Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: God is a psychopath

Genesis 19 is in the running for weirdest book of the Bible. Here's how it begins:

The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. “My lords,” he said, “please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.”
“No,” they answered, “we will spend the night in the square.”
But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate. Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”
Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”
Now, if you will recall from last time, there were actually three angels who set out from Abraham's house to Sodom, but apparently one of them got lost. Why they had to go there is also a bit mysterious. Since God is always speaking to people directly, presumably he could have tipped off Lot without sending the emissaries. Anyway, it seems that angels are sexually irresistible to the men of Sodom, but Lot, being a good and righteous man, will let the men of Sodom rape his daughters instead.
 “Get out of our way,” they replied. “This fellow came here as a foreigner, and now he wants to play the judge! We’ll treat you worse than them.” They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door.
10 But the men inside reached out and pulled Lot back into the house and shut the door. 11 Then they struck the men who were at the door of the house, young and old, with blindness so that they could not find the door.
12 The two men said to Lot, “Do you have anyone else here—sons-in-law, sons or daughters, or anyone else in the city who belongs to you? Get them out of here, 13 because we are going to destroy this place. The outcry to the Lord against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it.”
14 So Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who were pledged to marry his daughters. He said, “Hurry and get out of this place, because the Lord is about to destroy the city!” But his sons-in-law thought he was joking.
15 With the coming of dawn, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Hurry! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away when the city is punished.”
Oh, okay, the angels were never in any danger in the first place, because of their magical powers. On the other hand, they aren't omniscient -- they don't know if Lot has relatives -- even though they just heard him mention his daughters.  BTW there is a dispute about the translation here. Most version have it that Lot's daughters are already married, which would make his claim that they were virgins a lie. But I suppose that's a white lie if you're offering them to be raped anyway. Was it God who was going to destroy Sodom, or these guys? Stay tuned!

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Civics Lesson

The United States Constitution establishes 3 "separate and co-equal" branches of government. In a pistachio shell, congress generates legislation which becomes law if the president signs it or 2/3 majorities of both houses override a veto. The executive is charged with executing the laws. The judiciary, among other responsibilities, resolves disputes if parties with standing believe that the executive is executing the law improperly.

Congress lacks the time, resources and technical capacity to produce detailed regulations. Therefore over the centuries congress has established various executive agencies to which it has delegated regulatory authority. Regulations must accord with the broad guidelines and criteria in the relevant legislation, and there are detailed procedures for producing them including substantial opportunity for public input. If congress doesn't like a particular regulation, they can overrule it. If a party with standing believes that a regulation does not accord with legislative authority, it can sue. Actually this happens all the time. Then the courts decide who is right.

Obviously there will always be some people who don't like regulations. If nobody was engaged in a harmful activity, then there would be no need for a corresponding regulation in the first place. Whatever the number of regulations happens to be is of no evaluative relevance. Nobody can say what is the "right" number. Since regulations cover a vast range of activities and entities, there probably ought to be a lot of them. No one of us has to comply with more than a tiny fraction of all that exist.

The only intellectually defensible approach to regulation is to look at each regulatory action on its own merits. When scientists with the appropriate expertise determine that allowing more ultrafine particle and oxides of nitrogen emissions from motor vehicle tailpipes will result in death and disease, and produce numerical estimates with credible confidence intervals, they have proffered an objective fact. Saying "But there are too many regulations" is not an intelligent response to that fact, it is actually proof that the utterer is an idiot.

Now, it so happens that part of the rulemaking process is a cost-benefit analysis. Regulations presumably makes cars and trucks a bit more expensive to build and maintain, so those costs must be considered. That requires, a fortiori, that we put a dollar value on human life, which oddly enough seems to be something that conservatives commonly claim we cannot or should not do. Well, you can't have it both ways. Either you think that human lives are worth less than the Obama EPA concluded, or you think that the cost imposed by lifesaving regulations is of no consequence and therefore regulations can never go too far.

Say what you really think.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

You can't breathe. You cannot breathe.

