Playground Rhetoric, Dangerous Precedents

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Andrew Napolitano and George Will together show just how intellectually lazy our President is. Will likens him to an adolescent, aptly summarizing and illustrating with examples four pillars of his oratorical approach:

  • The invocation of straw men,
  • The proclamation that any given debate is already "settled" and "over",
  • The declaration that there is nothing to discuss because everything is going well, and
  • The assertion that there can be no intelligent or honorable disagreement with him.
Will is astute, but even he misses one. Napolitano finds it for us, though:
  • My reasons are a secret.
To be clear, the President is not defending the legitimacy of witholding from America's enemies of information that they could use to harm her citizens. Rather, President Obama is claiming that the legal reasoning for something he is doing against the letter of the Constitution is a state secret. That "something" is killing American citizens without due process of law. Napolitano elaborates:
Welcome to the strange new world of Barack Obama's war on terror, in which there are no declarations of war against countries that foment or harbor enemy activities, as the Constitution authorizes, and in which the president claims the powers of a king by killing whomever he wishes under a rationale that his lawyers wrote for him and that he has desperately tried to keep secret.

The Obama administration is probably right to fear the revelation of this so-called legal way to kill. The appellate court decision is a profound and sweeping rejection of the Obama administration's passion for hiding behind a veil of secrecy...
This does not itself prove that Ayn Rand was correct to base her arguments in favor of individual rights, limited government, and capitalism on man's nature as a rational animal. Nevertheless, it is instructive to see this man's ignorance or contempt of our minds going hand-in glove with a complete disregard for our liberty and indeed our very lives. If we aren't entitled to our own lives, why trifle with explanations? if our consent isn't really important, why waste time arguing with us that could be spent further aggrandizing one's power?

It is a cultural low point that this country has twice elected a man who routinely shows us such blatant and limitless contempt for our intelligence.

-- CAV

Your Child's Mind Is Not Their Turf

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

An editorial in the New York Post warns of the "tyranny of the organic mommy mafia", and introduces a book by one Julie Gunlock titled, From Cupcakes to Chemicals: How the Culture of Alarmism Makes Us Afraid of Everything and How to Fight Back. That author calls this new "mafia", "an outgrowth of helicopter parenting" [link added], although I'm inclined to say that it's just a variant. And that cultural phenomenon is just a manifestation of the precautionary thinking that permeates modern culture.

Fortunately, since my wife and I haven't been in any one location for more than a year and a half with our kids, and they're too young to attend school or interact deeply with other kids, I haven't encountered more than a whiff of this so far. But I have whiffed, thanks to an old friend of ours who was also in Boston while we were there, and has a school-aged kid.
She once told us about the meddlesome parent of one of her daughter's classmates coming over and basically telling her that her daughter had to be friends with hers, as if the kids' actual wishes were irrelevant. Our friend politely, but firmly, told the other parent that her daughter was going to get to pick her own friends and she would be behind her choice. Upon telling us about this, she also was clear that this kind of behavior was not unusual coming from the other parents in her affluent suburb. Oh, boy!

I'm tempted to buy the book, but it is new enough to have only a handful of customer reviews on Amazon so far. (Both the highest-rated positive and negative reviews were rated helpful by only twelve readers -- and the negative review was both brain-dead and down-rated by five times as many people.) I react to meddling pretty much the way my friend does, and I am not easy prey for alarmist fads: My interest in the book is more in the vein of cultural activism. Now that there seems to be a backlash forming to precautionary thinking, how effective might it be? Does Julie Gunlock indeed know how to fight back -- or is she like too many other conservatives, with her heart in the right place and her wit quick in ludicrous situations, but unaware of the deeper problems that make such silliness even possible?

One thing is clear to me: Part of fighting back is making sure both that one's kids learn how to think for themselves and that they know not to confuse conformity -- neither with the passive herd nor those focused on riding that herd -- with objectivity.

-- CAV

Facts and Empathy

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Mitch Albom notes the following, of a black high school student whose video from a left-wing demonstration recently went viral:

[W]hen I told her many students write moving essays, overcome odds, have great extracurriculars (like her debate team position) and also don't get in to U-M -- despite higher grades and scores than hers -- she grew frustrated.

"I'm doing the best I can in this life," she said. "If it's not reflected in my academics, I don't know what else I need to do."


And with that, Brooke Kimbrough wasn't white or black: She was one of countless kids today who feel that without their first college choice, their future is doomed. I told her it's not. She can do great things attending Michigan State, Iowa, Western Michigan or Howard -- all fine universities that accepted her.
I found much to be indignant about in this episode, but see that Albom did not let that get the better of him as a writer. He got past that and saw the opportunity to reach a young mind, and perhaps many more like her. Polemics have their place, but they are hardly the only means of moral suasion.

