Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Clue Not Apparent

A couple I know are the union of a church musician and a doctor. When they had kids, they quite logically decided that the church musician would work part time and the doctor full-time, in order to get the best benefit of their combined financial and parenting resources. The church musician did not see the need to peg the earnings needle as the only concern.

Now, my walking around the pronouns will clue you in that the father and husband is the church musician and the mother and wife is the doctor. But every parental couple works the same numbers in making the decisions that are best for their families or help them meet their own personal desires, Very often, the mother decides to stay home during early childhood, or consider the job she wants based on how much freedom it provides her to be with her children, whether or not it offers maternity leave and how much, and so on. Choices like this have a heavy influence on what is called the "wage gap," where the earnings of men and women are compared and the wages paid to women found wanting. More realistic surveys, which control for those kinds of choices and other different career path decisions, show the gap to be narrower.

Senator Kamala Harris, who wants to be the Democratic nominee for president, recently proposed a policy that would require companies to obtain an equal pay certification showing they pay their male and female workers the same, or demonstrate that factors such as experience and performance have caused the gap. Companies which didn't hit that mark or properly document the acceptable reasons for not hitting it would have to pay fines of 1 percent of their daily profits for every day they failed to do so. It's hard to tell from the proposal if the fines would apply to companies which paid female workers more than male workers -- probably a rare happenstance but certainly possible.

There's just one problem. Not with the idea of equal pay for equal work, that's only fair. And not with Sen. Harris's plan, which has far more than one problem. And not with the irony that Senator Harris, as a member of one of the two houses of the legislative branch of the government, could introduce legislation today that could create the certification regime she wants to see happen.

No, this problem is that the men who work for Sen. Harris's legislative and campaign offices make, on average, six percent more than the women. Obvious, Sen. Harris's candidacy can't be supported.

Because of hypocrisy? No, of course not. Every human being manages to display a little hypocrisy, and if hypocrisy by itself would keep you from voting for someone then the first Tuesday in November is just another day for you.

No, it's because of the dumb. Apparently neither Sen. Harris nor anyone in her office, in the leadup to this rollout, thought to take a look at their own pay book to see if they could meet the standard they were calling for. If they had, it might have even helped her push her cause: "Good intentions aren't enough," she might say. "Even when you know equal pay is important, you have to keep a close eye on things or they could get out of balance." She could close with the usual, "I'm Kamala Harris, and I approved this message," but then add in another shot of her surrounded by some female campaign staff. "And if you were thinking of giving to my campaign, you might put a couple of extra dollars in the envelope. Some of my employees just got a raise."

Or some other method of handling the matter -- that's an issue better left to wiser political minds than mine, of which there are many. What's disqualifyingly dumb is to never ask, "Hey, how do our salaries measure up on this?" What's flat-out stupid is to think no one else will ask either, including conservative-leaning news outlets who've done it before.

There's no way I'll be voting for President Trump in November of 2020. Although I'm not unhappy with some of his results, he remains a man of unfit character for the office. I'm currently registered as an independent, but in my state my former party allows independents to vote in its primaries. If for some reason Sen. Harris looks strong by the time our primary elections roll around, I'll definitely take advantage of that opportunity and vote for someone else. If I want a president who overlooks the most basic facts about his or her own policy proposals and isn't smart enough to game out the most obvious responses to them, then I'll just stay home because I'm already watching that show.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Potentially Lethal

The sci-fi suspense show Stranger Things, set in the middle of the 1980s, has drawn a lot of praise for its well-handled cultural mileu. In its upcoming season, it will take on one of the most potentially dangerous challenges yet -- it will introduce "New Coke" to the story.

In 1985, the Coca-Cola company tweaked its recipe to produce what it called a "sweeter and smoother" drink. They were immediately denounced and the "New Coke" roundly rejected; in less than 80 days the old formula was returned to production as Coca-Cola Classic (Peter Jennings actually broke into an episode of General Hospital with a news bulletin announcing it). New Coke became "Coke II" in 1992 and was discontinued ten years later.

