Sunday, November 30, 2014


Two roads to the same destination still represent different journeys.
Either way, Seth Godin is right. It's a shame.

Picking Sides

Many freshly arrived reporters in Israel, similarly adrift in a new country, undergo a rapid socialization in the circles I mentioned. This provides them not only with sources and friendships but with a ready-made framework for their reporting—the tools to distill and warp complex events into a simple narrative in which there is a bad guy who doesn’t want peace and a good guy who does.
Matti Friedman “How the Media Makes the 'Israel Story'
So, tell me, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which side do you think is which? One of the impressions that I get from the whole affair is that each side is do convinced of the self-evidential nature of their status as the good guy who wants peace that anyone who thinks otherwise must have been brainwashed by a biased media that is too busy sucking up to someone to "do their jobs."

In the end, as far as I see it, the problem in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn't that either of side would rather go on fighting this conflict forever. It's that both sides would rather go on fighting the conflict than living with a peace that looks like losing the conflict, because they understand themselves to be fight for what is right on a fundamental level.

When I talk to people here in the United States who have adopted a strongly partisan stance on either side of the issue, they often appear to have difficulty understanding that there is any reasonable way for someone to disagree with their view of the subject. And they can point to media articles that back them up, while at the same time decrying an overall media environment that they feel is deliberately hostile to their point of view. I suspect that a lot of this comes from the fact that both sides of the issue are fairly media-savvy, and adept at packaging the simple narratives that Friedman speaks of - that they're the good guys who want peace and are fighting a war for their very survival against the bad guys on the other side who don't.

I am not an analyst of such things, so I wouldn't know if the overall coverage of the conflict is what one would considered balanced in any workable sense. And I don't know how one would calculate such things in any event. But it does seem to me that each side has made enough credible accusations of bias that to say that "the media" has clearly chosen one over the other is dubious.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Phony Calls

In mid-September I was listening to the radio, and a story came on about how people were being stalked by abusive partners who had installed tracking software on their smartphones. The piece listed four makers of such software: mSpy, PhoneSheriff, MobiStealth and StealthGenie.

At the end of September I came across a different story - that Hammad Akbar, a Danish citizen of Pakistani descent and owner of InvoCode, the company that marketed StealthGenie, had been charged with conspiracy over the sale and advertising of the product and service. I remembered the original story, and so kept an eye out for news that more indictments were handed down.

But that news never came. StealthGenie's website vanished, but the others remained accessible. And I started to become suspicious that there was something more to the story than I was aware of. If, as Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell had stated, "Selling spyware is not just reprehensible, it's a crime," then it stood to reason that the companies based in the United States and United Kingdom would also have run afoul of the same laws. Maybe, I speculated, there was something else at work. After all, StealthGenie's owner was a Pakistani - perhaps there was another angle to the story, such as ties to Islamist groups, that wasn't made as public as the spyware allegations.

Well, there was another angle, just not that one. According to Ars Technica:

While parents may use surveillance software to monitor their minor children's mobile phones, InvoCode also marketed the spyware to "potential purchasers who did not have any ownership interest in the mobile phone to be monitored, including those suspecting a spouse or romantic partner of infidelity."
And that appears to be Akbar's mistake. It's perfectly legal to snoop on your children and your employees (although you need consent for employees), but not on a partner whom you suspect may be spying on you. And StealthGenie, it turns out, was expected to take in most of its revenue from the "spousal cheat" market, Sophos reported yesterday.
According to our market research[,] the majority chunk of the sales will come from people suspecting their partners to be cheating on them or just wanting to keep an eye on then [sic].
And this, it turns out is why StealthGenie is no more, and Akbar had to cough up $500,000 in fines.

As for the other applications, mSpy, PhoneSheriff and MobiStealth? One presumes that even though they could just as easily sell their services to "Husband/​Wife or boyfriend/​girlfriend suspecting their other half of cheating or any other suspicious behaviour or if they just want to monitor them," they know better than to come out and actually say that. In fact, they make you promise that you won't do that. (Because we all know what promises are worth.)

