Sunday, December 4, 2016


18% of voters across the nation detested both candidates on November 8, and yet the majority of this group voted for Donald Trump, putting him over the top. For example, in Wisconsin, which was a crucial state for Trump, the “Neithers” were 22%, not 18%, and yet among them a whopping 60% voted for Trump. In Michigan, 50% of the Neithers voted for Trump but Hillary Clinton did not get the other 50%; she only got 29%, the remainder evidently going to minor party candidates. Where the percentage of Neithers was smaller than 18%, such as in Florida and North Carolina, the Neithers went for Trump by more than 60%.

The point is that Trump is president-elect exactly because he won narrow victories in several key states, where voters who detested him—but detested Hillary Clinton more—made the difference. (Hat tip to Mark Levin for turning me on to this Edison Research poll.)

An odd finding: Two percent of voters had favorable views of BOTH candidates! What were these people on, and is it legal anywhere?

*  *  *

If you think it would be a good idea to do away with the Electoral College, just look at an election map for 2016. It is a sea of Republican red bordered by a few islands of Democratic blue. Of course, the blue states include some of the country’s most populous states: New York, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Virginia. But thirty states, including Texas, went for the Republican candidate while only twenty voted for the Democratic candidate. That means twice as many states went for the Republican as the Democrat. While the popular vote in favor of the Democrat (by only 1.32 million votes) indicates that the Republican should not assume that he has a mandate—especially since almost ten percent of the voters who pushed him over the top in key states actually detest him—he nevertheless won the election fair and square according to the rules established in 1787, and, state-by-state, the so-called fly-over people got the candidate they voted for. Whether they really wanted him or not, in an ideal world, is another question.

That said, Donald Trump is already getting criticism even from conservatives who voted for him (notably, Mark Levin). His announcement of a deal with the air-conditioner company, Carrier, is being called “crony capitalism” and favoritism. (Where are the deals for the air-conditioner companies that never said they were moving jobs overseas? Why does the squeaky wheel have to get the grease?) Meanwhile, most conservatives are taking a wait and see approach. After all, the president-elect is not president until January 20.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Long-Since Demise of Leftist Political Satire

Within the last couple of years, one of the Sunday pundit-fests ended with a tribute to the corner the left supposedly still has on the political satire market. I listened in disbelief. The left lost any claim to having a sense of humor about politics long ago.

My local newspaper carries a weekly feature called “Latelaughs.” It prints the jokes of late night hosts as well as “Saturday Night Live.” Not those told during the previous week for some reason, but very stale material. In fact, on December 3, 2016, they printed jokes from as far back as November 7 through 9, the week of the late election. I have been noting for some time that at least half of the jokes in this column have been political. This week, they printed more jokes than usual and all but two related to the election.

The jokes mainly reflect the cluelessness of the leftward mainstream of popular culture. Conan O’Brien described the election results as “a massive shock,” which is only because the big media spent the election cycle in their own bubble, never bothering to take seriously what was happening on the ground. (I myself bet that Hillary Clinton would win, even though I told myself that I could be wrong. That’s why I only bet three bucks on her.)

One of the better jokes recorded in “LateLaughs” compared every newsreader reporting the results on election night to “a child slowly realizing that no one was showing up to his birthday party.” Like all decent jokes, this contains a kernel of truth, but in doing so it exposes the fact that the big media outlets a) had bamboozled themselves into believing that the election was going in the opposite direction from where it went, and 2) they had a dog in the fight rather than being unbiased.

A few jokes illustrate the cluelessness of the jokesters themselves:

Conan O’Brien said, “Two things happened last night. Donald Trump got elected president, and my job just got easier for the next four years.” He would have been unable to make easy jokes with Bill Clinton back in the White House?

He continued: “The first thing I did this morning was call my old high school bully and congratulate him.” Couldn’t he have done the same if the winner had been Hillary Clinton, the woman who added insult to injury by bullying every woman that her husband sexually abused?

But you see, leftists have a tin ear when it comes to knowing where the political jokes are. The joke, in this case, is on O’Brien.

Jimmy Kimmel did no better: “Tomorrow we will elect either Biff from ‘Back to the Future’ or one of the robots from ‘Westworld’.” Rather bite-less.

Kimmel went ahead: “…Donald Trump reached out and grabbed America by the Virginia….” Yes, yes. A referencethis time with some biteto the "Access Hollywood" tapes, but it is almost as if this joke had been written before it was known that Trump was not going to win in Virginia (though his loss there was no surprise), except that is also not possible because the writers never thought he was going to win the presidency. The joke is a stretch in any case.

Kimmel goes on: “It turns out these [pre-election] polls are no different from those experiments where they make hamsters ring a bell for a dropper full of sugar water. They’re meaningless.”

I myself made a better version of this joke in a tweet:

Nov 9: Over weekend, #CoastToCoast show cited numerous psychics who predicted Clinton win. Only one predicted #Trump. Sounds just like pollsters.

Michael Che of “Saturday Night Live” said, “Donald Trump is the next president of the United States. Haha, ‘United’.” So it would have been united if HRC had been elected? No, but that wouldn’t have mattered to the soft totalitarians on the left. If they can’t MAKE unity, they PRETEND it. (Even now, they are pretending she won in their safe spaces.)

One or the other of SNL’s “Weekend Update” anchors, Che or Colin Jost, went on to rant lengthily (for a joke) to belabor Trump’s lack of experience in government during his seventy years on earth. “A 70 year old holding a new career is not how the presidency is supposed to work….” I’m sorry, but this seems more like an unfunny, boring, whiny editorial than the set up to a joke. Meanwhile, is it not much funnier that so many politicians who pretend they know how to run the private sector from Washington, DCincluding the current occupant of the White Househave never held a real job, period? (Aside from Barack Obama, who allegedly at least had a pretend job at a private law firm for five minutes, we have Senator Charles "Chuck" Shumer who has never worked outside of government his entire adult life.)

