Muttrox Goes to England: Tourist Stuff

Speakers Corner is a wonderful idea. On a corner of Hyde Park, anyone can set up and begin talking to anyone who wants to listen. It has been going for two hundred years or so. It is free speech at it’s best. I was looking forward to hearing the English citizen intellectual tradition continued. Only — it is terrible. Just like the nutjobs who infest every college campus, it’s just where the crazies happen to end up. There was none of the hoped-for wit or debating. Our day was dominated by a truly crazy Korean religious nut there. She had a bull horn. Why, why… that’s cheating! We walked away quickly. Then the boys accidentally broke a big limb off a tree in the park — we ran like hell. Americans, right?

Hampton Palace boasts the oldest existing hedge maze. The boys solved it in under two minutes. We should have gone to a big one like the Longleat Hedge Maze.

This incredible sweet shop:

Keep Calm and Carry On: This slogan is everywhere. Everywhere. Just about variant you can think of was used. Keep this and do that. On posters, shirts, buildings, buses, it is non-stop. We would wage 20 pence bets on whether a particular instance was in production (“OK. Keep calm and call Batman?”). Almost all were. Interestingly, the slogan was never used during the war. Posters were developed and printed but never used.

My father remembers seeing wartime propaganda in Boston. Citizens were urged to reduce their usage of everything so the war machine could use those resources. This wartime poster is also good dietary advice. Michael Pollen would approve.

Fascinating fact we learned at the Churchill War Rooms: Carrots are not good for your eyes. This comes from a World War II disinformation campaign. British radar was able to spot German planes, and they needed a cover story to explain how their defenses had improved so dramatically. Cool!

Muttrox Goes to England: The Money

(This post may be out of date since Brexit.)

It was fun figuring out the English money system. It’s very straightforward. They appear to have got rid of shillings and quids. That makes it a lot less romantic, but easy to understand.

And the actual coins are great. Just the right heft to them. They have coins for one and two pounds. This is very handy. America keeps trying to use a one dollar coin but can’t get it to stick. Too bad. But just like American money, the coin sizes don’t make sense. 1, 2, and 10 pence coins are all fairly large. Why can’t any country do the obvious thing? Large coins should mean more money. Duh. It’s not hard to understand.

I wonder if English rappers say it’s all about the Elizabeths.

Notice than when the coins are assembled correctly, they make the Royal Shield of Arms. Cool!

Muttrox Goes to England: Drink up, Mate

Obviously, the English have a different attitude about alcohol consumption than Americans. They drink so much more and it very open, but there is not as much over the top behavior. A much more civilized approach.

Civilized open drinking. The Blackfriars Pub was “only” a couple hundred years old.

Why do they drink so much beer? Because the tap water is so awful. Good lord, the stuff is rank! It tastes like it’s been filtered through someone’s old shirt.

Our first meal of the trip was at Chequers, deep in an alley in Oxford. This pub was eight hundred years old. Eight hundred years! (You don’t get used to the age of things. I’m from some of the oldest places in America, and those are only a few hundred years old, and none are still used. Borough Market was celebrating it’s 1,000th year.) Myth has it that Henry VIII’s soldiers chased a group of monks to the tunnels beneath the pub and sealed the tunnel. “On quiet nights, you can still hear them scream…” The boy was mesmerized.

I had the best beer of my life- Nicholson’s Pale Ale. It tasted great and went down so easily. I am not a hard drinker by any stretch, but I inhaled two glasses in two minutes, easily a personal record. I had Nicholson’s everywhere I could find it. Get it to America already!

English pubs use a mechanical tap system that involves frequent pumping of the tap as the beer is poured. I’m convinced that has something to do with the superior taste throughotu.

We also went to Dicken’s pub, founded by Charles Dickens. Many pubs are named after very famous people and often have a direct connection. America doesn’t have anything to rival kings, Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, etc. We get Kenny Rogers Roasters instead. Barbarians, the lot of us.

My Latest Favorite Song #29: Isolation (Jeff Beck with Johnny Depp)

As you might imagine, the last week has led to more Jeff Beck. The genres he had mastered, the incredible tones he created, his amazing control of pitch, it’s incredible how deep down the rabbit hole you can get. Did he ever play a song the same way twice? Go listen to multiple live versions of any of his songs, the phrases are unique each time.

