Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Saudi Schmaudi

It seems to me that the politicians, pundits and people in general are largely overlooking the most important implications of the recent attack on Saudi oil processing facilities. I can't judge the credibility of recent U.S. and Saudi claims that the attack was launched from Iranian territory, but I will accept that Occam's razor supports the conclusion that the perpetrator was some faction allied with Iran, with or without the endorsement of Ayatollah Kahmenei. Let's leave that aside for the moment.

Here's the geography:

A map showing Saudi oil strikes

Notice that if the attack was launched from Iranian territory, the devices flew over the Gulf (called the Arabian or Persian Gulf depending on which side of it you are on) over U.S. naval vessels equipped with the Aegis combat system, which is designed to detect and neutralize airborne threats. Saudi Arabia, for its part, has spent untold tens of billions of dollars on high-technology air defense systems from the United States, including radar systems, Patriot missiles, and more stuff some of which is probably classified and not even known to the public. In fact on paper the Saudi military is the most powerful in the region. Presumably Saudi air defenses are configured primarily to defend against an attack coming from Iran. 

The claim is specifically that it was possible to knock out more than half of Saudi oil production capacity using cheap gadgets that the Iranians made themselves; and that it took more than four days for the Saudis and Americans to figure out where they came from. (The U.S. uses Tomahawk missiles that cost more than $1 million apiece for this sort of attack, and they can be shot down by the kind of systems possessed by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.) Presumably Iran has plenty more of these drones or cruise missiles (I'm not actually sure what the distinction is supposed to be), and note that it's only another 50 miles from Khurais to Riyadh.

If the Aegis Combat System and Saudi air defenses are really that worthless, it's going to give other people ideas, and maybe give the people who did this additional ideas of their own. It also represents an extraordinary admission on the part of the U.S., which sells these systems to nations all over the world. I'm not going to dwell on the implications of all this, you can figure it out for yourselves.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Lost in the Cloud

A reader suggested I consider discussing this research report in JAMA Psychiatry.

To summarize, it's a prospective cohort study of U.S. adolescents, that examines the association between time spent on social media and reports of behavioral problems. Contrary to the way this has frequently been reported in popular media, the outcome measure isn't diagnosable mental illness. Rather, it's self reports of so called "internalizing problems," such as social withdrawal and anxiety, and "externalizing problems" such as vandalism and bullying. The investigators find a consistent "dose-response" relationship between time spent on social media and internalizing problems, and co-morbid internalizing and externalizing problems. They don't find a consistent relationship with externalizing problems only.

A prospective cohort study means that they followed individuals over time, in this case three years. The exposure -- time spent on social media -- was assessed in the second year and the outcome in the third year. They adjusted for self-reported problems, and other covariates, in Year 1. All of the variables are self-reported.

The magnitude of the association was pretty impressive. Ten percent of adolescents who reported no social media use reported co-morbid  problems, while 20% who reported 6 hours of use a day or more also reported co-morbid problems.

Does this prove that social media use is causing adolescents to develop emotional and behavioral problems? The authors would like us to think that because they adjusted for the baseline in Year 1 the causal inference is strong. I'm not so sure: it could be that the emotional and behavioral problems were already developing in people who used a lot of social media, or that underreporting was more likely when people were younger, or some other explanation. Nevertheless, it seems intuitively obvious to me that a kid who spends 6 hours a day interacting virtually through a device, quite likely with people she or he has never met personally and who are quite possibly disturbed themselves is not experiencing and optimal socio-emotional environment.

Fortunately the proportion of kids who reported 6 hours of use a day or more was not huge -- 8.4% -- but even the 12% who reported 3-6 hours of use had elevated reports of problems.

I doubt this will surprise anyone but it does remind us that we are in the middle of an immense, global social psychological experiment. The lifeworld has changed suddenly and dramatically and we have no clear idea of where human society is headed. We've already seen that what True Believers once saw as the promise of the Internet -- equalizing access to information, knitting together communities, empowering social and political participation -- has failed catastrophically. The new media do more to spread disinformation, disunite people, and enable manipulation and exploitation, than they do anything to fulfill those wondrous hopes.

I try to be a force for good here but a million of me wouldn't add up to a flatus in a whirlwind. I'm not sure what the solutions might be but this has to be part of the political discussion.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: Law and Order

So God is dictating a detailed legal code to Moses. At this point in the fictitious history, it seems to be looking forward. It is more suitable to the settled people the Hebrews will become than the nomads of Genesis. We haven't been told anything about life in Goshen, but the people were not evidently self-governing. Currently, the people are camped out in the desert subsisting on manna. Moses was judging disputes, apparently based on his personal intuitions, until Jethro dropped in to suggest he delegate, at which point presumably his delegates made it up as they went along. So now we're finally getting the statutes.

Where all this came from is not definitely known, but as we've mentioned many times Exodus was written down in the 6th Century BCE. The so-called Covenant Code we are now reading resembles the Code of Hammurabi, and other legal systems of the region in the first Millennium.  The general idea seems to be that the Covenant Code of Exodus was created by adding instructions regarding worship to the more general Canaanite legal system. The authors of Exodus set it at this point in the story to embed it securely in God's covenant with the Israelites. Anyway, here's Chapter 22. Unfortunately, the text of the RSV that I find on-line is garbled at the beginning. It omits some material and transposes verse 4.

[a] When someone steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, the thief shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.[b] The thief shall make restitution, but if unable to do so, shall be sold for the theft. 4 When the animal, whether ox or donkey or sheep, is found alive in the thief’s possession, the thief shall pay double.
[c] If a thief is found breaking in, and is beaten to death, no bloodguilt is incurred; but if it happens after sunrise, bloodguilt is incurred.
 Here is the New International Version text which is much clearer.