Ever since Al Franken went to the 1992 Democratic Convention on behalf of Comedy Central and could not bring himself to make fun of it, it has been abundantly clear that political satire in the popular culture is dominated by leftists with a tin ear for what is actually absurdly funny on the political scene—because they themselves are too often part of the joke.

SNL lost it long ago, but I fully realize it 27 October 2012 when SNL opened with a skit based on the last presidential debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama. In the skit, actors playing Romney, Obama and moderator Candy Crowley, re-enacted the moment when Romney said that Obama had waited 14 days to call the Benghazi attack an act of terrorism. Crowley—both in the debate and as portrayed on SNL—proceeded to read from a transcript she just happened to have, and showed that Obama had mentioned the word “terrorism” in his remarks on 12 September 2012. Thereupon, the actor playing Obama stepped to the foot of the stage and dropped his microphone. That was the only real departure from the historical event, the rest of which was played straight (in a comedy sketch, mind you). While making up its punch line, the skit completely missed the actual humor throughout the situation being portrayed, which was inherently absurd. First of all, did no one notice the humor of an alleged moderator suddenly becoming the president’s debate partner? And how did they miss the rather obvious humor of the “moderator” just happening to have a transcript of the president’s remark from over two months previous?

Finally, if I were writing the sketch and making up further developments after portraying what actually happened, I would have played on the novel role of the moderator as the president’s in-studio helper by borrowing from the game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” (On the game show, a contestant can ask for help from either someone in the studio or someone on the telephone.) The actor playing Romney should have responded to being double-teamed by citing the game show rules and asking for a “lifeline” of his own.  The liberal bias need not have been sacrificed entirely: “Romney” could have called “Rush Limbaugh,” who could have said, “Mitt, you’re on your own.” Underneath, though, the point would have been made that what Crowley did was bizarre (not to say unethical). It could have been played on for what it was: Funny if it were not so pathetic. But what ended up being more pathetic was SNL’s failure to find satire when it had already been written for them and was directly in front of their faces.

If Romney actually had reached out to Limbaugh at that moment, of course, the talk show host would have pointed out that Obama only mentioned the word “terrorism” during his 12 September remarks; he did not identify the Benghazi attack as an example of such an act. Indeed, Crowley herself, in an interview immediately after the debate, admitted that “Governor Romney was right in the main,” but that she had tripped him up on a “technicality.” It would not have been hard for a comedy writer to have seen this interview and understood its implications, but, of course, his career at SNL would have been over, and the skit would have been rewritten as something closer to what it was, not the funnier version that it could have been.

The left cannot claim to have a corner on political satire, whether on late night talk shows or variety-sketch shows like SNL, if they cannot see the real jokes that reality has written for them.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Most Common (Popular) Surnames in the United States include Smith & Johnson, not necessarily Jones, but the name Garcia is on the rise

Joseph Smith, founder of
the Church of Jesus Christ
of Latter-day Saints
John Smith, explorer,
soldier of fortune &
leader of colonial Virginia
Smith and Johnson top the list of most common (or, as some would have it, popular) names in most of the United States, although, in some states like Minnesota, Johnson is the top name while, in most other states, Smith is most popular. Many of the northern and central states were settled by Germans and Scandinavians. That is why names like Anderson and Olson crop up there as very popular names, and the frequency of the name Smith could be due to the German name Schmidt being Anglicized into Smith. More often, perhaps, the name Smith just represents multiple waves of immigrants from the British Isles.

In North Dakota, Johnson comes in first while Anderson comes in second and Olson comes in third. Is it possible that if you sign yourself as Smith in a North Dakota motel, the clerk will be less suspicious than his counterpart would be in nearby Montana, where Smith is the most popular name? What is the difference, BTW, between “most common” and “most popular”? As I see it, if your name happens to be Smith, then it is popular; but if the guy who is not within earshot is named Smith, then between you and me, we’ll call it common. By this reckoning, Smith is the most common name in 39 states. Or maybe forty. I lost count. So it must be the most common name in the United States. I mean, without doing the math, it has to be. And yet, how many people have you actually met named Smith? I cannot think of very many, although, that might just be because I haven’t noticed most of them. If your name is Smith, I had to like you or hate you for you to make an impression on me; so only my favorite person named Smith and my least favorite person named Smith leap to mind. 

But back to the survey. Wherever Smith is not the top name, it is usually the second most common (five states) or third (South Dakota being the one and only state where this is the case). I know that everyone always thinks of Jones as being almost as popular as Smith, but it makes the top three in only four of the United States. 
Andrew Johnson, 17th U.S. President
(The 36th President was Lyndon B. Johnson)

Johnson, on the other hand, is in the top three in 41 states. Other “popular” names include Williams, which is among the top three names in 17 states. (Right or wrong, I believe I once heard that Williams is the twentieth most popular name in the English-speaking world.) 

Tennessee Williams, playwright
Hank Williams, musician & songwriter

Loni Anderson, actress
John L. Sullivan, boxer
Next come Brown (eight states), Anderson (seven states), Miller (seven), and Sullivan (one state—Massachusetts.) Having lived in Massachusetts, I can attest to the popularity of Sullivan, the name of my favorite high school teacher as well numerous other people that I knew there.

As you might expect, if you have been hearing about the increase in the immigrant and native Hispanic populations in the United States, there are other names besides the British or northern European ones that are becoming very common. Hispanic names have become especially common in the southwestern states. You might be surprised to learn that, in some states, Hispanic names have already displaced Northern European ones on the three most popular list. In fact, there are two states where all three top names are Hispanic: California and New Mexico. In California, the most common names are Garcia, Hernandez and Lopez. Garcia is also the most popular name in Texas where it tops Smith, and Garcia places or shows in Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. Also, Martinez is very popular in Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.

Surprise! Asian names are popular in Hawaii, although the name Lee is a European name as well as an East Asian one, which could be why it holds the top spot in the Islands and is more popular than Wong and Kim.

