Opinion Pages Opinion

Every time the New York Times hires a new opinion writer, there’s a lot of discussion about how they’re doing it wrong (they are doing it wrong). This time is no different. The New York Times hired Bret Stephens, which was stupid because “anti-Trump neocon” is not an underrepresented position in the media. Nor is Bret Stephens a particularly talented writer or someone with particularly interesting ideas. So the griping makes sense. However, there is a couple of new wrinkles this time. One is that, driven by ever-ratcheting polarization and stakes-raising of our discourse, rather than just griping, many called for a boycott of the paper and a cancellation of subscriptions. The other is that, given the existence of “news analysis” sites such as fivethirtyeight and the NYT’s own Upshot, some questioned the idea of opinion writers at all. After all, now that there is factually informed news analysis, what’s the point of opinion writers? For factually-uninformed news analysis? That certainly seems to be the thing that Bret Stephens was providing, with his inaugural column, on climate change.


However attractive that point sounds, though, I think there is a niche that opinion writers are important for. However, I do agree with the point that interpretation of daily news is best done by the news analysis team. I think a great solution would be to have opinion writers who are less focused on specific items of daily news. An ideal opinion columnist is someone like Dmitry Bykov is for russophones — a person with opinions about everything, some of which are bizarre, who is good at writing and likes to provoke and challenge the readers. This job isn’t as important as news analysis, and the “stature” of opinion writers for a paper should probably be lower than that of news analysts, but I still think this is a valuable role to play.


An example would be someone like Nassim Taleb (but less psychologically damaged) or Sady Doyle (ditto). I obviously don’t expect or want to agree with the opinion writers often. I also make no real claim to prescience as to who would actually make good opinion columnists, since some people are good at one type of non-fiction column writing and terrible at another. For instance, Mallory Ortberg is a fantastic humorist (one of the best!) but an absolutely terrible advice columnist (one of the worst!). But that’s the type of thing I am hoping opinion writers do.

Posted in media | 1 Comment

The Biased Media

I recently had Vietnamese food with my friend J., and this is what he said on the topic of the mainstream media: “I know, there are dangers to treating all of the mainstream media as a monolith, but in some respects it is useful to treat it as a monolith. The mainstream media presents one centre-right to right-wing viewpoint”. Then I came home and read Scott Alexander complain that the mainstream media is biased to the left and is not even trying for balance. Since I also just read that msnbc hired George Will and the New York Times started a “say something nice about Trump” corner, hired Bret Stephens and Erick, Son of Erick, I am not particularly sympathetic to Alexander’s claim. I am, however, interested in how is it that both these claims seem so evident to the people who made them.

Of course, on one level this is what you would predict: The internet makes everyone think their side is perpetually losing and everything is terrible. And J. is politically to my left (he is a Communist, I think), and Scott Alexander is politically to my right. So of course they would position the biases they see this way. But I think there is more to it than that J. is to my left and Scott Alexander to my right.

You could also say that J. is more interested in the media’s presentation of economic issues, whereas Scott Alexander is more interested in the media’s presentation of cultural issues. The mainstream media is farther left culturally than it is economically. But again, I think there is also something else going on.

And the something else is this: there are two competing notions of “idea-space” being considered. J. is talking about something like the “theoretically available idea-space”: there are many possible ways to organize the economy, but the media is talking within the narrow confines of one method! Scott Alexander is talking about “currently popular idea-space”: 46 % of people voted for Trump, yet way less than 46% of the media is pro-Trump. J. would probably agree with something like this political compass meme where the message is “there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans”, whereas to Scott Alexander, the two are opposite poles – “red tribe and blue tribe“.

So when we say we want the media to be balanced, which version of idea-space should we be talking about? Both approaches have potential pitfalls. The problem with “potential idea-space” is that some ideas are just really bad and don’t really deserve media time. And anyway, the edges of idea-space are often not well defined. We quickly get into the ridiculous (the theoretical midpoint between killing all the dolphins and killing none of the dolphins is killing half the dolphins). The danger of “currently popular idea-space” is that the media can then easily be manipulated to pretend there are two sides to every story, even if one side is obviously correct. If this is done by deliberate extremism, this is called “shifting the Overton window”. Otherwise, it simply entails the media reflecting the biases of the populace, rather than teaching them anything new. This is also how we get a US media that was for roughly one year incredibly interested in e-mail server management (although it must be admitted that the media also had near-constant Trump coverage to the point where it would be tuned out by anyone).

For my part, I think that the range of opinions presented in mainstream media is indeed much too narrow. But I have no idea how to develop good criteria for where that range should be, and what should be included.

Posted in media, politics, shit we have no idea about | 3 Comments

Les Tories sont des patriotes français

A long time ago on this blog, I wrote a post on politics that I’m still pretty happy with: “Every Other Country’s Government Is Too Right Wing”. It’s about how it’s natural to want other countries’ governments to be further left wing than your preference for your own government. The reasoning I gave was this: concern for the disadvantaged is a universalist impulse, whereas the desire to pay low taxes, for example, is particularist. You get absolutely nothing out of the fact someone in another country pays lower taxes. Right wing governments are also frequently more nationalist, and you are less likely to be nationalist for another nation than for your own.

