Captain Ebs
October 9th, 2014

I don’t want to get too tin-foil hat on you. And in my defense, I haven’t ordered my emergency rations bucket from Sam’s Club yet. (True story: Sam’s is better for this sort of thing than Costco. Who knew?) But . . .

This Ebola outbreak scares the bejeezus out of me. A few thoughts, none of which are original:

* With the number of infections already in the thousands, I don’t know that we’re in a place where the virus can be easily contained. Contagions progress in a geometric pattern, which means that the curve for the resources needed to contain them follows a similar curve.

* There is no written-in-stone understanding of Ebola transmission, because viruses mutate in the wild and the more people who are infected, the greater the opportunity for mutation. Think about that for a minute–we really don’t know the exact limits of transmission right now. And what we do know is terrifying. Have you wondered why Ebola protocols call for washing down infected areas with chlorine? Because the virus can survive for up to two weeks on a dry surface.

* We’re rapidly approaching the point where the best case scenario is a horrifying devastation that’s limited to the African continent. The worse case scenarios get nigh unthinkable awfully fast.

* Do you really want to be scared? Whether or not you realize it, Ebola is a weapon of mass destruction. What’s to stop some jihadi from going to Liberia, getting himself infected, and then flying to New York and riding the subway until he keels over? I understand that ISIS doesn’t tend to use suicide bombers as much as other jihadi groups, but this is just the biological warfare version of a suicide bomb. And can you imagine the panic if someone with Ebola vomited in a NYC subway car? Is this scenario highly unlikely? Without question. But we take drastic precautions against unlikely scenarios all the time. Just look at the massive infrastructure we’ve built for airport security based on two highly-unlikely actions.

All of which leads me to a thought about politics, that’s really not about politics:

You might wonder why the Obama administration has been so reflexively resistant to the idea of stopping flights to the U.S. from infected countries. It’s incredibly easy to get here: Just to pick a day at random, Kayak says you can fly from ROB in Monrovia to JFK for $1,459. That’s prohibitively expensive for your average Liberian, but not for everyone. Closing off flights seems like a no-brainer, yet the administration rejects it out of hand. Why? I suspect it’s because they sense how Ebola has the potential to reshuffle the political landscape. Starting with immigration.

If you agree to seal the borders to mitigate the risks from Ebola, then you’re implicitly rejecting the entire ideological framework of the “open borders” mindset and admitting that there are some cases in which the government has a duty to protect citizens from outsiders. I suspect that some folks see that as the thin end of the wedge. Because what happens then if Ebola breaks into Central America? Then you have to worry about masses of uninfected immigrants surging across the border–not to mention carriers of the virus, too. What do you do? If it was okay to cut off flights from Liberia, is it okay to try to seal the Southern border?

These things tend to have a logic of their own. Once you get majority opinion on board with protecting borders from Ebola, you’re that much closer to having them agree to protect the borders from labor market dilution.

But immigration is just one issue. Barack Obama didn’t create the Ebola virus in the basement of his secret Kenyan mosque. (Note: this is a joke, people.) But he came to office promising to unify the nation, slow the rise of the oceans, and heal the planet. Six years later we have a healthcare law everyone hates, a lousy economy, civil war in Syria, Russia annexing its neighbors, a Secret Service that can’t protect the president, an IRS that targets the president’s opponents, ISIS setting off a new 30-years-war in the Middle East, and oh, look at this–an actual plague. Next up: rain of frogs.

Ebola isn’t Obama’s “fault” in that he didn’t precipitate the outbreak. But he was sitting at the Big Desk when it happened and if things get bad then at some point people will start asking why the the president of the United States was fighting the “war on women” and going to fundraisers with Richie Rich Richman instead of getting ahead of the situation with Captain Ebs.

When institutions break down the way they have in America over the last 14 years, you enter into a world of potentialities that’s very unpredictable. The only real analog in American history, I think, is 1978-1979. America got lucky then because we got Ronald Reagan, who turned out to be one of history’s Great Men. But if you look through history, instability doesn’t always turn out so well for societies.

