Some Risk, Some Reward

Anyone who reads this blog must surely know that I consider myself an amateur historian. With that in mind, then, I can’t imagine anyone being surprised that I was intrigued by an article in today’s Washington Post about modern technology and what it’s doing to the past.

In the article, they speak of colorizations of famous black and white photographs, and artificial intelligence either creating famous speeches (e.g., John Donne or Henry V) that were given before we could record them, or — somewhat ominously — speeches that were never delivered, such as Richard Nixon’s speech he was prepared to give in the event of the failure of Apollo 11 or JFK’s planned speech in Dallas.

There’s a good debate worth having here. A few years ago, I saw a fact that was simultaneously new informatio but completely unsurprising: that the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 were the single most documented event in world history. This is not surprising because of where it took place and the proliferation of then-available technology. (And changes in technology since then have made other events that haven’t happened yet, even more documentable…)

So it’s an interesting thought experiment: if we could somehow go back in time and instill modern technology into past events, what would we learn about those events that we currently don’t know? Pick any major battle of any major war, for example, and you can get a true, honest picture of things like the number of people on each side, who they were, the injuries they sustained, and so on… We’re always talking about how soldiers return home from a war completely changed because of what they saw on the battlefield and how, after the peace treaties are signed, we say “never again” until the next war comes around. Could technology help make that “never again” a reality without resorting to dishonest portrayals of the event?

So I think that anything that can put a human face on the limitations of then-available technology (like careful colorization of black and white photos) can be a good thing.

Creating the audio of a speech that was never actually delivered is a bit murkier and it definitely tiptoes between the question of what we can do and what we should do.

One thing we certainly don’t want to do is create the audio of one person giving someone else’s speech. I don’t think anyone wants to hear Donald Trump trying to deliver Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. (And I’m not just saying that as a criticism of Trump; I should think that even his most ardent of supporters would recognize that he and King have/had two completely different speaking styles…)

But when it comes to text of speeches that someone could have delivered under different circumstances, when the text is already known and available? Isn’t it safe to assume that the speaker practiced the speech at least once? Knowing Richard Nixon’s penchant for recording things, the only reason why there is no extant recording of him practicing the delivery of a “doomed Apollo 11 speech” was because he didn’t start recording himself until two years after the fact. If he’d thought of it earlier, there probably would be a recording of him giving it, albeit not to a public audience. And by now it would be available to the public. So what’s the difference between that and a computer simulation of the same speech, given by the same person?

At the very least, a good test of the AI that pieces together a speech like that would be to compare the piecemeal part of the speech, against a recording of a speech that was actually given. Surely someone could get a computer to simulate JFK’s inaugural address based upon the text of it and clips of him speaking, to see how it sounds in comparison to the real thing?

As long as everyone involved is honest about it and what they’re doing, I don’t really see any major problems with this. There will be risks, and growing pains, and people who are less than honest, to be sure, but when all is said and done, I should think and hope that it could create more engagement, especially with amateur historians like me.

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Madeleine Dean for PA-04

Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the congressional map that had been in place since 2012, was gerrymandered too heavily for partisan purposes, and ordered it redrawn.

In one way or another, I’ve been complaining about gerrymandering for nearly fifteen years now. And that’s just on this blog and its predecessor blogs…

So where previously I was in the Seventh congressional district, now I’m in district 4, with a primary that will be coming up next Tuesday.

There are three candidates vying for the democratic nomination this time around. The winner will face Republican Dan David (who is unopposed in his quest for his party’s nomination) in November. These three candidates are:

Former US Representative Joe Hoeffel
State Representative Madeleine Dean
Shira Goodman, who is the executive director of the gun control group CeaseFirePA

I’ve done a fair bit of research into all of the candidates and feel as though any of the three democratic candidates will serve my district well, and, come November, I will have no problem voting for whomever emerges victorious next week.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t help me to decide which candidate deserves my vote next week. The only measurement outside of my own research I can come up with does not (and should not) form the basis of my voting, but I’ll say it anyway:

As I write these words, I’ve received seven different ads promoting State Rep. Dean, four for Ms. Goodman, and zero for former Rep. Hoeffel.

So I decided to reach out to all three campaigns and ask them the same question. I drafted the following message and prepared to send it to each of them:

Hello! I am a registered Democrat in the newly created 4th congressional district in Pennsylvania (I live in {hometown excised for privacy reasons}) and have been following the primary race between {rearranged listing of all three candidates, with the person receiving the message being listed first} quite closely.

And therein lies my problem. I don’t have any real problems with any of the three candidates and, come November, it’s a safe bet that whoever emerges victorious in the primary, will receive my vote against Dan David. As a result, I legitimately can’t decide, for whom I should vote next week.

