Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Friday, April 29, 2016

It's alive!

I started two different posts, which then became related; and now, with this comment, I can stitch them together and save some column inches; or however this stuff is measured in cyberspace (even that term dates me now!).  It's a bit of a Frankenstein monster, because I didn't even try to hide the sutures.  Here is the comment, at least:

This is part of the larger issue for the campaign of a lack of introspection or self examination. All failures are external and blamed on someone else. It's the poor, the South, mainstream media, lack of understanding or education or misunderstanding on the part of supporters of Clinton, corruption, and on and on. Never an examination of deficiencies in their own message. Never trying to understand how the campaign failed to connect. No introspection on how to better promote the message to those that aren't currently Sanders supporters.

--rustypickup

All I can add is:  the fish still rots from the head.

So, here's the thing:

Bernie Sanders' wife and adviser Jane Sanders says his campaign will do well in the remaining contests because they are open primaries, which she describes as "more democratic."

In an interview with MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Thursday, Jane Sanders noted that Bernie Sanders won Rhode Island on Tuesday, which was an open primary, allowing independents as well as Democrats to vote for her husband.

"If you close the primary and you only have people who have been in the Democratic Party for years, what you are doing is effectively shutting the door on the millions of people that Bernie has brought into the political process during this election," she said.
You really can't have it both ways at once:

Well, here’s what I think,” Sanders replied. “I think at the end of the day, what Democrats all over this country want to make sure is that somebody like a Donald Trump or a Ted Cruz does not end up in the White House. And I think what more and more Democrats are seeing is that Bernie Sanders is the stronger candidate.”

“She’s getting more votes,” the host pressed.

“Well, she is getting more votes. A lot of that came from the South,” Sanders parried. “But if you look at the polling out there, we do a lot better against Trump and the other Republicans in almost every instance — not every one — than she does. And the reason is that we both get a lot of Democrats, but I get a lot more independents than she does.”

Because many of the states in the South are open primary states.  Oops!  Which either means there are no independents in the South (except you don't register by party in open primary states, and I've never known anyone who had a Democratic Party membership card.  Do you pay dues, or something?), or this theory is shite.  As far as votes go, I'm a Democrat; but technically, I'm an independent, since I've never registered as a Democrat in my life.  And nothing kept me from voting in the Republican primary in Texas, except that I wouldn't have been able to vote in the Democratic primary as well, and that's the one I wanted to vote in.  (which is why I question the "crossover vote" stories.  I don't get to pick one from Party A, one from Party B.  You can only do that in the general.  And the old argument is that your candidate is sure to win, so "cross over" and screw around with the other primary.  Except that theory has been blown to shreds this year in the GOP.)  I prefer open primaries, but "more democratic"?  Then why didn't more Southern voters feel the Bern?

I'm sure it had something to do with poor people.

When Hillary Clinton was just Bill's wife (and almost no one knew who Bill was, aside from the governor of a state almost no one knew anything about), she made a famous remarks baking cookies that, almost 25 years later, she's turned to her advantage.

Maybe that's going to happen with Jane Sanders' comments; but somehow, I don't think so.  In the meantime, she's not doing her husband's campaign any favors:

"Now, Donald Trump has a point. The electoral process — the way it is conducted now in both parties is not good, it is not democratic, it is not smart," Sanders said on Fox Business Network. "We want to change the electoral process by having there be open primaries, same day registration. If independents could vote there is no doubt that the results in the democratic process at least would be very different."

I'm all for same day voter registration, but that's an issue for general elections, too.  I'm also fine with open primaries, but I don't think closed primaries and caucuses are less inherently democratic (and if they are, then Bernie needs to give up the delegates he won in caucus states.).

And then there's this still preaching it round and square stuff:

Jane Sanders also again railed against the superdelegate system.

"It doesn't seem fair that superdelegates can play such an outsized role. I mean, you know, we learned in a democracy one person, one vote. Evidently not in the primary system," she said.
The primary system is not yet based on one person, one vote, because if it was, we'd eliminate delegates altogether and just go with winner take all, as we do in the general (we don't award electors proportionately every fourth November).  If we were to make the system that "democratic," Bernie Sanders would have been shut out months ago.  Again, what's the complaint here, except that her husband didn't win?  And the super delegates?  Can the Sanders campaign please decide whether they want the super delegates, or not?

And then she had to get cute:

We want to let it go through without politicizing it and then we'll find out what the situation is," Sanders said during an interview with Fox's Neil Cavuto.

"That's how we still feel. It would be nice if the FBI moved it along," she said, smiling. 

Presumably she's just channeling her inner H.A. Goodman at this point (I won't link to his nonsense, you can read Charlie Pierce's version of it).  And I don't really want to imply she's carrying water for Chuck Grassley, but I had this in draft form before today, so I'm going to go ahead and use it to say:

There will be no "prosecution" of Hillary Clinton, whether the FBI wants it or not.  Not just because the FBI is not conducting a criminal investigation (and said so last July), but because a criminal prosecution on any serious crime can't take place without a grant jury indictment.

Dear Sen. Grassley:  your reading assignment is the 5th Amendment to the Constitution.  Thank you.

No grand jury indictment, no prosecution, no matter what the FBI may think (and the 12 agents on the case are very influential, I'm sure.)  And is there a grand jury waiting patiently to receive the evidence the FBI has amassed?  What's that?  There is not not?  How is this possible?!

Will there be?  Well, not if the FBI is not conducting a criminal investigation there won't be.  But there won't be a prosecution, period, without a grand jury.

So can we please put this canard to rest?  No, I know we can't; but geez, this is becoming tiresome!  PRESIDENT CLINTON, Grassley.  GET USED TO IT!

That same advice now goes for Jane Sanders.  Sour grapes and whinging about losing are not the best way to behave on the national stage.  Just sayin'.....

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Americans are afraid of the poor



And this is why (courtesy of Southern Beale):

In eastern Kentucky and other former Democratic bastions that have swung Republican in the past several decades, the people who most rely on the safety-net programs secured by Democrats are, by and large, not voting against their own interests by electing Republicans. Rather, they are not voting, period. They have, as voting data, surveys and my own reporting suggest, become profoundly disconnected from the political process.

The people in these communities who are voting Republican in larger proportions are those who are a notch or two up the economic ladder — the sheriff’s deputy, the teacher, the highway worker, the motel clerk, the gas station owner and the coal miner. And their growing allegiance to the Republicans is, in part, a reaction against what they perceive, among those below them on the economic ladder, as a growing dependency on the safety net, the most visible manifestation of downward mobility in their declining towns.
I have found the people most concerned with their status are usually concerned with the status of the people closest to them on the socio-economic ladder.

They don't want it to rub off.  That and fear of failure, which is a powerful fear indeed.  Especially in America, where it can ruin you.

And it isn't just that poor people don't vote, but that they don't always vote the way you would want them to.  We would do well to mind the admonition of Dorothy Day:

I keep reminding the young people who come to work with us that they are not naturalized citizens...They are not really poor. We are always foreigners to the poor. So we have to make up for it by "renouncing all compensations..."

We are sure they would think as we would have them think, and that they would be wrong not to.  Judgment is the first compensation we allow ourselves, and the first we should renounce.

Divine Meditations: I


Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste,
I run to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday;
I dare not move my dim eyes any way,
Despair behind, and death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feebled flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it towards hell doth weigh.
Only thou art above, and when towards thee
By thy leave I can look, I rise again;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour I can myself sustain;
Thy grace may wing me to prevent his art,
And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.

