Discussing ideas

During OVFF I spent most of my time doing musical things and catching up with friends, but there were a few conversations about broader ideas. I’ve never been tremendously good at these, but at least I’m able to see where some of the tough spots are.

One problem is that people often use words in sloppy ways. “Rationed,” for example, doesn’t mean “available only in limited quantity and at a cost,” but dishonest people have used it to mean that in order to equate rationing with the market, and more honest but not carefully thinking people have accepted the misuse. It’s tedious to try to correct terminology every time.

Sometimes people make arguments which just aren’t relevant. One person argued for Obamacare by saying that some people can’t even afford co-payments. This is true, but Obamacare doesn’t even pretend to address the issue. If anything, it makes it harder for poor people by imposing a tax on being uninsured and outlawing affordable insurance.

I pointed out in a discussion that progressives often hold the contradiction of despising the government that has been elected while having high confidence in government as the solver of all problems. He said that wasn’t necessarily a contradiction, since the problem could be just with the existing government, not with the ideal one they envisioned. I replied that if everyone currently in Congress were removed and people elected all new people, they’d choose people just as bad, because voters want to elect people who will give them stuff at the expense of the rest of the country.

His response to this was a long digression about how disastrous it would be to have a completely inexperienced Congress. If anything, this argument supports what I said, since if it’s true, it means that electing a better government is that much less practical. Basically, though, it’s irrelevant to my point that the quality of our government is the result of how people have voted. He went on so long that by the time he was finished, it was hard to get back to the original thread.

In the discussions I mentioned, there were no angry exchanges, so these are the better kinds of discussions, if anything. It’s just very difficult to keep even a good debate focused. There’s no limit to the variety of error. People can come up with invalid arguments you never dreamed of, and I find it hard to answer them on the spot just because they’re so bizarre.

I did learn some things from these discussions. A doctor told me that specialists tend to oppose Obamacare and primary care physicians tend to support it. I can understand this to some degree. The existing system, in which insurance covers even routine items like examinations, works as insurance should for the expensive procedures that specialists handle, but drives a wedge in the doctor-patient relationship when the insurance company is the intermediary for everything. (I compared it to insuring oil changes.) Primary care physicians get squeezed under this system with stressful work and comparatively low pay, and it’s hard to blame them for thinking any change has to be an improvement, even if it really isn’t.

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The totalitarian fringe

It’s not unusual to hear of calls for prosecution and imprisonment of members of American legislative bodies because someone didn’t like the way they voted. Usually these seem to come from the conservative fringe, but currently it’s left-lunatics making noise, using sites that don’t normally run this kind of trash. I don’t want to give these people even the tiny boost in publicity that a link would add, but you should be able to look them up.

On the Huffington Post, Andrew Reinbach writes: “The behavior of the House GOP in the current showdown — whether or not they reach some sort of deal — makes them guilty of sedition. … Extortion is a felony. Will the GOP leadership be indicted? My guess is the country wants to put all this behind it, once it’s resolved.” He switches from sedition to extortion part way through the article; any charge will do to get the opposition in jail.

A petition on MoveOn.org reads: “I call on the Justice Department of the United States of America to arrest Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Speaker of the House John Boehner, and other decision-making House Republican leaders for the crime of seditious conspiracy against the United States of America.” As of this writing, over forty thousand lovers of dictatorship have signed the petition. Granted, you can get people to sign just about anything — a hoax petition to repeal the Bill of Rights got people signing without a second thought — but I still find this scary.

A number of sites are falsely claiming MoveOn endorses the petition. It’s only a hosting site and disclaims endorsement. Still, I’d have hoped MoveOn would take down the petition for violating its terms of service, which ban any petition that “promotes and/or encourages illegal or unlawful activity in any country.” Using judicial power to prosecute members of Congress for their votes would be seriously illegal.

You have to wonder if these people ever think beyond the next election, to the possibility that an administration controlled by the other party might get the chance to throw Democrats into jail. But if they do it first, they probably figure there’s no chance of any opposing party ever being strong enough to bother them. And if people disagree — well, once you’ve set the precedent that “wrong” voting constitutes sedition, you don’t have to worry about elections.

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Twit mobs

Twitter is a very useful site. My professional account has helped me to keep contact with computer people who share my interests and even to get paying work. It has a few distinctive problems of its own, though. It’s very easy to retweet something without giving it any thought. This can snowball into large numbers at times. When the absence of thought is particularly obvious, “twit mob” is a good term for what happens.

There was a protest by veterans at the World War II monument in Washington, which was senselessly closed off to the public even though it isn’t normally staffed. Some veterans protested this bit of nonsense and walked past the barricades. One person was carrying a Confederate flag; it’s no surprise that this jerk got an undue proportion of attention from the media, as people doing outrageous things always do. I don’t know what his aim was; he could have been a pro-Confederate jerk, or he might have been trying to discredit the rally. Either way, he was one person in the crowd.

