Nearly rhymes, or, up your assonance

Some time ago, fotb “Mister Slither” launched a site called “Nearly Rhymes.”  He heads it “Some phrases that just about rhyme” and gives it the cautionary tagline “May include phrases that do rhyme.”  I’ll quote a few of his word pairs:

From the inaugural post, “Some phrases that include the names of nationalities and just about rhyme“:

  • Spanish spinach
  • Tanzanian human bein’
  • Who’d expect an Uzbek?
  • Phoenician phonetician
  • Wax-can the Oaxacan

From the second post, “Some hostile rhymes“:

  • He’s cruisin’ for a bruisin’
  • He’s on his way to the fist cafe
  • He’s nattering for a battering

From the third post, “Words that more or less rhyme with some animal names“:

  • Ghostly goat
  • Ostrich outrage
  • Purple gerbil
  • Compliant lion
  • Flippant hippo
  • Livelier tiger

Mister Slither hasn’t posted there since November 2010; today he added me to the site as an administrator.  To show my gratitude, I’ve put up a post called “Up your assonance!” in which I quote the dictionary and list 10 word pairs that more or less rhyme.

ViewMaster: It’s not dead yet

The death of ViewMaster has been announced more than once, but the medium keeps rising from the dead.  The latest newsletter from Las Vegas-based brings word of some new products, including an original story in the form of a booklet and three stereo reels produced by comedy writer Eric Drysdale (of The Colbert Report fame,) a new advertising reel for Embassy Suites hotels, some new soft-core porn “glamour” reels, and a lot of reissues of old sets.  I’d also mention a release Fisher-Price made in October, a three-reel set of Where the Wild Things Are, which shows the pages of the original book with the white borders and text of the pages as a proscenium foreground and the illustrations inset in three dimensions.  It’s a very clever envisioning of a children’s book, and a perfect use of the stereoscope.  It was originally released as a gift set with a cardboard box and a Model L viewer.  It’s still available in that format from 3Dstereo, but it’s in stores as a simple 3 reel blisterpak.  Highly recommended.

Stirring the pot

Lately I’ve been copying my posts from here to a site I maintain on Blogspot (or as I sometimes call it, “Blogs’ Pot.”)  I’m doing this simply to back them up in case something goes wrong with WordPress.  So far I’ve copied my posts from the launch of the blog in July 2007 through January 2009, and from May 2010 through the present.  I haven’t copied all of them, just the ones that I’d miss if they vanished completely.

I’ve made no effort at all to publicize that other site, yet it has drawn a surprising number of pageviews and even a few comments.  One comment about the US Civil War was so substantial that I had to break my reply to it into two parts (1, 2).  I didn’t expect anyone to read, and am mystified that anyone has taken an interest in it.

Manitoba Hal wins!

The votes are in for Ukulele Hunt’s Video of the Year 2010 contest, and our favorite Manitoba Hal has won a much-deserved victory.  He edged Bella Hemming’s “Play Guitar” (which is also excellent) by 11 votes out of 1225 cast.  The big surprise was that Jonsi and Nico Muhli’s “Go Do” came last with only 31 votes; I’d expected it to be one of the top finishers.  It was my second choice.  Maybe it was lots of people’s second choice.

Will visits to the doctor go the way of visits from the doctor?

In the last few days, television audiences in the USA have been hearing a great deal about IBM’s “Watson” computer system.  The occasion of this publicity is Watson’s appearance as a contestant on the popular quiz show Jeopardy.  IBM has emphasized Watson’s potential in the medical field:

Throughout this material, IBM’s spokespeople keep inviting us to imagine a near future in which Watson or systems like it will be found “in every doctor’s office.”  What this phrasing suggests to me is a situation in which there are about as many doctors as there are now, those doctors are distributed in offices as they are now, and in those offices they examine patients who come to them as they do now.  The state of affairs that this phrasing suggests is that these future offices will differ from their present-day counterparts in that Watson-like natural language processors will be installed to provide the patient with an “instant second opinion.”

