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Small portion of Gilgamesh Epic
And Enkidu said unto Gilgamesh "Lo, magic bulls are one thing, but these Republicans speweth magic bullsh!t."
Dana Milbank asks the really pertinent Duggar question: why was every GOP candidate fawning over these people to begin with?
Rick Santorum no longer digs the Duggars. ... Santorum’s response contrasts dramatically with that of another 2016 contender, Mike Huckabee, who enjoyed the Duggars’ support in his 2008 bid but didn’t run in 2012. After the news broke (and Josh Duggar apologized), Huckabee posted a message on Facebook to "affirm" his support of the Duggars. "Good people make mistakes and do regrettable and even disgusting things," he wrote, calling Josh Duggar’s response a "testament to his family’s authenticity and humility."

Why the divergence in opinion? Perhaps it has something to do with Huck’s victory in the Duggar Primary. Several candidates had sought the famous family’s favor, as evidenced by the photos (mostly from Josh Duggar’s Twitter stream) of Duggar with Huckabee, Santorum, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker.  But this month, before the scandal broke, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, Josh’s parents and stars of “19 Kids and Counting,” endorsed Huckabee over their 2012 pick, Santorum.

This is the real scandal.

The lesson is that you can be forgiven anything if you have a reality show and decent audience ratings. And being the flagship of an extreme faction in the party doesn't hurt.
I don’t join in the schadenfreude on the left over the latest case of hypocrisy among family-values conservatives. Nor do I take any delight in the discovery that the Duggars, who find immorality in homosexuality, abortion and out-of-wedlock sex, have more disturbing questions of morality in their own home. What’s troubling is that the Republican presidential candidates have been so worshipful of the Duggars in the first place. The political issue is not what Josh Duggar did as a teenager but why so many who seek the nation’s highest office feel the need to woo people so far out on the ideological extreme.
Kathleen Parker gives her take on the Duggar dustup.
... "19 Kids and Counting," which puts literate people in mind of a baby goat factory that under similarly procreative practices would prompt charges of animal cruelty. Human offspring are children, accurately speaking, not kids. And 19 of them isn’t just a brood but a sideshow.

As most know by now, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar are the prolific parents in this mysteriously popular TLC show. They left to God the number of babies they would bring forth — and God is clearly not counting.

Recently, even the least-interested among us learned that their oldest, Josh, sexually preyed upon five underage girls, including some of his little sisters, 12 years ago when he was a teenager. ...

Into this perverse auto-da-fé have waltzed two Republican presidential candidates, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, presumptively the two most devout Christians among the — hey! — 19 likely Republican presidential candidates. Numerologists? Both men have been political favorites of the Duggar family, though Santorum has now begun distancing himself.

Parker then wanders into how millennials are more secular, which is relevant, then takes a huge side-jump into how the Muslims are growing at Duggar-ish rates and may soon be... well, still a low single digit percentage of the population, but bigger! It's a side note worthy of Ross Douthat.

Speaking of which, come right inside...

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Tue May 26, 2015 at 12:28 PM PDT

Game of Thrones 5.7—'The Gift'

by Mark Sumner

Jon prepares to visit the wildlings
Hast thou tried Head and Shoulders?
Winter is coming.

Remember that saying? Sure, it's floating on all those (now a bit sad looking) Stark banners, but it's also a big, honking, important theme behind the whole series. Enough so that I sometimes think naming the television series Game of Thrones after the first of the novels is a bit of a mistake. It puts the emphasis squarely on all the maneuvering to plant a posterior on that ugly iron chair, and that's certainly entertaining. Only ... it's a sideshow.

The Big $%@*&!ng Deal has always been up in the North, where strange white zombies have been roaming about since the first minutes of episode one. And even if they weren't ... winter is coming. Everyone knows it's coming. Everyone knows it's going to be bad. Like ten years of night and more snow than fell on New England this year bad. Only instead of filling the cellars with potatoes and putting aside N to the 10th cords of firewood, people are busily trampling fields, going stabby stabby, and burning down forests (and houses).

So when winter finally stops coming and just IS, things are going to be bleak. And we got a hint of that this week. Head below the fold for all the action.

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A wild boar and domestic pigs from Charles Darwin's
A wild boar and domestic pigs from Darwin's The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication
In 2001, Michael Pollan authored a fine popular science book called The Botany of Desire. The work provides an interesting and insightful short history into four of the most common plants in our world: the tulip, marijuana, the apple and the potato. For each of these plants, we learn something of their origin, how they are grown today, and the path they've taken to become so utterly ubiquitous.