Okay, I’ll take the tinfoil hat off now. Everything’s fine. The professionals are on the case. They’ll deal with Ebola and this pandemic panic will, like SARS and the avian flu and the pig flu, turn out to be less awful than we feared. I’ll leave the hopeful last word to Galley Friend X:

The reason I think Ebola will not become a major world problem? Nigeria seems to have contained it. If it became a problem in Lagos, I’d think we’d have a real global problem on our hands. But they had cases, they dealt with them, and it’s been probably three weeks since there has been any known Ebola there. Think of Lagos and Nigeria as a whole as the bellwether. If the situation there stays as it is now, then this outbreak is just a regional problem, and maybe even a minor one, relatively speaking. If it becomes a real problem there again, we could be fucked.

Let’s hope he’s right.

Nate Silver vs. That Other Guy
October 7th, 2014

The kids in Math class have formed a ring and are chanting “Nerd Fight! Nerd Fight! Nerd Fight!” while pushing Nate Silver into the circle to face off against Princeton’s Sam Wang. And Silver, for his part, seems exasperated by the spectacle. Meanwhile, Wang is either the most naive guy in Central Jersey–a real possibility, I grant you–or is disingenuously demurring that he’s just a poor suburban academic who didn’t understand public rules of decorum and thought that peer review snark was all part of the game.

I’m on record as being a Silver apologist. What he, and other modelers, do has value, even if it is not oracular. Further, what I like most about Silver is that (unlike some of his admirers) he definitively does not present himself as an oracle. He hedges just about everything with caution and qualifiers and seems highly aware of the limits of his work. Plus, he’s a clear writer. Any way you slice it, he adds value to our understanding of the dynamics of elections.

Enter Sam Wang, a Princeton professor of neuroscience who has emerged as the Baghdad Bob of Democratic modelers and has totally by accident carved out a space for himself in the public square by taking shots at Silver. Which would merely be cloying and hackish if Wang was selling something worthwhile himself. But he’s not. He’s not selling a “model”–he’s selling Democratic comfort food. It just happens that there’s a huge market for that right now and he’s the only vendor. Which makes him a cloying and hackish partisan.

All of which is fine. But what really grates is how smug he is. Because here’s Wang in mid-September telling the Daily Beast how easy this stuff is:

He is the author of two books on the brain and his recent work focuses on autism. Politics, he says, is just kind of a hobby. “It’s a relatively easy problem compared with the other things I do,” he told me.

Well, well, well. That’s quite a marker. So Wang has been running around, shooting his mouth off, taking shots at guys with bigger profiles, and trying to make a name for himself selling a narrative that runs totally counter to everything everyone knows about the election by claiming that Dems now have a 63 percent chance–down from 70 percent!–of holding the Senate–and saying that coming up with this divine truth is “easy”?

He better be right. Because if the Dems don’t hold the Senate, then Wang should be completely discredited. At least when it comes to politics.

And by the by, if Wang is doing important work in neuroscience and autism, then isn’t it kind of criminal for him to be wasting so many clock cycles on media fights and the quotidian stuff of election modeling? Goodness knows, we’d rather have a better understanding of autism than a better understanding of the midterm elections, which are going to give us a result one way or another, regardless of what observers write about them.

That is, unless Wang was just concerned with pumping up his Twitter numbers:

In a phone interview with TPM this week, Wang said that he had emailed Silver since the flare-up but has not heard back from him yet. He referenced more than once his relatively meager 6,500 Twitter followers versus Silver’s 959,000.

Lazarus, Supreme Blue Rose, Women in Comics
October 1st, 2014

On my last trip to the comic shop I picked up the last few issues of Hawkeye and Lazarus and the first couple issues of a new Image title, Supreme: Blue Rose.

Hawkeye continues to underperform its magical first 12 issues. I suspect that writer Matt Fraction is a victim of his own success here. Hawkeye was so good that its success allowed him to start up three other books, so he’s now writing four series, simultaneously, and it shows.

Lazarus is, easily, my favorite ongoing title at the moment. Writer Greg Rucka has built what is, for my money, the novel and fully-realized post-apocalyptic world in decades. Lazarus takes place in a future where sovereign nation states have replaced by family dynasties. These dynasties are the outgrowth of corporations, which harnessed advanced technologies (in, for instance, genetics and pharmaceuticals) to displace traditional governments.

Anyhoo, these families became entangled in a world war, the end of which resulted in a partitioning of the globe under new borders–as well as a new, feudalistic social order. The title–“Lazarus”–refers to a kind of soldier that most of the families seem to have just one of: a Lazarus is a nearly-unkillable super soldier. And Rucka’s series centers on one of these creatures, a Lazarus named Forever, who begins the series by realizing that she might villain.

