My Contribution to KOVID Konfusion

...is this article at a health and science site called Stat: A fiasco in the making? As the coronavirus pandemic takes hold, we are making decisions without reliable data

The site seems sane and credible, and most of the stories about COVID-19 are fairly typical; that is, it's not some dodgy sensationalist site. And the author has credentials: "John P.A. Ioannidis is professor of medicine, of epidemiology and population health, of biomedical data science, and of statistics at Stanford University and co-director of Stanford’s Meta-Research Innovation Center."

He believes the evidence on which decisions are being made is "a fiasco." And if it's seriously overestimating the danger, then

...locking down the world with potentially tremendous social and financial consequences may be totally irrational. It’s like an elephant being attacked by a house cat. Frustrated and trying to avoid the cat, the elephant accidentally jumps off a cliff and dies.

You can read it for yourself at the link above and make up your own mind. Well, no, I guess it won't work that way, because the author doesn't know, either, and one can still say "Better to do too much than too little."

Up to a point.


3:10 To Yuma

Several years ago (more than several, actually) I had the notion of watching the old-time Westerns that are considered classics. I went through several of them--The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and maybe a couple of others. I was somewhat disappointed, especially as I loved Western stuff when I was a kid, and didn't go any further. 

The other day something reminded me of another film that's usually ranked with those others, 3:10 To Yuma, from 1957. I found it on the Criterion Channel, which I have not used very much and am wondering whether I should cancel, and watched it, in two roughly 45-minute sessions.

I really liked it, and it's definitely my favorite of its type at this point. It's a good story, pretty convincing for the most part in spite of the conventions of the time. It's about a rancher who ends up, more or less against his will, solely responsible for getting a captured outlaw on that 3:10 train, with the outlaw's gang trying to stop him. Glenn Ford, atypically, plays the outlaw, and is very effective--genial and charming with just a hint of menace. 

But what I really love about it is the photography. It's very crisp black-and-white, and full of the Western scenery that I love. The story is set in southern Arizona, and I think it may have been shot there, or perhaps in some part of southern California where the landscape is similar. You can get a sense of the quality in this Criterion Collection trailer:

The song, by the way, has nothing at all to do with the plot, except for the title reference. 

The movie is based on an Elmore Leonard story by the same name. Being an admirer of Leonard, I was curious about the original story, and found it at the local library in a collection called The Tonto Woman and Other Western Stories. I suppose I have to say that I was disappointed in the story. It's pretty slight, its action including only roughly the last half of the movie. It's a case where you could argue that the movie is better than the story, though I don't really trust my judgment there, since I encountered the movie first. Some of the other stories in the collection are really good, though. And they have a sort of potato-chip, can't-eat-just-one appeal. I think I've read half of them now, and I only got the book a couple of days ago, with no intention of reading more than the one story.

There's a 2007 remake of the movie which apparently got pretty good reviews. I may watch it sometime. My interest was dampened a bit by a clip which I saw on YouTube, thinking it was just sort of a trailer, which gave away the very different ending.

Many years ago in college I had a Southern Lit teacher who had a very old-style  genteel southern accent, and who once, when whispering and giggling broke out in class, said to the culprits "I fail to see the humor." Only in his accent it came out as "I fail to see the Yuma."  It's unfortunate for me that I still remember that after almost fifty years.


Words and Numbers

As you may have seen, people have been having a lot of fun with this:

The actual number of dollars per citizen, of course is not 1,000,000, but 1 (sticking with whole numbers). It is a ludicrous mistake, and I had my laugh. And I wouldn't bother to comment on it, but I got to thinking about it, and I think I can see the mental mechanism that probably led to the mistake. I suspect it has to do with the use of the word "millions" instead of numerals. You see this:

Mike spent 500 [million]. There are 327 [million] people in this country. If he had distributed his 500 [millions] equally among the people, how many [millions] would each have received?

Since both numbers are a count of "millions," the mind tends to drop the words and focus only on the numbers:

Mike spent 500. There are 327 . If he had distributed his 500 equally....

Any third grader can see that 327 goes into 500 once, but not twice. So the answer is "one each, with something left over," right? 

