Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Truth vs. the conservative movement

It isn't news, but the New York Times has done a retrospective summarizing the current Administration's war on science. Because of the paywall, you might want to go to this Daily Kos diary that summarizes it, with some supplementary links.

The story is that the administration has been systematically destroying the federal government's scientific resources, and purging scientific expertise and even generally known facts from the decision making process. To quote the Times story:

In just three years, the Trump administration has diminished the role of science in federal policymaking while halting or disrupting research projects nationwide, marking a transformation of the federal government whose effects, experts said, could reverberate for years. Political appointees have shut down government studies, reduced the influence of scientists over regulatory decisions and in some cases pressured researchers not to speak publicly. The administration has particularly challenged scientific findings related to the environment and public health opposed by industries such as oil drilling and coal mining. It has also impeded research around human-caused climate change, which President Donald Trump has dismissed despite a global scientific consensus.
I've discussed some of this before, in this space. The reason this is happening is simple, as Stephen Colbert has explained: Reality has a well-known liberal bias. If we believe that ultrafine particle pollution kills people, that toxins in the water supply sicken and kill people, then we would have to conclude that the Free Market™ does not magically make the world wonderful. We would have to draw the same conclusion if burning fossil fuels causes destructive climate change. If we were to believe those Chinese hoaxes, then billionaires would not be free to enrich themselves by poisoning us and destroying civilization. That would be a violation of the sacrality of the Free Market™, so none of it can possibly be true.

And those scientists must all be commies.

Well, if you voted for him, you must agree with all that. Too bad about all those hundreds of years of scientific progress since The Enlightenment. Obviously that was all a hoax. Things were so much better in the 14th Century.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: Deja vu all over again

I must warn you: the four remaining chapters of  Exodus, and all of Leviticus, are tedious beyond description. They have almost no relevance to Christians, and limited relevance to contemporary Jews. Even orthodox Jews take only a few principles from this, such as not eating pork or shellfish. The narrative stops and instead we are given long, very specific lists of rules. There isn't any evident underlying or organizing ethical philosophy behind this.

Some of the rules have to do with how God wants to be worshiped. This has been a particular emphasis in Exodus and it's largely the focus on which the book concludes. Leviticus has a whole lot about what you can and cannot eat, what is and is not "unclean," what we would classify as civil and criminal property law, familial obligations, what we would classify as medical diagnosis (although rather than treatment, the response is likely to be exile), sexual morality . Some of it has a perceivable practical basis, some of it we can speculate about, some of it seems arbitrary or preposterous. It describes a patriarchal, strongly hierarchical and rigidly organized society. And as I say, nobody alive observes more than a small percentage of it.

About Exodus 37, which we reproduce today, I have nothing really to say. God has given these instructions already (twice!) and now we hear the whole thing again, framed as Bezalel actually carrying them out, with some additional small details added, of no evident import. Since Jews are no longer pastoral nomads, their temples are no longer portable and in any case they don't resemble this one. And that was already true at the time the Torah was compiled. Why the scribes were so interested in this we cannot say.

37 Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood; it was two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. He overlaid it with pure gold inside and outside, and made a molding of gold around it. He cast for it four rings of gold for its four feet, two rings on its one side and two rings on its other side. He made poles of acacia wood, and overlaid them with gold, and put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, to carry the ark. He made a mercy seat[a] of pure gold; two cubits and a half was its length, and a cubit and a half its width. He made two cherubim of hammered gold; at the two ends of the mercy seat[b] he made them, one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other end; of one piece with the mercy seat[c] he made the cherubim at its two ends. The cherubim spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat[d] with their wings. They faced one another; the faces of the cherubim were turned toward the mercy seat.[e]

10 He also made the table of acacia wood, two cubits long, one cubit wide, and a cubit and a half high. 11 He overlaid it with pure gold, and made a molding of gold around it. 12 He made around it a rim a handbreadth wide, and made a molding of gold around the rim. 13 He cast for it four rings of gold, and fastened the rings to the four corners at its four legs. 14 The rings that held the poles used for carrying the table were close to the rim. 15 He made the poles of acacia wood to carry the table, and overlaid them with gold. 16 And he made the vessels of pure gold that were to be on the table, its plates and dishes for incense, and its bowls and flagons with which to pour drink offerings.

17 He also made the lampstand of pure gold. The base and the shaft of the lampstand were made of hammered work; its cups, its calyxes, and its petals were of one piece with it. 18 There were six branches going out of its sides, three branches of the lampstand out of one side of it and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side of it; 19 three cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with calyx and petals, on one branch, and three cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with calyx and petals, on the other branch—so for the six branches going out of the lampstand. 20 On the lampstand itself there were four cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with its calyxes and petals. 21 There was a calyx of one piece with it under the first pair of branches, a calyx of one piece with it under the next pair of branches, and a calyx of one piece with it under the last pair of branches. 22 Their calyxes and their branches were of one piece with it, the whole of it one hammered piece of pure gold. 23 He made its seven lamps and its snuffers and its trays of pure gold. 24 He made it and all its utensils of a talent of pure gold.