Manuel Antonio Chaves, officer of the 2nd
 New Mexico Volunteers during the Civil War
I have mentioned all but two of the most popular names that come up in this state-by-state survey. Nelson is the third most popular in Minnesota and Chavez (variant spelling: Chaves) is third in New Mexico. 

Here is the list of all the top names on a state-by-state basis: Smith, Johnson, Williams, Brown, Anderson, Miller, Garcia, Jones, Martinez, Chavez, Hernandez, Lee, Lopez, Nelson, Olson, Sullivan, Wong, and Kim.

Of course, it would be statistically invalid to assume that the last nine names on this list are very common across the country, because they are each only among the three most common names in a single state, and Martinez is among the three most common in only three states. Since Hispanic names are still not among the top three in most states—although that could change soon enough—at least some of the Hispanic names will fall from the upper rungs of the list when national averages are calculated.

A note about the people pictured: They all represent states where each of their names is currently among the top three. John Smith was born in Lincolnshire and died in London, but he is famous for helping to settle Virginia, where Smith remains the most popular name; Joseph Smith was born in Vermont and grew up in New York, in both of which states Smith is the most popular name, as it is in other states where he lived, including Ohio and Illinois, as well as in Utah, the state where the religion he founded has become ensconced. Andrew Johnson was born in North Carolina where his name comes in third and died in Tennessee where it is second. Tennessee Williams was born in Mississippi and Hank Williams was born in Alabama, and in both states Williams is the second most popular name. Similarly, Loni Anderson was born in Minnesota (second most popular) and John L. Sullivan was born in Massachusetts (third most popular). Manuel Chaves was born in New Mexico and died there, although he was born a citizen of Mexico and died a citizen of the United States. As noted above, Chavez is the third most popular name in his state.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Most Other Republicans Did Better Than Trump & Did Better Than Some Democrats Think

Ezra Klein, editor-in-chief at Vox, says, “Democrats won the most votes in the election. They should act like it.” He bases this claim on the results from elections for senator as well as the presidential election. But Klein is cherry-picking the statistics he likes while ignoring the mountain of statics that render his opinion absurd.

For one thing, the bulk of the United States population is concentrated into the big cities with most of them rounded up on the northeastern and western coasts, with a few pockets in the megalopoli of Illinois and Texas. Indeed, one of the biggest holes in Klein’s argument is that neither of Texas’s senators was up for reelection this year; so there is a large population of voters who did not vote for a senator of either party. Texas did vote for Trump, However.

What is truly striking is that several Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate out-polled Donald Trump. Not only did Trump not have coattails—meaning that he did not help candidates further down on the ballot, but many of them seem to have won more votes than he did i  their states or districts, as if, perhaps, it was the senatorial and gubernatorial candidates who helped Trump get votes, not the other way around. To be sure, Trump did better than other Republican candidates in some areas, but it seems that in many cases he did not.

While Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton got about 62.5 million popular votes and Republican Donald Trump got about 61.2 million, Trump won 290 electoral votes and counting (Michigan’s as yet unassigned 16 electoral votes will probably go to Trump) against Clinton’s 232. This is the sixth time in U.S. history that the winner in the Electoral College has lost the popular vote. Calls for the abolition of the Electoral College are being heard (from Democrats, naturally) as we speak, but these calls have been heard before without result. The Electoral College is in the United States Constitution and will not be eliminated easily, and thank goodness! It was intended as a great equalizer between the states, which have a much better shot than they would have otherwise at choosing the president. If the popular vote determined the occupant of the presidency, then the largest cities and coastal regions of the country would pick the president every time. The Electoral College gives the “fly-over people” in the middle of the country more say in the election of the president.

Let us go down the list of states where Republicans won seats in the Senate in 2016. There are 21 of them, while there are only 12 states where the Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate won. What is more striking is how many of these Republican Senatorial candidates won with more votes than Donald Trump. Below, see the election results from states where a U.S. Senate race was held, compared to the results for president, and, where applicable, for governor. (Out of eleven states holding gubernatorial elections, five Republicans won and one state’s gubernatorial election remains so close that we can only say now that it looks as if the Democrat probably won.)

State     Republican Senator         Republican President     Republican Governor
Alaska                      111,382                 130,415 (+)
Arizona                   1,089,324              1,021,154
Utah                         659,769                 452,086                                650,269
Idaho                        447,342                 407,199
Oklahoma                 979,728                 947,934
Kansas                     716,661                 656,009
South Dakota            265,494                 227,701
North Dakota            267,964                 216,133                                259,067
Wisconsin              1,479,262            1,409,467
Iowa                         923,280                 798,923
Missouri                1,370,240            1,585,753 (+)                         1,424,730
Arkansas                 657,856                 677,904 (+)
Indiana                 1,423,001              1,556,220 (+)                         1,396,437
Kentucky              1,090,151              1,202,942 (+)
Ohio                     3,048,467              2,771,984
Pennsylvania        2,893,833              2,912,941 (+)
North Carolina       2,371,192             2,339,603                               2,276,383 (lost)
South Carolina      1,228,844             1,143,611
Alabama               1,323,184             1,306,925
Georgia                 2,110,737             2,068,623
Florida                  4,822,182             4,605,515

Notice that Trump won more votes than the Republican running for Senator in only six states and that three Republicans running for governorships got fewer votes than Trump did (+). In North Carolina, where Trump won the popular vote, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate appears to have won, but by less than 10,000 votes! Trump won over 63,000 more votes than the losing Republican gubernatorial candidate. However, in two states, Vermont and New Hampshire, where Clinton beat Trump, Trump won 71,196 fewer votes and 7,783 fewer votes, respectively, than the winning Republican gubernatorial candidates.

Where I live, in Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District, the only other election besides the presidential was for the U.S. House of Representatives, where the Republican winner received 207,758 votes according to the Virginia Department of Elections, while Trump received only 195,190. The coattail-effect of Donald Trump could be just as elusive at the bottom of the ticket as it seems to be in the middle.