So, in the end, Assistant Attorney General Caldwell was incorrect. Selling spyware may be reprehensible, but it's not a crime, so long as you don't market it as a way of spying on another adult just because you suspect them of doing you wrong. So the other companies are free to keep doing what they're doing. Heck, mSpy will even sell you a phone with their monitoring software pre-loaded on it. It makes the perfect gift for that special someone who just might have another special someone...

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Wrong on the Internet

So... the latest bit of "point-and-laugh" to make the rounds of the internet is a 30-minute video of a woman named Megan Fox (although not that Megan Fox) "auditing" the Field Museum of Natural History for "liberal bias."

One of the things that she says, and something that I've heard before from other creationists, is: "Darwin once said 'If the single cell is more complex than I think it is, then all of my theories -- I'm gonna have to start all over again'." This is a badly mangled reference to a line from Chapter Six of "The Origin of Species," in the section named: "Modes of Transition." The section opens with: "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down." (Note that Darwin continues with: "But I can find out no such case.") Many creationists claim that advances in our understanding of cellular biology over the past 150 years have demonstrated that cell organelles are "irreducibly complex," that is they are complex systems made up of subsystems in such a way that the absence of any given subsystem renders the whole inoperable.

A common example of "irreducible complexity" is the mousetrap. A typical mousetrap has a number of individual subsystems that work together to catch mice. Remove one, such as the holding bar, and the trap fails to catch any mice.

Now, note what this implies: an irreducibly complex system cannot come about in a gradual manner. One cannot begin with a wooden platform and catch a few mice, then add a spring, catching a few more mice than before, etc. No, all the components must be in place before it functions at all. A step-by-step approach to constructing such a system will result in a useless system until all the components have been added. The system requires all the components to be added at the same time, in the right configuration, before it works at all.
Irreducible Complexity: The Challenge to the Darwinian Evolutionary Explanations of many Biochemical Structures
Okay, fine. There's only one problem. That's not how Evolution by Natural Selection works. Organisms don't come together by the random agglomeration of fully-formed parts in the way machines do. And perhaps more importantly, even machines don't really operate in this way. It's likely possible to find an old-school version of a mousetrap that we would recognize as a cruder version of the ones we have today. Then you could trace the refinement of the system through the alterations that were made to the individual systems.

The rest of video continues on in this vein. Fox, as she moves through museum, makes a number of snide comments. She becomes especially animated when she finds "inconsistencies" the museum exhibits or items that strike her as too precise for the evidence at hand. (Interestingly, while she constantly argues that without video evidence of the distant past, scientists simply cannot know certain things, she herself exhibits certainty that, for instance "horsetails have always been horsetails.") And as you listen to her comments (some of which are screamingly incorrect), it becomes clear that not only does she not believe in natural selection, but she doesn't really understand how the process would work, were you to observe it in action. And for this, she has become something of a laughingstock in atheist and skeptic circles.


Okay, so Megan Fox is woefully uninformed about the theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, and regards other people who believe it as dupes. What difference does it make? Who cares that Fox believes in an intelligent designer, and thinks that if children want to believe that dragons were real that scientists shouldn't dash their hopes? If Fox believes in cave paintings of dinosaurs, why is that of any importance to the rest of us?

Part of it, I think, goes back to the idea that the less-sophisticated must be protected from believing Wrong Things. Because despite the fact that there have been thousands of years of human technological advancement alongside superstition and accepting things that we now know to be untrue, all that will suddenly grind to a halt if not enough people believe the Right Things. Or will it? Innovation and technology don't depend on having an understanding of things outside of one's chosen field. Putting a man on the moon is rocket science to be sure, but it isn't paleontology. If you think that the skull of a pachycephalosaur is actually a dragon skull and that this proves that humans actually saw living dinosaurs as late as the middle ages, that alone isn't going to make you bad at your job, or prevent you from making new breakthroughs in it.

It's easy to believe, I think, that the Flavor-Aid that people we disagree with are serving has been poisoned and that the people who are drinking must be saved from themselves before they are irreparably harmed. But the fact that something may be false doesn't also make it harmful. For many self-described Christians, a lack of believe in the dogmas that they hold to be true marks one as amoral at best, and dangerous at worst. And it might sting to be held as an inferior intellect for holding a different understanding of the world. But there's little point in returning the favor.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

How to Have a Shooting

It's a simple recipe.