25 He made the altar of incense of acacia wood, one cubit long, and one cubit wide; it was square, and was two cubits high; its horns were of one piece with it. 26 He overlaid it with pure gold, its top, and its sides all around, and its horns; and he made for it a molding of gold all around, 27 and made two golden rings for it under its molding, on two opposite sides of it, to hold the poles with which to carry it. 28 And he made the poles of acacia wood, and overlaid them with gold.

29 He made the holy anointing oil also, and the pure fragrant incense, blended as by the perfumer.


  1. Exodus 37:6 Or a cover
  2. Exodus 37:7 Or the cover
  3. Exodus 37:8 Or the cover
  4. Exodus 37:9 Or the cover
  5. Exodus 37:9 Or the cover

Saturday, December 28, 2019

On "On Bullshit"

"On Bullshit" is a well-known essay by philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt. Princeton University Press for some reason published it as a tiny book, but you can enter the title into your favorite Internet search engine and find a free PDF. It's only about 20 pages if you care to read.

But you don't have to. Frankfurt's basic concept is that the difference between lying and bullshit begins with recognizing that a liar knowingly utters (in speech or writing) falsehood. Being aware of the difference between truth and fiction and concerned that the audience may detect deception, the liar must use artifice to align his or her representation with facts otherwise known. In this way, the liar pays honor to truth.

In contrast the bullshitter does not care about truth. He (most likely) may not even know it. A common occasion for bullshit is ignorance. The bullshitter just says whatever is useful, whether to make himself appear not to be ignorant or for some further end. But the bullshitter may also know on some level that his representations are false. It just doesn't matter. He makes no attempt to align his bullshit with evidence because he presumes that his audience doesn't care either, or won't be bothered to investigate. This is what is really happening with what the Washington Post fact checkers label as Donald Trump's 15 daily lies. They are actually bullshit. Does he believe that his inaugural crowd was the biggest ever, that there were 3 million fraudulent votes cast for Hillary Clinton, or that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese? It doesn't matter. Truth is irrelevant to him.

I maintain, however, that there is another form of bullshit, in which the bullshit assertion is literally true. The bullshit lies in representing or implying that the literally true assertion has some significance or meaning that it does not. A good example is this purported "fact check" about Adam Schiff, which the Bullshitter-in-Chief's cultists think is somehow of great significance and somehow discredits or deligitimizes the House investigation into the BiC's treasonous behavior.

Schiff told reporters that "We [meaning the House Judiciary Committee] have not spoken directly with the whistleblower." The purported "fact check" is that the whistleblower had in fact communicated with a member of the committee staff who told him to get a lawyer and file a complaint with the Inspector General. That's it. Now, I personally think that Schiff's statement was literally true: no member of the Judiciary Committee had then, or has now, spoken directly with the whistleblower, and Schiff was not aware of the person's identity. But so what? This does not matter at all, it has no bearing on the salient facts of the matter nor does it impugn any of the evidence ultimately provided to the committee or to the public.

But this is now a very common tactic of bullshitters. Make people waste their time with irrelevant distractions, pretending that they are somehow important, and getting reporters to go down those rabbit holes which, as we see, they are entirely eager to do. That was actually the basic use of the stolen DNC e-mails. There was nothing of importance in them, but they nevertheless sucked up half of the verbiage in the New York Times.

So I resolve, as a New Year's resolution, not to waste my time with any form of bullshit.

And let me just add, I have been accused of only publishing comments I agree with. This is false as one can readily determine empirically if one has been reading. I frequently publish comments with which I do not agree, and often respond to them, or leave it to others to do so. What I do not publish are comments which are inane, offensive, or as I now understand, bullshit. As I say, I will not waste my time with it.

Also, too believe me, I am perfectly capable of rebutting every idiotic comment. As I say, I just can't be bothered to waste my time. I prefer to engage in intelligent discourse. And bullshit is perfectly easy to recognize if you want to. That's part of it's essence -- it's intended for the benefit of people who don't give any more of a shit about the truth than the bullshitter.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

A digression

But one I probably ought to take. The Clinton impeachment is irrelevant to the present situation, which concerns a completely different factual basis. It is even less relevant to the question of the current Resident's mental and moral condition and his fitness for office, which is what my previous post is about. In other words, it's an attempt to change the subject, a typical troll tactic.

So I'll take the subject change right here. Regarding the exact nature of Mr. Clinton's misconduct, I believe that Paula Jones initiated the activity. I don't think Clinton demanded it of her and I don't think he promised her anything in exchange. Nevertheless she expected to get something for it and she was understandably angry when she didn't, and felt exploited. Monica Lewinsky fully stipulated that she initiated the relationship.