Only of course it's massively, massively wrong. The first "million" is not a single object, but 1,000,000 objects. If you saw the problem presented with numbers instead of words, the string of zeroes would keep you from making that mental slip: 

500,000,000 / 327,000,000 = 1 and some remainder

500,000,000 / 327,000,000 obviously ≠ 1,000,000

Unless of course you're the sort of person who tends to skip numbers, but in that case you wouldn't make the mistake, either, because you wouldn't think about it.

That no one caught this before it was discussed on MSNBC, that both the host and the guest (a member of the New York Times editorial board!) sat there exchanging amazed remarks about the riches that could have been everyone's if Bloomberg had not squandered it on his political campaign, is pretty astonishing. 

I was about to say that what they lacked was what people who deal with data and calculations of various sorts call a "sanity check": asking whether a result is even within the bounds of reason and possibility. If a policeman's radar tells him that a car is going 1,000 mph, something is wrong with the radar or his reading of it. But anyone ought to have questioned that number. How many people behind the scenes saw that same tweet and assisted in getting it on the air, but never noticed that it was nuts? Why did no one think "A million per person, 327 million people...hang on, that's got to be way more than 500 million." (It's actually in the trillions, 327 of them.)

"It all became clear." "It's an incredible way of putting it." Yes, it is incredible, but not in the way you mean it.

As many have noted, this does provide some insight into those who believe that we can fund all sorts of massively expensive social programs--universal health care and the like--simply by "taxing the rich." Charles Cooke at National Review has filled in some of the details about that fallacy.


These Dang Republicans

Or, Right-Wing Virtue Signaling

Among other elections happening today is the one for congress from my district. It's a fairly close race so I've been getting a fair amount of advertising in the mail. Alabama is essentially a one-party--Republican--state now, so they're all Republicans. Their advertising all contains the following important facts about the candidate:

  • He loves Trump--and if any evidence at all can be found to support the claim, Trump loves him.
  • He will fight for and with Trump (and against Nancy Pelosi and that dreadful "squad").
  • He's a conservative Christian.

There generally follows mention of one or more of the specific issues that get the blood flowing for most Alabamians: abortion, illegal immigration, the 2nd amendment. Anything more definite is hard to find. It's exasperating--and I don't even disagree substantially with them. The candidates are more or less indistinguishable, though I feel pretty sure there would be reason to vote for one over another if I could find it. Journalism used to be helpful in this way but isn't much anymore, at least not around here. The newspapers have been gutted and are either vacant or clearly doing progressive PR, which doesn't seem to do the Democrats much good at the ballot box.

It's almost enough to make me feel sorry for Alabama Democrats, even for Doug Jones, the Democratic senator whose victory in 2018 was a fluke caused by the fact that the Republican nominee was the nut Roy Moore, and who is probably going to be sent back to Mountain Brook in November. Almost but not quite. I mean, Pelosi and the "squad" actually are pretty dreadful. 


The Eighth Day Books Catalog Is Back

I say that even though I had never seen it until a few days ago, when it arrived in the mail, announcing its return. I didn't know it had been away. I've been hearing about Eighth Day Books for years, but didn't know much more than that it is a highly regarded Christian bookseller, with an Orthodox slant. 

I think they got my name and address from one of the magazines I subscribe to. I can tell because they have my name as "Maclin," not "James M" or "Mac." Maybe it was Touchstone. Or Dappled Things. In any case, I'm glad they did, because it's a great catalog. If you're not familiar with it, but you used to get the old A Common Reader and/or Cahill and Company catalogs, this can fairly be described as a Christian version of them. I know, Cahill was/is Christian, but, as I recall, in a sort of lite way. And I seem to recall liking Common Reader more, but it's a shaky memory.

At any rate I did love the Common Reader catalog, which I think was killed by Amazon. It was a good read in itself, and although I did not order very often from it, because I didn't have much money to spare in those days, it did introduce me to some writers of whom I had not previously heard, such as Alice Thomas Ellis and Ronald Blythe. (I hope I'm not giving it credit that should go to Cahill and Company; these are decades-old memories.)

