The math that crushes conspiracy theories

I recently wrote a piece for The Guardian on the rebirth of Flat Earth-ism. The piece did really well — the “Shares” counter on the story now has reset after going well into the multiple thousands.

Flat Earth theory is dependent on a conspiracy to hide the truth. That’s no surprise to its adherents, many of whom dabble in other conspiracy theories as well.

So I was interested in this mathematical study on conspiracy theories and how many people can keep such secrets:

For a plot to last five years, the maximum number of plotters turned out to be 2,521. To keep a scheme operating undetected for more than a decade, fewer than 1,000 people could be involved, while a century-long deception had to include fewer than 125 collaborators.

Applying the technique to four real-life scenarios showed that had the moon landings been a hoax – involving an estimated 411,000 people who worked at Nasa – it would have been found out in three years and eight months.

I’ve got a few questions — for one thing, plenty of people who “worked at Nasa” didn’t have to be in on the secret. But in general, the study does show how unlikely it is that a big secret can be kept.

Dana Carvey already covered this territory pretty well on a smaller scale, questioning the “O.J. was framed” theory:

So the question for the Flat Earth movement really isn’t a battle of geometry among people who haven’t taken geometry in a few decades. The question is whether the following people have the ability (and the motive) to keep a secret:

  • Everyone at NASA and every other space agency in the world
  • All airline pilots and others in the aviation industry who fly in the Southern Hemisphere
  • Everyone who has ever been to the South Pole
  • Anyone who takes a boat anywhere near Antarctica (Granted, Whale Wars would be more interesting if everyone ran out of fuel)
  • Michael Palin

And so on.

The “why?” and “how?” of that conspiracy would be mind-boggling. I’d love to hear the explanation.

 

Posted in journalism | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Ayn Rand entry still lacks Rush’s thoughts

p

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Ayn Rand has been revised, and the words “Rush,” “Peart” and “2112” still do not appear. Spoilsports.

ICYMI: Neil Peart has offered several repudiations of modern Rand followers, especially Rand Paul.

Posted in rush | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Cable-channel ID creep and pandering to the masses

MTV doesn’t show videos. (Not often, anyway.) Neither does VH1. A&E doesn’t show a lot of arts and entertainment. Even The Weather Channel has a lot of shows that aren’t really about the weather.

So maybe it’s a little heartening to read this Washington Post story about Discovery getting back to its roots.

Now, as cord-cutters and online video plunge the cable business into chaos, Discovery is fighting aggressively to return to its roots, spending millions on glossy documentaries, science shows and ­“environmental advocacy campaigns” in a bet that smarter, more-distinctive programming will help it survive the new age of TV.

Two ways to look at this in the cold light of finances:

  1. Netflix and others have shown there’s an audience for intelligent programming.
  2. That audience might be hard to get back from Netflix and the web.

The sad part: Cable television is going to go to its grave pandering to the lowest common denominator. Sure, Mencken said no one went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people (or something to that effect), and Barnum may or may not have said there’s a sucker born every minute. But with a couple of generations taking a college education as a given, it’s disheartening to read this defense of reality-TV crap on the network formerly known as The Learning Channel:

“TLC is a very powerful and heartfelt Middle America brand. When we look at TLC, we basically say, ‘F— New York and L.A.,’ ” Zaslav said. “Most of the media is not speaking to Middle America. So what are the shows we can put on [for a] 42-year-old mom who gives her husband and two kids dinner, and then puts the TV set on? What is she going to watch that she can relate to, that’s going to be entertaining and fun for her?”

I can’t wait for Middle America to say “F— you” right back and prove that they want to watch quality programming, too. Preferably before climate change makes everyone move to Middle America.

Posted in tv | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Las Vegas, Sheldon Adelson and an awkward story to report

Mysterious assignments from unseen owners.

A byline by a name no one seems to know, arriving just after the assignments were completed.

An anonymous sale.

This is the strangest story about a newspaper I’ve ever read. The fact that it’s reported and published in that very newspaper, Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Review-Journal, makes it even stranger.