One) The Supreme Court has ruled that deadly force is justified if an officer is attempting to stop a crime, protect themselves or halt a crime in progress.

Two) It is considered appropriate among some white parents to teach their children that blacks are inherently less intelligent and more prone to violence than whites, and a prominent conservative pundit has gone on the record equating being "strong" and "scary" to being armed.

Three) Most police officers, including many of those who patrol predominantly black neighborhoods, are white.

I don't find it all that difficult to put these three things together and understand why we have a number of shootings. Actually, given these three factors, it seems that the number of shootings of black people by white officers could be a lot higher than it actually is.

And let's add in another pair of factors.

Four) Despite the fact that police officers are trained to deescalate potential violent confrontations, we typically do not hold them accountable for using that training. Therefore, if an officer places themselves into a position that necessitated deadly force to extricate themselves, this doesn't enter into the calculation of culpability.

Five) If the standard is the officer's subjective feeling of being afraid of someone, indictments are going to be rare. After all, you have to prove that the officer is lying. Unless you have some pretty damning evidence, that's a tough row to hoe.

And so it's not surprising that few indictments are handed down when police seriously injure or kill someone who turns out to have been unarmed.

All of these factors were in place well before Ferguson happened. While there is a lot of outrage over the incident and its aftermath, some justified, some self-righteous, the fact remains that this, too, shall pass, and if we don't deal with the factors the lead up to it, the situation is never going to improve.

So... what do we need to do?

Firstly, black communities need to have police officers who come from those communities. Part of this going to be lessening the hostility that some black Americans feel towards blacks who go into law enforcement. Officers who are familiar with the community they work in, and know the people in it, are more likely to know who's a threat and who isn't.

Secondly, the fear-mongering needs to stop. Maybe removing fear as a justification needs to happen, or maybe people need to understand the underlying causes of the statistics they quote. The myth of black pathology has taken root deeply in the United States, and it's going to have to be dealt with. If someone has grown up hearing about how frightening and dangerous a group of peole are, and fear is a justification for deadly force, it hardly seems surprising that there would me more instances of deadly force than a clear-eyed look at the situation may decide are warranted.

Thirdly, when we look into these issues, we can't just start with the moment immediately before the shooting. In the shooting of Kajieme Powell, for instance, when the police officers drove up, even though they exited their vehicle with weapons drawn, they didn't leave themselves room to recover if things got out of hand. Things escalated quickly, and Powell was shot to death by the officers when he advanced on them at close range.

These steps aren't like to likely to prevent, or even delay, the next police shooting or beating. But they will likely delay future ones, and move us to a point where we don't have such a sharp racial divide when it comes to the relationships between police departments and the communities they work in.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Opportunities and Costs

I was reading a piece on the economic collapse in Greece, and one of the people they interviewed made a really good point:

There are always opportunities in a crisis, and those opportunities always come at a cost to someone.

I think that the same is true in the United States, and it explains some of the desire of people to return to an earlier time - and the opposition to that idea.

If you're a white, older, male Protestant, it's easy to feel (likely because it's at least partially true) that the opportunities that non-whites or younger people or women or non-Protestants have gained since the 1950s have come at your direct expense. And even though these groups had problems back in the 50s, the male WASP society was most insulated from them, and to a certain degree benefited from them, as those problems were part of the cost of the visible prosperity that middle-class America enjoyed at the time. And then, as now, it was easy to look around you, see how things were, and decide that this how it was for everyone - out of sight, out of mind.

But now it's sixty years later. Most people who remember that time firsthand were children, and it's easy to look back with nostalgia at a time when everything was simple, opportunities were limitless and the big questions in life weren't your problem yet. Because now, things are complicated, opportunities must be fought for and it's become really important that we find the "right" answers to the big questions in life. Life, as always, didn't live up to the promise. And people see a return to a misremembered past as another bite at the apple - or maybe their rightful first bite; the one that was taken from them by people who don't respect that the promises that were made to them need to be fulfilled. And so, out of nostalgia, they want to return to tradition and seek "time-tested values."