Not Ready for Prime Time


Because if they did vote they'd vote for Bernie is not really the direct (or even necessary) outcome you think it is.

It is, however, a good way of saying "It's not MY fault!" and of blaming the poor, which is one of the Great American Pastimes.

And this is how he would lure them to the voting booth.

I dunno, man.....

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Divine Meditations: X


Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Divine Meditations: VII


At the round earth's imagin'd corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scatter'd bodies go;
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o'erthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you whose eyes
Shall behold God and never taste death's woe.
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space,
For if above all these my sins abound,
'Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace
When we are there; here on this lowly ground
Teach me how to repent; for that's as good
As if thou'hadst seal'd my pardon with thy blood.

Sunday, April 24, 2016


Friday, April 22, 2016

Still looking for the keys

I like The Cubit because it is usually very sensible, as in the case in point.  And more and more I like the story of the drunk looking for his keys under the lamplight, because it is such a good explanation of how we form grand theories of everything, like the origins of religion:

And Barash is alarmingly comfortable engaging in wild speculation and generalizations. Nowhere is this clearer than in his treatment of the origins of religion. Riffing on the alpha-male-polygamy theme, Barash argues that religion comes from fear of a powerful male father. God, he suggests, was “created in the image of a dominant, alpha male polygynist.” Contemporary religion is the legacy of that terror.

Reading this little account, I was struck by three things. The first is that Barash’s evidence almost entirely comes from cherry-picked passages of Abrahamic scripture, which might not be the most rigorous way to analyze All of Religion. It’s one thing to note that people have used metaphors of romance and rage to describe their relationships with the divine, and quite another to conclude that these literary expressions represent the fundamental human fear-impulse toward faith.
There are two conjoined problems there, and it's not just cherry-picking (proof-texting, we seminary graduates like to call it) the scriptures for whatever suits your thesis.  That problem is related to the problem of interpretation which too many people not trained in philosophy or literature or even just textual criticism or scriptural studies, are prone to overlook:  everything you think is a matter of interpretation.

So if I say the "Old Testament" presents God as hairy-thunderer smiting the wicked and declaring war on all kinds of people in favor of Israel, well:  I'm ignorant.  I'm also wrong.  True, I can "read" the scriptures for that interpretation, but what I'm doing is interpreting scripture:  I'm not establishing objective truth.  Post-modern thought is pretty much an acknowledgment of this fact (Wittgenstein is particularly interested in it):  we interpret a text just by reading it, and if we don't change the frame of our interpretation, or better critique that frame and recognize it's influence on what we "read," then we fall into error.

Like the error of thinking the Hebraic picture of God is one of a fearful cosmic tyrant.  Indeed, the idea of God as "powerful male father" is almost laughable to anyone who has read the scriptures without looking for confirmation of that particular bias (i.e., with ideological blinders on.  And why that kind of interpretation is not anti-Semitic has always been a mystery to me).  A God who dares Israel to put him on trial, and who declares faithfulness to Israel even when they have betrayed their covenant, a God who restores Israel even after the breaking of the covenant, is not exactly a power-mad father figure reaching for the belt to teach the children a lesson.  The lesson of the Exile is not that God dealt out to Israel what Israel dealt out to others when it was being established, but rather that God leaves Israel to the consequences of its decisions, so that perhaps Israel will learn that both faithfulness and faithlessness to the covenant have their consequences.  God doesn't smite Israel; God redeems Israel.

Or consider the story of Israel under the judges, and then Israel demands a king, like all the other kingdoms around.  God gives Israel what they ask for, after warning Israel against it.  Walter Brueggeman has done a lot of work explaining how Solomon has a reputation for wisdom and goodness because he purchased that reputation, not because he earned it.  And yet God is the angry father figure?  How much of the Hebrew Scriptures do you have to ignore to draw that picture?

Which brings us to the drunk under the lamppost.  As The Cubit asks, is focussing on Abrahamic scripture really the best way to analyze "All of Religion"?  I think Buddhists and Hindus, to name just two, might be surprised by that.

But to someone raised in America, the light is so much better under the Bible's lamp.....

Thursday, April 21, 2016

"And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper."


I'm sort of intrigued about how news stories get reported; but not news stories so much as news stories about news stories.

Here's the segment of the original story that got "re-reported":

Clinton won by a wide margin— and there was much eff-you high-fiving in the ballroom of the Sheraton New York. But Sanders’ defeat (accompanied, as always by the big crowds and even bigger torrent of online donations) was the bitterest one yet and deepened the already yawning fault lines between the Bernie stalwarts and a Clinton team increasingly itchy to see him gone. Not going to happen anytime soon, apparently: The tweet being incredulously digested at a Clinton victory party was an MSNBC report quoting Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver defiantly claiming his candidate would take the fight to the convention floor — even if Clinton secured an overwhelming lead among pledged delegates and supers.

“We kicked his ass tonight,” a senior Clinton aide told me Tuesday night. “I hope this convinces Bernie to tone it down. If not, f--- him.”

The original is a story with five different "stories," rather evenly split between the two victors in New York's primary.  But the words of the "senior Clinton aide" are the only ones anyone was interested in.  So, at Salon, where it's no surprise Ben Norton is outraged:

“We kicked his a** tonight,” bragged a senior Hillary Clinton aide.

“I hope this convinces Bernie to tone it down. If not, f**k him.”

A Politico reporter says this is what he was told Tuesday night, after Clinton won the New York primary, with around 58 percent of the vote to Sanders’ 42 percent.

Sanders won the vast majority of New York state, but Clinton won the densely populated urban areas, particularly New York City. In Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, the candidates were neck-and-neck, but Clinton pulled just ahead.

Voting day was plagued with enormous problems, leading to widespread accusations of voter suppression and disenfranchisement.
Not too surprising, as I say; and the focus there is on alleged voting irregularities; but clearly the Clinton camp are sore winners who want Bernie Sanders to go away.  But then, at TPM:

Among Politico reporter Glenn Thrush's takeaways from Tuesday's New York primary, which saw big wins for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, was a senior Clinton aide's sharp take on Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT): "tone it down" or "fuck him."

Reflecting on Clinton's double-digit victory, the anonymous senior aide told Politico: "We kicked ass tonight," adding, “I hope this convinces Bernie to tone it down. If not, fuck him.” 
And both TPM and Salon highlight the language in their headlines, the better to draw attention to the stories.  Except both leave out the context, which is doubly odd at TPM because they ran the original story which Politico reports was read in a tweet at Clinton NY Campaign headquarters:

During an interview on MSNBC, Steve Kornacki asked Weaver whether the campaign will still try to persuade superdelegates to side with Sanders if Clinton wins the overall popular vote and pledged delegate count in the primary.

"We're going to go to the convention," Weaver said in response.

"It is extremely unlikely that either candidate will have the requisite number of pledged delegates to get to this number," he added. "So it is going to be an election determined by the superdelegates."

Kornacki pressed Weaver and asked how Sanders could persuade superdelegates to switch their support if Clinton is winning overall.

"They’re going to want to win in November," Weaver replied, citing polls that show Sanders performing well against Republican opponents in the general election.

The MSNBC host asked once more if the Sanders campaign will try to flip superdelegates even if Clinton wins in terms of both pledged delegates and the popular vote.

"At this point, yes, absolutely." Weaver responded.

It was those comments that prompted Josh Marshall to label Weaver as "toxic."    So it's fair to say the Clinton aide's remarks were in response to Weaver's toxic declaration of defiance of even a show of democracy.

This is not all that big a story in the grand context of things.  But in this age when reporters now interview reporters on the radio, and when stories are re-told by other media outlets, it would seem the stories are more and more like gossip, and what you hear at the end isn't the story as it started out.

