Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: Have a heapin' helpin' of tedium

Okay, first we need to finish up Genesis 22. Here's the rest of it:

20 Some time later Abraham was told, “Milkah is also a mother; she has borne sons to your brother Nahor: 21 Uz the firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel (the father of Aram), 22 Kesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph and Bethuel.” 23 Bethuel became the father of Rebekah. Milkah bore these eight sons to Abraham’s brother Nahor. 24 His concubine, whose name was Reumah, also had sons: Tebah, Gaham, Tahash and Maakah.
Okay,  whatev. We never hear about most of these people again. The only exception may be Rebekah, who apparently becomes the incestuous wife of her cousin Isaac. Other than that, why are we told all this?

So  here's 23:

Sarah lived to be a hundred and twenty-seven years old. She died at Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her.
Then Abraham rose from beside his dead wife and spoke to the Hittites. He said, “I am a foreigner and stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.”
 Actually, the text doesn't literally say "the Hittites," it says the "sons of Heth." Heth was the second son of Canaan and the ancestor of the Hittites. However, if you go back a couple of chapters you will recall the Abram and Sarah live in the land of Abimelech, a Philistine. Maybe they weren't home when Sarah died? No explanation is provided. Anyhow:

The Hittites replied to Abraham, “Sir, listen to us. You are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will refuse you his tomb for burying your dead.”
Then Abraham rose and bowed down before the people of the land, the Hittites. He said to them, “If you are willing to let me bury my dead, then listen to me and intercede with Ephron son of Zohar on my behalf so he will sell me the cave of Machpelah, which belongs to him and is at the end of his field. Ask him to sell it to me for the full price as a burial site among you.”
10 Ephron the Hittite was sitting among his people and he replied to Abraham in the hearing of all the Hittites who had come to the gate of his city. 11 “No, my lord,” he said. “Listen to me; I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. I give it to you in the presence of my people. Bury your dead.”
12 Again Abraham bowed down before the people of the land 13 and he said to Ephron in their hearing, “Listen to me, if you will. I will pay the price of the field. Accept it from me so I can bury my dead there.”
14 Ephron answered Abraham, 15 “Listen to me, my lord; the land is worth four hundred shekels of silver, but what is that between you and me? Bury your dead.”
16 Abraham agreed to Ephron’s terms and weighed out for him the price he had named in the hearing of the Hittites: four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weight current among the merchants.
17 So Ephron’s field in Machpelah near Mamre—both the field and the cave in it, and all the trees within the borders of the field—was deeded 18 to Abraham as his property in the presence of all the Hittites who had come to the gate of the city. 19 Afterward Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave in the field of Machpelah near Mamre (which is at Hebron) in the land of Canaan. 20 So the field and the cave in it were deeded to Abraham by the Hittites as a burial site.
 I don't have a whole lot to say about this except that it's taken a whole chapter to tell us that Sarah died and Abraham bought a cave from another rich man in which to bury her. We do learn that since Eden, indeed since the flood, people have invented money and the concept of a deed to property. This is the first time that's come up. It's possible that there was a dispute about ownership and this was written as a defense of Abraham's title to the cave. The cave becomes the burial place of Abraham and some of his descendants, so it's important I guess. However, you will never hear a sermon preached on this chapter.

There is a cave complex in Hebron which believers associate with this story.  King Herod built an enclosure over the caves, which was later converted to a basilica then destroyed by Persians in 614, and replaced by a mosque in 637. In 1100 crusaders captured Hebron and converted the mosque once again to a church from which Muslims were excluded. In 1188 Salah u'Din recaptured the city and converted the structure once again to a mosque, but in keeping with his inclusive philosophy Christians and Jews were also allowed to worship there. The Mamluks built extensively on the site after 1318, and forbade Jews from entering. When Israel conquered the West Bank in 1967, Jews once again could enter the complex. The status of the Cave of the Patriarchs is a fraught issue at present. I got all this from Wikipedia and you might be interested in reading the history. Of course, we can't know for sure if this really is the same cave, or if whole the story is even true.

Friday, July 27, 2018

It's already happening

The Guardian environmental reporter Damian Carrington interviews Michael Mann, and some of his colleagues. Maybe you heard about the unprecedented heat wave in Japan, and if you caught the Open Championship on TV last weekend you know about the European drought and heat wave that's threatening crops across the continent, and caused wildfires from Greece to the arctic. And there's a lot more, including a particularly bad fire season in the U.S. Oh, this is fun: the weather forecast for Basra, Iraq. I would say that qualifies as uninhabitable.