These concerns are often overridden by particular circumstances. For instance, if you were living in Colombia, you had a harsh right-wing government at home, while your neighbor Venezuela’s left-wing government was funding FARC militias to destabilize your country. In this case, I think a normal person would want a further left government at home in Colombia, and a further right government abroad in Venezuela. In general, however, I think the principle holds. We see it in the foreign reaction to Trump and Le Pen, for example.

The situation is changing, though. Politics in the western world is becoming more universalized, and settling into a pro-globalist vs. anti-globalist framework. “All politics is local” goes the quote. But it’s from another era. At this point, national politics is not local. It’s not even altogether national – it’s global to some extent. For instance, here are Canadians’ views, by party, of the French election:

Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 8.30.24 AM
As you can see, Canada is more anti-Le Pen than France is, in line with our expectations. However, Canadian Tories are pro-Le Pen. I think a decade ago, this would not have been the case. The Tories are not in any sense French nationalists (ask them about the use of the French language in Canada! Ask them about Quebec!). Instead, they support Le Pen because they see her as an avatar of the anti-globalist and anti-muslim stance.

I think this is a trend, and I think this will continue, and my original post will, in time, come to be wrong.
Posted in politics, shit we have no idea about | 3 Comments

A Political Stance I Find Incredibly Frustrating

Here’s a quote from a woman interviewed by the guardian on the French election (emphasis, and frustration, mine):

Another former Socialist, Karine Bartier, said she had voted for far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round. “Now I don’t want to vote for either of them,” said the 45-year-old. Still, when faced with the ballot box, she had chosen Front National.

“There are too many immigrants,” she said. “France is already in such a difficult position – how are we supposed to welcome more people with such misery? At least with Le Pen, we have a chance at change. Things can’t get any worse anyway.

Posted in no value added, politics | 1 Comment

Prediction Special: 2017 NHL Playoffs

The West:

(1) Chicago / (8) Nashville Nashville is a fun team to watch now? It’s weird even saying that, and, yes, you still have to get past the excruciatingly ugly home uniforms. But Forsberg, Arvidsson and Jarnkrok are exciting, skilled and hard-working. Also fun: saying Jarnkrok’s name over and over in your mind until you can’t stop and it no longer has any semblance of meaning. OK, I lied, that only seems fun before it actually happens to you. Still, I kind of expect Chicago will be able to pull out the series in the end. But I am not actually bound to give my true opinion here, so why not predict the upset? Maybe Pekka Rinne stands on his head for old time’s sake and it’s Preds in 7.

Conference III Grudgematch: Minnesota / St. Louis Charlie Coyle is a forward who wears number 3. For that alone, Minnesota is cursed and will lose. Do not toy with nature, Charlie Coyle. Also, have you seen how the teams’ goaltenders have been performing lately? The Wild’s Devan Dubnyk has fallen apart worse than things, while The Blues’ Jake Allen has been better at stopping pucks than this one guy Jake Allen who was in my welding blueprint reading class is at reading welding blueprints. Does that matter? Some people think that the playoffs are like a magical concussion that wipes away any unpleasant memories of the end of the regular season, and gives everyone a fresh start. But (hey, are you listening, NHL?) it’s not good to engage in magical thinking about concussions. St. Louis in 5

(2) Anaheim / (7) Calgary Of what I’ve seen, which is admittedly very very little, Anaheim has not impressed me much this year. Meanwhile, Calgary has not impressed me much during the entirety of my hockey-watching life (and also in any other way, to be honest). So, a tough series to call. Give it to the Ducks just for having Hampus Lindholm, who, in the words of Tyler Dellow, must surely be one of the greatest Hampuses of all time. Anaheim in 7

California Grudgematch: Edmonton / San Jose How sad is the Western conference is this year? So sad that this will be the only series I’ll be actually interested in. Sad! Still, this series should be very entertaining. My theory is that with Burns and Thornton’s enormous beards, everyone in San Jose assumed they’re still playing the 2016 playoffs, and they’re bound to get playoff fatigue. Whereas playoff fatigue is not an issue for the Oilers. They’re what they called “tanned, rested and ready” on that front. Plus, I bet McLellan knows just what to do to discombobulate his former team. Oilers in 6

The East:

(1) Washington / (8) Toronto It is with great sadness that I must admit Toronto will be a scary good team soon. Luckily, that time is not yet now. Meanwhile, Alex “Silver Fox” Ovechkin and the Capitals are scary good currently. Who controls the present, controls the (very near) future. Both teams rely heavily on the power play, which will hurt them in the coming season of “olde-timeye playoffe hockeye,” but since the disadvantage will be almost symmetrical, that won’t be enough to generate an upset. Sorry, Toronto. Caps in 5

(2) Montreal / (7) NYR There’s been a lot of ups and downs in cheering for Montreal lately. For instance, they hired the only available coach who manages to look more idiotic than Michel Therrien. (On the other hand, he is a lot better as a coach). And you can’t help thinking of what might have been had they kept Subban and acquired some goalscoring at the deadline instead of getting rid of it. Still, the sound goaltending fundamentals of Carey “Jesus” Price should be enough to see them through the first round. Montreal in 7