The company is making a half-million cans of the product, complete with 1985 labeling, in connection with its use on Stranger Things. So the question now is: Will the popularity and success of Stranger Things bring a revival of "New Coke?" Or will the disaster of New Coke wreck Stranger Things? There's no way to know for certain, but I hope the show's young stars socked those salaries away in a college fund.

Because the end will come swiftly.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Fighting Words

One of the more common things said about military strategy is that military leaders all too often plan to fight the last war, and only wake up to a new reality when it's either too late or almost too late. Former 82nd Airborne paratrooper and private military contractor Sean McFate, now a professor at Georgetown and espionage thriller author, draws on all of his experiences and studies in outlining how 21st century warfare will differ from 20th -- and how ill-prepared the United States is to fight it -- in The New Rules of War.

McFate patterns his book on the ancient classic by Chinese military genius and philosopher Sun Tzu, The Art of War. He lists ten rules of how technology and time have changed the way that war is likely to be fought, moving away from the realities that have dominated military thinking since the Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War in 1648. Decisive outcomes, with clear victors and clear losers, will give way to achieved objectives and contained disorder. Massed armies and immense war machines will be overtaken by weaponized cyber tech and media. Rather than send national armies into harm's way, private military contractors will be hired to press the fight and carry the burden. And some of their employers might be corporations and international agencies instead of nation states.

McFate writes clearly and directly, offering plain-language explanations of his premises, deductions and conclusions without getting into too much technical jargon. He evaluates the shortcomings of current military thinking and thinkers with enough zest that you could think he's replaying some actual conversations in which those thinkers didn't listen to different points of view, but his tone is overall that of a reporter advocate rather than polemicist. Some of his points seem self-evident in light of headlines while others are less convincing, but there's enough substance to New Rules to make listening to McFate's arguments well worth the time.
While we often speak of "World War II" as a unified conflict, historian Victor Davis Hanson points out that the battlefields around the world between 1939 and 1945 offered several very different war experiences. Different enough, he says in The Second World Wars, that it's more accurate to talk about them in the plural. Fighting in the North African desert was not the same as attacking Italy, which was not the same as the push south through France from Normandy, which differed from the aerial battle in the skies of Britain, which itself was nothing like the experience of the Marines attacking the Empire of Japan through the Pacific.

In fact, even the combatants weren't identical. U.S. forces were active in both European and Pacific theaters, as were the British, but French and Italian fighters were mostly at work on their respective sides in the Old World, and Russian forces were next to nonexistent outside Europe until the very end of the conflict. According to Hanson, it was the varied theaters of combat, combined with the more or less untouched manufacturing capacity of the United States, that made the Axis defeat almost a certainty from the time they drew the US into fighting.

Hanson's primary field of study is classical Greek and Roman history rather than the modern era, but he notes that several of the mistakes made during WWII fighting echoed those made in that classical era. While Axis forces could easily dominate the European continent, they lacked the ability to project their power any distance beyond those shores. Germany, for example, did not have a single aircraft carrier and thus completely lacked any capability to slow the American war manufacturing effort. And it was the manufacturing capacity of the Allies, Hanson points out, that ultimately defeated both Germany and Japan. When a plant in Michigan is turning out one B-24 every 63 minutes, that makes for a lot of airplanes to drop bombs -- too many for either enemy to stop, and far more than either enemy could produce.

This capacity, Hanson points out, was obvious to the Axis leaders and should have deterred them at least from trying to fight the US -- and probably should have made them leery about starting hostilities at all. Had they stopped with their initial gains, they might have had time to consolidate them enough to strengthen their hand for later fighting, but once they engaged forces beyond their ability to project power, the outcome was close to certain. And the tragedy, Hanson says, is that millions of people around the world, military and civilian alike, died in order to prove true an answer that should have already been seen.

