Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: The Neverending Story

Genesis 31 is another very long chapter, very turgidly written and as far as I can tell pretty much pointless. But we said we were gonna read the whole thing and by gum, that's what we're gonna do. Just the first half today.

Jacob heard that Laban’s sons were saying, “Jacob has taken everything our father owned and has gained all this wealth from what belonged to our father.” And Jacob noticed that Laban’s attitude toward him was not what it had been.
Then the Lord said to Jacob, “Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.”
So Jacob sent word to Rachel and Leah to come out to the fields where his flocks were. He said to them, “I see that your father’s attitude toward me is not what it was before, but the God of my father has been with me. You know that I’ve worked for your father with all my strength, yet your father has cheated me by changing my wages ten times. However, God has not allowed him to harm me. If he said, ‘The speckled ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks gave birth to speckled young; and if he said, ‘The streaked ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks bore streaked young. So God has taken away your father’s livestock and has given them to me.
This is the first I've heard about Laban changing Jacob's wages ten times. Two or three, maybe, but the last time it was Jacob's idea, and Jacob wound up screwing Laban. But he's still wining.
10 “In breeding season I once had a dream in which I looked up and saw that the male goats mating with the flock were streaked, speckled or spotted. 11 The angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob.’ I answered, ‘Here I am.’ 12 And he said, ‘Look up and see that all the male goats mating with the flock are streaked, speckled or spotted, for I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you. 13 I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to me. Now leave this land at once and go back to your native land.’”
So it turns out that God inspired Jacob's science experiment. 
14 Then Rachel and Leah replied, “Do we still have any share in the inheritance of our father’s estate? 15 Does he not regard us as foreigners? Not only has he sold us, but he has used up what was paid for us. 16 Surely all the wealth that God took away from our father belongs to us and our children. So do whatever God has told you.”
17 Then Jacob put his children and his wives on camels, 18 and he drove all his livestock ahead of him, along with all the goods he had accumulated in Paddan Aram,[a] to go to his father Isaac in the land of Canaan.
19 When Laban had gone to shear his sheep, Rachel stole her father’s household gods. 20 Moreover, Jacob deceived Laban the Aramean by not telling him he was running away. 21 So he fled with all he had, crossed the Euphrates River, and headed for the hill country of Gilead.

This is very inspirational. God wants you to steal all of your parents' stuff. We'll see where it all leads next week.

Friday, October 19, 2018

The God that Failed

Jonathan Chait inks an admirable review of the new memoir by neo-con defector Max Boot, who found the scales knocked from his eyes by the catastrophe of November 2016.

Boot, like most conservative intellectuals, reacted with incredulous disdain when a demagogic reality-television performer registered at the top of opinion polls in 2015. Most of those conservatives eventually reconciled themselves to Trump, either after Trump had sewn up the nomination, following his election, or after one of his many partisan skirmishes, at which point they could declare that the liberals had “forced” them to Trump’s side by criticizing Trump too harshly, opposing Brett Kavanaugh, or some other offense. Boot did not. Instead, he has written one of the most impressive and unflinching diagnoses of the pathologies in Republican politics that led to Trump’s rise.
What Chait finds noteworthy is that Boot now understands that the modern conservative movement "trafficked all along in anti-intellectualism, bigotry, ideological radicalism, and loopy conspiracy theories." The cherished myth that William F. Buckley kicked out the John Birch society and created a sound intellectual foundation for conservative gets, well, the Boot. Boot is nostalgic for Dwight D. Eisenhower, but the Republican party and the movement it embodies will never go back there. It can only chase its own tail, digging itself deeper and deeper into authoritarianism, white supremacy, patriarchy, insane conspiracy theories, rejection of science and indeed the very existence of empirical reality, all in the service of plutocracy.

The Republican party, in pulling the ground out from under the feet of its more moderate or at least sane factions, is creating space for the Democrats to become more progressive and more inclusive. If there is ever to be a legitimate center right party again in the U.S., it will have to be a new party.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

I can't believe I'm about to do this . . .

That is link to National Review.

Mohammed bin Salman has gone too far, evidently, because he murdered one person. It's perfectly okay, however, that the Saudis have been indiscriminately bombing Yemen, killing children and adult nocombatants by the thousands, since 2015. Oh yeah, using weapons the U.S. sold them. The Saudi naval blockade of the country has left 70% of the population -- 20 million people -- short of food, water and medical care. Lloyd Russell-Moyle has more to say about this in The Guardian.