Which seems to be a very particularly internet related problem, and maybe one more reason the internet is fragmenting us into tinier and tinier groups, rather than helping us bridge our differences.

It's raining down in Texas....


I don't disagree with this article, but I have to quibble:

This is at least the fourth major flood in the Houston area in just the past 12 months, with previous flooding events last May, June, and October pummeling Texas hard. The triangle between Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio is sometimes referred to as “flash flood alley” because of its dangerous mix of hilly terrain, sprawling urbanization, and frequent heavy downpours, adding to the region’s already considerable vulnerability to climate change.

That area is known as "Flash flood alley" largely because that triangle describes the three largest metropolitan areas in Texas, and because all three sit on very, very flat ground (who really cares about a flash flood in a low density rural area?).  Dallas and San Antonio sit primarily on the flood plains of rivers (San Antonio's river famously runs through the downtown).   I was driving in San Antonio once in a rain storm, and water seemed bubble up out of the ground and form deep puddles on the roadway.  "Killer puddles," because my car got splashed by oncoming traffic in a manner I've never experienced before.  It was like driving in a dry creek bed during a flash flood.  The water simply didn't drain at all; it stayed where it fell.

Dallas is not notoriously hillier than San Antonio, and Houston is all coastal plain (which extends from the coastline inland to Austin.  It's called "The Hill Country" because the terrain changes rather suddenly to hills from plain).  The areas flooded in Houston just now lie along bayous or creeks which are overrunning their banks.  Most water courses have flood plains, and Houston exists along several of them.  We've got sprawling urbanization and ever more frequent heavy downpours.  But the highest elevation in Houston is the freeway overpass near my house, that towers about 10 stories in the air.

Seriously.  It's practically a scenic overlook in the county.

The "hilly terrain" is all in West Austin and beyond.  Austin itself floods because of hilly terrain and Shoal Creek (been there, done that).  The rest of the area floods because the water on a table top has nowhere to go but everywhere at once.

So yeah, when it rains down here, it freakin' floods.  And it's been raining much harder, and longer, than usual.  If this becomes usual (and it probably will), we're gonna have problems.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Because I was in the grocery store



They've come to take me home....

"These are my principles. If you don't like them, I have others."


You remember that whole "The Democratic Party needs some democracy," and the railing against the "undemocratic" super delegates?

Fuggedaboutit!

During an interview on MSNBC, Steve Kornacki asked Weaver whether the campaign will still try to persuade superdelegates to side with Sanders if Clinton wins the overall popular vote and pledged delegate count in the primary.

"We're going to go to the convention," Weaver said in response.

"It is extremely unlikely that either candidate will have the requisite number of pledged delegates to get to this number," he added. "So it is going to be an election determined by the superdelegates."

Kornacki pressed Weaver and asked how Sanders could persuade superdelegates to switch their support if Clinton is winning overall.

"They’re going to want to win in November," Weaver replied, citing polls that show Sanders performing well against Republican opponents in the general election.

The MSNBC host asked once more if the Sanders campaign will try to flip superdelegates even if Clinton wins in terms of both pledged delegates and the popular vote.

"At this point, yes, absolutely." Weaver responded.
Still can't figure out how that's a model for democracy.  And I hope they plan to improve their tactics.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Open mouth, insert foot in boot.....


It probably won't come to this, but when I said Bernie did himself no favors dismissing the South as a voting bloc, the results in New York State tonight in the GOP primary are a prime reason why I said that.

Cruz was talking like what he thought a native Texan sounds like when he disparaged "New York values."  It was stupid, offensive, and inexcusable.  And he forgot, despite what the New York Times said about him today, that New York was listening.

Boy, were they listening.

It really doesn't pay to insult people, and then ask them to vote for you.

My brain hurts

It would explain a lot, wouldn't it?

I would say I expect better of Bill Moyers than this, but then, he's the one who made Joseph Campbell famous (Campbell was one of the emptiest suits among scholars):

True story: Speaking of an audience, I walked into the grocery store yesterday near my apartment. The stock manager sidled up to me in the bread section and said, “What a circus, what a circus,” referring obviously to the New York primary. I had hardly got the words—seriously, I had hardly got the words ‘Donald Trump’ out of my mouth before he interrupted me. “That Trump is something,” he said. “He tells it like it is. And he’s right, you know, both political parties have stacked the deck against guys like me.” Then he paused and he said, “But nobody pays any attention if I say it.” I mean, is that his stone-age brain speaking?

Shenkman: That is his stone-age brain speaking. So the stone-age brain is the brain that developed during the Pleistocene. The Pleistocene is the long ice age, it lasted two and a half million years, and that’s when the human brain was mainly evolving. We’re still evolving as human beings. We haven’t stopped evolving, we’re continuing to evolve. But it was during that period that we mainly evolved. And we evolved to address the problems of hunter-gatherers who lived during that period.
Uh, no:

"These findings suggest new ways of thinking about learning," Miller said. "They suggest that new learning isn't simply the smarter bits of our brain such as the cortex 'figuring things out.' Instead, we should think of learning as interaction between our primitive brain structures and our more advanced cortex. In other words, primitive brain structures might be the engine driving even our most advanced high-level, intelligent learning abilities," he said.

The cortex--the "thinking" part of the brain--is highly developed in humans. This is especially true for the prefrontal cortex. Common wisdom suggests that when we learn new things, the prefrontal cortex figures things out first. Then, as our behaviors become familiar and habitual, the more primitive, subcortical basal ganglia take over so that the now-familiar routines can be run off automatically and occupy less of our thoughts.

"What we found was evidence for something very different," Pasupathy said. "We found that as monkeys learn new, simple rules--associations analogous to 'stop at red, go at green'--the striatum of the basal ganglia shows evidence of learning much sooner and faster than the prefrontal cortex. But, an interesting wrinkle is that the the monkeys' behavior improved at a slow rate, similar to that of the slower changes inprefrontal cortex."

This suggests that while the basal ganglia "learn" first, their output forces the prefrontal cortex to change, albeit at a slower rate. 
One patch of ice doth not a winter make, nor a single study a solid conclusion.  But Carl Sagan saddled us with this idea of a "reptile brain," and it always was little more than 19th century phrenology in another guise.  As Stephen Jay Gould explained in his most important popular science work, we spent much of the 19th century deciding who was smart and who wasn't based on how we described the brain.

And we're still doing it.  Now it explains why people don't support our preferred political candidate, but it's the same baseless argument as studies of skull size and capacity, and close-set eyes and "low brows." You don't even need the summation of a study to recognize the flaws in Shenkman's reasoning.  "Primitive" is still being used to mean "NOK" long after science has abandoned that meaning in favor of more narrow and accurate meanings.  Even discussing the "reptile brain" as a thing is simply perpetuating 19th century racism.

All that's missing is to describe Trump supporters as dirty, unkempt, and unsanitary.

Monday, April 18, 2016

You really can't fix stupid

San Miguel de Socorro, Socorro, New Mexico
A place like this really ought to be taxed....

So now this is a thing (I've seen it at Esquire and Salon, so....), and here is an article that purports to give it actual numbers (all the other sites I found when I googled the "$600 billion in church property" claim was websites with even less reason to be assumed credible).

First, of course, there's the requirement of all basic math tests:  show your work.  Where does this $600 billion dollar number come from?  Who knows?  But it only includes "actual churches, mosques, etc.," so it's a "low number."

Huh?

