Links & Comments: Narrative Shortcuts, Fantasy Worlds, Arabic Numerals

Sunny but chilly today; we’ve had rain for much of the past two weeks, and now we’re in for a week or so of sun. We did a 34-minute walk, though Robinson Drive and around on  Skyline and back to Crestmont.

We’re being extremely careful about exposure to Covid, of course, given my immune-compromised condition, especially with the apparent easy spread of the new omicron variant. Also, my partner’s relationship’s relationship’s relationship was exposed to someone at work who had tested positive, and so now even my partner is avoiding close contact with his immediate relationship until they can be tested.

I’m happy enough just to stay at home.

I’ve been fascinated to see people struggling to pronounce “omicron”; it’s a Greek letter, long familiar to astronomers, both professional and amateur, and to science fiction fans, since fictional planets tend to be named after their stars, e.g. “Omicron Ceti III” (to cite a planet in an early Trek TOS episode, “This Side of Paradise”). But I learned something in all this: apparently “omicron” really does mean, in the Greek language, small-o, just as “omega” means big-o. Makes sense, but I’d had never noticed that.

Links today are about Don’t Look Up, the economy, fantasy worlds, and Arabic numerals.

SFGate, 28 Dec 2021: The glaring problem with Netflix’s ‘Don’t Look Up,’ according to a Bay Area astronomer

This speaks to the issue that soured my early impression of the movie, as I already explained a few posts ago. Namely: the first thing the astronomers who see the comet would not be to run to the president. It would be to contact other astronomers around the world to see if they’ve seen anything, and if not, say: look at these coordinates, see anything now? (This is in effect what happens at the beginning of Carl Sagan’s CONTACT.) Very quickly the observation would be confirmed and the news would be in the open. The president would be in no position to try to suppress the news, and ridicule the two astronomers as a couple nut jobs.

The article here interviews Gerald McKeegan, an astronomer at the Chabot Space and Science Center (, which happens to be just a couple miles up the road from us.

“The most glaring mistake is the government cover-up,” the astronomer noted. “It becomes this government secret. That is just completely bogus.”

“The government couldn’t keep it a secret even if it wanted to,” McKeegan said. “They may keep secret what response they’re contemplating, but the fact that a comet’s heading to Earth would very quickly become public knowledge.”

When an observatory discovers a new comet, countless other observatories and scientific organizations jump in to confirm the discovery and conduct their own calculations.”

Is this a matter of a film, a story, cutting corners for dramatic effect? That is, how narrative cannot be expected to accurately portray reality? (Or is it just a matter of the film’s writer/directory not knowing any better?) I suppose that’s my conclusion, though I can’t help but think the film’s satire would have been sharpened had not it taken those several compromises with reality.


Washington Post, Dana Milbank, 29 Dec 2021: Opinion: This is the worst economy we never had

Note the word “never.”

For months, the GOP-Fox News axis forecast the bluest of Christmases.

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy joined 159 House Republicans in a letter to President Biden saying his policies “will certainly ensure that this Christmas will not be merry” because of a “supply chain crisis” and inflation.

Further examples of forecasts of doom from Jim Banks, Fox News, and Breitbart News.

And then — a Christmas miracle!

Holiday retail sales were the highest ever, jumping 8.5 percent from last year and nearly 11 percent from pre-pandemic 2019, as “consumers splurged throughout the season,” Mastercard reported Sunday.

Stores were stocked. Package deliveries were overwhelmingly on time. Inflation, though a serious concern, clearly didn’t deter shoppers, and holiday motorists found gas prices 14 cents a gallon lower than in November.

So, did GOP leaders and Fox News acknowledge they fearmongered in error?

You can guess. Rather, they moved the goalposts, always looking for some way to criticize the current administration, never ever giving it any credit. Playing to their base, who want to believe the worst about people they don’t like.

Now, despite dramatic improvements, 91 percent of Republicans say the economy is in fair/poor condition. …

This happened — surprise! — during Fox News’s hysterical coverage of inflation, gas prices and supply chain problems. It invoked inflation roughly twice as often as CNN and MSNBC. Now, as Bump reported, three-quarters of Republicans say prices are the most important measure of the economy’s health (only one-quarter did a year ago), eclipsing unemployment, personal finances and the stock market.

In post-truth America, the economy is just another target for fakery.


Also this, which says much the same thing.

MSNBC: Republicans failed completely in their Christmas predictions, subtitled, “Republican leaders said Democrats and their policies were going to ‘ruin Christmas’ for consumers. The GOP’s predictions were spectacularly wrong.”


There’s a theme here about not engaging with reality, but preferring a fantasy world that confirms one’s fears and plays to nostalgia for a nonexistent past.


Here’s an article about a Ted Koppel piece on the TV show “CBS Sunday Morning” a few weeks ago — that I saw!

Washington Post, 29 Dec 2021: How Ted Koppel’s trip to ‘Mayberry’ turned into one of 2021’s most striking moments of TV

Subtitled: “The veteran newsman and ‘CBS Sunday Morning’ contributor explains how a seeming puff piece about ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ turned into an unsettling snapshot of an angry America”

It’s a look back at the nostalgic Andy Griffith Show of the 1960s (in which the title actor, known for a variety of dramatic roles in 1950s movies, plays a kindly sheriff in a small North Carolina town, with his son Opie, played by the very young Ron Howard). It’s precisely, I think, the kind of simple, small-town life people who the “want to make America great again” have in mind — set in the fictional town of Mayberry, NC. The piece has Koppel visit the real town of Mount Airy, NC, that claims to be the prototype upon which Mayberry was based, and which draws thousands of tourists every year on that basis.

To be clear, people go to Mount Airy to express nostalgia for a time and place (1960s Mayberry) that literally never existed. Though set in the 1960s, the Andy Griffith Show never addressed the Vietnam War, racial riots, political assassinations, and so on. And had, over eight years, only a single black actor with a speaking role. Even for its time, it was a simplistic, whitewashed, deliberately anodyne TV show.

The payoff comes late in the 13-minute segment when Koppel, riding a tour bus (seen in the photo at the top of this post), asks the passengers, almost offhandedly, how many of them thought the 2020 presidential election was a fair one. Almost all of them indicate not. Voter fraud, dead people voting, they say. They dismiss January 6th in contrast to “so many cities being burned down every day by protesters.” Koppel, to his credit, challenges no one, letting them speak for themselves. Still, some of the tourists are defensive. Near the end a woman says, in a very thick southern drawl, “I just hope when this airs it won’t show Southerners as a bunch of dumb idiots.”


Finally, without comment. (Not a new piece, but still telling.)

Via Jerry Coyne, Independent, 21 May 2019: Most Americans say ‘Arabic numerals’ should not be taught in school, finds survey.

Subtitle: “Seventy-two per cent of Republicans oppose Western world’s standard numeric system, according to research designed to ‘tease out prejudice among those who didn’t understand the question’.”

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