The Mueller witch hunt has already caught a lot of witches -- 5 guilty pleas and the indictment of an additional 26 people on more than a hundred charges. And the climate change hoax has evidently fooled the weather Gods. As Mann told Carrington:

The impacts of climate change are no longer subtle. We are seeing them play out in real time and what is happening this summer is a perfect example of that. We are seeing our predictions come true. As a scientist that is reassuring, but as a citizen of planet Earth, it is very distressing to see that as it means we have not taken the necessary action.
Indeed. The sirens are screaming. There are plenty of urgent issues, but this is at the top. Nothing else matters if we don't act, forcefully and immediately.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

More on being dead

The definition of human life is a profound cultural and political fault line. One end, of course, is when human life begins. This surfaces as a largely emotional debate, and facts don't enter into it very much. For example,here is Zack Beauchamp in Vox, discussing why white evangelical Christians find such an unlikely hero in the Resident. It turns out it's because they're racists, but we already knew that. However, he concludes with this:

Typically, you expect evangelical ideas to flow from religion to politics: They have a deep belief that the Bible prohibits abortion, for example, and support bans on legal abortion as a result. But in this case, Sheila and Linda aren’t starting from scripture; there’s no biblical reason to think Jesus hated the undocumented.
Instead, it’s the other way around. The sense of existential threat — that “the survival of the Christian nation” is at stake — is leading them toward a particular, racialized definition of what their faith means. The evangelical right, and the American right more broadly, is being reshaped to match the white backlash politics that powered Donald Trump’s rise.
While it is true that Jesus didn't hate "the undocumented" (and of course back in his day there generally weren't any visas or passports or border patrols), it is not the case that the Bible prohibits abortion. Beauchamp, who writes about politics for a living, evidently doesn't know that. In fact there is not one word about abortion in the Bible, New Testament or Old, with the possible exception of a passage in Numbers which some people interpret as a ceremony for the purpose of inducing abortion. The public debate about the subject would be better served by the introduction of some facts, of which that would seem to be an important one.

However, what I really want to talk about today is the other end of the fault line, when life ends. Robert Truog and colleagues in JAMA discuss the history of the concept of brain death. For millions of years of hominid existence, there was never any problem deciding when a Homo erectus or Homo sapiens was dead. If you aren't breathing, that's all I need to know. 

But in the 1950s, humans invented positive pressure ventilation, which made it possible to pump air into the lungs of people who, as Truog et al put it, "had no discernible cognitive function." So were these people dead? When was it okay to pull the plug. In 1968 an ad hoc committee at Harvard Medical School decided that "irreversible coma" was equivalent to death. They concluded that this could be established if "over a 24 hour period, the patient did not respond to stimuli, had no spontaneous movement or breathing; and had no reflexes; a flat electroencephalogram provided valuable confirmation of the cessation of brain function."

Some people think that the desire to get transplantable organs influenced this decision, but it seems pretty reasonable on the face of it. Over the ensuing years, states began to write these criteria into law, and now it more or less pertains in all 50. However, as we have seen, not everyone accepts this, and controversies keep erupting over decisions to withdraw "life support" from people who, according to the law, are actually dead.

Originally, defenders of the criteria argued that even if brain dead people were kept on life support, their bodies would quickly deteriorate and the heart would stop. It turns out, however, that this is not really true. It is technically possible now to keep the hearts of brain dead people beating for years. In 2008, a presidential commission proposed that brain dead people are not alive because they have ceased to perform "the fundamental vital work of a living organism." But this creates a problem because many people who are not brain dead require assistive devices to perform said "vital work."

The fact is that for some reason people don't want to grasp the nettle -- on both ends of the debate. What makes us human is not our beating heart or our pumping lungs, it is our consciousness, our capacity to experience. This requires, at a minimum, a functioning frontal cortex. There is no ghost in the machine, the machine is indistinguishable from the ghost. They are one and the same. Everybody needs to get that before we can have a sensible discussion.

Monday, July 23, 2018

You ungrateful wretches

Brad DeLong is posting entire chapter drafts of his in-progress magnum opus. It is a sweeping economic history of what he calls the "long 20th Century" which began around 1870 and ended in November, 2016 when the liberal project ran into a ditch. I say, maybe, there's still hope, but that's a digression.