So I’m reaching out to all three campaigns and asking the same question. It is my hope that the answer to this question will help me make my decision:

What are the best and worst things Donald Trump has done since he took the oath of office on January 20, 2017?

Thank you in advance!

Jim Phynn

With that message under my belt, I went to the candidates’ web pages. The first and most interesting thing I can say is that no two candidates have the same mechanism for preferred outreach:

Joe Hoeffel has a form to fill in on the web.
Shira Goodman has an email address.
Madeleine Dean has a phone number.

All three mechanisms of outreach have their pros and cons. For example, I spoke with a staffer for Dean’s campaign (and not Dean herself, although I wouldn’t have expected to), while both Hoeffel and Goodman actually responded to my message themselves. (Hoeffel directly and Goodman responded to a staffer who forwarded the answer on to me).

All three told me it was a great question. (Not that I’d have expected anything different; they all want my vote.)

I do have to give a slight ‘ding’ to the Goodman campaign. Hoeffel responded to my message within about an hour. It took Goodman two days to respond (and then, it was only after I tweeted to the campaign to confirm that they’d even received my email…)

I decided to put a summary of their answers to the question into the following grid. They each gave much more substance than what I’m paraphrasing below, but this is the gist of things:

Candidate Best thing Trump has done Worst thing Trump has done
Dean Declaring the opioid emergency The coarsening of political discourse
Goodman Korea The coarsening of political discourse
Hoeffel Firing Anthony Scaramucci The tax bill

I want to say that all three candidates dropped the ball in their answers to the worst thing Trump has done. Political discourse has always been coarse, boorish, catering to the “lowest common denominator” and vulgar. Think of the apocryphal tale of the successful candidate who tarnished his opponent by saying that his brother was a known Homo sapiens, his sister was a thespian, and he himself matriculated in college… Think of the mudslinging that was the election of 1800. Think of Joseph McCarthy. Or George Wallace. Or Richard Nixon. Think of the horrible, misleading, and racist Willie Horton ad that was a staple of the 1988 election. This is not ancient history.

I maintain that Donald Trump is a symptom — not a cause — of the coarsening of civil discourse. That’s not really a good answer to the question.

I would blame Trump more for the tax bill that got rammed through Congress last year if he’d actually had any say in its contents. But he didn’t. The blame for that travesty of a bill belongs squarely at the feet of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. Trump just went along for the ride.

No. If you’d asked me the worst things he’s done, I’d say that it’s his complete and total disregard for the rule of law and international treaties. From his decisions to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal (which will cost US companies thousands upon thousands of jobs) and the Paris climate accords, to the way he keeps trying to impose travel bans and build a border wall, antagonizing most of our allies in the process. That’s the worst thing he’s done.

And that’s also why I’m reluctant to say he’s doing a good job when it comes to the treatment of North Korea. I have no inherent problem with him agreeing to meet with Kim Jong Un next month; indeed, I’d say that about anyone in his position. I would not assume anything about what will come about from the actual summit until it happens and I may be pleasantly surprised all the same. Either way, we won’t know the results of the summit until after the primary so that won’t really help me. And if he does manage to bring peace to the peninsula and stop North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, I will give Trump credit. Still, meetings like this have happened before, with other presidents and other Supreme Leaders of North Korea. Let’s just wait and see.

Dean was quick to point out that declaring the opioid crisis a health emergency was a good start and more needed (and still needs) to be done, but the message is still a good one.

I honestly don’t know what to make of Hoeffel’s response. If it was an attempt to make a joke and effectively say “he hasn’t done anything good”, it rings hollow. “The Mooch” (as Scarmucci likes to be called) was White House Communications Director for all of a week and barely registers as a blip in terms of things that have happened in the over the course of the last year or so. And it doesn’t even delve into the questionable choice of hiring him in the first place.

For me, I think the best thing Donald Trump has done is he has awakened the complacent progressive movement, who may have taken a few too many things for granted. It’s unfortunate that we need to take a step back before we can move forward, but if that’s what it takes, I’m not going to complain. Kind of like how we needed the Titanic sinking to figure out what we needed to do in the way of maritime safety. Feel free to criticize this response because technically it started the week of the election in 2016 and not after he took the oath of office, but that’s what I think Donald Trump has done best: demonstrating the racist, anti-semitic, intolerant, homophobic, bigoted, misogynistic organization that is the Republican Party.

So all else being equal, I will give my vote to Madeleine Dean next week. I think she’s most suited to giving the republicans hell.