That's Orange Julius, as quoted by David Cutler and Francesca Dominici, referring to environmental regulations which he claims are "destroying us." And professional thief Scott Pruitt has indeed proposed eliminating a whole lot of them.That's very popular with owners and executives of regulated industries, such as, oh for example the Koch brothers, who are known to make campaign contributions, and others who pay bribes directly to Mr. Pruitt.

Anyway, Cutler and Dominici run down some of the ways America will be Great Again once this all happens. For example, repeal of the Clean Power Plan will result  in particle emissions that will cause an estimated 36,000 deaths in a decade and make 630,000 children sick with respiratory ailments. That's a small price to pay, obviously, for hastening global climate change and making Alaska nice and warm.

Then there is repeal of automobile fuel efficiency standards, which will kill 5,500 people and make 140,000 children sick in a decade -- but with the same wonderful benefit. Then there's the rule allowing rebuilt trucks that don't meet emissions standards on the road, which will kill 41,000 people and make almost a million people sick. Our children will also get to enjoy exposure to organophosphate pesticides, which have been linked to neurodevelopmental problems including lowered IQ, and carcinogens. Among other renewals of American greatness.

But of course this is going to bring back all of those wonderful high-paying blue collar jobs, right? As C and D tell us:

One could debate the merits of these tradeoffs if there were a large number of people who would benefit economically from these changes. In practice, however, any economic benefits are not likely to accrue to those most in need. Employment is down in many fossil fuel industries because technology has made workers less necessary for production, not because of environmental regulations. And even if a large number of coal jobs were restored, it would come at the expense of employment in new industries such as wind and solar, which are already being hurt by the Trump administration policies. Not having to comply with environmental rules will increase corporate profits, but not worker bank accounts.
Well of course. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

World's greatest business name ever

On the way to work this morning I got behind a garbage truck. The name of the business was

A* Disposal. 

A free picture of Lisa Simpson stretching out on Giant Steps to whoever can tell us why that is a fabulous name.

Image result for Lisa SimpsonOkay, since nobody got it. A* is the name astronomers have given to the black hole at the center of our galaxy. Since it is in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius,  it is usually referred to as Sagittarius A*, although of course it is much farther away than the stars in the constellation. Anything that goes in is indeed disposed of. So I'll give you Lisa for free.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Can I do it till I need glasses?

One of the more bizarre public health-related phenomena I have come across is that more years of education are associated with nearsightedness. The linked article is a bit arcane -- the point of it is to rule out that there is a genetic predisposition to getting educated which is also associated with myopia. It turns out there isn't, and ejumacashun really does seem to cause people to become nearsighted. This article in The Independent is friendlier to lay readers.

This is not a trivial or even modest effect -- it's actually huge. "The difference is so pronounced that if the average person who left school at 16 had 20/20 vision, the average university graduate would legally need glasses to drive, researchers from Bristol and Cardiff Universities said," according to The Independent.

I'm happy to say that I personally was spared this fate, despite my highly excessive education. In fact I now use reading glasses because, like most people, I have become slightly far-sighted with age. Nevertheless in parts of Asia, where children are exceptionally studious, the prevalence of myopia is now something like 90%. Unfortunately, it doesn't just mean that you need glasses -- it increases the risk of blindness and other problems.

This does not seem like sufficient reason to get less education. However, it is a good reason for more recess. Apparently exposure to the much brighter outdoor light mitigates the problem. It's not just that kids are concentrating on reading, it's that they are doing it in relatively dim light. Since getting outdoors and engaging in physical and social activity is good for you anyway, let's make sure we don't skimp on it.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: The mind of God

The second half of Genesis 18 is just bizarre.

16 When the men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way. 17 Then the Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? 18 Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. 19 For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”
20 Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”
The writer of this passage possesses the telepathic power to read God's mind. Okay, God is contemplating another mass murder and wondering whether to tell his pal Abe. At the same time, God is not omniscient. Apparently someone has told him that the people in Sodom and Gomorrah are doing really bad things (unspecified), but he has to go there physically and check it out to be sure.