My conclusion is that the Republicans did stunningly well in 2016.  At the state level, they won big (or bigly as I take it we are supposed to say now) but without much help from Donald Trump at the top of the ticket. Klein’s thesis that the Democrats somehow scored some kind of victory in an election where they lost Congress and the White House as well as most governorships is delusional. That the Democratic Party happens to control most of the major population centers does not mean that it controls the country. 

Update on Duolingo's free language courses

This is an update to "Duolingo: Learning a new language for free," which I wrote last month. As I reported then, my free online lessons in French seemed to have come to an abrupt end. When I got to the end of the page of French lessons, there were no more lessons to be had, no new page was unlocked, and I was demobbed, so to speak, mustered out - or so I thought - and simply certified 55% fluent (which really only refers to my reading ability, not any ability to speak French) and seemingly fixed at level fourteen in the language learning game. (Duolingo imitates video games where the player reaches higher and higher levels of advancement.)

So far, so disappointing, but the key word here is "seems." There seems to be no further vocabulary available to learn, so far as I can tell. Nowhere in the existing lessons did I find "racrocher" which means "to hang up" (the phone) or the phrase "sans compter que" ("besides that"). However, I have since learned that there is more to be done at Duolingo - other than to move on and learn other languages. Duolingo encourages learners to go back over the lessons in the courses that they have already completed. Although I could go back and do every lesson over again from the beginning, Duolingo selects and thereby recommends a number of lessons to retake, which changes each day. Yesterday, I was given a surprise. I have now been kicked up to level fifteen, and my fluency has been upgraded by one percent to 56%. Evidently, Duolingo takes into account the fact that we become more fluent with practice. Just because I have completed the course, does not mean I cannot improve by retaking it. [Update, January 2017: My French fluency is now listed as 58% and I have risen to level 17, all through going back every day and repeating lessons.]

I have been supplementing my French learning experience by using other resources:

Collins "French-English, English-French Dictionary," French flashcards, Georges Simenon's novels that I took out of the nearby university library ("La Neige Était Sale" ["The Snow Was Dirty"], and "Monsieur La Souris" [Mr. La Souris (The Mouse)"] and any other books about French I can dig out of my library. (Somewhere, I have St. Exupery's "Le Petit Prince." I also have a pictionary called "What's What?/ Que ce que c'est?" that gives the names of a wide variety of objects in both English and French; it's amazingly comprehensive and detailed.)

I am now taking Duolingo's courses in six other languages besides French. I am furthest along in German (level 7) and Russian (level 6), and I am also at level 6 in Esperanto. I am at level 2 in Swedish (6 % fluent) and Spanish (4 % fluent) and I am at level 2 in Romanian. Some of these courses are not giving me any percentages of fluency. Russian and Esperanto do not, while Spanish does, even though I am more advanced in Russian and Esperanto. I do not understand that at all.

In the German course, I have come to the lesson on "Nature" and to my surprise, it is not at all gung ho about an ideological environmentalist message as is the French lesson on "Nature." This might be because each language course is designed and administered by a separate team; evidently, they do not necessarily consult each other about ideological content, which I count as a good and promising thing.

Each course, in fact, seems to be run by an independent team with its own quirky predilections. The Esperanto lessons, for example, keep referencing Duolingo itself and, in particular, its mascot owl, Duo; whereas, the other courses have so far been silent on the mascot or Duolingo in the contents of their lessons.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go Back into the Washington, DC Swamp...

Earmarks are amendments added into legislation to either provide funds or exemptions to groups or specified projects in the state of the politician who requested the earmark. At the end of the last decade, the rules on earmarks were tightened by both political parties in the House of Representatives so that groups and projects requesting earmarks had to apply for them under tighter restrictions, and congressmen who sponsored such measures had to swear or affirm that they themselves were in no way lined up to benefit financially from the allocation or exemption involved in a given earmark. This is, of course, the conceit of the DC insider, that the appearance of non-direct benefit equals non-benefit. But benefits in Washington often accrue indirectly and at a distance in time and financial space. If you contribute to a congressman’s personal political action committee or other fund, that is deemed not to be a direct contribution even though, at some point in the future, the congressman will benefit from those funds. The Senate has not been as restrictive, so earmarks get into legislation when it gets to the Senate.

There are arguments in favor of earmarks; advocates say that the Executive Branch’s departments make such allocations anyway, though they usually require competitive bidding, whereas congressional earmarks are often given to a favored company or project without considering whether some other group or project might be a better way to spend the money. The late John Murtha (D-Pa) left a scandal in his wake (no pun intended) when it was exposed that he had sponsored earmarks for a company that contributed heavily to his reelection. The company was subsequently drawn into an inquiry into its lobbying firm by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

To put it harshly, earmarks can be essentially legal graft in the form of little measures that are plugged into each bill passed by the United States Congress for the benefit of each member’s district. Theoretically, a senate bill could have one hundred earmarks attached to it, one for each senator’s political supporters back home. The process rewards political cronies for their support and generally raises or diverts money that could have been used for a more worthy purpose—one that might benefit the entire country instead of greasing the palms of businessmen or politicians in one city in one state—or that money could have been left in the pockets of hard-pressed taxpayers. 

While some allegedly worthy projects claim to have benefited from this process (drones for example), it seems to me that the process corrupts politicians and the marketplace by bestowing federal largess on some at the expense of others. It turns government into a cynical game of staying in power by scratching the backs of the connected. It also creates the annoying situation where a bill on healthcare might contain a provision on corporate financial paperwork that has nothing whatsoever to do with healthcare, or a defense bill might have a provision for building a statue of a congressman or senator in his hometown.