Posted in journalism | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Baby it’s creepy inside

Via Splitsider, see SNL alum turned prime-time player Casey Wilson and Mr. Show alum Scott Aukerman bringing the creepy date-rape subtext of Baby, It’s Cold Outside to the fore.

The performances are brilliant.

And if you want a lighter satire of this old chestnut, see the wonderful change of pace with Jimmy Fallon and Cecily Strong.

(And yes, I hate the fact that I can’t embed either video.)

Posted in comedy | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Taking the gun debate beyond the simple slogans

Does a “good guy with a gun” really stand a chance of stopping a bad guy with a gun? A couple of quality media outlets have taken a hard look.

Start with The Daily Show, in the best bit I’ve seen since Trevor Noah replaced Jon Stewart. Correspondent Jordan Klepper goes through training with a serious but game group that shows him how difficult it really is to respond to an active shooter situation. Even after going through considerably more training than he needs for a concealed-carry license, he fails quite badly in several different situations — a school hostage situation winds up with Klepper gunning down an innocent student (it’s just paint, it’s OK) and getting hit 20-some times by the gunmen. Then the police shoot him a few more times as well.

Some of the jokes are gratuitously vulgar, which I really wish The Daily Show would reserve for occasions where it’s warranted (that said, what’s up with that towel?), but most of it is what the show should be — a riotous smashing of myths and misinformation that clouds our political discourse.

It’s a good send-up of the macho sensibilities that enter into too many gun discussions — I saw a Facebook argument this week that devolved into questioning someone’s masculinity. Frankly, women might be better. The maternal instinct is powerful, and it’s not like it takes brute strength to pull a trigger.

In the real world, it takes a couple hundred hours per year of training to be somewhat adept in these situations. If we have police shooting innocent people at an alarming rate, what chance does your next-door neighbor have?

At Vox, German Lopez builds on this piece to show the ill effects of having guns scattered all willy-nilly in this country. Our arguments and our crimes escalate too quickly into death. (I’m not going to look up all the cases of kids who die in horrible accidents because I will curl into a ball and sob myself to death.)

By this point, some of you have dismissed this entire discussion as “liberal.” That’s what passes for thought these days, with everyone thinking in binary terms.

But there is a counterargument here worth entertaining.

If you’re looking for a reasonable contrarian voice, I have to recommend Eugene Volokh. I may not have thought that a few years ago, but I do now. He’s libertarian-ish, but he avoids the shallow, snarky pieces that pass for contributions from the Cato Institute, and he’s not as cold and esoteric as the inaptly named Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog.

Volokh carefully compiled a list of potential mass shootings that were stopped by the “good guy with the gun,” and he revised it when new information came to light. It’s not a long list, and he adds a lot of qualifiers to point out where we don’t know how much good the “good guy” did.

He asks good follow-up questions: “In what fraction would interventions prevent more killings and injuries, as opposed to capturing or killing the murderer after he’s already done? In what fraction would interventions lead to more injuries to bystanders?”

There are a few examples of the latter floating around, and when you see a piece like The Daily Show’s, you see how easily that can happen. But Volokh’s examples are enough to remind us that we can’t fully discount the impact of the “good guy.”

So the questions in my mind are these: How many guns do we need? Would a more stringent background check have stopped any of the “good guys” in Volokh’s examples?

(Update: The Guardian did a survey to see how many mass shootings could’ve been prevented with more stringent gun measures or at least proper application of the ones we have. The answer: At least a few.)

You’ll never get all of the guns out of the USA. That’s a fool’s errand. But is there a way we could at least increase the percentage of gun owners who are responsible? Could we perhaps even offer training to more people so that they’ll have a chance of stopping a mass shooting?

It’s tempting to think we could even have a “well-regulated militia” of Americans who pass stringent training to carry guns. But I see two problems here:

These people could only stop mass shootings. If a bad guy comes in with a gun drawn, there’s very little an armed bystander or potential victim can do. A bullet is faster than anyone’s ability to draw a gun. (Excluding the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles, of course.)

