All posts by Greg Laden

The Charge of the Light Brigade: A Cautionary Tale

First, a little clarification on the “Light Brigade.” This term originally referred to a British military unit of light (as in not heavy) cavalry that engaged with the Russians (the enemy in this story) during the Crimean War, in October, 1854. The brigade, made up of Light Dragoons, Lancers, and Hussars, was tasked to take over some territory from which Turkish (more enemy) troops had been vanquished, in order to prevent the Russians from recovering artillery pieces left there. But somehow, there was a miscommunication, and the Light Brigade was sent to attack a well fortified and entrenched enemy unit that they had no business dealing with. This assault gained no ground and 110 of about 670 troops were killed, 161 wounded.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.

But in the western suburbs of Minnesota, in part of Congressional District 3 represented by Republican Erik Paulsen, it has a different meaning. The Light Brigade is a group of activists affiliated with Indivisible MN03. As shown here, they dress up somehow as giant letters and make words or phrases across overpasses over major highways, in order to get people thinking about certain political issues.

Recent events in Minnesota politics made me think about the Light Brigade as a metaphor for something very good, and possibly (but I Hope not) for something very bad as well.

I don’t know how many activists it takes to make a light-bulb into a sentence, because I have yet to join any of the Light Brigade’s actions (though I hope to eventually). But I imagine it takes at least one person per letter, and a few others to make the letters and organize the whole thing. “THIS IS TAX WARFARE” has 16 letters in it. So lets assume that some 22 people including organizers and sign makers were involved in that action.

One of the big issue on people’s minds in this area, and across the country, is health insurance. In fact, it was the Republican Party, under Trump, attempting to dismantle Obamacare that made Indivisible emerge as a group, and that caused all those angry town meetings. It isn’t just that the Republicans have a different view of health insurance. We are not stupid. We know that Trump fomented a racist theme of hatred of America’s first black president, and that Republicans are exploiting this to take and hold power, and part of that means dismantling a health insurance system that is almost identical to one proposed years ago by Republicans as an alternative to the one proposed then by Hillary Clinton. People are rightfully mad at the Republicans (though Indivisible is in theory “no partisan”) and at Trump, and Ryan and the rest of them.

So, let’s look at health insurance for a moment. There are two major views on what to do about it, at least around these parts. Everybody wants universal coverage, and ultimately, people might be OK with single payer, but there are two distinct opinions. One is to go for single payer health care immediately. The other is to not do so, to take several years to get to that point. One of the arguments for the latter is that across the country, and especially in Minnesota (we have lots of health care, health insurance, and insurance interests here) there are thousands and thousands of people who work in the health insurance industry who would lose their jobs. Many are in insurance, others work for hospitals or care providers handling that end of the vast plethora of paperwork that accompanies our current Byzantine system. Many want to see a slower change so those people and companies can transition out of the business. People who want to see an immediate transition understand that these folks will lose their jobs, and are willing to have the transition somehow address that problem with help of some kind.

I believe that the people who are currently very active in politics in this area, including the community that repeatedly sends our version of the Light Brigade into battle (but with more success and less bloodshed than the original one!), fall perhaps evenly across these two beliefs. I think the single-payer-now may be a majority, but if so, not by much. I also have seen some pretty serious vitriol over this issue. The two positions are not that far apart: universal coverage very soon, single payer either very soon or eventually but not too long. These two positions are almost identical to the positions held by Senator Sanders (now) and Secretary Clinton (incrementally) during the rather heated primary battle last year, and that important but not extreme difference cleaved many a good relationship back in the day, and may do so again.

So, now we get to the point of the matter. Look at that bridge with “THIS IS TAX WARFARE” emblazoned across it in carefully arranged arrays of LEDs. Now, ask all the people, the 16 holding the lights, to think for a moment if they are on the universal-single-payer-now bandwagon, or the universal-not-single-payer-now bandwagon. Now, everybody, all at once, who is in the former camp, move to the left side of the bridge, all those who are in the latter camp, move to the right side of the bridge.

Suddenly you get this:

In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “We must, indeed, all spell correctly, or most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

Take any group of 20-24 citizens and they can do something important. There are groups in our area now writing post cards to potential voters hoping to increase voting turnout. There are people meeting to discuss issues, getting fired up, then going off to write letters to local papers. There is a group that organizes a presence at local parades and farmers markets. And, there is the Indivisible Light Brigade.

Now, imagine that each of these groups divided over the two different health care issues, and refused to work with each other. Not only do they do that, but they divert some of their activist energy into hating on the other group in the usual venues of social media.

