Sunday, May 27, 2018

The art of 2 deals

Last week I was buying some used furniture for our new house.

ME: Your prices are $175, $125 and $100. I make that $400. Will you take $350?

YOUNG MAN: I'll get my mother. She's the expert with the credit card. You said $300?

ME: Sure.

WBD and Kim Jung Un also were negotiating.

WBD: I insist on complete and verifiable denuclearization with inspections.


WBD: And a meeting between us as equals.


WBD: And the sanctions, they're history.

KIM: If you say so.

WBD: Those 11,000 artillery pieces aimed at Seoul, I don't want to hear a word about them.


WBD: And you will completely integrate with the family of nations.The DPRK, too, whoever they are.

KIM: All right.

WBD:And I will guarantee your regime.

KIM (murmuring): If you insist.

WBD: That was a tough negotiation but you hung in there like a champ. Done?

KIM: OK, everything but the denuclearization.

WBD: We had these coins made because I knew you'd have to come to terms. Isn't it pretty?

 KIM: Very elegant.

WBD: I hear those Swedish babes at the Nobel ceremonies are hot.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Book Review 410: Rice and Slaves

RICE AND SLAVES: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina, by Daniel C. Littlefield. 199 pages, illustrated. Illinois paperback, $26

Daniel Littlefield’s “Rice and Slaves” is nearly half a century old now, an early entrant in the attempt to make history more scientific— or at lest, more sciency — by replacing narrative with pages and pages of statistics.

One problem is that while the questions are often of great interest, the numbers are often inadequate to answer them.

So with the question of whether traders and buyers of slaves 1) knew or thought they knew that some Africans were knowledgeable about rice; and 2) if so, did they act on that belief  economically by preferring those slaves over others?

This is important because if the answer is no, all they wanted was muscle power, that reinforces the view of white Southern historians that black slaves contributed little or nothing to the development of American culture; while if it is yes, then Africans can claim agency in how the country came to be.

This is akin to the question of who built the transcontinental railroads — Irish and Chinese laborers or something beyond that. In California public schools, children are taught that the Chinese immigrants built the railroads, which misleads the pupils in two ways. First, there is more to building a railroad than laying track —like surveying, metallurgy, financing, accounting etc. — and second, by eliding the obvious follow-up question: if the Chinese were capable of building railroads, why didn’t they build any in China?

The question about agency in the Low Country rice districts of South Carolina, Georgia and part of North Carolina is less fraught. Yes, West Africans did impart a great deal of the skill that made rice America’s most profitable crop; and, yes, the planters did recognize their experience.

But, nevertheless, the planters did not buy only West Africans. In fact, Littlefield finds that slaves imported into Carolina from Congo and Angola (where rice was not grown) outnumbered slaves from West Africa.

But the numbers remaining to us do not say whether that was because the desire for rice experts was modest or whether it was strong but could to be met for various reasons (a very big one being that West Africa was not known as the White Man’s Grave for nothing).

In the end, Littlefield’s conclusions are not very different from, and no more persuasive than, the conclusions arrived at by old-fashioned narrative historians, and less pleasurable to read.

The special takeaway from this volume is not so much the question asked in the subtitle but the revelation of the fluidity of racial and power relations in a frontier colony short of skilled labor of all kinds. This, too, was known to the narrative historians, but Littlefield’s close reading of advertisements for runaway slaves throws new light on how that worked in practice, and how the condition of the slaves, bad to begin with, deteriorated as the economy of the colony, then the state ramified and grew.

Book Review 409: Black Rice

BLACK RICE:The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas, by Judith A. Carney. 240 pages, illustrated. Harvard paperback, $29.50

When I first encountered Judith Carney’s argument about African origins of rice in the Americas in a magazine article in 2000 I was unpersuaded. Her book, “Black Rice,” is more persuasive but carries more than a whiff of special pleading.

The difficulty is her contention that Europeans (in this case, the Portuguese, French and English) did not cultivate rice and therefore could not have done it. However, European travelers in the Age of Discovery were deeply interested in what they found — that’s why they were out to make discoveries, not to mention money. The English had close contacts with Italy and the Levant, rice-growing areas.

Carney’s interest is in South Carolina and West Africa, with tangential attention to rice in Brazil, Mexico, Peru and Nicaragua. Carolina was settled by Europeans in 1670 and by Africans at the same time.

The Africans, many of them, were from areas of West Africa where three distinct agronomies for rice had existed for centuries. Carney makes excellent evidence for their profound influence on the wet rice cultivation along the coasts of Georgia, South Carolina and part of North Carolina. But she elides the certain fact that English colonists were trying to grow rice in Virginia from their earliest settlement.

They were successful, too, although with dry or upland rice. They apparently had some method of “whitening” (hulling) the grain, a problem Carney makes much of. The Virginia rice was probably Asian, less difficult to process than African rice, but still, it had to be milled.

