Thursday, December 31, 2020

Guv'mint Gotta Guv'mint

Sometimes people ask me why I don't want the government to help people, with the insinuation being that I don't want people to get help. That's not it at all.

It's just that it's almost impossible for governments to get it right when they try. Back during the beginning of the pandemic, when we were worried about shortages of ethanol-based hand sanitizer, several distilleries switched some of their production lines to making it. After all, they know how to work with ethanol.

But because of new regulations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the distilleries that made the santizer became "monograph drug facilities" that made an over-the-counter medical product. To do that, the FDA requires a license, and to receive a license, the FDA would like distilleries to do a little favor for them: Write them checks.

The craft distilleries that switched their production lines managed to use their facilities to help reduce potential shortages and keep their workers employed when other government regulations forced them to shut down much of their more lucrative business activities like tasting rooms.

We often focus on elected officials as the source of many of our problems, and when we hear a self-serving primadonna like Missouri's Josh Hawley talk about how he will not vote to certify the results of Electoral College balloting when Congress is sworn in January 6 it's hard to believe they are not the biggest factor in government dysfunction. Term limits are suggested as the curative for this particular ill and maybe they would do some good. It would be nice to have something that automatically prevents Hawaii voters from making Mazie Hirono the nation's problem instead of just theirs.

But something like the FDA assessing distilleries facing economic hardship with licensing costs to allow them to be able to pitch in and help doesn't come from elected officials. It comes from un-elected government workers who have no term limits. No legislator proposed the fees. No Representative argued for them. No Senator approved them. And as idiotic as the elected personnel we hire to run our government may be, they frequently find themselves without a candle to hold when compared to the un-elected personnel somebody else hired.

Sometimes in football games a runner out of the backfield will lose yardage because he runs into his own offensive line. The linemen are trying to help but wound up destroying the play they were meant to make happen. Poor people have enough problems without playing the running back in that scenario to the federal government's offensive line.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Something's Missing

This video shows the amazing work of the Boston Dynamics people in programming their robots to dance -- pretty darn well, in fact -- to the Contours' "Do You Love Me (Now That I Can Dance)?"

Of course, the robots have no idea what it means to take the floor to that song with a cute girl and sing along with the chorus and mean it and then get to follow it up with a slow song, so I think human beings are still way in the lead.

Monday, December 28, 2020

So It Begins

On this day 20 years ago, an unknown Midwestern town began its days of terror as the first Snow Goon lurched to life. 

Friday, December 25, 2020

The Queen's Speech

Her Majesty is not, of course, my head of state nor am I her subject; our forebears settled that question more than 240 years ago. But I still appreciate her public addresses to her nation, of which she has made an uncharacteristic three so far this year. The third comes as a Christmas message.

I don't know whether it's the accent, the no-nonsense demeanor, her slight resemblance to my grandmother, the fact that she witnessed so many of the 20th century's major events firsthand or some other quality, but I greatly enjoy hearing the monarch speak. Certainly much more than I have enjoyed hearing just about any U.S. head of state speak over the last quarter-century. In my lifetime, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have been the two presidents whose best speeches came as much from their own abilities as from the texts prepared for them.

George W. Bush's best moments were his off-the-cuff remarks and gestures, like in the rubble of the flattened World Trade Center towers or in throwing out the first pitch of the world series. Lyndon Johnson's best work was behind the scenes, not behind a podium. Barack Obama had one good speech in 2004 and he's been giving it ever since. And no one would suggest that Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter or the elder George Bush could have done as well as the Queen in delivering this address to her people in a very challenging Christmas season.

How will President Biden's Christmas oratory compare with the Queen's? Well, we'll have a good chance to compare next year at Christmas when he delivers this speech.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020


Physicist Sabine Hossenfelder is a German professor who produces videos explaining scientific concepts. Although Dr. Hossenfelder is a native German the videos are in English, as is her blog.

As we all know from movies, a German accent is indispensable for a scientist in order to sound smart (unless the scientist is a Nazi, in which case it is essential for sounding evil as well as smart). So in her most recent entry linked above, Dr. Hossenfelder offers lessons on how to speak like Albert Einstein in order that the average person may sound properly intelligent when discussing some topic of physics.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Civilization Advances

Again some unsung genius harnesses the wonders of modern science for the betterment of humanity.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Would You Like to Try Again?

