Paid protesters and other highly improbable things


It’s easy to laugh at the thought of significant numbers of “paid protesters”. After all, there are several practical hurdles to overcome.

  1. Start with the recruiting problem. How do you get the word out without anyone knowing? You can’t achieve newsworthy numbers with shadowy figures handing out bills in alleyways.
  2. How much do you pay them? Assume most of them need to park a car somewhere, and they won’t come for less than it costs to park. And buy dinner. And/or maybe stay in a hotel. In most urban areas that comes to about $200 minimum and your protesters would like to be compensated for their time. So… about $300 each?
  3. Now (using the women’s march as an example) multiply that figure times, say, twenty thousand per newsworthy location. A half-million in Washington. So, a hundred-fifty million bucks just in our nation’s capital, and just for that one march. George Soros is going to get tired of writing checks. Or he’ll need a very large staff to do it. Or to distribute a large amount of cash through a lot of intermediaries, all without anyone knowing.
  4. Of course, that money needs to be disbursed somehow. So you need an organization to make it flow. Of course, those quantities require bank reporting, and most people would have to declare it on their income taxes. H.R. Block tax people would know about it. It just doesn’t scale, let alone being able to hide it.

Tweet by Jennifer LiaoThere are many other problems of course. So when you ask a conservative friend if they believe that all those protesters are paid by somebody, they’ll say; “Of course not! Only a fool would believe that story.”

But here’s the problem: they’re supporting the guy who does believe it. Or at least, says it with a straight face, right after saying there were 3 million illegal voters, or that he won the EC in a landslide, or that he knows more about ISIS than the US intelligence. They’re looking at a guy who tells obvious whoppers, in charge of the world’s largest economy and nuclear arsenal, and… what? That doesn’t bother them? Is there nothing that would make them drop anchor and start checking their ethical maps?


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  • The “outside agitators” and “paid protesters” dodge is as old as the hills anyway. It’s damn impractical to get a good protest going that way. Of course paid arson or violence, to discredit protesters, is much easier because only a tiny fraction of the number of people are involved.
  • Thousands of people bussed into New Hampshire to vote illegally and no one notices? Sure, why not.

Trump is the delivery system; Pence is the payload

Trump pointing proudly to Pence
Photo credit: Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law

Way back in October, GOP pastors prayed and advocated that Trump would be elected… and then die.

Why? Because they want Pence. He’s their guy. Even they are not stupid enough to think that Trump is a Christian. I’ve been paying attention to Trump for thirty years, and his record is one of pure opportunism. The Pussy-Grabber In Chief has whatever religious convictions he can ride into power.

But Pence? He’s the real deal. He actually believes in the twisted, Ayn Rand funhouse mirror version of Christianity, with full-bore misogyny and an apocalyptic garnish. He and millions of other Christians – a minority subset probably – are expecting the Second Coming. And they believe it’s their duty to bring it about.

But Trump doesn’t have to die. Sooner or later he will do something so stupid that he will be impeached, and GOP support in his defense may be, shall we say, “tuned” to appear wholehearted without any actual structural integrity. They want their gay-hating apocalypse-backing gray-haired guy in the big chair.

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Liberty is universal or nothing

Delacroix Liberty Leading The People detail
Liberty Leading The People, by Eugene Delacroix (detail)

Liberty is an abstract concept, though for some reason it is usually personified as a woman. This is certainly the case with the famous painting, and just in case we weren’t sure, Delacroix has her bare breasts in sharp relief. Whatever her gender identity, there is little doubt about her sex.

But Delacroix’ Liberty, like the concept, is mighty, and inspirational. No one in the painting is sexualizing her. And no wonder, given her obvious battle-scars, her size, and the fixed bayonet in her left hand. She has other things on her mind. She won’t stop until the citadel of King Charles is reached and breached.

225th Commemorative Liberty coin
Raw Story: “Conservatives cry bitter tears over commemorative $100 coin”

How literally should this depiction be taken? Must Liberty be tall and muscular? Must she have a long nose? Could a blonde woman represent Liberty? If she were short and had a button nose could she represent? Could a black woman represent Liberty?

Likely Delacroix painted her the way he did because he never considered any other representation than French and white… like him. If he had been Mexican or Greek or Ethiopian he would have imagined her differently. And yet somehow a commenter, seeing the new 225th anniversary coin for the first time, opines; “Lady liberty isn’t black, that simple.”

Wait, abstractions have race now? Well yes, and no. If you ask most people to draw a person who personifies some concept, most will portray someone like themselves. But at some time in their personal development they will realize that specifically because concepts are universal, no one race owns them.