Nevertheless, Clinton was absolutely obliged to refuse them both. His conduct was grossly unethical and also incredibly foolish. In the case of Lewinsky, who was besotted and barely an adult, it was irresponsible and contemptible. And by the way, I've had students come on to me and I know never to go there.

However, the articles of impeachment did not address the underlying conduct, but only deceit. I think the allegations of subornation lacked an adequate factual basis, but Clinton undoubtedly lied personally, both in public and under oath. The argument against removal from office hinges on the misconduct not being related to his official duties as president.

I think that if a similar set of circumstances were to occur today -- which is obviously highly unlikely -- it would be incumbent on all Democratic party leaders, elected officials, and people who generally support Democrats to demand the perpetrator's resignation. This would certainly be the case for members of Congress, and all state officials. The culture has changed. We don't tolerate this any more. Viz. Al Franken, whose sins are much lesser. The integrity of the party would demand it. Obviously, Republicans don't feel that way, but hypocrisy is their middle name.

If Clinton had been removed from office or resigned, what might that have meant for the 2000 election? Counterfactual history is probably a fool's game, but Al Gore might well have been better off running as the incumbent with the baggage of Clinton's misbehavior much lightened, in which case the election would not have been close enough to steal, there would have been no Iraq war, and we'd be living in a completely different timeline. As they circle the wagons around their mad king, Republicans might want to think about that.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

A mystery

We seldom examine the assumption that achieving wealth and power requires some degree of cunning and awareness. Sure, you can be evil, and you don't necessarily need to be good at math, and you can subscribe to various false beliefs, but you need to be able to match intentions to results, communicate coherently, and competently execute plans, right?

Well, no. There's the president's personal lawyer, who also owns a "consulting" firm that rakes in millions of dollars for, err, doing something. I've linked to a summary but you can read the full report of the interview here. The guy is certifiably wacko and totally incompetent at lawyering, cyber-security, investigating, and anything else he supposedly does professionally. But there he is. Read the whole thing, but I especially enjoyed this part:

As we sped uptown, he spoke in monologue about the scandal he co-created, weaving one made-up talking point into another and another. He said former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, whom he calls Santa Maria Yovanovitch, is “controlled” by George Soros. “He put all four ambassadors there. And he’s employing the FBI agents.” I told him he sounded crazy, but he insisted he wasn’t.
“Don’t tell me I’m anti-Semitic if I oppose him,” he said. “Soros is hardly a Jew. I’m more of a Jew than Soros is. I probably know more about — he doesn’t go to church, he doesn’t go to religion — synagogue. He doesn’t belong to a synagogue, he doesn’t support Israel, he’s an enemy of Israel. He’s elected eight anarchist DA’s in the United States. He’s a horrible human being.”

And then there's his boss, the object of adoration by millions and beneficiary of the unshakeable, servile loyalty and sycophancy of every elected Republican politician. No doubt you have read about his immortal words of wisdom before the Fascist Youth of America:

I never understood wind. I know windmills very much, I have studied it better than anybody. I know it is very expensive. They are made in China and Germany mostly, very few made here, almost none, * but they are manufactured, tremendous — if you are into this — tremendous fumes and gases are spewing into the atmosphere. You know we have a world, right? So the world is tiny compared to the universe. So tremendous, tremendous amount of fumes and everything. You talk about the carbon footprint, fumes are spewing into the air, right spewing, whether it is China or Germany, is going into the air. A windmill will kill many bald eagles. After a certain number, they make you turn the windmill off, that is true. By the way, they make you turn it off. And yet, if you killed one, they put you in jail. That is OK. But why is it OK for windmills to destroy the bird population?

Of course they cheered wildly.  The brain rot has infected the entire cult. Must be prions.

* Actually the dominant manufacturer of wind turbines in the United States is GE, which makes them in the good old US of A. Just to set the record straight. There are also two German multinationals that make wind turbines for the U.S. market, and they too have plants in the U.S.

Update: After I posted, I found this Jen Sorenson cartoon.  Apparently we need to sell reason and sanity to the people because right now they aren't buying it.

Also, too As the state of Virginia prepared for a major bridge and tunnel expansion in the tidewaters of the Chesapeake Bay last year, engineers understood that the nesting grounds of 25,000 gulls, black skimmers, royal terns and other seabirds were about to be plowed under.
To compensate, they considered developing an artificial island as a safe haven. Then in June 2018, the Trump administration stepped in. While the federal government “appreciates” the state’s efforts, new rules in Washington had eliminated criminal penalties for “incidental” migratory bird deaths, administration officials advised. Such conservation measures were now “purely voluntary.
The state ended its island planning.
The island is one of dozens of bird-preservation efforts that have fallen away in the wake of a policy change in 2017 that was billed merely as a technical clarification to a century-old law protecting migratory birds. Across the country birds have been killed and nests destroyed by oil spills, construction crews and chemical contamination, all with no response from the federal government, according to emails, memos and other documents viewed by The New York Times. Not only has the administration stopped investigating most bird deaths, the documents show, it has discouraged local governments and businesses from taking precautionary measures to protect birds.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: Crass materialism

As I have warned you, the remainder of Exodus is an unbearably tedious, repetitive and evidently pointless description of the tabernacle and its associated paraphernalia. You may ask:

a) Why do the compilers of this text subject us to this? What is its theological importance, and why the multiple repetitions of seemingly meaningless details?
b) How is it that a bunch of runaway slaves, who are camping out in the desert and subsisting on fungus, have such mass quantities of luxury goods?