This article is a couple of years old but still worth scratching your head over. Slate magazine assembled a panel of voters who ranged from writers to musicians to nominate the songs they thought would be added to the so-called Great American Songbook in the coming years.

The "Songbook" concept is pretty malleable -- it's not an actual book but instead a more or less widely accepted canon of jazz and pop music standards frequently covered and reinterpreted by vocalists. So it could pretty easily accumulate new songs even though there's no set criteria for inclusion. Some general characteristics include relatively more complex lyrics and a kind of flexible character that can be adapted by a wide range of singers and stir a wide range of emotions.

So the Slate panel nominated its own candidates and the article at the link gives the top 30. It's a pretty dumb article and not only because of some of the songs -- which we'll get to in a minute. Whoever wrote the intro rightly pointed out that the Songbook acquires new tunes according to no set formula. But then the writer whiffed by calling Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" "a commercial disappointment from a critically derided band." Journey may have been critically derided during its late 70s and early 80s heyday but "Believin'" hit #9 in the Billboard Hot 100 and sold a million copies. The article hadn't been published for very long before someone -- probably someone old enough to listen to the radio in 1981 -- engineered a correction that suggested "Believin'" was a commercial disappointment compared to the other singles from the album. But considering that "Stone in Love" didn't chart and "Still they Ride" barely cracked the top 20, some more correction is in order.

In any event, when we get to the songs themselves we have to first confront the question, "Wha," as in, "What were you people thinking?"

Included on the list are several rap and hip-hop tunes -- I'm a big fan of some old-school rap, in which clever rhymes and even cleverer wordplay elevate a rapper and his or her tune above the wannabes and competitors. But the panelists, exploring mostly music from the last 25 years or so, include songs with a blizzard of unrhymed free-form sexual boasting and FCC non-compliant verbiage unlikely to be covered on any wide basis.

A few suggestions make sense, like Idina Menzel's Frozen soundtrack smash "Let It Go," but for every one that does is another that makes none. Like Liz Phair's "**** and Run," in which the singer laments awakening next to yet another in a long string of one-night stands instead of being in a relationship. I'm no professional music critic or writer who can make Slate's list, but I think one pretty strong indicator a song won't make the Great American Songbook is that you can't sing it in front of Grandma.

It's hard to say what exactly the panelists thought made their suggestions a good fit for the Songbook concept and maybe that's the problem, that they didn't really know themselves. Either way the idea that someone is going to karaoke or re-record a version of Eminem's "Lose Yourself" in, say, 2065, means these suggestions may be filed and forgotten.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Eureka! Uh-Oh...

One of the problems astronomers and cosmologists have is figuring out how far away things are.

Not things in our solar system or things nearby -- things far away. Stars and such are light sources and ordinarily we figure a brighter light is closer to us, and vice versa. But stars vary in brightness. So something that looks very dim to us might actually be very bright but far away. Or a big cloud of whatever might be between us and it, so we see it as though we were looking through sunglasses -- only we have no idea how much light the sunglasses block.

We determine how far away closer objects are by "parallax." This describes how something appears to shift position if we look at it from one point and then move to another point and look at it again. Measure the apparent change, do some math and voila! Distance measured. Again, objects far away in space have almost no noticeable shift for about as far apart as we can distance ourselves on earth, so astronomers look at them once and then again six months later. This gives them an observational base as wide as the Earth's orbit around the sun, which is about as wide as we can manage.

The European Space Agency satellite Gaia has observed thousands of parallaxes over the past years from its orbit a million miles out from Earth, providing data for some of the most precise measurements possible. We know better than ever before how far apart things are, which makes astronomers very happy. If we know a certain kind of star is exactly so far from us and we know what it looks like, then when we find that same kind of star somewhere else we can compare brightnesses and compute a distance for the new star as well. And by "we" of course I mean astronomers, since my brain got fried several algorithms back.

This is great news for astronomers and has them quite pleased. Until it doesn't, as Natalie Wolchover writes at Quanta Magazine. Because one of the things the more precise distances tell us is that the universe's rate of expansion is faster than we thought it was, without offering any explanation as to why that might be. In other words, by answering one question scientists have posed at least one new one. Which is OK by them because they like that sort of thing -- especially when the new question apparently has no ready answer. If we figure everything out, after all, then it won't be long before boredom sets in and we don't have much of an answer for that.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020


Colleges and universities are places of learning, where people go to acquire knowledge and sometimes to develop specific skills though training and education.

