SocraticGadfly: 3/15/15 - 3/22/15

March 21, 2015

Get rid of those damned dams — and BuRec!

Glen Canyon Dam/Wikipedia photo
Daniel Beard, a former chief of BuRec (that's the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to you non-Westerners) talks about "deadbeat dams" and other ideas for dealing with Western drought in an interview with High Country News.

The interview is based on his new book of that same name, "Deadbeat Dams," which just came out last month and which sounds like a must read.

Beard is not playing around.

He wants to get rid of the Bureau of Reclamation, and as far as all the "deadbeat dams" costing us money, misuse of precious Western water and more, replace it with a dam decommissioning commission similar to the military base closure commission, so as to remove removal of dams from politics and Congress.

The biggest, beyond the "deadbeat" dams, is selling, or rather, "selling" water at subsidized rates, just pennies on the dollar.

The Western farmer is possibly America's biggest socialist, followed by the American rancher and his below-market grazing fees. Next on the list is the Western politician who decries socialism while protecting this.

Example Numero Uno? Modern conservative legend Barry Goldwater.

He repeatedly called for abolishing the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1964. But, was there ever a peep from him about abolishing the Bureau of Reclamation? About not building Glen Canyon Dam?

Absolutely not.

Just like his pale successor, Schmuck Talk Expresser John McCain, Barry Goldwater was a Grade A hypocrite on such issues who got a pass at the time from conservatives and later from the national press.

Beyond that, as drought looks to intensify another year in the West, as some states clamp down on groundwater pumping because of that and more, like a possible 30-year drought cycle in the southern Plains/Southwest, or a 200-year cycle in California, our broken water system, like our broken hydrocarbon use system, needs to be acknowledged as broken.

And, the Archdruid of Reclamation, Floyd Dominy, would be turning over in his grave if he could. John McPhee, who wrote a book partially about him as among his many Western and naturalism books, is still alive ... maybe kicking enough to do a follow-up of sorts. Sadly, Marc Reisner is not alive to update "Cadillac Desert."

March 19, 2015

Replace the Texas franchise tax ... with what, #txlege?

Houston Chronicle business columnist Chris Tomlinson wrote earlier this week that it's time for the state of Texas to get rid of its state franchise tax on businesses.

I respectfully agree, as I Tweeted him back, because he said "get rid of" instead of "replace." (The same holds true for the inventory tax, as loophole-ridden and as badly designed as it is.)

The answer is: A state income tax. Well, that's the obvious answer in a state that's not as tax-phobic as Texas, even as schools struggle for money and roads fall apart under current funding.

Unless the Texas Legislature can craft a corporate income tax to replace the above state taxes, getting rid of those above taxes will mean even more suckitude in state services (except to lobbyists), yet higher sales taxes, or both.

This reminds me of President Lincoln. Radical Republicans in Congress demanded that he replace George McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac well before Lincoln puled that trigger.

"With whom?" he asked.

"Why anybody," Ben Wade said.

"I must have somebody," he responded. Change "somebody" to "something," and that's where we are now. We need to have columnists propose, and legislators adopt, a "something" to replace these taxes.

As for raising the state sales tax? Scrooge McOilDuck, otherwise known as The Comptroller Who Can't Understand Commodities Trends, Glenn Hegar, want to let businesses with less than $5 million in revenues pay no sales tax.

And, I'm sure Scrooge McOilDuck and the GOPers in the Lege have not put pencil to paper, or fingers to calculator, to figure out just how much money this would cost the state.

Actually, they probably figured supply-side economics would turn this into a magical new bonanza for the state.

In reality, if the Wingnuts of Wingnuts steamroll stuff like this, Texas will be the new Louisiana.

Texas: Heading to hell in a handbasket, but now, maybe twice as fast.

And that reminds me of another Civil War hero: Phil Sheridan, who famously said:
“If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent out Texas and live in Hell.” 
He would surely still live in hell first, but might find fewer and fewer out-of-state takers wanting to rent out Texas.