Oh, and there's this:  "Priests, ministers, rabbis and the like get "parsonage exemptions" that let them deduct mortgage payments, rent and other living expenses when they're doing their income taxes. They also are the only group allowed to opt out of Social Security taxes (and benefits)."

Uh, no.  I paid for the value of the parsonage as part of my income (since it was income to me).  I also paid my taxes quarterly, not from my paycheck but based on my estimate of my taxable income. I was not part of the "only group allowed to opt out of Social Security," unless you mean the only non-governmental group.  Most state government employees around the country are exempt from Social Security, a group that includes school teachers and school district employees. Which ain't the ideal you think it is, but priests, rabbis, ministers, and 2 corinthians are not "the only group" with that status.  (And churches are the entities "opting out" of Social Security taxes, for the same reason the states do it; think about it a minute....  Churches also don't withhold taxes for ministers, which is why we have to pay quarterly.  Believe me, you wouldn't like paying your taxes quarterly.)  I had no other "living expenses" that I earned tax-free.  Any money the church paid me was income, unless it was paid into a retirement fund (which will pay me far less than Social Security will.)

So if we start there, and I already know the information is bad, why am I supposed to rely on it?  Because the author is a "serious sociologist"?  He may be, but as a tax expert, he sucks.

So where does this $600 billion claim come from?  Well, remember the Crystal Cathedral, and how Schuller heirs and church had to sell it?  And who did they sell it to?  Donald Trump?  Ivan Bosky?  No, they sold it to another church (the Catholics, IIRC).  Ever tried to sell a church building?  You pretty much have to sell it to another church.  It isn't usually on a piece of land worth razing the building for, and the building is seldom worth renovating for new use (I know of two cases where a building was reused;  one, in Austin, became an office building; the other is a library in Houston.  Exceptions that prove the rule.)  So where does the number come from?  As my bankruptcy lawyer used to say about real estate appraisals, there are three kinds:  windshield, wild-ass, and hell if I know but it looks good on paper!  This number sounds like it looks good on paper.

My former church has a huge sanctuary (build to hold hundreds, which is big for such a small church) and a cemetery.  Who is going to buy that property and relocate, or maintain, that cemetery?  The City of Chicago relocated a UCC church to build O'Hare airport.  The cemetery for the church remained, and while Chicago considered moving the cemetery a few years ago, word is they finally decided it was too much trouble.

So, yeah, churches own "valuable property."  Well, maybe Joel Osteen's church does, but I doubt the combined value of churches in America amounts to $600 billion, even in the days immediately before the S&L crisis, when real estate all over the country was wildly inflated.  I really would have to see the math on that (but it's on the internet!  And it's from an article published by a prominent atheist group!  So it must be true!).

As for taxing churches:  most churches have a budget of about $100,000.00.  I give that as the average from my experience; I figure it's actually better grounded than the $600 billion dollar figure.  Of that, the pastor probably gets about half (you want to live on $50,000 for the rest of your career?  'Cause that's about how well you're gonna do.  Just sayin'.....).  About 40% of what's left goes to bills (utilities) and maintenance (savings for a rainy day, like a leaky roof).  The roof of the sanctuary at my last church was going to cost about $100,000 to repair, if repair it ever needed (and eventually it would).  And that was 15 years ago.*

Maybe half of the remaining 50% goes to charitable purposes; maybe only the 20% left over in my original calculation.  Which is the point:  churches are charities.  And damned few of them are run by Joel Osteen or Rick Warren.  Tax the income of churches, and suddenly it's:  why am I giving this money to the government?  The more people give, the more government takes (if taxes are based on income).  And how do you assess the market value of a property nobody wants to buy?  Do you give an unfair advantage to churches that have existed for 400 years (as some in New Mexico and San Antonio, Texas have)?  Or do you tax those congregations out of existence and subject their historic buildings to the wrecking ball?

I'm serious.

Let me put it bluntly:  Bill Maher is an idiot who knows nothing and in his ignorance thinks he knows all he needs to know.  That blog post at WaPo is equally stupid and baseless, and there's a reason it's not on the pages of the newspaper (newspaper blogs are the worst; they can say anything, but get the imprimatur os legitimate news).

This entire discussion won't get further than the pages of Salon (where it didn't last long) and Wonkblog.  But it is a tribute to how little information people need to be assured they know as much as Donald Trump.

Goes a ways to explaining the appeal of Donald Trump, as a matter of fact.

*and as for living in a house your employer owns:  it sounds great, until your employer decides your services are no longer needed.  Now what do you do?  There really is no such thing as a free lunch.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Talkin' to a stranger


Give them all to me

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Realistically speaking


Unrealistic means you shouldn't expect Catholics to listen to the Pope when they have their own consciences to consult.*

Unrealistic means politicians should act like prophets, even though the prophets were not kings or leaders, and never claimed to be (they weren't even judges, like Joshua, who judged Ruth.  Sorry, old joke.)  And besides, what did prophets do about the Exile, except point out it was coming and that it was all Israel's fault?  But that's holding them to an unrealistic standard; or something.

Unrealistic means we have to try because if we don't, nothing will ever change.  Unrealistic means we also have to use unrealistic means, because the realistic ones just reinforce the status quo.  Except then we have to quibble over which means are unrealistic enough to work, and which are just, well, you know:  unrealistic.

Unrealistic means what you want can be done if enough will is created in the world, and what I want can't be done because what I want is to clap louder.  Unrealistic means what you want is a solution that's never been tried so it will work, and what I want is incrementalism and that takes too long and doesn't work anyway.

Unrealistic means whatever you think is right is right, it just hasn't been tried hard enough or long enough or with enough purity of heart; and whatever I think is right is wrong because I don't understand the power of unrealistic, I just understand that we've always done it the wrong way.

Unrealistic means whatever has never been done before will work, because whatever is being done now isn't working, and it's unrealistic to think it ever will.  Because the most realistic thing is to be unrealistic; and the most unrealistic thing is to be realistic.

And that's why being young and unrealistic is better than being old and experienced.  Because being old and experienced means you know things seldom work out as planned, and you certainly aren't in charge of outcomes.  But being young and unrealistic means everything will soon rearrange itself to suit you; you just have to insist on it loudly enough.

And if that's not being a hard-headed realist, what is?

*Or maybe it's being realistic to realize that people are complicated, and nobody ever looked to the Pope to decide things for them (search Chaucer's tales in vain for even references to the Pope's guidance among the uniformly Catholic 14th century English), and equally realistic that prophets didn't have to be as realistic as kings (see, e.g., Reinhold Niebuhr).

Roman fever


I'm starting to become all things not-Bernie, but really, somebody needs to stop him before there's nothing left:

The whole Bernie-goes-to-Rome thing has been a shambles, to be honest. The campaign got Sanders a back-door invite which surprised and irritated the academy president, not to mention stepping on the roll-out of Amoris Laetitia, the Pope’s new teaching on the family. Then they did it again, taking a private jet to Rome to speak on the idolatry of money in the middle of a make-it-or-break-it primary in New York, and arriving in Rome on a day when the Vatican would much rather be talking about Francis’ meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew in Lesbos about the European refugee crisis.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Sanders showed up with his family in tow, undercutting the high-minded moral message he was supposed to be delivering, and Oh, sweet Jesus, did they really put his logo on a picture of the Pope?! All this in service of a message that won’t impress or inspire anybody who wasn’t going to vote for Sanders to begin with.

Setting aside he had only 10 minutes to speak, and he mostly re-hashed his stump speech, when will Americans understand that the whole world is not a backdrop for them?  That's my take-away from this:  Bernie Does Vatican City.  It's the Ugly American redux.  And for what?  The Catholic vote in New York?