A moment’s reflection will reveal that there is essentially no likelihood of such a scenario being realized, at least not in the USA.  As soon as a machine is invented that is capable of giving a medical opinion that is of any value whatsoever, flesh-and-blood doctors will vanish from the lives of low-income patients forever.  Once the machine is so improved that it can be trusted to give a sound diagnosis most of the time, with none but the trickiest cases requiring review by human doctors and none but a small percentage of those requiring active intervention to overrule the machine, the only patients who will ever meet their doctors will be the very wealthy and the scientifically interesting.

The parallel I would draw is with the institution of the “house call.”  As recently as 40 years ago, it was so common for doctors to call on their patients at home that when people occasionally had to go to the doctor’s office to receive care, it was considered grounds for a radical overhaul of the healthcare system.  Now, when a doctor does make house calls, it’s national news.  I predict that 40 years from now, it will be as rare for a patient to visit a doctor for examination as it is today for a doctor to visit a patient at home.

What will the consequences of this change be for public policy?  The central dilemma in technology policy is always the same, that there is little or no interval between the time when it is too soon to say what the effects of a development will be and the time when it is too late to do anything about that development.  One thing we can say is that demand for medical doctors will drop dramatically, probably to 1% or less of the current per capita demand by 2050.  Whether that means we will have only 1% as many doctors then as we do now, or that some larger number will share 1% of the income that doctors now collect, of course depends on a wide range of factors.  Whichever way it goes, certainly no prudent investor would be interested in funding a new medical school at this time.

The cost of health care is a focus of much discussion in the USA, where it represents at least 1/7 of GDP.  Eliminating doctors would change the way this spending breaks down, but would neither reduce demand for health care nor increase its supply.  Moreover, many have argued that the reason health care costs so much more in the USA than in similar countries is that Americans do not really have a market for health care.  Rather, employers pay for health insurance in order to avoid paying the corporate income tax.  Since employers pay insurance companies money that would otherwise go to the taxman, they have little incentive to negotiate lower premiums; since insurers raise premiums when providers charge them more, they have no incentive at all to negotiate for lower prices.  As long as the corporate income tax and its health-insurance deduction remain in place, US health care costs will continue to rise no matter how little money goes to doctors.  Perhaps if the USA were to abolish the corporate income tax and replace it with a consumer-driven revenue source like the Value Added Tax, a consumer-driven health care system might emerge, but until then, technology cannot solve our problems.

Of course, unemployment is also a public policy problem.  What happens to all the M.D.s whose degrees will become worthless in the years ahead?  And what happens to public opinion when the appearance of a horde of jobless doctors makes it clear that education is no guarantee of employment?  Marxism may be dead, but will it stay buried in a world where the owners of capital are the only economic group who lead lives secure enough to plan for their futures?

Pie charts and bar graphs

For some reason, hundreds of people looked at this old post of mine one day a couple of weeks ago.  It consists almost entirely of this image, borrowed from

I have no idea what drew so much traffic to this item, but evidently the joke resonates with the Zeitgeist.  Here’s the latest Partially Clips:

These may remind you of an xkcd from last year that consisted of self-referential charts and graphs, or of this joke.

Vote for Manitoba Hal!

Voting is underway in Ukulele Hunt’s Ukulele Video of the Year 2010 contest.  My vote went to Manitoba Hal’s “Poulet Shack“:

The early voting is going Hal’s way, though that’s no indicator of how it will end up.  Whether he wins this time around or not, Hal might win the Ukulele Video of the Year 2011 contest a year from now, based on his latest upload, “Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women“:

There were a couple of disappointments this time around.  Lila Burns’ “Young Hearts, Young Minds” didn’t make the final cut; I don’t know how it would have done in a video contest, but I’d have voted for it as ukulele song of the year.  Also, Ukulele Hunt webmaster Al Wood included the Keston Cobblers’ Club’s “You Go”  in his initial suggestions; lots of people nominated it before it turned out to have been posted in 2009.  It really is a spectacular video, I suspect it would have won.  Several people wanted to nominate a video Al included in a recent Saturday UkeTube, a song called “Map of Tasmania”  starring Amanda Palmer and her pubic hair; that one was uploaded this year, and will likely be among the stiffest competition “Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women” (or whatever it ends up being) has to overcome to be Ukulele Video of the Year 2011.