Thank you for asking! First, I remind you of Christopher Beha's review of John Barton's History of the Bible. Beha writes:

Clearly the Torah's earliest editors were aware of its discrepancies, which must not have been a cause of great embarrassment, or else they would have corrected at a time when the "official" version of these text was still unsettled. Far from cleaning up such problems, these scribes actually introduced them in the process of combining competing narratives. To Barton, this suggests that the Torah was meant as a kind of archive, designed 'to insure that no piece of tradition got lost.' Adding a narrative thread to the scroll was the only reliable way to preserve it, and there was no reason why it had to be perfectly reconciled with any other thread.
So to answer the first question, multiple descriptions of the tabernacle and its construction existed, so the scribes compiled them all because they were essentially making a library, not a single crafted narrative. So while this must be important enough for some reason to have been written down in the first place and then reproduced here, there doesn't have to be any particular justification for the repetition and whatever small discrepancies may exist among the versions.

The importance, I would imagine, depends first that the tabernacle did in fact exist at some time, and these are descriptions of a real construction.  The people who wrote this are priests and obviously they're the ones who actually get to luxuriate in the fancy digs and smell the incense and chow down on the offerings. God in reality doesn't actually get a cut. It does not seem at all mysterious that priests would insist that people are expected to make major material contributions to the glory of God.

However, the tabernacle was not constructed while the Hebrews were wandering in the desert, because that never happened. This whole story is fictitious, from the Egyptian captivity to Moses climbing the mountain and coming back down. The Hebrews emerged in Canaan, and were presumably settled and prosperous when they constructed this symbol of their God's glory and their own affluence. The scribes placed it at the time of lawgiving, however, to emphasize it's central importance and legitimacy as a religious duty.

That is the real point of today's post. I am now going to reproduce Exodus 36 just to be faithful to the project, but I don't necessarily recommend that you read it.

36 Bezalel and Oholiab and every skillful one to whom the Lord has given skill and understanding to know how to do any work in the construction of the sanctuary shall work in accordance with all that the Lord has commanded.
Moses then called Bezalel and Oholiab and every skillful one to whom the Lord had given skill, everyone whose heart was stirred to come to do the work; and they received from Moses all the freewill offerings that the Israelites had brought for doing the work on the sanctuary. They still kept bringing him freewill offerings every morning, so that all the artisans who were doing every sort of task on the sanctuary came, each from the task being performed, and said to Moses, “The people are bringing much more than enough for doing the work that the Lord has commanded us to do.” So Moses gave command, and word was proclaimed throughout the camp: “No man or woman is to make anything else as an offering for the sanctuary.” So the people were restrained from bringing; for what they had already brought was more than enough to do all the work.
All those with skill among the workers made the tabernacle with ten curtains; they were made of fine twisted linen, and blue, purple, and crimson yarns, with cherubim skillfully worked into them. The length of each curtain was twenty-eight cubits, and the width of each curtain four cubits; all the curtains were of the same size.
10 He joined five curtains to one another, and the other five curtains he joined to one another. 11 He made loops of blue on the edge of the outermost curtain of the first set; likewise he made them on the edge of the outermost curtain of the second set; 12 he made fifty loops on the one curtain, and he made fifty loops on the edge of the curtain that was in the second set; the loops were opposite one another. 13 And he made fifty clasps of gold, and joined the curtains one to the other with clasps; so the tabernacle was one whole.
14 He also made curtains of goats’ hair for a tent over the tabernacle; he made eleven curtains. 15 The length of each curtain was thirty cubits, and the width of each curtain four cubits; the eleven curtains were of the same size. 16 He joined five curtains by themselves, and six curtains by themselves. 17 He made fifty loops on the edge of the outermost curtain of the one set, and fifty loops on the edge of the other connecting curtain. 18 He made fifty clasps of bronze to join the tent together so that it might be one whole. 19 And he made for the tent a covering of tanned rams’ skins and an outer covering of fine leather.[a]
20 Then he made the upright frames for the tabernacle of acacia wood. 21 Ten cubits was the length of a frame, and a cubit and a half the width of each frame. 22 Each frame had two pegs for fitting together; he did this for all the frames of the tabernacle. 23 The frames for the tabernacle he made in this way: twenty frames for the south side; 24 and he made forty bases of silver under the twenty frames, two bases under the first frame for its two pegs, and two bases under the next frame for its two pegs. 25 For the second side of the tabernacle, on the north side, he made twenty frames 26 and their forty bases of silver, two bases under the first frame and two bases under the next frame. 27 For the rear of the tabernacle westward he made six frames. 28 He made two frames for corners of the tabernacle in the rear. 29 They were separate beneath, but joined at the top, at the first ring; he made two of them in this way, for the two corners. 30 There were eight frames with their bases of silver: sixteen bases, under every frame two bases.
31 He made bars of acacia wood, five for the frames of the one side of the tabernacle, 32 and five bars for the frames of the other side of the tabernacle, and five bars for the frames of the tabernacle at the rear westward. 33 He made the middle bar to pass through from end to end halfway up the frames. 34 And he overlaid the frames with gold, and made rings of gold for them to hold the bars, and overlaid the bars with gold.
35 He made the curtain of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen, with cherubim skillfully worked into it. 36 For it he made four pillars of acacia, and overlaid them with gold; their hooks were of gold, and he cast for them four bases of silver. 37 He also made a screen for the entrance to the tent, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen, embroidered with needlework; 38 and its five pillars with their hooks. He overlaid their capitals and their bases with gold, but their five bases were of bronze.


