Live Bait

[Amazon Link]

Number two in the "Monkeewrench" series, recommended to me by my wise and perceptive sister. Set (mostly) in Minneapolis, the first book described how a bunch of software wizards (company name: Monkeewrench) got involved with a string of local murders, and their interaction with the nice Minnesota (and Wisconsin) cops trying to bring an end to the illegal carnage.

This one is more of a police procedural, with only one of the (surviving) Monkeewrench gang playing a small but vital role. After a relatively homicide-free Minneapolis winter, there's suddenly a rash of unusual murder victims: old folks living in upscale Uptown. The initial M.O.'s are various and confusing. But poor dead Morey Gilbert was widely regarded as a saint in his community, always offering kind words and gentle help to his acquaintances. He also has a concentration camp number tattooed on his arm, wonder if that could have anything to do with it? His wife seems to have known something like this might happen, why? His estranged son is a bitter drunk, hm, suspect?

Many characters have their own secrets. As with the first book, it strikes me as a tad contrived, but that's OK, because the writing is pretty close to page-turning first-rate.

The book itself was a little beat up, obtained from an Amazon reseller. Published at $7.50 suggested retail, It has a 25¢ sticker, looks like from a yard sale, and a ".50" sticker, looks like a used book store. And (finally) I paid $4.28 including shipping. Will it go on to further retail adventures? Who knows?

Last Modified 2016-10-10 11:21 AM EDT

The Secret of Our Success

How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter

[Amazon Link]

Yet another Interlibrary Loan book, this one from Tufts. I believe I put it into my to-be-read list when I came across the author, Joseph Henrich, while reading Matt Ridley's The Evolution of Everything.

It's a fine "big idea" book, as you can tell from the subtitle. What unlikely process, asks Henrich, has brought the human species to dominate more terrestrial environments than any other land mammal? We aren't very strong, not very fast, and not that good at tree-climbing. Why weren't our ancestors all Tiger Chow millions of years ago?

Well, we're smart, you say. But Henrich argues convincingly that we aren't that smart either. His thought experiment: dump fifty humans and fifty capuchin monkeys into a central African jungle. ("To be kind we would allow the humans—but not the monkeys—to wear clothes.") Come back two years later and it's a safe bet that there will be a lot fewer surviving humans than monkeys. There are a couple of tragic real-world examples presented: groups of "civilized" humans accidentally finding themselves in an environment in which they rapidly die off, even in the midst of native populations that are doing just fine.

Instead, Henrich argues, we're uniquely well-suited to cultural evolution, the process by which knowledge and skills are transmitted from one generation to the next. In addition, good old genetic evolution co-evolves with the culture, to the extent that our species' hardware/firmware is optimized to handle cooked food, written language, throwing small, heavy objects with deadly accuracy (Craig Kimbrel excluded), run long distances, and the like.

It's a wide-ranging tale, and Henrich runs through his argument with clarity and occasional understated humor. As is typical with these sorts of books, a variety of research is cited from anthropology, psychology, economics, and related fields. Some of these results I'd heard before, most not.

As with most results of "dumb luck" evolution, the beneficiaries often don't understand "the secret of their success". I was able to impress my nutritionist wife with the mystery of why South American natives put wood ash (or burned seashells) into their corn dishes before serving. Why? The alkalinity of the ask makes the niacin in the corn available to the human digestive system.

When corn was introduced into "civilized" countries, this technique was discarded, since nobody knew why it was useful. The result: pellagra, caused by niacin deficiency. And (tragically) the cause of pellagra remained a mystery until the mid-20th century.

Also very mind-bending was Henrich's discussion of the brain's "firmware" for recognizing written language. We English-readers can look at (for example) "READ" and "read" and know within milliseconds: that's the same word, even though the letters don't look anything alike. Multiply that feat over myriad font shapes and sizes. How could that skill, developed only a few thousand years ago, be a result of sluggish Darwinian processes? Cultural evolution, baby!

And there's a lot more. As always: there are controversies, and Henrich is only giving his side. So maybe not the last word on this topic. Nevertheless, a fun and fascinating read.

The Phony Campaign

2016-10-10 Update

At right: the Trump campaign. Sorry, Trumpkins.

PredictWise has Hillary Clinton with an 86% shot at being President, which means Donald Trump is still technically alive at 14%, because math. As I type, he's doing better than the Boston Red Sox, who are judged to have a mere 5% probability of winning the World Series.

Over at FiveThirtyEight, Hillary's at 77.6-86.1% (depending on methodology). The Red Sox are at 5% there as well.

And in the Phony Poll, Jill Stein comes crashing back to earth, as the Google Gods realize the true phonies this year are…

Query String Hit Count Change Since
"Donald Trump" phony 1,290,000 -30,000
"Hillary Clinton" phony 889,000 -171,000
"Jill Stein" phony 475,000 -3,445,000
"Gary Johnson" phony 129,000 -13,000

  • For our purposes, coverage of Trump's 2005 "extremely lewd conversation" demonstrated the interesting rules various news outlets have for obscuring bad words. For example, the WaPo goes PG-13 in this paragraph:

    “I moved on her like a bitch, but I couldn’t get there. And she was married,” Trump says. “Then all of a sudden I see her, she’s now got the big phony tits and everything. She’s totally changed her look.”