Today I saw a tweet claiming that this flag was there at the direction of the Republican Party, and another implying that there were 2000 people carrying “separatist flags.” It shouldn’t take more than a moment’s thought to realize both were nonsense. Nonetheless, lots of people retweeted them. A moment’s thought was more than they gave, and they built a twit mob around absurd claims.

On a few occasions I’ve been hasty myself in retweeting. Fortunately, it can be undone, though perhaps not before some people have seen it. It’s also true that a retweet isn’t necessarily an endorsement, but if there’s no context it’s going to be taken as one.

It’s always worth taking an extra moment to think about retweeting. Does the tweet really make sense? How will reasonable people interpret my retweeting it? Am I competent to evaluate what it’s saying? It’s most important to do this when the emotional impulse to retweet is strongest.

Update: Some followups I’ve seen show that some are engaging in deliberate mudslinging at everyone who was in the protest. An Salon.com article makes an especially transparent attempt at this with the headline “D.C. protestors wave Confederate flag, tell Obama to ‘put the Quran down.'” Later on in the article, possibly realizing the image of multiple protestors waving one flag together sounded silly, the writer said there was “at least one large Confederate flag.” I haven’t seen a second one reported in any account, but yes, one is “at least one.” Most people can count to two, though. Likewise, one person claimed Obama is a Muslim. Another article I encountered yesterday actually used “protestors” as a singular noun in its headline to pluralize the one scumbag who carried a pro-slavery flag.

In September I attended an anti-war protest in which one of the protestors was a 9/11 truther. I’m probably lucky that no sleaze media ran the headline “9/11 truthers protests against war” and tried to tie me into his views. They still could. At an earlier protest there was a singer (sorry, “a singers” or “at least one singer”) advocating class warfare. People who had started to sing along dropped out as they realized what the song was saying, but the same smear could have been used there.

I’m still trying to understand just who (outside of Washington politicians) has an ideological stake in ridiculing opposition to shutdown theater, so I’ll leave that for another time.

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Gravity and music

When I went to see Gravity yesterday, it was the first first-run movie I’d seen in a theater since The Hobbit last year. I don’t enjoy the movie theater experience, with too-loud sound and endless trailers, but this was a movie worth seeing in a theater. It easily has the best physics of any space movie ever made. Almost all of it is set in a free-fall environment, and everything is right, down to tiny objects floating around. If anything was wrong with the physics, it was too subtle for me to catch. Gravity poster

The story is about the ability of the human mind to cope with disaster and with its own fears. The entire cast consists of two people, not counting voices on radio. It deserves to be a Hugo nominee. Is it science fiction, though, or just a movie about current technology? Its driving premise is that the destruction of a single satellite by a missile could set off a chain reaction of careening space junk that would wreck a sizable portion of what’s up there. I’d call that a science-fiction premise.

On the negative side, the ISS is supposed to be within spacewalking distance of the Hubble and a Chinese space station just a hundred kilometers beyond. The Hubble’s orbital altitude is about 350 miles and the ISS is about 260. That’s a 90-mile spacewalk even if their orbits are perfectly lined up.* Still, it’s hard to complain when Gravity comes so much closer to being right than most “sci-fi” movies. There’s also a sequence which at first seems even more wildly improbable; it isn’t what it seems, but it undercuts the sense that Ryan Stone is solving her own problems.

In the evening I went to a concert by Symphony NH, a really high-quality orchestra right here in Nashua. Ruth Palmer joined them for a performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. I loved the sound of her instrument and the acoustics of Keefe Auditorium. There’s even a tie-in to space movies. Conductor Jonathan McPhee told us that the main theme from the concerto was used in The Right Stuff, which won an award for Best Original (!) Score.

The concert ended with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. I know that symphony inside and out, but every performance is a little different, and live performances let me see the effort that goes into them. I could go on for a long time about this one, but I’ll just mention one bit of subtle humor that goes all through it, a sort of running gag with obsessive chromatic bass lines. Near the end of the first movement, the cellos and basses keep repeating a short figure while the orchestra builds to a climax. In the third movement, the horn does a G, F-sharp, G that turns into what’s been described as a “coughing fit.” In the finale, the cellos and basses just can’t keep their footing. First they’re oscillating from G-sharp to A, then they slip down to G to A-flat, to E-flat, D, and C, before finally catching themselves on alternating E and D-sharp, which they hang on to as the bass while the orchestra builds up to a big climax. If you listen carefully, you’ll notice they stay on that D-sharp even after the rest of the orchestra has placed itself firmly in A major!

Not a bad day at all.

*Update: Come to think of it, the presumed relative positions of the Hubble and ISS do imply a physics problem in the plot, apart from whether such a long spacewalk is possible. It would be too much of a spoiler to spell it out here, but if you see the movie and then think about how orbits work, you’ll probably catch it.