  1. Exodus 36:19 Meaning of Heb uncertain

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Long Emergency: Roast Koala

Australia is now experiencing the hottest weather ever recorded there. For those of you who don't grok Celsius, the average temperature across the entire continent was about 105 degrees Fahrenheit. And it's predicted to get even hotter. Temperatures on Wednesday in some places reached 119 degrees. (It's Wednesday here as I write but still the wee hours of Thursday there.) As you may already know, this baking heat is accompanied by a lengthy drought and raging wildfires. Sydney is enveloped in smoke while some 70 fires are burning in Queensland forcing evacuations. The worst fire season has been in New South Wales where fires have burned an area larger than, well, Wales.

If this continues gets any worse, much of Australia will simply be uninhabitable. Despite all this, a poll finds that the average Australian is willing to spend only $200 a year to combat climate change. Nevertheless, that adds up to a fair amount of money -- about $4 billion -- but that's still only 10% of what the country spends on its military. (Note that this is an island nation that is threatened by exactly nobody.)

Still, it's enough to put rooftop solar on 1 million houses -- each year, which means that every Australian house could have rooftop solar in a decade. And BTW that means everybody gets free electricity for 20 years. (A few more years and you could give everybody energy storage systems.) And it's enough to do a whole lot more, which you can read about at the link. And obviously, if people chip in $400 they could do everything twice as fast.

Do you think Americans can afford $200 a year apiece? To save us from disaster? And even get the money back from the investment? It doesn't seem like a bad deal to me.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The very strange world of today

Via Brad DeLong, an analysis of archaeological data that shows a sharp rise in living standards (PDF) in the Roman Empire around Year 1, followed by the well known decline and fall and the long languishment of the Dark Ages. Author Willem Jongman offers no particular explanation for the rise,  and he rather lamely blames the fall on the Antonine plague and climate change. In any case, I draw attention to this because it is the only strong precedent for the astonishing developments of the past two and a half centuries.

While many people do still live at a bare subsistence level, that was the norm for the vast majority of humans until something a bit mysterious happened around the late 18th Century. Now it is no longer the norm in most of the world and in fact the typical human in the U.S. and Western Europe enjoys a standard of living, a life expectancy and standard of health that the kings and emperors of the 18th Century would envy, in fact could not have imagined. That we achieve this by consuming the carrying capacity of the earth, sea and atmosphere, and will soon hit a wall at 100 mph we will leave aside for now. The anomaly itself is what I want to discuss.

Whatever led to the Roman abundance, it wasn't much to do with technology. The major technologies of iron, domesticated horses, and Mediterranean navigation preceded the Romans. It was something about their social organization. They did have entrepreneurship, factories, a form of capitalism if you like, but that was also not unprecedented. In any case the Industrial Revolution was a wholly new phenomenon, a sudden onset, steadily accelerating explosion of productive technology. By now the pace of invention and the constant churn of change is part of the fabric of our lives. We take it for granted. Fears that "future shock" would overwhelm us seem to have been misplaced. We live with this as the norm and we hear cries of alarm when it seems it might be slowing down.

Many are skeptical that this constitutes "progress." We lose a lot along with what we gain, and whether the direction is all good is a subjective question. I'm happy to discuss and argue about that. But what I want today is just to ask us to stop taking it for granted. Step back and look at it. Try to understand it, and all its implications. Ponder how very strange this era is in history, for better or for worse, and what its end may be like.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: My eyes glaze over

Exodus 35 is proof that the scribes just threw together whatever material they had, including multiple versions of the same story. Here Moses starts to tell the people what's on the new and largely different set of Ten Commandments, but he only gets through one. He then repeats the gift list we were already subjected to in Exodus 25. Oh yeah -- it's coming again in 39. God's utter self-absorption, narcissism and psychopathy are still very much in evidence. Remind you of anybody?

