18 September 2019

Religious leaders

I'm sure most readers have heard the classic definition of the difference between a cult and a religion:

"In a cult, there is always one person at the top who knows the whole thing is a scam.  In a religion, that person is dead."

I increasingly wonder about the second part, though.  The default assumption is that most religious leaders are among the most devout believers of all -- there's no one more Catholic than the Pope -- but in most cases their observed behavior simply doesn't fit.

Take the Catholic Church, for starters.  The pattern of child molestation by priests has been ongoing for decades, likely centuries -- in many countries, spanning the reigns of countless Popes.  The Catholic hierarchy globally has followed a pattern of shielding abusers from prosecution, shifting them from place to place to keep them out of trouble (thus allowing them to find fresh, unsuspecting victims), denying the problem, hiding evidence, denouncing accusers, blaming victims and intimidating them into silence..... Is this the behavior of men who truly believe they will one day be judged by a God who knows everything they've done?  Or is it the behavior of men primarily concerned about the worldly power, prestige, and wealth of the Church as an institution, and about their own positions within it?

Protestant institutions, too, are rife with cases of leaders engaging in sexual abuse and other crimes, misappropriation of money, extramarital affairs, and on and on.  Again, if these leaders truly believed that lives of virtue would win them eternal life in Heaven while "sin" might doom them to eternity in Hell, I can't imagine that they would behave in such ways.  Surely whatever satisfactions they get from their actions now would pale to nothing beside the prospect of eternal reward or torment -- and surely a true believer would expect God to judge the abuse of religious authority especially harshly.

Then there's the way religious practices evolve in the wake of culture (I do not say "along with" culture because the religions are usually 50 to 100 years behind).  For example, the Old Testament makes it clear that homosexuality and witchcraft are to be punished by death, while Jesus declared (Matthew 5:17-19) that every last detail of the Old Testament law remains in full force until the end of the world.  During the Dark Ages, law and practice reflected these taboos.  But in more recent centuries, as Western society has become more secular, and belief in magic has declined while tolerance for homosexuality has grown -- most major Christian denominations have quietly backed off of support for punishment by death in such cases, even while retaining a more garden-variety level of bigotry toward gays and pagan religions.

Again, do they think Jehovah and Jesus didn't really mean what they said?  Is getting along with an evolving secular society more important than loyalty to the word of the almighty creator of the universe?  Meanwhile, the few who do continue to preach the actual Biblical doctrine, such as Fred Phelps, are viewed by most Christians as cranks who give the rest of them a bad name.  Yet Jesus said, "Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of Heaven" -- don't they believe him?

(Yes, I know about the fatuous modern "re-interpretations" of the Old Testament condemnations which claim they're not really about homosexuality or witchcraft or whatever.  During the Dark Ages, generations of devout Christian scholars studied the Bible intensively without those re-interpretations ever occurring to them.  Now a few people have "discovered" that the Bible "really" reflects a modern moral consensus which its authors could never have imagined and which took shape only within the last few decades.  Such claims are nothing but absurd rationalizations by moderns who can't face what their holy book actually says.)

It's hard to pull off a con successfully if you yourself are fooled by it as much as your marks are.  The "Wizard" of Oz created the projection of Oz the Great and Powerful to deceive and intimidate the masses, not to deceive himself.  He didn't personally believe the bullshit he was selling to everyone else.

The behavior of most religious leaders is staggeringly inconsistent with what they claim to believe.  Are they de facto atheists coldly and hypocritically perpetrating a scam in full awareness of what they're doing?  Or does a lifetime of wallowing in mumbo-jumbo allow them to twist reason and conscience into such a tangle that they can do and "believe" completely contradictory things and force themselves not to notice?

Do they themselves even know?

17 September 2019

Video of the day -- reverse improvement


All long-term readers know that I fervently support real technological progress, but there is way too much of this over-complicating and over-gadgetizing of stuff that worked perfectly well when it was simple and mechanical.

15 September 2019

Link round-up for 15 September 2019

Various interesting stuff I ran across on the net over the last week.

o o o o o

And now, with one stroke of my sword..... (found via Miss Cellania).

Volunteers are doing maintenance on the Cerne Abbas Giant in England.

"It's for my food blog."

This exists.

Headline writers are just trolling us at this point.

He's on the cutting edge of snacking.

Paranoid fears of magical dong theft have led to witch hunts, both medieval and modern (found via Strangely Blogged).

This is true luxury for cats.

".....and with a single click....."

Be sure you're in the right part of the airplane.

Finally some decent weather!

Florida, I presume.

It's a sperm bank.

This must be the pied piper of geese.

Beware the cello.

Justine's Halloween has some more decorations, while Lady M finds some scary wearable art.

