From pro-life to Viva la muerte

So, good news and bad news about the pandemic.  The good news is that the number of new cases may have peaked in the US. The bad news is that the GOP has become a full-on death cult.

We’re at 740,000 cases and 39,000 deaths.  Hey, that’s more than the flu deaths in the 2018-19 season, maybe Republicans could take it seriously now?

No, the new Republican obsession is “re-opening the economy.” Trump first wanted this to happen by Easter, but was somehow dissuaded. Some governors want to try, and GOP pundits are test-driving ideas like “the cure is worse than the disease” and “closing businesses is tyranny” and “God will keep us safe” and “why keep old people around anyway.”

To be clear, here’s what happens when you stop social distancing early.

St._Louis_social_distancing

That’s the excess death rate in St. Louis in 1918-19, during the flu pandemic.  Note the timeline of the social distancing measures.  The city seemed to be doing better, deaths were down, and the city responded by ending restrictions.  Deaths shot up to twice the previous peak.  Oops.  Social distancing had to be resumed. The same thing happened in every city that tried “reopening” and in none of the ones that didn’t.

(What’s the “excess death rate”? Deaths above the normal level in a particular place and time. That’s the best way to measure the real effect of a pandemic, since But deaths are recorded far more accurately than causes of death. The numbers we have now, scary as they are, are probably way under the real values, because we’re still not testing enough.)

So, to be clear, what the Republicans are demanding is that people die in large numbers.  And suffer in even greater numbers.  Recall that up to 20% of all cases are severe, requiring hospitalization.  Under GOP plans, that means up to 20% of the population, or 65 million people.  Most but not all of them will be older people, meaning their own voters.

Here’s what a severe case is like: you have trouble breathing, so they stick you on a ventilator to force air into your lungs. You may get pneumonia or, worse, acute respiratory distress syndrome, which makes oxygenation extremely difficult. You get fluid instead of air in your lungs: you’re essentially drowning in those fluids. You may try to pull out the ventilator tube because you feel like you’re choking, so they’ll restrain you.  (That’s if you have a ventilator at all, since Trump is playing games with the states and hijacking shipments of supplies.) Through all of this, for the month you’re in intensive care, you can’t see family and barely see care workers; if you die you won’t be able to say goodbye. Oh, and while all this is going on, good luck if instead you have a garden variety heart attack or other emergency condition: the ICU is full.

That’s what the “protestors” are asking for: for tens of millions of people to suffer like that, with many of them dying. They’re clamoring to get the illness themselves, infect their workers and church members and families and the general public. Because… jesus christ who knows why, to own the libs.

Back in the Spanish civil war, supporters of Franco had slogans like ¡Viva la muerte! ¡Muera la inteligencia! — “Long live death! Death to intelligence!” That was their response to anything or anyone they didn’t like.

How did the GOP get to this point? Didn’t they call themselves “pro-life” once?

There is probably a lot to learn from the history of European fascism… but it’s really a logical development of home-grown, all-American trends.  American conservatism is the result of two basic facts:

  • Rich people are terrified of high taxes.
  • Rich people are a tiny minority of voters.

See my liberalism page for what they’re afraid of– especially the chart of tax rates. For half a century, from Roosevelt on, marginal taxes on the richest were twice what they are today. For the rich, the one and only purpose of the Republican Party is to keep tax rates down.

The rich generally get what they want, but it’s a lot trickier when they have to deal with a democracy. They need votes; therefore they need allies. But very few potential allies really care about other people’s taxes.  The best the rich can do is to co-opt movements that are popular enough to win elections.

During the liberal period (Roosevelt to Carter), they didn’t find the winning formula. In the 1980s they did: a potent mixture of religious reactionaries, bigots, and libertarians. Each of these had a grudge against liberalism, and that provided enough zealotry to win elections. Mostly their grudges were too unpopular to become law, but by God they got taxes as low they could and kept the 90% from sharing in increased productivity.

(Old history: The bigots used to be in the Democratic Party. They were by no means liberal, but they liked redistribution, so long as it didn’t go to colored people. But they switched sides, in a long process that finished with Reagan.)