The Metro Still Sucks, Though Not By Any Objective Metric, Grudgematch: P-burgh / ‘Lumbus John Tortorella must die. Or if not die, at least lose in the first round of the playoffs. Comme-ci, comme-ça. Whatever. I’m vengeful, but easy to please. And I think I will be pleased here. Because, have you heard? Sidney Crosby is still really good. I don’t have anything else, so here’s a factoid: the two towns are only 185 miles by interstate away from each other. In between lies the true Heart of America, which it’s recommended to traverse at top speed, yelling “Truuuump!” as loudly as possible. Anyway. Pens in 6

Flortheast Grudgematch: Ottawa / Boston I’ve never understood it a single time that Ottawa made the playoffs. This year, it’s perhaps less weird than that time everyone on the team got injured, and the playoff Sens were led by Wercioch, Silfverberg and Zibanejad and the Ham-burglar was a thing. But it’s still weird. Ottawa is not a good team. True, they have Karlsson, but come on. Boston, on the other hand is a good possession team that’s been plagued by weird streaks. Maybe they should go to a doctor and have that checked out. For now, though, Boston in 5
Posted in hockey, The future | 2 Comments

Top 10 Businesses in Bellingham, WA

It’s my last day (for the time being) in Bellingham, and what better way to celebrate than with commerce! Here are some business establishments in the town that come with the Rated Zed seal of approval:

  1. Vital (Bouldering Gym) — The problems are interestingly set, which is really the only

    Some climbers

    thing that matters. But also, the gym is rarely crowded, there is exercise equipment and a tread-wall, and membership is cheap and comes with 24 hour access. If you’ve never gone bouldering at 2 in the morning, well, here’s your chance!

  2. Pelmeni (Restaurant) — Pelmeni’s got everything you need, and nothing you don’t. There are two items on the menu — pelmeni (a type of russian dumpling) with potatoes, and pelmeni with meat. They are both delicious, and they both come with caraway rye bread and lots of sour cream. Also, there’s a record player for the music, it’s open late for your after-drinking food needs, and the owner looks like Danny DeVito, only possibly even older, even shorter, and even rounder.


    Some pel’meni

  3. Wander Brewing (Brewery) — Bellingham is an exceptional place in terms of the quantity of breweries. Unfortunately not that many of them have beer I like. Happily, the one with the best beer also is the one closest to my house. Coincidence? Yes, actually, but it’s a happy coincidence indeed.
  4. The co-op bakery (Bakery) — The co-op is way too expensive to get produce at (Youngstock is the place to get produce). But the co-op bakeshop makes (I think) three kinds of green smoothies, the green shade of each is slightly different (one is a very pleasant almost-ultramarine) and the deliciousness of each is high.
  5. Pizza Time (Restaurant) — I’ve never had their pizza, so I don’t know if it’s any good. The reason they’re on here is their slogan, which I think is absolutely genius. Here it is: “When it’s time for pizza, it’s Pizza Time”. I mean, how can you argue with that?
  6. Henderson’s (Bookstore) — Lots of used books, with an excellent selection, and an arrangement system (by topic) that I really like. I found so many good books that I wasn’t expecting here.
  7. The Black Drop (Coffeeshop) — Bellingham’s best coffeeshop may not be the most “authentic” or “artisanal” or whatever. But it’s got a robot sculpture, teas you can smell, specialty drinks, and by far the best people. So it’s the best.


    Some beer

  8. Village Books (Bookstore) — an institution. Employee-owned, with three floors of new books and old, and a nice reading space with beautiful views of the bay, and a cafe with good soup.
  9. Rolling Donuts (Bakery) — The second establishment on this list that I’ve never actually visited. But shortly after I first moved to North America, I remember reading my friends’ dictionary of English-language slang for Russian speakers, and one thing stuck with me: the suggested idiom for not caring at all was “not giving a fuck”, which makes sense. The suggested intensifier of this phrase was “not giving a flying fuck”. And the suggested intensifier of that phrase was “not giving a flying fuck on a rolling doughnut”. When I learned that people didn’t actually use this phrase, I was appalled (rightly, I think). Don’t think that’s enough of a reason to put Rolling Donuts into the top 10 business establishments in Bellingham? Well, I don’t give a flying fuck on a rolling doughnut what you think.
  10. Hardware Sales (Hardware Store) — Hardware Sales was there for me when I needed a new shower fitting. It was there for me when I needed welding gloves. It was there for me when I needed solder. Point is, it’s always there for you. Considering the store is like a block and a half in size, it would be kind of a disgrace if that wasn’t true, but still.


Posted in reviews, whimsy | Leave a comment

Schrödinger’s Cat of State News

Looking at the news out of Russia today required a thorough understanding of quantum mechanics.  It appears that either protests involving 100’s of arrests took place in Moscow and a host of other cities, as Moscow Times or Dozhd’ would have you believe:

Or, no such thing happened, at all, as per the state owned and most widely watched TV news outlet Perviy Kanal:perviy_kanal

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments