Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Frog Boiling

Josh Marshall has  a post titled Clear and Present Danger, and he doesn't bury the lede:

We’re far past the point where it matters whether President Trump is a ignorant and destructive fool or operates as some sort of agent of the Russian Federation. The upshot appears to be the same.
He's been talking about withdrawing from NATO and the World Trade Organization, trying to break up the European Union, and he's endorsed the Russian seizure of Crimea, among other alarming comments. Now he plans to meet with Vladimir Putin right after the upcoming NATO summit, for no stated reason. He also doesn't understand anything about economics or international trade, and even the commies who run General Motors are terrified of a trade war devastating their business. This is industry he claims the tariffs are supposed to benefit.

It's pretty clear that he has in fact been a Russian stooge since 2013, if not earlier. Which is obviously why Putin put him in office, which is no longer even a questionable assertion. And come on, his campaign chair is a Russian agent, we know that.

One might think this would be viewed as a national emergency requiring some sort of response from congress.  Not to mention the news media. But evidently they've all been flipped too.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018


That seems to be the hot topic of the day, and there are so many good takes on it I don't know where to begin. So let's go to the always reliable Charlie Pierce first. You need to read this of course, but it offers two main takeaways: what actually happened when Sarah Sanders was kicked out of a restaurant; and the history of Republican and conservative "civility." Part the first is that many of the restaurant staff are gay and they didn't like an administration that claims that merchants are within their rights refusing to serve them, and everybody was outraged by the administration kidnapping children. So they had a staff meeting, they talked it over, and the owner went along with the people's wishes and politely asked Sanders and her party to leave. She comped them the cheese plate they had already eaten.

For the second part I'll give you a pull quote:

For the benefit of those people also living in Fred Hiatt’s Land Without History: abortion providers have been stalked. Their children have been stalked. Their places of business have been vandalized. And, lest we forget, doctors who perform abortions have been fucking killed! They’ve been gunned down in their clinics, in their kitchens, and in their churches. They have not been allowed to live peaceably with their families, Fred, you addlepated Beltway thooleramawn. They haven’t been allowed to live at all. I’m no expert, but I’m fairly sure that a bullet in the head is far more uncivil than a complementary fucking cheese plate. What is wrong with these people?
I’m old enough to remember the raucous town halls of 2010, when the AstroTurfed forces of the Tea Party shouted down members of Congress while men with automatic weapons strolled around the perimeter of arenas in which the President of the United States was speaking. I’m old enough to remember when N. Leroy Gingrich, Definer of Civilization's Rules and Leader (Perhaps) of The Civilizing Forces, was working out his Universal Lexicography of Insult for the benefit of a party that ate it up with an entrenching tool. Newt also emerged on the electric Twitter machine over the weekend, leaping to SarahHuck’s defense, and that was nearly enough to make me give up English as a hobby.
Next I'll give you Echidne of the Snakes, who as a feminist blogger is extremely familiar with incivility. "Threats of various types of sexual violence are a fairly common experience of women (even right-wing women) who have ventured into the public sphere.  It's worse if a woman express feminist views, but almost any views suffice for those who are outraged at the very fact that some woman dares to speak or write (2)." The footnote goes to: "Mary Beard has written about the history of suppressing women's voices in the public sphere and about how that history is continuing in the online world." (For those of you who don't know, Mary Beard is a classicist -- a historian of ancient Rome. I just read her latest book SPQR, which I recommend.)

Echidne goes on to point out the obvious, that is the Uncivil One In Chief:

Our Supreme Leader, the Glorious Son of the Orange Sun is the rudest and most incivil of all people in American politics.  He gets away with it, just as he gets away with everything else.  He is the President of Impunity.  Nothing sticks to him.  Not his fraudulent business practices, not his charity debacle, not the Trump University debacle, not his open racism, not his open sexism, not his ridicule of the handicapped, not his adoration of psychopathic dictators who wantonly kill their own people, not his lack of any skills or experience for the job he has.  Nothing sticks to him, because what the Trump brand is is exactly that:

The right to act like an asshole.
 Then there is Mark Sumner, who points out what should be obvious. The issue isn't "civility," it is to whom the "incivility" is directed.