We take our current condition for granted, but it is not the human condition of the 300,000 year career of Homo sapiens. As DeLong reminds us:

When the Long 20th Century started in 1870, the overwhelming bulk of humanity was still so malnourished as to be constantly hungry, so ill-clothed as to be (in climates not in near-equatorial lowlands at least) often cold, so ill-sheltered as to be frequently (in non-arid climates, at least) wet. Most members of humanity had good reason to fear that it might be difficult to get their 2000 calories a day next year, and many had good reason to fear that it might be difficult to get their 2000 calories a day next week. When it ended in 2016, those fears were gone for most of humanity—it was a scandal that they remained for a significant portion. When it ended in 2016, somewhere between the top quarter and the top three-quarters of the human [sic] were wealthier than previous eras’ kings.

Rudiger Dorbusch said in his oft-used introductory textbook that the fundamental problem of economics is the problem of scarcity. (I paraphrase from memory.) This is now an oversimplification. In the U.S. today, we do not face a scarcity of calories, for example, we face an excess. Most Americans would do well to consume fewer.

It isn't worth a link, but a Kos diary today noted that meat is piling up in warehouses because the trade war has suppressed exports. A commenter asked why the price doesn't come down until domestic consumption would clear the market, and wouldn't that be good for consumers? Well, that might be Economics 101 but it doesn't work that way. Most Americans already eat all the meat they care to. The minority whose consumption is constrained by income will never soak up all that surplus by substituting steak for beans; we're very close to the absolute limit, and if the price of meat goes to zero we are still going to eat only a little bit more than we do now, and the amount more that we do eat will be bad for us.

The fundamental problem of economics today is not the problem of scarcity. It is the problem of distribution. We have abundance, but a very few very wealthy people are sucking up most of it. While most of us are doing very well compared to previous eras' barons and knights, a lot of us are still feeling envious and just as many are still struggling to survive. At the same time, this abundance is about to hit a wall - the earth cannot continue to provide at this rate, unless we start living radically differently. But we live in a culture of denial. We aren't talking about the right problems.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: The Milgram Experiment

Just when you thought it couldn't get any sicker, there's Genesis 22.

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”
Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram[a] caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”
15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring[b] all nations on earth will be blessed,[c] because you have obeyed me.”
19 Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.
 At least the idea behind this is obvious: Abraham is blessed because he demonstrates absolute obedience to God. The first problem with this is that people hear God saying all sorts of things to them. Recently God told a woman to put her baby in the microwave, so she did. So surely God will bless her and make her descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. God commanded Oral Roberts to tell people that God had commanded them to send him money. God commanded Joseph Kony to kidnap children and make them into sex slaves and soldiers who attacked villages and maimed their inhabitants with machetes.  God commands a whole lot of white American Christians to murder people, and obviously I could go on endlessly.

Murdering your son is wrong. If God commands you to do it, tell God to fuck off.

A couple of other points about this. I've already discussed the number of stars in the sky and grains of sand on the seashore in relation to the number of Abraham's descendants. Fortunately we haven't gotten close to either of those numbers yet. Abraham actually has two sons, as we know, but I suppose at this point Ishmael has been disowned and doesn't count.

The NIV, as is its wont, covers up a problem by giving us the English translation of The Lord Will Provide. The Hebrew is Jehovahjireh, but Abraham does not know that Jehovah is God's secret name. Exodus 6:3: "And I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by my name JEHOVAH was I not known to them." Later, the Rabbis would conclude that God's name can never be written or spoken, and that it must be presented without the vowels, YWHW. So Genesis is blasphemous.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

From Russia with Stooge

So it seems that accused Russian secret agent woman Mariia Butina was using more than her ready with and winsome smile to infiltrate conservative and Republican party institutions. She had a sexual relationship with a Person of the Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters who the prosecutor says is named U.S. Person One. I guess his name is Ulysses Simpson Person One and his father is Jack Person and his mother is Alice One . . .

Oh wait, a little birdie just landed on my shoulder and told me that his actual name is Paul Erickson, and he's a lifelong conservative activist and, err, religious leader. He founded a conservative group within Lutheranism called Word Alone and has worked with thePromise Keepers, which "champions chastity and marital fidelity." He's 56 and she's 29, so that's sweet. Unfortunately for Paul, according to the U.S. Attorney:

So it turns out he's a fly in a honeypot. That's got to hurt. But I expect the lawsuits for fraud hurt a bit as well. This whole story in The Daily Beast by Adam Rawnsley is gob smacking. He's represented the murderous dictator Mobutu Sese Seku, and flew to Nicaragua to celebrate the victory of the Contras, among other highly Christian exploits. We really need to rid our society of this cancerous "Christianity."

Monday, July 16, 2018

A worthy review of the post-truth world

Michiko Kakutani, in The Guardian, summarizes ideas from her forthcoming book The Death of Truth. This ranges over several related ideas. It digresses in the middle into literary criticism, which was her job for most of her life, which I don't think is highly relevant. Novelists who adopted a highly subjective voice were not denying the existence of objective reality. But the other bullet points I take from this are:

  • Nazism and Soviet Communism were both "predicated on the violation and despoiling of truth."
  • Today, "disregard for facts, the displacement of reason by emotion, and the corrosion of language are diminishing the value of truth."
  • Many interests have been undermining truth for a long time. Right-wing think tanks and corporate interests have invested heavily in denying truth, as have creationists, white supremacists, and other ideologues.
  • The post-modernist movement in academia "both encouraged a more egalitarian discourse and made it possible for the voices of the previously disfranchised to be heard. But it has also been exploited by those who want to make the case for offensive or debunked theories, or who want to equate things that cannot be equated."
  •  Reportorial conventions of "balance" have media presenting debates between real experts and cranks, rather than simply telling us what is true. "False equivalence was the result of journalists confusing balance with truth-telling, wilful neutrality with accuracy; caving in to pressure from rightwing interest groups to present “both sides”; and the format of television news shows that feature debates between opposing viewpoints – even when one side represents an overwhelming consensus and the other is an almost complete outlier in the scientific community.  
  • The Internet and social media funnel people into epistemological silos. (My own awkward metaphor, not hers.) 
So we get Cheeto Benito, Mussolini as clown. As Kakutani writes early in the piece,

Donald Trump, the 45th president of the US, lies so prolifically and with such velocity that the Washington Post calculated he’d made 2,140 false or misleading claims during his first year in office – an average of 5.9 a day. . . . . If a novelist had concocted a villain like Trump – a larger-than-life, over-the-top avatar of narcissism, mendacity, ignorance, prejudice, boorishness, demagoguery and tyrannical impulses (not to mention someone who consumes as many as a dozen Diet Cokes a day) – she or he would likely be accused of extreme contrivance and implausibility. In fact, the president of the US often seems less like a persuasive character than some manic cartoon artist’s mashup of Ubu Roi, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, and a character discarded by Molière. But the more clownish aspects of Trump the personality should not blind us to the monumentally serious consequences of his assault on truth and the rule of law, and the vulnerabilities he has exposed in our institutions and digital communications.
And then, to conclude:
 Trump’s ridiculousness, his narcissistic ability to make everything about himself, the outrageousness of his lies, and the profundity of his ignorance can easily distract attention from the more lasting implications of his story: how easily Republicans in Congress enabled him, undermining the whole concept of checks and balances set in place by the founders; how a third of the country passively accepted his assaults on the constitution; how easily Russian disinformation took root in a culture where the teaching of history and civics had seriously atrophied.
Indeed. At some point the edifice of lies will have to collapse, the scales will fall from people's eyes, and we'll have a rebirth of common interest and democratic accountability. Or we will suffer a catastrophe beyond World War II.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: I'm sure there's a point here somewhere

The rest of Genesis 21 is an unrelated story. (As I have said, the chapter and verse divisions were made by medieval monks and they don't necessarily make any sense.)

22 At that time Abimelek and Phicol the commander of his forces said to Abraham, “God is with you in everything you do. 23 Now swear to me here before God that you will not deal falsely with me or my children or my descendants. Show to me and the country where you now reside as a foreigner the same kindness I have shown to you.”
24 Abraham said, “I swear it.”
25 Then Abraham complained to Abimelek about a well of water that Abimelek’s servants had seized. 26 But Abimelek said, “I don’t know who has done this. You did not tell me, and I heard about it only today.”
27 So Abraham brought sheep and cattle and gave them to Abimelek, and the two men made a treaty. 28 Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs from the flock, 29 and Abimelek asked Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs you have set apart by themselves?”
30 He replied, “Accept these seven lambs from my hand as a witness that I dug this well.”
31 So that place was called Beersheba, because the two men swore an oath there.
32 After the treaty had been made at Beersheba, Abimelek and Phicol the commander of his forces returned to the land of the Philistines. 33 Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called on the name of the Lord, the Eternal God. 34 And Abraham stayed in the land of the Philistines for a long time.

Genesis contains several examples of what seem to be multiple versions of the same story. This is probably because the stories originally came from oral tradition and variants were floating around that got written down later. There are versions of the same thing happening to the same people (e.g. Hagar and Ishmael, as we have just seen). When these get woven into an overall narrative we get anachronisms, as with Ishmael being a baby when he was actually 14.

This is a different sort of repeat, where the same story happens to different people. As we shall see, Isaac eventually goes through the same rigamarole with Abimelech, and he names the well Beersheba, which seems odd since it had already been named by his father.

Later, in Deuteronomy, the "Philistines" become the perpetual enemies of the Hebrews. There are other problems, including the location of the Philistine nation, which is not the same. So the Talmudic scholars decided that these must not have been the same people after all, in spite of having the same name. More likely, of course, is that the history is just garbled, to the extent it has any basis in fact at all. There is a modern city named Beersheba, but it is impossible to say if it has any real continuity with Abraham's (or Isaac's) settlement.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Off topic, I suppose . . .

. . . but I suppose human folly is always relevant. The Brits are in for a major crack-up because, essentially, the politicians who campaigned to leave the European Union expected to lose and didn't have a plan in case they actually won.

For those among the colonists who haven't been paying close attention to this mess, the basic problem is that Brexit is impossible to achieve without doing horrific damage to the British economy and possibly reviving the Irish problem to boot. The economy is completely dependent on the European common market. Major manufacturers with facilities in Britain say they can't do business without open borders because their supply chains are embedded in Europe. Ireland is part of the European Union which means that Brexit would require border control between Ireland and Northern Ireland and the imposition of customs.

Britain therefore has essentially no choice but to remain in the European common market but it is highly doubtful that the EU will allow them to do so without also allowing freedom of migration. The real reason most voters approved the Brexit resolution is because they didn't like having all those foreigners around. But there's no splitting that baby either. Even if they could get some kind of a deal that allowed them to stay within the common market while limiting migration, the result would be that they were still subject to the EU regulatory regime but had no vote in Brussels.

So it cannot work. The Tories have flailed and dithered and fiddled and diddled for the past two years trying to find a wormhole to escape through but there isn't one. There are lessons for us there as well.

Monday, July 09, 2018

The rule of rescue

I've written about this before, but right now we have an extremely vivid example. The world has been riveted by the story of the 12 soccer players and their coach trapped in a cave in Thailand. As far as CNN and the rest of the corporate news media are concerned, this is the single most important story in the world right now.

Okay, it's dramatic. While this is going on, about 15,730 children under five years old die every single day, almost all of them from preventable causes. To be sure, the world has made a lot of progress on this in recent years. Child mortality fell from 93 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 41 in 2016. Still, it does seem rather odd to be obsessed over 12 kids while a couple of hundred thousand are dying completely unnoticed. (Child mortality is relatively rare in the United States and the other wealthy countries. Most of these deaths are in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia.)

This is a quirk of human psychology. The plight of a few identifiable individuals, in clearly definable peril, attracts our attention and our compassion. Thousands of undifferentiated people, in more diffuse peril, we happily ignore.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

.Sunday Sermonette: More family values

Genesis 21 is another long chapter so I'll just do the first part today. We'll presume that believers accept the miracle of 100 year old parents and let that go by.

21 Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him. When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.
Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, 10 and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”
11 The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. 12 But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. 13 I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”

So this is the second time Sarah demands that Hagar and Ishmael (who for some reason has misplaced his name) be driven out into the desert. To be clear, Hagar is Sarah's slave, so yeah she can do this. What exactly did Hagar see Ishmael doing? 
14 Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba.
15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put boy under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.
17 God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 18 Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”
19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.
20 God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. 21 While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.

Now this is extremely weird. Ishmael (who again has become nameless), is apparently an infant, who can be carried on his mother's shoulder and put under a bush to die. He is in fact at least 14 years old, if you've been paying attention. He was already 13 when he was circumcised. (Genesis 17:25) But the Bible is the literally true, inerrant word of God.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Proud to be an American

I've always found those bumper stickers to be absurd. It's not something you accomplished, dummy, you just happened to be born here. That doesn't make you better than other people and it doesn't reflect any credit on you.

If you want a reason to be proud, you should do what you can to make the United States live up to the ideals people want to ascribe to it. You know, liberty and justice for all?(The pledge, by the way, was written by a socialist, and the "under God" trash was added later.) Beacon of freedom, inclusiveness, I lift my lamp beside the golden door?

On this July 4, with American democracy in grave peril, I won't be able really to celebrate anyway because I have to fly to D.C. this afternoon in order to provide a service to the federal government. I'm not supposed to say exactly what I'll be doing because it's the policy of the agency that peer reviewers remain anonymous. (Other federal agencies have different policies.) In any case, broadly speaking, the U.S. government has long promoted science and public health; now we have a ruling party that repudiates science and doesn't want the government to any longer "promote the general welfare." The country belongs to 1%, obscenely wealthy white people who just want to pull up the ladder behind them while their agent, a vulgar, ignorant, narcissistic, sexist, racist, pathological liar distracts their victims with a show of tribalism and phony toughness.

I'll be waving a tiny flag.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Why we believe

In response to a question about the evolutionary basis of how we manage to be deluded, I don't know what Marvin Harris might have said about it, but here's a review of James Alcock's new book.

You can also read his article in Skeptical Inquirer from back in 1995. In a nutshell, the brain mechanisms that kept our ancestors alive on the African savanna don't always work so well in the present day. That's why we need to learn, and mindfully practice, critical thinking.

Harken to Fintan O'Toole

Can it happen here? It already is. You have to read the whole thing but I will offer the money shot.

Like hounds, people have to be blooded. They have to be given the taste for savagery. Fascism does this by building up the sense of threat from a despised out-group. This allows the members of that group to be dehumanised. Once that has been achieved, you can gradually up the ante, working through the stages from breaking windows to extermination. . . .

[I]t has been trialled by Trump: let’s see how my fans feel about crying babies in cages.   . . . the trial has been a huge success. Trump’s claim last week that immigrants “infest” the US is a test-marketing of whether his fans are ready for the next step-up in language, which is of course “vermin”. And the generation of images of toddlers being dragged from their parents is a test of whether those words can be turned into sounds and pictures. . . .

And the results are quite satisfactory. There is good news on two fronts. First, Rupert Murdoch is happy with it – his Fox News mouthpieces outdid themselves in barbaric crassness: making animal noises at the mention of a Down syndrome child, describing crying children as actors. They went the whole swinish hog: even the brown babies are liars. Those sobs of anguish are typical of the manipulative behaviour of the strangers coming to infest us – should we not fear a race whose very infants can be so devious? Second, the hardcore fans loved it: 58 per cent of Republicans are in favour of this brutality. Trump’s overall approval ratings are up to 42.5 per cent.
 America is Great Again.

Sunday Sermonette: Deja Vu all over again

Genesis 20 is a slightly different version of the story told in Genesis 12, where Abraham (then Abram) went through the same routine with Pharaoh.

Now Abraham moved on from there into the region of the Negev and lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar, and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” Then Abimelek king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her.
But God came to Abimelek in a dream one night and said to him, “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.”
Now Abimelek had not gone near her, so he said, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation? Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister,’ and didn’t she also say, ‘He is my brother’? I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.”
Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her. Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all who belong to you will die.”
Early the next morning Abimelek summoned all his officials, and when he told them all that had happened, they were very much afraid. Then Abimelek called Abraham in and said, “What have you done to us? How have I wronged you that you have brought such great guilt upon me and my kingdom? You have done things to me that should never be done.” 10 And Abimelek asked Abraham, “What was your reason for doing this?”
11 Abraham replied, “I said to myself, ‘There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’ 12 Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife. 13 And when God had me wander from my father’s household, I said to her, ‘This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”’”
14 Then Abimelek brought sheep and cattle and male and female slaves and gave them to Abraham, and he returned Sarah his wife to him. 15 And Abimelek said, “My land is before you; live wherever you like.”
16 To Sarah he said, “I am giving your brother a thousand shekels of silver. This is to cover the offense against you before all who are with you; you are completely vindicated.”
17 Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelek, his wife and his female slaves so they could have children again, 18 for the Lord had kept all the women in Abimelek’s household from conceiving because of Abraham’s wife Sarah.

The absurdity of all this hardly needs exegesis. In the first place, Abraham again pimps out his wife -- who is now 90 years old, by the way -- then God punishes Abimelek for a crime he did not commit, as God freely concedes, and then Abraham asks God to lift the punishment after Abimelek bribes him with the same booty Abraham previously got from Pharaoh for running the identical scam.

By the way Abimelek is a sucker -- Isaac runs the same game on him with his wife Rebekah in Genesis 26. And by the way, regarding the incestuous marriage, here is Leviticus:

18:9 The nakedness of thy sister, the daughter of thy father, or daughter of thy mother, whether she be born at home, or born abroad, even their nakedness thou shalt not uncover.
But the Bible is the divine word of God, literal and inerrant. So there.