And in that vein, I guess you could call racial segregation a "time-tested value." I guess that you could call the enactment of civil rights legislation a bad act on the part of "an over-bearing government." And that's really the point behind calling it "nostalgia." There's this idea that "only the good parts" of the past can be brought back and overlaid over the present to create a time where everyone is happy "again." Or you can simply label everyone who understood that the silver lining of the good old days had a dark cloud to go with it as brainwashed.

The time tested values that many people speak of worked really well for a good chunk of the populace - but the rest of the populace paid for it. As people stopped buying into the idea that others should pay for their prosperity, the culture transformed. In some ways, that was bad. Nothing is perfect, not even progress. But change and totalitarianism are not synonymous. I understand that for many older Americans, there is an honest belief that the apartheid regime that existed in the 1950s is one that the non-white segment of the population should embrace, and they're free to make that case. But I don't think that it has much chance of success, because viewing the advantages that non-whites, women, non-Christians and young people have earned through the lens of the Red Scare in order to hold them up as somehow "un-American" isn't fighting for "Freedom." It's fighting to be free to oppress.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

All Ways At Once

b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof

Middle English feith, from Anglo-French feid, fei, from Latin fides; akin to Latin fidere to trust

"Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Hebrews 11:1

I haven't been big on faith for some time now. There are a number of things that I believe, or that I understand to be true, but few things that I really put any measure of faith in. And, for most of my life the supernatural has not been one of those things. In fact, it's arguable if I ever had faith in the religious sense. As a child this was never really an issue - religious education for children, it's been noted, is more or less a process of indoctrination. Since no-one really expects children to understand any of this stuff, being able to go through the motions and recite things at the right time is often all they're looking for. But by the time I was a teenager, especially given that I attended a parochial school, there was a certain level of sensitivity to heresy around, and I, unsurprisingly, ran afoul of it. Not that I had to deal with the Inquisition after homeroom or anything, but my classmates were more keen on enforcing orthodoxy than one might expect of high-school students.

I can't put my finger on when it happened, but at some point I drifted out of the orbit of atheism/agnosticism and more into apatheism. Sure, as far as I'm concerned, there are no such things as deities, spirits, magic, demons, et cetera, but I've lost any investment in whether or not that position is correct. After all, they could very easily exist, and I could simply be unable to perceive them or their effects on my life. But I understand that other people DO perceive such things. And I'm okay with that. But it had always irritated me, even if I never understood why, when other people weren't okay with people's differing understandings of the world.

I understand most people's dislike of Indifferentism - especially when they equate it to moral relativism or amorality (well, Christians mainly - few other people seem to care).

Practical atheism is not the denial of the existence of God, but complete godlessness of action; it is a moral evil, implying not the denial of the absolute validity of the moral law but simply rebellion against that law.
√Čtienne Borne
It did, however, always rub me the wrong way, mainly because I felt that people, especially my friends, who felt more strongly about things (one way or the other) than I did often became two-faced. They were warm and solicitous when they felt that I was receptive to being fully converted, but contemptuous and dismissive when I remained disinterested. I'd always believed that it was the two-facedness of it that bothered me, but recently I was in an online debate where it finally crystallized. The person on the other side of the back-and-forth was a self-proclaimed Christian (I refuse to be the gatekeeper of such things) and made the following statements over the course of a single posting:
Christians do not claim to be able to prove that God exists. We believe there is good evidence that He does and that it is a logical conclusion to believe that. We admit though that since there is not conclusive proof, it still takes faith to believe in God.
However God has given us enough evidence to hold us accountable. Romans 1:19-20 “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”
This idea, that faith is not a choice, to be made based on a rational decision making process, but a divine mandate, and one can be held accountable for its lack points to an idea that comes up over and over in religious debates: that the Abrahamic god is special. Not simply because it is a deity and we are not, but because the rules that it operates under bear no viable relationship to the rules that we operate under.

