Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, September 30, 2019

It's about Russia, not Ukraine

I'm not entirely sure why, but the corporate media has focused almost exclusively on the attempt to extort a smear of Joe and Hunter Biden and has entirely ignored an even more bizarre part of the phone conversation between the Resident and Volodymyr Zelensky. David Atkins gives a good rundown.

Early in the call, the Resident asked Zelensky for information about the Internet security firm Crowdstrike and a DNC server that was purportedly hidden in Ukraine. In case you didn't know, this about  a nutjob conspiracy theory in the same class as Q Anon and Pizzagate. It's so out there it hasn't even made it onto Hannity. The actual fact is that the DNC hired Crowdstrike to figure out who hacked their computer network and Crowdstrike concluded, along with the FBI, CIA, NSA, and of course Robert Mueller, that it was people in the employ of the Russian state. The conspiracy is that Crowdstrike manufactured this accusation in order to discredit the 2016 election and that a DNC "server," which should have been handed over to the FBI, had been hidden in Ukraine. The Ukraine connection is that Crowdstrike co-founder Dmitri Alperovitch is supposedly Ukrainian. He's actually a Russian-born U.S. citizen. Also, too, there is no such server. The DNC network consisted of many servers and other nodes that had to be rebuilt because of the hacking.

As Atkins concludes, "One might think that Trump got the information from random corners of the internet. But the problem there is that the president barely knows how to use a computer, and has to have articles printed out for him and put on his desk. So who was feeding him these conspiracies? Why did he continue to believe them even as his own intelligence services and White House staff were attempting to disabuse him of them?" Which they were. As Laura Clawson recounts, presidential advisers repeatedly told him that the claims were nonsensical, but he refuses to believe them.

Anyhoo . . .

As Lucian Truscott makes clear, it has been obvious that Trump is Vladimir Putin's stooge from before he ever took office. And by the way, amid all the craziness and chaos does anybody even remember Helsinki any more? Feeding the orange bozo this particular mishegoss makes a lot of sense for Vlad. Remember that Vlad is waging a low-grade war against Ukraine because it turned away from Russia and toward the European union. Vlad has enlisted Trump to undermine the European alliance and is also using him to undermine U.S. support for Ukraine. Oh yeah, what else have we forgotten? The Trump campaign sent an emissary to the platform committee during the Republican National Convention with one and only one demand: remove the platform plank calling for military aid to Ukraine.

The reason Orange Julius is losing what was left of his mind is because he knows he a traitor, and he knows he's about to be caught. Actually he has been, it just hasn't been made official yet.

Update: Here's Digby, but I got there first. (Her time stamp is west coast.)

All that said, Dr. Black is correct. We have to expose everything this schtickdreck has done (BTW shana tovah) and bring all of his co-conspirators to account. If this is what it takes to pry the box open, fine, but it can't stop here.

Update: John Solomon's "reporting" in The Hill has long since been shown to be a hoax, but it is indeed the origin of much of the current hoohah. I'll have more to say about that, but meanwhile you can read more about it here,and here.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: Deja vu all over again

The events of Exodus 24 et seq clearly seem to be an alternate story, or alternate version of the story we have read so far. Moses has already been up to the mountain and been given the law, but now he has to go again and get a different set of instructions. It all seems inefficient, but as we have seen this is quite typical of the Torah -- it's a mashup of sources that frequently fail to cohere. Anyway, here goes. (This is the NIV.)

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. You are to worship at a distance, but Moses alone is to approach the Lord; the others must not come near. And the people may not come up with him.”
When Moses went and told the people all the Lord’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, “Everything the Lord has said we will do.” Moses then wrote down everything the Lord had said.
I hope he had at least been taking notes.
He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the Lord.
Again, God has this weird fetish of enjoying having animals killed for him.
Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he splashed against the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey.”
Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
I have no idea what the point of this was, but yuck.
Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up 10 and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky. 11 But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.
Many people in the Bible see God -- Abraham saw him a few times, Isaac and Jacob saw him, Moses has seen him before. But remind me when we come to Exodus 33: "19 And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”" In the New Testament, it is asserted many times that God cannot be seen.
12 The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone with the law and commandments I have written for their instruction.”
13 Then Moses set out with Joshua his aide, and Moses went up on the mountain of God. 14 He said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we come back to you. Aaron and Hur are with you, and anyone involved in a dispute can go to them.”
15 When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, 16 and the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from within the cloud. 17 To the Israelites the glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain. 18 Then Moses entered the cloud as he went on up the mountain. And he stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
The forty days and forty nights of course is echoed in the NT. That was also one version of the length of the flood, although as you may recall there were various versions; and there are several other forty day events. I can't think of any particular significance for that number.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

As you will recall . . .

the single most important issue in the 2016 election was proper e-mail management practices.

