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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Political reading according to Amazon

by John MacBeath Watkins

Amazon has released a list of best-selling political books which shows that conservative books sell better than liberal ones, and shows where each type is selling more. Since this is a naked attempt to drum up sales on their part, I'm sure they won't mind if I reproduce the map here, and link to the list of books included here.

It's actually an interactive map, so you should go to the link above and click on your own state to see which books are best selling where you are.

The list has some peculiarities. It omits Outliers, Malcom Gladwell's book on how successful people are not self-created, but owe much of their success to where they came from. This would generally support President Obama's "you didn't build that" (in the sense that he actually meant it) meme. The list includes one novel, Atlas Shrugged. Is it too early to parse the politics of The Hunger Games trilogy?

But in general, the list is more interesting for what it includes. Much of the right-wing reading consists of screeds against the president. Paranoid titles like The Roots of Obama's Rage and Communist give a hint to how unmoored much of this stuff is.

The unreasoning hatred reflected in these titles may, as some have suggested, have something to do with race, but I suspect it has more to do with having a Democrat in office. Republicans were similarly deranged when Bill Clinton was in office, after all, and while some referred to him as "our first black president" because he was comfortable naming black appointees not just to highly visible posts, but to less visible ones down the pay scale, he was not, you know, black.

Of course, there were a number of best-selling anti-Bush books during W's administration, but most fell into the categories of mockery (Molly Ivins) and policy disagreements (Bob Woodward.) I don't recall any that said he hated America, or was a secret Fascist, at least in the best-seller category.

Although Ezra Klein suggests that conservative books are outselling liberal books because it's easier for the opposition to sell books, I'm inclined to suspect that conservative books sell better generally. Politically engaged liberals are more likely to read I am America and So Can You than any book designed to help them nurse their resentments.

Some media just works better for some audiences. Conservatives forward their emails, liberals share their facebook memes, conservative dominate talk radio, liberals dominate political comedy shows. As someone moderately liberal, I like to think this reflects the paranoid style of conservatives and the more playful style of liberals. I suppose the conservative take would be that conservatives take politics more seriously, which leads us to another conflict. When I take things seriously, I study them. When Rush Limbaugh takes things seriously, he rants about them and doesn't worry much about getting his facts straight. His listeners seem to agree with that set of priorities.

In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke, one of the towering figures in conservative thought, defended prejudice as the distilled wisdom that had grown from an ancient civilization. He said that those attitudes allow people to act properly based on their feelings, without having to think through every act. We hear echos of that argument in the way that conservatives seem more focused on how they feel than on a careful examination of the facts. We hear it in their disdain for President Obama's professorial demeanor. We hear it in Limbaugh's factually inaccurate but passionately felt rants.

Liberalism is a product of the Enlightenment. Wilhelm Hegel claimed that history ended on a Tuesday afternoon, October 14, 1806, at the Battle of Jena, when Napoleon, representing the ideas of the Enlightenment, of liberty and equality, defeated the German nobility representing the ideals of faith and custom.

And if liberals are influenced by the Enlightenment, one would expect them to read books like Outliers, which try to get the facts right and are not about resentment.

Or perhaps we're making this all too complicated. Perhaps the answer is in this chart:

And the real question is, if conservatives outnumber liberals 2-1, whey aren't conservative books outselling liberal books 2-1?

The most obvious answers would be that either liberals buy more books per capita, or left-leaning books appeal more to moderates than conservative ones.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Building Meerkat, a very small catboat, installment 6

by John MacBeath Watkins

Well, I had to take some time away from building the boat (and from giving you the benefit of my Deep Thoughts) to make a living, but I'm back at it. I've installed the keelson and made the slot for the centerboard case, dry-fitted the decks and the access plates for the floatation compartments, and designed the centerboard case.

Here's what the boat looks like now:

And here's the design for the centerboard case and centerboard:

Pardon the crude drawing, my drafting skills are comical. I've posted this on the WoodenBoat forum to be critiqued before I start butchering wood. I've built a couple daggerboard cases, but this would be my first pivoting centerboard. I'm thinking it will work better than a daggerboard for sailing onto a beach.

More posts on this topic:

Monday, August 13, 2012

Is Mitt Romney the new Richard Nixon?