March 18, 2015

Richard Carrier, other Jesus denialists, meet the Obama #birthers

Richard Carrier is one of the chief water-bearers among Jesus denialists, whose general lack of credibility, and general lack of academics for most of them, I have critiqued here, easily enough on my own, without needing any "help" from the likes of Bart Ehrman (although his own critiques, in even more depth, are spot on).

Massimo Pigliucci, at Scientia Salon, has a new post, referencing an essay from a few years ago about the use of Bayesian probabilities in establishing the soundness of informal logical arguments.

Early in comments, a British Gnu Atheist nutter (nice British term) trotted out the greatness of Carrier's work. I responded with my link about him and other Jesus denialists. To which, I have responded back, with editing and expansion, per the below.

Coel, it matters not whether the 0.0008 is a low end, or a precise number in general. Per Aravis, that’s not how you do history — or any other of the humanities. Bayesian probabilities or anything else, you simply cannot be that precise with history. And, you know that.

Let’s put it this way. Carrier has a Ph.D. in ancient history. Whether I phrased as just 0.008 or per you:
“The probability that Jesus existed is somewhere between 1 in 12,500 [the 0.008%] and 1 in 3. In other words, less than 33% and most likely nearer to zero. We should conclude that Jesus probably did not exist”
But, instead, said that about, Anaximander, Pythagoras, or another of the pre-Socratics, or about Homer, he would laugh in my face, and so would you. I know Aravis or Massimo would.

But, because it’s about Jesus, Jesus denialism, and Gnu Atheism, such utter rot, to use a good old British term, is acceptable, eh?

Well, no, it’s not.

The rest of your opinion is just that — an opinion. And, it may become more “mainstream” among Gnu Atheists. That doesn’t make Carrier any more accurate than Dr. Andrew Wakefield.

The “argument from silence” is not done sensibly by Jesus deniers. Again, if I used the argument from silence on classical history the way Carrier does on Jesus, again, you and he would laugh at me. But, because it’s about Jesus, Jesus denialism, and Gnu Atheism, such utter rot, to use a good old British term, is acceptable, eh?

Well, no, it’s not.

As for the rest of your comments, again, you’re not a Biblical scholar, and neither is Carrier, and you continue to prove that with vague comments about “Paul’s letters” that I know are wrong just as easily as an Ehrman knows are wrong.

And, also per Aravis, my undergrad degree was in classical languages and history, so, yes, I know you don’t do history that way. (As I told Massimo in an email, the first writing I ever read on free will was in an independent study on Augustine, which included his tractate on free will.)


To complete the snark, I await Ted Cruz or somebody even worse among US “birthers” using Bayesian probabilities the way Carrier does to “prove”:
 The probability that Barack Obama was born in the United States is somewhere between 1 in 12,500 [the 0.008%] and 1 in 3. In other words, less than 33% and most likely nearer to zero. We should conclude that Obama probably was not born in the United States, but was born in Kenya.
Yep, lies, damned lies and misuse of Bayesian probabilities.

To be honest, beyond him being an easy name of a nutbar to hang the birther label on, the Havana Ham is only a birther fellow traveler, on the Obama birth BS, and, his own birth in Canada has spawned its own birther industry.

But, yes, in my mind, it's a fair analogy to compare the likes of Richard Carrier to the likes of Ted Cruz. And, people like Carrier, and their loyal touters like the commenter Coel, are yet more proof that Gnu Atheism is a variety of fundamentalism. And, in both cases, it's like shooting fish in a barrel that refuse to admit they've been shot.

Or, per the one tag on this blog post, a good example of village idiot atheism.

Or, per another commenter at Massimo's site, perhaps we should invoke Hillary Clinton instead of Ted Cruz.


Alex says:
Also, in what sense is Carrier not a Biblical scholar? He is said to have got a PhD in ancient history and writes about little else but Biblical scholarship and possible misinterpretations of old Aramaic words. Does it only count as Biblical scholarship if one is a believer?
First, while he may comment on misunderstanding of old Aramaic words, I see no information that he has any knowledge of Aramaic or Hebrew on his quite extensive CV, which speaks only about the Greco-Roman world in general. I would think that, if he actually knew Aramaic, as long as his CV is, he’d explicitly mention it.