22 The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord. 23 Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
26 The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
Okay, so evidently God is physically present in some form. By going "down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me" he means walking over there with his three angels. For some reason he has stayed behind, however, and Abraham walks up to him. I guess he's an old guy with a long white beard? How does Abraham know what God is planning to do? God was wondering whether to tell Abraham or not, but has not, as far as we know, actually done so. Whatever. It turns out that Abraham thinks he's more ethical than God, and manages to get God to agree with him. Then Abe starts bargaining.

27 Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, 28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”
“If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”
29 Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”
He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”
30 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”
He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”
31 Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?”
He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”
32 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”
He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”
33 When the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.
 Let us  note furthermore that undoubtedly at least half the population of the cities consists of children. This does not seem to have occurred to either Abraham or God, or if it has they don't care. And if God is all powerful, why can't he spare the righteous while sweeping away the wicked? It's also interesting that God doesn't ordinarily destroy the wicked or spare the righteous. Natural disasters are indiscriminate, and wicked people quite often do just fine.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Hey Indeedy

I heard Isaac Asimov speak at my college in the mid-1970s, and he was astonishingly prescient. Here is something he wrote in 1980:

It’s hard to quarrel with that ancient justification of the free press: “America’s right to know.” It seems almost cruel to ask, ingenuously, ”America’s right to know what, please? Science? Mathematics? Economics? Foreign languages?”
None of those things, of course. In fact, one might well suppose that the popular feeling is that Americans are a lot better off without any of that tripe.
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.
It's gotten much worse since then of course. Now we have an entire political party and conservative movement that is nothing more than a cult of ignorance. As Paul Krugman puts it:

Why are there so few conservative scientists? It might be because academics, as a career, appeals more to liberals than to conservatives. (There aren’t a lot of liberals in police departments — or, contra Trump, the F.B.I.) Alternatively, scientists may be reluctant to call themselves conservatives because in modern America being a conservative means aligning yourself with a faction that by and large rejects climate science and the theory of evolution. Might not similar considerations apply to historians?
But more to the point, conservative claims to be defending free speech and open discussion aren’t sincere. Conservatives don’t want to see ideas evaluated on their merits, regardless of politics; they want ideas convenient to their side to receive (at least) equal time regardless of their intellectual quality.
We find ourselves constantly forced to debate, not about ideas and values and goals, and respectable analytical differences, but about the very bedrock of reality. We are forced to defend what are unassailable truth claims against people who are willfully ignorant. It is indeed tiresome.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Transparency in climate science

Climate change denialism has three basic roots. The first is the massive campaign of disinformation funded by the fossil fuel industry, notably the Koch brothers, but Exxon Mobile and others have also contributed. The second is just tribalism. If you identify as a Republican and a conservative, you have to be a denialist because it's part of the brand. The third is ideological: if anthropogenic climate change is real, the Free Market™ doesn't make everything paradisaical after all and government intervention is required. That can't be true because Ayn Rand said so.

Denialists make many false claims but one of them is that the conspirators -- consisting of thousands of scientists and government agencies all over the world -- are keeping the data that supposedly support their hoax a secret. This is so preposterously false it isn't even laughable.

Gavin Schmidt discusses transparency and reproducibility in climate science here, with links to all of the data you could possibly want. As Schmidt writes:

A small selection of climate data sources is given on our (cleverly named) “Data Sources” page and these and others are enormously rich repositories of useful stuff that climate scientists and the interested public have been diving into for years. Claims that have persisted for decades that “data” aren’t available are mostly bogus (to save the commenters the trouble of angrily demanding it, here is a link for data from the original hockey stick paper. You’re welcome!).
He goes on to discuss some of the challenges in replicability and reproducibility, which in the case of climate modeling have to do with technical limits of computing power more than anything else. However, it is the fact that models are in broad agreement and the historical fact of climate change is absolutely proven. NASA's GISTEMP data is publicly available here. They'll even give you software to analyze the data yourself! Have at it! Also here!

Of course, denialists don't actually understand anything about the subject and can't legitimately or honestly critique the work of scientists who do actually know what they are doing. So they just spout bullshit out of ignorance. And make fools of themselves.