By Jamie Lutton.

              I was reading the Seattle Times today online, and I noticed the editorial board had posed a question to its readers about what they thought about Mitt Romney not releasing his income taxes for more than two years back.  They asked readers to write in what they thought about this controversy.

                I noticed the ridiculousness of this question, and got fairly annoyed.  This newspaper, though it serves one of the most liberal counties in the united states, is owned by a Republican family, the Blethen family.
   This family, though its mouthpiece of the Seattle Times, have endorsed Bush jr. for President twice.  they have never apologized  or reviewed this  endorsement as far as I know, even though he is now held by some to be the worst president we have ever had.
     The Seattle Times has, historically, consistently backed Republicans candidates for both local and national offices for decades, and has generally pretty conservative politics.
             Having them ask their readers of their online newspaper what we thought of Mitt Romney's refusal to release his  back tax returns, took my breath away.
       Even though this paper runs liberal and middle of the road political columnists on their editorial pages, they are firmly in the Republican camp.  Running such editorials, and conducting some investigative journalism, they act, on the surface, like a fairly middle of the road or even liberal newspaper.
   They also take some civic interest in the city's government;  they engage in critiquing  local government and police in a positive, impartial way. But, in the end, they are a mouthpiece of Republicans and the Republican Party. 
             I took the opportunity presented to me to point this out online, before I  gave a brief opinion about Mitt Romney's refusal to release his tax returns. 

             I wondered, after I got off line and came here to write, just how stupid this newspaper thought their readers were, anyway

     This whole business of condescending to ask their readers 'what they thought' smacked of the high school teacher who, in a classroom, after gathering the opinions of his students on this or that controversial historical event, or event from the newspapers would set the 'kids' straight, using his "superior" knowledge. 
        And a good grade in that class depended on agreeing with the teacher.
The local Democrats, who are the main readers of the Seattle Times, have no hope of influencing this paper's endorsement of Republican candidates.
       We are almost as much captives of this paper as those high school students are of their teacher.  We can protest and discuss about the evidence of deception  of Mitt Romney all we want, but the Seattle Times will, judging them from past behavior,  still endorse him for President, even though we are living in a heavily Democratic region.
          They will do this out of of party loyalty, not because of the quality of the candidate.
    Unlike those high school students, however,  the local readers can seek out different papers to read, and participate in other forums.   The important thing is to be aware of that bias, and not to be led by the nose.

               My own opinion about Mitt Romney's behavior is that if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, its a duck.
  He is ducking releasing his tax returns as there is something quite damaging in them.  Or, because his overly cautious advisers told him not to.  I came to this conclusion early, without having to read other people analyzing why he did not do so, or what might be the problem with the return. I just watched his behavior. Later, I read some of the speculating by political analysts, and thought that that it was interesting that some important members of his own party was urging him to come clean.
     But the hilarious thing about this is, by not co-operating and releasing his tax returns, he is making the American voter who is paying attention think that there is something even more terrible inside them than there is.

  Mitt Romney has become his own worst enemy.  This is where he resembles a past Republican president; Richard Nixon.