Beyond that, I even did a Google search: “Does Richard Carrier know Aramaic?” And I can’t get any hits that will confirm that he does.

Assuming he does not, the fact that he would still think to comment on misunderstandings of old Aramaic words “goes to character,” your honor. And, that’s putting it politely.

But, places where he calls a Targum an “Aramaic translation of the Old Testament” show he’s no biblical scholar. 

Fuller quote, from his original blog site: “A Targum is an Aramaic translation (or paraphrase or interpretation) of the OT. So really, this is akin to a textual variant for this passage.” 

Targums, as actual scholars know, were far more than that. They were commentaries, exegesises and more.

And, click that first link. It’s clear that not only does he not know Aramaic, but that he just doesn’t know the bible that well, especially the Tanakh or Christian Old Testament, especially when he’s engaged in quote-mining and gets caught.

Carrier, as far as I can tell, also does not know Hebrew. He claims to know five languages — as best as I can tell, these are English, French, German, Latin and classical Greek. Because he doesn't know Hebrew, and probably doesn't know details of the biblical koine Greek translations of the various books of the Tanakh, this leaves him unable to comment on text-critical issues of quotes of or references to, the Tanakh or Old Testament in the New Testament.

Beyond that, Alex, this?
He … writes about little else but Biblical scholarship and possible misinterpretations of old Aramaic words.
I’m not even sure what logical fallacy that should be named, but it’s definitely a fallacy.

There are people who write about nothing other than how the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare. Do you call these people “Shakespearean scholars”?

And, no, I never said one had to be a believer to be a Bible scholar. One of the best today, Bart Ehrman, is an agnostic.

To extend another analogy to US politics, Gnu Atheists defending the scholarship of Richard Carrier is like Democratic muckety-mucks defending the transparency of Hillary Clinton.

March 17, 2015

Are journalists about to meet their machine overlords?

According to the New York Times, it's possible.

Here's the key graf:
Kristian Hammond, Narrative Science’s co-founder, estimates that 90 percent of news could be algorithmically generated by the mid-2020s, much of it without human intervention. If this projection is anywhere near accurate, we’re on a slippery slope.
And, if a bot can already write the lede graf in a pro sports story well enough to fool most humans, we're past the days of police blotter and quarterly financials. And, yes, there's an example of a bot doing just that on a sports story, about eight grafs about that pull quote. (And if that one example isn't enough, there's a quiz at the bottom of that link. I got five of eight correct, double crossing myself on one, but getting a gimme on another, per discussion in the story.)

Now, there will still be room for some time for sports columnists, but beat writers? You could be in trouble. Ditto for news writers.

Because of cost, this is less likely to trickle down to the community level by 2025. Hyperlocal bots specialized to write about the police blotter and real estate deeds are one thing; general purpose bots writing about a contentious city council meeting are another.

Among other things, the bots have to be fed information, or, shown where to feed themselves in a controlled environment, if the blotter and real estate records are online. If a city secretary is slow in posting meeting minutes, at least the version she transcribes off audiotape, a human's going to knock that out. Ditto if a high school coach is slow on posting game stats, as far as sports-writing bots at the community newspaper level.

But, community newspaper editors and writers shouldn't sleep too easily, especially in suburban or exurban vs. rural areas.

One editor who knows the lay of the land on the set of suburbs or exurbs, assuming a company has a group of such newspapers, can polish up the bots' writings easily enough, one would think.

And, one would think that one editor would be expected to do so by corporate hierarchy.

Now, Narrative Science has $everal rea$on$ to push its alleged skill level. So, take some of its claims with one or more grains of salt. At the same time, though, if a loose version of Moore's Law applies here, the mid-2020s are a decade off and a lot of things could happen. Five years ago, idea of bots putting a police blotter into coherent form probably would have been considered laughable, let alone them writing a passable sports story or cheap poetry contest submission level items, per that quiz.