Edmund Lowe

I’d never heard of Seattle-based photographer Edmund Lowe until I happened upon this photograph a few minutes ago:

Prints of it are for sale, if I hadn’t already bought Mrs Acilius’ Valentine’s Day present I wouldn’t have been able to resist the temptation.  Since this plant, the Western Skunk Cabbage (alias Yellow Skunk Cabbage, alias Lysichiton Americanus) blooms at the end of winter, it would be an appropriate symbol for a fertility festival held in mid-February.  Since it emits a foul odor (whence the name “Skunk Cabbage,”) a photograph of it would be a better gift than an actual specimen.

The inheritors

In the 1980s, I was a teenager living down the street from a used bookstore.   My view of the world was shaped by the paperbacks available there for 85¢ and less.  Many of those were political books from 15 or 20 years before. Among them was Peter Mansfield‘s book Nasser’s Egypt, a general survey of Egypt as Mansfield saw it the late 1960s that depicted President Nasser, his pan-Arabist ideology, and the centralized economic planning of his government with the utmost sympathy.  Other political books I found at the same store depicted Nasser less favorably, but even those that presented him very negatively could not suppress all romanticism in describing the ambitions of his program and the dashing quality of his personality.

In the days when I was reading these books, the American mass media were lionizing Anwar Sadat.  From the moment President Sadat signed the Camp David Accords with Israel, he was presented to the American public as an apostle of humanity who embodied hope for peace in the Middle East.  When the movie Gandhi was a hit, Hollywood followed up with a series of other biographical epics about history’s great peacemakers; Sadat, starring Lou Gossett, Junior, was the first.  Indeed, Sadat and Mahatma Gandhi figured in the US media as exact equivalents in those days.

Considering that he came to office in the shadow of two men who inspired so much legend, it is hardly surprising that Hosni Mubarak has been seen in America as a bland placeholder.  Indeed, the most flattering thing I’ve ever read about President Mubarak in a major US publication called him “Egypt’s Gerald Ford,” a man who was his country’s leader today for the sole reason that he happened to have been kicked upstairs to the vice presidency when President Sadat wanted to get him out of the way and appoint a new defense minister.

Therefore, Egypt’s three modern presidents figure in my imagination as dramatically different figures: Nasser the tragic hero, Sadat the secular saint, Mubarak the afterthought.  It always jolts me when I see people bracketing the three together.  I know that from the perspective of many Egyptians the current regime seems like a rancid thing that’s been stinking up their country since 1952, but when I read phrases like “Nasir-Sadat-Mubarak continuum” I always scratch my head.

Another book I found at the same store was Eric L. McKitrick‘s Slavery Defended: The Views of the Old South.  A line of McKitrick’s reproduced on the back cover convinced me to buy it:  “Nothing is more susceptible to oblivion than an argument, however ingenious, that has been discredited by events.”  None of the pro-slavery documents McKitrick found put forth an argument that I would call especially ingenious, though several of them did manage to raise awkward questions about the economic system of the states in which laborers were nominally free.  Still, I think McKitrick makes a vital point.  If some Southern apologist had constructed a truly brilliant argument in defense of slavery, the fact that no serious person is today looking for any such argument would likely mean that the apologist’s work would be forgotten.

The same applies to other arguments.  Whatever its drawbacks, Nasser’s pan-Arabism had  far more to recommend it than did the practice of slavery in the United States.  Yet it too is a spent force, one which has left many monuments but which no longer attracts followers.  President Mubarak’s career is one of those monuments; his administration’s evident lack of public support shows that he has long since exhausted whatever political inheritance may have been left from Nasser when he took office decades ago. Of course, the events that discredited pan-Arabism took place long before Mubarak came to power.  By 1981, Syria had been out of the United Arab Republic for twenty years, and North Yemen had been out of the United Arab States for as long.  The June 1967 war with Israel would bury pan-Arabism, but the collapse of these federations may have marked its real death.  The case for pan-Arabism, no matter its abstract appeal, could not survive these events.

If nothing is more susceptible to oblivion than an argument discredited by events, surely the converse is true as well.  Nothing is less susceptible to oblivion than an ideology, however asinine, that has inspired a winning cause and given many people opportunities to become rich.  I suspect that many of the ideas which still have currency and power in world affairs are at least as weak as pan-Arabism.  Indeed, if we were to examine them in the abstract we would find that many forms of nationalism and internationalism have the same logical structure as pan-Arabism.