The Eighth Day catalog is just as good, just as much a good read. I've now looked through most of, and read much of, its 130 pages. I have to admit that I have no plan and not a great deal of desire to order books from several of its categories: Theology and Patristics, Ecclesiography, probably not even Spiritual Direction or Athletes of Prayer. At one time I might have coveted some of these, but at this point in my life much of it seems too specialized for me. But the literary stuff, and the more general philosophical-theological stuff--well, I've already marked several titles to be ordered.

For instance: George Steiner, known primarily as a literary critic, died recently. Many years ago (close to fifty) I read some of his reviews in The New Yorker and was impressed enough by them that his name stayed with me as a writer I might want to investigate further. I think it was one of these which included a remark which has stayed with me ever since: that The Waste Land was "a last run through the stacks before they close the library." I never have followed up on that impulse, but news of his death reminded me of him. And here's this catalog which includes two intriguing titles by him, Real Presences and In Bluebeard's Castle.

And I do intend to order them from Eighth Day, possibly even using the order form in the back of the catalog. Even if one disapproves or is suspicious of Amazon in principle, the temptation to use it is often almost irresistible, for reasons which I'm sure we all know, and which come down to "it's so convenient." For a while I tried to make myself use my local independent bookstore instead, but essentially everything I want is a special order for them, requiring two trips to the store (one to place the order, one to pick it up). Also: (a) I suspect special orders are more trouble than they're worth for the store, and (b) I don't think the store needs me. This has become a pretty affluent town over the past 25 years or so, and the store now includes a coffee shop and a music venue, and seems to be doing very well without my occasional few dollars.

Here's the Eighth Day Books web site. At a quick look I don't see a way to sign up for the catalog, but maybe if you order from them they put you on the list. Another reason for buying from them is to keep getting the catalog, though I suppose it doesn't change very much from one edition to the next.


Julie Byrne: Not Even Happiness

I'm just barely making my before-Ash-Wednesday deadline for this last of three music posts, so I'll be brief.

I avoid reading reviews before encountering the thing itself, whether the thing is music or book or film. But I like comparing my views to others' after I've formed my first impression. After hearing this album once or twice, I thought Kind of sounds like something from the '60s. Vashti Bunyan, maybe, or a female Donovan. Then I went over to AllMusic.com and read that Julie Byrne had

...quickly received favorable comparisons to folk titans Vashti Bunyan and Joni Mitchell after releasing her first two records.

The fact that she made me think of Bunyan must mean that there is a definite similarity, as I've only heard a little of Bunyan's work. I wouldn't have thought of Joni Mitchell, because Byrne's music is considerably less complex, but I see the resemblance. The Donovan comparison is further afield: it's not so much any specific musical resemblance as the vibe of finger-picked folkie guitar, the soft warm voice, and the overall quality of gentleness introspective reflection. Several tracks are lightly and effectively enhanced with strings or electronics, and even a dash of natural sound. 

Not every song is a melodic gem. But the album as a whole keeps my attention. I suspect that most listeners would pick "Natural Blue" as one of the two or three best songs. It also happens to be the most elaborately produced, but I think it would work just fine with only Byrne's voice and guitar.

Thanks again to Rob G for introducing me to this and the previous two albums. 


Agnes Obel: Citizen of Glass

I guess we've all heard people say of this or that style of music, generally one they don't care for, that "it all sounds the same." And from a casual distance it's usually a fair assessment. After all, Metallica and Megadeth sound vastly more like each other than either sounds like Bruce Springsteen, and someone who doesn't listen to metal might find them indistinguishable--or not worth distinguishing. But to a metal fan there are big and obvious differences. Likewise, someone who doesn't much care for sensitive, restrained, introspective music written and sung by a woman might think this album is not so very different from the Liela Moss one discussed in the previous post.

But in fact they are almost opposites in some ways: lush vs. sparse, expansive vs. intimate, passionate vs. restrained, open vs. guarded; maybe even light vs. dark. Agnes Obel's voice is not as rich as Moss's, and the arrangements are almost minimalist: piano augmented gracefully with touches of strings and percussion and some other sounds that I can't quite identify and are perhaps electronically produced. Obel's music and lyrics are darker, (even) more introspective, and in fact obscure, although that difference may be magnified by the fact that her lyrics are posted on her web site, whereas I have not been able to read Miller's and can't understand a fair number of them. There's no mystic communion with nature here, but rather a very private inner world. 