The level of detail Rucka has imagined here is awe-inspiring: He’s created a hundred years of history, detailed maps, and back stories for more than a score of the family dynasties. And these backstories are exhaustive. Each issue concludes with an encyclopedia entry’s worth of history on one of the families. The back cover then carries an advertisement for the fictional corporation that was the forerunner of the family dynasty. He’s even designed family crests for them all.

It all kind of boggles the mind and Lazarus is, I think, destined to be a land-mark HBO series at some point. I really can’t recommend it enough.

The final title I picked up was Supreme: Blue Rose, written by Warren Ellis. There’s good Ellis and there’s bad Ellis; after two issues I’m inclined to place this in the latter category. (Psychadelic tech daydreams tend not to work for me.) Yet it’s hard to put the books down because the art is so strikingly beautiful. It’s drawn by Tula Lotay and everything about it–from the pencils to the page compositions–is beautiful and fresh. I hadn’t heard of Lotay before (that’s just her pen name) and after looking around for her I came across a story about her in USA Today. In it was the following passage: “One of the appeals of the project for Lotay is that the women shine through in Blue Rose — a rarity in sci-fi.”

Which brings us to the final panel of the triptych: Can we please retire the idea that there are so few interesting female characters in comics? (Yes, I realize the USA Today story says “sci-fi,” but I think he’s being imprecise here and conflating a genre and a medium.)

All three of the books I just mentioned have female protagonists. (Hawkeye alternates issues centering on Clint Barton and Kate Bishop, the two titular Hawkeyes.) Most of the best comics of the last several years have had female protagonists: Queen and Country, Whiteout, Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men (which centers on Emma Frost and Kitty Pryde). Comic books are stuffed full of interesting female characters. Which is great! So how about we retire the idea of the “rare interesting female character”? It’s not descriptive in any meaningful way. It’s just a false trope that people reflexively reach for in order to underline how much they like something.

Romney 2016!
September 25th, 2014

Ben Domenech had a great headline in this morning’s Transom: “Romney 2016 is real and it is spectacular.” That’s based off the steady drip-drip-drip of pieces over the last eight weeks or so plus Byron York’s piece today. A few thoughts:

* I don’t know whether or not I ever blogged about this (turns out I did, obliquely), but throughout the 2012 cycle my working assumption was that Romney was likely to try again in 2016. When I would tell this to various Galley Friends, they dismissed it as more JVL crazy talk. Hey Kobe . . .

* Do I really for real think this is real? Oh yes. I believe that it will be a very short hop for the Romneys to talk themselves into “America needs me/him now.” And the early 2015 polling will show (a) that he does very well retrospectively against Obama and (b) exceptionally well in the GOP primary field, because of his enormous name ID. That could well be enough to nudge him in.

And if Hillary runs, then one of the big problems he faces–he even flip-flopped on not running for president again!–disappears, too, because she has the exact same problem and the media won’t be able to take after him without making her collateral damage. The Precious must be protected at all times.

Plus, he’ll have the money. I suspect that for the GOP donor class Romney remains the dream candidate. If he gets in, he’ll suck up all of the greenback-oxygen very quickly and will make it hard for other candidates to raise a critical mass of dollars.

Plus-plus: What else is he going to do with himself? For a guy who’s “not a career politician” he spends an awful lot of time running around chasing elected office and aping the sort of thing that career politicians do.

* Here’s the swerve: I don’t know that he’d be the worst candidate in the world this time around. He’s so thoroughly vetted that there is nothing voters could possibly learn about him. At this point he might be the platonic ideal of the generic Republican candidate, with very little energizing upside, but zero hidden downside. Every conceivable angle–pro and con–is baked into his cake. If you believe that’s enough to win in 2016, then maybe he’s okay. At the very least, running him as the nominee in 2016 would be, in it’s own weird way, a radical new electoral proposition coming from Republicans. No one has tried it in the modern era and it becomes difficult to predict how it would work.

* Then there’s the question of the field. People have assumed for two years now that the 2016 GOP field won’t be the 2012 clown show, but rather an all-star line-up of awesome. Christie. Walker. Jindal. Rubio. Ryan. Huckabee, maybe. That’s what it looked like 20 months ago.