If not by the mid-2020s, then by the early 2030s, computers will be doing ever more of this. And other things. As computers continue to replace paralegals, and even junior lawyers, at larger law firms, with more and more of the discovery process, especially in civil cases, being done by computer, computers will do more and more "investigative journalism." The more information that gets deposited online, the more the journalism about it will be done by computers.

If you want percentages on my bit more skeptical take, let's say 50 percent of news could be bot-generated by mid-2020s and 80 percent by early 2030s.

Combine this with digital ad sales, and, kiddos, don't study journalism in college! That goes for radio, TV and web-based media, too. No, we don't have computers who can read the news on TV or radio, or shoot video yet. But, that's "yet." Why couldn't a Watson of IBM fame be given a humanoid voice for radio, or even a humanoid voice plus skin for  TV?

Hell, we could remove half of such a Watson's "brains," put a blond wig on it, and it would be about right for Faux News.

More seriously, though, the shakeout from bot-writing is likely only going to accelerate, Narrative Science's marketing hype aside.

That said, the PR person who wrote Narrative Science's press release? Don't get all schadenfreudey; if the bot can replace a journalist, it can replace you.

March 16, 2015

James Carville, others, peed in the #ClintonEmails corn flakes

And, I'm going to love seeing Media Matters try to refudiate (heh, heh) this one.

Former Bill Clinton political guru consultant James Carville has said that he thinks Hillary Clinton used a private email server specifically to try to avoid Congressional oversight.

Yeah, that link is from a wingnut site, but, the video right here:

Is mainstream media, as the ABC logo shows.

And, calling that "reasonable," even if Louie Gohmert (or the unmentioned Darrell Issa) is the Congressional snooper, doesn't fly.

Using separate email accounts, and on separate "devices" as necessary, since she's already said she does that, would be "reasonable."

And, that's where Media Matters and its latest "refudiation" will fall short.

It's Old Clinton vs. New Clinton, just like with Tricky Dick!

Oh, and James? Your use of pi as an illustrator was a nice try, but ... wrong! There's more than 0.00009 left of stink. Is it less than 3.1415? Sure. But, it's definitely more than 0.00009.

But, Carville, spin and all, was light on a Hillary hand-slap, because he wasn't hand-slapping, he was excuse-making.

For actual hand-slapping, here’s New Yorker editor David Remnick, from the same program:
“It’s one thing for a politician to be stupid, which Hillary Clinton is not, it’s quite another for a politician to believe that we’re stupid; and that is deflating,” Remnick said on ABC’s This Week. “A lot of people I know, and myself included, are not likely to vote for a conservative Republican come 20 months from now, and a lot of our readers are in that camp and they want Hillary Clinton to be the best Hillary Clinton that she can be in the absence of any competition in the Democratic party.”  
Remnick isn’t a conservative by any means, as he indicates after this quote; I mean, he's the editor of the New Yorker. Here's the clip:

And, here's the whole ABC segment. (And Jeb Bush's talking head is undercutting him, as Remnick as well as Carville noted.)

That said, back to Carville, who has one other good point and one bad one.

The bad one is he, like other Democratic attack dogs, hauling up Colin Powell's use of private email, but ignoring that Condoleezza Rice used a government account.

The good, or semi-good, one is noting that an Obama staffer had concerns about this, for whatever reasons.

Beyond that, Carville invented the idea of the "permanent campaign" in politics. He needs to take a look in the mirror, especially as that (and grubbing for money) has extended to para-political groups of both left and right.

Meanwhile, Maureen Dowd, who hates Hillary Clinton so much she must have a secret lesbian crush on her, has decided to pile on. It's Dowd's "best" (scare quotes needed) and worst (no scare quotes needed) all in one package.

Meanwhile, in a much better opinion piece, the New York Observer's Lincoln Mitchell wonders if Rahm Emanuel's struggles in Chicago might have a message for Clinton.