Stay out of the ocean -- it's full of horrible things.

"Unleash hell."

Ozymandias won.

Trumpanzees:  image vs. reality.

Retch, gag, barf.

Architects are running out of ideas, or maybe just playing too much Jenga.

Before selling his gun, this guy did a thorough background check on the buyer.

Gays are trying to destroy Christianity?  Turnabout is fair.

"Make it happen."

Question here for anti-vaxers.

Fiction is an alternative to reality.

An avatar of peace?

In the late 1970s, our exploration of the Solar System was just getting started, and science fiction movies were beginning to go downhill -- with a major exception.  It's an intriguing but long post, so save this one for when you have some time.

Yes, it matters what search engine you use.

This must have scared the hell out of people.

It was his last assignment.

QAnon qrackpots re-affirm their beliefs as the Trump gang tries to decide what to do about them.

On guns, think again.

Christianity isn't a big tent, it's a whole bunch of little ones.

The size of the market for erection pills suggests some sad things about masculinity (NSFW ad image).

A South African blogger finds the role of Christian values in US politics a bit confusing.

Beware of those who spread despair and division (scroll past the Statue of Liberty stuff to get to the main point).

A rogue site is stealing works from AO3.  Also, if you've posted any pictures there, read this.

Meet the woman the enemy fears.

Uber would rather break the law than treat its drivers properly.

Evidence doesn't support Trump's self-aggrandizing claims about what he did on and after 9/11.

The history of the US homicide rate shows some interesting correlations.

Dystopian fantasies like The Handmaid's Tale are getting uncomfortably close to reality.

You will actually feel your IQ dropping as you read this gobbledygook.

Always wear a helmet.

These nutbags are going to be trouble if we win the election next year.

Some good info here on internet privacy.

Pope Francis claims he has no fear of a schism.

Sharpie-gate stinks of the mentality of 1984.  After the migrant border camps, "relocating" California's homeless would be the next logical step along the road to fascism.

Where do atheists get their morality?  Wrong question, but there's still an answer.

You never know who may be susceptible to suicide (NSFW images).

Christianity is cruel, heartless, and loathsome.

There is such a thing as a "pre-marital exam" for women -- in Utah, not Afghanistan.

A fossil site in North Dakota apparently preserves traces of the very day and hour of the meteor impact that killed the dinosaurs.  I'm a little skeptical since the work hasn't been verified by other paleontologists, but in any event these finds are dramatic.

Little ankle-biter shouldn't try to mess with a colossus like Darwin.

The Moon landings were pretty scary at the time.

See what technology can do for a man who lost both arms.

A new Japanese stem-cell treatment restores function to paralyzed limbs.  The article emphasizes concerns about how fast Japanese regulators approved the treatment -- but delay in treating paralysis causes great suffering, so that needs to be balanced against the risk.

Rain forests recover strongly from deforestation, if given a chance.

A new law in Australia bans Catholic priests from shielding child molesters, and they're already bitching about it.  Sorry guys, the house rules of your private club have no standing against actual law.

In Belgium, religionists rally to defend cruelty to animals.

To anti-Semites, everything is bad when Israel does it, even veganism.

Hong Kong protesters call upon the UK to pressure China to abide by its commitments (realistically, the UK has little ability to pressure China).

What exactly would "winning" mean in Afghanistan?

See analysis of the Democratic debate by The Hill, FiveThirtyEight, Vox, Stephen Colbert, Daily Kos, and MSM pundits, and by bloggers Tengrain and The Rude Pundit (but I disagree that O'Rourke running for Senate is still an option -- after his remark that "we're going to take your AR-15", he's likely no longer a viable candidate in Texas).

A tough ad calls out Moscow Mitch (found via Mock Paper Scissors).

We're scoring a lot of wins against gerrymandering.

Warren has got Wall Street scared shitless -- she must be doing something right.  Though she lags Biden in the polls, she's positioned to pick up more support as other candidates drop out, likely because she's perceived as more moderate than Sanders.

O'Rourke has given Republicans a talking point to rally their base for years to come. Of course, they can always just make shit up.

Instagram is a conduit for Russian election meddling, but Pinterest shows that countermeasures are possible.

Trump's foreign-policy shifts suggest he's getting nervous about the election.

The House Judiciary Committee took a step toward an impeachment inquiry, but don't expect an actual impeachment soon -- it would put a lot of House seats at risk.

More links here.

[969 days down, 493 to go until the inauguration of a real President.]

Our true Western heritage

An index post for links to all my posts on this topic, since it's an important one.

Yes, it really was Christianity that destroyed Greco-Roman civilization and precipitated the Dark Ages.  It's an ugly and bloody story.