But of course flying a private jet to Rome with his family for a ten-minute speech, and flying right back again, is not a patch on Hillary's Goldman Sachs transcripts, or something.  I mean, I don't really care anymore, but every charge and counter-charge has become so useless and petty and meaningless.  Bernie is so pure he flew to Rome on the wings of freedom, but Hillary is so evil just the fact she has any investments proves Wall Street/Satan owns her immortal soul.

Feh.  Really, the worst part of this, for me, is the Ugly American part of it.  Are we really that obtuse?

Friday, April 15, 2016

Medieval Theology is looking better all the time


Remember that whole thing about medieval theologians arguing over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin?  Yeah; we're back there again, thanks to Hobby Lobby.

Not the store; the Supreme Court decision:

This week, the Little Sisters of the Poor told the Supreme Court that they arefinally willing to let the government accommodate their religious beliefs. In a case argued last month, Zubik v. Burwell, the order of nuns challenged the government’s efforts to work around their religious objections to paying for health insurance that covers contraception. The government had offered an accommodation, relieving them of any responsibility to provide contraception—it only asked that they notify either the federal health agency or their insurer of their religious objection. But the Little Sisters complained that by giving any kind of written notice, they would be triggering contraceptive coverage for their employees, who staff their nursing homes for impoverished seniors. They also objected that the government would make them complicit by “hijacking” their health plans to provide such coverage, even if there was no actual cost to the religious employer.

Now the Little Sisters are telling the Supreme Court that as long as they don’t have to communicate their objection in this way, their consciences are clear. And they are joined in this turnabout by the numerous other religious nonprofits participating in the litigation.
This actually presents, as the Slate article points out, problems for the Supreme Court in how to cast their opinion if they accept this acquiescence.  And I freely admit that perhaps I'm tired and perhaps I'm distracted and certainly I'm not really trying to follow the absolutely rococo reasoning that is the argument of the Little Sisters of the Poor on this issue.  I'm more commonly a fan of "formalism" than most, but even I discard their argument as excessive formalism.  I'm sure I should care more and follow the reasoning right down to the ground, but I just don't and I just won't.

Life's too short.

This is all the upshot of Hobby Lobby v. Burwell, and is exacerbated by an even numbered bench, a problem that would be there whether the Senate was being intransigent or not.  It seems to me the Court now has to decide whether this actually is NOT a burden on the religious freedom of the Little Sisters of the Poor, et al., simply because they say so.  Which is a fairly absurd standard for the law, frankly.  We don't usually leave that determination to the parties; we usually assign it over to a reasonably prudent person, so we are fair in our legal system to more than the two parties before the dock.

Oh well, as I say, I have a lot of other things on my mind, and this one is the fault of no one but the 8 justices in Washington.  Let them puzzle over it.  And then maybe they can set that number of angels for us; as a matter of law.

It's a long, long journey....



Can you hear the silence?

Nobody expects to drop their pistol!

If it goes off, it'll be an accident.  Really.

I get this from Southern Beale:

Kentucky State Police say a woman was hospitalized after accidentally being shot by her son in Elliot County.

According to police, the shooting occurred as the juvenile was dismounting a horse he had been riding. They say boy's 22 caliber pistol fell out of his holster and discharged after hitting the ground.

We're told Jereen Stamper, 39, was struck in the side after the gun discharged.

Police say she was taken to a hospital in West Virginia for treatment.

My car ran over somebody, but it's okay, because it was an accident.

I dropped the keys.

I mean, how can you hold somebody responsible for something they didn't mean to do?  I actually remember an ad for public safety in Texas with copy that ran something like:  "Tim didn't like the music on the radio; so he killed a girl."  The accompanying video shows a young driver looking down at his radio to change stations as a young girl darts out into the street, chasing a ball.  There's enough time to avoid the tragedy, if the driver was paying attention.

Funny how some things are accidents, and some things you're responsible for, isn't it?

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Swing and a miss

Big, fat, slow pitch right over the plate:

During CNN's Democratic debate Thursday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) struggled to name a decision that Hillary Clinton has made based on donations from Wall Street.

....

Instead of pointing to a specific instance of Clinton's being compromised by receiving financial services industry money, Sanders spoke broadly of the industry's influence.

"The obvious decision is when the greed and recklessness and illegal behavior of Wall Street brought this country into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the '30s, when millions of people lost their jobs, homes and life savings, the obvious response to that is you've got a bunch of fraudulent operators, and that they have got to be broken up. Now, Secretary Clinton was busy giving speeches to Goldman Sachs for $250,000 a speech"
Yeah, that's tellin'.....wait, what?

Mighty Casey has struck out.

Nobody expects a series of questions of a Presidential candidate!



I think she was referring to the use of the comfy chair.

Jane Sanders, wife of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), said Wednesday that her husband's widely panned interview with the New York Daily News was "more of an inquisition."

Jane Sanders told CNN that she thought the candidate's hour-long interview with the tabloid's editorial board was "odd."

"We commented on that afterwards, that it was more of an inquisition, hurry, hurry, interrupt, let's ask the questions don't let you even finish your answers," Sanders said. "We didn't realize they had planned to release the transcript. So it became a little bit more evident what they were trying to do."
Good thing it didn't go on for 11 hours before a Congressional committee, or it might have been a kind of Holocaust.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Purity of politics is to demand one outcome


I really just want to try out my analytical chops here; seldom does one get the chance to examine a clearly stated position that doesn't include invective against opponents.

Why, then, vote for him at all? For me, it’s entirely about the issues he is raising, which I believe are important for the country’s future. Hillary Clinton and her various boosters in the media have made the argument that it’s impractical and even irresponsible to raise a demand like “Medicare for all” and “free public college” that could not possibly get through the next Congress, even if Democrats eke out a majority in the Senate. They presumably want a candidate to offer programs that could be the result of protracted negotiations between a Democratic president and Speaker Paul Ryan – like a two percent increase in infrastructure spending in exchange for a two percent reduction in Medicaid block grants. I disagree with this approach to politics.
Like it or not, all legislation is the result of "protracted negotiations" between at least two sides.  In the case of the House, for the foreseeable future, make that three sides:  Democrats, Speaker Ryan, and the "Freedom Caucus," or whatever they call themselves.  Ryan can't even get a budget through the House right now; he faces, not negotiations, but ultimatums.  What would Bernie Sanders do about that?  Seriously, I'm asking.

What Sanders is proposing are political guideposts – ideals, if you like – according to which we can judge whether incremental reforms make sense. He is describing, whether you like them or not, objectives toward which we Americans should be aspiring. That’s a central activity in politics. Should it be confined to issues of Democracy or National Affairs? Or is it the kind of activity that is entirely appropriate for a nominating contest? Ronald Reagan and the conservatives thought so during the 1970s. And I think Democrats should be thinking this way now. So I applaud Bernie Sanders for not limiting his proposals to what might appear on a President’s often-ignored budget requests.
FDR and LBJ, two presidents who truly enacted ennobling and even revolutionary legislation, didn't do it by proposing "political guideposts."  I'm not even sure what "political guideposts" are, outside of metaphors in essays. Lovely abstractions tend to get ground into dust by reality.   Even as I write,  Paul Ryan can't get the House Republicans to agree on a budget.  As Lee Drutman noted (via Charlie Pierce):

The deeper problem for Ryan and the rest of the Republican leadership is that House Freedom Caucus is more and more the anti-establishment wing of the Republican Party. And its reflexes have now been trained to distrust whatever leadership does. Any whiff of compromise smells like the cronyism of politics as usual. Hence that sour "crap sandwich" stench of budget politics under divided government.
Need I point out the "cronyism of politics as usual" is a variant on the complaint made against Hillary Clinton, is, indeed, the complaint Judis tacitly makes?  And the complaint against "politics as usual" is what is creating that "sour 'crap sandwich' stench", no matter which side of the aisle the complaint comes from?  And the stench is no longer even the problem:  by law, Congress is supposed to adopt a budget resolution by April 15, and that isn't going to happen.  Does Bernie bring the administrative WD-40 to lubricate these gears?  Aren't what the Freedom Caucus is raucously insisting on fairly described as "political guideposts" which they insist the American people elected them to aspire to?