As I said, the use of earmarks by the House of Representatives has been down since 2010, but, this week, Congress was considering restoring earmarks to their former glory. That is, they WERE going to do it until commentators in the media began to talk about it. The almost universal public revulsion led House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wi) to pivot in midstream and announce that the House would not be voting on this measure any time soon. We are left to imagine that they will wait until no one is paying attention and then revisit the vote to restore earmarks. 

This backsliding into corruption has led many commentators to wonder whether Congress saw the results of the recent election for the rebuke of Washington, DC, corruption that they were. It would appear not. Less well publicized is Monday’s vote in the House for HR 985, a bill entitled “The Concrete Masonry Products Research, Education and Promotion Act of 2015(!).” This bill—which was originally introduce in February of last year—would create a federal Concrete Masonry Products Board to “coordinate research, education and promotion of concrete.” In order to fund the board, manufacturers of concrete will be assessed (read taxed) something between one and five cents per unit of concrete. The trouble is that 1) there is no reason why the concrete industry could not form a private board if this were necessary; there is no need for a government board; and 2) the tax will be passed on to consumers of concrete, meaning that construction costs will go up and construction jobs will be lost or wages cut.

Basically, the large manufacturers of concrete asked for this legislation in order to tax their smaller competitors out of business. (If truth be told, that is the purpose of a lot of federal legislation as well as federal court decisions; it is what is meant by the term “crony capitalism,” which is that politicians penalize the competitors of the corporations that contribute to their campaigns and give these contributors unfair access to government grants.) As with the restoration of earmarks, this boondoggle has the fingerprints of electorally tone-deaf Republicans all over it, having been introduced by Representative Brett Guthrie (R-Ky), although it was opposed by the Republican Study Center and the Republican House Liberty Caucus. Liberty Caucus spokesman Representative Justin Amash (R-Mi) called the bill “another corporate program that benefits some businesses at the expense of others.”

Amash was among the 38 congressmen who voted against the legislation. Only one Democrat, Jared Polis (D-Co), was among the nay voters. The yea voters consisted of 188 Republicans and 167 Democrats. Another 38 congressmen did not vote on the measure. My representative was among the 188.

Monday, November 14, 2016

How the Media Got It Wrong(?)

In the aftermath of the election surprise, it is sobering to read what one former New York Times reporter had to say about the culture at one of the United States’ most influential papers. The reporter had previously worked for the Los Angeles Times and there had found the editors interested in what the reporters were hearing from their sources in order to understand what was actually going on in the world outside their newspaper. 

“It was a shock on arriving at the New York Times in 2004, as the paper’s movie editor, to realize that its editorial dynamic was essentially the reverse. By and large, talented reporters scrambled to match stories with what internally was often called the narrative. We were occasionally asked to map a narrative for our various beats a year in advance, square the plan with editors, then generate stories that fit the pre-designated line.”

Sorry, but this is a recipe for the inevitable results of navel-gazing groupthink; you are going to end up reporting what you expect to exist rather than what actually exists.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The 102nd Anniversary of the "Battle of the Bees"

On 3 November 1914, British Indian troops invaded German East Africa. The Africans won—with the help of bees, which is why the Battle of Tanga is sometimes known as the Battle of the Bees. Disturbed by the human combatants, angry bees attacked both sides, interrupting the battle. By the fifth of November, however, the battle had been won, but not solely by the bees. After the bee attack abated, the human battle had resumed, but the Indians were demoralized. Their British commander, Maj. Gen. Arthur E. Aitken, had assumed that his Indian troops could roll over any opposition from Africans. He was wrong. The African Askari troops were well-trained and led by a German army officer, Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. This tough army was made up of soldiers from different tribes but especially the Dinka of the Sudan, and the Hehe and Ngoni of Tanzania (though the Ngoni tribe is actually spread over various territories in southern African). 

Aitken was demoted to colonel subsequent to the Battle of Tanga, although, eventually, he was rehabilitated and made an honorary brigadier general. Lettow-Vorbeck, on the other hand, became a general on his merits. He spent the entirety of World War I in Africa, fighting an undefeated guerrilla campaign against the British, Belgians and, later, the Portuguese, despite being out-numbered, out-gunned and out-supplied. His guerrilla force did not surrender until after Germany had surrendered in Europe.

We know that World War II was truly a global event because its major and minor battles took place in Europe, Africa and Asia, but we tend to think of World War I as a primarily European catastrophe, even though it was global, too. It was fought in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, but it is also true, for example, that Japan was a participant in World War I (allied with Britain in this war but with Germany in World War II). Japan captured islands from the Germans in the Pacific and even sent a few ships to the Mediterranean Sea. World War I even saw sea battles fought off the coast of Latin America. The war affected Africa, too, just as World War II would, more than two decades later.

In war, famine and disease often kill far more soldiers and civilians than bombs and guns do. Both sides in Africa during World War I left behind them swaths of ruined crops and starving people, rendering everyone on all sides vulnerable when the Spanish Flu arrived in 1918 and decimated the region’s population. Tragically, many of the Askaris who had survived the war itself died from the flu while in British custody following their surrender.

Lettow-Vorbeck went back to Germany where he later tried to forge a political coalition against the Nazis before they came to power. When Adolf Hitler offered him the ambassadorship to England in 1935, Lettow-Vorbeck is said to have turned it down with a stream of obscenities. Although he did not serve in World War II (He was 69 in 1939), both of his sons were killed in action. He was impoverished following the war but managed to survive until 1964. In that year, the West German government awarded long-overdue back pay to 350 Askari veterans who had served under Lettow-Vorbeck.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Doubtful Choice for 2016

In this historic election (Is it really? "They" always say it is.), many voters are trying to figure out which candidate to vote against. Both are deplorable—or "deplorables" to use one candidate's word. (I would not care to know or even meet either of them.) The following is a strategy that you might consider regardless of your political proclivities. I set out my thinking here without making any endorsement. I will not recommend Clinton or Trump or any of the third party candidates of whom I am aware. (For the record they are—in alphabetical order: Darrell Castle, Constitution Party; Gary Johnson, Libertarian Party; Evan McMullin, Independent; and Jill Stein, Green Party.)