One argument to dismiss: These people wouldn’t be very effective deterrents for the bulk of mass shooters. Most of the people carrying out mass shootings have already flipped the switch in their heads — they have little expectation of going on with the rest of their lives. They often kill themselves before the police can. Columbine had an armed security guard, after all, who did in fact get a few shots into the mix.

Some people may have a legitimate case for home defense. A family friend who lived in a rural home, far from first responders, once used a hunting rifle to chase away a man who had followed her home. Those cases require some thought — can you keep your gun safe while having it close enough to use in a situation like this? (This incident, I should point out, was before cell phones existed, which limited her options.)

So the message for all sides in the gun debate is surely this: Temper your expectations. All of the available worldwide evidence tells us “more guns” will not make us safer. But sweeping all guns out of the USA is impossible, and sweeping them all out of the hands of the “good guys” is undesirable.

We have to meet in the middle. Somewhere.

Posted in politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Revisiting the messiest Yes album — Union!

I’m not much of a podcast listener. Perhaps it’s because I spend little time commuting, or perhaps I rarely find a podcast I prefer to turning up my favorite music.

But one I can enthusiastically recommend is the aptly named Yes Music Podcast. Host Kevin Mulryne is quintessentially British, using a calm, analytical tone to describe and dissect the music of Yes and some of its offshoots. He has interviewed some of the band members, most recently the longtime voice of Yes himself, Jon Anderson.

The podcast recently took a look back in the Yes catalog to give a fresh listen to Big Generator, the second album of the Trevor Rabin era. It’s not as memorable as 90125, the stunning debut for the Rabin lineup, but Kevin decided it was worth another try.

Inspired by that pair of podcasts, I decided to dive into an album that causes shudders among many in Yes circles. Rick Wakeman famously called it “Onion” because listening to it made him cry.

It is, of course, Union.

And it is, sadly, a dishonest album at its core. It’s less of a “Union” and more of a shotgun marriage between two distinct camps that were struggling.

Anderson had left Yes after Big Generator and reunited with three of the members who had played on the classic albums Fragile and Close To The Edge — Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman and Bill Bruford. Howe had stuck with Anderson and Yes through the 70s before detouring into Asia. Wakeman left and returned for Going For The One, not as well known as the earlier albums but very well regarded. This group recorded the eponymous Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe and toured with “An Evening of Yes Music Plus.” They had been trying to put together a second album.

The other Yes member from those classic albums — in fact, on every Yes album to date — was Chris Squire. He remained with the rest of the crew that produced 90125 and Big Generator — Trevor Rabin, Tony Kaye and Alan White. They had made far less progress than ABWH, trying out a couple of new vocalists such as Supertramp’s Roger Hodgson but not getting anything done.

The liner notes to Union put a charming positive spin on the situation:

“When Jon arrived in Los Angeles to work on vocals for the ABWH tracks, he called Trevor, who took the opportunity of playing Jon several new songs that he was in the process of writing. When Jon heard the music, he immediately felt he wanted to be a part of it and suggested he add his vocals to the songs. Trevor, in turn, realized that Jon’s unique vocal style was just what the music needed.”

I have no idea how receptive Rabin actually was to all of this, but when I first read this nearly 25 years ago, I pictured a record company executive twisting Rabin’s arm behind his back, yelling, “JON’S VOICE IS WHAT THIS MUSIC NEEDS!” Then Rabin grimacing back, saying, “Yes! Yes! I realize that!”

The liner notes continue: “Jon also heard some new music that Chris, Tony and Alan had been working on with producer Eddy Offord and added his vocals to this also. In this new spirit of harmony, it was only logical that Chris add his distinctive vocals to the new ABWH tracks, which by then had been completed by Bill, Rick and Steve.”

Well, sort of. In reality, the ABWH tracks were dumped into the lap of producer Jonathan Elias, who called in an armada of keyboard players (11 are credited on these tracks in addition to Wakeman), a couple of percussionists and guitarist Jimmy Haun, who wound up playing with Kaye and White in a side project called Circa several years later.

My Popdose colleague Dw. Dunphy summed up the result: “The keyboards are incredibly busy, even for a prog album – they’re shoved in every crack and crevice, and often have no cohesive thread to them. They become noise for the sake of noise.”

