Concentrated comeuppance!

A lot of bad guys have been getting exposed lately. It won’t make a bit of difference, but it’s as if a few journalists are waking up to their job and deciding to do it, so I’ll take it.

  • Alex Pareene shreds Mitch McConnell. Sure, it’s an easy target to reveal that the manifestation of evil in Republican politics is pure evil. If you want to understand why Moscow Mitch is a special evil, though, this is a good and through place to start.

    McConnell has built a GOP machine that is as immune as it can be to the ballot box, because he is smart enough to know that Republicans cannot, as currently constituted, win fair elections often enough to retain power.
    But by choosing incredibly canny battles—his relentless attempts to first upend even the possibility of campaign finance regulation and enforcement, and then to pack the judiciary with right-wing ideologues—McConnell has enabled the conservative movement to dominate American politics long after its tenets are fully rejected by the majority of the electorate.

  • Maybe he is not as powerful, but Scott Adams is the worst blogger (I like that title because it means I don’t hold the record.) The article makes plain his weird contradictions: the popularity of Dilbert rests on the fact that both office drones and bosses like it — it simultaneously tells workers that their lives are miserable, but that you have to suck it up and obey anyway. His blog is a bizarre exercise in phrasing all of his predictions so that either way they turn out, he can claim he was right all along. And how can you be a champion of the working class while defending Trump? Answer: he doesn’t actually support the working class.

    It seems counterintuitive that Scott Adams, defender of the common office drone, would ally himself with a billionaire whose catchphrase is “you’re fired,” but there are strong parallels between the two. For one, they both make you dread reading the newspaper. Neither is willing to acknowledge the real causes of the American worker’s declining fortunes, choosing to pin it all on the idiosyncrasies of office culture or the existence of immigrants. Most importantly, Adams and Trump both offer the working class cheap, stupid, and forgettable entertainment that placates dissatisfaction for a moment before a swift return to late-capitalist dread. We deserve better.

  • Politico is an annoying online magazine, because while they’re generally on the side of the villains of the Right, every once in a while they publish a long piece tearing into the excesses of the far right. Like incredibly blatant evangelical charlatan Jerry Falwell Jr. Do you really want to know how corrupt, decadent, and greedy Falwell is? Then buckle up, because this is a long, jaw-dropping ride through all the perfidy. Tea is served.

    In interviews over the past eight months, they depicted how Falwell and his wife, Becki, consolidated power at Liberty University and how Falwell presides over a culture of self-dealing, directing university resources into projects and real estate deals in which his friends and family have stood to make personal financial gains. Among the previously unreported revelations are Falwell’s decision to hire his son Trey’s company to manage a shopping center owned by the university, Falwell’s advocacy for loans given by the university to his friends, and Falwell’s awarding university contracts to businesses owned by his friends.
    “We’re not a school; we’re a real estate hedge fund,” said a senior university official with inside knowledge of Liberty’s finances. “We’re not educating; we’re buying real estate every year and taking students’ money to do it.”

I know. McConnell, Adams, and Falwell will still have all their money and influence, but it’s nice to see someone spell out how wretched they all are now and again.

Bonus! Jacob Wohl has been charged with a felony. Maybe he’ll go to jail! Nah, rich white Republican fraudsters only get a little pat on the wrist.

How the repulsive have fallen

Poor Milo Yiannopoulos is struggling. He’s been whining on the few social media sites left to him that he’s not getting enough love money.

Tragic. Also revealing.

All he had was social capital acquired not by talent or knowledge or intelligence or wit, but by being an obnoxious provocateur. Take that away, and he’s got nothing. The entire foundation for his existence collapses.

I have this feeling that much of the internet is working this way, as a kind of pyramid scheme. You produce nothing, you have no discernable skills, but you recruit a massive downline on promises and illusions, you reap the benefits as long as you can, and eventually, your acolytes move on to the next big thing, or turn on you, and you’ve got nothing but a collection of pretty instagram pictures and an unsavory reputation. This is how religions (and atheist evangelists, sorry to say) work, gathering followers with noise and promises, and hoping no one discovers the hollow space where your brain should be.

A suggestion to everyone who aspires to social media fame and fortune: have a backup skill. If you don’t, salt away as much cash as you can at the height of your glory, because this too shall pass, and there will come a day when you cry on the internet that the money you feel entitled to isn’t flowing as it once did.

And you will look pathetic.

We can all do something

Yesterday was Morris’s Prairie Pioneer Days parade, one of those small town events where local people cruise slowly down main street to praise small town virtues, like, you know, royalty.

Or local businesses.

(The restaurant Mi Mexico had the best float, I think: gorgeous costumes, people dancing, great music. Mostly what we had was some guy in a pickup truck with a sign glued to the side.)