35 Moses assembled all the congregation of the Israelites and said to them: These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do:
Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a holy sabbath of solemn rest to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire in all your dwellings on the sabbath day.
We've been through this before. Would you really feel good about killing somebody who works on the sabbath? Obviously the Jews who wound up in cold climates such as eastern Europe must have had a problem with this, but maybe they interpreted it as being okay to keep fires going as long as they were already lit on Friday. I don't know. Anyway Moses now  drops the subject.

Moses said to all the congregation of the Israelites: This is the thing that the Lord has commanded: Take from among you an offering to the Lord; let whoever is of a generous heart bring the Lord’s offering: gold, silver, and bronze; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine linen; goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, and fine leather;[a] acacia wood, oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, and onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and the breastpiece.
10 All who are skillful among you shall come and make all that the Lord has commanded: the tabernacle, 11 its tent and its covering, its clasps and its frames, its bars, its pillars, and its bases; 12 the ark with its poles, the mercy seat,[b] and the curtain for the screen; 13 the table with its poles and all its utensils, and the bread of the Presence; 14 the lampstand also for the light, with its utensils and its lamps, and the oil for the light; 15 and the altar of incense, with its poles, and the anointing oil and the fragrant incense, and the screen for the entrance, the entrance of the tabernacle; 16 the altar of burnt offering, with its grating of bronze, its poles, and all its utensils, the basin with its stand; 17 the hangings of the court, its pillars and its bases, and the screen for the gate of the court; 18 the pegs of the tabernacle and the pegs of the court, and their cords; 19 the finely worked vestments for ministering in the holy place, the holy vestments for the priest Aaron, and the vestments of his sons, for their service as priests.
The repetition of this material seems particularly inane because it is of no evident relevance to the faithful at the time the Torah was compiled, and even less so as the centuries went on. I believe I have pointed this out before but it's ironic that Jewish houses of worship nowadays are generally not very ornate, and the celebrants' clothing is simple. And this was of course true of the early Christians as well. But the Catholic church developed palatial structures, with gold ornaments, spectacular art works, and elaborate silk vestments for the priests. Many protestant denominations have reverted to plainness in their houses of worship.

20 Then all the congregation of the Israelites withdrew from the presence of Moses. 21 And they came, everyone whose heart was stirred, and everyone whose spirit was willing, and brought the Lord’s offering to be used for the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the sacred vestments. 22 So they came, both men and women; all who were of a willing heart brought brooches and earrings and signet rings and pendants, all sorts of gold objects, everyone bringing an offering of gold to the Lord. 23 And everyone who possessed blue or purple or crimson yarn or fine linen or goats’ hair or tanned rams’ skins or fine leather,[c] brought them. 24 Everyone who could make an offering of silver or bronze brought it as the Lord’s offering; and everyone who possessed acacia wood of any use in the work, brought it. 25 All the skillful women spun with their hands, and brought what they had spun in blue and purple and crimson yarns and fine linen; 26 all the women whose hearts moved them to use their skill spun the goats’ hair. 27 And the leaders brought onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and the breastpiece, 28 and spices and oil for the light, and for the anointing oil, and for the fragrant incense. 29 All the Israelite men and women whose hearts made them willing to bring anything for the work that the Lord had commanded by Moses to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord.
This is all repetition from 25 so I will also repeat myself. Why is the name of Bezalel so important? We don't hear from him again. Since nobody reads this literary waste, his name is forgotten anyway.

30 Then Moses said to the Israelites: See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; 31 he has filled him with divine spirit,[d] with skill, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, 32 to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, 33 in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft. 34 And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. 35 He has filled them with skill to do every kind of work done by an artisan or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and in fine linen, or by a weaver—by any sort of artisan or skilled designer.


  1. Exodus 35:7 Meaning of Heb uncertain
  2. Exodus 35:12 Or the cover
  3. Exodus 35:23 Meaning of Heb uncertain
  4. Exodus 35:31 Or the spirit of God

Thursday, December 12, 2019

This didn't even make the front page . . .

"President" pays $2 million to charities in settlement with NY AG for misuse of charitable foundation. Do you remember when the NYT had articles every day about the Clinton Foundation, that started with ominous sounding allegations and you finally found out in paragraph 15 that they weren't true? That and best e-mail management practices were the most important issues facing the country during the 2016 campaign. Let us suppose not just any other president, but any politician, at any level, did this:

As part of the settlement, Mr. Trump, who at first dismissed the suit as a political attack, made 19 detailed admissions, acknowledging, for example, that the foundation had purchased the $10,000 portrait of himself that was ultimately displayed at one of his Florida hotels.
He admitted to using the foundation’s money to settle obligations of some of his for-profit companies, including a golf club in Westchester County, N.Y., and Mar-a-Lago, his private club in Florida which he frequently visits.
And he admitted that the foundation had given his presidential campaign control over about $2.8 million that the foundation had raised at a veterans fund-raiser in Iowa in January 2016. Mr. Trump acknowledged the fund-raiser was in fact a campaign event.
I'm not sure why the AG didn't prosecute this as a criminal matter, ditto for Trump University. Last I heard, fraud was against the law.