I think she makes her case that the white post-Reconstructionist historians who attributed the skill in Carolina rice cultivation entirely to Europeans were fantasizing, but I do not think she quite proves  her case that the skills were entirely African.

Her case has many threads. One is cooking styles. Asian rice is sticky (except when it isn’t) while African rice properly cooked stays in distinct, long grains. As you find in gumbo. Gumbo is African in inspiration but Southerners also eat a lot of rice and gravy, which is not African-inspired.

She is also concerned to discern the gendered division of rice labor in Africa and in Carolina, privileging women’s role. Let’s just say that her descriptions tending to show that women were dominant in African rice cultivation— based on her fieldwork — are contradicted by other observers.

There are surprising controversies regarding agriculture in what became the United States and not just about whether slave labor was or was not more efficient (in the peculiar sense that economists use that word) than free labor. If you read Northern-oriented historians you learn that Lancaster County, Pa., had the highest farm receipts of  any county for hundreds of years, while Southern-oriented historians say Georgetown County, S.C., the hub of Low Country rice, was the richest county in the country.

Some authorities say most slaves in the US were imported from the Caribbean, others say the majority were imported direct from Africa.

Carney had a good case but overplayed it. She also lengthened it by about twice by endless repetitions.

Gone but not forgotten

I have been retired from reporting at The Maui News for over 5 years now, but the blog that started in 2008 goes on.

(For those reading at Blogger, this is a mirror site to the original at

It is hard for me to know how many readers the blog has but this morning something surprising happened:

According to a chart on the opening page of The Maui News digital site, which lists the most read stories, Restating the Obvious's last 3 posts were the most read on the site.

Dunno what's up with that.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Can free will exist?

I have always considered that arguments that free will is a myth to be incorrect. But I was reasoning backward, whereas the anti-free willers were reasoning forward:

 Many scientists say that the American physiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated in the 1980s that we have no free will. It was already known that electrical activity builds up in a person’s brain before she, for example, moves her hand; Libet showed that this buildup occurs before the person consciously makes a decision to move. The conscious experience of deciding to act, which we usually associate with free will, appears to be an add-on, a post hoc reconstruction of events that occurs after the brain has already set the act in motion.
Now it appears that I was right and there is a reasoning-forward way to explain why:

Based on these results, the researchers pieced together a biography of the boy’s brain.

When he was just an embryonic ball in the womb, five lineages of cells had emerged, each with a distinct set of mutations. Cells from those lineages migrated in different directions, eventually helping to produce different organs — including the brain.

The cells that became the brain turned into neurons, but they did not all belong to the same family. Different lineages merged together. In essence, the boy’s brain was made of millions of mosaic clusters, each composed of tiny cellular cousins.

It’s hard to say what these mosaic neurons mean to our lives — what it means for each of us to have witches’ broom growing in our skulls. “We don’t know yet whether they have any effect on shaping our abilities or challenges,” said Dr. Walsh.

However, the author of this report is Carl Zimmer who I do not entirely trust. But I don't see any suspicious claims in this report in The New York Times.

(There is another reasoning-forward way to get to a similar result, arguing from uncertainty but it is a weaker argument based on subatomic events which may not really affect out atomic brains.)

Monday, May 21, 2018

Crap from China

Electric buses in this case.

BYD has won passionate support from some of the region's most powerful politicians.

Thousands of pages of public records and interviews with those dealing directly with the company show BYD to be a skilled political operator. The company's business model involves hiring lobbyists and grant writers to secure no-bid purchases by public agencies, and it has invited public officials on foreign junkets and employed their close associates. Those officials then repeatedly came to the company's defense as concerns about the buses heightened.

BYD's backers hail electric buses as a clean-burning answer to the belching municipal rigs of the past and the natural gas models that followed. In the onset of this conversion, BYD — and, to an extent, the rest of the electric bus industry — has struggled to make buses that run as reliably and cheaply as the fleets they seek to replace.
To be fair, they probably aren't worse than Teslas or the all-but-invisible Bolts, both the result of good old Murrican no-how.

I'm sticking with gasoline engines.

Book Review 408: Our Native Bees

OUR NATIVE BEES: North America’s Endangered Pollinators and the Fight to Save Them, by Paige Embry. 224 pages, illustrated. Timber, $25.95

I like to watch the bumblebees lolling in the giant blossoms of the night-blooming cereus that decorates my mailbox. They wallow on the stamens and pistils as if in an opium dream.

This is not normal for native bees, who have Stakhanovite work habits: 400 blue orchard bees can pollinate almonds as effectively as 10,000 honeybees.

I had not realized — nor had author Paige Embry before she started on “Our Native Bees” — that honeybees (imported from Europe) cannot pollinate tomatoes. Those North American plants require native “buzz” pollinators.

In this chatty little book — too chatty for my taste — we enjoy a brief sampling of a few of the 4,000 species of native bees.

Most of what you think you know about bees in general will have to be thrown out.

For example, for most species there are no overwintering queens, nor any worker attendants. For most bees most of the time, there are no adults.