UMM was represented.

I had joined with some of our students who were marching to advertise a climate action event. This was their float.

I know, it was a little green wagon that they pulled down the street. We were surrounded by the local Chevy dealership, our regional Republican assholes (Jeff Backer and Torrey Westrom) and these guys:

It was kind of creepy, actually, that while we were waiting in the pre-parade lineup, these guys were sitting in their truck, staring at us, looking like they wanted to teach us a lesson or two. We ignored them, and just had a grand time going down the street handing out candy to kids and giving them flyers about our plans.

And what where those plans? I think a lot of young people are inspired by Greta Thunberg, who has said “Our house is on fire – let’s act like it.” They’re planning a Global Climate Strike, with our own implementation here, with a West Central MN Climate Strike. They want us to go on a general strike, just shutting down all that we can (especially classes) on 19-20 September.

I can do that. I will do that. Will you?

Do it for the youth.

Prophets of Doom vs. Scientists with a Plan

Jonathan Franzen is wildly incoherent. He’s written this terrible mess of a piece that veers between “We’re doomed, climate change is unstoppable, trying will bankrupt us” to “gosh, won’t it be great when civilization collapses and the survivors are living on love and peace?”, and it’s infuriatingly bad. All you need to know is that he explains his method for scrying the future.

As a non-scientist, I do my own kind of modelling. I run various future scenarios through my brain, apply the constraints of human psychology and political reality, take note of the relentless rise in global energy consumption (thus far, the carbon savings provided by renewable energy have been more than offset by consumer demand), and count the scenarios in which collective action averts catastrophe.

The editors at the New Yorker should have read that and realized, by his own admission, Franzen is a crank, and that publishing this crap would be an embarrassment, and they should have pulled the plug. Franzen, though, is a Famous Author, a fact that impresses the New Yorker unduly and leads to a failure of judgment.

I think I’ll get my information from real scientists who actually use data to arrive at their conclusions, like Michael Mann, who published this article, Doomsday scenarios are as harmful as climate change denial, two years ago.

The evidence that climate change is a serious challenge that we must tackle now is very clear. There is no need to overstate it, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness. Some seem to think that people need to be shocked and frightened to get them to engage with climate change. But research shows that the most motivating emotions are worry, interest and hope. Importantly, fear does not motivate, and appealing to it is often counter-productive as it tends to distance people from the problem, leading them to disengage, doubt and even dismiss it.

It is important to communicate both the threat and the opportunity in the climate challenge. Those paying attention are worried, and should be, but there are also reasons for hope. The active engagement of many cities, states and corporations, and the commitments of virtually every nation (minus one) is a very hopeful sign. The rapid movement in the global energy market towards cleaner options is another. Experts are laying out pathways to avoid disastrous levels of climate change and clearly expressing the urgency of action. There is still time to avoid the worst outcomes, if we act boldly now, not out of fear, but out of confidence that the future is largely in our hands.

There is a huge difference between “This is a huge problem, resign yourself to defeat” and “This is a huge problem, we’re going to have to work very hard to overcome it.” Who are you going to listen to, a competent and credentialed scientist in an appropriate field, or a crankypants author with weird ideas about underwear?

You know, the biggest change you can implement right now is to throw the science denialists out of political office. Get to work on that, then we can start implementing changes that would help.

Welp, looks like capitalism broke another scholar

It’s a tragedy, but increasingly common. Evgeny Morozov rages against the culture that fostered Epstein, Ito, and the association of science and money.

Is it so surprising, then, that when a colleague cautioned Ito against meeting Epstein – who used to list his interests as “science and pussy” – Ito described him as “really fascinating”? Brockman, for all his realism about low intellectual standards of the tech community, also couldn’t resist Epstein’s charms, describing him, in an email to me, as “extremely bright and interesting”.

If the “third culture” is so much more sophisticated than its predecessors, how come most of its card-carrying members – famed scientists-cum-brands, courtesy of the Brockman empire – got caught up in the Epstein mess? It’s not uncommon for intellectuals to serve as useful idiots to the rich and the powerful, but, under the “third culture”, this reads like a job requirement.

Are the costs of living with this culture – eg the prostitution of intellectual activity at “billionaire dinners”– worth it? And can we still trust what the leading intellectuals of the “third culture” actually have to say, given, also, what they have to sell?

The answers to these questions are self-evident. And yet, while it’s easy to attack the rotten apples such as Ito or Negroponte, a more radical transformative agenda should ask for more: close the Media Lab, disband the Ted Talks, refuse the money of tech billionaires, boycott agents like Brockman. Without such drastic changes, the powerful bullshit-industrial complex that is the “third culture” will continue unharmed, giving cover to the next Epstein.

It’s time to get radical, I agree. But shutting down the old avenues of support is pointless without alternatives. Science ought to be maintained by government support, and you ought to mistrust the bilge that relies on a billionaire’s largesse…especially when that billionaire doesn’t read about or care about science, except for the prestige it grants them. Of course, how do I explain to my university administration that I’m rejecting a million dollar grant because I think the donor is a parasite? (Note: Purely hypothetical. No million dollar offers are knocking at my door.) The people who benefit most from these cash prizes are the donors, who get to pretend to be contributors to science when all they’ve done is successfully undermined egalitarian mechanisms for promoting good science. Like these people:

One of Brockman’s persistent laments was that all the billionaire techies in his circle barely read any of the books published by his clients. Not surprisingly, his famed literary dinners – held during the Ted Conference, they allowed Epstein (who kept Brockman’s Edge Foundation on a retainer) to mingle with scientists and fellow billionaires – were mostly empty of serious content.

As Brockman himself put it after one such dinner in 2004, “last year we tried ‘The Science Dinner’. Everyone yawned. So this year, it’s back to the money-sex-power thing with ‘The Billionaires’ Dinner’.” Was “the money-sex-power thing” that very potent “new mode of intellectual discourse” promised by the “third culture”? If so, we’d rather pass.

Also…TED talks are terrible. One in a few hundred might be informative, but most are exercises in formulaic hype.

I sure am triggered and owned!

This is Laura Ingraham sucking on a plastic straw stuck in a piece of red meat imbedded with incandescent light bulbs. In order to own the libs.

I am rather surprised at the astounding success of our plan to get conservatives to do incredibly stupid, pointless things in public. Be sure to let them all know how much your feelings have been hurt by these performances! Maybe they’ll escalate. I sure am glad that no one told Laura that there are regulations about contamination of meat that we’d hate to see violated, and that libs think it’s a bad idea to smash those light bulbs and put broken glass in your cheerios.

It, Chapter Two reasons I hated it

The version of Stephen King’s It that came out last year wasn’t bad, and in some ways was better than the source material. The young cast was wonderful, I was impressed with the acting, and the monster was weird and creepy and memorable. It ended with these kids beating back the monster that was terrorizing the town, but not killing it, and they knew they’d have to return to finish the job in its next cycle, 27 years later. Chapter Two was therefore inevitable.

Now adults, the same people, played by older, different actors who are still pretty darned good, return to Derry, Maine to reprise their monster-killing efforts and finally finish It off.

It (the movie) is unwatchably bad. It (the monster) is going to be defeated (spoiler? It (the book) is 33 years old and there have been multiple versions of the thing on TV and movies) by…random geegaws and the Power of Belief, none of which makes any kind of logical sense — the whole thing is going to build to a nonsensical conclusion. Which means that the appeal of the movie cannot rely on the ending, or the satisfaction of seeing the plot come together. Which means the movie lives or dies on the quality of the storytelling. This movie dies a grisly death, I’m sorry to say. There were many flaws, but two gigantic ones that made it impossible for me to enjoy the movie.

1. It slimed me with sentimentality.

The primary characters were wise and good and kind, with little flaws of no consequence that they agonized over, just to show how important their self-improvement was. Their difficult childhoods and youthful tragedies did not change their inherent wonderfulness, but only gave them a glow of saintly martyrdom. King has always had this mawkish strain running through his books — it’s a significant tool in his bag of tricks for getting readers to identify with his heroes — but it is indulged to the max in It. Kids are always revered innocents in a Stephen King story, with great potential and power.

But never forget: King slaughters kids in horrible, detailed, bloody ways to keep his stories moving. The little angels get dismembered, disemboweled, and decapitated, because there is some warped element to King’s psychology that he, as an author, bravely exposes for his audience to weep over, but Jesus, man, I really don’t want to see that shit.

2. It killed its momentum with flashbacks.

Oh god, this was the worst. Remember, there was an It, Chapter One that told the story of the heroes’ childhoods…but that was last year. We can’t trust that the audience remembers anything from the prior movie! Therefore, everyone has to be reminded. The movie doesn’t do this with, for instance, a little prelude that recaps the first movie. Oh, no…throughout the movie, we’re going to be fed little fragments from the first for each of the characters, and then some, and they’re going to do it intermittently. There are 6 hero characters, one of whom dies before any action occurs, and they all get multiple flashbacks to tell their back story, even the dead one. There are others, like Henry, who was a villainous switch-blade wielding teen in the first, and is now in a mental institution — even he wins a couple of flashbacks, to remind us of his menacing presence. It was wasted because all he is in this movie is a jump scare who is readily dealt with.

The central action the story is simple. The characters from the previous movie gather in Derry; they separate to gather little mementoes of their childhood that will have magic powers in their encounter; they gather in the sewer to summon and do battle with Pennywise, the evil clown. That’s it. But we get non-stop, fragmentary flashbacks to remind us why this relic from their past has personal meaning to them, and other flashbacks to explain why their lives are damaged, and more flashbacks to reveal Pennywise’s wickedness, and it pads the whole thing out to a miserable 2 hours and 47 minutes. Unlike most horror movies where I might twitch at the jump scares, this one had me cringing at every sudden backflip into 1989.

Goddamn, it ended after their triumph on a flashback to sunny, summery Maine in 1989, with smiling kids on bicycles and a haze of heartwarming sentimentality over everything.

Hated it.

Them goofy city-folk and their weird ideas

It’s a bad day for the MIT Media Lab. Hot off the resignation of their corrupt leader, Business Insider breaks a bizarre story that sounds a bit like the Theranos story: a non-functional technology turns out to have been pumped up with fake data and even faker promises. It’s something called The Personal Food Computer, which was going to revolutionize agriculture. Or maybe just urban agriculture. Or maybe just impress city-boys (excuse me: “nerdfarmers”. That’s what they actually call them) who have never seen a farm.

It’s a plastic box with some widgets under control of a computer that watch temperature and pH and lighting and spritz a plant inside it with water and nutrients. Just think, no dirt, and a computer will make sure it gets watered if you forget, and at the end of a few weeks or months, you find food inside the box, maybe a sprig of basil or a tomato! This box, and your hypothetical tomato, will only cost you about $500 to build and take up a desktop in your apartment.

(I literally groaned at Harper’s naive babbling about genetics, I’m afraid.)

Am I alone in thinking this idea, even if it worked, was ridiculously stupid? I’m living in the Midwest, in the midst of farm country. When I drive to the big city of Minneapolis, I pass through about 150 miles where all I see on either side of me is corn and soybeans, each individual plant of negligible value, growing with negligible individual care (in aggregate, it’s expensive in time and labor), without computers tweaking each plant along. It’s what plants do. Farmers don’t have the time or money to nurse each 1m2 of cropland along with personal attention and a dedicated computer. I don’t understand the point of this gadget at all. My wife planted a little circular garden in our backyard, maybe 5 meters in diameter, and right now I’m buried in somewhere around 50kg of tomatoes.

This box is the most useless over-hyped technology ever. I wonder how much Jeffrey Epstein invested in it?

That’s assuming it worked. Surprise! It doesn’t!

The “personal food computer,” a device that MIT Media Lab senior researcher Caleb Harper presented as helping thousands of people across the globe grow custom, local food, simply doesn’t work, according to two employees and multiple internal documents that Business Insider viewed. One person asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.

They had to salt their demos with plants bought elsewhere. Even the one use I could imagine for them, as educational tools in schools, flopped.

In the Spring of 2017, Cerqueira was part of a pilot program that delivered three of Harper’s devices to local schools in the Boston area. Initially, the idea was for the students to put the devices together themselves. But Cerqueira said that didn’t work — the devices were too complex for the students to construct on their own.

“They weren’t able to build them,” Cerqueira said.

In response, Cirque’s team sent three MIT Media Lab staff to set up the computers for them. Of the three devices the staff members tried to setup, only one was able to grow plants, she said. That one stopped working after a few days, however.

When Cerqueira and her coworkers would visit the school, students would joke that the plants they were growing in plastic cups were growing better than the ones in the personal food computers, she said. The pilot ended shortly thereafter.

On another occasion, her team sent two dozen of the devices to classrooms across greater Boston as part of a curriculum being designed by one of MIT Media Lab’s education partners.

“It’s fair to say that of the 30-ish food computers we sent out, at most two grew a plant,” Cerqueira said.

I like that there plastic cup with dirt technology. I’ve done that. It works. Cheap, too. Maybe “nerdfarmers” should try investing in that.

MIT isn’t exactly basking in glory lately. It’s a shame.

Ito out!

As expected:

Forward email sent to provost, cc-ing President:
“After giving the matter a great deal of thought over the past several days and weeks, I think that it is best that I resign as Director of the Media Lab and as a Professor and employee of the Institute, effective immediately.”

I bet he gave it much thought. He knew all along; he’d worked hard to keep Epstein’s involvement secret. And then, boom, the day a major article reveals how snout deep in the trough he’d been, he decides now would be a good time to resign.

I don’t think he’d planned this until he was caught blinking in the floodlights.