As for best e-mail management practices, one of the facts adduced in the House impeachment inquiry, which was of no interest to the NYT whatsoever, is that the former foundation sponsor in question talked with his ambassador to the EU over an unsecured cell phone, in a restaurant, in a city crawling with Russian spies.  Apparently he talks on unsecured cell phones all the time, but who cares, right?

The NYT story was not on the front page, and I can't find it at all on the web sites of the major news networks. It might as well not have happened.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

War, what is it good for?

Some of my 2 1/2 long-time followers know that I maintained the Today in Iraq and Afghanistan blog for many years. I've set it aside for a while, out of a general feeling of despair. But now I do want to say something about the WaPos's publication of the report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. SIGAR reports frequently featured in Today in Iraq and Afghanistan.

IG Sopko has been speaking truth to power for many years, mostly exposing the utter failure of development projects. But now he has done a comprehensive assessment of the goals and accomplishments of the United States' longest war. The answer is none of the above.

Several of those interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public. They said it was common at military headquarters in Kabul — and at the White House — to distort statistics to make it appear the United States was winning the war when that was not the case.
“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” Bob Crowley, an Army colonel who served as a senior counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. military commanders in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers. “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.”
John Sopko, the head of the federal agency that conducted the interviews, acknowledged to The Post that the documents show “the American people have constantly been lied to.”
 This began, of course, with the George Bush II invasion, and continued through the subsequent two administrations. So B. Obama is just as much on the hook for it as the Republican presidents. The original rationale for the invasion of Afghanistan was to root out Al Qaeda and retaliate for the Sept. 11 attack. Fair enough, but Osama bin Laden was chased into Pakistan after just 3 months. So what was the rationale for continuing to occupy Afghanistan (and for that matter, not invading Pakistan?) after that?

Yet the interviews show that as the war dragged on, the goals and mission kept changing and a lack of faith in the U.S. strategy took root inside the Pentagon, the White House and the State Department.
Fundamental disagreements went unresolved. Some U.S. officials wanted to use the war to turn Afghanistan into a democracy. Others wanted to transform Afghan culture and elevate women’s rights. Still others wanted to reshape the regional balance of power among Pakistan, India, Iran and Russia.
The Lessons Learned interviews also reveal how U.S. military commanders struggled to articulate who they were fighting, let alone why.
Was al-Qaeda the enemy, or the Taliban? Was Pakistan a friend or an adversary? What about the Islamic State and the bewildering array of foreign jihadists, let alone the warlords on the CIA’s payroll? According to the documents, the U.S. government never settled on an answer.
As a result, in the field, U.S. troops often couldn’t tell friend from foe.
This was the same political dynamic that kept the U.S. stuck in Vietnam for 20 years. After the U.S. finally surrendered and left for good, there was a period during which the victorious government sent collaborators to re-education camps and many of them, fearing disposession, fled in a dangerous exodus by sea. So you may judge that was bad, although certainly not as bad as the war itself. But then Vietnam stabilized, became prosperous, and is now an important trading partner of the U.S. No, it's not a democracy but neither was the puppet South Vietnam. In the long run, nothing bad came of the U.S. defeat and it was obvious that there was absolutely no good reason for the U.S. to be there in the first place. (I won't go into the details of the history but major U.S. involvement began after it became clear that Ho Chi Minh would win a scheduled reunification election, and if there is one thing the U.S. couldn't tolerate, it was self determination by colonies.)

Baked into our political culture is a warrior mentality, an assumption that it is both the responsibility and the right of the United States to send its military abroad to control the destiny of non-European countries, and that any president who gives up on one of these projects is a coward and a loser. So they can't give up. I have to actually give D. Trump credit for saying he wants to get out of Afghanistan, but with talk and two bucks I can get a cup of coffee. Let's see what actually happens.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: Which Ten Commandments?

What happens in Exodus 34 is very strange indeed. You may remember that Moses broke the tablets with the Ten Commandments because he was pissed off about the golden calf and all that. So God calls him back up the mountain to get a new set. Only -- they're completely different.