-- CAV

Need a Breather?

Monday, April 21, 2014

Atlantic Cities describes a new business, Breather, that offers short-term bookings of office and meeting space. The founder realized the need for such a service after a large amount of business travel caused him to become painfully aware of the shortcomings of such places as hotel lobbies and coffee shops.

As of late March, there were five Breather locations in Montreal and five in New York, with a rollout in San Francisco slated for May and another in Boston to follow later this year. Naturally, I wanted to test-drive a couple of the spaces, so I downloaded the free app -- the icon, a simple white circle with a friendly little green tree inside, is appropriately soothing -- and quickly booked a Breather near Penn Station, in midtown Manhattan. In the app, you can find Breather locations on a map, browse photos and room details, and reserve a space for anywhere from 30 minutes to an entire workday. Prices are accessible: $25 per hour in New York, $15 (Canadian) in Montreal.


Breather's Penn Station location is in a nondescript office building on Eighth Avenue. As I waited for the elevator, juggling hot coffee and my bags, I was grateful not to have to talk to anyone to check in. At the door, identified by the little green tree, I punched in the code that was sent to my phone, and entered. And that was it. Did I sigh with relief when I closed the door behind me, taking in the daylight streaming through the large window, the comfy couch, the elegant Edison-bulb chandelier, the worktable with its friendly jar of Tootsie Rolls? Absolutely.
The service is similar to the Lyft ride-sharing app, in that it helps people with extra capacity make money from people who need it for a short time:
Since one of the best uses of Breather is as on-the-fly meeting space, I visited with [founder Julien] Smith at one of his newest locations, in the Flatiron District. It was so new, in fact, that he hadn't been there yet. The company acquires its commercial spaces through a combination of rent and revenue sharing with local property owners. Because the spaces are small, ranging from 130 to 400 square feet, they aren't easily usable by traditional business tenants. As a result, they are often vacant. But these small, well-situated downtown spaces by definition make for attractive Breathers.
This is an idea whose time has come, particularly for business travelers, but Smith isn't limiting himself to that market. His first locations in his home town of Montreal taught him that there is a need -- not always from travelers -- for a similar service in smaller markets.

Some time ago, a commenter on a post about an Internet service I used to get a cheap car part shipped to my home noted the basic principle behind the usefulness of the Internet -- lowering transaction costs of information exchange. I never tire of seeing the new ways people keep inventing to take advantage of this economical way of facilitating trade.

-- CAV

P.S. Lyft just launched in St. Louis, and I saw my first mustachioed car that day, and before I heard about it in local media. Predictably, the government taxi monopoly will seek an injunction against it, rather than improve the way it does business.

4-19-14 Hodgepodge

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Evolving Science of Nutrition

A recent article in Wired about a study of the gut bacteria in an African tribe of hunter-gatherers well illustrates many of the difficulties of understanding certain aspects of the human diet.

That's not to say you should start stocking up on exotic roots, berries, and wild game hoping to create the perfect balance of beneficial bacteria for your belly. [Alyssa] Crittenden and her research partners warn against turning their research into a diet, even if the link between the Hadza's gut microbiome and their lower rates of gastrointetinal [sic] illness prove true. "Even if you try to emulate the diet of the Hadza, you're not living in the environment," explained Amanda Henry, a dietary ecologist from the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and a co-author of the study. "There are transfers from the soils, from the animals." In other words, it's not just what the Hadza eat that contribute to their remarkable gut flora, it's where and how they are eating it, too.
The article also illustrates the deeper point that knowledge is contextual.

Weekend Reading

"Just for fun, try this: Once a day, do something only for yourself." -- Michael Hurd, in "Embrace the Positive in Place of Victim-Think" at The Delaware Coast Press

"[H]ypnosis, as a therapist understands it, is nothing as conveyed on a Vegas stage or on TV -- where most people get their impressions of it." -- Michael Hurd, in "What Hypnosis Is -- and Is Not" at The Delaware Wave

"After her independence in 1991, the country had a choice: look west and embark on a course of more political and economic freedom, or remain entrenched in the Soviet-era mindset of political and economic corruption, cronyism, and favoritism." -- Anders Ingemarson, in "Ukraine Shares the Blame for Russia's Aggression" at The American Thinker

My Two Cents

In his column about embracing the positive, Michael Hurd notes in passing that many of the fellow residents of the tourist area he calls home eventually fall into a rut -- and end up not seeing or doing the things that drew them there  in the first place. When he hears this, he replies that they could choose to do so. This, and his suggestion that we should treat ourselves to something each day remind me of the term "staycation". It isn't just residents of areas most people associate with vacations who can be oblivious to the fun and interesting things right around the corner. The fact that I have had to move around a lot during two periods of my life, first while in the Navy and now during my wife's medical career, helped me see this.