“No one is free until we are all free,” said Dr King.

Think on that. If someone else is in chains because of who they are, then you, able to move around and decide things for yourself, are not free. The word that describes your situation is “Privilege”, which can be revoked. Your privilege could be up for grabs depending on who is in power. The only way your “freedom” is safe is when everyone’s freedom is no longer up for discussion.

Lady liberty, then, must be black. And Latina. And white. And Asian. And Trans. And Native American. And handicapped. And more.

If she can’t be those things, you’ve been worshiping Lady Privilege. She only looks like Lady Freedom… to you. It’s an easy mistake to make.


Hidden Figures

We saw Hidden Figures today. It is based on true events, and on a biography of a real person. It isn’t that you could get in a time machine and eavesdrop on the same words being spoken in some historical NASA hallway. This movie rings true with historical reality and emotional veracity. It glows with the courage and energy of real people of color who stood up, and who would Not. Stand. Down.


The space race was not just a matter of national prestige. The Russians were lobbing warhead-sized payloads over our heads. We needed to get in that game, and not yesterday. It is a good platform to consider the cost of prejudice, and the price we pay as a society for cutting a narrow slice of humanity (white males) for authority and innovation, and excluding the rest. The movie makes that cost and that price crystal-clear as well.

Just go see it.


Fun Home and the Vault of Memory

funhome graphic novel
“A Family Tragicomic”

A couple years ago, I heard an NPR interview with Alison Bechdel. In it she described her graphic novel ‘Fun Home’, about her growing up in a small Pennsylvania town, daughter of a high school English teacher and funeral home director.

Around that time, I was hospitalized for uncontrolled bleeding. I lost a lot of blood – perhaps more than the hospital realized, because recovery was slow. I am mentioning this for a reason, bear with me.

The tragi-comic graphic novel has been turned into a Broadway musical. Last night I finished listening to all the songs from that musical. It was touching and funny and quite ribald in places. “Hey!”, I thought, “I’ll order that graphic novel on Amazon!”

A moment later Amazon told me that I had, in fact, already purchased the graphic novel. Right around the time I was hospitalized. I had no memory of purchasing it, but… there it is, on the shelf. It’s been sitting there for two years, waiting to be discovered.

Amazon remembered. I did not.

If we are the sum of our experiences and memories, my existence is full of holes. Death is when the only memories are held by others, by those left behind. The loss of a memory… is a harbinger. A postcard from the future “when now gives way to then.”

Guess I’ll read that graphic novel now…


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  • Yes, that Alison Bechdel, of the Bechdel-Wallace test for movie sexism, and the popular comic strip ‘Dykes To Watch Out For’.
  • It may seem morbid to think of death, and impolite to speak of it. I’ve had two, and possibly three pretty clear chances since the turn of the century to shuffle off this mortal coil. And yet, here I am. It would be strange if I didn’t reflect on it.

Suppose you had the chance

Sculpture with Santa hat
Knowing what’s real goes beyond spotting Fake News

TL:DR spend an hour in a master class on how to avoid being fooled, or fooling yourself. Written by a former Naval Intelligence officer, it will be time very well spent.

Blind Spot Part 1, the nature of reality
Blind Spot Part 2, case studies

(Seriously, what follows is just supporting material. It only describes my thinking and reasons. If you are short of time, I’ll forgive you for skipping it and going directly to the two links above.)

In the words of fictional TV medical misanthrope Gregory House, “I just like knowing stuff.” But this is not as simple as it sounds. Knowing facts by themselves is not exciting or useful. Seeing how they connect, how they fit into the context of reality? Priceless. But it isn’t super-easy to find such an illuminating perspective.

You won’t get it from watching a sportsball game. You certainly won’t get it by watching TV news. And a great deal of online news is worse, not better. If you want to go deeper, you look to experts. That is, people who have really learned about a subject until they can speak with authority about it.

I know, expertise is politically fraught. For example, just because someone got a graduate degree in physics, then a PhD in climate studies, then spent years in field work analyzing ice cores and satellite data, and published peer-reviewed papers in climate journals, and spent time with other scientists working it all out, it doesn’t mean they have anything to say about climate change. Better ask Senator Inhofe instead: he made a snowball once. And got tons of money from the oil industry.

But expertise does have value. If you want to know about basketball, you ask Michael Jordan, not me. I suppose I could read a Wikipedia article about the sport and make it through an interview, but Jordan is the Real Deal™. That’s expertise.

Back when Ebola was a big hairy deal*, I wanted to know more about it. I’ve already read several books on the subject, but what’s happening NOW, right? Simple: among the online personalities I follow are a working microbiologist and two working epidemiologists. Experts, in other words.  Would you rather learn about Ebola from them? Or from a CNN talking head who found a spokeshead to interview?