Monday, June 04, 2018


Yes, the U.S. has officially withdrawn from the Paris climate agreement, the ruling party in the country is the only major political party in the world to deny the reality of anthropogenic climate change, and policies established by the Obama administration to conserve fuel and promote renewable energy development are being reversed. This as drought and heat cause ever worse wildfires in the west and southwest, sea level rise is already pushing people away from the coast and reducing the price of coastal property (and just wait till major urban centers have to be abandoned), and agricultural pests are moving northward with warming temperatures, among other disastrous consequences too numerous to mention.

But maybe the focus on public policy mostly misses the point. An international group of researchers, reporting in Nature Climate Change, model future fossil fuel consumption in light of technological trends that are making renewable energy sources more and more competitive. Obviously, we can't really know what the future will bring, and we can only make assumptions about key technological developments -- large scale, economical energy storage is a particularly important parameter -- but their best estimate is that global fossil fuel production will decline starting pretty much today, and that ultimately something like $12 trillion in assets will disappear from the balance sheets of fossil fuel corporations as their in-ground assets become worthless.

They are interested in the financial consequences rather than the environmental consequences, and their simulations do not find that we necessarily avoid 2 degree centigrade in warming, in other words environmental catastrophe is still likely barring a vigorous policy response. Nevertheless there are clear economic implications for the U.S., which is a high cost producer. That means the oil industry here will be destroyed even as low-cost producers continue to prosper. They might even decide that the smart thing to do is cut their prices and get it while they can, further shrinking the U.S. fossil fuel industry. The result will be an economic catastrophe for the United States, as oil workers are unemployed and investors lose all of their wealth.

The only solution is to start getting out now, reap the benefits of investment in renewable technologies, and let the bubble in carbon-based assets deflate slowly. Exxon-Mobil knows this, but they aren't going to tell you.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: God sure is weird

We're about to get to some really interesting shit, but for today we're still in the midst of a strange interlude. Having had his member trimmed, Abraham gets visitors.

The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.
He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”
“Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”
So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs[b] of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.”
Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.
It's not clear whether The Lord is there personally in some sort of physical manifestation, or is only represented by the three men. The way I read it, the three men are the only apparition. In any event, why? God has been talking to Abraham directly up until now, and all of a sudden he needs these messengers. And why three?  I suppose that feeding and watering them has symbolic meaning, but if they are actually supernatural beings they shouldn't need to eat. And how does Abe know that they aren't just three guys named Moe? It's all very strange.

Note that rabbis will later decide that the meal Abraham serves is not kosher, because it mixes meat and dairy. BTW, the footnote in the NIV says that 3 seahs of flour is 36 pounds. These guys must have been hungry.

“Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him.
“There, in the tent,” he said.
10 Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”
Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. 11 Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”
13 Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”
15 Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”
But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”
So okay. If God wanted Abraham and Sarah to have a son, why did he wait until now and make them go through the rigamarole with Hagar first? Sarah, who is 90 years old and has gone through menopause, naturally laughs at the proposition that she will become pregnant. And now all of a sudden God is no longer speaking through the three messengers, but speaks to Abraham directly. In what form is he present? The three men are evidently not omniscient since they have to ask where Sarah is. But it turns out God was there all along and God knows that she laughed. The whole scene is a muddled mess.

I'll leave at that for now. Things are about to get very, very weird.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Remember Dr. Kevorkian?

For those of you who are too young, he was a retired pathologist back in the 1990s who helped terminally ill people end their lives as a sort of crusade. This was completely illegal at the time, everywhere in the country. He was prosecuted a couple of times, but juries would not convict -- apparently you couldn't find 12 people who thought that what he did deserved criminal sanction. This was despite his notably abrasive personality. He wasn't a persuasive person, but his actions spoke for themselves and most people evidently supported them.

He finally was convicted. The basic difference was that in the previous cases, he had set up his "suicide machine" -- a gas delivery system -- and let his customers (I don't know if you should call them patients) push the button themselves. In the case for which he was convicted, the client was paralyzed and unable to initiate the process, so the good doctor did it himself. This seems a trivial moral distinction to me -- the guy very clearly articulated his desire -- but it does seem to matter to many people.