“If a thief is caught breaking in at night and is struck a fatal blow, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; but if it happens after sunrise, the defender is guilty of bloodshed.
“Anyone who steals must certainly make restitution, but if they have nothing, they must be sold to pay for their theft. If the stolen animal is found alive in their possession—whether ox or donkey or sheep—they must pay back double.
 So if somebody breaks into your house at night, you can beat him to death. But if he breaks in during the day, and you kill him, you are guilty of murder. Why the distinction? Who knows. If a rich man steals, he can pay a fine and it's okay. If a poor man steals, he will be sold into slavery.
When someone causes a field or vineyard to be grazed over, or lets livestock loose to graze in someone else’s field, restitution shall be made from the best in the owner’s field or vineyard.
When fire breaks out and catches in thorns so that the stacked grain or the standing grain or the field is consumed, the one who started the fire shall make full restitution.
When someone delivers to a neighbor money or goods for safekeeping, and they are stolen from the neighbor’s house, then the thief, if caught, shall pay double. If the thief is not caught, the owner of the house shall be brought before God,[d] to determine whether or not the owner had laid hands on the neighbor’s goods.
In any case of disputed ownership involving ox, donkey, sheep, clothing, or any other loss, of which one party says, “This is mine,” the case of both parties shall come before God;[e] the one whom God condemns[f] shall pay double to the other.
10 When someone delivers to another a donkey, ox, sheep, or any other animal for safekeeping, and it dies or is injured or is carried off, without anyone seeing it, 11 an oath before the Lord shall decide between the two of them that the one has not laid hands on the property of the other; the owner shall accept the oath, and no restitution shall be made. 12 But if it was stolen, restitution shall be made to its owner. 13 If it was mangled by beasts, let it be brought as evidence; restitution shall not be made for the mangled remains.
14 When someone borrows an animal from another and it is injured or dies, the owner not being present, full restitution shall be made. 15 If the owner was present, there shall be no restitution; if it was hired, only the hiring fee is due.

16 When a man seduces a virgin who is not engaged to be married, and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. 17 But if her father refuses to give her to him, he shall pay an amount equal to the bride-price for virgins.
Basically, if you boink a version, you have to pay her father for depreciating her price.
18 You shall not permit a female sorcerer to live.
Sort of conflicts with Do Not Kill. We all know the consequences of this throughout history. KJV of course uses the word "witch." The idea of a woman with agency and power is intolerable.
19 Whoever lies with an animal shall be put to death.
Seems a bit extreme. 
20 Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the Lord alone, shall be devoted to destruction.
21 You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. 22 
Tell it to Donald J. Trump.
You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. 23 If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; 24 my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.
Uhm, seems to be a bit of a moral contradiction here. If you abuse a widow or orphan, God will create a bunch of new widows and orphans.
25 If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. 26 If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; 27 for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.
28 You shall not revile God, or curse a leader of your people.
29 You shall not delay to make offerings from the fullness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses.[g]
The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. 30 
Fortunately we know this is not calling for human sacrifice, since we got the relevant instruction earlier. You have to redeem the first-born with a ram. But why God takes so much pleasure in killing and burning animals is a mystery.
You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me.
31 You shall be people consecrated to me; therefore you shall not eat any meat that is mangled by beasts in the field; you shall throw it to the dogs.
Seems kind of anticlimactic.


  1. Exodus 22:1 Ch 21.37 in Heb
  2. Exodus 22:1 Verses 2, 3, and 4 rearranged thus: 3b, 4, 2, 3a
  3. Exodus 22:2 Ch 22.1 in Heb
  4. Exodus 22:8 Or before the judges
  5. Exodus 22:9 Or before the judges
  6. Exodus 22:9 Or the judges condemn
  7. Exodus 22:29 Meaning of Heb uncertain

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

What you don't know can certainly hurt you

I'm going to defer any comment on the raging insanity around us and discuss a matter of direct importance to me. As Austin Frakt discusses in the (highly successful) New York Times government -- at all levels really -- has an allergy to any rigorous investigation of whether policies actually work as intended. (Sorry if you've spent your free NYT chits for the month, I'll summarize a bit of it.) Health policy is part of my portfolio, and it's undergoing massive experimentation and innovation. Policy makers are struggling to address the rising cost of health care, the fragmentation of services, and the gaps in coverage, financial burdens and complexity faced by most of us.

Many ideas to improve health care organization and finance seem intuitively compelling, you never know what's really going to happen till it happens; and drawing causal inferences can still be difficult. If a change in payment policy is followed by reduced billings, is that because we're reducing unnecessary services, or people aren't getting care from which they would actually benefit? Or does it really have nothing to do with the policy change at all, but something else that just coincidentally happened at the same time?

So the best way to really study the effects of policies is with some form of randomized controlled trial. There are difficulties in doing these cost effectively and ethically, but cluster randomized trials -- i.e. policies that are implemented with some institutions or communities and not others, allowing for comparison at the cluster level -- or quasi-experiments -- taking advantage of natural differences in policies or circumstances --  are usually possible. They present their own difficulties as Frakt discusses -- communities or institutions that choose to participate may not be similar to the ones that don't, they may drop out, it can be hard to sort out which components of an intervention really matter. But good research design including thorough process evaluation and measurement of as many relevant variables as you can makes for more credible results.

Frakt notes that the Oregon medicaid experiment improved beneficiaries' financial stability and reduced rates of depression, but hasn't shown significant impact on other health indicators. I think that follow-up is too short to really be able to say that. The benefits of access to primary care for people who aren't already sick enough to be eligible for disability take a long time to become evident. That's another problem with policy experiments, follow-up is usually too short.

But it makes sense for government to invest in high quality, long-term evaluation of public policy. It doesn't make sense to try to save a few percent of the cost of a policy that would go into evaluation if you're actually wasting 100% of the cost, or even doing harm. But the real obstacle is politics. Many policies have political constituencies that don't want honest answers. Firearm safety is a really good example, but we see the same thing with health care policies. Physicians, drug manufacturers, device manufacturers, hospital and health system owners and administrators, politicians with constituents who don't want to pay taxes or do want something they think will be good for them even if they're wrong -- all of these stand in the way of objective assessment of policies.

And the public in general is drawn to simplistic solutions and doesn't want to listen to complicated arguments about why they don't work. "Tough on crime" policies are a great example. Unfortunately most voters don't have the attention span for complicated policy discussions and are too committed to their preconceptions anyway. I'll keep trying to raise the discourse level.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: Living biblically

I have only a passing acquaintance with moral philosophy, but I do know that philosophers make what amounts to a common sense distinction between morality based on principles, from which you try to figure what is right to do in a given situation; and lists of detailed, specific rules. Generally speaking, the law -- written statutes which are supposed to guide the decisions of judges and juries -- are mostly of the latter character. So that's what God is going to be laying down for Moses for the next while. But note that this is almost all of Old Testament morality. We get very little sense of what is right and wrong, but rather lengthy lists of dos and don'ts.

The thing is, 90% of it, from the perspective of modern cultures, is utterly abhorrent. Fundamentalist Christians claim that the Bible is the inerrant and literally true word of God, and they claim that the Bible is the foundation of their morality and personal code of conduct. Which just proves that they haven't read it. Here's Exodus 21. Note that Moses is up on the mountaintop by himself. We aren't told how the apparition works, if he's hearing the voice in his head or its coming out of the sky or what. Anyway, we have to take his word for it that God says all this.

These are the ordinances that you shall set before them:
When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone.
Oh, so the owner can give a woman to his slave, and if the slave accepts his emancipation, the owner gets to keep the wife and kids. Are you living biblically Rev. Graham?
But if the slave declares, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out a free person,” then his master shall bring him before God.[a] He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him for life.
So that's your choice: Your freedom or your wife and kids.
When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do.
Yep, it's just fine to sell your daughter into slavery. Here's Penn and Teller on this.  (Well, Penn. Teller doesn't have much to say.)
If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. 10 If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife.[b] 11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out without debt, without payment of money.
Okay, so if you buy a guy's daughter, you are free to rape her, but if you don't fancy her, you aren't allowed to sell her to foreigners. That's nice. You can also give her to your son. Oh, was marriage supposed to be between one man and one woman? Nope, as many women as you want, apparently. Still living biblically, Rev. Graham?

12 Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death. 13 If it was not premeditated, but came about by an act of God, then I will appoint for you a place to which the killer may flee. 14 But if someone willfully attacks and kills another by treachery, you shall take the killer from my altar for execution.
We still make the distinction between impulsive and premeditated murder, but we do consider crimes of passion to be crimes. Not so here, the killer just has to leave town.
15 Whoever strikes father or mother shall be put to death.
16 Whoever kidnaps a person, whether that person has been sold or is still held in possession, shall be put to death.
I'm all for the latter, but it would have been bad news for Joseph's brothers had it been in force at the time. Just sayin'.
17 Whoever curses father or mother shall be put to death.
This seems a bit much, no?
18 When individuals quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or fist so that the injured party, though not dead, is confined to bed, 19 but recovers and walks around outside with the help of a staff, then the assailant shall be free of liability, except to pay for the loss of time, and to arrange for full recovery.
So if you hit a guy with a rock, you have to pay him for his lost time and his care, but that's it.
20 When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. 21 But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.
So if you want to beat your slave to death, just make sure they linger for a day or two before dying. Then it's okay.
22 When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. 23 
In other words the fetus is the property of the husband, not human life, and the penalty for causing an (involuntary) abortion is financial compensation for the father. Just so we're clear about this Rev. Graham.
If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
26 When a slaveowner strikes the eye of a male or female slave, destroying it, the owner shall let the slave go, a free person, to compensate for the eye. 27 If the owner knocks out a tooth of a male or female slave, the slave shall be let go, a free person, to compensate for the tooth.
So if you want to beat your slaves short of killing them, just be careful not to knock their eyes or teeth out.

28 When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall not be liable. 29 If the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not restrained it, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death. 30 If a ransom is imposed on the owner, then the owner shall pay whatever is imposed for the redemption of the victim’s life. 31 If it gores a boy or a girl, the owner shall be dealt with according to this same rule. 32 If the ox gores a male or female slave, the owner shall pay to the slaveowner thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.
So a slave's life is worth 30 shekels, good to know
33 If someone leaves a pit open, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, 34 the owner of the pit shall make restitution, giving money to its owner, but keeping the dead animal.
35 If someone’s ox hurts the ox of another, so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and divide the price of it; and the dead animal they shall also divide. 36 But if it was known that the ox was accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has not restrained it, the owner shall restore ox for ox, but keep the dead animal.


  1. Exodus 21:6 Or to the judges
  2. Exodus 21:10 Heb of her

Thursday, September 05, 2019

Category Error II: People talking past each other

I don't necessarily recommend that you read  Jurgen Habermas. His writing is almost impenetrably dense, grinds ideas into nanoparticles, and slays entire forests reviewing the ideas of obscure German social philosophers at nearly as much length as the original writings. Nevertheless I commend to you an idea at the core of his Theory of Communicative Action. It isn't really original -- he harks back to Plato in his discussion, and he also owes a debt to his mentor John Searle. But he recontextualizes it and builds on it.

Habermas proposes three "worlds" of "criticizable validity claims." If people are to communicate effectively, whether they are trying to cooperate or are debating, they need to mutually understand what world they are in.

The First World is intersubjective reality, truth claims about the world "out there." The earth revolves around the sun. The sun is a star. (Of course we must have an agreed-upon definition of the word "star" in this context.) This [the object in my hand] is a mango.  Thomas Edison invented the electric light bulb and the phonograph. Life on earth evolved over approximately 3 1/2 million years or more from simple forms and all life on earth has a common ancestor.

The means of verifying each of these statements differs, but we nevertheless recognize that they are somehow in the same domain, in that if they are true they are true for everybody, and somebody who does not agree with them is mistaken, i.e. believes something that is not true.

The Second World is the world of morality, what we believe is right and wrong, what people ought to do. See the most recent Sunday Sermonette, on the commandments propounded in Exodus 20. The Second World obviously interacts with the First. One point of frequent confusion is the domain of social facts. It is a fact that societies designate certain roles for particular individuals, that they have laws that people are generally expected to follow, that they enforce consequences for disobeying rules. It is a First World assertion that Donald J. Trump occupies the office of President of the United States, but it is a Second World claim that he does so properly, or must be respected by virtue of his office. Morality claims are not verifiable in the same sense as Truth claims. We may have different conceptions of justice, rightness and obligation. If I dispute one of your values, I can point to consequences of your position that might be awkward for you in that they put you in conflict with yourself in some way; or because it is unclear how your values apply in a given situation. I can also point out that you are misapplying your values because you are misconstruing the factual context. But if you are a libertarian who insists that you have no obligation to rescue a drowning child at the risk of soiling your clothes, well, that's what you believe, even if I believe that you are reprehensible.

The Third World is just our personal preference -- what we as individuals find pleasurable, desirable or gratifying. These have no direct consequences for what others ought to desire or what they ought to do, except to the extent we believe that other people ought to please us. Just because you like chocolate is no reason why I have to like it.* People tend to like many of the same things, which I suppose means there is some value in art criticism and restaurant criticism, in giving us suggestions about how to spend our time and our money, but if somebody is profoundly moved by the art of Jeff Koons well, it is what it is.

As Habermas notes, these worlds roughly correspond to the Platonic ideals of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.

The way these worlds rub together and otherwise interact can be complicated and confusing, to be sure. I'll refrain from further complexity today. But as a first order proposition, if we're going to have a conversation, we need to keep them straight. It's a wrong move to go from IS to OUGHT, from OUGHT to IS, or from WANT to OUGHT or any other step. OUGHT must be consistent with IS, but cannot be derived from it. (In other words it makes no sense to say that people ought to do the impossible, or ought to produce contradictory outcomes.) WANT can be disparaged from the standpoint of OUGHT, but its existence cannot be denied. What I WANT does not imply what you OUGHT to do, or at least it won't suffice to convince you. (If you happen to WANT to please me then you may do what pleases me because you want to, but it doesn't follow that you ought to.)

If we can keep all this straight, or at least do our best, we can communicate.

*On the other hand, it is objectively evil to be a New York Yankees fan.  

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Category error

Hey indeedy.

One of the best ways to win arguments is to be so completely wrong that there's no way anyone could feasibly correct you without teaching three entry level college courses in the process. This is known colloquially as a "Shapiro."
The reference is presumably to Ben Shapiro but there are other possible eponyms. A more complex way of stating this idea is fractal wrongness, as one of the commenters on the original tweet points out:

Fractal wrongness is the state of being wrong at every conceivable scale of resolution. That is, from a distance, a fractally wrong person's worldview is incorrect; and furthermore, if you zoom in on any small part of that person's worldview, that part is just as wrong as the whole worldview.. . .

The term "fractal wrongness" may also be used to refer to someone who is consistently wrong on nearly everything they predict or claim. Repeatedly failing predictions is one of the best ways of revealing fractal wrongness, because while an idiotic worldview may work in someone's head, it can be seen failing when actually put to the test. Hilariously, people who are consistently wrong tend to be quite confident in their position while championing it.
Fractally wrong people are often immune to the stopped clock rule because they are not exactly stopped clocks. More like clocks losing a random number of seconds a day, in the wrong time zone of the wrong planet, in the wrong solar system.
Debating a person who is fractally wrong leads to infinite regress, as every refutation you make of that person's opinions will lead to a rejoinder, full of half-truths, leaps of poor logic, and outright lies, which requires just as much refutation to debunk as the first one—kind of like a recursive Gish Gallop, where each point both surrounds and is surrounded by an equally wrong argument. It is worth noting that being fractally wrong can be handy for the losing side in a public debate, since you are likely to leave your opponent looking baffled and unable to deal with each level of wrongness. 
The category error in this case would consist of trying to engage with these people rationally. It isn't worth it.

Next: Common category errors made by people who might be worth debating.

Sunday, September 01, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: The however many commandments.

Administrative note: I'm switching to the Revised Standard Version because I find the NIV does too much fudging of the potentially embarrassing stuff.

Exodus 20 is where we encounter what is usually called the Ten Commandments, although the actual concept of Ten Commandments isn't articulated until later, and at that time they turn out to be different from these. Yes, there are two different sets. Also, the only thing that sets the ostensible Ten Commandments apart from the dozens of additional commandments that follow is a brief description of how the people are experiencing the signs and wonders (or volcanic eruption) on the mountain. They aren't identified as more important than the rest of the law. Finally, as I have mentioned before, the version we see on the wall and on monuments is edited. Here goes.

Then God spoke all these words:

It's generally assumed that he's speaking to Moses, although it is somewhat ambiguous whether the entire people can hear this.
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before[a] me.
We still aren't monotheistic. This is the baddest God, but not the only one.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation[b] of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Most translations just say not to make any "images." The translators here assume that this doesn't intend to forbid painting or sculpture, but only painting and sculpting objects of worship. Of course Christian churches are full of idols -- images of Jesus, Mary and various saints --  and people even pray to them. Christians ignore this commandment.  The part about punishing descendants for the sins of their ancestors is usually omitted.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
"Servant" of course means "slave." For those who want to claim that the six days of creation is intended metaphorically nope, it's the literal truth.
12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
13 You shall not murder.[c]
 As the footnote admits, the usual translation is "kill." Of course the Torah commands the Israelites to kill many times, in fact they are commanded to commit massacres and slaughter women, men and children.
14 You shall not commit adultery.
15 You shall not steal.
Of course they have just been commanded to steal from the Egyptians.
16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
Wives are the possessions of men, in the same category as slaves and domestic animals.

18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid[d] and trembled and stood at a distance, 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” 21 Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.

22 The Lord said to Moses: Thus you shall say to the Israelites: “You have seen for yourselves that I spoke with you from heaven. 23 You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. 24 You need make for me only an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your offerings of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. 25 But if you make for me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones; for if you use a chisel upon it you profane it. 26 You shall not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.”
Here are two or three more commandments. Why does God like to have animals burned? That seems to be his biggest thrill. Apparently the idea of not going up steps is that the usual garment is a tunic and they don't wear underpants, so somebody could look up there and see your junk. That's a pretty silly way to end this.


  1. Exodus 20:3 Or besides
  2. Exodus 20:6 Or to thousands
  3. Exodus 20:13 Or kill
  4. Exodus 20:18 Sam Gk Syr Vg: MT they saw

Friday, August 30, 2019

The truth about the Michael Mann - Tim Ball lawsuit

As most readers know, Michael Mann is a climatologist and geophysicist who is best known for his reconstruction of global temperatures over the past thousand years, showing a sudden sharp increase following the industrial revolution. It's known as the hockey stick graph. Here is a recent version

The famous hockey stick graph
Climate change deniers have consistently attacked this research, but it has withstood every assault. This is a very long story but if you want to you can read all about it. Anyway, a Canadian named Tim Ball accused Mann of perpetrating a hoax so Mann sued him for defamation. Mann has already won a lawsuit against the Frontier Institute for publishing Ball's false accusations:

In a message posted to its website, the Frontier Center apologized for publishing “untrue and disparaging” comments about Mann. “Although the Frontier Center for Public Policy still does not see eye to eye with Mr. Mann on the subject of global warming and climate change, we now accept that it was wrong to publish allegations by others that Mr. Mann did not comply with ethical standards,” the think tank wrote in part.
Now a Canadian court has dismissed Mann's suit against Ball, and climate change deniers are crowing that this proves that the "hockey stick" is a hoax. They are also claiming that Mann "refused to produce his data." The truth is that Ball asked that the suit be dismissed because Ball is old and sick, and also because nobody believed him anyway. 

In reality, the court tossed the case in what appears to be an act of pity for Tim Ball. As a statement from Mann’s lawyer explained, Ball’s request to terminate the lawsuit “relied heavily on his alleged state of health” and because, per Ball’s defense team, his claims are “given no credibility by the average, reasonable reader.” (An assessment bolstered by the fact that in a similar suit, a judge ruled that “a reasonably thoughtful and informed person… is unlikely to place any stock in Dr. Ball’s views.”)
On the health front, the plea to toss the case notes that Ball, born in 1938, “suffered coronary heart failure” in 2017, after “quintuple bypass surgery” ten years prior, in addition to having Type 2 Diabetes. Apparently being old is a defense?
Ball’s attorney also added that his website doesn’t show up in at least 92% of searches for Dr. Mann, and that it has “low popularity.”

The court never asked Mann to produce his data, which is and always has been publicly available. If you want to analyze it yourself, it's here.

Here's an interview in which Mann discusses the late David Koch. It will reward your time. Unfortunately the denialists have been lying about this case and the judge's actual ruling, and at least one person who reads this blog was taken in by them.

also, too .. . Most civil suits are settled. If you sue someone for defamation and they end up retracting and apologizing, you have won. Also, in the case of Ball, the judge did not  order Mann to pay Ball's legal fees, or even one penny of them. That is also a lie by the denialists.

and also . . . The methodology, including both a text description and the actual analytic code, are posted at Mann's web site.   They are all publicly available, and you can read the methodolgy statement yourself, if you are sufficiently literate.  Mann did not withhold anything from the court and he is not hiding anything. Everybody in the world is free to examine everything he has done, to try to replicate it or show that it is invalid. So stop fucking lying!

plus which .. . Several independent teams of investigators have used the publicly available data and analytic code to test Mann's analyses and conclusions and they have concluded that he was essentially correct and others have actually extended the paleoclimate reconstruction farther into the past. Here is an extensive bibliography. It is utterly inane even to be discussing this. It is not controversial. It is the truth, like it or not.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Angels of Death

The news that somebody at a West Virginia VA medical center was apparently murdering patients with insulin overdoses is the latest reminder of a phenomenon that occurs disturbingly often. The denominator of all the medical professionals in the world is obviously very large, so the dozens who have been identified as serial killers don't mean you are at notable risk, but still. Actually there must be many more since one of the perks of being a physician or a nurse is that you can get away with being a serial killer pretty easily.

The most notorious is probably the British GP Harold Shipman, who killed at least 218 of his own patients according to an extensive investigation. He started out killing elderly women who did not have a long life expectancy, and perhaps he told himself he was acting out of mercy. But as time went on he relaxed his standards and started killing perfectly healthy people. He did it during house calls by injecting an overdose of heroin, which is used legally in the UK under the name diamorphone. He was only caught because he crudely forged a will of one of his victims to get her estate. Possibly at some level he wanted to be caught.

Donald Harvey was a nursing aide who plead guilty to murdering 37 people in Kentucky and Ohio but likely killed many more. He said these were mercy killings but he also murdered an ex-boyfriend and other acquaintances. It is particularly disturbing that he used a variety of methods, which were generally not as hard to detect as heroin or insulin overdoses. He used a variety of poisons, also smothered people and sometimes just let their oxygen tanks run out. The doctors were too busy to suspect anything, apparently.

Charles Cullen was a nurse who confessed to 40 murders but is thought to have committed up to 400.
Astonishingly, he continued to work as a nurse after his first employer, St. Barnabas hospital in Livingston, New Jersey concluded that he had contaminated IV bags, resulting in the deaths of dozens of patients. He continued to face allegations and suspicion of harming patients at various hospitals but continued to find employment elsewhere for several years. As Wikipedia states,

Cullen was largely able to move from facility to facility undetected because of the lack of requirements to report on suspicious behavior by medical workers, and inadequate legal protection for employers. New Jersey and Pennsylvania, like most states, required health care facilities to report suspicious deaths only in the most egregious cases, and penalties for failing to report incidents were minor. Many states did not give investigators the legal authority to discover where a worker had previously been employed. Employers feared to investigate incidents or give a bad employment reference for fear that such actions might trigger a lawsuit. According to detectives and Cullen himself, several hospitals suspected he was harming or killing patients, but failed to take appropriate legal actions. Following Cullen's criminal conviction, many of the hospitals where he had worked were sued by the families of his victims. The files and settlements against the New Jersey hospitals, all settled out of court, are sealed.
Michael Swango, a physician who is thought to have murdered as many as 60 people, also managed to continue to find employment  even though nurses had noticed that is patients kept mysteriously dying during his internship. The hospital did a cursory investigation and cleared him, but did not allow him to enter his second year. He got a job as an EMT, at which he started poisoning his co-workers, for which he was convicted and served 5 years in prison. He then used forged documents to get a job as a physician in South Dakota. The poisoning conviction was eventually discovered and he was fired, but he then managed to get a job at the VA medical center in Northport, New York, where again his patients started mysteriously dying. After his past was once again discovered, he fled to Zimbabwe where, you guessed it, he got a job as a physician. Eventually authorities tracked him down and arrested him in a layover in Chicago while he was on his way to Saudi Arabia. (FYI he is currently living out his years in the Supermax.)

What these and many other cases have in common is that these are individuals who simply enjoyed killing people, and as medical providers they were in a position to do it often and without detection. They were aided by institutional aversion to learning inconvenient truths and doing anything about it. Physicians are granted extraordinary power. They can stick their fingers up our asses and into our vaginas, if we have one. They can also cut us open and remove vital organs, and inject us with toxins. It's obviously rare for them to be psycho killers but we don't actually know how rare.

Monday, August 26, 2019

The rule of rescue

I've written about the rule of rescue quite a bit, but not recently. Now the approval of a new treatment for the genetic disease Spinal Muscular Atrophy is an occasion to revisit the topic. Some of the best discussion of this is in the New York Times, but it's behind a paywall for many of you so I'm providing alternative links.

SMA can have slow onset, but for many it means death in early childhood without treatment. There is a previously approved treatment, which costs $375,000/year. The newly approved treatment is thought to require only a one-time infusion, which may provide life-long benefit, but it costs $2.1 million. This writer who lives with SMA argues that the new treatment (onasemnogene abeparvovec,  band name Zolgensma) should be covered by insurance. Nathan Yates writes:

We should not put a price tag on life, though. “$2.1 million is too much to spend for that baby’s survival” isn’t the kind of “value assessment” we should ever accept as a society. Instead, think about the parents who will no longer have to receive the heartbreaking news that my parents were given 29 years ago: “Your child has spinal muscular atrophy, and there’s nothing we can do. Survival beyond early childhood is unlikely.” The price of Zolgensma seems insignificant now, don’t you think?
Well, if you agree with him that “'$2.1 million is too much to spend for that baby’s survival' isn’t the kind of “value assessment” we should ever accept as a society," you need to think long and hard about the implications of that, because we make the value assessment that far lower sums are too much to spend for babies' survival all the time. Yates has insurance so the treatment he is currently receiving, the $375,000/year one, is covered. But people without insurance, or with inadequate insurance are dying regularly of much less costly diseases, including diabetes. And children in poor countries around the world are dying every five minutes from causes that could be prevented for a few dollars, such as contaminated drinking water, malnutrition and lack of vaccinations.

The fact is that resources are scarce and we do have to put a price tag on life. We do it every day, every one of us. Yates actually teaches economics so he must understand this. The $2.1 million he wants for his treatment is $2.1 million that isn't spent on something else, which could be something that saves hundreds of lives. This is the most fundamental premise of economics, the ostensible reason why the discipline exists. It is particularly weird that conservatives argue that a) Human live is infinitely precious and you can't put a price on it and b) society as a whole has no responsibility to see to it that everyone has health insurance and gets access to basic life extending treatment. If you can't afford it, tough luck.

I am not going to extend this post with further analyses of the complexities of this problem and the many opinions about it, but I do want to point out once again that most people seem to look straight at it and not see it. I find this puzzling.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: Trust, but do not verify

We are now heading into an extensive bout of lawgiving. It won't start in this chapter, which is just the warmup. Let me take a brief aside to refer you to the Awkward  Moments Children's Bible. We obviously won't get to Samuel for a while so this will give you a taste of what's ahead once the Israelites have kings and all that.

As I often note here, the parts of the Bible they teach in Sunday school, and the parts that get preached about, are highly selective. In fact Tufts professor Daniel Dennett has written a whole book about ministers who lost their faith when they went to the theological seminary and actually read the damn thing. Since they had invested in their education and don't have any other marketable skills, many of them are still preaching and leading congregations even though they know it's all a fraud.

Anyway, let's get on with it. This is Exodus 19.

 On the first day of the third month after the Israelites left Egypt—on that very day—they came to the Desert of Sinai. After they set out from Rephidim, they entered the Desert of Sinai, and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain.
As I have mentioned before, the identification of this feature with what is today called Mount Sinai is a late attribution. Some scholars put them elsewhere but again, it really doesn't matter since this is all fiction anyway.

Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you[a] will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”
The theology is beginning to take shape. Going forward, there will be some variation and some backing and filling but the basic idea seems to be that there are other gods, but Yaweh is supreme, and he's chosen the Israelites to do the worshipping and perform the rituals that seem to keep him happy. This turns out to be at least as much a burden as it is a blessing, but at least it's coherent. On the other hand, we have no idea why he revels in all these sacrifices and making people follow a lot of silly rules and so on. But his whims reign supreme.
So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the Lord had commanded him to speak. The people all responded together, “We will do everything the Lord has said.” So Moses brought their answer back to the Lord.
The Lord said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you.” Then Moses told the Lord what the people had said.
10 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes 11 and be ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. 12 Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not approach the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain is to be put to death. 13 They are to be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on them. No person or animal shall be permitted to live.’ Only when the ram’s horn sounds a long blast may they approach the mountain.”
Of course, exactly where the foot of a mountain begins is not well defined. It's a fuzzy boundary, so Moses is instructed to "put limits,"  presumably by posting guards. Note once again, as with the battle with the Amelekites, that these recently escaped slaves are somehow well equipped with bows and arrows.
14 After Moses had gone down the mountain to the people, he consecrated them, and they washed their clothes. 15 Then he said to the people, “Prepare yourselves for the third day. Abstain from sexual relations.”
KJV has "come not at your wives," which I am guessing is a more literal translation since he's usually speaking to the men. The New International Version supports this, having "Be ready for the third day; don’t go near a woman."
16 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain[b] trembled violently. 19 As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.[c]
This obviously appears to be the description of volcanic activity, but Mount Sinai is not a volcano, nor are there any volcanoes in any place they might plausibly be. (There are volcanoes in Iran and western Saudi Arabia, although I don't believe there are any historic eruptions of the latter.) However, the authors of this (around 600 BC, remember) were no doubt familiar with descriptions of volcanic activity from Mediterranean seafarers. 
20 The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up 21 and the Lord said to him, “Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the Lord and many of them perish. 22 Even the priests, who approach the Lord, must consecrate themselves, or the Lord will break out against them.”
23 Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot come up Mount Sinai, because you yourself warned us, ‘Put limits around the mountain and set it apart as holy.’”
24 The Lord replied, “Go down and bring Aaron up with you. But the priests and the people must not force their way through to come up to the Lord, or he will break out against them.”
25 So Moses went down to the people and told them.
Okay, so Moses and Aaron get to go up and talk with God, but no witnesses are allowed. We're just going to have to take their word for it about what happens next. We apparently aren't expected to stop and ask why. God is capable of speaking to all of the people, but instead the plan is to confide in Moses and have him come down and give a report. We know it must be true because?


  1. Exodus 19:6 Or possession, for the whole earth is mine. You
  2. Exodus 19:18 Most Hebrew manuscripts; a few Hebrew manuscripts and Septuagint and all the people
  3. Exodus 19:19 Or and God answered him with thunder

Friday, August 23, 2019

At last some good news

David Koch, one of history's greatest monsters is dead. The Koch brothers are the primary sponsors of climate change denial and were, in fact, largely responsible for the origins of denialism. Remember that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was founded in 1988, and the Framework Convention on Climate Change signed in 1992.

The Kochs’ key role in stopping congressional action on climate change is well-known, but longtime environmental activists, such as Kert Davies, the director of the Climate Investigation Center, credit Leonard with discovering that the Kochs played an earlier and even more central role in climate-change denial than was previously understood. In 2010, Davies authored a report, for Greenpeace, that labelled the Kochs “The Kingpins of Denial,” but he told me that he hadn’t realized that their role went as far back as 1991. . . .
According to “Kochland,” the 1991 conference was called “Global Environmental Crisis: Science or Politics?” It featured many of the same characters who have spread doubt about the reality of climate change and continue to challenge the advisability of acting against it. Among the speakers was Richard S. Lindzen, a professor of meteorology at M.I.T., who is quoted in the brochure as saying there was “very little evidence at all” that climate change would be “catastrophic.”
“Kochland” is important, Davies said, because it makes it clear that “you’d have a carbon tax, or something better, today, if not for the Kochs. They stopped anything from happening back when there was still time.”
Enjoy your oxygen while you still can.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Long Emergency: Physicians' Viewpoint

The New England Journal of Medicine, to their credit, has several open-access essays on the environmental crisis. A good part of the value-added from these is that they demonstrate the synergy among some important issues that aren't often considered together, and don't get a lot of attention in the corporate media.

Sorenson and Gracia-Trebenino discuss an epidemic that is largely ignored in the United States. Agricultural workers in tropical climates are experiencing radical increases in the incidence of chronic kidney disease and renal failure. While the cause is not fully understood, it appears to be linked to rising temperatures resulting in heat stress and dehydration. This is one more indication that the climate emergency will reduce agricultural production, and render large areas of the planet unsuitable for agriculture and even uninhabitable.

Another inconvenient truth the corporate media largely ignores is that CO2 is not the only harmful emission from burning fossil fuel. Ultra-fine particles -- especially so-called PM2.5, which are microscopic, are inhaled into the alveoli and can pass into the blood stream -- kill people. Actually a lot of people. Every 10 μg per cubic meter increase on a given day raises mortality by 0.68%. A microgram is 1 millionth of a gram. These particles are totally imperceptible. You cannot see them or smell them. There could be trillions of them in the space between you and the person next to you and you would be completely unaware of it. The highest concentrations are within 100 meters or so of highways, and of course airports and truck terminals and other places where poor people are likely to live.

Of course we know what the current administration is doing: pretending none of this is real and eliminating efforts to combat it, in order to satisfy the psychopathic greed of wealthy Republican donors.

J.H. Dunk and colleagues, in discussing the history of physician activism around environmental issues, remind us that the climate crisis has been fully understood since the 1980s, and that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988. In other words, for 30 years we've been doing essentially nothing while we have known full well that we were running headlong toward unimaginable catastrophe.

You don't need any more reason to devote the very worth of your being to ridding us of the Chosen One, King of Israel. Fast. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

This really happened

The (ostensible) President of the United States cancelled a state visit to Denmark in a hissy fit over the country's refusal to sell Greenland.

He also that the 70% of American Jews who vote Democratic are either ignorant or "disloyal." Disloyal to what, exactly?

Then he re-tweets that says the Israelis think he's the King of Israel and the second coming of God -- please note that Jews do not believe in the first coming of God -- from a guy who:

[W]as a leading proponent of the conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States.[25] At one point, Root falsely claimed that Obama was not a student at Columbia University;[4] at another point, in an interview with Sean Hannity, Root said that he believed that Obama was a “foreign exchange student” at Columbia.[5] Root has described Obama as a “Marxist, anti-American, anti-Israel, globalist, middle class-hating, Muslim sympathizer”.[5] He also claimed that Obama was gay, called him “Bathhouse Barry” and said that he had info from Obama’s “friends in Chicago” about Obama’s “sordid past”.[5] He has described Obama as a “Manchurian candidate”, possibly hired by the Bilderberg Group to destroy the United States and “kill all of us”.[5]

He promoted conspiracy theories around the murder of Seth Rich, and at various times suggested that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Hillary Clinton, Donna Brazile, Bill Clinton, Eric Schneiderman and John Podesta were involved in the murder.[5]

During the white supremacist Unite the Right rally, Root falsely claimed that the white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. who killed Heather Heyer was “such B.S. Probably paid actors & infiltrators hired by Soros. No conservative I’ve ever met commits violence. EVER.”[5]

Root tweeted in the aftermath of the 2017 Las Vegas shooting: “This is a real thing. Clearly Coordinated Muslim Terror attack. PRAY for our Vegas police. PRAY for victims. VERY bad. Awful.”[26] It was later confirmed that the shooter was 64-year-old Mesquite, Nevada, resident Stephen Paddock.[27] Root then defended his original claim by tweeting: “Terrible day. Liberal fools criticizing me 4 reporting what I hear DIRECT from police & credible news sources. I report it as I hear it.”[28]

Root argued that Special Counsel Robert Mueller‘s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election is motivated by “penis envy”, because “Mueller’s is smaller than Trump’s.”[5] 
 The Resident is utterly batshit  insane. The worst part is that we're spending all our time talking about the madness of King Donald instead of a whole lot of stuff that really, really matters.

Also, too, at some point he'll get around to asking why that marine with a briefcase is following him around all the time.