If we don't want protracted negotiations and compromise, apparently we're electing a dictator.  Or are we just wishing for rainbows and unicorns?  Again, I don't mean to slip into cheap insult, I really want to know:  what's the alternative to compromise?

Let’s now consider the proposals themselves. I have my doubts about Bernie’s banking plans, and I am not going to consider climate change because I think Clinton and he agree about that. I’ll confine myself to what I think of as his big three:

1) Free public college education: Sanders’ argument for this seems to be unobjectionable. A half century ago a high school education was required for a decent job; and every American was entitled to free public high school education. We’re coming to a time when a college degree will be essential for a decent job. Shouldn’t all Americans be able to get one, even if they come from a low-income family? And there’s another consideration. Shouldn’t today’s parents be freed from the anxiety of worrying about whether they can afford to send their children to college? I just returned from a visit to a friend in Europe who has been unemployed (from no fault of his own) for several years, and whose wife recently died. His children are of college age, and in America, he would be in no position to send them, but in the country where he lives, he can send them for free, and they are doing splendidly. Shouldn’t the United States aspire to this? (And note that it should be done as a universal New Deal-style program, as Sanders proposes, and not as another neo-liberal means-tested program that will invite all kinds of Tea Party-type resentments.)
Yes, we should.  College was practically free when I went (well, compared to what public school tuition in Texas, which is my basis for comparison, is now).  But we have 50 states and 50 state legislatures, and even Medicaid is shared with the states because the Feds don't want to pay for it all.  And we know the Supremes won't allow Washington to tell the states what to pay for and how to pay for it.  So what do we do?  Nationalize all the state college systems and land grant universities?  Does anybody see this happening?

And someone should point out that "Tea Party-type resentments" are no longer confined to the Republican party.  One of the worst legacies of the Tea Party is that it is threatening to become politics as usual in both parties.

2) Medicare for all: I wouldn’t recommend extending the current Medicare program, because it is becoming a Byzantine mess (I was recently denied Medicare coverage because of some regulation about registration that neither I nor the people I asked at AARP had ever heard of.) What Sanders is proposing is that healthcare coverage began at birth for every American and be financed through taxes rather than through a crazy quilt of premiums, deductibles, co-payments, welfare subsidies, tax credits and what have you. Yes, that suggests that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is inadequate. I am not prepared to defend that assertion against the health experts who stand ready to insist that it is the be-all and end-all, but I have had enough experience with my family and friends to know that it, too, is a mess. It’s not universal, it depends too much on the middle class insured subsidizing the uninsured (again a cause for resentment), coverage is very spotty, and the rules regulating small businesses, the self-employed – you name it – require a degree in health care accounting to comprehend. Amend it for the time being, but in the long run, America should aspire toward a system much more similar to those in Europe, where, besides guaranteeing universal access, makes medical school free to those who qualify and go on to practice, and where, as a result, doctors don’t need to make $400,000 a year to pay back loans. (See proposal #1)

Okay, middle class subsidizing the uninsured is a cause for resentment.  Fine.  Have you considered the case of Medicaid, and why it is so paltry in some states?  Have you considered how many people already think they pay taxes that go to undeserving people?  That comment from Slate I quoted earlier presumes "my taxes" go to "my school," and "poor schools" are poor because they serve poor people.  It doesn't work that way in Texas:  school taxes go to the district, not to an individual school. But how the money is distributed is the very basis for the Brown decision.  Sadly, even Brown couldn't mandate equitable distribution of funds to all schools under a central control.  I remember the state of the art school near a wealthy development in "liberal" Austin, while the schools on the "wrong" side of town were left in deplorable condition.  Same tax base for both, same school district distributing funds to both; but one was treated like a step-child.  So, sure, we should have universal health care like they do in Europe, but here's the fundamental problem:  we aren't Europe.  We are, as the Supreme Court affirmed in its rulings on Obamacare, the United STATES of America.  Much as we might like to impose a single program on everyone, we can't.  Because Social Security doesn't create the resentment that Obamacare does (supposedly you "earn" the former), and because Medicaid keeps Medicare from being socialism for the "undeserving."

Sad, but true.

3) Political revolution: I am not sure if Sanders specifies how he wants to reform our oligarchic system of financing campaigns. Americans might not want public financing. They may prefer the direction we were going in 1974 – limiting contributions and spending – that the Supreme Court short-circuited with Buckley v. Valeo in 1976. But something has to be done. And it would probably require a new liberal-dominated Supreme Court, which stands in reach if Democrats win in 2016. (And this is a reason why I hope Hillary Clinton does wrap up the nomination and wins in November.) But the point is more than that. With some interruptions, the American system since 1896 has rested on disenfranchisement of large parts of the people: some people not being allowed to vote, others simply not voting. And the possibility of major reform, as sketched out in #1 and #2, rests very much on an invigorated electoral majority that goes to the polls and on politicians that are forced to compete on their merits rather than on the money they have raised. Clinton boosters scoff at the term “political revolution,” but something like that is what is needed to turn the country around.

I don't scoff at "political revolution."  I look at history.  England had a "revolution."  They deposed the king.  Took him back in a few years, though.  France did the same; it was after the King was restored that France finally became a republic.  Russia tossed out the Czar; they got the Soviets in his place, and now Putin.  Tell me again about revolutions that burn everything to ashes and start fresh with new insights.  Even the American Revolution was just an extension of British culture, with less fealty to the monarch.  Besides, no democracy elects a President or leader to be a revolutionary.  They elect an administrator, a figurehead, a symbol, a statesman.  Nobody elected Fidel Castro.

I quoted this at length because none of it is, finally, an argument for Bernie Sanders.  It's an argument for change, but an incoherent one.  We need change to come from a simple, pure directive which everyone has to accept because negotiation and compromise lead to impurity.  We need to impose a single-payer system on all 50 states because that, too, is pure and simple and best for all.  Or it will be, if we can work the kinks out.  And we need a political revolution because, well, because politics in America is not what we were told it was in elementary school.

It involves too much compromise and protracted negotiation, for one thing.

At least, that's more and more the argument I'm hearing.  And it's making less and less sense.

"They're gatherin' 'em up from miles around...."


As I've said before, Brown v. Board is now more honored in the breach than in the keeping.  The ruling stands as almost a bedrock principle of Constitutional law and of social justice.

But that's all it stands for.

Two interesting points in this interview, both related to Bernie Sanders dismissal of "the South" (and the same dismissal made by so many of his supporters):

1)  that "bussing" was only "bussing" when it applied to white students, and 2) that racism was a problem in the South, not in the North.

Most of these Northern white liberal politicians were reflecting what they understood as the sentiments of their constituents. For them, they thought of civil rights and integration as being a Southern story. They took seriously the idea that these Northern schools just couldn’t be intentionally segregated. Therefore, when they started hearing about these schools from their constituents, hearing that language of neighborhood schools and protecting the homeowners’ rights, that really resonated with them.