Anyway, so-called Physician Assisted Dying (PAD) is now legal in Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Colorado and the District of Columbia, by law; and in Montana, by court decision. (A law in California was recently overturned on a technicality before it could take effect. We'll see where that goes.) Here's a summary history.

 I expect that PAD sounds better than physician assisted suicide, and I'll grant that there is a bit of a difference in that the person has to be dying already and we're just talking about hurrying it along. On the other hand we're all dying so it's only a matter of degree. The relevant laws have clear eligibility and procedural restrictions, and they try to guard against commonly evoked dangers such as people taking the option because they're afraid they'll be a burden to others, and possible attendant pressure; failure to provide adequate palliative care; and people who aren't really dying but only disabled using the option. By all accounts there are few if any abuses but of course there are gray areas and matters of degree involved here.

Physicians differ in whether they approve of this at all; and whether they would personally consider participating. Here Dr. Bernard Lo tries to offer ethical guidance. As far as I can tell this all comes out of his own head, based on extensive acquaintance with what people have written and argued about it. There hasn't been any high level committee. There also haven't been any studies about the best way to do it -- what drugs to use. I'm not sure how an Institutional Review Board would view a randomized controlled trial of procedures intended to cause death. This is a new ethical frontier which we have crossed without a whole lot of deep reflection, and surprisingly little public debate. I don't recall it being a big issue in electoral campaigns. I expect we'll see considerably more pronounced controversy at some point.

Update: In response to a comment, here is a compendium of relevant policies around the world. I haven't made any particular study of this myself. It's still illegal in most countries but a few have legalized it in recent years, particularly in northern Europe.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Unencumbered by the thought process

Politics is in some respect a debating society. Of course money and other sources of power and privilege affect what voices get amplified, and tribal loyalties can trump facts and logic in how they are heard. Still, those of us who are rational empiricists can make an effort to judge the quality of arguments. Rep. Diane Black of Tennessee says that pornography is the cause of school shootings.

There is no evidence that I know of, and certainly none adduced by Rep Black, that any school shooter in history has even been exposed to pornography, let alone that it has anything to do with their actions. Of course they likely have, depending on your definition. When I was an adolescent my classmates got their hands on Playboy Magazine and so on. Nowadays, anybody with a telephone can see any kind of porn they want, so sure, these kids might have checked it out. Funny thing though, there's porno in Canada, Sweden, the UK, France -- oh, actually, just about everywhere that there have not so far been 23 school shootings this year, or in fact any at all. Also, the shooters aren't acting out soulless sexual fantasies, they're, you know, shooting people, which is not generally a feature in pornography.

School shootings, and mass shootings in general, are a small proportion of all gun violence. The linked piece in the Puffington Host says that "poor social, economic and cultural conditions are primary drivers of gun violence." That statement is too vague to be fact checked, but at least it isn't ridiculous. We really need to have honest discussion of our problems. Black is spouting nonsense based on her presumption that her voters don't like porno, so they'll be open to hearing it blamed for something else they don't like. (I won't bother to tell her that statistics show there is more on-line viewing of pornography in socially conservative parts of the country.) That isn't how logic works.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: A painful day in Canaan

This chapter is sort of a weird interlude between episodes of depravity. It is of interest in that it exemplifies two sharp differences between the Old Testament and the New.

 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”
Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”
In the Tanakh, many people are said to see God as a physical manifestation. Or I should say many men saw him, the only woman I can find who saw God was the wife of Manoah, i.e. Samson's mother. What he looks like is usually not described, although sometimes he is said to speak to men "face to face." Moses saw God face to face a few times, and of course once as a burning bush. In Exodus, however, we are told that "There shall no man see me, and live." And the Gospel of John states repeatedly that God cannot be seen, and has never been seen. Colossians and Timothy also describe him as invisible.

As for the name change, it is not entirely clear what it's all about. Abraham may mean "Father of Many."

Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
One must wonder at the origin of this barbarous custom. One might think that it served to mark the Jews as a distinct people, but actually the custom was widespread among other peoples of the region, including the Egyptians. Note that slaves are to be circumcised.