It’s not just that major media sources have settled into a routine where when Donald Trump insults someone, their first instinct is to repeat that insult. Or that they are constantly in search for a comment from the left which, no matter how it is phrased, can be turned into the focus of some serious nose-lifted high dudgeon. It’s not simply that while the right punches, the press plays stenographer, and when the left fights back, they declare fighting out of bounds. It’s not even about the incredible spectacle of journalists who have personally been on the receiving end of both spit and thrown bottles while Trump rants about ending “political correctness,” suddenly chiding the left for refusing to be good little frogs while the water boils.
It’s that the demand being made for “civility” isn’t about language at all. It’s about throwing a ring of protection around the powerful. It’s about pretending that people whose actions wreck millions of lives on a whim, are cocooned from the consequences of their actions, not just because they have money, and connections, and resources, but because their power puts them on a different plane.

I give you also Michelle Goldberg: "We have a crisis of democracy, not civility." And this historian who finds a 1934 New York Times opinion column urging the Jews to be civil to Hitler.

And guess what? In 2012 a baker refused to serve Joe Biden and Paul Ryan invited him to speak at a campaign rally. Gotcha.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: Family Values

First let me note that, as with most of Genesis history (as it were) archaeologists have not been able to find any evidence of actual events corresponding to this story, or even of the existence of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Obviously there are no volcanoes in the area so there isn't any obvious natural explanation for the raining of sulfur from the sky. It is conceivable that accounts of Mt. Vesuvius had reached the area, inspiring the story. Vesuvius erupted in about 2,800 BC, destroying several bronze age settlements; and continued to be active for centuries after that. Phoenicians could have brought tales to the region. (This is purely my own speculation.)

15 With the coming of dawn, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Hurry! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away when the city is punished.”
16 When he hesitated, the men grasped his hand and the hands of his wife and of his two daughters and led them safely out of the city, for the Lord was merciful to them. 17 As soon as they had brought them out, one of them said, “Flee for your lives! Don’t look back, and don’t stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!”
18 But Lot said to them, “No, my lords, please! 19 Your servant has found favor in your eyes, and you have shown great kindness to me in sparing my life. But I can’t flee to the mountains; this disaster will overtake me, and I’ll die. 20 Look, here is a town near enough to run to, and it is small. Let me flee to it—it is very small, isn’t it? Then my life will be spared.”
21 He said to him, “Very well, I will grant this request too; I will not overthrow the town you speak of. 22 But flee there quickly, because I cannot do anything until you reach it.” (That is why the town was called Zoar.)
So the angels aren't smart enough to figure out that Lot can't run to the mountains fast enough to escape whatever is happening, but Lot can. He  has to set them straight. Regarding the final parenthetical statement, apparently Zoar means "small," and evidently the idea is that in order to spare it, they will have to make only a minimal compromise with the plan of total extermination. Note that this includes the infants and children.
23 By the time Lot reached Zoar, the sun had risen over the land. 24 Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the Lord out of the heavens. 25 Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, destroying all those living in the cities—and also the vegetation in the land. 26 But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.
Okay, so Lot's unnamed wife glances back at her home as it is destroyed, and God, or perhaps one of the angels acting independently, kills her in a bizarre manner because, uhm, well, just because. As it happens there is a mountain in the area today called Mt. Sodom -- not because of any historical association with a city or place of that name, but because it consists largely of salt. Uplift from plate tetonics has pushed what was an underground salt deposit upward -- it's still growing, BTW -- and erosion has produced some pillars, one of which is called Lot's wife. So this formation may have inspired the tale.
27 Early the next morning Abraham got up and returned to the place where he had stood before the Lord. 28 He looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, toward all the land of the plain, and he saw dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace.
29 So when God destroyed the cities of the plain, he remembered Abraham, and he brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had lived.30 Lot and his two daughters left Zoar and settled in the mountains, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar. He and his two daughters lived in a cave. 31 One day the older daughter said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is no man around here to give us children—as is the custom all over the earth. 32 Let’s get our father to drink wine and then sleep with him and preserve our family line through our father.”
 Sounds like a plan!
33 That night they got their father to drink wine, and the older daughter went in and slept with him. He was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.
34 The next day the older daughter said to the younger, “Last night I slept with my father. Let’s get him to drink wine again tonight, and you go in and sleep with him so we can preserve our family line through our father.” 35 So they got their father to drink wine that night also, and the younger daughter went in and slept with him. Again he was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.
36 So both of Lot’s daughters became pregnant by their father. 37 The older daughter had a son, and she named him Moab; he is the father of the Moabites of today. 38 The younger daughter also had a son, and she named him Ben-Ammi; he is the father of the Ammonites of today.
Okaaay. So this is the just and righteous family who God chose to save from among all the victims of his latest mass murder. Incest is rewarded since the two products thereof go on to be the patriarchs of substantial societies. Of course incest is not new. Remember that Abraham and Sarah have the same father. Later, the mother and father of Moses and Aaron will be full siblings. And while Lot's daughters are rewarded for actually having sex with their father, remember that Ham's son Canaan was cursed because Ham accidentally saw his drunken father Noah naked. It must be fun to live with the Bible as your guide to morality.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Dr. Evil