And also, it is not the case that I only publish comments I agree with. It is the case that I do not publish comments that are asinine, offensive, or gibberish. I try to maintain a reasonably respectable level of discourse here. The reason most Black people vote for Democrats is because the Republican party is the party of white racism. I don't think that has to do with some misplaced concept of "identity" on their part, I think it's because they aren't stupid. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Constitution

U.S. political culture sacralizes the Constitution. The United States was actually somewhat unusual in that a bunch of people sat down and consciously wrote a blueprint for government of a newly founded nation. European governments evolved, and many do not have any written constitution at all. Written constitutions are the norm for newly liberated former colonies, although many of them have gone through military coups or other upheavals that resulted in wholesale replacement of the document, often more than once.

As Professor Campos compellingly argues, the Constitution of the United States is not an object that anyone should hold sacred or even particularly admire. The occasion for his essay is the NYT's 1619 project that examines the history of slavery in the U.S. and the long shadow it casts today. It seems that many conservatives are objecting to this, on the grounds that honest discussion of history will undermine the legitimacy of the Constitution. That seems a typical conservative habit of thought -- pretend that inconvenient truths do not exist. As Campos summarizes:

The original Constitution failed so badly that an exceptionally bloody civil war had to be fought in order to amend it (The amendment itself took place at literal gunpoint: a historical detail that our rhapsodes of the original document tend to pass over in discreet silence).
As [Ian] Millhiser also points out, that amendment process then failed again in short order, as the South won the peace after losing the war. [Disenfranchising African Americans for the next 100 years.]
We are very much living with the consequences of that postbellum victory today, in the form of increasingly extreme forms of minority rule. In twenty years, 35 states full of old white people will send 70 senators to a body in which 70% of the nation’s population — the relatively younger, relatively non-white, relatively economically productive part of the population — will be represented by all of 30 senators.
This is not an accident. It is, like the election of Donald Trump, a direct product of the original constitutional design.
The sad truth is that we are stuck with it, however. The amendment process would require those 35 states full of old white people to go along with surrendering their privilege. Campos doesn't see a way out of this. Do you?

And give me a fucking break. Pointing out white privilege, and efforts to defend it, is not racist. Defending white privilege is racist. 

Further give me a fucking break. Some of my best friends are white.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Portland, by request

PZ Meyers rounds up the news about the neo-Nazi rally in Portland. They did get the favorable attention they wanted from the Great Orange Turd, but otherwise it was evidently totally pathetic, if one can feel any pathos for them.

Sunday Sermonette: Getting organized

We've had a bit of lawgiving so far -- the Passover commemoration and keeping the sabbath, in particular. The lawgiving is about to get going big time, but before God starts rolling out the edicts, we interrupt the story for a blast from the past, offering some avuncular advice. This story seems a bit of an awkward grafting, as did the previous episode featuring Zipporah, and one wonders if this might be imported from a separate story that was really about the Midianites. Anyway, it seems anodyne but it raises some interesting questions. Here goes.

Now Jethro, the priest of Midian and father-in-law of Moses, heard of everything God had done for Moses and for his people Israel, and how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.
After Moses had sent away his wife Zipporah, his father-in-law Jethro received her and her two sons. One son was named Gershom,[a] for Moses said, “I have become a foreigner in a foreign land”; and the other was named Eliezer,[b] for he said, “My father’s God was my helper; he saved me from the sword of Pharaoh.”
Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, together with Moses’ sons and wife, came to him in the wilderness, where he was camped near the mountain of God. Jethro had sent word to him, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you with your wife and her two sons.”
Now, we might well ask how Jethro knew where to find them in the wilderness. Maybe he called Mo on his satellite phone? Actually, we already know that the Midianites trade across the Sinai (remember Joseph?) so this does possibly make sense. Note, however, that Jethro did not have to cross the Red Sea or the Gulf of Suez to get here.
So Moses went out to meet his father-in-law and bowed down and kissed him. They greeted each other and then went into the tent. Moses told his father-in-law about everything the Lord had done to Pharaoh and the Egyptians for Israel’s sake and about all the hardships they had met along the way and how the Lord had saved them.
Jethro was delighted to hear about all the good things the Lord had done for Israel in rescuing them from the hand of the Egyptians. 10 He said, “Praise be to the Lord, who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and of Pharaoh, and who rescued the people from the hand of the Egyptians. 11 Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods, for he did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly.” 12 Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and other sacrifices to God, and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat a meal with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God.
This is actually pretty interesting. Jethro is not an Israelite but he recognizes the greatness of YHWH. This is the first suggestion that YHWH might be a universal God, although he is not yet the One God, but merely greater than the others. However, even if the Midianites start worshipping him, I have to ask, what's in it for them? He chose  the Israelites and there's no indication that he's going to do bupkis for the Midianites, and they aren't getting his laws either. (The assertion that there is in fact only one God does not appear until Deuteronomy, in case you're waiting for it. Even then, it's inconsistent. You'll have to be patient!)

I will just also note that while Moses seems glad to see his father in law, there is no indication that he has the least interest in his wife and sons.
13 The next day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening. 14 When his father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he said, “What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?”
15 Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will. 16 Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and instructions.”
17 Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. 19 Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. 20 Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave. 21 But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22 Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. 23 If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.”
This seems to be sensible advice. Large societies do of course require delegation of power. The Israelites have been slaves so now they need to figure out how to govern themselves. However, only armies are organized according to such arithmetic rules -- corps, division, brigade, battalion, company . . .  Societal subunits are normally geographic or, in the case of a nomadic people such as the Israelites still are at this point, familial. We already know that the Israelites are composed of several tribes, and they have even been named in Genesis. We also know from historical and even extant Middle Eastern societies that the tribes in turn consist of clans and they have their own chiefs who gain authority by a combination of heredity and politicking. It is very unlikely that Israelite society was ever structured in this way, by top-down appointment of officials from among an undifferentiated mass. So I find the existence of this passage difficult to explain. 
24 Moses listened to his father-in-law and did everything he said. 25 He chose capable men from all Israel and made them leaders of the people, officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 26 They served as judges for the people at all times. The difficult cases they brought to Moses, but the simple ones they decided themselves.
27 Then Moses sent his father-in-law on his way, and Jethro returned to his own country.


  1. Exodus 18:3 Gershom sounds like the Hebrew for a foreigner there.
  2. Exodus 18:4 Eliezer means my God is helper.