There are fascinating tales hidden under each leaf. Apples, as it turns out, do not "come true" from seed, and must be reproduced from grafted cuttings. As a result, every Red Delicious apple you've ever crunched into is a clone from a tree that popped up in Madison County, Iowa, some time in the middle of the 19th century. And if you were to plant the seeds from that apple, exactly none of them would look or taste like a Red Delicious. Instead you'd get apples of different colors and sizes, almost all of them just short of inedible.

The story behind each plant is so interesting that it's easy to miss Pollan's primary point. The subtitle of the book is A Plant's-Eye View of the World and that's just what he intended to do in the work: flip the way in which we usually understand the selective pressures behind domesticated plants on its human-centric head. Rather than looking at how we make plants into what we want, Pollan projects things in starkly different terms. How have some plants, by offering something that we desire (beauty, intoxication, sweetness, and sustenance in the canonical four), persuaded humans to remove them from their original, limited niches and turn them into worldwide champions? We usually look on it as people adapting plants to their needs. Pollan looks at it as plants enlisting humans to play the role of rather large bees.

It's similar to the argument that many authors have made about dogs versus wolves. Wolves, the ancestor of all domesticated dogs, are beautifully adapted predators—in a world open to creatures which need to roam long distances without being shot, blocked by fences, or flattened by automobiles. A few tens of thousands of years ago, a small group of wolves became uniquely fixated on the behavior of human beings. Currently, there are something on the order of 550 million dogs on planet Earth. There are perhaps a quarter of a million wolves. We may think that we've manipulated characteristics of a predator that was a threat (to our livestock if not ourselves) and turned them into helpmates and companions. You can look at it that way, or you can say that a few minor modifications were required to turn humans into a vector for spreading wolves around the planet.

But if it's valid to look at the relationship between people and plants, or people and animals, as being driven from either end ... how about the relationship between people and technology?

Head below the fold to find out.

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Ramsay Bolton and Sansa Stark, pre-wedding
I'm not opposed to violence in entertainment. While I certainly don't desire any violence in my own life—or in anyone else's really—violence is part of the classic formula for drama. Whether it's physical or mental, forcing your protagonist through various trials is very nearly the definition of narrative.

One of my favorite authors, American science fiction and fantasy writer Tim Powers, is capable of working with astounding levels of subtlety and authenticity, weaving together stories in which the fantastical elements are so tightly bound to the mundane that you can forget they're not a part of your daily life. Even so, Powers so regularly batters his lead characters with a course of life- and limb-threatening challenges, that my writing group used to hand out the "Tim Powers Award" when a manuscript ran past us whose central character finished the text battered, aged, blinded, de-limbed, or simply very, very beaten up.

In the hands of a poor writer, violence is a crutch to keep the plot hobbling along. In the hands of a good one, it can be a means to make both characters and readers reexamine their understanding of the world and weigh their own moral decisions.

So when I say that this week's Game of Thrones handled a moment of violence in a way that made me seriously consider whether I want to watch any further ... mark that down as "very poor."

Head below the fold for all the violent details.

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Chart showing relationship of science and religious groups by Josh Rosenau
Religious Groups vs. Environment and Evolution from Josh Rosenau at NCSE
Last year, Tobin Grant at Religious News Service put together a single spiffy chart for the interplay of politics and religion in the United States. In one image, the chart encodes the relative size of different religious groups along with the political positions of those groups (or organizations associated with those groups), as reflected along the axes of more or less government services and more or less government enforcement of moral positions. It's a very nice bit of work, one that would make Edward Tufte proud.

But there's another dimension that isn't cleanly reflected in the chart. How do these organizations fall when it comes to issues of science? In particular, how does religious affiliation relate to support of evolution and environmental issues? Is being religious the same as dismissing evolution? Is the Bible Belt automatically against the EPA?

Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education has charted exactly that relationship, which is shown in the image at the top of this post.

For more on what this chart, and the one by Grant, revealed... come on in.

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Sherlock Holmes
Watson, I have deduced Jeb Bush's actual answer!
Paul Krugman recaps how John Ellis Bush has waffled the nation toward a discussion we need to hold.
Jeb Bush definitely did us a favor: in his attempts to avoid talking about the past, he ended up bringing back a discussion people have been trying to avoid. And they are, of course, still trying to avoid it — they want to make this just about the horserace, or about the hypothetical of “if you knew what we know now”.

For that formulation is itself an evasion, as Josh Marshall, Greg Sargent, and Duncan Black point out — each making a slightly different but crucial point.

And here's what "respectable journalists" and "serious politicians" still don't want to admit.
...Iraq was not a good faith mistake. Bush and Cheney didn’t sit down with the intelligence community, ask for their best assessment of the situation, and then reluctantly conclude that war was the only option. They decided right at the beginning — literally before the dust of 9/11 had settled — to use a terrorist attack by religious extremists as an excuse to go after a secular regime that, evil as it was, had nothing to do with that attack. ...