So, the Nixonian model was that GOP politicians would make use of this potent but unstable coalition, and keep it from doing too much damage. Then came the ’90s, for which the formula is: talk radio + losing the Presidency = GOP loses its mind. Talk radio meant that power moved from elected officials who retained some interest in real governing, to unelected entertainers whose only interest was in riling things up. And the defeat of Bush I meant that moderate Republicans were seen as failures. Clinton had already raised taxes, so the rich were OK with a program of anything goes to oppose the Democrats.

It still took 25 years to get to ¡Viva la muerte!  But the groundwork was laid, by going through ¡Muera la inteligencia!

It’s been remarked that we have two elites in this country: one financial, one cultural/educational. The money is of course far more powerful. But rich people lack charisma; frankly, they’re often stupid and venal. They would love to have the soft power of universities, newspapers, and Hollywood, but they can’t buy them, mostly.  (They own a lot of them, of course, but it turns out that when you let the rich guy dictate the content, its popularity plummets. So they have to let the creative people actually produce it.)

But the cultural elite insists on a more or less liberal message, and the scientific world is even worse, pointing out little problems like the threat to Earth’s ecosphere caused by industry. What’s the solution here?  Why,  ¡Muera la inteligencia!  Attack science and attack government when they’re inconvenient for the rich; and if that the base embraces every other anti-science fad it can, well, remember Goal #1.  (Did you forget? It’s “low taxes.”)

The nice thing about climate change– for the GOP– is that it’ll bite people in the ass only in decades to come, after the chief perps are dead. The problem with a pandemic is that it makes expert advice, good health care, and government help a necessity right now.

But they can’t turn off the propaganda machine.

  • One, that might mean people would vote for the other party, and taxes would go up.
  • Two… well, the rich no longer have control of the off button.
  • And three, too many people are inside the con. Without a steady diet of fear, lies, and outrage, how could the talk radio people keep their public? How could the new generation of GOP politicians stay in power? How could the late-capitalist hucksters keep profiting by making crappy Internet products or bankrupting old businesses or inflating drug prices? How could the sellers of guns and Bitcoin and dubious alternative investments or medicines stay in business?

Which isn’t to say that they have a plan for success. What would they even do if the liberals all disappeared and they had to run the country without an enemy to hate?  Turn on each other in about five minutes, of course.

The thing is, when you actually despise expertise and competence of all kinds, and as a topping on the cake elect a narcissistic thug, and you win, you do not get the long centuries of conservative dominion of, say, the Spanish Empire, or even Franco’s decades. Fascism crashed and burned. The Confederacy crashed and burned. George W. Bush, whose control was so total that conservatives were writing self-congratulatory tomes on how conservatism was going to be in power forever, crashed and burned. (Scant consolation, I know. These people all caused a hell of a lot of damage going down.)

OK, a few people have read this far and are jabbing their hands up, eager to ask, “Yes, but when can we reopen the economy?”

And you know, the infuriating thing about this whole mess is that there is another path. The alternatives are not “stay on lockdown forever” vs. “accept tens of millions of dead Americans.” Option three is to handle the damn virus as well as South Korea has.

Vox has a good article on this.  In short: test, test, test. We’re testing maybe 160,000 people per day, and that number isn’t even growing. We need at least four times that level– and maybe 40 times that level. We can’t reopen businesses while not knowing who has the virus.  And once we know, we have to trace contacts zealously.  (Recall: Covid-19 spreads extremely easily at a point when the carrier has no symptoms. One person can literally infect a thousand.)

I wish I could say the GOP will come round to this. But they made the choice long ago to politicize everything, which means saving lives is now evil Democratic tyranny. 

Do you think a few of them wonder how they got to this point?  Did anyone look at, say, the landslide election won a few days ago by South Korea’s Democratic Party, and wonder if maybe just once, they should do the right thing and maybe even get rewarded for it? But that’s crimethink; they just watch Fox News long enough to make the feeling pass.

The Three-Body Problem

I just read this, by 刘慈欣 Liú Cíxīn, a name almost designed to confuse people who don’t know Chinese. You can get close to it with lyoh tse-sheen. His given name means ‘kind (and) glad’; the surname Liu has no current meaning, but happens to be that of the rulers of the Han dynasty.