Dunphy also thinks the non-Elias songs were punched up a bit in the process. As a result, we really can’t be sure who played what. We may have one song that was Anderson DrumMachine Porcaro Levin Haun, another that was Anderson Rabin Squire Kaye White Elias, etc.

But as much as some band members may blame Elias or corporate overlords’ unseen hands or whatever, their own dysfunction played a massive role in weighing down the whole project.

Here’s Elias, looking back: “I didn’t realize how dark the baggage was within that band and how much they hated each other… I honestly believe I was the central focus of hatred for Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe, who couldn’t stand each other. Even though Jon Anderson was the co-producer of the record, and was constantly urging me to work with other players, which we subsequently did, he took none of the heat because they were so scared of him. … I felt the only redeeming value of the whole band was Trevor Rabin who remains the best element in Yes other than Jon.”

Rabin didn’t think much of the end product at all.

“I think the tracks that I’m proud of on that album are Miracle of Life and Lift Me Up. I think the rest of the album’s not worth listening to.” (He goes on to add that he also liked The More We Live – Let Go.)

So it seems no one involved has positive memories of this album.

But I do. If only because of the timing or the tour that sprang from this album, when all eight Yes members played together. It was beautiful. And they made a documentary of that tour called YesYears, which I watched over and over so I could delight in Rick Wakeman’s wry wit, Steve Howe’s bizarre tangents and Bill Bruford’s playfully acerbic take on the whole enterprise.

Even on that tour, though, they didn’t play a lot of music from this album. Lift Me Up and Shock to the System were played at every show. Saving My Heart made it on about a third of the dates. Steve Howe sometimes played Masquerade in his solo section, and Setlist.fm has one mention of the album’s closer, Take The Water To The Mountain.

The strangest personal take for me, though, is that Union is the only CD I ever bought that developed a glitch that rendered it unplayable. That’s all the more reason I hadn’t listened to the whole thing in years.

Thanks to Spotify, I sat down and listened this afternoon. Here’s what I thought …

I Would Have Waited Forever (ABWH with Squire backing vocals) — It’s a promising start, isn’t it? Jon’s voice is brimming with positive vibes, the Yes chorus adds texture, and we’re off! And then it almost immediately bogs down. The guitar riff isn’t particularly inviting, and we get some random keyboard bursts over the top. Chris Squire — oh, excuse me, that must be Tony Levin — pops in with some interesting counterpoint to spice things up, but the verses are simply plodding. The acoustic interlude leads nicely into the solo. It’s a fitting overture to the album — good ideas sandbagged in a mishmash of styles, like a beautiful prog-rock piece desperately trying to burst out of something grittier.

Shock To The System (AWBH) — Perhaps a little too self-indulgent toward the end with a rather aimless guitar riff after Steve Howe’s scales. (Or are they Jimmy Haun’s? The bass here certainly sounds like Chris Squire, but if you go by the liner notes, it’s Levin.) But this is a solid track. I love Yes’ versatility, from beautiful harmonies to powerful riffs like this. This is a good showcase of what Yes was capable of doing in the 80s and 90s. Rabin says he hated playing this one live, but I rather enjoyed it.

Masquerade (Steve Howe solo) — Perhaps not as memorable as The Clap or Mood For A Day, but a Howe acoustic solo is usually a pleasant listen, and this is no exception.

Lift Me Up (Rabin/Squire) — The pop hit of the album, with good hooks riddled throughout, from the memorable chorus to Squire’s perky bass runs. It suffers from a bit of overproduction as well, and it’s almost comical to hear Rabin’s voice yelling the second syllable of “mountain,” as if he or the production team needed to remind us that this is fundamentally his song. The structure is more coherent than many songs on this album — or, indeed, on many Yes tracks in the decades after this. We get a strong opening, a more subdued and earnest verse, then a chorus that soars. By the end, when Rabin breaks into the solo, we can’t help but be swept away. Wakeman is even smiling in the video:

Before you say that’s coincidence, he’s also smiling in this live clip:

Without Hope You Cannot Start the Day (AWBH with Squire) — It’s a good theme for Yes, a sympathetic look at the downtrodden. Anderson’s vocals are moving. But we have to wonder if this track falls in the “what might have been” category. Wikipedia, citing Tim Morse’s book Yesstories, says Rick Wakeman initially recorded a piano part that sounded like Rachmaninoff, but Jonathan Elias played something simpler. Wouldn’t we all love to hear what it sounded like with Wakeman’s part? In any case, the song soon bogs down in another plodding riff and an odd time signature that seems tacked on to remind us we’re listening to a prog-rock master. It’s a disappointment.