Now it seems likely that if George W. Bush had ordered the murder of a critic in a U.S. consulate somewhere he'd be in big trouble. As far as I know he didn't do that but he did tell a bunch of lies in order to launch an illegal war of aggression against a country that was not threat to the U.S. which resulted in the deaths of more than 4,000 U.S. troops, maybe around a million Iraqis, and plunged the country into a decade and  half of violence and chaos. But he's perfectly respectable, goes to all the big funerals and gives cough drops to Michele Obama, and spends his time painting cute animals.

Does that seem kind of strange to anybody?

Update: For more on the Yemen war, see Joe Sommerlad in The Independent:

While the Saudi-led coalition began by targeting Houthi military strongholds, its bombing campaign quickly shifted to civilian targets, according to Professor Martha Mundy of the World Peace Foundation (WPF).
These included “water and transport infrastructure, food production and distribution, roads and transport, schools, cultural monuments, clinics and hospitals, and houses, fields and flocks,” the academic states in her recent report on the crisis, The Strategies of the Coalition in the Yemen War: Aerial Bombardment and Food War.
The Houthis have laid a lot of land mines, as has al Qaeda which has taken advantage of the chaos to establish a substantial presence in the east.

Strict Saudi blockades and travel restrictions have prevented food and aid reaching Yemen, causing the price of food within the country to skyrocket and leaving desperate families unable to afford basic supplies from markets.
The WPF report, accusing the Saudi coalition of using starvation as a weapon of war to create untenable conditions for the Houthis, states that no fewer than 220 fishing boats have been destroyed by bombs along the country’s Red Sea coast. This has meant the local fish catch is down by 50 per cent. . . .
Air strikes on the Port of Hodeida in June likewise appear a deliberate attempt to disable a facility from which 70 per cent of imports enter Yemen. Coalition forces cut a crucial supply route between Sanaa and Hodeida in September.
The prevailing hardships as a result of bomb-damage have hit supplies of electricity and fuel, making basic arable farming difficult, while ranchers have been forced to sell their cattle to make ends meet.
As a result of all this, almost three-quarters of Yemen’s 27.58 million population are currently reliant on aid. Of that total of approximately 22.2 million, 8.4 million are starving, 1.8 million of those being children, according to Unicef.
These are war crimes.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: Family Values

This story is a weird combination of pre-scientific bullshit and moral depravity. It largely speaks for itself but then of course we have to ask why it is in the Bible.

25 After Rachel gave birth to Joseph, Jacob said to Laban, “Send me on my way so I can go back to my own homeland. 26 Give me my wives and children, for whom I have served you, and I will be on my way. You know how much work I’ve done for you.”
27 But Laban said to him, “If I have found favor in your eyes, please stay. I have learned by divination that the Lord has blessed me because of you.” 28 He added, “Name your wages, and I will pay them.”
29 Jacob said to him, “You know how I have worked for you and how your livestock has fared under my care. 30 The little you had before I came has increased greatly, and the Lord has blessed you wherever I have been. But now, when may I do something for my own household?”
31 “What shall I give you?” he asked.
“Don’t give me anything,” Jacob replied. “But if you will do this one thing for me, I will go on tending your flocks and watching over them: 32 Let me go through all your flocks today and remove from them every speckled or spotted sheep, every dark-colored lamb and every spotted or speckled goat. They will be my wages. 33 And my honesty will testify for me in the future, whenever you check on the wages you have paid me. Any goat in my possession that is not speckled or spotted, or any lamb that is not dark-colored, will be considered stolen.”
34 “Agreed,” said Laban. “Let it be as you have said.” 35 That same day he removed all the male goats that were streaked or spotted, and all the speckled or spotted female goats (all that had white on them) and all the dark-colored lambs, and he placed them in the care of his sons. 36 Then he put a three-day journey between himself and Jacob, while Jacob continued to tend the rest of Laban’s flocks.
37 Jacob, however, took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches. 38 Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, 39 they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted. 40 Jacob set apart the young of the flock by themselves, but made the rest face the streaked and dark-colored animals that belonged to Laban. Thus he made separate flocks for himself and did not put them with Laban’s animals. 41 Whenever the stronger females were in heat, Jacob would place the branches in the troughs in front of the animals so they would mate near the branches, 42 but if the animals were weak, he would not place them there. So the weak animals went to Laban and the strong ones to Jacob. 43 In this way the man grew exceedingly prosperous and came to own large flocks, and female and male servants, and camels and donkeys.