... this isn’t hindsight. It was quite clear at the time that the case for war was fake.

... a lot of Very Serious People were effectively in on the con. They, too, were looking forward to a splendid little war; or they were eager to burnish their non-hippie credentials by saying, hey, look, I’m a warmonger too...

Even if you buy the idea that Bush at first misunderstood the question and thought he was being asked if he would have launched the war based on what was known at the time, note that he didn't actually put forward any case for war. His immediate response was simply "Hillary did it too." That's sadly true, but the fact that Bush's only retort was the same as that used by a five year old defending his actions per the cookie jar, should be a red flag to everyone.

Sum it up, Mr. Krugman.

the crucial thing to understand is that the invasion wasn’t a mistake, it was a crime. We were lied into war. And we shouldn’t let that ugly truth be forgotten.
Come on in. Let's see what other punditry abounds this morning.
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Sansa and yet another prospective hubby
As Game of Thrones, the television show, has drifted away from A Song of Fire and Ice, the series of books, I've grown worried. Sometimes the departure from the books has been of the gentle, understandable, "we already have a cast of hundreds, surely we can do without this person who plays a relatively minor role" variety. Sometimes the departure has been more of a lurch toward "let's just do in this whole apparently quite important plot because ... reasons."  

Neither really bothers me. What bothers me is that, especially in season five, those deviations from the books have been ... nice.  

Come on in. Let's talk.

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You'll have to excuse me. I'm skipping every pundit who chose to spend their column inches this Sunday talking about "Deflategate." Because... 1) there's already commentary on the sports page, and 2) this isn't deserving of a "...gate." It doesn't even rate a "...ghazi."

Instead, I'm going to address something even less consequential than a missing bit of air in a pigskin— Mike Huckabee.

Frank Bruni starts us off with why Republicans have a fine strategy... in bizarro world.

...Her Republican rivals convince themselves that "I'm not Hillary" is their strongest argument and best bet, although the reverse holds true. At least for now, not being any one of them is her ace in the hole.

The 2016 race in its adolescence is between the dependably messy, perpetually maddening spectacle of the Clintons and a party with a brand-decimating profusion of mad hatters like the two who announced their bids and grabbed the spotlight last week, Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson.

Advantage: Hillary Clinton.
...

A New York Times/CBS News poll found that over the past month and a half, during which she weathered a veritable hurricane of negative news coverage, her favorability rating improved, and the percentage of voters who see her as a strong leader rose to 65 from 57. Nearly 80 percent of the Democrats surveyed deemed her honest and trustworthy.

A charitable organization that does most of its work overseas is taking overseas contributions? Gasp. No one seems to be shocked except Swiftboat book writers and the NYT columnists who love them. In the meantime, let's check in on the honesty of the good preacher from Arkansas.
As recounted by Trip Gabriel in The Times, Ron Fournier in the National Journal and Max Brantley in Salon, he’s a case study in financial high jinks, a master class in shamelessness. He reportedly used the Arkansas governor’s office “as a personal ATM,” in Fournier’s description, channeling public money toward private expenditures (a doghouse, Taco Bell) and accepting tens of thousands of dollars in highly questionable gifts, some from people who later received prominent political appointments.

More recently he did an infomercial hawking dietary supplements as a diabetes cure, even though reputable physicians and medical associations call it poppycock. Only three of the following four adjectives correctly describe that decision: tacky, mercenary, irresponsible and presidential.

How laughably bad is Mike Huckabee? He's so bad...(feel free to read all or part of this in the voice of Ed McMahon). How bad is he? He's so bad that I'm going to break with more than five years of tradition and actually quote from a George Will column. Yeah. I'm going there.
Huckabee was unsurprised when a lunatic murdered 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012: “We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?” So, the slaughter was a consequence of the 1962 Supreme Court decision against government schools administering prayers? Was the 2012 massacre of 12 people at the Aurora, Colo., movie theater caused by insufficient praying at America’s cineplexes? ...

For many voters, a party is largely defined by the behavior of its presidential aspirants. For Republicans worried about broadening their party’s appeal, there is one word for Huckabee’s stances: Appalling.

Now, let's just try to forget this happened. While I wipe seven decades of fustiness off my keyboard, go on inside and see what the rest of the pundits are up to this morning.
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Grand Canyon
Nicholas Kristof reminds us that the structure of our economy is not an inevitable outcome. It's a choice.
The eruptions in Baltimore have been tied, in complex ways, to frustrations at American inequality, and a new measure of the economic gaps arrived earlier this year:

It turns out that the Wall Street bonus pool in 2014 was roughly twice the total annual earnings of all Americans working full time at the federal minimum wage.