There's more to come, I'm just a bit overwhelmed right now.

BTW, if you think that you should care more about the rights and dignity of Christians than about non-Christians because you are a Christian, then you are obviously not a Christian and you haven't read the Gospels.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Distinctions and differences

Here's a question that seems to stump some people. Why is the idea of a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People different from the idea of a National Association for the Advancement of White People?

Give up?

The NAACP was founded in 1909 by a group of people that was actually majority white, and its officers were mostly white, although the founders did include some of the most prominent African American leaders, including W.E.B. DuBois and Ida Wells. ("Colored people" was a polite term at the time for people of African descent, although of course it's quaint today.) What many people apparently don't know was that following emancipation, a reign of terror arose in the former slave states in which thousands of black people were murdered, the freed slaves were deprived of the vote and returned to a state of subjugation including re-enslavement by means of a the prison system and a modified form of plantation slavery called sharecropping.Even in the north, African Americans were deprived of educational opportunity, economic opportunity, and political representation.

Therefore, many people of diverse backgrounds saw the need for an organizational that would advocate for civil rights and equality.

There was actually an organization called the National Association for the Advancement of White People. It was founded by former Ku Klux Klan member David Duke in 1979. It lasted for at least 20 years but seems to be defunct now. The obvious distinction would seem to be that, relative to other groups in the U.S., white people didn't need "advancement." They were, and still are, the dominant group in society with, on average, the highest educational and economic attainment, and political representation.

Ergo and ipso facto, the NAACP worked for and still works for justice and equality. The NAAWP and like organizations work to preserve injustice and inequality. The NAACP opposes discrimination, the NAAWP promotes discrimination.

Now, there are Americans of European descent (who by shorthand we call "white" although of course we are actually more beige) who are poor and oppressed. But they are oppressed by class, not race. Politicians such as one who is not beige, but orange, often deceive them by convincing them that there circumstances are somehow the result of "others," such as people of African descent or immigrants from Latin America, taking what is rightfully there's. But this is false. Their circumstances are created by rapacious capitalists and an economic system that produces losers of all ethnicities and leaves people mired in intergenerational poverty. The wealthy and powerful use race as a wedge to divide the working class and prevent people from uniting effectively to bring about a more just society.

This distinction also seems to elude people with respect to other movements, such as Black Lives Matter. Bernie Sanders famously responded to a change of Black Lives Matter with the comment that "all lives matter." Bernie, alas, was missing the point, which is precisely that all lives matter. That's what BLM activists also believe. The problem they are confronting is that too often, Black lives specifically don't seem to matter. They are demanding justice.

Now, what about the idea of "identity politics"? Well, it is only natural for oppressed groups to demand an end to their oppression through the political process, and politicians might try to appeal to such a group by promising to work for justice. You can call that "identity politics" if you like, but I don't see anything wrong with it. On the other hand it seems like a dumb idea to vote for somebody just because they happen to belong to the same ethnic group as you do, even if they are otherwise a worse choice. (I would say however that when your people have had little or no access to political office, just breaking the barrier would seem to have some value in its own right.)

What I do see something wrong with is voting for a politician because she or more likely he promises to preserve your privilege, in other words to fight for injustice. I also think it would be wrong to care more about the fate of people who happen to share your religion or ethnic background than you do about other people, here or abroad. As I say, the real point of Black Lives Matter is that All Lives Matter. If you can't understand that, it isn't worth my time or energy trying to engage with you.