Imagine a lawsuit where the verdict hinges on whether or not one party knew, or should have known, about a particular event. The plaintiff's attorney stands up in front of the court and openly says that they cannot prove that the event in question ever occurred because there is no conclusive proof of it. The lawyer states that while they believe the event occurred, it requires an act of faith to share in that belief. They then tell the jury that this same event is so clearly self-evident that there is no excuse for not having that faith, simply because an unknown author describes it as such.

And that's when it clicked. Because I could see a jury voting in favor of the plaintiff in such a case. While I can't see myself ever doing so, I can understand that it's possible to simultaneously regard an event as being absolutely unprovable, yet universally self-evident at the same time.

In a way, it's a vestige of the agnostic in me. I can't think of any concept that's both self-evident to all yet provable to none. To be honest, it strikes me as openly paradoxical. But that, in and of itself, doesn't mean that no such concept exists or that other people cannot think of one. Therefore, the lack of a self-evident yet unprovable concept is a feature of my universe, but not necessarily anyone else's.

Which resolves an ongoing irritation for me - the idea that my allowing that belief in something that I do not believe in is reasonable should be answered by an allowance that my not believing in something that others believe in is reasonable.

If, given A (the universe as we understand it) and B (deities do not exist), it is reasonable to believe C (deities do exist) it should stand to reason that given A and C is it reasonable to believe B. But, if one assumes enough of a difference between B and C, then it is possible to understand that A+B allows C yet A+C disallows B.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Everyone's Allowed To Play

As a casual gamer, and not someone terribly interested in broader social issues in entertainment, I'm something of a bystander when it comes when it comes to questions about diversity in gaming. And as someone without much of a stake in the issue, I tend to take what strikes me as the simple view on things. People play games, and to a certain extent, write games, in order to imagine themselves in other places, times and circumstances. And given that games tend to reflect people's imaginations, they are only as diverse as their imaginations are. And most people have very limited imaginations.

Now, where exactly the limits are is open to debate. Some people blame creators for not stepping outside of their own limits, and some people blame audiences for not being open to including people unlike them in their fantasies. For me, the blame game is secondary.

What we need are more people, telling more stories. My conceptualization of a near future science-fiction setting where humanity has colonized the Solar System has a metric truckload of Asians in it. Why? Because China and India are really populous places, and they are unlikely to be left out of the land grab that moving into space would entail. If you assume a breakdown of national borders in space, you can pretty much rest assured that there will be Chinese and Indians just about everywhere you go, and Mandarin and Hindi will be spoken everywhere. So it strikes me as realistic that humanity in space would look much different then suburban America. But if I want this near future science-fiction game (or any science-fiction game where the majority of humans come from the Earth as we understand it today) to come to fruition - then I should write one, and make it clear to any artists I commission what my expectations are. And then I put it out there, and see if it swims. In the same vein, if I want to see a game where roles for Africans and African-Americans don't come across as tokens, then I should write that, and put it out there. If people appreciate it, they'll buy it.

If I write a good game, people aren't really going to care about what origins I give the sample characters, or what ethnicities are represented in the in-game fiction. They might have some appreciation of it, but it's unlikely to directly drive sales. But if people are going to insist on Space Suburbia or the carefully crafted focus-group "multiculturalism" of TV dramas, then I should expect that's what people are going to make - because at the end of the day, making games in a business, and business is about taking someone else's money and making it your money by providing them with a good or service that they're willing to pay for.

Friday, November 14, 2014


Social contracts made between entities of unequal power are always tricky, and they become even more so when the terms of the agreement don't really have a one-to-one mapping with the interests of one or both parties.

The social contract that "low skilled" workers of the baby boom generation thought that they were entering into seems to have gone something like this: "In return for labor and loyalty to the company's interests, the company will in turn take care of the workforce." And on a greater level, another agreement could be characterized as: "Work hard, play by the rules, and everything will be okay going forward." This arrangement worked well for some time. But as society changed, the companies (or rather, the people running them) found that their interests were no longer being served by that arrangement. There is always a danger, when one makes a commitment, that future circumstances will conspire to render either party unable or unwilling to live up to that commitment. And since the primary interest of any for-profit enterprise is (unsurprisingly) profits, as the opportunity to increase profits by moving jobs outside the company and/or outside the country presented itself, there was pressure from those people who stood to gain the most from increased profitability to take advantage of those opportunities.