I liked the book a lot, though I’m going to have trouble describing it, because it’s written in the form a mystery. So even saying what it’s about is a spoiler. This mystery is initially faced by a nanotech physicist, Wang Miao, and a cop, Shi Qiang. In the near future, they’re called to a strange meeting where they hear about a wave of suicides among top physics researchers. One of the physicists they meet is playing a virtual reality game called Three Body, and that gets Wang playing the game as well. Oh, and the book starts with a sequence set in the Cultural Revolution, focused on a very unlucky physics student, Ye Wenjie.

This sounds rather random and slow, but it’s a whole Chekhov’s armory. Everything ends up being connected and important.

I always skip the testimonials and other stuff that comes before the title page, and now I see that the very first page gives the plot away. But, well, I still won’t. I’ll say, though, that the trilogy of which this is the first book can be described as space opera.

So the first thing I’d say about the book is that it’s very tightly plotted, though it doesn’t seem so at first. And the second thing is that it’s pretty compelling– once I got going, I kept reading till the end.

It’s pretty interesting to see sf from a non-American perspective. Liu has said that he doesn’t write sf to comment on contemporary society; but he does of course write within it. American sf has tracked the corruption of our own society: classic sf came from a confident, ever-more-prosperous society, and largely projected that into the future; as plutocracy took over, sf plunged into endless dystopias. China has almost the opposite trajectory: two centuries of frustrating oppression, of which the Cultural Revolution was only a  part, and then a burst of dizzying progress. But while the Cultural Revolution lives in current memory, there’s not the same triumphalism of 1950s American sf. (In an interview, Liu mentions that Chinese sf is usually dystopian, and he’s considered an optimist.)

If you’ve read my China Construction Kit, that would be excellent preparation for this book, as you’ll already know some historical figures that show up here. (They’re explained in footnotes, but it’s more fun to recognize them rather than be told.)

I would say, on the whole, that Liu is like classic sf in that he’s more interested in ideas than in people. It’s not that he’s bad with people, or that they seem artificial; but it’s definitely not a character study, and for the most part they are fulfilling roles demanded by the plot. So, Wang is just curious enough to go talk to people and play the Three Body game, and react with the appropriate puzzlement or despair; Shi is the cop who doesn’t play by the rules but gets things done, on loan from every cop movie. It works fine, but Liu obviously has more fun when he gets to talk about string theory or the titular problem in celestial mechanics.

(One bit did seem unconvincing: a description of future technology involving a couple of protons. They seemed a bit overpowered. But it is future tech, which is after all pretty hard to talk about.)

One more thought, which I’ll leave in white to avoid spoilers. Liu makes a case that the existence of aliens would be terrifying news. The book has been compared to War of the Worlds, and it’s notable that both Wells and Liu are well aware of the problem of colonialism. China was a great victim of it; Wells had a guilty conscience about it. Americans, by contrast, barely got into the business of direct colonialism; they’re neither conquerors or conquered, so they’re far more likely to think about aliens as exciting and interesting. 

Borderlands 3

I got this nearly a month ago, when it came to Steam, and my friend Ash and I just finished it. Overall: it’s big dumb fun.  Very Borderlandsy.  If you need big dumb fun during the pandemic, it will deliver.

bl3 amara

Yes, I pretty much always play the Siren

Now, it’s not as well written as Borderlands 2, not by a long shot. The jokes don’t always land or even get near the airport; the plotting is predictable; the Calypsos are no Handsome Jack, and the satirical elements are weaker than they should be. (The corporate dystopia element of the BL universe is more relevant than ever. But the game has nothing really to say about the situation, and it’s blunted anyway by two of the corporate scions being good guys.)

Tyreen and Troy are all right as villains. “Twitch streamer” isn’t exactly a rip-roarer of a theme, so they added “cult leaders” and “really really psychopathic”.  But that’s neither funny nor clever. The clever bit about Handsome Jack was that he really thought he was a hero and the players were bandits. That makes him interesting and provides plenty of hooks for stories and comedy.