Update: The mission of this blog is to have intelligent conversations with people who share humanistic values and respect the truth. People who do not wish to engage in that project will not participate.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: Us and Them

As I have said many times, the chapter divisions were added by medieval scribes and often don't seem to make a lot of sense. Exodus 23 is obviously three different segments which may well come from entirely different original sources. It starts out ascribing moral principles which, in contrast to much of what we have seen so far, are largely consistent with what we think of as virtuous today. Then it prescribes some religious practices which include some of God's odd obsessions but whatever. Then it turns really, really ugly. (I've gone back to the New International Version for this one, it seems clearer in some places.) Here goes.

“Do not spread false reports. Do not help a guilty person by being a malicious witness.
“Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favoritism to a poor person in a lawsuit.
“If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it.
“Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty.
“Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the innocent.
“Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.
Tell it to Donald J. Trump.

10 “For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, 11 but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what is left. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.
12 “Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed.
This is a very different justification for the sabbath than we have seen heretofore. Now we have a two day weekend, even better!
13 “Be careful to do everything I have said to you. Do not invoke the names of other gods; do not let them be heard on your lips.
14 “Three times a year you are to celebrate a festival to me.
15 “Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread; for seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Aviv, for in that month you came out of Egypt.
“No one is to appear before me empty-handed.
16 “Celebrate the Festival of Harvest with the first fruits of the crops you sow in your field.
“Celebrate the Festival of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in your crops from the field.
17 “Three times a year all the men are to appear before the Sovereign Lord.
18 “Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast.
“The fat of my festival offerings must not be kept until morning.
19 “Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the Lord your God.
“Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.
It is because of this one line (KJV "Do not sizzle a kid in its mother's milk") that the Talmudic rabbis decided that  meat and dairy products can't be consumed in the same meal, and that in fact separate kitchens, cooking equipment, and tableware are required. No, that doesn't seem to make any sense. The reason for this admonition (which is repeated by the way) is not entirely clear. It suggests not wanting to be cruel to the mother, but she wouldn't know that this cooking method was being used.

Now it turns ugly.

20 “See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. 21 Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him. 22 If you listen carefully to what he says and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you. 23 My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out. 24 Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them and break their sacred stones to pieces. 25 Worship the Lord your God, and his blessing will be on your food and water. I will take away sickness from among you, 26 and none will miscarry or be barren in your land. I will give you a full life span.
Well no actually, sickness and miscarriage were not abolished in Palestine. Barrenness is specifically referenced in Psalm 113, Isaiah 54, and Proverbs 30.  God makes a lot of promises he doesn't keep.
27 “I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run. 28 I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way. 29 But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. 30 Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land.
31 “I will establish your borders from the Red Sea[a] to the Mediterranean Sea,[b] and from the desert to the Euphrates River. I will give into your hands the people who live in the land, and you will drive them out before you. 32
This is a much larger territory than the Hebrews ever actually occupied.  The description here is a little vague but it would include all of the Sinai, what is today Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, half of Iraq, and the northern part of Saudi Arabia. A later promise in Numbers is even more extensive.
 Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods. 33 Do not let them live in your land or they will cause you to sin against me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you.”


  1. Exodus 23:31 Or the Sea of Reeds
  2. Exodus 23:31 Hebrew to the Sea of the Philistines

Friday, September 20, 2019

Deep Thought

If you've got nothing to hide, why are you hiding it?

The Long Emergency: Going to wash us away . . .

So for the second time in two years the Houston area is drowning in rain measured in feet, not inches. This particular event barely made it to tropical storm status but it dumped enough water to set records. The perpetrators of this Chinese-inspired hoax predicted exactly this -- wetter storms and bigger and better floods -- along with everything else that's been happening: more and more intense heat waves; droughts; melting permafrost; disappearance of the arctic sea ice; wildfires; rising sea levels; mass extinction. Funny thing about that. Even though it's a hoax, everything the hoaxers predicted has come true and keeps getting worse.

Fortunately, enough people believe the hoax that millions of people are taking to the streets today to demand action. Even capitalists have been taken in by the Chinese hoax, including, believe it or not, some oil companies. I'm not sure why it took a 16 year old girl to finally get some serious attention from the corporate media, but that happened.

I'm starting to think that it's gotten to the point where reality is kicking humanity in the nads, and it's impossible not to notice. What has to happen next is massive, global mobilization, which will include getting people to make some sacrifices but will also include plenty of benefits and plenty of winners.

The first thing Americans must do is vow never to vote for any Republican, for any office, ever.

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