It was a fault lime for a lot of these liberal politicians. It was safer to condemn school segregation in Little Rock, much less so to condemn that in Chicago or New York when you knew your white constituents were going to be furious at you when you came home. They didn’t have the same sense of moral urgency when it was in their own backyard.
There is no justification for Jim Crow laws, but those laws arose in the South because of Reconstruction.  The South felt compelled to make explicit what the North allowed itself to continue to practice implicitly.  Both, of course, were wrong.  As Matt Delmont goes on to point out:

The way racism functioned in the North was much subtler. In the South it’s easy to picture how racism operated—colored drinking fountains and white drinking fountains. The system of Jim Crow segregation was so visible. It was still incredibly difficult to overturn that system, but it was easier to visualize. For Northern white citizens and white politicians, the way their schools and neighborhoods were structured was just normal, they didn’t know or chose not to understand that it wasn’t just a matter of white families choosing to live in white neighborhoods and black families in black neighborhoods. There was a whole history of mortgage redlining, zoning decisions, public housing discrimination, and real estate discrimination that created those separate neighborhoods. But the subtlety of that allowed white people to just see it as common sense, just how our neighborhood and schools should be.
But there wasn't a person in the South, before or after Brown v. Board began to be implemented (which took into the '70's in my hometown), or the '64 Civil Rights Act, who didn't think the Jim Crow laws were just "common sense, just how our neighborhoods and schools should be."  When bussing finally reached my hometown in 1971, the black schools were closed, and the students brought, by car or bus, to the white schools.  Which, according to the top comment at that Slate interview, is how it should be:

No one wants to pay property taxes out the yin yang only to have their own kid bussed to an inferior school across town while some poor kid gets bussed to the good school you're paying for.

If they'd done one way bussing (i.e. just busing black kids to the white schools) the program would have been far more politically palatable, but no one is going to be willing to sacrifice their own kid on the mantle of social justice, even if it’s a moral imperative on the societal level.
Bussing black kids is fine, maybe even appropriate; but bussing white kids?  Now you've gone to meddlin'.  "No one" in that first sentence, now means no white person; and why should they pay taxes for their kid to go to an "inferior school across town"?  Amirite?

This is part of the reason Hillary Clinton is popular among Democratic primary voters in the South.  She's seen as one of us.  She doesn't dismiss "the South" the way Northerners do, as if they were superior to us.  That, and her work is seen as being in service to others.  I know he's resonating now, but the more I see of Bernie Sanders, the more I see a man dedicated to an idea, not to people.  He thinks the idea will be our salvation.

He doesn't understand that, while it's messier, only people can be our salvation.  The more Pope Francis emphasizes the pastoral role of the church, the closer he gets to the true source of salvation, the true meaning of salvation.  Ideas won't save us.  Things won't save us.  Only other people can save us.  If there is a single reason that Jesus is important, that's what it is:  Jesus was one of us.

The idea will not save us.  We have to save ourselves.  We have to save each other.  Brown v. Board was an idea; a fine idea; an excellent idea.  How's that working out for us now?  What did we do to that idea?

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Not with a bang, but a whinging


I keep thinking Sanders is a victim of his most zealous on-line supporters.

I keep being wrong:

Well, here’s what I think,” Sanders replied. “I think at the end of the day, what Democrats all over this country want to make sure is that somebody like a Donald Trump or a Ted Cruz does not end up in the White House. And I think what more and more Democrats are seeing is that Bernie Sanders is the stronger candidate.”

“She’s getting more votes,” the host pressed.

“Well, she is getting more votes. A lot of that came from the South,” Sanders parried. “But if you look at the polling out there, we do a lot better against Trump and the other Republicans in almost every instance — not every one — than she does. And the reason is that we both get a lot of Democrats, but I get a lot more independents than she does.”

Two things:  if the argument is the South is all red states, then:

Likewise, Wyoming, Utah, Alaska, Idaho and Oklahoma, each of which were Bernie victories, are red states that probably won’t go Democratic in November.

And the other is:  a Vermont by way of Brooklyn Yankee saying, essentially:  "F*ck the South!"?  Yeah, that's the way to run a national campaign.   One could go further, and point out that without the delegates from "the South" that Bernie did win, he wouldn't still be in this race at all.

This is how a campaign self-destructs.

Too much with us, late and soon


I've been watching too much TV and at least one too many movies (no further references to "Batman v. Superman" will be made here; I hope), but I finally finished off the last available episode of "Black Mirror," and it got me to thinking about the thread that runs through all the episodes.

If you've never seen it, it's best described as a modern British version of "The Twilight Zone."  It's an anthology series, with no characters appearing from story to story; but the world the stories inhabit is essentially the same and, with a few "futuristic" difference, essentially our own.

I don't want to overwork this by giving you a plot summary of all 7 episodes, so I'll speak generally about that common thread.  It is the technology that, while it isn't available now, is almost visible.  Science fiction has often mined this vein for stories, depending on the technology of the day; and the Digital Age, especially the Internet world, is making new possibilities possible to write about.  That's where "Black Mirror" enters.

The "black mirror," by the way, is a TV screen, or a computer screen; doesn't really matter, both serve the same purpose now, and can be used the same way (I have a computer in the house connected to a TV, for example.  It's the computer's monitor.).  Internet technology makes social media possible, but it is the use of technology which is interesting.  In the world of "Black Mirror" there is an internet we can all be glued to (to watch a blackmailed politician, for example) or eyes which can replace our biological ones and be accessed via the internet the way Skype can access the camera on your computer, and even chips which can store or eliminate memories.  Stuff we don't have, in other words, but can imagine how we would use if we did, based on the technology we do have.  There's more than a little line crossing between human and machine in these stories, and that line doesn't always (or ever, actually) create a Kurzweilian utopia.

Usually, in fact, the consequences are, in the best TZ tradition, unforeseen until they happen, and then they seem inevitable.

Consider the last episode, "White Christmas."  (spoiler alert, for those interested).  Jon Hamm (nee Don Draper) plays a gregarious almost-salesman who tries to engage a man in a small room in conversation because it's Christmas Day and they don't have to go out to work that day.  Where they are and what they are doing there is a mystery, but they seem to have been at it for 5 years.  Prison work camp?  Manual labor in some obscure corner of back of beyond?  All we know it that there's snow outside and food in the kitchen sufficient to make a light meal; not a Christmas feast, but perhaps the two men can make do.

Hamm begins, finally, to tell the other man what he (Hamm) used to do for a living.  He describes a technology which can be implanted in the temple, just below the skin, and create a digital version of the person receiving the implant.  After a few weeks this implant is removed and placed in a processor about the size of a chicken egg.  The implant is a disc which now has a complete copy of the original person; a digital copy, not a clone or anything biological.  But to the information on the disc, it is the person.  It isn't a copy (so far as it knows) and it is in hell.

Hell because it's purpose is to run the house to the satisfaction of the original.  Who, after all, knows you better than you?  You (the digital copy) can start the coffee, cook the toast to perfection, turn off lights, turn on the TV (to the right program), etc., etc., with no effort from the original except to enjoy the luxury.

Why is this hell?  Because the copy thinks it is the original, and it doesn't want to do the work.  That's where Hamm came in; he'd communicate with the copy and convince it it had no choice, by altering the time the copy experienced.  6 months could pass in a matter of minutes; minutes to Hamm, months to the copy.  With nothing to do but let time pass, the copy usually decides work is better than eternity doing nothing, and becomes a willing....well, slave is about the right concept.