The people who provide this information are called, variously, professors, instructors, doctors, lecturers and so on. They share the characteristic of extended study within a field and the task of communicating some of that study to students who enroll in their classes. Outside their fields their knowledge is often no better or worse than any average person, even though some of them will claim that their expertise in, say, entomology (specifically butterflies) means their understanding of population theory merits the same deference to their policy ideas despite evidence to the contrary. In other words, colleges and universities employ as instructors people who are really smart and knowledgeable in one or two directions and more or less average in most other directions.

Outside the classroom, though, colleges and universities employ people who think that indoor balconies in a college dorm are a good idea, which would indicate that those people are dumb in every direction.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

What's Up? Doc?

As a person of conservative views on economics and politics who voted for "the other Jo" last month, Dr. Jill Biden's honorific is not the one in her family that bothers me. The "Mr. President" title soon to be assumed by her husband will, I believe, produce many more problems than will her legitimately-acquired academic title.

Joseph Epstein, in an editorial for the Wall Street Journal, disagrees with me at least so far as being unbothered by Dr. Biden's title, and since our modern media is fundamentally unserious this has become a thing and is well on its way to becoming a kerfluffle.

Mr. Epstein's inartfully-made point is that we use the title "Dr." a lot more often than we should. Honorary degrees as well as actual degrees granted after not particularly rigorous work provide people the opportunity to tack those two letters onto the front of their name and lend an air of authority not otherwise justified to their words and opinions. This is why we sometimes see Very Important Writings on some subject or another by a person identified as "Dr." given great weight by people even though they hold a doctorate in an entirely different field.

But because Mr. Epstein used Dr. Biden's title as the hook for his column, cue the hue and cry over his clear and rampant misogyny and sexism. I've no idea whether Mr. Epstein is a misogynist, sexist or rampant. I attended the university where he used to lecture but do not remember ever having taken a class he taught. Perhaps he intended to insult Dr. Biden. Perhaps he only intended to criticize academic title inflation and devaluation. If so, he should have been smarter about his tone because he offered plenty of red meat on which the silly-saurus beast of modern media culture might feast by addressing Dr. Biden in a manner more ribald than respectful.

Although I take sexism seriously (I'm against it) I do not take the dust-up seriously because the people huffing about don't take it seriously. No charges of sexism were leveled at Mother Jones writer Tim Murphy when he said that Michelle Bachmann was falsely calling herself a "Dr." based on her juris doctor degree. Folks who hold a JD rarely use that term and not every state bar association permits it but it is considered by and large legitimate if not advisable. The confusion of doctors with lawyers has happened before.

I'm not much at odds with disliking the over-use of the title "Dr." In the academic settings of the classroom or symposium it fits well. Outside them, I am happy to use the title if someone holding a Ph. D. or other form of doctoral degree requests it. I am also happy to think such a request pretentious. There are a lot of modern academic programs that have given their end-stage degrees "doctoral" statuses they do not really deserve. I can say this because I hold a degree that's been similarly inflated; my Masters in Divinity would have been a bachelor's degree until the early 1970s when a couple of bells and whistles were tacked on in order to raise it to the master status. The work load is today considered masters-level, but I don't know how many modern degrees can compare favorably with the work load of their counterparts from 50 years ago.

If this is all a little TL;DR for you, then I guess I could condense it into this: Mr. Epstein goofed by making his point in a less-than respectful manner but there's still an idea buried underneath the goofiness that could do with some consideration even if it's not all that important of a matter.

Besides, there's only one Doctor. The definite article, you might say.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Inferia Criteria?

A couple of years ago Mental Floss writer Rebecca Pahle created a list of the most annoying holiday songs ever, which was updated this past week. I'm not sure what the update was since the story doesn't identify it, but the notice is right there next to the date so I'm sure there's a change in there somewhere.

What there isn't are songs that really matter. I won't say Ms. Pahle is wrong about their annoyingness because I've heard of one or two and they are indeed annoying. But the bulk of them are completely foreign to me and it seems that to be annoying a Christmas song should have the potential to be heard. I've delved before into which Christmas season music I find annoying and why so there's no need to rehash that mess -- or bring "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" into my brain again.