Like President Richard Nixon, who was mocked by his enemies for being paranoid, twitchy and an obvious liar, Romney is now putting himself out to be mocked by comedians, political writers,  and possible voters.
     For those of you too young to remember, President Richard Nixon 40 + years ago, was caught saying 'I am not a crook' about his own mistakes. He became notorious for this remark.
       From the Watergate break in, to bombing Cambodia, to how he mishandled student protests against the Vietnam War,  up to and including problems with his own tax returns, he lied to the American public.  
         He did not fool any but the most credulous, or dedicated members of the Republican Party. In the end, by conspiring to break into the Democratic Party's headquarters at the Watergate hotel in 1972, then lying to Congress about it,  he disgraced the office of the presidency.
 In the end, his own party leaders urged him, then pressured him to resign.
   During Nixon's tenure in office,  the  television comedians of the day, political commentators and columnists, as well as the general public made fun of him and his outrageous lies and antics.
  Ask anyone liberal over 55 if they can 'do a Nixon impression".  Up will come the arms overhead, with their hands  making dual peace signs, and they will shake their head back and forth, and mutter "I am not a Crook".
Right now, Mitt Romney is on the way to being mocked in a similar way.
 He is held up by middle of the road television comics like Jay Leno as the "Richie Rich" kid who swims in   mounds of  cash, or "Scrooge McDuck" who has vaults full of gold coins and cash in his house.
 I have seen a sketch on the Tonight show where a faux Romney is bathing himself in a bathtub of gold coins, a la one of these comic book characters.  And the studio audience and Leno are laughing very hard at the skit.
And this was before the tax return question came up.
  Now, people are saying to each other 'when are we going to learn the truth about those returns?"  Mitt Romney is falling into the "Nixon" trap, thinking he can lie to the American people and get away with it. And both comedians and political columnists are making hay about this, and not backing down.
        In a way, I almost want Mitt Romney to win, if only to watch the comedians and political columnists make the same mincemeat they made of Richard Nixon for six years. I would enjoy laughing at him, as I laughed at Nixon as a child. Almost, but not quite.
 I love my country too much to have it be the plaything of a lying multimillionaire, who, as it appears, is not patriotic enough to pay his fair share of income tax.
          I had other complaints about this candidate - for example, reports that he was a bully in high school, and the possible mistreatment of a family dog - but this is current behavior, that cannot be explained away easily.

 And if he is a liar and cheat, Mitt Romney is capable, then, of almost anything.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Are Pinocchio's pants on fire? Fact checkers and the definition of lies

by John MacBeath Watkins

Glenn Kessler at the Washington posts gives four Pinocchios to Harry Reid for his claim that a Bain investor in the know told him that Mitt Romney didn't pay taxes for ten years.

Politifact gives Reid's statement a "Pants on fire" rating.

Neither claims to have spoken to Reid's source and learned that he said no such thing. This has led to the charge that Kessler and Politifact do not in fact know if Reid is lying.

Is this good journalism? In my misspent years as a journalist, I was careful to not call anyone a liar unless I could prove it. Quoting someone calling someone a liar offers some protection. Should those journalists who have quoted Republicans calling Reid a "dirty liar" later learn that he wasn't lying, they can in fact point to the fact that they didn't themselves call Reid a liar. They quoted someone who did say this, and they can prove that their source did say this, so their report is true.

Sometimes, they quote an anonymous source, and if that source proves not to be right, they still avail themselves of the defense that the source did actually say that, so their report was true.

It helps that libel law provides some protection when you write about a public figure. They can only sue for libel if they can demonstrate "actual malice," which in the wonderfully precise yet idiosyncratic world of legal parlance means "a reckless disregard for the truth."

Now, journalists are often derided for adopting a "he said, she said" approach to controversies, rather than trying to determine what is actually true, but the reason for this is that they can prove what people have said. It's much harder to prove what is actually true.

But doing so is the power fact-checkers have arrogated to themselves. The need seems obvious, because in a world where journalism has abandoned the empirical  approach and gone for "balance" instead, the system rewards persistent liars.

But calling someone a liar is a heavy responsibility, and anyone who wishes to be the arbiter of such a matter must, one would think, have thought long and hard about what truth is, and what constitutes a lie.

I'm not sure our fact checkers have done this. In some cases, we find that they have simply not done their research, as we explored in this post and this post.

In some cases, fact checkers have rushed to judgment with results that make them look quite foolish. Follow that link, and you'll find this in the Huffington Post article:

So, I am left to speculate how this sausage got made in the first place. Let's note that in the original post, Politifact took pains to track down the relevant data that underpinned the claim. For the bulk of the post, they seem authentically concerned with that data. And, on that score, we have this ruling: "Obama is correct on both counts when using private-sector job numbers." What Politifact seems to object to, literally, is that Obama included this statistic in the State Of The Union at all. That's where we get the second, more costly part of the ruling: "But he went too far when he implicitly credited his administration policies."

Here's where we fall in a strange hole. As critics of this post point out, Obama explicitly credited "businesses" for this job growth. But subjectively speaking, by including it in the State Of The Union, it was, indeed, implied that the Obama administration had something to do with it.
 Emphasis added.