And he was so collaborative. He worked with all kinds of musicians. Who else worked with Stanley Clarke, Jan Hammer, John McLaughlin, ZZ Top, Joss Stone, but also helped out Jon Bon Jovi on Blaze of Glory? Lately, he had been working with Johnny Depp. Johnny Depp!? I figured it wasn’t worth listening to whatever crap they had churned out. I was wrong.

I stumbled on their live version of John Lennon’s Isolation. This thing rocks.

Proposed Changes to the American Democratic System: Leftovers

I posted four proposals over the last few weeks:

  1. The Hastert Rule
  2. The National Popular Vote
  3. Approval Voting
  4. Supreme Court term limits

To conclude the series, here are others that don’t get their own post.

  • Reducing Incumbency: Remember the exciting 2022 midterm election we just had? Incumbents won 94.5% of the races. That’s absurd. In the Senate, the re-election rate was 100%. Not a single sitting Senator lost a campaign to stay in office. That’s just absurd! But… I don’t have any particular ideas how to mitigate this specifically, although the below ones would help enormously.
  • Eliminating the Filibuster: So many others have written about this, it has all the visibility it needs. I am in favor of this. Ezra Klein convinced me that it is worth having some bad things by a slim majority, pass to get a system back to accountability – candidates win, become elected, pass policy, and that policy is judged by the voters next cycle. This goes with reducing the incumbency advantage, part of the key is that officials are held accountable.
  • Gerrymandering: This is maybe the most important of everything listed. Voters should choose candidates, not the other way around. This is a big problem, well publicized. My opinion is obvious. Note that the National Popular Vote essentially eliminates gerrymandering at the Presidential level.

What else did I miss?

My Favorite Late Artist: Jeff Beck

Another giant has passed. Jeff Beck is dead. Beck was a musicians’ musician, and a guitarists’ guitarist. He looked away from superstardom, instead following his artistic instincts again and again to make immensely original music throughout his career. He invented the template that became Led Zeppelin, he blended fusion jazz with rock, and probably a lot more I don’t know about.

He played with his fingers (no pick), and was one of the most expressive guitarists ever (as you’ll hear in the links). His control of tone was untouched, and was likely the best pitch bender (through both strings and whammy bar) ever, casually moving notes through enormous intervals to clean landings.

Rick Beato is required viewing for all music lovers. Here is Rick on why Jeff Beck is uncopyable. Oh, he posted a tribute video yesterday.

I was fortunate enough to see him twice. Each song was always played just a bit different, his control of phrasing and feel led to variations each time. Here is a sampling of my favorite tracks.

A Day in the Life: He closed all his shows with this cover of the Beatles best song. How expressive can one guitarist be? How can he capture the feel of an entire orchestra with just a few notes? It’s worth searching for live versions, because each one is just a little different.

Amazing Grace

Yes, Jeff Beck was incredible at interpreting the works of others.

Hall of the Mountain King / Bolero and Becks’ Bolero. That’s Keith Moon yelling at 4:05. This is the kind of treatment Jimmy Page took on with Led Zeppelin. He tried to draft Keith Moon and John Entwistle for his band. They did not accept. Keith Moon said the whole idea would go over like a lead balloon and the rest is history. Update: Just learned that Beck’s Bolero was written by Jimmy Page.

People Get Ready (with Rod Stewart). Love the modulation at the end. Here’s a more soulful live version.

Freeway Jam. You could pick almost any track from this seminal album.

Rock n’ Roll Jelly (with Stanley Clarke)

Jeff Beck, by Lewis Shiner. This short story struck me before I really knew who Jeff Beck was. A wish fulfillment story of a casual musicians who just wants to feel music like Jeff Beck.

A sad day for all music lovers.

Yuval Levin Misses the Point

Yuval Levin has an interesting editorial in the New York Times, “Some Good Can Come Out of the Kevin McCarthy Fiasco”.

It’s a good angle for a liberal paper. It tries to point out that not everything being asked of McCarthy was awful. But a few of his supporting point, well, do not hold up.