Saving My Heart (Rabin) — The chorus has potential. The verses do not. Rabin apparently had reservations about this one, and his instincts were right. Frankly, another band might do a better job with this one. It’s just not a good fit for Yes.

Miracle Of Life (Rabin with Mark Mancina) — It’s a jarring start, complex and fast, reminiscent of the start of Close to the Edge. But it’s also friendlier, resolving to some acoustic instruments and the Yes chorus. Unfortunately, it ends up with a lot of layers and not much of a song. It’s a quantity over quality approach that drowns the song. Co-writer Mark Mancina also worked with Rabin on the soundtrack to the wretched film Con Air.

Silent Talking (ABWH) — One of the shorter tracks on the album, and it never really gets going.

The More We Live – Let Go (Squire with Billy Sherwood) — Sherwood nearly joined Yes here, did indeed join Yes later and has recently rejoined under sad circumstances — he is the replacement for Squire, who has passed away. I had vague memories of this song being interesting. It is, but it’s not the most engaging tune here.

Angkor Wat (AWBH) — Again from Wikipedia, citing Morse: “Wakeman recorded each layer without hearing what he recorded before.” It’s an interesting experiment that ends up sounding like meditation music. Not the sort of track you’d listen to over and over again, and not something I could see Yes attempting live. But it’s worth checking out.

Dangerous (AWBH with Squire) — This is Yes? Compressed guitars. Slap bass? Yes has gone through several styles through the years, but this just doesn’t work.

Holding On (AWBH) — The ideas were really running thin by this point. The guitar riff from the opening song is reprised. Just when I was nearly hooked into the song by some clever bass riffs, it abruptly launched into another style. By the four-minute mark, it’s almost as if we have 10 people playing parts without anything tying them together. (In fact, it may be exactly that.)

Evensong (Levin/Bruford) — A Tony Levin/Bill Bruford duet, with Levin coaxing some unusual tones out of what I’m assuming is a Chapman stick and Bruford adding percussion with an Asian influence. It’s a brief, fascinating listen, like looking at an artist’s sketch of a larger project. Did they ever record that larger project, or did their work in King Crimson suffice?

Take the Water to the Mountain (AWBH, Anderson sole writer) — As with many of the songs that would’ve been on Side 2 in the vinyl and cassette days, I had little memory of this song. Listening again all these years later reveals a pleasant surprise. Like Holy Lamb on Big Generator, this is a simple, spiritual offering from Jon Anderson, and it’s an enjoyable listen. Other band members (or any number of the studio musicians Elias assembled) add nice textures without overwhelming the song. It makes you wonder what might have been if Elias and company had let the other songs on this album “breathe” as this one does.

So I count five solid Yes songs, then a few experiments of varying success and a couple of songs that never needed to be released.

I imagine an alternate timeline in which this music is abandoned and then properly recorded years later, like Fly From Here. Some of the songs, of course, would be poorer without Jon Anderson. But I would gladly listen to I Would Have Waited Forever re-recorded with Jon Davison’s voice and the Trevor Horn/Geoff Downes team finding smart arrangements.

Progressive rock bands follow a winding path. Rush, which has had the same three members for 40 years, has gone through some interesting detours. Union finds Yes at an intriguing crossroads in its complex history. These songs will never occupy the same space in my heart and mind as Yours Is No Disgrace, Roundabout, And You And I, Awaken, or Owner Of A Lonely Heart. But I didn’t regret owning this CD at the time. And I don’t regret revisiting it today.

Posted in music, Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment