Am I Missing Something?

It’s May 16th, 2020, and there’s an undeniable feeling of optimism in the US about Covid-19. A vibe that we’ve got this thing on the run. All over the country businesses are opening up and we’re getting ready for Summer.

I feel like I must be missing something.  We all see the same data but to me it looks anything but reassuring. The current numbers look like a failure and a setup for a calamity in the fall.

The conclusion I’ll outline below could be wrong—I hope it’s wrongbut when you look at the larger context it’s such an obvious inference that even if it is wrong, it seems like it should be the default conclusion that the uninformed jump to, the one that people in the know contemptuously debunk, as they do when someone says that “it’s no worse than the flu.”  So right or wrong, either way, something seems off.

To see why it looks so bad to me, consider a couple of points first.

In What Sense Is Covid-19 Under Control?

First of all, the widespread conviction that the epidemic is winding down in the US is itself a mystery.


Continue reading “Am I Missing Something?”


At this writing (2019), the entire history of powered flight from the Wright brothers to the Rosetta spacecraft landing on a comet, is still encompassed by a single lifetime.

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Kane Tanaka

Orville Wright’s famous first flight at Kitty Hawk took place in December of 1903, 116 years ago, an age that is is pretty much a hard-stop for humans. In all the world, nobody alive today is older than 116 and indeed, only eight or nine people in history are believed to have lived to 117 years of age or more; only two of those, possibly one, lived longer than 117 years.

Sarah Knauss (1880-1999) of Hollywood PA is reliably confirmed to have lived to the age of 119 years and 97 days, and she may have been the oldest person ever known.

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Kitty Hawk 1903

It has long been claimed that Jeanne Calment (1875-1997) of France, lived to 122, but sadly, doubt has been cast on the legitimacy of that claim. It hasn’t exactly been disproven, but Jeanne’s daughter’s death was recorded in 1934 and the contrarian theory is that it was Jeanne who actually died on that date. Skeptics believe that the daughter assumed her identity so that the family could avoid ruinous inheritance taxes. If that’s true, Jeanne would have been not quite sixty when she died in 1934 and the daughter would have been a respectable but hardly remarkable 99 years old when she died in 1997. One counter-argument is that it would have been extraordinarily difficult for a person in provincial France in the 1930’s to get away with assuming the identity of a person of substance. This is surely true, but it would not have been more extraordinary than the statistical freakishness of the longest and next longest human lifespans differing by three years.

Take your choice, either 119 or 122 is the most advanced age ever recorded, but the oldest person alive right now is Kane Tanaka of Japan, who is 116 years old. She was born in Japan in 1903 and when she dies, the age of powered flight will extend beyond human time. Surely Tanaka’s life has spanned the most densely packed 116 years in history.

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Einstein c. 1902

Two years after Tanaka and airplanes were born, Einstein had his “annus mirabilus.” In one year, 1905, he published three of the most revolutionary scientific papers in history. He explained the quantum nature of light, demonstrated the physical existence of atoms by explaining Brownian motion, and outlined what is perhaps the most famous theory in all of science, the Special Theory of Relativity, laying the groundwork for nuclear weapons and nuclear power.

Almost the entirety of the modern world came into being during Tanaka’s lifetime. When she was born there were still more sailing ships than steamships. The largest sailing ship ever built, the German freighter Preussen, was launched in 1902, while the Wright Brothers were building their plane. It sailed between Hamburg and Chile hauling nitrates and was a commercial success until it was accidentally rammed by another ship and sunk in 1910.

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Nitrate Carrier Preussen, c 1903

Cars didn’t displace horses in the city streets until around the time of the first World War when Tanaka was a teenager. When she was born they still a novelty, made more or less one at a time in workshops. The modern assembly line was still just a gleam in Henry Ford’s eye in 1903.

Radio was a generation away and television was undreamed-of when Tanaka was born. Movies barely existed—the first permanent theater for movies was built in Pittsburgh in 1905 but movies were still a novelty rather than an art form.

In 1903, half of living African Americans had been slaves and most African Americans under the age of 38 were the children of slaves; the Civil War was considerably closer in time than the Vietnam War is now. The last armed conflicts between the US Army and the Indians ended when she was a young woman. European cavalry was still charging the enemy with sword and lance when Tanaka was in her thirties.

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Oldsmobile 1903

The whole of our modern world, domestic electric power, indoor plumbing, air conditioning, cars, trucks, highways, air travel, air freight, and air war, nuclear weapons and power, radio, television, plastics, almost all of medicine, the vast majority of chemistry, rockets and space flight, satellites, GPS, computers—it all happened within Tanaka’s lifetime. Harvesting that was not done by hand was done with horse-drawn equipment when Tanaka Screen Shot 2019-06-08 at 4.52.55 PMwas young; The Bolsheviks seized power in Russian when she was 14 years old. The sickle on the Russian flag wasn’t nostalgia—that’s how wheat was harvested in Russia until the Soviets mechanized agriculture starting in the 1930’s.  The Soviet Union fell in 1991 when Tanaka was 88 years old.

We’ve run through an amazing proportion of the world’s resources in her lifetime. We’ve burned up the majority of the oil, found most of the valuable metallic ores, gold and other precious metals, cut down much of the world’s forests, turned a large part of the world’s grassland into desert and begun an epochal mass extinction that can only accelerate as global warming progresses. Tanaka’s lifetime has been both an age of miracles and the epoch in which technology devastated the planet like a slow-motion asteroid strike.

But here’s to Kane Tanaka, may she live many more years.

We Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet


This sobering article in The Economist last year outlined the consequences to expect from a Brexit-without-a-deal. Most of it still applies, but to me, a non-economist, the diversity and magnitude of malign consequences suggests that Brexit could be a more interesting experiment than anyone thinks.

It’s not that we’ve lacked for economic turmoil since the age of inter-networking for business and the general public took off in the late 1980’s, but the problems have been fairly conventional in economic terms. Recessions, bubbles, the CMO meltdown, and so on; none of it has been greatly different from the trouble we’d gotten into for many decades previous.

Brexit brings up the possibility of a truly modern meltdown—an economic calamity that as yet has no name.

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Christianity and Ducks

Atheists invariably haul out the religious wars of Europe to make the case that religion is pernicious. It is indisputable that from The Age of Faith to the Reformation/Counter Reformation numerous bloody wars and slaughters were committed in the name if the Christian God and there were countless more if you include the wars fought in His second best known name, Allah. It’s not an obviously wacky point.8bdfe51795

But hold on there—religious war is monstrous just as all war is monstrous, and it is possible that religion is monstrous as well, but the proposition that wars being fought over religion proves that religion is monstrous is a classic example of what philosophers call “an association fallacy of the red herring type.” The herring, i.e., the thing dragged in that is not logically connected is religion. Helen’s face launched a thousand ships only in a poetic sense; Paris and Agamemnon are to blame for the Trojan war, not Helen, love, or beauty.

Such a fundamentally flawed attack shouldn’t require any defense, but logic isn’t a central concern in religion; Christians consistently fall for this argument and end up defending Christianity from the accusation with words to the effect that “sure, there were wars, but those people weren’t real Christians” or “they weren’t acting consistently with Christian principles.

This is a terrible argument but not because it’s inherently fallacious. It’s weak because it invites the accuser to apply what is known as the duck test, AKA Occam’s Razor. You’d sneer if I defended, say, Nazism, using the same logic. Try it out: “Nazism didn’t really underly the horrors of the Holocaust; the problem was that bad people coopted a good idea. Let’s let bygones be bygones and give it another chance.” No, the killers were Nazis and the actions were consistent with the principles of Nazism as advocated by the founders, so you can go out on a limb and say Nazism caused the Holocaust. It is logically possible that a small animal that looks like a duck, swims like a duck, quacks like a duck, and is often seen in the company of ducks, is not a duck, but that’s not where a wise ornithologist will take the argument.

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Against a cultural background of morbid touchiness about references to gender, race, etc., the word bitch is a lens into what’s going on beneath the fig leaf of political correctness.

Calling a particular person a bitch in private is bad manners but if you disregard all the ostentatious political posturing, the visceral reaction most people have to bitch used in that way isn’t much different from their reaction to gender-neutral epithets such asshole, or to male-specific insults such as prick, or dick. Bitch, used in this way, is an insult to a particular person, and after all, offending is the goal. Bitch is not nearly as shocking to the ears as the c-word-that-dare-not-be-spoken (here in the US, anyway—in the UK cunt is practically a term of endearment when applied to a man.)

Gender-specific insults are tricky but you have to be willfully obtuse to deny that much obnoxious behavior has gender. I’m not talking about the gender of the obnoxious person, but the behavior itself. Being a prick is definitely a yang personality trait and being a bitch is yin, regardless of the sex of the insulted or insulting party. Asshole, on the other hand, is neuter, despite the fact that many more men than women are assholes. Assholes are like happy families but the epithet pig can connote at least three distinct kinds of obnoxiousness, one specific to each gender plus one neuter. I like the gender-specificity of all of these words and usages and doubly applaud their use when the target is not gender-consistent with the epithet. The comprehensibility of cross-gender insults is a sign of progress in the relationship of the sexes.

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Don’t Be So Cynical!

Diogenes the Cynic searched the world for an honest man.

I had an epiphany about what’s up with people who claim to “believe” things that are manifestly not so. I’m not talking about things people believe that are arguably wrong about or about matters of faith like belief in God or in karma. After all, most of us are wrong about most things most of the time.

The things that I’m talking about are things that you’d think it would be manifestly impossible to believe in good faith. Like saying you “believe” that the Earth is flat, or that two flatly contradictory lines of Scripture are both literally true.  Plausibility is subjective but how does one argue with a person who denies the rules of logic?

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Yep, I Definitely Believe Her.

I wasn’t a reflexive Kavanaugh hater when this started. His politics are deplorable but they are pretty much of a piece with those of anyone else who was in the running. His evasive responses to virtually all questions were dismaying but they were not much worse than has become customary in Senate hearings.


The spectacle only strayed into the bizarre with Kavanaugh’s response to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony. Who carries on like that at a job interview, attacking and insulting the interviewers, raging, crying, acting hurt, citing massive conspiracies to get revenge for work he did for Ken Starr twenty-some years ago?  You can lose touch with how weird that performance was.

Continue reading “Yep, I Definitely Believe Her.”

We’re Looking At It All Wrong

We shouldn’t be thinking of Trump’s campaign shenanigans with the Russians and his payoffs to silence former mistresses as normal, Watergate-style scandals. Either of these clumps of mini-scandals would be enough to bring a normal  presidency crashing to the ground, but they are more likely to end up a footnote, remembered not for their intrinsic importance but as the threads investigators first pulled on that ultimately unraveled the Republican party and exposed the bizarre epochal political disaster that started America on an historic decline as a world power.

Russia's President Putin visits Kaliningrad Stadium

What’s going on is widely recognized as a scandal, but it’s not usually spoken of in such cataclysmic terms. Is this author overly excited or will we look back one day and feel that the mainstream press missed something obvious?

The media is struggling because what’s going is unprecedented. To be fair, everyone else is struggling too: law enforcement, our intelligence apparatus, the courts; even the KGB doesn’t know quite what to do. Trump’s Russia problem is morphing into that rarest political thing: something new under the sun.

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A Delicate Moment

The release of Bob Woodward’s book Fear, about the state of Trump’s White House, and the nearly simultaneous publication in the New York Times of an anonymous op-ed piece telling much the same story from inside the Cabinet, make it clear that the end is approaching.

These stories of White House chaos come just as three currents of history are about to crash together. Mueller’s investigation, the November elections, and Trump’s impatience are headed for a three-way pileup that could see the Pence family decorating the White House Christmas tree this year.06bookwoodward1-superJumbo

The pivot point for the scandal is November 8th, the first business day after the election. The chaos, corruption, and buffoonery of Trump’s first two years make Democratic control of the House next year likely, and even control of the Senate now seems like a possibility. With a Democratic majority in the House, the tide will truly change against the Republicans and the President.  Investigations can’t be strangled and impeachment becomes a serious option. At that point, the Republicans will have less than two months to salvage what they can.

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Reefer Madness

Ordell tells Melanie that too much weed will sap her ambition. Melanie responds, “Not if your ambition is to get high and watch TV.”   Jackie Brown, 1997.


As a society, we’re in the process of accepting the obvious truth that pot is never going away and that impairing hundreds of thousands of lives with criminal prosecutions is cruel and wasteful.  Decriminalization is a good thing.

What’s not a good thing is letting decriminalization blur into officially normalizing pot use by setting up a government-approved infrastructure for distribution so that we can tax it.  Is there no middle ground between imprisoning people over something and giving that thing the government’s seal of approval?

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