Senator Ted Cruz, in coming out for presidential candidate Donald Trump, said that every voter faces five choices in this election:

Voting for Hillary Clinton,
Voting for Donald Trump,
Voting for a third party candidate,
Voting for a write-in candidate,
Not voting for anyone.

I would narrow it to four choices because two of his choices, the third-party and write-in vote, are virtually the same with a negligible statistical difference in their potential influence on the outcome of the race. In reality, only either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States. What impact will your vote make on that “binary choice”? Actually, statistically speaking, not much of one.

Voting is a civic ritual in which I believe as an article of democratic-republican faith, and the popular vote will indirectly help to determine who the next president will be, but my individual vote will not likely change the outcome. Indeed, the lesson I took away from the close presidential election in Florida in 2000 was not that “every vote counts and especially so in a close election,” but that the closer the election, the less my vote will count, because if there is a recount, someone else, a third party, will reinterpret my vote and potentially change it. (A corollary concern is whether, if I leave the presidential contest blank on my ballot, some corrupt official will punch their favorite candidate for me.) So my actual choice is more strategic. If we assume that, like me, most people are voting against one of the two main candidates rather than voting for one of them, we must look at the odds.

If I am willing to take moral responsibility for voting for the lesser of the two deplorable candidates, then I might just decide that, since one is worse than the other, I will vote for the other without any qualms or further deliberation. An alternative to making this decision ahead of time would be to wait to see how the pre-election polls are shaking out in my state or county. If we pretend for a moment that my vote does count, it might help to vote against the worst candidate if the worst candidate is leading. If they are close, theoretically this might even make a difference. But if the lesser of two evils is winning in the pre-election polls, then my strategy would be not to vote for either candidate. That way I am not responsible for the lesser of two evils winning and the worst candidate would not win in my state or locality anyway. This is a matter of fine distinctions, of course, because it matters how close the polls are. If the race is very close and the lesser of two evils is slightly in the lead, then I might want to vote against the worst candidate in order to make sure that he or she loses.

On the other hand, if the polls clearly show that the lesser of two evils is winning by a comfortable margin in my state or county, then there is no point in my voting for him or her. My strategy would then be one of voting for a third-party candidate or not voting for president at all. If that turns out to be the case, my current preference is to vote for a third party candidate. This would not be a viable choice for me if I had not been able to find a half-way decent candidate. I strongly reject three of the four that I am aware of and am not super enthusiastic about the one for whom I would be willing to vote as a last resort.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Conservative Media Not United

Whereas most of the Democratic Party and the mainstream media would like - and always have liked - to paint all of conservative media with the same brush, anyone who closely observes the right will see that there is a dramatic lack of unity - now more so than ever. Donald Trump has created more of a rift on the right than Hillary Clinton has on the left, despite the surprising appeal of Senator Bernie Sanders.

I consume conservative media but not all of it, of course, because that would mean being glued to the radio, TV, magazines and internet 24/7; however, I do sample a variety of different commentators. Online, it soon became clear that while Breitbart and the Drudge Report are pro-Trump, National Review and Red State turned against him almost from the start. Indeed, while National Review tried to remain somewhat measured in their criticism of Trump, both Breitbart and Red State were shrilly unfair in their respective support and opposition to him. (Now we know that the Breitbart editors were essentially part of Trump's campaign and have recently made that official.)

On television, FOX News at first opposed Trump and then came around to supporting him enthusiastically. This curiously mirrored the position of the Republican National Committee. As the GOP went, so went FOX.

The world of conservative talk radio presents the ultimate melange of opinion, with the talkmeisters who have heretofore been assumed to all be on the same page instead dividing sharply over Trump. Depending on what is available in your media market, you could start your radio listening day at 9 a.m. with Glenn Beck, who absolutely despises Donald Trump. He has said that after years of defending whoever the Republican candidate is, it is a relief to know that whatever comes out about Trump, Beck does not have to defend him.

Shortly after noon, however, Rush Limbaugh will come on your radio to passionately defend Trump no matter what is said about him (or what fresh outrage Trump has committed). So far, then, we have three hours of Beck bashing Trump, and three hours of Rush beating back all attacks on the GOP's standard bearer whether they are fair or unfair. (As to the unfair attacks on Trump, of which there are admittedly many, didn't Trump use unfair attacks on his opponents during the primaries? Never mind.)

Then, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., you could listen to Sean Hannity, who defends Trump with such passion that it makes it seem as if Rush did not defend him at all. After 6 p.m., we have Mark Levin, who supported Ted Cruz against Trump in the primaries but has recently said that he will vote for Trump but not at all enthusiastically. To Levin, it is really a matter of Hillary Clinton being so objectionable that he is willing to hold his nose and vote for Trump.

If you are in other markets or turn to a different station, you might also hear Laura Ingraham, another conservative talk show host who actually goes Sean Hannity one better in her passion for Trump.

So much for the notion that if you listen to any of the conservative talk shows you will get the same opinion, and so much for the longtime media-promoted conceit that listening to these shows will make up your mind for you. Talk-radio listeners have never been more on their own.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Duolingo: Learning a new language for free

Duolingo (

(This post was updated 28-30 October 2016.)

See further update in separate blog post here.

The Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, said, "To have another language is to possess a second soul." (Charlemagne spoke Frankish and Latin fluently.) The famous spy, Sidney Reilly, was so fond of quoting this saying that many people have erroneously attributed it to him. (Reilly is believed to have been fluent in English, Russian, German, French, Italian and, possibly, Portuguese.)

Duolingo is an on-line language learning app that teaches two dozen or so languages for free, although it can honestly boast only that you will be sort of half fluent at the end of a course. It does not teach any language in its totality. Although I cannot now recall how I stumbled upon Duolingo, it was probably through an ad on Facebook and happened at the beginning of September.