Th adults work furiously for a few weeks (sometimes only as long as a certain species of plant is flowering), then they die, worn out, leaving eggs hidden on beds of nutritious pollen, in stems, holes in the ground or other secluded places.

Most native bees are solitary, but different species vary through degrees of sociality up to almost (but not quite) the megalopolises built by honeybees.

Honeybees turn out not to be such efficient pollinators but they serve humans by making large quantities of honey and wax, by being tractable and by being easily transportable.

Forcing native bees to do farmers’ jobs is difficult. The bees are willing enough but their working conditions are not easily modified.

Nevertheless, with the killer diseases and parasites attacking honeybees, as well as problems with pesticides, native bees are beginning to get more respect.

Home owners will learn from “Our Native Bees” strategies to make your yard (or golf course) safer for the natives.

As a bonus, you will spend less time mowing the grass.

One reason “Our Native Bees” is short is that not a lot is known about native bees. It is suspected the not nearly all have even been identified, much less studied for their lifestyles.

But there are lots of color pictures.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

A post-lunacy evangelicalism?

Not really, but The Guardian has a piece about a "new generation" of evangelicals who were not thrilled at opening our embassy in Jerusalem. They are dubious that Jesus really is coming soon.

That does not mean they are not stuffed full of ridiculous ideas, but the reason I point to this story is this sentence:

To outsiders, these pieces of doomsday pop culture seem like far-fetched lunacy. For millions of Christians, they are a roadmap to the end of the world.
 I cannot imagine, under any circumstances, an American newspaper printing such a sentence. Our papers assume -- against all the evidence -- that religious people are decent and respectable.

The American preachers chosen by that religious exemplar WBD --  Jeffress and Hagee -- would be denounced for the virulent racist, murderous, slimy creeps they are if they were not "reverend."

If you have not experienced evangelicalism up close you cannot imagine how depraved it is. I like to listen to "To Every Man an Answer," a call-in radio show for what purports to be the fastest-growing cult in the country, Calvary Chapel.

You cannot listen long before hearing a caller say she -- more often a she -- cannot wait for Armageddon, or, as they pronounce it, Omageddon. It is not easy for my readers, all of whom are more or less sane, to imagine anyone's lusting after a thousand years of violence and misery for all of humanity, but such people exist.

Then there was this:

The Bible Code definitively proves Obama will bring Armageddon, it said

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Political pre-nups

Dunno what WBD and Melania had, but in Malaysia the prime minister and his second wife did this:

Fazley Yaakob, the husband of Mr. Najib’s stepdaughter, offered another story, which he recounted on Instagram after Mr. Najib lost the election. Before the two were married, Mr. Fazley wrote, Ms. Rosmah hired a witch doctor to assess the suitability of the union. The witch doctor warned against the marriage because Mr. Fazley, unlike others, would be able to resist Ms. Rosmah’s supernatural powers.
We haven't had a first lady like that since Nancy Reagan.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Another good man with a gun

He was licensed.

The unbuilt wall

No, not the one Trump is not building on our southern border. There's another one.
Note the ridiculously small number of stars

At the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency there is a wall of stars dedicated to agents who were killed while doing their dirty work. No names are attached. But there is no wall dedicated to the tens of millions of people who were killed by the CIA.

If there were,  it would have few names on it because most of the victims of the CIA died anonymously.

It would be a very big wall. The wall to the Americans killed in Vietnam lists about 60,000 names but the unbuilt wall to the Indochinese killed because of CIA conduct would be 100 times bigger.

Most of the people who were murdered because of the CIA we're not murdered by CIA agents, although some were. An incomplete list includes between 500,000 and 1 million Indonesians, at least 200,000 Guatemalans, several thousand Chileans, some tens of thousands of Uruguayans, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and worst of all somewhere between 5 million and 10 million Congolese.

But who's counting?

The CIA aspired to even worse, for example attempting to ignite a civil war in Ukraine. Only a few dozen people were killed in that operation but only because the CIA cannot maintain security. Had the agency got what it wanted, millions would have died.

It is clear that Gina Haspel was not telling the truth to Congress and it is easy to see why.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Pot goes to pot

Oregon is growing too much ganja and the sellers are complaining.

They have forgotten the adage of Freewheelin' Franklin:

Dope will get you through times no money better than money will get you through times of no dope.

I am not a user myself but my using friends say that's correct.

And thanks to Gilbert Shelton, greatest of the underground cartoonists.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Dangerous liaisons

What's really going on:

Rudy Giuliani, who was turned down 4 times by Trump for plum jobs, took his revenge by becoming Trump's lawyer and throwing him under the bus.

Choderlos de Laclos got nuttin' on us, baby.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The law and order party

Worth reading.

UPDATE Wednesday

And, as if on cue to confirm the premise of the original story, Mike Pence praises that champion of law and order Joe Arpaio.

Time for all decent Republicans -- if there are any -- to stand up and complain.