Scissors, Anyone?

After I circulated this collection of photos of men with "crazier eyebrows than Andy Rooney's face fur" to my family, my mother asked whether any of their wives owned a pair of scissors.

-- CAV


Today: Added link and teaser quote for article by Anders Ingemarson.  

Friday Four

Friday, April 18, 2014

1. Kepler-186f, as scientists have recently announced, is the closest thing to another Earth found in the cosmos so far:

Kepler 186f is not a perfect replica, however. It is closer to its star -- a red dwarf that is smaller, cooler and fainter than our sun -- than the Earth is to its; its year, the time to complete one orbit, is 130 days, not 365. It is also at the outer edge of the habitable zone, receiving less warmth, so perhaps more of its surface would freeze.

"Perhaps it's more of an Earth cousin than an Earth twin," Dr. [Thomas] Barclay said.
At the end of the article is an interactive feature about the 950 exoplanets discovered so far by the Kepler mission.

2. Little Man has become quite the proficient crawler lately. He is now also an avid chaser, although he sometimes gets mixed up and crawls away when invited to play.

He is also, much to his father's delight and relief, an ardent napper. A day or so ago, I was washing bottles while Mrs. Van Horn and Pumpkin were out. Little Man crawled into the kitchen, as he often does, but continued over to me, and stood up, clinging to a pants leg for support. (Or was he tugging it?) When I picked him up, he yawned and put his head on my shoulder. He was out like a light in minutes.

3. Google has announced a modular smart phone, which Ars Technica says may be "the last one you'll need to buy":
... Ara, at least as a concept, is fantastic. Who wouldn't want the ability to some day print out new parts for their smartphone at home, expanding its life expectancy to six years and beyond? Google's willingness to try something so ambitious in public is energizing, particularly in the era of the get-rich-quick smartphone app. Project Ara's goals could transform the industry, give people greater control over their own devices, and free them from the annual cycles of obsolescence. It's flexible platform suitable for everyone, everywhere, from every walk of life.
It could also make it stupid-simple to take advantage of major hardware innovations, not to mention making certiain kinds of repairs  as painless as they should be. (I replaced my first smart phone after I determined that the cost through my carrier was about the same as repairing its power button. I was otherwise quite happy with it.)

It's about time.

4. The latest invasive insect species from South America is the "crazy ant".
... Tawny crazy ants and red imported fire ants share an evolutionary history since their native ranges overlap in parts of South America. Their arms race began there, with fire ants evolving venom to defend themselves and crazy ants evolving a detoxification mechanism as a counter-defense. Now the chemical warfare has been re-engaged here on a second continent, playing out across the Gulf Coast. And for a second time in the past century, a new invasive ant species is dominating and drastically transforming ecological communities.
The good news is that crazies beat the reds 93% of the time. The bad news is that crazy ants are attracted to electronics.

-- CAV

Electoral College Update

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Some time ago, I noted that Massachusetts had joined an effort to bypass the Electoral College. Dick Morris provides an update:

So far, nine states and D.C. have joined, casting 136 electoral votes, halfway to the 270 needed to put the compact into effect. The ratifying states are Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois, Hawaii, Washington, Massachusetts, Vermont, California and Rhode Island.

Both houses in New York have passed it, and it's on Gov. Andrew Cuomo's desk. And it has already passed one house in Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina and Oregon. These states, plus New York, represent 107 votes.

Combined with the others, that's 243 votes.
Morris notes that a group funded by George Soros is behind this effort and that Barack Obama carried all but two of these states. In my earlier posts, I elaborated on why this is a terrible idea, but Morris gives a few additional reasons I hadn't considered:
Under the electoral vote system, they figure why beat the drums to get a high turnout in New York City when the state will go Democratic anyway? But if it's the popular vote that matters, the big-city machines can do their thing -- with devastating impact.

And think of the chances for voter fraud! Right now, the biggest cities, the ones most firmly in Democratic control -- Washington, D.C., New York City, Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco -- are all solidly in blue states. Not only does this make it unnecessary to maximize turnouts there, but it also makes it unnecessary to promote double voting, fraudulent voting, and all the other tricks of the trade at which Democrats excel.
Morris correctly calls this an "end-run around the regular constitutional amending process" and notes that a simple majority of the states ratifying this arrangement (vice two-thirds of Congress and three quarters of the states) will be enough to put it into effect.

We are dangerously close to losing yet another of the checks on unlimited majority rule that our Founding Fathers wisely put into place.

-- CAV