A company here or a factory there doesn't make a national crisis. But when the greater society decided wholesale that the old agreement wasn't cutting it anymore, people started running into trouble in large numbers. Lacking any real leverage other than the social contract itself, they had no way of punishing organizations that reneged on the agreed-upon terms. Meanwhile, those above them on the social ladder, the college-educated professional class and knowledge workers, were too busy pressing for more cost cutting (in the name of making it easier for them to purchase their way into the appearance of affluence) or (although quite often, and) sneering unsympathetically at people who they chose to characterize as lazy and/or stupid - in any event, not as worthy as themselves.

The sending of jobs outside of borders can be a boon to a society, so long as the driving force is to shed those jobs that are "wasting" a portion of the workforce that would otherwise be available for "bigger and better" things. But often, the idea is to simply find poorer people to do the work, relying on more abject poverty, a relative difference in standards of living (or both) to lower prices, while at the same time capturing the difference, rather than passing it on to customers.

The Paradox of Thrift can be summed up quite simply - an economy that depends on a certain velocity of money suffers when enough people begin to hoard wealth, and even though individuals help themselves through such hoarding, the reduction or even cessation of income (due to others' hoarding) means that all but the independently wealthy eventually starve.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Or Pay Me Later

I'm of the opinion that government governs best that is the most governed by the people it would seek to govern. That is the public oversight of government is an essential part of good governance. I've made my point about Good Shepherds, and the fact that they eat mutton and wear wool, but I would add to that that Shepherds tend to see themselves as indispensable to their flocks, but may not see the flock as indispensable to them.

But exercising oversight over government is difficult, especially when we want the government to be able to keep secrets on our behalf, or to be free to act against people who make us angry or frightened. It's like spending the money up-front to have something done well - even though it pays off in the end, the very fact that it limits later problems works against it. And so we don't do it - even though we know how that's going to work out.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Audience Participation

Went to a digital photography expo put on by a local camera store, and sat in on the "Mastering Your Indoor Lighting" class taught by James Schmelzer. At one point, he asked a young woman from the audience to help him show technique, as she had a different skin tone than the model who was helping him out.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Brother, Can You Spare a Five?


In the past roughly 6 months leading up to Tuesday's elections, I have received roughly 800 unsolicited political e-mail messages, sometimes as many as 30 in a day, almost all of them asking me for money. And this does not count those e-mails which wound up in my Junk folder. By the way, the fact that the election is over has not halted the e-mails.

The number of e-mails that I have received from this Borowitz guy, or anyone claiming to be associated with him, to raise money for schools or roads? 0.

If he wants to be pissed off about how people are contributing and/or spending their money, he's welcome to. But I honestly feel that he, his followers, or whoever else is posting these pictures would be better served by starting an organization and doing some fundraising themselves.

One thing that I have noticed about political fundraisers - they do not give up. The fact that I have ignored their appeals for money for literally *years* has not convinced them to quit spamming my inbox with "one last request" for $5. (And yes, a lot of them ask for no more than $5.) They have even taken to common tactics used by spammers in an attempt to get past spam filters. (Why haven't I blacklisted them? Because I'm actually noting how the pitches change over time, and general rate of diffusion of my name and e-mail address to different campaigns.)

If the $5 that I'm constantly being pestered to donate in the name of partisan politics is better spent on a road somewhere or a school that I don't have a child to send to, you wouldn't know it from the contents of my inbox. Someone has decided that it's worth a fair amount of effort and money to work to convince me to invest in politics.

And you know what they say - if you can't beat them, join them.


Sunday, November 2, 2014

In Theory

When someone says to me: "It's just a theory," what I hear is: "I believe in science, and I don't want it to be amoral."

For my part, I was not raised within a religious tradition that required the Bible to be an inerrant historical document - it was a religious text, and that was that. So I could rely on science texts to tell me what is, and turn to scriptures to inform me as to what ought to be. And as it turns out, the broad majority of people tend to believe in the accuracy of the scientific method to explain the world to us - it's important to keep in mind that for many people their disagreements with the scientific community are not about the efficacy of science itself - it's with the honesty of the scientific establishment, which is often viewed as pushing Leftist and/or atheistic agendas.

For almost all of the few creationists I know, the understanding is that the Bible exists  to tell them both what was (and to a certain degree, what is) and what ought to be - and that these two things are inseparable. So if the Bible is not an accurate account of what was, then it is not a reliable guide of what ought to be. So threatening one is often viewed as an attack on the other. While for many of us there is no workable path from "Mankind evolved, over tens of thousands or millions of years from an apelike ancestor on the plains of what is now Africa," to, "There is nothing fundamentally wrong with rape, murder and/or genocide;" for people who understand that the literal historicity of the Genesis account is what makes the Ten Commandments any more compelling than any other rule someone might come up with, anything that undermines Biblical inerrancy is a dire threat.

And it's important to understand that many religious people do not have a problem with the idea science - but they are motivated to doubt the accuracy of scientific findings that fly in the face of the worldview that they hold. By the same token, a lot of effort goes into attempting to square their understandings with modern scientific practices, and any discoveries that appear to support their beliefs are widely touted.

In my estimation, if the religious were as scientifically ignorant as they are portrayed, they wouldn't bother attacking the bona-fides of the ideas that the disagree with - they'd simply discount the usefulness of the whole enterprise. The goal of the secular shouldn't be to use science as a weapon against the beliefs of others. It simply prolongs a fight that no-one can win.

Today and Tomorrow

Three quotes.

To cut the tax out on these certain types of income - business income - is an incentive for people to hire more people, and they're going to pay taxes to Kansas. That's the way this is supposed to work.
Leslie D. Donovan, Sr., Kansas State Senate (R - Wichita)

You hire people not based on how much money you have - but based on your business. So it didn't really have immediate help on the business. I didn't really notice any more business purchasing, you know, around here. So didn't really trigger anything to hire more employees.
Alex Harb, United States Small Business Administration's Kansas Small Business Person of the Year, 2014

I'm sorry, it takes people a long time adjust to new a tax code. It takes a long time, and that's why I do all of my work over a decade and look at what the results are over long periods of time which is what a governor should do when he governs or she governs a state. And to expect that to occur in the first year is - is nonsense.
Authur Laffer, Economist, member of Ronald Reagan's Economic Policy Advisory Board, Wall Street Journal columnist
After soliciting the quote from Authur Laffer, NPR's Zoe Chace points out that state governors are not elected for 10-year terms - they tend to have four years to make things happen. Viewed in this light, it's likely that the reason why Sam Brownback is in political hot water, with even prominent Kansas Republicans endorsing his Democratic challenger is that, like most politicians, he avoided framing his policy for what it really was - uncertain. It's a uncertainty where the pain of shrinking state budgets - and the resulting loss of services (and public-sector jobs) was a given and immediate, while the benefit of increased growth - and the revenue from shifted taxes was only a possibility and in the future. While Governor Brownback described what he was doing as an "experiment," what many people heard was "surefire thing," as noted in the quote from state Senator Donovan.

Governor Brownback and Athur Laffer (whom the governor consulted before implementing this plan) are both convinced that Kansas had set tax rates above the optimal level set by the Laffer Curve, and so, given enough time, the money that the state of Kansas is forgoing now will be multiplied in the future. But without having set expectations as to what that time frame would be, and what the interim would look like, the governor is now in the uncomfortable position of either hoping that something unlikely will happen or that the public believes him when he says that the growth is coming any day now (something that even Laffer may disputer with him).

Business people like Alex Harb didn't immediately run out and hire more people in the way that Governor Brownback proposed that they would because businesses are generally reactive. They wait until they're more or less sure that they need to make certain expenditures, and then make them. Which is why Supply-Side economics takes so long to get off the ground - it may help enterprises be ready for upticks in business, but it doesn't do anything to directly stimulate those upticks because it doesn't spur demand for goods and services at the public level. It makes sense to assume that when businesses prepare for the future, the money they put into doing so may result in a modest net increase in employment. That modest number of new workers may, in turn, put pressure on the the businesses they patronize to provide better service, meaning that more new workers need to be brought on. One can see how the snowball effect would work. But the more diffuse the initial preparations are, the smaller the snowball starts. Alex Harb noted that he increased his inventory of iPads at his Ribbit Computers stores with the money that he was no longer paying in business taxes. Which would have kicked off the snowball - were iPads made in Kansas. In a globalized economy, the effects of business investment can easily diffuse completely out of the area they are intended to stimulate, making the snowball even smaller.

The idea that lowering business taxes will link directly to greater hiring is a side effect of a particular tenet of Republican economic orthodoxy - that a lot of hiring is effectively a form of charity and business owners are inherently charitable people. But jobs, more than simply being a way in which people support themselves, are also the way in which things are accomplished - how the goods and services that people need and want are created. Simply allowing businesses to lower their taxes does not increase the level of goods and services that the public needs or wants; or can afford to obtain. Until conservative economics is able to bridge that gap, its experiments are going to fail, brought down by the same unrealistic expectations that created the enthusiasm for them in the first place.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

One Way

The news that Brittany Maynard has determined that she's feeling well enough that she doesn't fear missing her opportunity to avoid a painful and prolonged death has some religious conservatives openly wondering if she "may not be so anxious to end it all on Saturday, after all." This focus on her refusal to not wait "for God to take her home according to His timetable," has lead to the debate over the ethics and/or morality of her choice to assert control over the time and manner of her death to take on an aspect of judgement that threatens to poison the discourse around end-of-life issues.

If you are saying that it is dignified and brave for a cancer patient to kill themselves, what are you saying about cancer patients who don’t?
Matt Walsh, There Is Nothing Brave About Suicide
(Emphasis in original.) Personally, I'm not saying anything about the people who stick it out to the bitter end. For my part, if I'm going to call someone a coward, then I'll call them a coward directly, rather than imply it through referring to someone else as brave.

For Matt Walsh, "Brave" is a constant. If something is brave for one person, it must be brave for all people, and only those people who take the same path are worthy of the label. But the world that we live in does not work this way - we commonly (and perhaps too readily) refer to soldiers, police officers and firefighters as brave. But we don't then take that to mean that anyone who once considered joining the armed forces, walking a beat or rushing to the scene of a blaze but decided to pursue another calling must be a coward. According to Matt Walsh, anyone who labels Mrs. Maynard as brave cannot also respect the courage of "a woman who fights to the end, survives for as long as she can, and withers away slowly, in agony, until her very last breath escapes her lungs." I would argue that point with him.

For me, bravery is not a rote series of steps that one takes - it is an understanding that someone is facing up to something that they have a legitimate fear of.

Many people fear dying. I see that as a legitimate thing to be afraid of - after all, we put a remarkable amount of effort into postponing death, even when we know it's only for a relatively short period. Many people fear agonizing pain. I also see that as a legitimate thing to be afraid of. I also understand that not all people fear both of these, and there are some people who fear neither. (I envy the latter group - which I suspect may be part of the reason I have yet to join them.)

Which of these Brittany Maynard is most afraid of, and which one she is willing to trade for the other is for her to decide; not Matt Walsh, or anyone else. I understand the commonly-espoused Christian ideal that there is an obligation to trust that dying is not to be feared and enduring the fear and suffering brought by agony is rewarded. And I respect people who take it upon themselves to honor that obligation. But I am less approving of those who would tell us that we must honor them - and that we must do so by denigrating anyone who makes a different choice.

Unlike most of us, Brittany Maynard is faced with a real-life Sadistic Choice. Her death, at some point, is a given. If she hastens it too much, she misses out on part of a life she appears to love very much and spending time with her husband, her family and the other people she loves. If she does nothing, she may possibly "develop potentially morphine-resistant pain and suffer personality changes and verbal, cognitive and motor loss of virtually any kind." I can imagine few, if any, of us would willingly trade the life we currently have for either of those options.

So why not see actively making and owning that choice, regardless of which option is chosen, as courageous?