Hamm also got in trouble for running a dating service where he accessed the eyes of the client (artificial eyes, but everyone has them, as you will see) and could give him advice (through an ear bud, one assumes).  This is illegal, and it all goes wrong when the client picks up a woman at a party who engages the client in a suicide-murder pact (she kills him, then herself).  Hamm can't call the cops without revealing his own illegal activity,  and when his wife finds out, she blanks him.  He can't see or hear her anymore (remember the eyes!), only an outline filled with static, something like a figure on the old Star Trek frozen in a transporter beam.

The other man now tells his story, and to make it short, his wife also blanks him, which drives him so mad he eventually, in a fit of rage and blind passion, kills his father-in-law (ex, actually, as she divorced him, but anyway).  Hamm suddenly looks to the ceiling and says "Is that good enough?  Is that a confession?", and vanishes from the room.

The man was not the murderer; he was a digital copy.  The man has remained silent, but the copy has blurted out a confession.  The real murderer doesn't even know this has happened, and the clone is left alone in the virtual kitchen where (he now realizes) the murder occurred.  A technician dials up the time stream so that 1 second of "real time" will be like 1000 years to the copy, and the office is closed for the Christmas holidays.

As for Hamm, he is put on the "registry" for his crimes.  He's free to go, but no one in the world can see/hear him, and he can't see/hear anyone else.  His outline is red, the others (to him) all silver.  He is, as in one of my favorite stories from the attempted re-boot of the Twilight Zone, the invisible man whom no one can see, no one can speak to.  And he will be that way forever.  He had fancied himself a student of the human mind; now he will know only his own mind, for as long as he lives.

This story is somewhat similar (in the persistence of the digital copy and its independent existence) to a story of a woman who is able to "resurrect" her dead husband from the trail he left on the internet.  The copy is virtually identical to the original (and has a physical body), but it isn't him because it isn't human; it is only the personality which can be reconstructed from what is left behind.  Eventually "he" becomes the crazy relative locked in the attic; she can't get rid of him (kill him?  Again?), but she can't live with him, either.

Or the criminal, forced to relive his crime without remembering he is doing so from day to day, as people (whom he perceives only as strangers staring at him as if they were possessed) watch his every move (it's a national park, they are tourists) and paid government employees make him re-enact the crime he committed, and the horror attendant on it.  It is deemed a fit punishment, as it can be refreshed (again, thanks to technology) every day for the rest of his life.

There is another story where a man begins blanking out unpleasant memories from his implanted hard drive (which replaces organic memory), and soon he forgets too much, becomes too dependent on forgetting and avoiding remembered pain.

Technology in the world of "Black Mirror" is powerful; it is also neutral.  Technology doesn't do anything to dehumanize people in these stories; people (if that happens), do that.  Sometimes (as in the first story, and still the most disturbing, IMHO) the technology even gives us back our humanity; but only after a fearsome price has been paid.  Never is technology our salvation, the solution to our problems, the tool through which we transcend our baser selves and rise on the steps of our lesser selves toward being better people.

Technology is not our savior, it will not rescue us from ourselves.

It's a fascinating examination of that issue, across seven otherwise disparate episodes, because I can remember when the internet and then comment sections like "Table Talk" at Salon, and then blogs, and then Facebook and "social media," were finally going to save us from parochialism and nationalism and narrow-mindedness and suspicion of the "other."

Yeah, how'd that work out?  In the year of Trump we are more cut off from each other and from the angels of our better nature than ever; but we have more platforms and opportunities and outlets for venting our opinions and finding others who will "like" what we have to say.  And those who don't must beware our wrath; our on-line, anonymous, typed out wrath.

There's an episode which echoes that, too.  Technology plays a minor role, because workers for a corporation are drones who peddle exercise bikes to provide electricity, and advance away from the bikes by playing games on TV, which they watch as they peddle for hours on end.  It's brute competition, zero-sum, you win the other person loses; and yet two characters connect and see each other as humans.  Perhaps they can work together to defeat the game and prompt a revolution, destroying the evil system that so dehumanizes people.

Nope.  One guy wins the greatest prize:  an apartment of his own, luxury living where his only job is to give interviews and be a public figure a few hours a day.  He lives atop the world, cut off from human beings except through communications technology (telephones, internet, the usual; nothing too sci-fi about it).  It is all he's ever known anyway; it beats the tiny cubicle he lived in where he was forced to watch TV a certain number of hours a day.  Now he can just sit in silence and stare out of a real window.   And he wins all this by throwing his erstwhile companion to the wolves, which he dos without hesitation.  Revolutions don't give us an opportunity to save the world; largely, they give us an opportunity to save ourselves, and if that is all we can get, we can easily learn to be happy with it.  The audience imagines the protagonist would want what we have; but why?  He's never known it; how could he long for it?

And so if we imagine a revolution will make everyone realize they want what we want.....well, it probably won't work out that way.  Other people aren't all waiting for the chance to be you, you know?

Which was always my complaint, ultimately, with the earnest young folks of my acquaintance in my East Texas hometown:  when they asked if I was "saved," what they really meant was:  "Are you just like me?"  They didn't care about my spiritual destination; they cared that I was them, that we were of the same tribe, group, mind; what have you.  They wanted to be sure I'd taken the opportunity to be them; because they weren't sure they wanted to deal with me.  Me as other, I mean; not me as me.

Nobody really wants to deal with me as me.  Even I don't want to do that.

Monday, April 11, 2016

"Dragons do not do well in captivity."




I have absolutely no interest in "Game of Thrones," but the line by Tyrion (my daughter watches it) is going to become my motto:

"That's what I do.  I drink, and I know things."

Now, if I could just get somebody to pay me for that......

"or your shadow at evening rising to meet you...."


This is what happens when you let an engineer talk about biology and philosophy:

But, of course, that makes little sense. Any A.I. will face some limits and constraints, but they will certainly be different than those that have shaped E.I. No A.I., for example, will be limited by the head size that can fit through the birth canal (the so-called obstetrical dilemma where evolution must balance larger craniums against a birth canal limited by bipedal form). And it is also doubtful that an A.I. will need to have the “follow the crowd” reflex so characteristic of humans when they become part of a mob. Perhaps more fundamentally, why should an A.I. need or use emotion the same way an E.I. does, as a convenient way to abbreviate longer decision-making processes (a mental shortcut called an affect heuristic)?
The "obstetrical dilemma"?  Doesn't that presume that larger brain size=larger mental capacity, in some kind of crude one-to-one ratio of function and mass?  Didn't Stephen Jay Gould eviscerate this baseless nonsense decades ago?

Apparently not.

And the easy way emotion is elided from intelligence recalls the old dichotomy (still very much alive, but it shouldn't be, either) that it is our emotions that constrain our reason, and without them we would be better thinkers (Thanks, Enlightenment!  Please to be going away now....).  This is the same fundamental idea behind the author's idea of "evolved intelligence," because we all know evolution is about improvement and "progress;" except, of course, it isn't at all.  And don't get me started on the idea human intelligence is full of "kludges" that prove we don't think as well as we should.  By what standard, pray?  That of economics (his example)?  So if we were better thinkers, we'd be wiser, or at least happier, consumers?  And how did that evolve?

And why should "an A.I. need or use emotion the same way an E.I. does"?  Maybe because that's the way "thinking" works?  Maybe because thinking, as humans recognize it, is not limited to ratiocination?  And to so limit it is to engage the worst nightmares of science fiction writers for the past century?

Again, this has been debated for some time.  Maybe you could bother to join the conversation and listen, instead of speak first and listen later.