Hanson offers great detail of how badly the Allied manufacturing capacity outstripped the Axis powers -- in some cases to an almost repetitive degree. But that fact in itself highlights the point he makes about the lopsidedness of the resources both sides brought to bear. He's published several books on classical history and has an easily understood authorial voice, communicating large amounts of information without jargon or fuzzy language. The Second World Wars does travel some familiar ground, but it does so from a very interesting and unexplored perspective, shedding new light into the arena.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Own Private Idaho

A weird thing was done once in Idaho. All of the state's public regulations were set up so they have to be officially renewed by a vote of the state legislature each year.

This year, the two houses of the state legislature had a bit of a tiff over some inner workings of that mechanism, and thus they did not reauthorize any of the state's regulatory code. Meaning that on July 1, 8,200 pages of state regulations will go bye-bye. The governor of Idaho can opt to keep some of them, but only as emergency regulations in force until the legislature re-convenes in 2020. He could technically opt to keep none of them or propose his own, but has indicated he doesn't plan on that drastic step.

Now we're just talking regulatory codes, not legal ones. If you decided to knock over a liquor store in Boise on July 2, you are just as likely to draw the attention of Idaho's law enforcement community as before. So what the governor plans is to get input from the state agency heads about which regulations they need to keep and which they don't. Rather than an accretion of sometimes outdated codes and rules, everyone can redesign their regulatory structure from the ground up.

It's likely that few legislatures would enact sunset codes for regulations today, especially if they were the ones who had to renew or reauthorize them. That's work, and every day spent making laws is a day not spent putting the arm on people for money or campaigning. It may indeed be hard work to learn enough about how state agencies operate to discern what kinds of rules they need to function, but that's part of the job of legislating. The presence of national media outlets in Washington, D.C., may allow federal lawmakers to shovel all of their authority onto the executive branch in order to carve out time to appear on cable news, but taint happnin in the Boise statehouse.

Friday, May 17, 2019


The object listed as M5, a nebula, in Charles Messier's catalog of stellar phenomena, was actually a globular cluster -- a very old, tightly packed clump of stars so close together that Messier's telescopes couldn't see the individual members.

You sort of wish that Messier had been able to see the different stars in M5, though, because he was bound to come up with a better name for such a magnificent site than the clumsy (and ugly) "globular cluster."

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Average and Not

Former mob enforcer and hitman Isaiah Coleridge is making a new life for himself in upstate New York. Free from the danger his former associates will want to pay him the traditional "severance package" of their business, he's used some of his shadier contacts to become and officially licensed private investigator and takes actual legitimate cases. Of course, he still knows -- and is known by -- members of the extended criminal outfit for whom he used to work, and he knows that one way to stay on their good side is to help them when they ask for favors. A local boss calls in one such marker when a low-level criminal turns up dead and decapitated by weapons that had been used on a previous victim. The similarities are enough that coincidence isn't enough to explain them, so Isaiah is called on to find out what does explain them. Isaiah's hunt will lead him into parts of his own past as well as the history of the area's underworld, and the journey may leave him without a future.

Black Mountain is Laird Barron's second outing with Isaiah, and his second large-scale work outside his usual horror genre. He doesn't have to spend as much time setting the stage and introducing cast members, allowing him to expand the story and exploration of what kind of man Isaiah is. The introspection offers some of the more interesting sections of the book, as Isaiah remembers how he learned some of the ins and outs of mayhem and murder for hire from an interesting mentor. Barron's given Isaiah the traditional gumshoe's wry self-regard, especially as he tries to figure out just what it is that made him decide not to do mayhem and murder anymore. The choice bemuses and even amuses him a little.

But since Mountain doesn't need to introduce the supporting cast it seems as though Barron really doesn't know what to do with them, offering them a few repeated cameos before shuffling them to the side. The actual mystery that drives the plot for the novel winds up branching out a few many times, leaving it tough to figure out what happened, what's happening as it's wrapping up and what the heck just happened. The loss of focus could be Barron finding his stride in the format and it's to be hoped he gets a handle on it, because Isaiah is an interesting character with a funny voice and intriguing story. Detective noir fiction is filled with knights that have some tarnish on their shining armor, but Isaiah offers the twist of one who's learning that there may be some shine under the coat of tarnish he's worn for years -- and his surprise at the path of discovery.
As John Sandford has moved Lucas Davenport solidly into the life of a United States Marshal, some of the "Prey" series featuring him have taken on similar characteristics as Lucas chases down a fugitive or fugitives and runs them to ground. That's not necessarily a formula rut for Sandford, who has shown an ability to add characters and atmosphere to the mix well enough to keep the action moving and make a good yarn.