Duolingo was launched on the 30 November 2011. Luis von Ahn, the CEO of Duolingois a professor of computer studies at Carnegie Mellon University. He is the inventor of CAPTCHA and is a contributor to TED talks. Severin Hacker, is the Chief Tech Officer. He got his BS in Computer Science from ETH Zurich (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich) in 2006 and a PhD from Carnegie Mellon University in 2014. He was one of Ahn’s students. Ahn's initial funding was grant money from the National Science and MacArthur Foundations. The company has made money by offering corporate translation services. (Customers have included CNN and BuzzFeed.) 

Duolingo’s Investors include:

Google Capital 
Union Square Ventures
New Enterprise Associates 
Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers 
(Al Gore and Colin Powell are among KPCB’s advisers.)


Ashton Kutcher, well known actor and owner of A-Grade Investments
and Tim Ferriss, self-help author, start-up adviser and investor.

Most of these investors are venture capitalists specializing in information technology companies. People who run these venture firms have previously advised, invested in or developed such businesses and brands as Kickstarter, Uber and the Sims. 

While language courses for English speakers are popular through Duolingo, English courses for speakers of other languages are popular, as well, but English is often all that is available to them. While speakers of French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Russian, Arabic and Turkish can learn a few other languages besides English, English is currently the only course available for speakers of such languages as Dutch, Greek, Hungarian, Polish, Czech, Romanian, Japanese, Korean, Bengali, Hindi and Tamil.

The largest number of learners must be those who are studying English from another language. I am not sure why I cannot find the numbers on that in one place, but Duolingo currently claims to have about 120 million users worldwide. However, if you add up the foreign-language speakers who are studying English according to Duolingo, it comes to 213 million, including 88 million Spanish speakers learning English. The largest number of English-speakers studying a single foreign language is about 69 million who are studying Spanish. But add 69 million to 88 million and you are already over 120 million, so I cannot vouch for the accuracy of Duolingo's figures. The best explanation might be that learners are signing up for multiple languages, as I have, although, if you speak only one non-English language such as Greek, the only language course currently available to you through Duolingo is English, so you could not sign up for more than one language.

For English speakers, sixteen courses are fully up and running with an additional four in Beta and seven more on the way. I am among the alleged 41 million-plus English speakers learning French. The two least popular of the up-and-running courses seem to be Welsh and Vietnamese (with 309 thousand and 251 thousands learners respectively). Even Hebrew, which is still in Beta, has more learners than Welsh. 

For Romanian, which is nearly ready for Beta, more than 50 thousand English speakers are on the waiting list, while for Klingon, which is not nearly ready, almost 96 thousand await the opportunity to study the fictional language of Commander Worf of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Deep Space Nine.” BTW, Klingon is one of two artificial or constructed languages in Duolingo’s curriculum; the other, Esperanto, already has 564 thousand learners, and is the only constructed language that will soon become available in Beta for speakers of another language, Spanish.

Duolingo's CEO, Ahn, is a pioneer in crowdsourcing and invites interaction à la wikipedia-type input in Duolingo but with the understanding that in order to add or change content, you do need to establish that you have some expertise in the language you want to work with. To me, the Duolingo method is very reminiscent of the behaviorist psychology theory of learning. There is a lot of simple, rote learning, but when you make a mistake, you will get a do-over. Or two or three. Until you get it right. You might never progress, but you will never actually fail—unless, I suppose, you never get anything right. You will not get a chance to create your own sentences, either written or spoken. In fact, you won’t get much chance to learn to speak your chosen language, although each test sentence is read aloud by a native speaker, and, if you want to, you can repeat it to yourself, which I think is an excellent practice. 

Learning mainly consists of written translation of test words and sentences from the target language to your language and vice versa, more or less in a seventy-five percent to twenty-five percent ratio—more translating from the language that I am trying to learn into English than translating English into it. This has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that I can progress very quickly. The disadvantage is that my ability to speak the language improves only very gradually if at all. Vocabulary can easily be forgotten, and there is no incentive to remember it because, in the majority of sentences, it is possible to put the cursor over a word and get its translation. I expect to be able to read, somewhat, but not to speak French when I am done with the French course.

In each lesson, there is a “Report a Problem” button in case you notice something wrong with the program. (If, for example, you give a right answer but the program tells you that you are wrong.) There is also a button labeled “Discuss sentence” that allows you to ask questions and get answers in a discussion/comments thread.

It is estimated by language-teaching experts who have studied Duolingo that after 34 hours, I will have the equivalent of a 130-hour first year college course in the language. By comparison, it is claimed that students of the expensive Rosetta Stone method will have such an ability after nearly twice as many hours as Duolingo, although I would wager that Rosetta Stone students would have benefited from that course's greater emphasis on speaking skills. The experts also found that students tend to drop out of these types of courses after less than two hours of study. (I am a Rosetta Stone drop-out, but largely because my previous computer died and when I got a replacement computer it was older and only supported some of the features of the Rosetta Stone program; I intend to go back to it later, though.)
The focus of each lesson is a series of interactive sessions. Each lesson offers a written text describing the grammatical rules covered in the interactive sessions. You are not required to read this text, and, since it is at the bottom of the page, you might tend to ignore it and jump into the interactive portions of the lesson. However, I have found that I do better on lessons when I have bothered to read the text ahead of time. The text often contains helpful hints that make sense of irregular and idiomatic features of the language I am trying to learn.
Another feature of Duolingo is what I call the cheat factor. On many (though not all) test questions, Duolingo lets you check the meaning of each word by putting your cursor over it and, voila, you have the word instantly translated. Be warned, however, that the program is subtly monitoring how you are doing. It gives you points for correct answers and takes away points for wrong ones. It also notices your weak areas and takes educated guesses at which skills you are forgetting. It even seems to assume that, if you skip a few days, you will forget more than if you visit the site every day. This is why it will urge you to retake a few lessons every time you go back to the course, and the longer you wait between lessons, the more lessons will be highlighted for you to retake.
As you progress through levels of proficiency—very much, and deliberately so, as if you were playing a computer game—you win points called "lingots" that can be traded in for special materials at the site's store. Around Christmas, which is about two months away as I write, you can use your lingots to get information about how the culture that speaks your target language celebrates Christmas, if they do. 

