Monday, June 6, 2016

Float and Sting

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.
The hands can't hit what the eyes can't see.

-- Muhammad Ali

This week's featured post is "Preserving the Cult of the Job Creator".

This week everybody was talking about Muhammad Ali

who died Friday at age 74.

Boxing has declined in the last few decades, to the point that it's now on the fringes of most sports fans' attention. I had to look up who the heavyweight champion of the world is now, and didn't recognize any of the names I saw.

If you grew up in this era of decline, you may not have any notion of what the heavyweight boxing title used to mean. I can't think of anything to compare it to today. It had a mythic quality; the Champ wasn't just a star athlete, he was the current avatar of some essential aspect of manliness. In recent years, probably no athlete has stood as high as Michael Jordan did in the 1990s, but even he was just a man playing a game. Half a century ago, the Champion of the World was more than that.

So it mattered who the Champ was, even if you didn't care about boxing as a sport. That a black man like Joe Louis could be Champ in the 1930s and 40s (not just beating all comers, but representing America against foreigners like Nazi Germany's Max Schmeling) didn't just inspire his fellow blacks, but influenced many whites' thinking about race, and probably played a role in the acceptability of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s.

In pure sporting terms, Muhammad Ali was a figure on the scale of Tiger Woods or LeBron James. He changed his sport with a style that was light and graceful. Previous champions had been powerful punchers. But Ali's quickness made opponents miss by embarrassing margins, letting him strike back while they were off balance.

And then there was his beyond-sports significance. Joe Louis had epitomized the soft-spoken black man who knew not to overstep. Satchel Paige played the minstrel and clown, hoping to avoid white hatred by keeping things light. Jackie Robinson understood that his play on the field could be his only response to racist abuse. But Ali got in America's face. "I am the greatest!" he announced bluntly. He set the stage for the black-power turn in the civil rights movement. Why did a successful black have to be humble and take care not to offend? Why couldn't he be as brash as any white man?

And why did he have to be Christian? Already celebrated as Cassius Clay, he rejected that as a "slave name" when he converted to Islam. By insisting that the public use his Muslim name, Ali blazed a path later followed by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and many other sports stars.

At the height of his career, Ali refused to be drafted for the Vietnam War, catalyzing a national debate about whether black men should fight yellow men to maintain white men's power. ("No Viet Cong ever called me nigger," he said.) After being refused conscientious-objector status, he was convicted of draft evasion (later overturned by the Supreme Court on a technicality) and banned from boxing for more than three years.

Then he returned to take the championship back from Joe Frazier. The three Ali/Frazier bouts were Super-Bowl-level events; for a few days all other sporting news faded to insignificance.

So if Ali's heyday happened before your time, this is what I would like you to understand: He filled a role in society that does not exist any more. There is literally no one like him.

and (yet again this week) Donald Trump

Whatever else you may think of Trump, he is a genius at drawing media attention. Hillary Clinton got a lot of buzz for her foreign-policy speech Thursday, but only because she was talking about Trump. Afterwards, conservatives criticized Clinton's speech because it unveiled no new foreign-policy ideas ... as if anyone would have covered an actual Clinton-doctrine speech that wasn't about Trump.

Donald Trump’s ideas aren’t just different – they are dangerously incoherent. They’re not even really ideas – just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies. He is not just unprepared – he is temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability and immense responsibility.

The Trump University fraud suits got major coverage this week. The basic story is the same one I summarized in March. What was new was how Trump doubled down on vilifying the judge in the San Diego suit, claiming that he must be biased against Trump because he is "Mexican" (actually an American born in Indiana to legal Mexican-immigrant parents). He also suggested that a Muslim judge might be also be biased against him.

Try to imagine any comparable situation. Picture, say, President Nixon denouncing Judge Sirica for being Italian, or Ted Cruz blaming the same-sex marriage decision on Justices Kagan, Breyer, and Ginsburg being Jewish.

The Atlantic notes an appellate court's comment on a case in the 90s where similar objections were made:

“Courts have repeatedly held that matters such as race or ethnicity are improper bases for challenging a judge's impartiality,” wrote the chief judge, Ralph Winter, a Reagan appointee. “Nor should one charge that a judge is not impartial solely because an attorney is embroiled in a controversy with the administration that appointed the judge. … Finally, appointment by a particular administration and membership in a particular racial or ethnic group are in combination not grounds for questioning a judge's impartiality. Zero plus zero is zero.”

Vox makes this observation:

For a man who's quick to claim that "the Hispanics" love him, Trump certainly seems quick to assume that actual Hispanics do not.