Then Rubio pushed all-in with a bad immigration bill. The Bridgegate thing hit Christie. Jindal’s in-state approval rating tanked. Ryan looks to prefer the House. Walker is in the fight of his life for reelection. Jeb Bush inserted himself into the conversation. And Rick Perry began rehabilitating himself.

Now the field looks much more like Perry, Cruz, Rand Paul, and, possibly, Jeb. With Ben Carson making noises about getting in. And suddenly the clown show looks like it might be coming back to town.

I posit that it’s possible the Republican field in 2016 could be much weaker than people anticipate.

If that happens–if Walker loses and Christie can’t recover his mojo and Jindal never takes off and Rubio either decides not to go, or can’t escape his immigration problems and Ryan stands pat and Huckabee chooses to keep making money–then there will be a moment of chaos and panic in Republican circles as the party realizes that the line-up they were expecting isn’t going to appear. And in that moment, there will be the opportunity for both a fresh face we haven’t looked at before, and for Romney 5.0.

Exit question: This is a serious question–not me being snarky. If I told you that you had to have either Jeb or Romney 5.0 as the nominee, who would you pick? And I’ll ask the question two ways: (1) For governing ability and (2) For electability purposes.

I’ll hang up and listen to you off the air.

Keith Olbermann, Reborn
September 24th, 2014

Yes, it’s six minutes long. WATCH THE WHOLE THING. Because by the time he gets to Red Ruffing–“You don’t know who Red Ruffing was. Do you?”–it’s already the most epic TV baseball segment, evah. And you’re only half way home.

An instant classic that goes right on the top shelf with George F. Will’s Sports Machine.

Dangerously high levels of awesome. Because while the surface is anti-Jeter, under the hood it’s really anti-Millennial.


Don’t Go on ‘The Daily Show’
September 24th, 2014

Maybe the smartest thing Megan McArdle has written. Reminder: This is not the first time we’ve seen that The Daily Show acts in bad faith.

Also, another reminder: Jon Stewart is kind of a dick.

Chris & Me
September 19th, 2014

I don’t usually do this sort of thing, but over at TWS I’ve got a little essay about comic books, my best friend, parenthood, and mortality.

Coming Soon: The Seven Deadly Virtues
September 10th, 2014

As of today the good folks at Templeton Press have sent my new book, The Seven Deadly Virtues, off to the printer. I’d like to tell you about it, since, unlike What to Expect, this project has been shrouded in relative secrecy.

First off, it’s not really “my” book. After What to Expect, which took a little more than five years to write, I realized that writing books by yourself is for suckers. So for The Seven Deadly Virtues (I’m open to suggestions on how to short-hand the title; “7DV”?) I called a bunch of my favorite writers and asked them to each write an essay. All I had to do was edit them, shuffle the chapters into a semi-coherent order, and write an introduction. It was an embarrassingly small amount of work. The product is awesome because the secret, it turns out, is getting writers who are better than you to do all the heavy lifting. And I’ve got the 1998 Yankees.

No, really: P. J. O’Rourke, Christopher Buckley, Andy Ferguson, Matt Labash, Mollie Hemingway, James Lileks, Rob Long, Jonah Goldberg Joe Queenan, Larry Miller, Christopher Caldwell, Iowahawk, Sonny Bunch, Christine Rosen, Andrew Stiles, Michael Graham, and Rita Koganzon. That, my friends, is a New Jack Murderer’s Row.

So what’s it all about? Remember Bill Bennett’s wonderful Book of Virtues? It’s like that, but funny. The Seven Deadly Virtues is a meditation on virtue and the human condition and filled with yucks. Yet also, amazingly enough, some philosophical seriousness, too. Imagine Aristotle crossed with . . . well, I don’t know who, exactly. Maybe Rodney Dangerfield. Or Jerry Seinfeld. Or Evelyn Waugh. It’s just funny. You’ll love it.

Of course, I would say that. But I truly believe it. I love how this book turned out and I’m really proud to be part of a project with so many writers I admire. And I think you’ll love it, too.

I’ll be redesigning the site in a few weeks and then moving into pimp mode as we get closer to the release date, October 28.

Now, go order copies for you and everyone you love. It’ll be a fantastic Halloween (or holiday of your choice) gift.