Now, further imagine that we look at other issues. Are you pro nuke, or anti nuke? Do you think we should or should not build that composting facility up in Anoka? Should we borrow money to fix up the old bridge over the highway, and how do you sand on bond issues? Charter schools? Raising the minimum wage?

The truth is, that for many of these issues, most of the activists I have in mind mostly agree. But for each of these issues, there is a person here or a person here that doesn’t. Should those individuals be identified and driven into the swamp? One problem with that strategy is that when we look across all the issues, we can find that there is a subset of people who buck the trend on each, but they are not all the same people. We’re gonna need a larger swamp.

Let me put this another way. Think of issues from the perspective of oneself. Identify your own position on each of the issues. Now, create an archetype, a perfect theoretical entity that is exactly you. Now, expect all other individuals to fit that model, and if they don’t….


There probably are issues that really do divide people. The Republican party relies on abortion (against) and free access to firearms by anyone (for) to divide people. Democrats tend to pitch a bigger tent and include all sorts, but of late, Democrats have become very granular in their intensity. You don’t like my version of health care? Then you are untrustworthy and not worthy of my favor. I heard about your position on nuclear power. Satan, I name thee!!!! That sort of thing.

The latest is Al Franken. A lot of Minnesota Democrats are, I think rightfully, unhappy to lose Franken in the Senate, and I have to say, there is a good argument for at least, having seen the recent process through to the ethics committee conclusion. That’s what I think, anyway. But if you think something different, that’s fine with me. Franken’s alleged transgressions, even if all true, are not Harvey Weinbergian, and he is a man who underwent a major transition in life, going from being show people to being politician, and people can change. There is a wide range of reasonable opinions only one or two of which a given individual is going to agree on.

I decided weeks ago to not hold anyone’s opinion on this matter against them. I do not want to see my own community broken into tiny slices over issue after issue. If that is how we are going to behave, we might as well give up now, because that is no way to run a resistance.

Viva la resistance. Down with the tyranny of granular hatred. All you people up on the bridge, get over it and get back in line, we need you!

By the way, I don’t think the original charge of the Light Brigade is a very good metaphor for anything happening in my local activist community. Yet. Be vigilant!

Dear Candidate For Office: About your environmental policy…

Over the last five months, and with increasing frequency, I find myself listening to candidates for office talk about their environmental policies. I’ve looked at the policies of candidates for Minnesota Governor, for US Congress in three different districts, and for Minnesota Senate and House in numerous districts. There is a lot of variation across the candidates. Only one candidate so far has demonstrated a) rich knowledge of the subject, b) well formulated and detailed policy, and c) policy that I find very good and agree with. This is not a post about that candidate, but rather, all the other candidates.

The other candidates have positions that run from “seems kinda OK” to “is maybe mostly OK” but none are good enough. The most common position on a given environmental issue is for the candidate to indicate that they think it is very important. Sadly, when it comes to climate change specifically, the most common position is for the candidate to acknowledge that climate change is real.

Sorry, but you don’t get points for knowing how to write your name on the top of the exam. Continue reading Dear Candidate For Office: About your environmental policy…

Is There Evidence of Life On Mars?

At present, the evidence suggests that life may have existed in the past on Mars, or not. However, the scientific consensus is that we assume life never arose on Mars, and will continue to do so until evidence pops out and bites us in the mass spectrometer.

There is no evidence of life on Mars right now. Continue reading Is There Evidence of Life On Mars?

A Possible Problem with CRISPR

Viruses use the DNA of their hosts to help themselves reproduce. Bacteria have counter-attacked viruses by grabbing some of the DNA from viruses and using this to identify them and kill them back. That as an oversimplified description of an eons old arms race between viruses and bacteria.

Among the DNA sequences co-opted by bacteria is the famous gene-frag-family known as CRISPR. You’ve heard of it, and you probably know what it does. Briefly, genetic scientists can use the innate power of CRISPR to manipulate other DNA to “repair” or modify in situ DNA sequences in living organisms. Got a genetic disease? No problem. We get the good genetic sequence, and then use the CRISPR based technology to replace all your bad DNA with the good DNA.

Now, of course, that doesn’t really work this way, and CRISPR technology has had fairly limited success so far. But there have been successes, and CRISPR is generally regarded as the Next Great Hope in the future of genetic therapy.

But now there may be a problem. Among the bacteria that use a CRISPER sort of sequence are two that are fairly nasty and common human pathogens. These are Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes. In fact, the specific CRISPER sequences that genetic scientists use to do the CRISPR thing, come from these specific bacteria.