Occasionally, medical professionals turn out to be serial killers. There have been a few cases of nurses who have had a hobby of murdering patients here in the U.S. Offhand I can think of a single physician who not only murdered several patients but who tried to feed his colleagues poison doughnuts, among other unpleasant acts. (Sorry, I can't remember his name and I don't feel like searching for it. I wrote about it here at the time, several years back.)

In the UK, Harold Shipman was a small town GP who murdered as many as 250 patients. He killed himself in prison without ever explaining why he did it. They were mostly elderly, but not terminally ill. He gave them overdoses of heroin.

Now our former colonizers have a case that is perhaps more disturbing, and quite weird. Not just a single doctor, but an entire hospital ward killed something on the order of 450 patients with heroin overdoses. (I should point out that the drug we call heroin is called diamorphine in the UK and is used medically in situations in which morphine would be commonly used in the US.)

A bit of context is needed here. There is some debate about it, but it is generally considered ethical to give terminally ill people who are in severe pain doses of opioids sufficient to relieve their suffering even if death might be hastened as a consequence. You're supposed to compartmentalize and keep in your mind that it is not your intention to cause death. However, the patients at Gosport hospital were not in pain, or had only relatively mild pain that could have been treated safely. Nor were they necessarily terminally ill. So it would not have been immediately obvious that something really wrong was going on if you saw a lot of old people in intensive care with infusion pumps pushing in opioids, and ending up dead.

However, in this case nurses and family members complained about it, the police investigated several times, and yet it continued for 12 years. Doctor Jane Barton was responsible for overseeing prescribing on the wards, but others were aware of what was happening. Barton was eventually found to have been deficient in her care of 12 patients by a medical tribunal, but she was never prosecuted.

The investigation has not provided much insight into why and how this happened. But it does seem to be an exemplar of how a group  mentality or workplace culture can form in which people collectively go off the rails. There is still a great deal about this that's mysterious and I hope we'll learn more.

As a footnote, there is something very odd in the reporting. One of the nurses says that until she got to Gosford, she had never heard of a syringe driver. That doesn't make any sense. These devices -- more commonly called infusion pumps in the U.S., I believe -- are commonplace. They deliver a continual slow trickle of medication, often an opioid. When I had surgery back in 1991, they put me on a morphine infusion. I didn't like it and asked them to stop it after a day or two. Of course my dose was not at a dangerous level.