34 The Lord said to Moses, “Cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke. Be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai and present yourself there to me, on the top of the mountain. No one shall come up with you, and do not let anyone be seen throughout all the mountain; and do not let flocks or herds graze in front of that mountain.” So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the former ones; and he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tablets of stone. The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name, “The Lord.”[a] The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed,
“The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,[b]
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and the fourth generation.”
This is, obviously, moral idiocy. But we already know that God is one nasty SOB.
And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped. He said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.”
10 He said: I hereby make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform marvels, such as have not been performed in all the earth or in any nation; and all the people among whom you live shall see the work of the Lord; for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you.
I will now enumerate the Ten Commandments. My emendation is in  Bold.
11 Observe what I command you today. See, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 12 
1 Take care not to make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you are going, or it will become a snare among you. 13 You shall tear down their altars, break their pillars, and cut down their sacred poles[c] 14 (for you shall worship no other god, because the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God). 15 You shall not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to their gods, someone among them will invite you, and you will eat of the sacrifice. 16 And you will take wives from among their daughters for your sons, and their daughters who prostitute themselves to their gods will make your sons also prostitute themselves to their gods.
17 2You shall not make cast idols.
18  3You shall keep the festival of unleavened bread. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of Abib; for in the month of Abib you came out from Egypt.
19  4All that first opens the womb is mine, all your male[d] livestock, the firstborn of cow and sheep. 20 The firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem.
No one shall appear before me empty-handed.
21 5Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even in plowing time and in harvest time you shall rest. 22 You shall observe the festival of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the festival of ingathering at the turn of the year. 23 6Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel. 24 For I will cast out nations before you, and enlarge your borders; no one shall covet your land when you go up to appear before the Lord your God three times in the year.
25 7You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven, 8and the sacrifice of the festival of the passover shall not be left until the morning.
26 9The best of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God.
10You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.
27 The Lord said to Moses: Write these words; in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel. 28 He was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.[e]

It's actually fine with me if Roy Moore wants to display these in the courthouse.

29 Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant[f] in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. 33 When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; 34 but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.


  1. Exodus 34:5 Heb YHWH; see note at 3.15
  2. Exodus 34:7 Or for thousands
  3. Exodus 34:13 Heb Asherim
  4. Exodus 34:19 Gk Theodotion Vg Tg: Meaning of Heb uncertain
  5. Exodus 34:28 Heb words
  6. Exodus 34:29 Or treaty, or testimony; Heb eduth

Thursday, December 05, 2019


You've probably heard that the Residential Administration is changing the eligibility rules for he Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program which will result in loss of benefits for an estimated 700,000 people. In a nutshell, the rule will make it more difficult for states to waive the work requirement, which is that "nondisabled" adults have to work at least 20 hours a week to be eligible. The ostensible rationale is that a lot of people who could be working are lazing around and that if they lose their SNAP benefits they'll get off the couch and get a job.

This is actually bullshit. The people we are talking about may not be certified as disabled but they are generally economically very marginal, maybe lacking a high school diploma; having undiagnosed disabilities, or mental or physical limitations short of getting an official ruling of disability; living in pockets of high unemployment.  Many of them are in fact working as much as they can but they have part-time, non-steady jobs that don't consistently give them 20 hours a week of work. Experiments with this policy at the state level have shown that it does not in fact lead to increased employment, it just leads to hunger.

It turns out there's a back story. This is the culmination of a nearly decade-long effort by an organization called the Foundation for Government Accountability, which is funded by billionaires who want to take everything they can away from poor people. Now why do you think so many billionaires want to do that?

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: The Divine Mooning

 Exodus is, as we have seen, tedious and turgid. It's full of repetition, and also slightly different versions of similar constructs. Clearly it's an amalgamation of various source materials. But it is clear that the concept of God is still very limited compared with the modern version. He is not ubiquitous: he has a finite, physical body, in the shape of a human, and he exists in a specific location. He is definitely not universal; his only relationship is with the Hebrews. (The apparent flirtation with the Midianites was more or less forced because they adopted Moses and gave him a wife.) And he continues to make promises he doesn't keep.

33 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Leave this place, you and the people you brought up out of Egypt, and go up to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I will send an angel before you and drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.”
Several comments here. First of all, obviously, there is the psychopathic disdain for the native people of the region they are about to enter. However, as we will learn in Joshua, this promise is not fully kept. The Hebrews seize territory, but they do not drive out the Canaanites or the Jebusites. Then there is the notion that God will send an angel but will not personally accompany the people. The reason is also quite startling: that God doesn't trust himself not to kill them all. Evidently if he isn't physically present he can't do anything to them.
When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn and no one put on any ornaments. For the Lord had said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people. If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you. Now take off your ornaments and I will decide what to do with you.’” So the Israelites stripped off their ornaments at Mount Horeb.
I don't really get this business about not wearing ornaments. Any thoughts?

Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the “tent of meeting.” Anyone inquiring of the Lord would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp. And whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people rose and stood at the entrances to their tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses. 10 Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshiped, each at the entrance to their tent. 11 The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then Moses would return to the camp, but his young aide Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent.
So if you've been wondering exactly how God communicates with Moses, now you know. Except you don't. That God speaks with Moses "face to face, as one speaks to a friend," is completely contradicted at the end of this very chapter.

12 Moses said to the Lord, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ 13 If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.”
14 The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
15 Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. 16 How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”
17 And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”
So once again Moses argues with God and succeeds in changing his mind. God will physically go with them after all, and presumably not kill them.
18 Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”
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.”
21 Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. 22 When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”
No comment.