So according to inerrant word of God, goats that mate in front of speckled branches will be speckled, streaked or spotted. According to biology, of course, and also what should be the simple observation of any goatherd who can find his head without a proctoscope, these characteristics are inherited and are not influenced by the presence of peeled branches. However, if we want to pretend that this would have worked, Jacob is scamming his father-in-law, which would seem to make his honesty testify against him after all. The "servants" he owns are of course slaves. Domesticated camels did not exist at the time and place he supposedly lived. 

One wonders what believers make of all this. Actually no, one doesn't. They are likely completely unaware of it. As I have said many times, the best argument against faith is to tell people to actually read the Bible. Very few believers have done so, they only know a few  selected passages and some stories, most of which they largely get wrong.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Merchants of Death

It occurs to me that a cheap trick to get blog material is to tell you what I lectured about yesterday. Most weeks I lecture Monday Wednesday and Friday, although I have guest lecturers when I can because I'm lazy and the students would get sick of me anyway. But Friday I talked about the tobacco industry.

In 1953, British scientists Doll and Hill published the results of a cohort study that showed that smoking tobacco causes lung cancer. Evidence quickly piled up that it also caused heart disease. Tobacco company scientists got right away that this was all true, and told the executives. (I'll tell you how we know this in a minute.) But the companies denied it, and called it junk science. The first Surgeon General's report on smoking and health came out in 1964, and concluded that tobacco causes cancer and heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but the companies continued to deny it, even as their own scientists were writing internal memos urging them to own up to it and try to make safer cigarettes. (No, they didn't go public and they kept on taking their salaries. Just sayin'.)

The tobacco companies set up a fake research institute, surreptitiously through a law firm, and funded scientists to do research that came to conclusions favorable to the industry. A priority for them at this time was denying that environmental tobacco smoke is dangerous because that created risk of workplace smoking bans and other actions that would de-normalize smoking. (If you're too young to know it, restaurants, bars, airplanes and teachers' lounges and every other public place were full of tobacco smoke back then.) They also set up a fake academic journal with an editorial board dominated by industry consultants to publish "science" favorable to the industry.

As they did this, they knew -- knew full well, and admitted it in internal company documents --  that their product was killing half a million Americans every year, in really horrible ways. They knew it was addictive. They knew they were marketing to children -- they had to, because their business depended on replacing the customers who died. They knew that environmental tobacco smoke also made people sick and killed them. And they continued to publicly deny all this, even under oath, before congress and in civil trials.

Meanwhile, most of the states were suing them to recover Medicaid costs that resulted from their addictive poison. And they started to win. So in 1998, the tobacco companies settled with the states. They had to stop advertising in magazines and billboards. (Congress had already banned TV advertising.) They had to pay millions of dollars every year to the states, forever. And they had to give access to their archives.

That's how we know that they knew, and they were lying and pushing their lies every way they could the whole time. But they kept their wealth and in fact have since added to it immensely by pushing  their poison on the rest of the world, particularly poor countries in Asia. Smoking has declined immensely in the U.S., thanks to counter-advertising, workplace smoking bans, excise taxes, and other tobacco control efforts. Fifteen percent of adults still smoke, and they tend to be people with little education and low incomes. But around the world, there are more smokers than ever and the tobacco executives and shareholders are richer than ever. And they know.

But there are people in jail for selling an ounce of marijuana.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Fiddling while the world burns

The NYT recently published an expose about Orange Julius's finances which was extremely important and extremely ignored, like most important stuff. One reason it was ignored is that it was long and complicated and tedious to read, so Nancy LeTourneau tries to make it accessible for you.

The first thing you need to know is that he has lied about his business acumen his entire life. He did not, as he claims, build a fortune out of what he calls a "small" million dollar loan from his father. In fact, his father started transferring assets to him when he was just learning to walk and eventually gave him a total of $413 million. Which he squandered. In 2004 he was broke.

