Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: Ill-gotten Gains

Genesis 13:

So Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev, with his wife and everything he had, and Lot went with him. Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold.

Yeah, which he got by pimping out his wife to Pharaoh. 

 
From the Negev he went from place to place until he came to Bethel, to the place between Bethel and Ai where his tent had been earlier and where he had first built an altar. There Abram called on the name of the Lord.
Now Lot, who was moving about with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents. But the land could not support them while they stayed together, for their possessions were so great that they were not able to stay together. And quarreling arose between Abram’s herders and Lot’s. The Canaanites and Perizzites were also living in the land at that time.

No telling how Lot got his loot. As for the Canaanites, you may recall that God cursed them to be forever slaves. Curses seems inoperative.
 
So Abram said to Lot, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herders and mine, for we are close relatives. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.”
10 Lot looked around and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan toward Zoar was well watered, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt. (This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) 11 So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan and set out toward the east. The two men parted company: 12 Abram lived in the land of Canaan, while Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom. 

Spoiler alert! Sodom and Gomorrah are going to be destroyed! Why are we getting this info now? Probably because the reader might know that the plain of Jordan toward Zoar, on the southwest edge of the Dead Sea, is arid scrubland.

13 Now the people of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the Lord.

Again, this seems out of context. We aren't actually told what their wickedness was, but Christians generally assume that it was homosexuality, for some reason.

14 The Lord said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Look around from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west. 15 All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. 16 I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. 17 Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.” 18 So Abram went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he pitched his tents. There he built an altar to the Lord.

Well, as it turns out God won't exactly keep his promise. The area was ruled by the Canaanites; if Abram really was there, it was as a nomadic herder, not as possessor of the territory. And of course, as we will see, his descendants are kicked out and Joshua later reconquers the territory. Even that turns out to be temporary. Today, Hebron is a Muslim Arab city, in Palestine. And there are probably more motes of dust in my living room than all the humans who have ever lived. But we'll take that one as a metaphor.  However, the mythical grant of the land to Abram and his descendants constitutes the basis of the Zionist claim on the territory. Really. That's it.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Risk perception

Ah yes, one of my favorite subjects. Two and a half million people fly in the United States every day. Until Tuesday of this week, there had not been a single fatality resulting from a commercial flight in the United States since 2009. On Tuesday, one person died following the disintegration of an engine on a Southwest Airlines flight.

This event was the lead story on every TV news program and on every major new web site, and has continued to be a front page story every day since. Nobody has been paying attention, but if the past three days have been about average, more than 300 people have died in the U.S. in motor vehicle crashes since Tuesday. Many of the crashes involved multiple fatalities. Not a single one of them made national news.

So what's going on here? It is true that commercial airplane crashes normally draw a lot of attention because a large number of people are killed all at once. We seem to perceive a single, large-scale catastrophe as more important than a whole lot of smaller ones. That is, until we don't. Hardly anyone in the U.S. is paying any attention to the war, famine and pestilence in Yemen right now; our interest in Syria is pretty well over even though the war is not. Oh wait! Chemical weapons!

I'll get back to that momentarily. To stick with the Southwest Airlines engine failure, it was not a large-scale catastrophe, so why the OJ treatment? There was drama, to be sure. The pilot was skilled and composed and she is given credit for saving the plane and its human cargo. That story is interesting to read about, and it helps that there aren't a lot of female commercial airline pilots. But still, that didn't emerge into a coherent story until today, and this was the biggest thing since oxygen long before the reporters had any real information about it.

In fact a small plane crash, on the same scale as a car crash, is always national news. It seems to me that the distinction between airplane crashes and car crashes is analogous to the distinction between blowing people up and gassing them. It's a largely arbitrary, meaningless distinction. Why is it none of our problem if Assad blows children to pieces with high explosives, but it is a big problem if he suffocates them with chlorine gas? No reason whatever that I can see. Flying commercially is very safe. It's safer than riding a bicycle. It's much safer than driving to work. One person dying on an airplane is no worse than one person dying in an automobile. Except, apparently, it is.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Conflict of Interest

There's a big debate in BMJ this week about non-financial conflicts of interest in research. As readers know, medical journals generally require that authors disclose whether they have any financial interests that might be affected by the outcome of their study. Disclosing the funding source for studies is standard practice in every journal, and most reputable journals require a declaration that funders did not have a role in determining the findings or reporting the results. This is actually true in the case of most government funders -- or at least has been until the current administration -- although it is the case that if they want to get the next grant, investigators should be reluctant to undermine the conventional wisdom or the entrenched positions of reviewers. In the case of industry funding, if you want to get another grant, you would be well advised to find what they want you to find. In the typology listed by Marc Rodwin on page 17, this would be "interest in maintaining good relations with future research funders," and this is not considered a legal conflict of interest. [Disclosure: I was a TA for Marc when I was in grad school.]

However, just receiving funding for your research is not considered a conflict of interest. A conflict of interest arises if a researcher, for example, owns stock in a company that could be affected by the research, or receives substantial consulting fees. The debate is about other kinds of conflicts, such as professional reputation, career advancement, or your own prior intellectual commitments.

I would say that these are actually part of the very fabric of science. I struggled with these problems recently when I was asked to review a paper that concerned a problem that I have studied in some depth, and published on extensively. In the first submission, the authors did not cite my work, which was inconsistent with my own findings. I believed they were wrong, and that if they had read my work they would have taken a different approach, but I had to ask myself if I was likely to be the fairest judge. In my review, I refrained from specifically pointing them to my publications but did say there was literature they had not consulted that would inform their analysis. In a confidential note to the editor, I listed my relevant publications and expressed my concern about my impartiality. The editor did not respond and sent my review to the authors along with a request for major revision. This journal has an open review policy so I chose to disclose my identity.

In the resubmission, they did cite one of my papers but they did not describe it accurately. They made some changes that reduced the misalignment between their conclusions and mine, but still left me unconvinced. In my second review, I specifically discussed my own research and the ways in which it undermined their analysis. So now we are having an open scientific debate, which is ordinarily all to the good, but of course there is a power imbalance here. They want to get their article published and I'm standing in the way. If they change their conclusions, is that because I have convinced them using the power of my deeper wisdom about this issue, or is it because I have bullied them into submission?

The editor is the ultimate referee in this situation but may not have the expertise to choose wisely, and may not have the time or energy either. Editors pretty much lean on reviewers and seldom override them. I believe that my review was fair and correct, but so does everyone whose review is unfair and incorrect. Science is about discovery, but it has some built-in conservatism. I wouldn't label that as a "conflict of interest," if that means it's going to be conflated with a financial stake. But it's a complicated question whether anything can or should be done about it.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: Biblical Morality

The three "Abrahamic" faiths -- Judaism,  Christianity, and Islam -- are so-called because they purport to worship the "God of Abraham." In Jewish theology, Abraham was the first "patriarch" -- the Jews are descended from him through his son Isaac. The Jews were originally an ethno-religious nation, claiming common descent. Of course in reality they presumably always absorbed other people's through conquest or peaceful interaction, and there are now specified mechanisms for conversion.

For Christians, the association is metaphorical. You didn't have to be an ethnic Jew to become a Christian, in the early days. On the contrary, the ethos was inclusiveness. However, Christians claim to be worshipping the Jewish God; that their religion represents a new covenant with him.

Similarly, in Islamic tradition the God of Judaism and Christianity is the same Islamic God, although of course the Christians make a mistake by ascribing divinity to Jesus. Mohammad is thought to be descended from Abraham's son Ishmael.

Note that the man is called Abram, not Abraham, at this time. For some reason God changes the names of Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah in Ch. 17.
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.”
In most these tales it is not clear how God is talking to these people. (Later we will see some instances in which there is an identifiable messenger or a communications apparatus. Viz. Moses. For the most part, however, it seems the people are hearing voices in their heads. I must say, the future of the Jewish nation does not seem to fulfill this prophecy very consistently.
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.
Remember that the Canaanites had been cursed to be slaves. Another curse of God's that didn't land.
Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.
From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord.
Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev.

10 Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. 11 As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. 12 When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.” 14 When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that Sarai was a very beautiful woman. 15 And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. 16 He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels.
I will note that Sarai is 70 years old at this point but we'll let that go. So the deal is that Abraham pimps her out to Pharaoh in exchange for livestock and servants. Quite sporting of her to go along. By the way camels were not domesticated until the 10th Century B.C., about 1,000 years after these events supposedly took place. One more thing -- Sarai is in fact Abram's half sister.
17 But the Lord inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai. 18 So Pharaoh summoned Abram. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!” 20 Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had.
Well, you know, Abram lied to Pharaoh and Pharaoh believed him. So why does Pharaoh get the diseases, if this is wrong? Also, if the expectation was that Pharaoh would kill Abram and take Sarai as a sex slave if he thought they were actually married, why doesn't he do it now? And having been taken, why does Pharaoh let Abram keep the loot? Pharaoh, of course, does not worship the God of Abraham, he worships a multiplicity of Gods representing natural forces, social constructs, and abstract concepts. Also, he is himself a God. So there's no reason why he would give a rat's ass what Abraham's God says anyway.

One of the most consistent observations you can make about the Torah is that God is a moral idiot when he isn't being  a psychopath.  What sort of a moral lesson are we to take from this?

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Stayin' Alive: Data Dump

The Global Burden of Disease study is a massive project, funded by the Gates Foundation, that involves more than 1,800 researchers from around the world. It takes over a project formerly led by the World Health Organization. The GBD uses a metric called Disability Adjusted Life years as its main outcome variable, along with life expectancy and mortality, so it includes health status in its concept of disease burden.

Results for the U.S. in 2016 have now been summarized in JAMA. Howard Koh and Anand Parekh discuss them here. As far as the major takeaways, there is not much new here. The U.S. still lags behind other wealthy countries in health and longevity. Embedded in this societal failure is immense inequality. While age-standardized death rates have certainly declined since 1990, mortality rates for non-elderly adults (20-55) have recently increased in several states, principally relatively rural states of the Midwest and Appalachia. A lot of this has to do with substance use disorders, including alcohol, and suicide. Rising obesity rates also contribute.

These are social problems, not medical problems. Further evidence of our social dysfunction includes the immense disparities in health and longevity among the states. Life expectancy was 81.3 years in Hawaii, and 74.7 years in Mississippi. Other states with high death rates include Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana and West Virginia.

Koh and  Parekh write:
Greater commitment to addressing the social determinants of health, including poverty, substandard housing, and low educational attainment, could . . . build a stronger foundation for broader, more equitable health outcomes. The United States, among the wealthiest but far from the healthiest in the world, ranks 43rd in life expectancy despite the highest per capita health spending rates. This disconnect, in turn, highlights US underspending on social services (relative to medical services) compared with peer countries. Previous GBD estimates have suggested that 60% of life expectancy variation at the county level relates to socioeconomic and race/ethnicity factors.
Put simply, we underinvest in social welfare in the United States, and we pay the price -- a price wich is rising.  It isn't because of our trade deficit with China, or because rich people pay too much in taxes, or because of immigration, legal or illegal.

On another important topic, you might want to check this out.






Monday, April 09, 2018

A date little noted

On this date in 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant. This did not entirely end the Civil War -- some small battles and skirmishes continued and other elements of the Confederate army did not surrender until as late as June. Nevertheless this date is usually considered to signal the end of any hope for the confederacy.

It was not, as it turned out, the end of the racial caste system in the south, or even in reality the end of slavery. Through a campaign of terrorism, the white ruling caste in the south re-established supremacy in the decade following the war; deprived the freed slaves of the vote; and re-established what amounted to slavery in the form of sharecropping and prison labor.

The seminal event in the Civil Rights movement, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, happened while I was an infant. I was just coming into consciousness of the world as the movement grew into widespread grassroots rebellion against Jim Crow. When Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, I was in high school, and able to appreciate the significance of these events.

I grew up in New England, in a middle class and liberal cultural milieu. I attended a progressive college and worked for some years in movement jobs and then for United Way and minority community based organizations, went to graduate school at Brandeis. I truly believed that the legacy of slavery and white supremacy was fading, because I saw little of it in my world. And truth be told, it was suppressed in public discourse. Yes, the Republican party depended on white tribalism and racism to maintain the loyalty of its voters, but the message was sotto voce.

No more. Once Barack Obama committed the unforgivable offense of presidenting while black, the profound current of racism in American society resurfaced. Mark Phillips, writing for Salon, had a different experience. In the town where he grew up, racism was completely normative. He writes,

Some claim that Faulkner was mistaken and the past really is past, racism in contemporary America little more than a rusty whip handle unearthed at the site of a Mississippi plantation. I’ve heard that the election of our first African American president was irrefutable evidence that racism in the United States has been reduced to a group of feeble old men peering watery-eyed through holes in soiled and tattered white sheets. I’ve heard from white people that fear of racism is as irrational as fear of ghosts. It is hoped they learned otherwise when white supremacists, young and old, men and women, many openly armed, marched and rioted in Charlottesville in August 2017. I hope so, but I doubt it.
I've learned.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: The begattting is getting to be under par . . .

As we have seen, the chapter divisions, which were added by medieval monks, often seem arbitrary. That's certainly true of Genesis 11, which goes immediately from the preposterous tower of babel story to a recitation of begats. It's really boring but that's actually instructive. Why is it there? Why does the omnipotent creator God want us to read all of this patriarchal genealogy in the midst of his other inerrant words? What are these names supposed to mean to us? I will comment after inflicting it on you.

10 This is the account of Shem’s family line.
Two years after the flood, when Shem was 100 years old, he became the father[d] of Arphaxad. 11 And after he became the father of Arphaxad, Shem lived 500 years and had other sons and daughters.
12 When Arphaxad had lived 35 years, he became the father of Shelah. 13 And after he became the father of Shelah, Arphaxad lived 403 years and had other sons and daughters.[e]
14 When Shelah had lived 30 years, he became the father of Eber. 15 And after he became the father of Eber, Shelah lived 403 years and had other sons and daughters.
16 When Eber had lived 34 years, he became the father of Peleg. 17 And after he became the father of Peleg, Eber lived 430 years and had other sons and daughters.
18 When Peleg had lived 30 years, he became the father of Reu. 19 And after he became the father of Reu, Peleg lived 209 years and had other sons and daughters.
20 When Reu had lived 32 years, he became the father of Serug. 21 And after he became the father of Serug, Reu lived 207 years and had other sons and daughters.
22 When Serug had lived 30 years, he became the father of Nahor. 23 And after he became the father of Nahor, Serug lived 200 years and had other sons and daughters.
24 When Nahor had lived 29 years, he became the father of Terah. 25 And after he became the father of Terah, Nahor lived 119 years and had other sons and daughters.
26 After Terah had lived 70 years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran.


Note that the lifespans are tending gradually to decline. From the 800-900 year spans we saw before, people start drifting down from Shem, who  lived 600 years; to Arphaxad, Salah and Eber, in the 400s; to Peleg, Reu and Serug, in the 200s, to Nahor who only made it to 148. So we seem to be drifting toward reality as far as longevity is concerned. I don't know what to make of that.

An oddity is that references to this genealogy in the New Testament are inaccurate. For example, in Genesis, Salah is the son of Arphaxad; but in Luke 3, Salah is Arphaxad's grandson.  By the way, in 1 Timothy we find " Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith: so do."

27 This is the account of Terah’s family line.
Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. And Haran became the father of Lot. 28 While his father Terah was still alive, Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, in the land of his birth. 29 Abram and Nahor both married. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milkah; she was the daughter of Haran, the father of both Milkah and Iskah. 30 Now Sarai was childless because she was not able to conceive.
31 Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Harran, they settled there.
32 Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Harran.

At last we get the names of some women. And we meet some characters whose tales will actually be told. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Elizabeth Esty

Ms. Esty is a member of the U.S. house of representatives from Connecticut. I'm not in her district but I'm somewhat familiar with her history in politics and her policy positions. She represents Newtown, where the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre happened, and she is a champion of the #MeToo movement. She has chosen not to run for re-election (although the linked article repeatedly says, incorrectly, that she has resigned) after it emerged that her chief of staff Tony Baker had verbally and physically abused a subordinate; then stalked, harassed and threatened to kill her after she had left Esty's employment. Esty took several months to fire him, then paid him $5,000 in severance, gave him a positive recommendation (which he co-wrote) for a job at Sandy Hook Promise no less, and signed a non-disclosure agreement. After all this came out, Sandy Hook Promise obviously canned the guy.

Several reporters have characterized this as a case of sexual harassment, but it isn't entirely clear that it is. No matter. Esty faced calls to resign from numerous Democratic politicians in Connecticut, which she initially refused, but she finally backed down under pressure with the compromise of not running for re-election. This will allow for an orderly primary process and, presumably, the election of another progressive Democrat to replace her.

The issue here seems analogous in some ways with the issue we have discussed of universities covering for bad actors, but it is also rather different. Baker was not a famous scientist who was bringing in grant money or otherwise adding to the prestige of her office. Dealing with the issue openly and firing him promptly after an investigation (which didn't need to take very long) would likely only have redounded to her credit. Replacing him would not be hard. And presumably, if she is sincere about #MeToo, would have been entirely consistent with her conscience. Inflicting him on Sandy Hook Promise should not be.

So what happened here? She probably had a friendly personal relationship with Baker and had a hard time doing him harm. But obviously she should have thought just as hard about the woman he had abused and terrified and the prospect that he might do the same to others. It's human nature for personal relationships to tend to trump more abstract considerations. Another case that comes to mind is that of Boston Red Sox broadcaster Jerry Remy, who paid high priced lawyers to protect his son Jared from serious consequences throughout a 13 year career of violent hooliganism until Jared murdered the mother of Jerry Remy's granddaughter. Jared is now serving life in prison, but Jerry is still the color announcer for the Boston Red Sox. He gave one interview to discuss the matter and has refused to talk about it ever since. Nobody asks him about it either.



 


Tuesday, April 03, 2018

More on scientific misconduct

As long-time readers know, the integrity of science is something of a hobby horse of mine. There is enormous pressure on academic researchers to publish, to publish in high impact journals, and to develop programs of research that will attract support from funders. In the biomedical sciences in particular, there is enough financial sponsorship for research that many university faculty members do not have teaching responsibilities. They also do not have tenure, and are dependent on continuing grant support for their jobs. But even tenured scientists face pressure to produce results that will keep their reputations burnished and the grants flowing.

This obviously can create temptation to publish compelling results, and that leads some people to commit fraud. It probably should not be surprising when early stage investigators who are just trying to get a step up on the career ladder succumb, but more so when senior people do. Universities, however, often react defensively, as we have seen with many recent high profile sexual harassment cases. Participants in a recent "summit" meeting on the issue discuss the problem here. Universities are generally responsible for investigating allegations of scientific  misconduct -- there isn't any science police and even funders, including the National Institutes of Health, have limited resources to investigate misconduct and must largely rely on scientists' employers.

According to the linked article, referring to the Inspector General of the National Science Foundation:

A partial list of shortcomings that the OIG staff has compiled and shared at conferences includes the following:
  • Investigative reports that lack supporting evidence and fail to address the elements of a research misconduct finding, particularly intent;
  • Individuals who are the subjects of the investigation blaming the student or postdoctoral researchers, but the investigative committee never interviewing these individuals;
  • Accepting, without question, excuses by the subjects of the investigation; and
  • Relying only on information in allegations, not checking for patterns or other misconduct.
The reason for such cursory investigations is, obviously, that the authorities who conduct investigations don't want to generate bad news for their own departments and schools. Better to sweep it under the rug. However, scientific fraud is an extremely serious transgression that can directly kill people, as well as leading to the waste of millions of dollars and leading other researchers down blind alleys.  Here's a story from Retraction Watch about an Ohio State's investigation of a scientist who collected $8 million in federal grants and whose fraud led to a clinical trial of a compound. (The trials may be resumed as there is support for the value of the molecule even without the fraudulent results. Nevertheless the danger to humans of such conduct should be obvious.) He held an endowed chair and was paid more than $200,000 a year.  The whole story of the fraud is here.

As it turns out, OSU's investigation was pretty good, though not perfect. They have turned the results over to the Office of Research Integrity at HHS which can issue its own findings. But as I say, ORI is dependent on the university investigation.

Do we need a better way? It's hard to say. Fraud of this nature infects a small percentage of scientific output, and perhaps the culture of universities can evolve enough to take this more seriously. But the shame of this needs to be far more profound. It's downright evil.

Monday, April 02, 2018

What everybody knows

David Atkins is shrill. Actually he always is. We find ourselves in an incredible circumstance. Apart from die hard rationalizers, it is common knowledge that the occupant of the office of the presidency is a stooge of Vladimir Putin, the ruthless dictator who rules over an adversarial power. Furthermore, he is grotesquely ignorant, incompetent, paranoid and egomaniacal. Vladimir Putin put him in office, and inflicted this disaster on us. Atkins concludes:

Everyone knows. Everyone. The only question is the details and proving the case. And yet, day after day rolls by in which a president who is obviously compromised by a hostile foreign power that committed massive felonies to put him in office, still continues to occupy the Oval Office not just as a placeholder, but as a wrackful whirlwind of destruction of decency and democratic norms.
There are dozens of people who know the truth. It would only take one of them to expose this charlatan once and for all, and end this incredible charade. At some point a sense of patriotism and pride in democracy must overtake personal ambition and fear of recrimination before it’s too late.
Well yes, but evidently it isn't going to happen. Anyway, what we already know is damning. But the corporate media and even the congressional Democrats are too cowardly to say so.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: The height of absurdity

As ought to be obvious by now, Genesis is just an amalgamation of old tales and scraps of stories from various sources. Some scribe or scribes happened to write them all down on one scroll at some point, as a sort of mini-library. There was no attempt to reconcile contradictions.

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
 As we saw last time, in Genesis 10, people were divided into various nations with their own languages. Now all of a sudden they aren't after all. The logic of the proposition here is mysterious -- why will they be scattered if they don't build a tower that reaches to the heavens? In any event, obviously, a tower can't reach to the heavens. Shinar (Babylon) is on the Euphrates river southwest of modern Baghdad, not far above sea level. The people were well aware of the existence of mountains, as the story of the ark tells us, so they know that heaven must be a hell of a lot (sorry about that) higher than anything they can build. Nowadays, we know that it doesn't actually exist, that you can just keep going up forever. Oh well.

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

Hmm. It seems God couldn't see the tower from wherever he was sitting. Also, God is evidently plural. (It's not a royal "us," this is in all translations.) He or they is worried that they'll build a tower that can reach him or them? And the way to stop it is to make them speak various languages? That's just silly. People kept on building towers after that, and they kept getting higher and higher. Once we figured out how to make steel framed buildings in the 19th Century, well . . .

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

This is a silly pun -- the name of Babylon sounds like the Hebrew word babel, which means confused. Babylon actually means "gate of the gods." But of course the city of Babylon did get built, and its ruins are still there. Mythically, the city did have a tower, the so-called Hanging Gardens of Babylon, but if it existed, its ruins have not been found. There was a structure corresponding to the description in Nineveh, built by Sennacharib. Nineveh is further north, near modern Mosul. But this sort of muddle is commonplace in the Bible. Some archaeology corresponds partially to some of it, some contradicts it entirely, and some is just a mess.

But again, I have to ask, what is the point of this nonsensical story? What lesson are we supposed to draw from it? As I say, Jews and Christians certainly didn't stop building towers, people communicated when necessary with the aid of bilingual translators, and nowadays we even have machines that can translate pretty well. Is that against the will of God? He doesn't seem to be doing anything about it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Absolutely Appalling

It's major news so I don't have to tell you about William Strampel, former dean of the Michigan State Osteopathic Medical College. (For those of you who don't know, osteopathic medicine in the U.S. was once a form of quackery comparable to chiropractic, but they cleaned up their act. Osteopathic medical schools now teach scientific medicine and their graduates -- D.O.s -- are licensed, and practice, just like M.D.s. They like to say they put more emphasis on lifestyle stuff like diet and exercise, but that's really just a branding strategy. Michigan state also has a school that grants the M.D.)

What I have to add is that, if you read the account, obviously Strampel's vile behavior had to be widely known, but he got away with it without consequences for decades. He also obviously knew what Larry Nassar was doing, and apparently even had photographs of it. In the interest of the libel law, I'll pass on drawing any conclusions from that.

I do not understand why academic institutions protect and reward these evil men. It seems to be a pattern. No, I don't see it here, but obviously it's happening in a lot of places. Strampel is 70 years old so it's too late for him to really get what he deserves. 


Monday, March 26, 2018

The G word

German Lopez for Vox offers a good overview of the problem of gun violence. One indisputable fact that immediately cuts through the bullshit is that the U.S. has far more homicide deaths by firearm than all the other developed countries -- and that is by an astonishing margin. Homicides by firearm per year per 1 million people are 29.7 in the U.S. The comparable number in Australia is 1.4.

The U.S. is also unique in that it has -- again, by far -- the highest proportion of privately owned guns per person in the world -- not just the developed world, the entire planet. Number 2 is Yemen, by the way. The data are a bit old and I'm sure the number has increased, but Lopez tells us that in 2007, there were 88.8 guns in the U.S. per  100 people. If you subtract children, that's more than one gun per adult. The highest comparable numbers in any developed country are around 30, and most have far fewer.

Finally, the linear association between the number of firearms in a country and the number of firearm homicides is astonishingly strong. Here it is:


The U.S. is actually not an outlier in the overall rate of violent crime. What's different in the U.S. is the rate at which people die from it. The difference, in other words, between a gun, and a knife or a club or a fist. The homicide rate in the U.S. is about 5 times that of comparable nations.

Finally, the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is taking his gun away. In Australia, after a mass shooting in 1996, the government banned all semi-automatic weapons, and, yes, confiscated them. (They paid for them.)  It also required registry of all guns owned in the country and a permit to purchase guns. The homicide rate fell immediately by 42%, and the suicide rate by 57%.

So, what are the implications for U.S. policy? This discussion is often framed by the ammosexuals in the language of rights. Well, I have a right not to be shot. I have a right to be safe in my home, school, workplace and public places. That's my liberty interest here. At the same time, I do want people in my town to be shooting deer, of which there are far too many, since the Indians and cougars and wolves are gone. I would be delighted to see Americans do well in the biathlon. I might even want to shoot a gopher that's eating my vegetable garden. If people think it's fun to go to the gun range and shoot paper cutouts of people, I guess that's okay even though I don't get it.

So all this is achievable. There is no reason for civilians to legally own automatic or semi-automatic weapons of any kind, forget about the meaningless "assault rifle" concept. There is actually no reason for civilians to legally own handguns, which have no purpose other than to shoot humans. There was no such thing as a semi-automatic weapon in 1789, and the arms they were talking about were muzzle loading muskets in the hands of militia members. The purpose of the militia was to kill Indians, round up escaped slaves and put down any slave rebellions, and to provide for defense given the lack of a standing federal army.

So I'm willing to give a lot on this. The militia is now the National Guard, so the entire 2d Amendment is anachronistic and has no application to contemporary reality. But we should allow people to obtain permits to purchase bolt action rifles if they have an appropriate use for one, subject to sensible disqualifications, required training and compliance with regulations on such issues as keeping the weapons secure. (Nobody claims their rights are infringed by requiring a driver's license.) Licensed shooting ranges can hold other weapons for recreational use on site.

That's common sense.




Sunday, March 25, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: Baffling, boring and BS

Genesis 10 is really boring and largely inane, but in keeping with our commitment I'm going to reproduce the NIV. As we keep discovering, we seem to have a major continuity problem here:

his is the account of Shem, Ham and Japheth, Noah’s sons, who themselves had sons after the flood.

The Japhethites

The sons[a] of Japheth:
Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshek and Tiras.
The sons of Gomer:
Ashkenaz, Riphath and Togarmah.
The sons of Javan:
Elishah, Tarshish, the Kittites and the Rodanites.[b] (From these the maritime peoples spread out into their territories by their clans within their nations, each with its own language.)
Uh oh! In the very next chapter we're about to find out that "Now the whole world had one language and a common speech."

The Hamites

The sons of Ham:
Cush, Egypt, Put and Canaan.
The sons of Cush:
Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah and Sabteka.
The sons of Raamah:
Sheba and Dedan.
Cush was the father of Nimrod, who became a mighty warrior on the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; that is why it is said, “Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord.” 10 The first centers of his kingdom were Babylon, Uruk, Akkad and Kalneh, in Shinar. 11 From that land he went to Assyria, where he built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah 12 and Resen, which is between Nineveh and Calah—which is the great city.
 There is no historical record of this Nimrod, nor of a kingdom corresponding to the lands described here. Why he gets this prominent, but brief, mention is unclear.