The greatness of that civilization, and the even more glorious world that should have been ours today.

My review of Agora, a film set during the final collapse.

The Persian Empire founded by Cyrus the Great was the world's first true superpower, and was an essential part of the rise of Classical civilization.

A short video on the Hellenistic scientist Eratosthenes, who correctly calculated both the circumference of the Earth and the distance between the Earth and the Sun.

My obituary for Hypatia of Alexandria.

The Abrahamic religions have divided what remains of our civilization against itself.

13 September 2019

Video of the day -- the comet


Europe's Rosetta space probe and its Philae lander spent two years studying comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  This video is assembled from images sent back by the mission.  Yes, you're looking at the landscape of a comet.  (The flat rectangular thing at around 0:40 is one of Rosetta's solar panels.)  Well worth fullscreen.  Found via Miss Cellania.

11 September 2019

Schism?

For years now, there's been a rising level of discontent and alarm among traditionalist Catholics about the direction of the Church under Pope Francis.  His occasional hints at a reduced emphasis on the taboo against homosexuality, his suggestions of a more accepting stance toward the divorced and remarried, his recognition of the reality of global warming, and his moves toward dialogue with Protestantism and even Islam, do not sit well with them.  These reformist moves, especially as expressed in his 2016 document Amoris Laetitia, have encouraged liberal Catholic clergy (of whom there are many, at least in Western countries) to implement more tolerant stances in their own jurisdictions.  To traditionalist Catholics it all smacks of "modernism" (a seriously Bad Thing in their eyes), perhaps even heresy.

Recently their alarm has intensified further due to the "Amazon synod" a major meeting for Bishops of the Amazon region which is scheduled for October 6-27 in Rome.  Traditionalists claim that liberal Western (especially German) clergy plan to use the synod to implement various heretical innovations, such as married priests, in the Amazon region, from which they will inevitably spread throughout the Church globally.  The synod's main working document, the Instrumentum Laboris, has been accused of legitimizing indigenous paganism as equal or even superior to Christianity.  It is certainly full of annoying New-Agey woo-woo stuff.  Another preparatory document embraces a number of "heresies".  Two conservative cardinals have called the synod the greatest threat to the Church in its entire history -- and there are calls for them to go further than just talk.

If you read the comment threads at some of those links, you'll see how alarmed the traditionalists are.  As they see it, Francis and the liberal clergy are steering the Church onto a path of such profound heresy that, if they succeed, it will no longer represent true Christianity.  So far, their proposed responses mostly consist of praying and fasting and suchlike, but of course such measures will prove no more effective here than they have at stopping mass shootings or hurricanes.

If the Church eventually adopts doctrines too radical for the traditionalists to endure, what will they do?  Most of them realize they can't just wait for Francis to die and hope a more conservative Pope reverses everything -- of the 128 current Cardinals entitled to vote for a new Pope, 67 were appointed by Francis, making it likely that the next Pope will also be a reformist.  If the Church adopts doctrines the traditionalists view as heresy, they'll face an inescapable crisis.

I've seen some talk of schism.  It's hard to know what this would look like.  Catholic doctrine states that there is no salvation outside the Church, so simply leaving the Church and starting an explicitly new organization wouldn't be an option.  The traditionalists would have to be able to claim that whatever they were doing was the "true" Catholic Church, while the original (still in possession of the Vatican and the rest of the physical infrastructure) was not.  Presumably it would be possible to gin up something from among the Church's vast and labyrinthine aggregation of "teachings" to support this, especially if a few senior clergy joined the exodus.  Certainly the new "Catholic Church" and the original would denounce each other as heretics, schismatics, and all manner of other juicy epithets.

How significant such a move would be depends on how many traditionalists there are, which is hard to estimate.  In 1890, when the official Mormon Church renounced polygamy under pressure from the US government, some die-hard polygamists left the Church and established separate "fundamentalist" Mormon communities in remote areas.  Their numbers were so small, however, that this had little impact on the main-line Mormon Church.  It's hard to tell how many Catholics are so traditionalist that they could not stomach married priests or a full repudiation of the taboo on homosexuality or the various other looming innovations.  I'd guess their numbers are fairly small -- in the West.  But Christians in the Third World tend to be much more conservative, especially in Africa, where the Catholic Church has a substantial presence.  Globally, a real schism could have a serious impact.

Presumably Francis and the liberal clergy are trying to modernize the Church in order to make it more appealing in a rapidly-changing culture.  Catholicism, like most Christian sects, is hemorrhaging members in the West -- far more people are leaving than joining.  The Church seems to be reaching the limits of how far this modernization can go without driving traditionalists into open rebellion.  Ironically, it's unlikely that compromising on the taboo system will do much to stem the membership decline, most of which is driven by simple loss of belief.  But one can hope that a divided Catholic Church will prove less effective at exerting reactionary influence over our societies than it has been in the past.