Anyway, this is a very weird outlier story and it shouldn't deter you from getting a morphine drip if you really need one. But still . . ..

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Do you remember a guy named Barack Obama?

He's on Facebook. Here's what he posted today.

His tone is measured, his words dignified, he refrains from ad hominem attacks. Here's what he writes:

Today is World Refugee Day.
If you've been fortunate enough to have been born in America, imagine for a moment if circumstance had placed you somewhere else. Imagine if you'd been born in a country where you grew up fearing for your life, and eventually the lives of your children. A place where you finally found yourself so desperate to flee persecution, violence, and suffering that you'd be willing to travel thousands of miles under cover of darkness, enduring dangerous conditions, propelled forward by that very human impulse to create for our kids a better life.
That's the reality for so many of the families whose plights we see and heart-rending cries we hear. And to watch those families broken apart in real time puts to us a very simple question: are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms, or are we a nation that values families, and works to keep them together? Do we look away, or do we choose to see something of ourselves and our children?
Our ability to imagine ourselves in the shoes of others, to say “there but for the grace of God go I,” is part of what makes us human. And to find a way to welcome the refugee and the immigrant – to be big enough and wise enough to uphold our laws and honor our values at the same time – is part of what makes us American. After all, almost all of us were strangers once, too. Whether our families crossed the Atlantic, the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we’re only here because this country welcomed them in, and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like, how our last names sound, or the way we worship. To be an American is to have a shared commitment to an ideal – that all of us are created equal, and all of us deserve the chance to become something better.
That’s the legacy our parents and grandparents and generations before created for us, and it’s something we have to protect for the generations to come. But we have to do more than say “this isn’t who we are.” We have to prove it – through our policies, our laws, our actions, and our votes.
I won't be so dignified and so measured. If you are a U.S. citizen your government, in your name, is torturing babies and children by the  thousands for the sole purpose of exciting and gratifying its vicious, racist base of supporters.  The man occupying the office of president is the most vile, repulsive, evil individual on the planet. The only just outcome is to lock him in a cage for the rest of his life. It cannot happen soon enough.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

State of Vacillation

It's difficult for me to post these days because there is too much to write about, and no one subject seems adequate. This problem of outrage fatigue is affecting a lot of people, I believe, and makes it difficult to respond appropriately to everything that is going on in the nation and the world.

I believe that all I can do is take on some bite-sized pieces. This often feels to me as though I'm ducking more urgent matters, but there are plenty of far more amplified voices to take those on.

Today is June 19th, a holiday celebrated particularly by African Americans in Texas. As I discussed in my recent post about Lee's surrender at Appomattox, the event didn't end the war. Other confederate units kept fighting. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, following the Union victory at Antietam. It was effective as of January 1, 1863. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865.

But of course the proclamation had no effect where the slaveholders still ruled. When Union general Gordon Granger entered Galveston on June 19, he found that slavery was still practiced. In fact, word of the proclamation had never even reached Texas. Granger then issued this statement:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.
It took a while before the slaves generally became free in Texas, and then it didn't last with the rise of the Klan. But in 1866 the freed slaves began to celebrate Juneteenth, as much as a deliberate affront to their former masters as a celebration. Let us always remember the country's two irredeemable original sins, slavery and the Native American genocide. Right now, we're going backwards.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: God is a psychopath

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

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

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Civics Lesson

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

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

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

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

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

Say what you really think.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

You can't breathe. You cannot breathe.

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

World's greatest business name ever

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

A* Disposal. 

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

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

Monday, June 11, 2018

Can I do it till I need glasses?

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: The mind of God

The second half of Genesis 18 is just bizarre.

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

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

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

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Hey Indeedy

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Transparency in climate science

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 04, 2018


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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: God sure is weird

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

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

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

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

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