Of course, at the time, Republicans had begun to argue that President Obama's policies had made the recession worse. Politifact chose to rule that in trying to defend himself from this charge, the president said something that was "half true," even after conceding that what he said was "correct."

In both the Obama and Reid cases, fact checkers have taken on the task of saying what is appropriate to say, rather than what is true. A Bain investor may have told Reid exactly what Reid claims he said. We have no way of knowing that, but repeating such an unsubstantiated claim seems irresponsible. It seems unlikely the claim was true, but then, if a journalist reports that Richard Nixon said "I am not a crook," do we then decide the reporter is a liar because it turns out Nixon was a crook?

It seems to me that the problem is that the fact-checkers have boxed themselves in. They claim to do nothing but check the facts, yet they wish to decide what is appropriate to say in the public sphere beyond what is simply true or false. A little humility might be in order, or perhaps a new tool. What if, instead of deciding that they can only say if a thing is true or false, they might examine their consciences and decide that there is another category they need. a new category. Perhaps four jumping frogs instead of four Pinocchios for a story where the truth seems unlikely, but the checker is unable to know for certain.

Here's the conclusion to Kessler's piece on Reid:

We use a reasonable person standard here. Without seeing Romney’s taxes, we cannot definitively prove Reid  incorrect. But tax experts say his claim is highly improbable. Reid also has made no effort to explain why his unnamed source would be credible. So, in the absence of more information, it appears he has no basis to make his incendiary claim.

 Moreover, Reid holds a position of great authority in the U.S. Congress.  He should hold himself to a high standard of accuracy when making claims about political opponents.

There are a couple problems here. First, seeing Romney's taxes will tell us whether Reid's source was correct, not whether Reid accurately quoted his source, which is the test that journalism applies to itself (remember the New York Times' justifications for the misleading Judith Miller stories that helped steer this country into the Iraq war?) Second, Reid has said why his source should be considered credible: The source is claimed to be a Romney business associate. Whether Reid has a "basis for making his incendiary claim" is precisely what we do not know.

The last paragraph is the tip-off. Kessler is holding Reid to a higher standard they he would hold, for example, Glenn Kessler. He has defined as a lie a thing that he cannot know is a lie, because Reid is a politician, and therefore should be expected to always hold himself to a higher standard of accuracy than ordinary citizens. Read that again, if you can stop laughing.

This is highly ironic, given that Reid's statement relates to Mitt Romney, who has set an new standard for political mendacity.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Building Meerkat, a very small catboat, part 5

by John MacBeath Watkins

Here's the current state of the boat. I've sealed the inside of the boat with epoxy thinned with denatured alcohol, and the deck beams are ready for the aft deck. The access plate for the lazarette won't be permanently installed until the inside of the boat is painted.

More posts on this topic:

Friday, August 3, 2012

As soon as I can find the right thousand women...

by John MacBeath Watkins

 Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy:

"I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,' and I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to try to redefine what marriage is about," Cathy said in that interview, which can be heard here

The Bible:

1 Kings 11

New International Version (NIV)
11 King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love. He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. 4
 So, while the obvious interpretation of Mr. Cathy's words (let me guess, Mr. Cathy, you were made fun of in middle school for your name, and had to make it really clear you were a hetro boy) is that he's against gay marriage, the fact is that gay marriage hardly gets a mention in the Bible. Polygamy, however, is mentioned all the time. So if we're not to prideful and arrogant, we'd best stop trying to redefine marriage.

So I won't be marrying a man. As soon as I can find the right thousand women to settle down with, I'm going to do what the bible tells me to.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Building Meerkat, the saga continues

by John MacBeath Watkins

 There was a nice breeze blowing off the water, so I figured this was a good day to use up the last of my Smith's clear penetrating epoxy sealer (horrible, smelly stuff). There was just enough for the outside of the boat, so the inside will be sealed with something different, probably from this thread:

Today, I built and dry-fitted my mast step. I have a nasty habit of not drawing these design elements up, just thinking them through and building them, which usually works fine, but I think I'll wait until tomorrow to go the final step and glue it together and install it.

The boat is much deeper than the El Toro I got the rig out of, so the bottom of the mast step sort of hangs up there in the air. Well, I've built a drain in it, and with it up high like that, it's bound to drain well, so no rot, right?

