Sunday, September 29, 2013

Why this is happening

New York Times: "Back then, Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel was a year from its debut, Andrew Breitbart was a lowly assistant at E! Online, and The Drudge Report was an obscure gossip and news digest sent by e-mail -- to the lucky few who had e-mail. But today, a fervent group of conservatives -- bloggers, pundits, activists and even members of Congress -- is harnessing the power of the Internet, determined to tell the story of the current budget showdown on its terms."

We've all complained about the media bubble that the wingers live in. Now here it is, in full display. They believe so strongly in the power of their own voices that they are sure Romney is going to win this time - sorry, I meant they are going to succeed in blaming Obama for the government shutdown.

Feynman said, "The first principle of science is not fooling yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool." That the Republican party is both anti-science and now finds itself in the position of believing its own hype is not coincidental.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

If we are going to have a debt ceiling and default crisis — with all of the havoc it may well entail — it may well be because Republican voters want such a crisis, even if it causes serious economic harm.

Among Republicans who believe not raising it would cause serious economic harm, a majority say don’t raise it by 53-32.

Washintong Post/ABC News poll
Reasons why this could be true, in order of rationality, starting with the plausible and ending with the completely insane:

1) The respondents don't think the harm will fall on them.

2) They think it will fall disproportionately on the people they don't like - aka poor, non-white, and female.

3) They think the damage will be blamed on Obama and thus win them the next presidential election.

4) They think the government will collapse and they can start over, like it's 1776 again.

5) They think the governments of the whole world will collapse and they can live out their "The Walking Dead" fantasy.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Why we can't have nice things

I kinda figured this out in my 30's. I remember it as the day I transitioned from young to old; when the idealistic fire of my youth was quenched by cold reality. I realized that you can't force people to be rational, you can only make irrationality expensive, but if they wanted to pay, the would.

I guess "you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink," sums it up pretty well, too, but it took me a while to figure out just exactly what that meant.

Now we have scientific proof: The most depressing discovery about the brain ever. You should read the whole article, but the take-away is this:

"[People] who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs."

I experienced this in a most dramatic way (about a decade ago) when arguing with a coworker about homosexuality. This person was a devout Christian, but he was also a top-flight engineer with math skills I can't even describe because they were so far advanced over mine. My argument was simply to demonstrate that homosexuality can be evolutionarily adaptive. I posed the following situation: suppose you can choose between raising 2 of your own children to adulthood, or 6 of your brother's children to adulthood. Which action puts more of your DNA into the next generation?

It's a simple math problem: 2 * 50% < 6 * 25%. Whether it fully defends the idea of homosexuality as natural or not is not the issue here; the issue is that this very intelligent and morally upright engineer could not do the math.

I don't mean would not; I mean could not, as in face screwed up and counting on fingers inability to produce the correct answer. He temporarily lost the ability to multiply fractions in order to defend his position.

People who said the economy was the most important issue to them, and who disapproved of Obama’s economic record, were shown a graph of nonfarm employment over the prior year – a rising line, adding about a million jobs.  They were asked whether the number of people with jobs had gone up, down or stayed about the same.  Many, looking straight at the graph, said down.

The simple fact is that facts don't matter. People only care about facts when they have to, and even then (as the history of martyrs and terrorists show) they don't always care.

The one good piece of news:

But if, before they were shown the graph, they were asked to write a few sentences about an experience that made them feel good about themselves, a significant number of them changed their minds about the economy.  If you spend a few minutes affirming your self-worth, you’re more likely to say that the number of jobs increased.

And this explains everything about American politics. Fox News has spent a generation pumping fear and shame into its audience, and they simply can't let go of it long enough to think straight. It's an old trick, of course (the Catholic Church has been doing it so long their patent rights expired 1,700 years ago), but it explains why civilization took so long to take hold. Rationality is not why we are well-fed and secure; rather, rationality is a product of being well-fed and secure.

The good news is as long as things get better, people will get smarter; the bad news is that once things start getting worse, just when we need people to be smarter, they'll get dumber.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


I wish I had written this (Fletch, remember when you wanted a good idea? This was it...). A cross between Magic: the Gathering and D&D, with a very 1980's vibe. It's cute, fun, funny, and even a little bit challenging. And it's free!

I spent $10 because the designers deserved to get paid. This game is everything Flash games promised to be (it's played entirely from a browser) but aren't (Cardhunters is a real game, not a simple pig-throwing exercise with a single dimension of freedom). For my ten bucks I got the 11 bonus missions, which means I can play the whole game for free. The only thing more money gets you is more loot faster, but the game is very well balanced. Just because an item is higher level and rarer doesn't mean you'll want to use it; and the difference between items is pretty small.

You play a D&D player, playing a D&D party, while Gary (and his older brother Melvin) entertain you with their differing ideas on the art of Dungeon-mastering. The whole thing is a pitch-perfect sendup of my D&D youth.

Card Hunters

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The winter of our discontent

The Australian elections are over, and the Liberals (that is, the conservative party) won a solid victory.

For me, it feels a lot like when Reagan swept the country, despite the fact that his positions were self-evidently nonsense, and that I personally didn't know anyone that voted for him.

In worse news, the Palmer United party won a seat. This party is the hand puppet of Clive Palmer, a billionaire mining magnate who apparently decided that looting the country under the current set of laws was inefficient, and so ran a slate of candidates in every district with the aim of simply buying the entire country on the cheap. That he even got one seat is bad, but I guess it could have been worse.

The fundamental problem was the same as it was back in Reagan's day: the Left is incompetent, corrupt, and feckless. Kevin Rudd won an election, was deposed by his own party, spent three years knifing people in the back until he got the top seat again just in time for the next election. Who seriously thought Australians would vote for that kind of in-fighting? Worse, given the way the parliamentary system works here, the only way to get rid of Rudd and the brain-trust that enabled this nonsense may be to wait until they die of old age.

All in all, it was a solid rejection of the politics of self-interest and power-mongering, in favor of the politics of business interests.

I should not despair; after all, even the Liberals are not suggesting undoing Australia's national health care system. They aren't abolishing the minimum wage. All they want is to cut taxes and spending, on the theory that giving businesses and rich people more money will lead to more jobs for the rest of us, and the other theory that private enterprise will provide for the public good better than public investment. What could go wrong?

If there is one thing I could import from the USA, it would be Barrack Obama. Or even Bill Clinton. Someone who not only said the right things (to be fair a lot of what Keven Rudd said made me smile), but was actually good at this whole politics thing.

Instead, we have at least three years of sitting still. There will be no gay marriage here, no drug rehabilitation, no action on climate change, no expansion of the public health into dental and ambulance coverage, no limit on the mine's profiteering, and no National Broadband. Things won't get any worse - I doubt Abbott can actually crash the economy or start a couple of wars like Bush did - but they won't get any better.

The real test comes later, when we see if the right-ward drift continues. I can only hope that by then America is well on the path to sanity, and Australia gets turned in the right direction again.