BL3’s ideas for the Calypsos lean toward “add more psychopathy.” E.g. there’s a cameo from Penn & Teller, who play Calypso allies who specialize in torture and murder. That’s just not funny, and this bit is cringey when it was probably trying for edgy. The BL universe can be dark (cf. the whole Angel plotline in BL2), but the overall tone is way too jokey to support the sort of really uncomfortable humor of, say, “The Death of Stalin“.

The BL3 story does deepen toward the end, and not unsuccessfully. The game makes a little attempt to put distance between the two twins, which could be interesting but never goes very far.  The final twist works well enough, I think.

I don’t mean to be completely negative. BL understands that you want a strong enough villain to ensure that the player, and not just the player character, hates them. They do that. And there’s something to be said for doing just enough to tell the story, and then getting out of the way while the player goes pew-pew.  And they do that too, better than many a game does.

There’s also some material that lands pretty well.  The character of Vaughn, for instance, is a pathetic dweeb, and the joke is that he’s a very unlikely bandit leader. But, y’know, it’s a comedy, and he ends up funny rather than annoying. I think the team finally found out how to do Tannis right, too; they lean hard into her social awkwardness and science brilliance… it’s like after all this time, she knows herself and doesn’t try to pretend to be anything she’s not. (A minor weirdness is that she’s played by the same voice actress as Lilith, and the two sometimes have conversations… but the actress does very well at keeping them distinct, something that wasn’t always true in BL2.)

I do appreciate that they have a different villain type in BL3.  I wouldn’t have been happy to see Handsome Jack again, nor to have the main villain a different corporate scumbag. Plus, of course, it’s fun to get to entirely new planets.

As for gameplay, in general they’ve smoothed things out and made things better than ever. Replaying BL1 and BL2 last year, I was struck by the uneven difficulty, and the Gearbox tactic of making a level harder just by throwing more dumb enemies at it. I didn’t feel that way this time.  It’s rarely very difficult, and never difficult for no reason.  (I’m looking at you, level-in-BL2-with-too-many-spiderants.) The BL3 fights I remember as hard should be hard: key boss fights, and an all-out assault by Calypso forces at the end.

Shamus Young found that the enemies were frustrating bullet sponges. I didn’t have that experience at all. Toward the beginning I re-specced my Amara build, realizing that I didn’t want to rush at enemies and brawl; instead I relied on her Phasecast tree, which is suitable for ranged combat and includes a hold-in-place ability much like Maya’s from BL2. I found good guns, and the mooks pretty much melted.

BL2 could sometimes veer into overload. NPCs were constantly calling you up, often while some other NPC is dropping some exposition. The current questgiver has notes, or Jack wants to chat, or Claptrap suggests that you do some missions, or you found a log that autoplays over an already talking NPC. BL3 is calmer, and better for it.

There are some nice quality-of-life changes:

  • You can fast travel from anywhere.
  • When an NPC helps you fight, they will revive you if you’re down.
  • You can set loot boxes to be individual, so you never fight over them. (I do miss pointing out good guns to Ash. But it makes things smoother as you can just grab everything.)
  • You can play with friends of any level, and everyone contributes and has fun. In BL2, you really had to be within a few levels of your friends to play.
  • Ammo machines offer a one-click ammo refill.
  • Marking junk, and selling it all at once, is pretty easy.
  • Guns that change elemental type are very useful. You should no longer have to keep one of each elemental type for each gun type.
  • The increased verticality is fun. You can climb all over the place.
  • After the first few ammo storage upgrades, I was pretty happy with the ammo situation. I was never too fond of BL 1/2 bosses that were such bullet sponges that you ran out of ammo.
  • Level design is good. It’s hard to get lost, and the visuals are always pretty.
  • BL 1/2 really required paying attention to quest level. I don’t think we ever hit a BL3 quest and felt underpowered.

Also a few things that are disimprovements:

  • Fast travel must have been designed by their dimmest intern. It has way too many levels to it and takes too long to set up. There was nothing really wrong with BL2’s list of locations. (Well, the addition of a map is good, but a schematic map would do.)
  • You can’t get badass ranks till you finish a playthrough.
  • Not sure I like the weapons that require warming up. Though they do tend to do great damage.
  • The 3-D maps are nice, but too big to easily consult.
  • I have trouble with some of the jumps. Games differ on whether you press jump early, or at the last possible moment, or somewhere in between, and there’s no feedback except dying.

