. One reason for that is a misunderstanding of what freedom is, how it is acquired, and what sustains it. Those caught in the fantasy that their guns somehow are responsible for freedom in fact are propagating many of the political ills that put it at risk.

I enjoy shooting. I own guns. But I detest the politics of the NRA and am sick of the delusions it spouts. Your personal guns have nothing to do with how America became free, or how to keep it free. Far from keeping Americans from being marched off to camps, they were idle when that was done. Those lies are not benign. The misquotes of founders are purposeful. They keep many on the right from thinking about freedom, except in the context of bad history and some apocalyptic fantasy. Those who take such fantasies seriously are not patriots. They are fools. Sometimes dangerous fools.

How conmen operate

March 16, 2018

The con portrayed in fiction typically is a set of clever women and men who scam some targeted mark. The cons, like stage illusionists, care quite a bit about what is real or not, because they use that as leverage in running their ruse. Like the rascally fellow left.

In reality, most cons are not at all sophisticated. Some are outright chicanery, from Irish sweepstakes to fake IRS threats.

Most conmen work quite differently. They may have some goals in mind, such as business deals to win or political purposes to achieve. They don’t, though, approach that with some particular deceptions they must pull off. Rather, they just don’t care about the line between truth and lie. Their only interest is to get what they want, so they unfold whatever narrative they think will advance their bidding. Their fictions are effortless, because truth is simply outside their concern. Even when others point out a flat-out lie they told five minutes previous, they remain unfazed, and just proceed to the next story. And many of them recognize that is the process they use.

What is more puzzling to me are the audiences who happily go along, even when it is admitted in front of them, as Trump blithely does with his supporters in private. How many of those think they know the truth, and are happy with the con as long as it gathers the crowd and lines their pockets? How many just don’t care? How many are accustomed to it, listening to decades of preachers saying what they and their flock know is false, but what everyone wants to believe? Hard to say.

Why accountability matters

March 15, 2018

It was politically easy for Obama, when asked what he would do about recent US war crimes, to say he was more interested in looking forward than back. The price of that is that Trump, as happy with torture as any member of Bush’s administration, has now appointed one of those guilty as director of the CIA. McCain hems and haws. That is about all he has done to oppose torture, since the US first implemented a policy of that.

For the sake of the future, we need to start looking back.

Update: Gina Haspel’s involvement in Bush era torture may be limited to urging destruction of evidence, not direct oversight, as stated by the Slate article linked above. The point stands, that we should have cleaned house.

Not so white lies

March 14, 2018

Louis Jacobson writes a good article on public relations, lies, and Hope Hicks. He quotes Tracy Arrington, who teaches at the University of Texas’ Stan Richards School of Advertising & Public Relations:

The first rule of public relations is, ‘Don’t lie.’ It isn’t acceptable. And you will eventually get caught.

If ever find yourself in a job where you are pressured to lie, quit. You won’t regret it. It’s not a normal part of any respectable job, not even White House Press Secretary, as Jay Carney notes, who once filled that role. Pace Hope Hicks, those kind of lies never are white.

James Schwab, until recently the San Franciso spokesman for ICE, did just that:

I quit because I didn’t want to perpetuate misleading facts. I asked them to change the information. I told them that the information was wrong, they asked me to deflect, and I didn’t agree with that. Then I took some time and I quit.

And if, like Steve Goldstein, you get fired for telling the truth? Wear that badge proudly.