Trump's other defense was to release a video in which Trump U customers praised the seminars they attended. AP discovered that these were not "typical" Trump U customers at all, but were "beholden to Trump" in some other way. For example, one owed Trump a favor for providing a blurb for her son's self-help book. Another is a businessman who sells products through Trump's golf courses, restaurants, and resorts.

As for why there are lawsuits in only two states, Vox reports: "State attorneys general who dropped Trump University fraud inquiries subsequently got Trump donations." A former Texas official told The Dallas Morning News:

The decision not to sue him was political. Had [Trump] not been involved in politics to the extent he was at the time, we would have gotten approval. Had he been just some other scam artist, we would have sued him.

Tuesday, Trump lit into the press for doing its job too well.

Recapping the story from the beginning: Back in August, Fox News hosted a Republican debate. Megyn Kelly's questions to Trump were tougher than he liked, so he tried to intimidate Fox into removing her five months later when Fox News held the last debate before the Iowa caucuses in January. Fox refused, so Trump boycotted the debate and staged a rival event, which he promoted heavily and billed as a fund-raiser for veterans groups. He claimed to raise $6 million, of which he supposedly donated $1 million himself.

In any other campaign, reporters would routinely ask the campaign office for proof that the money had been distributed, some staffer would assemble the paperwork and put out a press release, and that would be the end of it, probably without you ever hearing about the follow-up. But the Trump campaign didn't do its part, so The Washington Post started contacting veterans groups to see if they'd gotten the promised money.

The Post's David Fahrentholt first wrote about it in March, when he could only account for half the money. He came back to the topic on May 21, and got Trump's campaign manager to admit that they only collected $4.5 million. He wouldn't say whether Trump's million was part of that or not.

Then on May 24, the checks suddenly went out.

Summing up: When Trump made a claim that garnered him good publicity, at least one hard-working reporter checked to see if it was actually true. It turned out to be only half-true, and the reporter's scrutiny shamed Trump into making good on his promises. That's good journalism. Any veterans group that got a check dated May 24 should send David Fahrenthold a thank-you note.

But Trump went into a tirade against the press corps as a whole, calling an ABC reporter "a sleaze".

The unprecedented scale of Donald Trump's disconnection from the truth has swamped ordinary notions of fact-checking. (PolitiFact has identified 29 Trump pants-on-fire lies, compared to 3 from Clinton and none from Sanders.) How the media should adjust has become a topic of discussion. Here, CNN tried out something new: fact-checking him in real time.

A number of American writers, some as famous as Stephen King and Amy Tan, published "An Open Letter to the American People" speaking out against Donald Trump. Unfortunately, it included this line:

Because American history, despite periods of nativism and bigotry, has from the first been a grand experiment in bringing people of different backgrounds together, not pitting them against one another

which Daniel José Older described as

not only empirically false, it’s a continuation of the ongoing legacy of sanitized lies America has shoved down its own throat since its creation

I guess I'd say that from the beginning, the two impulses have struggled for dominance. In every generation, America was bringing people of diverse backgrounds together in new ways, and also pitting people against each other. ("All men are created equal," the slave-owner wrote earnestly.) Over time, I think the bringing-people-together impulse has been slowly winning out, as movements for abolition, women's suffrage, civil rights, gender rights, gay rights, (and so on) attest. But I think it's a mistake to minimize either the authenticity of the idealism that has animated Americans through the centuries or its consistent failure to fully manifest in a fair society.

And yes, electing Trump would be a lurch back towards nativism and bigotry.

and the Democrats

Tomorrow is the last big round of primaries, with only D.C.'s primary next week still left. California is the big one and may be close, but probably it will also be anticlimactic. New Jersey is in the Eastern time zone and Clinton should win it easily. That should give her more than enough delegates have the nomination already clinched before California is called.

Then Wednesday, we get to the moment everyone has been speculating about: What will Bernie do? At this point I think I'll just wait and see.

Hard to say what's going on with the general-election polls. Some show a close race between Trump and Clinton, while others don't.

and the gorilla that got killed

Harambe, a gorilla at the Cincinnati  Zoo, was killed the Saturday before Memorial Day after a 3-year-old boy fell into the gorilla enclosure and seemed to be in danger.

This set off a storm of social media commentary because it wasn't Harambe's fault, maybe the boy could have been saved without killing the gorilla (though I wouldn't want to be the guy who made that decision if the boy then died), and so on.

One major target was the boy's mother, for not keeping better track of him. She has four children (who I assume were all at the zoo with her, though I haven't seen anybody verify that explicitly). The fact that the family is black raised the old stereotype of irresponsible black women who have more children than they can manage. And it came out that the children's father had served a year in jail on a drug charge, as if that had some relevance.