They touched a nerve…

About a week ago, there was an article in GQ magazine (or at least on their website). I readily confess that I wouldn’t have known about it if it hadn’t been for the reaction of the religious right.

Before I get to the actual article, I have to say that I like the idea. Sometimes I wonder if certain required texts in high school English class might do more harm to a young person’s love of reading than good. And it is with that in mind that GQ collected a list of 21 books you don’t have to read.

I’m sure you can see where this is going.

Side note: we can agree or disagree about any or all of these books (including the alternatives they suggested). That’s what lists like this are for. My 13 year old son asked me a similar question just the other day and I listed a few books I don’t care for either.

Book number 12 on their list is The Bible, and it’s kind of hard to disagree with the justification for its inclusion alongside books like The Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, and A Farewell to Arms. One line that I’m sure will rankle the so-called true believers is “It is repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned.”

Repetitive? How many times does the word “begat” appear in Genesis alone?

Self-contradictory? It is literally not possible to construct an accurate timeline of what happened between Jesus’s burial and the opening up of the tomb, based upon all of the gospels.

Assuming the true believers know what “sententious” means, how can they disagree that that’s basically the whole purpose of the books of Leviticus, Psalms, and, to a lesser degree, just about any of Paul’s epistles?

Foolish? Admittedly, I had a hard time with this one. Is there an easy example of a passage in the Bible that’s foolish on its own without falling into any of the other adjectives outlined in that sentence? My mind kept going back to Psalm 14:1 about how the fool hath said in his heart there is no god, despite Matthew admonishing us not to call others “fools”. But that’s self-contradictory. Ultimately I decided that the first (or the second, contradictory) description of god’s creation of the universe, complete with him talking to himself and having the daytime light before an actual source of that light is foolish enough.

Ill-intentioned? Children are often the subject of some real malice in the Bible. From god telling Abraham to kill his only son as a test of faith (Genesis) to the kids in 2 Kings who were mauled by a bear for making fun of Elisha’s bald head, to the psalm that says that dashing children against the rocks is the key to happiness… Yeah, I think “ill-intentioned” is the polite way of putting it.

As you can probably guess, the right-wing outrage machine is not pleased. It started, as these things often do, with Breitbart, and almost immediately got picked up by Franklin Graham on his Facebook page, and then, more recently, Movieguide, which is actively seeking an apology from GQ, complete with the canard about how they wouldn’t have the guts to say the same about the Qu’ran. Maybe that’s because, when you look at the other 20 books, they’re books that a lot of Americans are asked to read.

I’m not sure the Notebook by Agota Kristof is a suitable alternative to The Bible and we can certainly quibble over that point. (I’d recommend 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, by Rebecca Goldstein, personally.) But they didn’t suggest either the Qu’ran or the Book of Mormon (or the Bhagavad Gita, or the I Qing or any other holy text) as alternatives to the Bible or any of the other books on the list. That’s probably more than enough.

Most telling about the articles of outrage, if you ask me, is the fact that not a single one of them tries to refute the content of the relatively simple paragraph in GQ. They talk about how statements like these offend the sensibilities of the faithful, or the sales figures, or, in the case of Movieguide, how they’d like an apology…

(In fairness, Breitbart did criticize GQ for other choices on the list, too, in a disjointed anti-PC screed that still doesn’t even try to rebut the points made, as though not wanting to prop up white male privilege was, in and of itself, a fault…)

It’s weird. These people claim to be anti-PC but are really sensitive when someone says or does something they deem offensive. I’d just like to see them actually offer a real rebuttal to the statements that offend them, rather than just be outraged. Can they answer the message without impugning the messenger?

Entitlement

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen or spoken to Bill H. I want to say I was in either eighth or ninth grade when I saw him last.

He and I went to elementary school together. We met in kindergarten and then were together in school through the fifth grade. After that, he went off to a local private school.

When I last saw him, he told me that he was taking classes with Ennis Cosby, the son of comedian Bill Cosby. And that he thought the younger Cosby was “a real asshole.”

I’m not trying to speak ill of the dead here and I don’t remember exactly what I said at the time, but I remember not being particularly surprised by this fact. After all, Ennis grew up with an extremely rich, famous, and influential father. Surely there was a sense of entitlement that came from his upbringing. Add in how hard it is to navigate the teenage years for anyone, and, yeah, it would be more of a surprise if he’d been totally down-to-earth and, for lack of a better word, normal.

In the 1980s, most people loved Bill Cosby. He was a very funny comedian, had a popular family-based sit-com, sold Jell-O… His public persona definitely was beloved and maybe even to be envied.