But even if you disagree with me and find it to be a wonderful song, I think we'd probably both say that it's hard to be all that annoyed by Sean Banan's "Gott Nytt Jul" because I had literally never heard of it until reading Pahle's article. Seems like another reason to stick with hymns for Christmas.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Artificial Tunage

So the Spotify music streaming service is trying to develop a system in which an Artificial Intelligence algorithm will compose music with no human input whatsoever.

I suppose that the proper way to phrase the question is something like, "Why?" or "What do they want to accomplish?" or something equally measured and polite. And avoiding the comparison jokes that imply how a significant percentage of the pop music released today seems to have no human input whatsoever either. So I'll do both.

Nah, I can't. I'll ask the question in the way I think it is best phrased: "What the hell do you want to go and do that for?"

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Slice of History

Every now and again historians turn their skills onto matters worthwhile...

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Mach 1 -- And Beyond

There are many tributes online today to General (USAF ret.) Chuck Yeager, who passed away yesterday evening at his home at 97. Yeager's list of accomplishments merits all of the tributes, with perhaps his peak coming in 1947 when he became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound in level flight. An act he accomplished with broken ribs and a sawed-off broom handle in the cockpit to lever the door closed because he was too sore to do it with his arm.

The Tom Wolfe book The Right Stuff put his accomplishments on a bigger stage by acclaiming him as "the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff" (although Yeager disagreed about the value of the phrase in describing what makes a good pilot). The 1983 movie of the book, directed by Philip Kaufman, served as a springboard for even more interest in Yeager and his place in the development of supersonic flying and space flight, and he published a biography in 1985 called Yeager

Yeager developed a scholarship program at Marshall University, which is located in his home state of West Virginia. The Yeager Scholars program is the top academic scholarship offered by Marshall and is not limited to science and technology coursework but includes studies in the arts and mastery of a modern language. Students will also spend a summer at Oxford University as well as as other international studies. He began this in 1986, even though he had never had the chance to attend college himself. Students who complete the four-year program, which pays all tuition, fees and room and board, receive a medallion with a bust of Yeager and the phrase "Only the Best."

His piloting skills were undeniable, his combat record amazing -- although Yeager himself flew a propellor-driven P-51 Mustang he pointed out that the first time he saw one of Germany's Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighters he shot it down. Yes, he said, it wasn't very sporting because the jet was preparing to land and he surprised its pilot but it was still a jet and he still waxed it. His leadership was clearly excellent; he entered the United States Army Air Corps as a mechanic Private and retired as a Brigadier General. But his most lasting legacy will be the generations of young people who are given the chance, challenge and means to make a difference throughout the world because of the scholarship program at Marshall University. That's a pretty unbeatable record too.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Over (and Done) Hyped

At Looper, Ziah Grace offers a list of movies that studios hyped, sometimes quite strongly, which never wound up being made or released.

The list of movies hyped that should have never been made or released is somewhat longer.

Sunday, December 6, 2020


My distaste for sports announcer Joe Buck's work has been noted before. I'm pretty sure I now need to add Cris Collinsworth, who apparently does his color commentary on a pay-per-word basis.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Where Credit Is Due

I had thought about a post outlining the way that real scientific research, experimentation and the like had given us a vaccine for a new disease in less than a year, and pointing out how stupid stuff like "autonomous zones" and "Green New Deals" had absolutely nothing to do with that, but it turns out Dan McLaughlin at National Review already did.

He probably got paid for his, too.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

The Road Not Taken, Because the Web Design Was Ridiculous

Sometimes a post title gives away the joke. For those who think they have read many entries and have not yet been introduced to anything they might think of as funny, indulge me, because sometimes amusement is my intention even if not my execution.

In any event, this item at the New York Times is a list of the 25 greatest actors of the 21st century (so far). I didn't recognize the first one and thought I might be able to riff off of that and make fun of the way that I don't know who any of these people are. But I did know a couple of the next four or five and I quit after that because the weird way in which the photos and copy appeared as I scrolled wasn't worth the time spent in order to find out who Times writers Manhola Dargis and A.O. Scott think are the best actors of the first 20 years of the century.

And in any event the headline misleads; Dargis and Scott are considering the best actors on the big screen for the past couple of decades; stage and television actors apparently need not apply.