So, think about this for a moment. If CRISPER is used by bacteria to do any of their dirty work, and the bacteria are common human pathogens, is it possible that some humans have built up an immunity to the CRISPER sequences, perhaps putting them off limits for future CRISPR therapy? Continue reading A Possible Problem with CRISPR

Which happens more often: Trump tells a bald faced lie, or a cop kills a citizen?

During the last 347 days of the Trump presidency, Donald Trump has lied 1,950 times, according to the Washington Post, which is keeping track.

The same newspaper tracks the number of times the police in the US shoot and kill a person. During the 365 days of 2017, that happened 987 times.

So, Donald Trump lies about 6.62 times a day.

So, american cops kill about 2.7 people a day.

This means that by the time Donald Trump delivers his inaugural address later this month, he will have lied approximately 100 more times. This does not mean that he will give us 100 more distinct lies. Many of his lies are repeats. Then, in the inaugural itself, we’ll probably get another big batch.

Between now and the inaugural address, about 40 of us will be gunned down in the streets or in our homes by the cops. (For perspective, the total rate of death of Americans in this country’s longest war, in Afghanistan, averages out to about one killed every three days, while the number of Americans killed in Viet Nam, which is actually hard to estimate, is two to three times the rate at which the cops kill us. So, the cops kill us at a rate that is about the same order of magnitude as a recent, modern, war.)

Happy January!

By the way, I’m enjoying Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.

A Resolution Concerning Town Halls (The Erik Paulsen Amendment) Revised

A suggested resolution for Minnesotans attending their precinct caucuses this year.

Elected members to the United State Congress sometimes forget that they were sent to Washington DC to represent the people of their district,

a bill be introduced to disallow disbursement or reimbursement to any member of the US House of Representatives or Senate from the Members’ Represents Allowance fund, or any other disbursement other than salary, for any member who does not hold open public town halls in their home district at least two times per calendar year.

An open public town hall shall be defined as a public meeting to which all constituents are invite at an appropriately sized and located venue with several days public notice, for at least two hours time provide for questions and comments by constituents.

The resolution form is herw.

“I know some want (me) to do a public event, an open town hall … (Laughs) … I’m not going to do that” (just after 8 minutes, 12-20-17 Paul and Jordana 5 PM Wednesday, Dedember 20th, 2017)

Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz punches the Nazi

I remember learning a long time ago that in places like Germany, places that had recently been ravaged, nearly totally destroyed, with much death and misery, by Nazis and other fascists, it was illegal to do things like display a swastika. This is the kind of thing that makes many Americans throw a conniption. Continue reading Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz punches the Nazi

New Trump Book Breaks Trump, Popcorn Shortage Expected

A meme for you:

Apparently Donald Trump is going full on conniption over this new book.

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolf is the latest, maybe the only so far, tell all of the early days of the Trump White House. It is not available yet (butcan be pre-ordered).

The book is based on hundreds of interviews and considerable time spent in the White House by the author. I’m not sure if this guy is exactly my favorite author, but anybody who can get Trump to explode is worth checking out.

Writing Software for Writers

This is especially for writers of big things. If you write small things, like blog posts or short articles, your best tool is probably a text editor you like and a way to handle markdown language. Chances are you use a word processor like MS Word or LibreOffice, and that is both overkill and problematic for other reasons, but if it floats your boat, happy sailing. But really, the simpler the better for basic writing and composition and file management. If you have an editor or publisher that requires that you only exchange documents in Word format, you can shoot your text file with markdown into a Word document format easily, or just copy and paste into your word processor and fiddle.

(And yes, a “text editor” and a “word processor” are not the same thing.)

But if you have larger documents, such as a book, to work on, then you may have additional problems that require somewhat heroic solutions. For example, you will need to manage sections of text in a large setting, moving things around, and leaving large undone sections, and finally settling on a format for headings, chapters, parts, sections, etc. after trying out various alternative structures.

You will want to do this effectively, without the necessary fiddling taking too much time, or ruining your project if something goes wrong. Try moving a dozen different sections around in an 80,000 word document file. Not easy. Or, if you divide your document into many small files, how do you keep them in order? There are ways, but most of the ways are clunky and some may be unreliable.

If you use Windows (I don’t) or a Mac (I do sometimes) then you should check out Scrivener. You may have heard about it before, and we have discussed it here. But you may not know that there is a new version and it has some cool features added to all the other cool features it already had.