Suppose the subject were more… abstract? Recent political developments have made Fake News a subject that is even more important than Ebola. Think on that: elections hang in the balance and elections DO matter. Is there such a thing as an expert in the subject of Fake News? Well… yeah, there is.

I suppose you could interview Steve Bannon or Paul Horner, if you could stand to be in the same room with either of them. And you’d certainly learn something about Fake News from them. But would you learn what you need to know to protect yourself from being fooled? What you really need is an expert in the art of making sense.

Suppose you had the chance to spend an hour with a retired Naval Intelligence officer? No charge, and you get to learn about his methods of analysis. Of identifying true facts from their supporting context, and filtering out the chaff. And most importantly, learning how to get your own bias out of the way. That’s Jim Wright, and he has written two articles that are a master class in making sense of a noisy fact-environment.

The average American lives seventy-eight years, or around six hundred eighty-four thousand hours. Spend one of those hours with this guy. Give him your full attention. You won’t be sorry.


  • A vaccine for Ebola has been developed! All it took was a critical mass of white people exposed. (The vaccine is real, thank goodness. The link is satire, which works best when it contains elements of uncomfortable truth.)
  • But Ebola is still a big deal, even if it is clean-shaven now. The larger topic of zoonotic infections? An even hairier, bigger deal, and it shows no signs of getting smaller anytime soon.
  • While the facts given about Inhofe are true, giving them here could be a logical fallacy. For instance, I could have referred instead to Roger Pilkington, one of the few climate skeptics with any credibility left. Using even true facts about Inhofe is a Straw-Man argument, because I’m picking the biggest idiot on their side as a comparison to a majority of working climate scientists.

MACH STEM – the Nagasaki bombing intensified

In Nagasaki stood Shiroyama middle school, a sturdy building with a splendid view of the city. On the day of the bombing, some children had stayed home, and some were helping in the Mitsubishi plant next door. Their teachers were having meetings and working on bomb sheltering procedures.

The shock wave passed through the building in one-tenth of a second. Afterward, survivors tried to get out and understand what had happened.

The building withstood the blast, but almost everyone died instantly. More died within hours or days, and a very few lived to old age. 138 teachers and students lost their lives there.

One survivor was Hideo Arakawa, the assistant principal, who was in a meeting at the moment of the blast. He was the only survivor in the room, which had windows into the courtyard of the school. In the years that followed, he recorded everything he could about the event, interviewing other survivors and contributing to the historic archive.

After the blast, US military researchers also took careful measurements of the school building, its location and fatalities, comparing the results with the calculations they had made ahead of the drop. In particular they were looking for the results of the Mach Stem – a phenomenon that amplifies the destructive power shock waves that originate from a height.

This NHK documentary explores both the physics of Mach Stem, which accounts for the far greater destructive power of the Nagasaki bomb over its Hiroshima counterpart*, and the human story that resolves to such details as interviews and a great many US declassified documents. It also makes use of investigation by the famed Japanese meteorologist Tetsuya Fujita*, whose documents on the blast surfaced in 2013. The documentarians also commissioned a university project to carry out a blast simulation to tie together the science from Fujita and the Pentagon.

The Mach Stem effect was well known to makers of large bombs, and had been a key subject of the targeting committee. Nagasaki was a triumph, of sorts, of the scientific art of destruction.


  • This edition of the documentary has English narration in place of the original Japanese. There are a few blank spots in the audio where longer Japanese narratives had been.
  • It may seem strange to have school children helping in a wartime factory. Perhaps, it is not so strange. In the US, children helped with recycling drives, victory gardens, and war preparedness. Children on both sides learned writing and literature, mathematics and science, art and music, history and of course, patriotism.
  • I had this in my “Watch Later” queue for quite a long time; it is fascinating both scientifically and historically. But the imagery of learned men coldly calculating destruction is not easy to digest. What is the best height and location for an airburst? Let’s get rooms full of mathematicians working on it. (In those days such mathematicians were known as ‘computers’. Their electronic counterparts had not yet taken over that role.)
  • The computers’ labor bore fruit: the Nagasaki Bomb was 30% more powerful, but leveled ten times the area of reinforced buildings, as the Hiroshima bomb.
  • Can you imagine the Japanese reaction to Americans climbing over wreckage, taking photographs and make tape measurements? Recording the position of corpses and their condition? Mapping trees and how they were broken. It must have seemed ghoulish.
  • We refer to Fujita every time we designate a tornado as an F-3, for example.