    … but elsewhere in the article, it's "s---", "f---", and "p---y".

    The bazongas in question belong to Ms. Nancy O'Dell, host of Entertainment Tonight, a show I'm pretty sure I haven't watched in decades. Her official statement makes no mention of the phoniness allegation (although she's apparently denied it in the past, and Googling does not reveal anything on this important issue other than rumor and tawdry speculation):

    "Politics aside, I’m saddened that these comments still exist in our society at all. When I heard the comments yesterday, it was disappointing to hear such objectification of women. The conversation needs to change because no female, no person, should be the subject of such crass comments, whether or not cameras are rolling. Everyone deserves respect no matter the setting or gender. As a woman who has worked very hard to establish her career, and as a mom, I feel I must speak out with the hope that as a society we will always strive to be better."

    It's probably ungentlemanly to observe that the former beauty queen has "established her career" on her extraordinary good looks, so her whole "objectification" complaint rings a little hollow.

    When will we know that "society" has successfully striven "to be better" on this score? When Rachel Dratch becomes an Entertainment Tonight co-host.

  • Speaking of beauty queens: Steve Harvey, well known for botching his gig as host of a recent Miss Universe pageant, interviewed Hillary back in February, during the heat of the primary campaign. You wouldn't expect him to ask hardball questions. But, as recently revealed in a leaked memo, Hillary was guaranteed an even more comfy ride:

    Talk show host Steve Harvey provided Hillary Clinton’s campaign with the exact questions he would ask of Clinton during a February interview, according to an internal campaign memo sent a week before the interview and obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

    An impressively phony moment:

    “During this segment Steve will take a trip down memory lane with YOU to talk about the different moments of YOUR life displayed in the photographs below,” the memo explained photos of Clinton that Harvey pulled up on screen as she discussed her childhood, education, relationship with her husband, and election to the U.S. Senate.

    Clinton feigned surprise throughout the interview. “Oh boy. Oh my goodness,” she exclaimed as Harvey displayed a photo of her at 12 years old.

    That's show biz. Also, consistently rendering YOU and YOUR in uppercase is apparently a thing.

  • Was Hillary caught using a child actor at a Pennsylvania town hall campaign event? Find out the shocking answer at Zero Hedge: "Hillary Caught Using Child Actor At Pennsylvania Town Hall".

    At a Hillary Clinton town hall yesterday in Haverford, Pennsylvania, a 15 year old girl was supposedly "chosen at random" to ask a question of the former Secretary of State.  But, the well-scripted performance raised some suspicion with a YouTuber named Spanglevision who decided to dig a little deeper.  And, wouldn't you know it, the "random" participant was none other than child actor, Brennan Leach, whose father just happens to be Pennsylvania democratic State Senator Daylin Leach.  Oh, and in case it wasn't obvious, Daylin supports Hillary for president...shocking.

    Yeah, I think that's credible. Could do without all the bold and underlines.

    Note that Snopes attempts to debunk this, but the best they can do is "unproven". I also found their wording of the "claim" to be a little dishonest:

    Claim: Hillary Clinton "hired" a child actor to be "planted" in the audience during a Town Hall campaign event.

    I'm bothered by Snopes putting "hired" in quotes, as if someone was making the specific charge of money changing hands for little Brennan's performance. I may be missing something, but I don't see that word at Zero Hedge. Is Snopes attempting to rebut an allegation that nobody's actually made?

  • Jacob Sullum watched last evening's debate, and solves the mystery: "Clinton Shows How She Manages to Be Less Trusted Than Trump". Casting her e-mail negligence as a "mistake" is well-known. The new inconvenience that she needed to explain away last night: her two-faced speech confession, kept secret until Wikileaked, was "So you need both a public and a private position." Her focus-grouped response: hey, it's exactly the same thing Lincoln did in that Spielberg movie to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed!

    Sullum rebuts:

    Assuming the Wikileaks excerpts are accurate (and Clinton is not claiming they're not), that is a serious distortion of what Clinton actually said in her speech. She was not talking about tailoring your arguments to your audience; she was talking about bribing legislators with promises of lucrative jobs, which she argued was justified by the importance of getting Congress to approve the 13th Amendment. More generally, she said such tactics, although "unsavory," are both necessary and appropriate, although it is best to conceal them from the public, since otherwise people might "get a little nervous."

    It is understandable that Clinton would prefer not to admit endorsing this Machiavellian view, especially given the broader implications of saying one thing publicly and another privately. But by pretending she did not say what she said, she only compounds the impression that she is slippery, two-faced, and untrustworthy.

    Had I been Jacob's editor, I might have suggested replacing "only compounds the impression" with "demonstrates yet again".