Mr. McCarthy offered a number of hollow concessions. For example, lowering the threshold for a new vote for speaker matters little, since members wouldn’t seek such a vote if they didn’t think a significant number of their colleagues would support it.

This might be true if the goal was to actually depose Mr. McCarthy. It is likely not. The goal is to be obstructionist, waste everyone’s time, make some empty symbolic point, gain press, make money, stay elected. If you are Matt Gaetz or Lauren Boebert, why wouldn’t you do this, loudly and frequently? Why would the crazies have pushed for this change if not to use it?

Muttrox predicts that there will be new votes for speaker, and more than once.

Proposed Changes to the American Democratic System: Supreme Court Term Limits

That’s “Democratic” as in “Democracy”, not the political party.

As a systems guy, I tend to look at problems with our Democracy as being natural consequences of the systems where it is embedded. I have come to settle on a few aspects of our system that have outsized influence. These changes are all big. But they aren’t as big or well known as many other focus areas.

Set the Supreme Court Justice Tenure at 18 years

I first came across this idea in a book by Justice John Paul Stevens called Six Amendments, and since come across it in multiple venues.

The core idea is simple. Currently, a Supreme Court Justice has life tenure. America is an outlier in this, pretty much every country has set limits. The Justice is there until they die or resign. Their term could be five or fifty years.

Instead of life tenure, they would get elected to exactly one term of eighteen years. Here are some of the benefits:

  • It would remove the strategy of nominating and seating younger justices. Currently, each side wants to get young justices seated to lock in their advantage for a longer time period.
  • There would be less concern of justices serving with degrading mental abilities.
  • Current justices would have no reason to “game” their retirements.
  • Each presidential term would “comes with” two justices. This would be consistent and reliable.
  • Thus, the means to get a partisan advantage in the court would be getting more presidential terms rather than scorched earth tactics for each nomination. Since each administration gets two justices either way, there isn’t much reason to go crazy about each individual nominee.
  • Because the Presidential terms is where power on the courts come from, it moves the venue of judicial nominations to the Presidential election process. It puts the politics of Supreme Court gaming back in the political arena. That is appropriate and fitting.
  • The ongoing consistency would greatly reduce the partisan rancor of the current system.

I don’t know how this proposal deals with justices dying/retiring before 18 years and other issues covered here. But no matter how you slice it, it is a far more rational system than the current one.

Learn the Learning Curve

I tire of having to explain this. If the learning curve is flat, it means it is difficult to learn. If the learning curve is steep, it means it easy to learn.

If the learning curve is flat, it means you are spending a lot time and effort without the learning going up much. If it is steep, you quickly gain learning. Rise over run.

This is obvious. And yet, the whole word is stupid, because it is constantly reversed.

Jeopardy has now weighed in. Jeopardy, being populated by, and accountable to, smart people, defined it the correct way.

From Dec 29th 2022 Jeopardy: $1,000 in category “Don’t Get…”

Meta-analysis: If you think a steep learning curve means something hard, your own learning curve is flat. If you think a flat learning curve means something hard, your own learning curve is steep. And if you don’t understand this paragraph, your learning curve is flat.

Proposed Changes to the American Democratic System: Approval Voting

That’s “Democratic” as in “Democracy”, not the political party.

As a systems guy, I tend to look at problems with our Democracy as being natural consequences of the systems where it is embedded. I have come to settle on a few aspects of our system that have outsized influence. These changes are all big. But they aren’t as big or well known as many other focus areas.

Approval Voting

I am a fan of approval voting. Under the approval voting system, you check a box for, or approve of, any candidate you can live with (i.e. “approve” of). You can vote for one candidate or many. The candidate who gets the most votes win. Note that if you vote for every candidate, you might as well not vote for all since you have added one vote equally to each candidate’s tally.

The system is easy to understand and easy to implement. I implemented in our book group eighteen years ago, and we’ve never looked back.

Let’s go back to the year 2000. Many people cast votes for Ralph Nader, but would have been fine with Al Gore. Approval voting lets them show that. The correct candidate would have won. Do you want to support libertarians or other third parties, but don’t want to throw away your vote? Under approval voting, you can support 3rd party candidates and truthfully show your support for them while also supporting a more realistic candidate (that is, they are from one of the major parties).