Since I first wrote this, I have finished the French course. I am Duolingo-certified as "fifty-five percent fluent in French," but this is the end of the course. I do feel as if my elementary knowledge of French is much improved, but, as I expected, I cannot speak it. I am supposed to be able to push a button that automatically alerts my LinkedIn profile to my proficiency level, and I was holding off from doing this until I reach 100 percent. But I tried doing it when I got to the end of the course, and it did not worked for me; so I had to manually added my "elementary" proficiency in French to LinkedIn.

What's "Pass the popcorn" in French?

The night that I finished the French course, I decided to try to watch a movie in French. I could have watched one that was actually made in French, but instead I manipulated the language menu of the DVD for an American-made movie ("The Nice Guys") so that the actors would be dubbed in French while the subtitles would be in French, as well. This was sobering. Generally, I was not able to follow more than a small fraction of the dialogue, either because I could not remember even the vocabulary that I had studied well enough to keep up with the rapid pace of the dialogue, or because the vocabulary of the movie far exceeded that of the Duolingo course. I noticed, for example, that the verb "racrocher" was used more than once. It means "to hangup" (the telephone), yet this very useful word was never covered in Duolingo's French vocabulary. 

As I was watching "The Nice Guys" dubbed in French, I also noticed—although this has nothing to do with Duolingo—that the dubbed speaking script is not on the same page, so to speak, with the French subtitles, which may have been intended to go with the original English soundtrack rather than with the dubbed French one. For example, in one scene, the character Tally is dubbed saying "D'accord" (the French equivalent of O.K.) but the subtitle says "Merci."
After I started taking French, I decided to add other languages. I added German and Russian, in each of which I have only taken the basic lessons so far.

The Alphabet in French and German

I am flying by the seat of my pants here, but since this is online, perhaps someone will be gracious enough to correct me in the great likelihood that I make mistakes.
The commonly used letters of the English, French and German alphabets are similar in appearance but not necessarily in pronunciation. I will focus here on what I understand to be the French and German pronunciations of the letter names. I will not use the proper international phonetic letters, but I will loosely acknowledge them.
The first six letters as well as the ninth, eleventh through twenty-first,  and the twenty-fourth are similarly named in French and German:
A [ah] B [be] C [se] D [de] E [e (long English A)] F [ehf] – I [i (English long EE)] – K [kah] L [ehl] M [ehm] N [ehn] O [oh] P [pe] Q [ku (English KOO)] R [er] S [es] T [te] U [u (English OO)]– X [iks]

The seventh, eighth, tenth, twenty-second, twenty-third, twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth  letters are called differently in French and German:
French: G [zhe] H [ahsh] – J [zhi] – V [ve] W [doobla-ve] Y [igrek] Z [zed]
German: G [ge] H [hah]-  J [yot] – V [fow] W [ve] Y [ipsilon] Z [tset]

Saying "We must protect the environment" in twenty different languages

In the lesson entitled “Nature” I was taught how to say, “We must protect the environment,” “It is good for the environment” and similar sentences in French. Now, I had also signed up for German and Russian courses, but so far have gotten furthest in French. So I looked ahead in the German and Russian courses, and, sure enough, there are lessons on “Nature” there, too. I cannot access them, though, because you have to do all the lessons that come before that one in order to open it.

On Esperanto

Esperanto was developed in the late nineteenth century by Ludovik Zamenoff, a Polish Jew whose hobby was linguistics. It is possibly the easiest language in the world to learn, and is certainly the easiest constructed language, though one might well wonder why anyone inventing a language would make it difficult to learn, yet language inventors often do. Someone once told me that Esperanto reminded her of Spanish. This is likely because it reminded her of Italian, only she is more familiar with the sound of Spanish than Italian. Italian, you see, was one of Zamenoff’s languages*, whereas he knew Spanish much less well. Esperanto borrows its vocabulary from many languages, but the only non-Indo-European language that influenced it at all is Hebrew. On one hand, it seems to represent all Indo-European languages, but on the other it represents the European ones better than the Eastern ones.** Nevertheless, it has a tightly organized minority of speakers in places you might not expect, such as China and India.

A feature of Zamenoff's work that I particularly admire is that he prioritized his borrowing based not only on commonality of similar words in other languages but distinctiveness of sound. For example, a lot of Indo-European languages have words for the positive conjunction that sound similar to each other. English and German both have "-nd" (that is, "and" in English and "und" in German); meanwhile, French, and Latin both have "et," and Italian, Spanish and Russian have, respectively, "e," "y" and "и," which sound very much alike. Instead of using one of these, however, Zamenoff realized that these words could get lost in the middle of a sentence and might be easily mistaken for a syllable of another word. To give Esperanto a more distinctive positive conjunction, Zamenoff brushed aside the more common words and borrowed the Greek conjunction "kai" instead (only spelled "kaj" in Esperanto).

Though a recent book about Esperanto, "Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language," by Esther Schor, says that his language was French rather than Italian (at least according to Joan Acocella in her 31 October 2016 New Yorker book review), which contradicts what I remember learning many years ago when I first studied Esperanto.

** Esperanto, like many Indo-European languages has a word, "ke," for "that" or "which" that sounds like "ke(r)" or "kay." (Spelled "que" in Latin, French, Spanish and other languages.) It sounds like "kay" in Bengali, too. On the other hand, Esperanto, like most European languages, has its verbs take a conditional form. (I would have gone with you.) Most languages, including most non-European Indo-European languages (such as Bengali and Hindi, for example) do not have the conditional.