15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”
17 Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”
19 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. 20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” 22 When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.
23 On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, 25 and his son Ishmael was thirteen; 26 Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that very day. 27 And every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.
No explanation for Sarai's name change, sorry. Remember, by the way, that the marriage is incestuous. Sarah and Abraham have the same father. Anyway, if you remember back a couple of chapters Abraham has 318 adult male slaves. He must have had some boy slaves as well, so we're talking at least maybe 400 circumcisions in a single day. Since they had presumably never done it before and didn't have any local experts, I can imagine there may have been some problems.

Anyway, while circumcision remains a requirement for Jews, the apostle Paul repudiated the practice. In fact he outright forbade it in Galatians:

Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.  
Obviously Christians have chosen to ignore this passage as most of them are today circumcised shortly after birth, although only because it is a secular custom, not for religious reasons. This is starting to change, however, as some medical authorities have come to doubt that it has significant hygienic value. This is a matter of controversy.

Friday, May 25, 2018


Chicxulub is a small town on the Yucatan peninsula.  It's worth periodically reminding ourselves that a little more than 66 million years ago an asteroid about 15 kilometers in diameter smashed into the earth near there, releasing the energy of about 10 billion Hiroshima bombs. The fireball sterilized the earth for thousands of miles, ferocious wildfires were ignited across the planet, and debris partially blocked sunlight for years. Within a short time, something like 75 to 80% of terrestrial species were extinct. After the short-term cooling, the attendant relase of C02 caused global warming that lasted for 100,000 years.

You are probably thinking, "I hate it when that happens," but maybe you shouldn't be. The extermination of the dinosaurs (with the exception of the birds), allowed mammals to radiate into the vacant ecological niches, and become the dominant order of large terrestrial animals. That, after 66 million years, made you possible. So keep that in mind. We just happen to be here, and we might not be around much longer. There isn't any plan beyond the one we are able to make for ourselves.

So wise up.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Economic Anxiety?

Eduardo Porter in the NYT reviews the latest research on the motivations of Trump voters. It's clear and supported by multiple lines of evidence: their anxiety isn't economic, it's about losing white status privilege. Referring to work by pollster Stanley Greenberg Porter writes:

The research zeroed in on white Trump voters without a bachelor’s degree who were either Democrats or independents and had voted for Mr. Obama at least once. Focus groups detected the same underlying theme that had motivated the Reagan Democrats more than 30 years before: a view of America as divided between “us” — white, struggling and aggrieved — and a nonwhite “them.”
So yes, Republicans are engaged in identity politics It's just that we are trained not to think of white, non-Hispanic as an "identity." Some years ago I was at a conference where I attended a meeting of people interested in behavioral health services for Latinos. We went around and introduced ourselves and this old white guy said - really - "I always wished I had a culture. When I was growing up I'd see the Hispanic kids and the Asian kids and I'd think, 'Why can't I have a culture like them?'" I told him, "I assure you sir, you do have a culture."

Trump voters, in fact, had median incomes above the population as a whole. A few of them no doubt had lost income since the steel mill or the coal mine closed down, but most of them are doing fine.
In a place that is more than 80 percent white, Mr. Trump’s Democrats share “pretty powerful feelings about race, foreignness and Islam that lead them to see white people as victims in a country feeling increasingly foreign to many of them,” the study noted.
The single strongest predictor of support for Vladimir Putin's candidate is racism, broadly construed. This is what causes conservative white voters to oppose policies that will actually benefit them, such as universal health care and expanded educational opportunity: they think that more of it will go to people of other tribes, and they are more interested in retaining their relative privilege than in their absolute well being. Of course they feel other threats to their traditional concepts of community, including growing acceptance of diversity in gender, sexuality and religion.

But here's what I think folks. Open your minds. Don't identify narrowly as a straight white male. Try on a broader self-definition, as, say, a proud citizen of a dynamic, diverse, and inclusive nation. We will all do better when we try to do well together. The divisive politics of the current Resident are not just retrograde and repulsive. They are downright dangerous.