It's a shame there isn't more sympathy for a mother who clearly must have believed her child was about to die right in front of her.

My wife and I are that couple you know who likes kids but have none of their own, so we've had lots of conversations with parents who were letting their hair down. I think every parent I've known can tell a story about a moment when their kid was suddenly gone, and then just as suddenly reappeared someplace he or she couldn't possibly be. Kids are ingenious little buggers who can spot momentary distractions and take advantage by moving really, really fast.

Here's my negligent-adult story: I was out in the yard with a friend's daughter. At one point she was standing securely on my shoulders, perfectly balanced between my raised arms, which she could grab if she got unsteady. But then she jumped off at a moment and in a direction that I completely did not expect. My dive to catch her was too slow, and we stayed in eye contact all the way to the ground, which seemed like a very long time. Landing on her back scared her and knocked the wind out of her, but she was otherwise unharmed.

All the stories I know personally are like that: The shield of adult protection momentarily fails, and something really bad could happen, but it doesn't. Cars stop inches short, human or animal predators don't happen to appear during the defenseless instant, the ER people get the stomach pumped out in time, and so on. That's what happens almost every time adult vigilance fails. Some people get unlucky, but the rest of us (if we're honest) have to admit this truth: If perfection were the standard, then nobody would deserve to have healthy children.

So the reactions I empathized with were like Amanda Marcotte's:

The expectation that you spend the next 18 years of your life never being less than perfect for a moment is one reason I don’t want kids.

And Kimberley Harrington's:

If you want to know why mothers — especially mothers in this country — are so batshit crazy, maybe it has something to do with the fact that we are blamed for every. god damn. thing. BY STRANGERS. Work full time? Why are you letting someone else raise your kid? Stay at home mom? Why aren’t you teaching them to be independent go-getters? Breastfeeding, formula feeding, fucking wilderness schools, grit, financial savvy, watching them all of the time, watching them none of the time, free range, Tiger Mom-ing ALL OF THE THINGS OH MY GOD INTERNET MAKE UP YOUR FUCKING MINDS.

but I need to fix a mistake

Last week I got taken in by some of the bad reporting on a case of an antibiotic-resistant infection. A commenter linked to a more accurate article from Ars Technica. 

While, again, this isn’t exactly good news, it’s not catastrophic. There are several last-resort antibiotics, and doctors can try different combinations and strengths of prescriptions before an infection may be deemed untreatable.

The somewhat more detailed summary goes like this:

Thursday’s report of a mcr-1-based colistin-resistant bacterial infection in a US patient is concerning, but unsurprising. The plasmid based resistant gene threatens to spread to other bacteria, potentially to ones that are already resistant to last resort drugs, such as CRE. However, the trajectory of mcr-1's emergence and its contribution to drug resistant infection trends is not yet clear. For now, the case serves mostly to highlight the ongoing crisis of rising antibiotic resistance and furthers the need for better stewardship of old antibiotics and development of new ones.

My mistake in falling for -- and worse, promoting -- the more apocalyptic version of the story (that the bacteria was resistant to all antibiotics) demonstrates a type of error I think everybody needs to watch out for: I've been watching the erosion of antibiotic effectiveness for years now and trying to call my readers' attention to it. So when reputable news outlets seemed to be saying that the disaster I'd been warning about was finally here, I didn't check the details the way I should have.

and you might also be interested in

In case you missed it, here's the town hall meeting President Obama had Wednesday in Elkhart, Indiana.




And he answered more questions afterward, like this one about gun control.

I guess it's not that surprising to hear that there's a 50th-anniversary Monkees album. But the fact that it's getting good reviews is a shock.

and let's close with something hopeful

José Picardo is a high school assistant principal who thinks the kids might be all right. In an article published on Medium, he recalled this photo that went viral on the internet last year, apparently showing teen-agers at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam staring into their phones while ignoring Rembrandt's masterpiece "The Night Watch" on the wall behind them.

Lots of folks took the photo as "a perfect metaphor for our age", in which young people are so addicted to technology that the beauty of the real world escapes them.

But what were they doing? Texting? Playing Angry Birds? Checking how many Likes their selfies were getting?

Not exactly.

It turns out that the Rijksmuseum has an app that, among other things, contains guided tours and further information about the works on display. As part of their visit to the museum, the children, who minutes earlier had admired the art and listened attentively to explanations by expert adults, had been instructed to complete an assignment by their school teachers, using, among other things, the museum’s excellent smartphone app.

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