#Politics — follow the money for para-political groups and #fauxtrage too

There's an old saying that to really understand politics, one should "follow the money."

Well, that's true of "para-political" groups, too. That's the special interest groups, whether "liberal" (read: Democratic, usually) or "conservative" (read: Republican, usually).

Speaking from the liberal side, why do you get dozens of environmental group emails claiming that everything is an "emergency," for example? (That's only part of their general hypocrisy.)

The real, real issue, per this Huff Post piece, which connects with Politico's piece on the DSCC, is this:
There are sites which send around petitions to charge Republican senators with treason, stating erroneously that the senators who signed the letter to Iran could be arrested for violating the Logan Act, and other nonsense. These sites get money for each click. Then they have your email or your Facebook and maybe all your Facebook friends, and will continue to send click bait. People waste time signing useless petitions and sharing them. This click bait money is not the same as supporting a political party, or a candidate. The click bait money props up the organization sending the click bait, and in my opinion this is all money and time that would be better spent funding candidates or real activists (who do more than send out crap on the internet).

In other words, like most things in democratic-government politics, it's all about the money. 

That's why, per where I blogged about "the 47's" letter to Iran, or the last in my series of posts about groups like MediaMatters leading the faux outrage about the "conservative media" attacking Hillary Clinton, it's usually all about the money. This is why I warned about "butt-hurt neoliberals" last week.

Although theoretically less partisan, with civil libertarians in both parties, the ACLU is even worse about spamming. I still get "last membership reminder" snail mails from it, even though I've not given it a dime in a decade, after its un-civil libertarian purge of and coup against its own board members, described here along with other ACLU outrages. (And, yes, that's the correct word, and it's yet another reason where, outside of the War on Terror, I don't really like Glenn Greenwald.)

And, until people who claim to be Democrats recognize this, this will only get worse. And, if Tea Party wingnuts don't recognize it, that's fine. This isn't a zero-sum unilateral disarmament issue.

So, folks, stop sharing para-political clickbait on Facebook and Twitter. Stop being part of faux outrages that are ultimately about fundraising. Instead, condemn the para-political fundraising maw along with the more narrowly political fundraising one.

And yes, fauxtrage, like a lot of other online nuttery, is a bipartisan offense.

March 15, 2015

Harry Truman and national health care

A lot of people know that business organizations and the American Medical Association opposed Truman's national health care push. They don't realize that organized labor did as well .

But it did. As discussed in the great new book "The Age of Acquiescence," per my review, the New Deal "settlement" between labor and management-ownership in America was that organized labor would accept the financial settlement of wage gains and benefits offerings (which became more important during World War II with wages generally frozen or nearly so), in exchange for eschewing German-type unionism of sitting on corporate boards (see Volkswagen of America today) and other broader attempts to alter the labor-management power relationship.

So, in Truman's time, the bennies, including good private health insurance, that came with a union job, as well as the pay itself, were a recruiting incentive, and one that organized labor wasn't going to surrender, not even if this helped change the labor-management power relationship to the working man's benefit in general.

Even with LBJ's moves, and without formally stated opposition by organized labor, surely this is why he settled for Medicare and Medicaid. Senior citizens normally are retired and therefore not candidates for union job recruitment. Poor people are working in low-paying non-union jobs, if working at all; also, therefore, not part of organized labor's orbit.

That said, Truman was proposing something more than just national health care. He wanted a federal hospital oversight agency, and a federal form of workmen's compensation for work time lost due to medical treatment. That said, the Truman Library claims that organized labor was in support, but this is the first time I've seen such a claim. I've generally read elsewhere that, if not opposed, it was no more than neutral.

Anyway, the combination of ideas in the bill might have been better than just single-payer health care.


First, Truman probably could have said that, if surgery were needed, it would only be compensated for if performed at an accredited hospital. That, in turn, would have opened the door to federal pricing controls, including saying "no" with a capital "N" to outrageous pricing by Big Pharma.

(Today, the JCAHO only partially performs the accreditation idea, and as a private agency, doesn't have the same teeth that a federal regulatory board would.)