The most important feature of Scrivener is that it has a tree that holds, as its branches, what amount to individual text files (with formatting and all, don’t worry about that) which you can freely move around. The tree can have multiple hierarchical levels, in case you want a large scale structure that is complex, like multiple books each with several parts containing multiple chapters each with one or more than one scene. No problem.

Imagine the best outlining program you’ve ever used. Now, improve it so it is better than that. Then blend it with an excellent word processing system so you can do all your writing in it.

Then, add features. There are all sorts of features that allow you to track things, like how far along the various chapters or sections are, or which chapters hold which subplots, etc. Color coding. Tags. Places to take notes. Metadata, metadata, metadata. A recent addition is a “linguistic focus” which allows you to chose a particular construct such as “nouns” or “verbs” or dialog (stuff in quotation marks) and make it all highlighted in a particular subdocument.

People will tell you that the index card and cork board feature is the coolest. It is cool, but I like the other stuff better, and rarely use the index cards on the cork board feature myself. But it is cool.

The only thing negative about all these features is that there are so many of them that there will be a period of distraction as you figure out which way to have fun using them.

Unfortunately for me, I like to work in Linux, and my main computer is, these days, a home built Linux box that blows the nearby iMac out of the water on speed and such. I still use the iMac to write, and I’ve stripped most of the other functionality away from that computer, to make that work better. So, when I’m using Scrivener, I’m not getting notices from twitter or Facebook or other distractions. But I’d love to have Scrivener on Linux.

If you are a Linux user and like Scrivener let them know that you’d buy Scrivener for Linux if if was avaialable! There was a beta version of Scrivener for Linux for a while, but it stopped being developed, then stopped being maintained, and now it is dead.

In an effort to have something like Scrivener on my Linux machine, I searched around for alternatives. I did not find THE answer, but I found some things of interest.

I looked at Kit Scenarist, but it was freemium which I will not go near. I like OpenSource projects the best, but if they don’t exist and there is a reasonable paid alternative, I’ll pay (like Scrivener, it has a modest price tag, and is worth it) . Bibisco is an entirely web based thing. I don’t want my writing on somebody’s web cloud.

yWriter looks interesting and you should look into it (here). It isn’t really available for Linux, but is said to work on Mono, which I take to be like Wine. So, I didn’t bother, but I’m noting it here in case you want to.

oStorybook is java based and violated a key rule I maintain. When software is installed on my computer, there has to be a way to start it up, like telling me the name of the software, or putting it on the menu or something. I think Java based software is often like this. Anyway, I didn’t like its old fashioned menus and I’m not sure how well maintained it is.

Writers Cafe is fun to look at and could be perfect for some writers. It is like yWrite in that it is a set of solutions someone thought would be good. I tried several of the tools and found that some did not work so well. It cost money (but to try is free) and isn’t quite up to it, in my opinion, but it is worth a look just to see for yourself.

Plume Creator is apparently loved by many, and is actually in many Linux distros. I played around with it for a while. I didn’t like the menu system (disappearing menus are not my thing at all) and the interface is a bit quirky and not intuitive. But I think it does have some good features and I recommend looking at it closely.

The best of the lot seems to be Manuskript. It is in Beta form but seems to work well. It is essentially a Scrivener clone, more or less, and works in a similar way with many features. In terms of overall slickness and oomph, Manuskript is maybe one tenth or one fifth of Scrivener (in my subjective opinion) but is heading in that direction. And, if your main goal is simply to have a hierarchy of scenes and chapters and such that you can move around in a word processor, then you are there. I don’t like the way the in line spell checker works but it does exist and it does work. This software is good enough that I will use it for a project (already started) and I do have hope for it.

Using Scrivener on Linux the Other Way.

There is of course a way to use Scrivener on Linux, if you have a Mac laying around, and I do this for some projects. Scrivener has a mode that allows for storing the sub documents in your projects as text files that you can access directly and edit with a text editor. If you keep these in Dropbox, you can use emacs (or whatever) on Linux to do your writing and such, and Scrivener on the Mac to organize the larger document. Sounds clunky, is dangerous, but it actually works pretty well for certain projects.

Scrivener can look like this.

Books Cheap Two

Two current deals on Kindle books you might like. Everyone loves Freakonomics Rev Ed: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything and it is now three bucks minus one penny on Amazon. I can’t vouch for Ask a Science Teacher: 250 Answers to Questions You’ve Always Had About How Everyday Stuff Really Works but it looks fun and is two bucks minus one penny.

That is all, thank you very much.