13 Egypt was the father of
the Ludites, Anamites, Lehabites, Naphtuhites, 14 Pathrusites, Kasluhites (from whom the Philistines came) and Caphtorites.
15 Canaan was the father of
Sidon his firstborn,[g] and of the Hittites, 16 Jebusites, Amorites, Girgashites, 17 Hivites, Arkites, Sinites, 18 Arvadites, Zemarites and Hamathites.
Later the Canaanite clans scattered 19 and the borders of Canaan reached from Sidon toward Gerar as far as Gaza, and then toward Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboyim, as far as Lasha.
20 These are the sons of Ham by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations.
 Note that if the descendants of Canaan were supposed to be cursed and all be slaves, it didn't work out. They wind up with their own large country. Again, they already have their own languages, contrary to what is about to happen,

The Semites

21 Sons were also born to Shem, whose older brother was[h] Japheth; Shem was the ancestor of all the sons of Eber.
22 The sons of Shem:
Elam, Ashur, Arphaxad, Lud and Aram.
23 The sons of Aram:
Uz, Hul, Gether and Meshek.
24 Arphaxad was the father of Shelah,
and Shelah the father of Eber.
25 Two sons were born to Eber:
One was named Peleg, because in his time the earth was divided; his brother was named Joktan.
What the hell does "in this time the earth was divided" mean?  Some creationists actually believe that this is saying that continental drift began at this time.

26 Joktan was the father of
Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah, 27 Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah, 28 Obal, Abimael, Sheba, 29 Ophir, Havilah and Jobab. All these were sons of Joktan.
30 The region where they lived stretched from Mesha toward Sephar, in the eastern hill country.
31 These are the sons of Shem by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations.
32 These are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood.
 Well, it seems the nations didn't spread beyond southwest Asia. Where did all those people in Europe, Africa, North and South America, central and east Asia, the Pacific Islands and Australia come from? Obviously the people who told these stories were unaware of the rest of the world, so the problem never occurred to them.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Mad Bomber

I think people often attach too much importance to the ostensible motives of the perpetrators of what are objectively senseless violent acts. Arguments over whether a particular incident should be labeled "terrorism" can be particularly feckless.

As I write, we don't yet know whether the Austin bomber had a stated or discernible motivation. But this is a good time to remember George Metesky, the "Mad Bomber" who planted 33 bombs in New York City over 16 years. He was ostensibly angry over the disposition of a worker's compensation claim. In fact he was nuts and he wound up civilly committed to a psychiatric hospital. We do know that Ted Kaczynski purportedly mailed out his bombs because he wanted to destroy civilization, but obviously there was no rational connection between his actions and his goals.

We have no idea why Stephen Paddock committed mass murder in Las Vegas. We do happen to know that the Omar Mateen said he shot up the Pulse nightclub because he claimed to be loyal to Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi and that he was specifically avenging the death of IS commander Abu Wahib. In fact, however, Mateen had serious behavioral issues from early childhood and he never had any contact with the Islamic State organization. At various times he had announced allegiance to rival organizations with incompatible ideologies, and there are strong indications that he was struggling with homosexual impulses.

Actual organizations with violent ideologies are of course a real danger that demands our understanding, and a response that properly addresses the organizations and works to deprive them of resources and influence. However, there is often a surrounding debris field of disturbed individuals whose violent fantasies coalesce around an ideology they may not even really understand, and who could as easily have built their fantasies around some other structure.

It isn't clear in these cases whether the organization and the ideology are really a cause of the violence. Of course we want there to be less incitement to violence in the public sphere, and the recruitment efforts of violent extremists must be combated. Extremist movements can indeed sweep up people who would otherwise have been essentially harmless -- all you have to do is look at the history of Nazi Germany, in which atrocities became normalized. I'm just saying that isn't necessarily the case with everybody who espouses a political motive for a violent act.

We'll see what's going on with this Austin bomber, and maybe there will be more to say about it.