I thought the first two tracks here were great on first listen, and was thinking that the album might turn out to be a major favorite. To my taste, though, that promise didn't quite hold up. It is very good,  to be sure, but I've ended up less enthusiastic than I began (this is after four or five reasonably close hearings). The material seems a little uneven, although never less than immaculately arranged and performed. And maybe a more significant problem is that the lyrics just don't have much effect for me. It's not just that they're obscure or cryptic, but that they are so in a way that doesn't conjure much in the way of emotion or association for me; your reaction of course might be different. Everything musical here is so precise, so carefully placed to such exquisite effect, that I expect the words to be equally well chosen and placed. And I suppose they may have been by the artist, but for the most part they don't seem that way to me. 

I was intrigued by the title "It's Happening Again," hoping for something Lynchian, which--again, to my taste--the song doesn't quite provide. Perhaps it would for you. I grant that it would not seem out of place performed in the Roadhouse.

Oh look, there's an official video:

Based on the video I'd say the title is definitely a Twin Peaks reference. 

Despite my reservations, this is definitely a work I'll come back to. I see on her web site that she has just released a new album, Myopia. I'll be checking that out. 


Liela Moss: My Name Is Safe In Your Mouth

Isn't that an evocative title? 

I have a mental backlog of music that I've been meaning to write about, especially non-classical music. As I'm planning to go on a sacred-music-only diet for Lent, which is now only a week away, I'll try to get several of them out of the way before then. As of right now I plan for them to be three albums made available to me by Rob G; thanks, Rob.

I had not previously heard of Liela Moss, though apparently she has been part of a band that is at least well-known enough to have an AllMusic entry, The Duke Spirit (though unknown to me, which is hardly surprising). I don't know how her first name is pronounced but am guessing "Leela." The album was produced by her "partner" and Duke Spirit band-mate, Toby Butler. He also shares the songwriting credits, so I can't pass judgment on Moss's skill in that department.

But she's responsible for the lyrics, as is clear in this release announcement from her label, Bella Union. 

I was in my own modest studio, surrounded by deep rural Somerset, and building the album bit by bit over a year with just my producer and partner Toby Butler – with whom I co-wrote all the music. We worked to our own schedule and across all seasons. Staring out of the window singing, I would watch the changing natural phenomena around me and sing to the forms outside. My window-view outside was like an umbilical cord; I was receiving little messages from the nature beyond and the songs were growing inside the studio, transmitting back.

...I teased melody out from an abstract, day-dreaming space until I can honestly say I felt that I was attempting to sing Mother Nature into existence 

That makes me think of Kate Bush, though I didn't read it until I'd already had the same thought about the album in general. It doesn't sound like Kate (forgive me, everyone who loves Kate Bush's music seems compelled to call her by her first name only). And the word "quirky," which seems almost unavoidable about Kate's work, never crossed my mind. But there is something deeply similar in the vibe: a somewhat mystical relationship to the deep currents of life, a rich and very feminine awareness and receptiveness. At times one is tempted to use the word "spacey" (about transmissions to and from nature, for instance), but in a half-admiring way: the openness of it, the willingness to follow those devotional impulses.

Tell me where the light will go
And I
Will chase it, chase it

That's from "Wild As Fire," and though most of the song seems to be about an individual person it lends itself to a broader interpretation. You can't expect to make linear, logical sense of the lyrics, but (as is often the case with this type of songwriting) they work in context.

I can't discuss the album musically without using the word "lush." The vocals are lush. The melodies are lush. The arrangements are lush, somehow, even though they are relatively sparse, not overly complex: altogether a beautiful piece of work.

Bella Union, by the way, was founded by Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie; no introduction necessary for fans of the Cocteau Twins, of which they were two-thirds (yeah, there were three people in the group). Now it's apparently run by Raymonde alone, and it appears to have a really good roster. I've only heard a small number of the artists, but the ones I recognize are excellent. And they include, to my surprise, The Innocence Mission (only for their latest album, which I have not yet heard).