But in Neon Prey, the 29th book in the series, nearly every gift Sandford has deployed to keep interest and to distinguish his chase novels deserts him as he presents a disconnected series of set pieces, needlessly gruesome violence and cruelty and a set of some of the most repugnant villains he's ever spilled onto a page -- with the most repugnant not even really getting the comeuppance the story merits. Each of several encounters between the Marshals and the criminals winds up inconclusive, it seems mostly because Sandford took a look at his page count and realized he needed to keep going in order to hit novel length.

One of Sandford's major strengths has been his willingness to have some of Davenport's criminal antagonists be, for want of a better word, stupid. Often lowlifes elevated to a stage far past their station by pure dumb bad luck, they stay steps ahead of their pursuit not through any innate intelligence or skill -- just luck. And Sandford has usually spent the time with his antagonists to show how dumb they are. Even if they have backstory that might make them sympathetic, we can see how they've freely made the wrong choice time and time again in pursuit of what seems to be the shortcut to the good life.

Time spent with this particular gang, though, reminds me more of a quote I can't find now, by a former Gawker staffer ruminating about his work. It was something about how their whole method of operating was to stick their hands down into the worst muck they could find, lift it up in front of people and saying, "Look at this!" Nearly every interlude with the bad guys of Neon Prey felt like that, now and then with the added yechh of Sandford attempting to be funny with them.

It's tempting to wish that Neon Prey had been an e-book or Kindle format only, so that it could be recalled and all traces of its existence erased. But that might let Sandford off the hook when fans said, "Hope you try harder next time," so I guess I'll use my Infinity Gauntlet snap for something else.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Wrong, But That's Alright

Writing at Backreaction, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder points out an important feature of the discipline called "quantum mechanics." It is, she says, wrong.

Given that Dr. Hossenfelder is a theoretical physicist, this could seem counterproductive to her work. But as she explains, what ails quantum mechanics ails every scientific worldview so far created by human beings. Classical Newtonian mechanics, for example, is "wrong" because it does not correctly describe the behavior of very very small or very very fast objects. But if you decide you want to become a champion at billiards, immersing yourself in Newtonian physics would be a good step to take.

Quantum mechanics, Dr. Hossenfelder says, assigns quantum properties to the particles that make up the atoms that make up things. "Quantum properties" in this case means the attributes that are held by matter's most basic building blocks, such as (in some cases) being both and neither a wave nor a particle until a measurement is taken -- and then becoming either a wave or a particle depending on what is being measured for.

But the interactions between quantum particles also have quantum properties, and the realm of science that tries to probe and explain this phenomenon is called "quantum field theory." It's necessary because basic old quantum mechanics doesn't involve the extra level of weirdness added when the particle interactions come into play. Like Newtonian physics can't explain the very small and very fast, quantum mechanics can't explain what happens when this "second quantization" occurs.

It's sort of a matter of frames of reference, although those are my words rather than Dr. Hossenfelder's. Within the frame of reference of everyday activity and normal-sized objects, Newton's your guy. As mentioned before, the very small and very fast require a call to the bullpen for Einstein. But to account for the strangeness added when the interactions between the very very small are considered, you have to bring in Paul Dirac and company.

Even though it's wrong, there are a lot of occasions when quantum mechanics proves very useful for explaining some of the things going on in the universe. Dr. Hossenfelder paraphrases a statistician named George Box, who said, "All models are wrong, but some are useful." Wisdom, it would seem, would come in knowing which models are useful in which situations, and when they might need to be laid aside for others.