I also have to say, I don’t like or get why the loadout slots are so stingy. It basically means you have to pick four of the six possible weapon types. What would be the downside of having six slots? Plus, I’m a little tired of multiplying damage by fire rate; why can’t the game calculate DPS for you?

Now, I like the series a lot, so I’m happy that they’ve added more planets and more story and that they didn’t ruin it. Storywise, it’s not as good as BL3 but far better than BL1. But do note that I make no promises about playing it solo. It’s a co-op game through-and-through, and far better when you play with a friend.

More Talmud

I finished the Talmud, or rather Norman Solomon’s selections from it, which is less than 10% of the whole thing. But at 800 pages I feel that reading even that is an accomplishment.

Now, all too much of the book reads like this:

If someone bends down to drink, the water that comes up on his mouth or his moustache is ki yuttan, but [that which comes up] in his nose or on his head or beard is not ki yuttan.

Ki yuttan is “if it is put”, from Lev. 31:37-38:

If such a carcass falls upon seed grain that is to be sown, it is clean; but if water is put on the seed and any part of a carcass falls upon it, it shall be unclean for you.

You see, don’t you, that ki yuttan implies that the water got there by human intention, so it’s important to clarify what actions are intentional and what are not. Drinking, your intention is to get water in your mouth but not on your head. Why the moustache but not the rest of the beard is ki yuttan I can’t tell you, presumably because Solomon does not include the gemara in this chapter.

So, it’s fun when the rabbis instead decide to include a comedy routine. This comes in the context of a discussion of first-borns. Rabbi Joshua ben Ħanania goes to Athens to debate the Greek elders in their fortified academy. The Greeks had a rule that if the inner guards see a foot enter,  the outer guards are killed for their negligence; if the outer guards see a foot leaving, the inner guards are killed. Joshua places his shoe down facing the interior, then facing the exterior, so that the elders killed both sets of guards, and he could enter.

He then enters a debate with the elders, where they try to trick him and he one-ups them each time:

Elders: If salt goes bad, what do they salt it with?

Joshua: With the placenta of a mule.

Elders: Does a mule have a placenta?

Joshua: Does salt go bad?

Elders: Build us a house in the air!

Joshua uttered a divine Name and suspended himself between the earth and the sky. Pass me up bricks and mortar! he demanded.

Elders: If a chick inside an egg dies, which way does its spirit emerge?

Joshua: It goes out the way it came in!

And so on, for a page or two. Apparently some scholars did not find the comedy and instead tried to extract deep meanings from the debate.

It’s also interesting to find some bits of weird science.

  • There’s a discussion of “refining gold a thousand times”, so that a thousand measures of gold were reduced to one. Gold is an element and can’t be refined. (An alloy can be refined, though something that was just 0.1% gold would hardly be called an alloy of gold!)
  • It was believed that flies and other creatures spontaneously generate in, say, meat. This was relevant to cleanliness rules. Were they part of the meat, or were they separate, unclean “swarming things”?
  • There’s a discussion of what happens when a cow gives birth to a camel, or vice versa. This was considered rare, but a definite possibility and therefore something to worry about, as cows are kosher but camels are not.
  • The rabbis suggested that the father produces a baby’s bones, sinews, and the whites of its eyes, the mother its flesh, skin, pupils, and hair; and God the spirit and the power of sensation and movement. It’s striking that this white/red division of genetic labor was the same as that posited by the Indians. (India Construction Kit p. 179)

Finally, here’s a taste of gematria. Hebrew doesn’t have separate numerals; rather, each letter has a numerical value as well. This means that every word can be read either as a linguistic sign or as a number, and that invites endless esoteric discussion. Proverbs 8:11 states

I endow those who love me with substance;
I will fill their treasuries.

E.g., ‘substance’ yesh is ישׁ. Now שׁ is 300 and י is 10, so the numerical value of yesh is 310. So Rabbi Joshua ben Levi concluded that “the Holy One will reward every righteous person with 310 worlds.”