Then he suddenly mysteriously started spending millions of dollars to buy money-losing golf courses and overpay for other real estate assets with $400 million of mysterious provenance. Well, we actually do have a  guess about where it came from -- laundering money for Vladimir Putin's gangster buddies. Vlad doesn't need to have video of him with prostitutes (though he certainly might) because Vlad owns him. And made him president. As LeTourneau concludes:

Of course, that raises the question of where the $400 million in cash came from. I’m pretty sure Robert Mueller is interested in the answer. You might remember that when James Dodson asked Eric Trump about that, he said, “Well, we don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia.”
This demonstrates that Donald Trump might be the worst businessmen in America. He squandered his father’s entire fortune and might very well have gotten a Russian bailout about a decade before deciding to run for president. Even the most financially-challenged among us should be able to understand that sorry tale.
So this tool holds state power while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- an apolitical body consisting of the leading scientists who study the earth's climate -- tells us we have 12 years to avert global catastrophe. This while a Category 5 hurricane, the most powerful hurricane ever to make landfall in the Florida panhandle, threatens to kill and render homeless a whole lot of reliably Republican voters. And what does the self-made man have to say about it? Absolutely nothing.

Meanwhile, if the Turkish government is to be believed, Julius's buddy Mohammed Bin Salman murdered a Saudi dissident the Saudi embassy in Turkey, and there are indications U.S. intelligence may have had advance knowledge of the plot and did not warn him. As Josh Marshall concludes:

The final, most important part of the puzzle is the relationship between the head of the current Saudi government and the Trump family. MBS has developed close ties to President Trump, even closer ties to Jared Kushner and financial ties with both. The Saudis even play a significant role in one part of the Russia investigation. They were one of the government’s most thrilled with Trump’s election. The relationship between the Crown Prince and the Trumps is deep and has geopolitical and personal financial dimensions.
These are all extraordinarily corrupt ties. They bring together young and headstrong princelings like MBS and Jared Kushner who are capable of all manner or willful and dangerous actions. Thus far we have only very limited information. But there’s a distinct possibility that Trump administration dirtied its hand in this affair. This bears very close scrutiny.
The point is, while Trump cultists think he's Making America Great Again, he's actually a  tool of foreign powers who most certainly do not share our values or align with our interests. He's been insulting allies, wrecking alliances, and praising and buddying up to the the most loathsome tyrants on earth, while enabling mass destruction. And this is just fine with the Republicans in congress. 

It is terrifying.

Monday, October 08, 2018

El Dia de La Raza

I debunked Columbus last year. (Wow, time sure flies!) But Adam Conover does it with more fun and excitement, brought to you here by Bill in Portland Maine. As you may recall, I suggested that Italian Americans might find a more appropriate hero in Fiorello LaGuardia, although perhaps his not being Catholic is a problem for some. (His mother was from a famous Italian Jewish family although she herself grew up in Trieste, and his father was a lapsed Catholic.)

My employer does make today a holiday (which I sorely needed), but calls it "Indigenous People's Day." Yeah, we're politically correct. When I worked at Latino Health Institute we called it Dia de La Raza, "La Raza" being the people of mixed European, African and American heritage who are now known as Hispanics or Latinos. While raza would literally be translated as "race," it obviously doesn't have the biological implication of the term as used by racists and really means an ethnic group.

Anyway, Columbus is not someone who deserves commemoration, celebration, or to be a focus for anybody's ethnic pride. And by the way he was born in Genoa, which is today part of Italy, but Italy did not exist at the time. He sailed for Spain, and he never set foot in what is today the United States. So the whole thing is ridiculous.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: Actually it gets even weirder

I'll have something to say about current events anon, but first we'll begin our dive into the extreme bizarreness of Genesis 30. We'll just do the first half or so today; like many other chapters, the division is fairly random and this is really two or three separate stories.

 When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister. So she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die!”
Jacob became angry with her and said, “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?”
Then she said, “Here is Bilhah, my servant. Sleep with her so that she can bear children for me and I too can build a family through her.”
So she gave him her servant Bilhah as a wife. Jacob slept with her, and she became pregnant and bore him a son. Then Rachel said, “God has vindicated me; he has listened to my plea and given me a son.” Because of this she named him Dan.[a]
Rachel’s servant Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. Then Rachel said, “I have had a great struggle with my sister, and I have won.” So she named him Naphtali.[b]

This is of course the inspiration for the idea behind The Handmaid's Tale. In the KJV Bilhah is called a "handmaid" rather than a "servant."  Also for some reason the NIV omits a phrase from verse 3:

 30:3 And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. 