The step will snuggle up against that bulkhead with no gap between the pine sides and the cross piece. I'll put a plank across the top and use an edge router to make the hole in it for the mast, then put a little molding around it. The hull seems quite stiff now, even without the decks on.

More posts on this topic:

Our Reptilian Overlords, Romney Edition: Eat More Eggs!

by John MacBeath Watkins

Sometimes, the mask slips...

...and sometimes, the mask is missing entirely.
All right. I promised not to tell anyone this, so don't repeat it, okay? Mitt Romney is not Mexican, whatever rumors you may have heard, although he is an alien. He doesn't let the press get too close, because they might see through the makeup.

So, we're all agreed to keep this a secret just between us, right? Above is a picture of him before he's done his morning makeup (the picture is from this site):

Now, there's nothing you can do about this in the normal course of the political process. The fix is in, it was all negotiated on the moon -- that's what the NASA program was really about, setting up a meeting with the aliens who wanted to wipe us out over the "alien autopsy" (it was really vivisection) at Roswell.

Our Reptilian Overlords now rule us through the Trilateral Commission, the U.N., and the Bohemian Grove participants, and they have been very clever about concealing this by convincing people that only right-wing nuts believe it.

They have been very upset about Barack Obama, who is human, being elected president, and have done everything they can to convince people he is not One of Us, because having an actual human being as president is a disaster for them. John McCain was supposed to win, of course, and continue the Reptilian rule started under Ronald Reagan (that "chicken neck" thing he had wasn't really from a chicken, it was a failed effort to hide the fact that he was a reptile.) You may have noticed that at about that time, THEY started trying to get us to stop eating eggs. And who reproduces with eggs, I ask you? Reptiles!

Now, it is important that we don't tip off Our Reptilian Overlords that we know about this. That's why I've infiltrated this unassuming book blog to recruit an elite corps of incorruptible readers whose insane devotion to outmoded means of communication demonstrates that they cannot be turned from the Cause by things like reason or practicality.

Only in secret enclaves of anachronistic anarchists can we begin to form the core of a corps of compact OED-weilding maniacs who will someday take the earth back from the evil Reptilian Overlords. We will start by disrupting their reproductive cycle by eating more eggs.

Are you with me, friends? Mammals uber alles!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

"I never cared about being rich, but no one told me the alternative was to be poor."

by John MacBeath Watkins

I previously wrote, in this post, about the stagnation in male incomes and its consequences for the politics of resentment. I must now admit that I was wrong, in that I greatly understated the case.

Part of the problem is that the reduced bargaining power of male workers has resulted not just in lower wage increases, but also in them being less employable. From Wonkblog, we have this chart, based on the research of Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney of the Hamilton Project:

The change in employability is greatest among high school dropouts:

As Wonkblog's Dylan Matthews notes:

High school dropouts’ earnings have fallen 66 percent since 1969, and people with some college – the median level of education in the US – have seen earnings fall by a third.
Part of this is reduced bargaining power, part of it is the redistribution of wealth toward the top. When you see the politics of resentment in the public sphere, keep in mind that the grievances are real. The people suffering this decline in living standards may not find the right targets for their ire, but when I ride in a blue-collar friend's truck and he's got some angry right-wing ranter on the radio, I understand that there's a visceral feeling those ranters exploit.

It's not ignorance or bigotry that sparks their anger, it's a real change in the place most men have in the world. It affects marriage rates, the ability to pay for things like medical care, and a whole host of other things. One friend told me that "I never cared about being rich, but no one told me the alternative was to be poor."

How do we solve the problem? A good start would be to stop giving away the store to life's most fortunate few, the high earners, through the tax code. Germany, for example, has a top individual income tax rate of 45%, and we're constantly being told how fiscally virtuous and productive they are. When a man with Mitt Romney's wealth can pay something like 14% on his income taxes, something is very wrong.

We also need to make our economy more productive, by investing in infrastructure, and we need to find ways to build that stuff more efficiently. The age of our public infrastructure has been increasing, as Republicans insist on lowering taxes and Democrats devote their energy to defending transfer payments.

These are simple, logical steps to deal with the problem. Unfortunately, politics are neither simple nor logical.