Unfortunately, over the past few years, we’ve seen a decidedly more sinister private side of him that… I don’t need to go into the details since they’ve been all over the news lately. In a sense, the same entitlement that Ennis displayed to my friend Bill, is what led the elder Bill to think he could get away with some truly repugnant behavior that is unacceptable under any circumstances.

It’s been a long time since the allegations first came to light (well over a decade) and we can be forgiven for not initially knowing whether or not to believe them. But as the evidence mounted, you’d need to be willfully ignorant (at best) to think they’re anything but credible.

I don’t know who said it, but justice delayed is justice denied. Bill Cosby is now 80, and any punishment he will receive can rightly be perceived as too little too late.

At the same time, this is the first real trial in the MeToo era. Bill Cosby’s accusers themselves may feel some degree of vindication, to be sure. May they stand as monuments, against anyone whose sense of entitlement is overblown, undeserved, or otherwise wrong. And it doesn’t matter if he’s a famous comedian or his asshole son.

I saw this a while ago

Sometimes you see and hear something that takes a long time to process. Maybe you don’t immediately appreciate the gravity of the situation. Maybe it’s a bigger shock than you were prepared for. And sometimes other factors come into play that divert you from the necessary focus you know you should apply.

In the case of a posting on Rapture Ready that was made, as I write this, 46 days ago, all three are true.

When I look at the subset of the evangelical Christian movement that seems obsessed with eschatology — that is, the study of end-times matters — I seriously question their priorities.

(Note that I realize the words are similar, but it has very little in common with scatology, which is the study of matter coming out of your end…)

If everywhere you look, you see signs (as described in the Book of Revelation) that the world is about to end, it can be a powerful disincentive from trying to make things better (either for you or for anyone else). I’ve written before about all of the failed predictions about the end of the world and openly wondered why people keep insisting that it’s about to happen even when they keep getting it wrong. (Their math was off, of course…)

So it raises questions to me: when things out there are bad — however you choose to define the term “bad” — we essentially have three choices:

  1. Work to make things better
  2. Leave things alone and hope they get better
  3. Make things worse

Choice 1 above is, generally speaking, the preferable option although we do have to acknowledge that sometimes things do have to get worse before they get better. Think of a structurally unsound building. If the solution is to tear down the building before constructing a new, more sound, one in its place, then you might need to make things worse before they can get better.

Depending upon the situation, option 2 might be a reasonable solution. Take the common cold. It’s a bad thing — at its most benign, it’s a nuisance but it certainly can be worse than that — but one that runs its course and things improve after a short wait. Inaction while you’re trying to figure out how to solve a problem isn’t inherently a bad idea either, assuming inaction (at least for a short while) won’t make things worse.

And then there’s item 3. If it’s a step that you have to take before making things better, I approve. Otherwise, it’s a horrible idea. Everyone wants a better life for their children.

Which brings me to the Rapture Ready thread that started on March 11 of this year, by a user named “Yrrek”. Yrrek joined the board in August, 2017 and has only made 45 postings since then. Yrrek made a statement in this thread that is painful to read: “When it comes to me personally, I long to be with the Lord and be released from my loneliness and depression.”

Ouch!

Your heart just breaks for this person. The entire posting is a cry for help. His/her religious faith very possibly might be the only thing preventing him/her from committing suicide.

There’s a second line in this posting that bothers me, and it really does underscore how poisonous some religious teachings can be, both at an individual level and at a community level. Here’s someone who could use a simple friend to talk to, and then they have to throw this out: “Most of my friends are either living sinful lives and are repelled by me or they are too busy to even say hello.”

Ya know something, Yrrek? Maybe if you weren’t so judgmental towards whatever they’re doing, they wouldn’t be repelled by you… Yes, we can have busy lives but I imagine that your excessive passion for your religious beliefs can be, at its most benign, off-putting. You need help but if you’re going to distance yourself from the people who are best positioned to offer you a caring smile and a shoulder to cry on, you might just be beyond help.

I get it. Yrrek is so depressed, that the end of the world must appear to be a good thing. And a teaching about a mythical better life must be appealing.

I know that depression is not easily treated. But it can be treated. Yrrek doesn’t need Jesus. He or she needs a qualified psychiatrist and the full force of the science that is the study of mental health and neurochemistry.

Preferably before he or she does something dangerous either to him/herself or others.

Transience and Intransigence

I remember a conversation I had with a friend of mine when we were in high school, about the Beatles’ song, The Inner Light.

Now I can forgive anyone who doesn’t know this particular song. It’s not exactly the Fab Four’s best known song. Indeed, I was probably the exception and not the rule of people who were teenagers in the mid-to-late ’80s — upwards of two decades removed from the height of Beatlemania — with regard to this particular song.

In that conversation, I remember citing the refrain: “The farther one travels, the less one knows, the less one really knows.” Dave didn’t appreciate that line very much, and I don’t think I defended it very well.

When he wrote the song, I believe George Harrison tried to instill the message of how the less of the world you see, the easier it is to think you know everything. It takes an active attempt to break out of your small, private bubble, to even realize how much is out there that we don’t know.

If you’ve seen the movie The Matrix, you need to take the red pill to realize the scope of what’s out there, not the blue pill.

But there are ways to take the red pill without traveling great distances. On one hand, you can go to the other places both within and outside of your own country. On the other hand, they can come to you.

It takes a liberal immigration policy to allow other countries to come to you. I live in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Depending on how I choose to go and my specific destination within the city, I can be there in, at most, an hour. But even without leaving the suburbs, I look at the huge variety of restaurants selling international cuisine and am in awe: the usual suspects of Chinese, Italian, and Mexican, but also Thai, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Russian, Indian, Moroccan, and probably a few others I’m forgetting.

While there certainly is a reality that, depending on where I choose to go, it may or may not be authentic cuisine from those different places, it also bears mentioning that, were it not for immigrants from all of those countries, we wouldn’t be exposed to these foodstuffs. And there are many more in the city proper.

Now I’ve never been the world’s most adventurous eater. Indeed, years ago I wrote about how much of a fussy eater I am. But I am occasionally willing to step outside of my own bubble and try some things from around the world. And anyone could or should be.

All it takes is the ability and desire to put in the effort.

This is why it strikes me as, at best, an act of laziness to restrict immigration. Stay in your house, in your little bubble, and it’s true, you won’t be exposed to different people, different foods, different ideas. You won’t be challenged or made to think or rethink anything you might have previously believed.

A country as rich and diverse as America deserves better. I’m not sure how I got on Donald Trump’s mailing list but in the past couple of weeks, I’ve gotten near daily emails ostensibly from him or from some member of his family. And they often hammer home the same point about how we need to restrict immigration and/or build a completely useless wall on the US-Mexico border, often painting all foreigners as being a danger or a menace to the American way of life.

I wish I could tell him that he’s a greater danger and menace to the American way of life than just about anyone who wants to come here and build a better life for themselves.

Who knows what country’s cuisine — to which I haven’t yet been exposed — might be my next favorite food? If we don’t let people from that country into the US, I might not know…

Now it is a scary prospect, I admit, to take that red pill. Uncertainty can be and often is a frightening thing, a challenge to the things that make you comfortable. But being willing to get a little uncomfortable can lead to great changes.

There are things about our overall lives and personalities that we can’t change, and that can be a good thing or it can be a bad thing. Think about any time you said the wrong thing at the wrong time. However much you might not appreciate the consequences, it was still something in the core of who you are that led you to say it in the first place.

That’s why it’s so important to change what you can. And expanding your horizons is an easy one. For however far you travel, you’ll still be you.

If we switch to a different song, I think that’s what Harry Chapin meant in the song W*O*L*D, when he said “But you can travel on ten thousand miles and still stay where you are.”

There are no words

The pictures and videos from around the world showing the scenes and speeches from yesterday’s March For Our Lives are truly inspiring. I’m not sure exactly what it says that the DC crowd was visible from space.

So naturally I was wondering how conservative media would try to spin things.

As I write these words, I’ve only been to four sites and I don’t think I need to go to any more.

Rapture Ready is completely silent. The thread entitled Gun confiscation for us; gun protection for them hasn’t had any new comments added since March 14. The Gun Toter’s Thread was last updated on January 8.

Fox News has a poll about how people favor gun control and two articles on the march, but all three articles are overshadowed by a larger article reporting that the “blue wave” that most political commentators expect with this year’s election will not be as big as some people currently believe.

Breitbart’s big article is about the trash leftover after the march.

But the truly appalling item is the one in Conservapedia. In their “In the news (what the MSM isn’t fully covering)” has this tantalizing headline:

Free transportation and food brought hundreds of thousands to D.C. for a march for gun control. [1] Was it the most subsidized protest in history?

They’ve got an external link. It’s gotta be something good, right?

Um, no. It’s a USA Today article about how New England Patriots owner helped the Parkland victims’ families, and the Parkland survivors get to DC for the parade. If that’s as many as a couple hundred, I’d be surprised. Certainly not “hundreds of thousands.” And the article says nothing about food.

Conservapedia is run by Andy Schlafly, the son of Phyllis Schlafly, and she apparently taught her son not to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

I’m done. I’m not the first and won’t be the last to express optimism at what I’m seeing these kids accomplish. It can only get better from here.