Another system is ranked voting, which is catching on in some states. That’s a good approach also. Any of these systems are better than what we have now. I was disgusted when the DCCC gave money to some extreme GOP candidates to better their changes in the general. It may have worked (maybe?), but it’s still an abomination. A system with that sort of perverse incentive needs to be changed. I like approval voting, but almost anything is an improvement over current state.

You should note that there is no ideal voting system. If you take certain basics how a voting system would work (e.g. “If every voter prefers candidate A over candidate B, candidate A should win.”) and put them together, you get logical paradoxes. This was the great work of Kenneth Arrow.

Kevin McCarthy will be the Speaker who destroyed The House of Representatives

McCarthy is now the speaker, but will be far and away the weakest speaker in US History. He let twenty crazies (less than 4% of the membership) extort him. Let’s look at the concessions he made to become speaker. (This list is incomplete.)

  1. A return to a rule that would allow rank-and-file lawmakers to force a snap vote on ousting the speaker. How strong a speaker can you be when any rep can call for your removal at any time? There will be one rep who will do this again and again. Why wouldn’t you if your goal is obstruction and media coverage? More time wasted on votes, and probably more concessions.
  2. A major political action committee aligned with Mr. McCarthy agreed to limit its role in G.O.P. primaries in safe Republican districts. This one is interesting. In an effort to stop the crazies, GOP PACs supported some challengers to current members. Now they can’t do that. It strengthens the power of the crazies, but more generally increases the power of incumbency even more. It decreases the power of the party, and increases the incentives for individual members to wreak havoc. Note the crazies get massive media exposure and fundraising lifts every time they do another damaging performative stunt. Part of the reason these votes took so long is because they don’t really care what they get, they just want to fight to get the money.
  3. The hard right would get approval power over some plum committee assignments, including a third of the members on the influential Rules Committee, which controls what legislation reaches the floor and in what form. This is insane. McCarthy let 4% of the membership grab a significant amount of formal power beyond their numbers. Give the crazies credit, they understand where the levers of power are.
  4. Spending bills would have to be considered under so-called open rules, allowing any member to put to a vote an unlimited number of changes that could gut or scuttle the legislation altogether. This may not be so bad. Currently, votes are usually held up or down on enormous bills that no Rep has read or understands, and can’t be modified. The ability to amend them without voting no may make bills better. Note that this decreases the power of the Speaker and the party yet more.
  5. (Unclear if this is true, but widely reported) Agreed not to fund the government without significant concessions. This will not go well for anyone. The GOP will not fund the government or raise the debt-ceiling without concessions from Biden and the Democrats. The Republicans can’t seem to make policy when they are in charge, instead they wait until they are in the minority then put a gun to the head of the Democrats. The problem for them is, they lose every time. The country saw enough of this under Clinton and Obama. The Democrats will not give an inch, they will offer zero concessions, and dare the GOP to shut the country down. Which the GOP will, then they will eventually fold, and we will back where we started, but with yet more damage done.
  6. Removal of metal detectors. I watched one live hearing of the Jan 6th committee. It happened to present all kinds of primary evidence of the massive amounts of weaponry being held back by the presence of metal detectors. The metal detectors are a inconvenience to the business of the house, but they serve an important function – stopping an insurrection. This isn’t security theater, it’s real security. And, by the way, the crazies are the exact people who supported the actual insurrection. That is not a coincidence.
  7. Weakening ethics oversight. Well, of course.

All in all, it adds up to a Speaker who has no real power. Who has given away the store to the people dedicated to wrecking the government. And for what? To get a title that will mean nothing. McCarthy is just the latest entry of GOP Speakers who can’t do anything because they give in to the crazies. Go ask Paul Ryan or John Boehmer how that worked out. You reap what you sow.

Partisanship is so high. I wonder if at any point there were conversation between McCarthy and the Democrats, or the Democrats and other Republicans. You could easily see another version of the negotiations. Many Democrats and some Republicans elect a centrist Republican. The concessions are to make the House run well as an institution: Removing debt ceiling, removal of Hastert rule, etc. I presume both sides are so hardened the idea of working with the other party is unspeakable.