I'm going to pause here to let that sink in. The bonus pool, not the salaries of everyone on Wall Street, but just the bonus pool of a few people in a single city, working at tasks most of us could not name and few of us would miss, exceeded the total income of everyone across the nation who waited on you at a restaurant, who picked up your trash and recycling, who stocked the shelves in your grocery, and a hundred other daily things that you would most certainly notice if they were to vanish.
We've been walloped with staggering statistics like this long enough that although this used to be a Democratic issue, Republicans are now speaking up. “The United States is beset by a crisis in inequality,” warned Senator Mike Lee of Utah, a Republican with Tea Party support (although he added that his concern is gaps in opportunity, not wealth).
Yet another ridiculous Republican rephrasing (RRR) of income inequality. This RRR is almost as good as the old saw that the real problem is that the rich are paying too much in tax, while lazy poor people pay too little. Which causes income inequality...to...not be as big as it should be?
We as a nation have chosen to prioritize tax shelters over minimum wages, subsidies for private jets over robust services for children to break the cycle of poverty. And the political conversation is often not about free rides by corporations, but about free rides by the impoverished.

Kansas’ Legislature is so concerned with this that it recently banned those receiving government assistance from, among other things, spending welfare funds on cruise ships (there is, of course, no indication that this was a problem). Will Kansas next address the risk that food stamps are spent on caviar and truffles? We all know that public money is better used to subsidize tax-deductible business meals by executives at fancy restaurants.

Well, Missouri already took care of that caviar business. In fact, the Missouri bill would keep people from using food stamps on any fancy sea food, like say Mrs. Paul's Fish Sticks.

But the point here is this is all political. A yawning income chasm is not a given. It's something we've created through a thousand paper cuts.

Come on in. Let's see what other punditry is afoot.

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Look, I completely understand why you might not want to read this at the moment. I understand why, with everything that's happening, this seems frivolous, beside the point, even a frustrating misuse of valuable front page photons at a time when things of much more consequence than Some Damn Fantasy Television Show deserve thoughtful attention.

However, I also understand just why some of you might feel like this is a really, really good time to talk about SDFTS. Or anything else.  So if you're feeling like an escape, please come on inside. If not, well, come on inside anyway and lob a sharp-edged comment or two. It'll make you feel better.

And now (flourish of horns) on with the show. ...

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If only these things worked.
Dana Milbank says the TPP is just as bad as you think it is. And Elizabeth Warren? Well...
No, President Obama, Elizabeth Warren isn’t wrong.

Obama told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on Tuesday that the populist Democratic senator from Massachusetts is in error in opposing a free-trade agreement his administration has been negotiating with 11 other Pacific nations.

Warren is right: The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is an abomination — not because of the deal itself, and not because free trade in general is a bad idea. The TPP is an abomination because Obama had a chance to protect American workers from the harm that would inevitably come from such a pact, and he didn’t take it, or at least he hasn’t.

As bad, Obama’s anointed successor, Hillary Clinton, waffled on the trade pact this week, offering only the banality that “any trade deal has to produce jobs and raise wages” — which, of course, they all claim to do...

more than 20 years after NAFTA and 14 years after China joined the World Trade Organization, there is no real question among economists that expanding trade has been good for the world and has helped reduce poverty. It has also unquestionably been good for U.S. corporations as they grow their global reach. But there is equally no doubt that trade liberalization has hurt low-skill manufacturing workers and aggravated income inequality, which is now at its worst since the 1920s.

Helping corporations "grow their global reach" is not exactly at the top of a good economic to-do list. Who is right about the TPP? Well, there's no doubt it will shuffle jobs to the lowest bidder and shuffle money to those who already have it. Because that's what these things do. Is this treaty particularly bad? It would help if the president would let us read it.

Come on in, let's read some pundits...

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Fri Apr 24, 2015 at 08:29 AM PDT

Backyard Scientist: Chimp Edition

by Mark Sumner

I may have been the first person to see these chimps
I'm a lover of science you can do close to home, but thanks to sites like Zooniverse, you can now do science very far away from home without taking your eyes away from your screen. For example, they have a program where you can pick through thousands of photos of the night sky and try to find asteroids.

The latest program is one in which you can try to identify chimpanzees in Africa... and it's the best video game of the year.

Under the punnish title Chimp And See, they've taken thousands of short videos captured by dozens of trap cameras in the forest of Africa, and tossed them onto the web in a grand game of "what do you see?"  Each time something moves near the cameras they take a little short 15-30 second video.  On the site, you can review these videos and tell them what, if anything you can spot.  Most of them are nothing, or pigs, or little deer-like things called duiker. Very often you see the people who set up the cameras, or branches disturbed by rain, or bats making a close pass at the infrared lights.

But you also see forest elephants and aardvarks and beautiful little antelope.  And occasionally you also see chimps.

Come inside and see...

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