What Margaret Atwood noticed, as apparently most preachers do not, is that Bilhah is not consulted in the matter; nor are her children considered her own, they are Rachel's. Bilhah is used as a reproductive vessel for her owners. She is not a servant, she is a slave.
When Leah saw that she had stopped having children, she took her servant Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. 10 Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a son. 11 Then Leah said, “What good fortune!”[c] So she named him Gad.[d]
12 Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. 13 Then Leah said, “How happy I am! The women will call me happy.” So she named him Asher.[e]
Zilpah is also a slave, who is used in the same way as Bilhah.
14 During wheat harvest, Reuben went out into the fields and found some mandrake plants, which he brought to his mother Leah. Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.”
15 But she said to her, “Wasn’t it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son’s mandrakes too?”
“Very well,” Rachel said, “he can sleep with you tonight in return for your son’s mandrakes.”
16 So when Jacob came in from the fields that evening, Leah went out to meet him. “You must sleep with me,” she said. “I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” So he slept with her that night.
For those who don't know, mandrakes are a plant with hallucinogenic and narcotic properties. They have no other use. They are not food. Rachel wants to get high and Leah evidently wants to get laid. So they make a deal. How this accords with any contemporary standard of morality I leave to you.
17 God listened to Leah, and she became pregnant and bore Jacob a fifth son. 18 Then Leah said, “God has rewarded me for giving my servant to my husband.” So she named him Issachar.[f]
19 Leah conceived again and bore Jacob a sixth son. 20 Then Leah said, “God has presented me with a precious gift. This time my husband will treat me with honor, because I have borne him six sons.” So she named him Zebulun.[g]
21 Some time later she gave birth to a daughter and named her Dinah.
22 Then God remembered Rachel; he listened to her and enabled her to conceive. 23 She became pregnant and gave birth to a son and said, “God has taken away my disgrace.” 24 She named him Joseph,[h] and said, “May the Lord add to me another son.”
 Evidently Jacob decided he liked boinking Leah after all. Leah concludes that this turn of events results from God approving of her making Bilhah bear children for her. I'll leave you to decide what that says about God. No I won't. God is one seriously sick puppy.
  1. Genesis 30:6 Dan here means he has vindicated.
  2. Genesis 30:8 Naphtali means my struggle.
  3. Genesis 30:11 Or “A troop is coming!”
  4. Genesis 30:11 Gad can mean good fortune or a troop.
  5. Genesis 30:13 Asher means happy.
  6. Genesis 30:18 Issachar sounds like the Hebrew for reward.
  7. Genesis 30:20 Zebulun probably means honor.
  8. Genesis 30:24 Joseph means may he add.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

There once were sane Republicans . . .

. . . at least compared to the current species. Christine Todd Whitman was the Republican governor of New Jersey and EPA administrator under George Bush II. She has something to say about the current EPA (in which the "P" now stands for pollution). The EPA wants to roll back motor vehicle emissions and fuel efficiency requirements -- something the automobile companies, by the way, aren't even asking for. Quoth CTW:

Since the election of Donald Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been guided by appointed officials who have fundamentally failed to uphold its mission: to protect public health and the environment. From undermining and ignoring established science, to rolling back lifesaving public health protections, it's become abundantly clear that this administration has no intention of upholding the core mission of the EPA. . .

Trump, [EPA Administrator] Wheeler and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Deputy Administrator Heidi King recently announced their plans to reverse America's clean-car standards.

With the transportation sector, now the country's largest source of carbon pollution, the clean-car standards are the most effective policy we have on the books to fight climate change. Rolling back these standards will mean dirtier cars that pollute the air and jeopardize the health of millions of Americans, especially the over 26 million Americans who suffer from asthma. . . .
This rollback also ignores thousands of pages of research showing that the current standards are achievable, protect public health and reduce air pollution. The EPA should make decisions based on science -- not willfully ignoring the work of scientists.

And it will also cost consumers money. Oh, remember States' Rights™, the Republican Party mantra? Hah! The administration wants to prevent states from imposing stricter standards of their own. This isn't just about people breathing polluted air. It's about the survival of civilization.

The U.S. is the only nation in which a major political party denies the reality of anthropogenic climate change. That is not ignorant, or stupid. It is willfully evil. Republican voters in North Carolina drown just as readily as Democratic voters, and they burn just as readily in California. Republican farmers will be ruined by drought, and the only reason that Republican politicians are doing this to them is because they want the Koch Brothers' money. Yeah, we should be talking about Brett Kavanaugh. But does that really have to be the only thing we're talking about?