10 September 2019

Saving the media

First, please read this post at Mock Paper Scissors from last week.  The traditional news media are struggling to find a business model that will keep them viable in the internet era.  Advertising managed for a while, but a lot of that has now migrated to other types of websites which offer advertisers better returns.  Now, as those of us who read a lot of news have noticed, many news sites are requiring paid subscriptions to access much or all of their content.  MPS observes that the revenues from this are unlikely to reach what these sites need to survive, and that "the media is silo'ing us" -- if everyone ends up getting their news from just a few sites they've bought subscriptions for, it will limit the range of information and viewpoints they can access.

It may be working for smaller news sites.  TPM, for example, seems to be having some success with its "Prime" system, in which about 20% of the content is accessible to paid subscribers only.  Could the same thing work for bigger operations like MSNBC and CNN?  Certainly their expenses are much larger, perhaps even relative to readership size.

In principle, I see no reason why a lot of people wouldn't be willing to pay.  In pre-internet days, people subscribed to newspapers and magazines -- enough did so to keep them afloat, anyway.  Most people probably subscribed to very few, but those were supplemented by TV news, which was free because it took paid ads and was subsidized by networks who made their real profits off of sitcoms and the like.

But it's certainly not a reader-friendly model.  It's too cumbersome.  There are at least couple dozen news sites I read fairly regularly.  I wouldn't even mind paying a little, but keeping track of a couple dozen passwords and having to log in every time I check a news site?  Too much work.  Also, I sometimes look at sites like RedState and NRO and Breitbart just to see what's making the rounds in Wingnuttia, but I'm certainly not going to pay them anything.  And all those subscriptions would add up.  $5 a month for access to a news site is one thing, but $5 each for every news site I look at would run over $100 a month, which would be a non-trivial expense for most people.

The problem of a multiplicity of paid sites is real.  A complaint I commonly see on Tumblr blogs is that internet TV streaming sites are proliferating in number because corporate owners want exclusive access to revenues from TV shows they own.  It was fine when there were just one or two sites to pay for to get access to most of what was out there, but when people have to subscribe to eight or nine streaming sites to get all their favorite shows, it's too much hassle and many are choosing to go back to pirating.

Perhaps a system could be devised where people would pay for an umbrella subscription service that would give access to many news sites, with the revenues being allocated to those sites on the basis of page views.  It's hard to imagine how this would work, though.

Another possible model is patronage.  Rich individuals or corporations could pay to keep news sites afloat.  But the dangers in this option are obvious.  Already a few corporate conglomerates own huge chunks of the MSM, posing a threat to their independence.

The best option I've been able to think of is some form of subsidy by government, accompanied by strict rules to prevent censorship or other interference in content.  If the free press is essential to democracy, then it's appropriate that it be treated as a public service and taxpayer-funded.  The BBC in the UK is government-subsidized and remains independent of the vagaries of party politics, and it's a vigorous and globally-respected institution.  PBS could form the nucleus of something similar here.

Of course, the Republicans for years have been trying to get rid of PBS, and if it became a major news site, they would certainly try to interfere with its content.  For the US, a better route might be to do something similar at the state level.  At least the larger states, like California and Texas, could provide their own mini-BBC news sites.  Since the internet makes content produced in one state equally accessible everywhere, people all over the US could see every state's news sites, guaranteeing access to a range of viewpoints.  If red states chose not to set up such sites because "soshulism!!!", their loss.

This would, at best, provide news sites with stable funding free of corporate influence.  It would not save the existing media which are now trying to survive by going to paid subscriptions.  It would, however, ameliorate the problem that most people would pay for only a few sites; their news intake would be supplemented by the state-funded sites, as people in pre-internet days supplemented their few newspaper and magazine subscriptions with free TV news.  Some states might even offer subsidies to some existing independent news services if there were no other way for the latter to survive -- but this would be radical even for the blue states, and choosing who qualified for subsidies would be a nightmare.

This isn't a perfect solution, but I don't think there is a perfect solution.  We need to be thinking about the problem, anyway.

A couple of final points:

First, the current situation where everybody has access to such a vast number of news sites for free is a product of the internet age -- for most of American history, news options were far more limited.  Right now I can look at literally hundreds of news sites from all over the US, and hundreds more in other countries, and most of them are free.  I'm old enough to remember when there was no internet and the news meant three or four free TV network programs, plus local TV news, plus whatever newspapers or magazines one could afford to pay for, which was not many (and access to non-US news was even more limited -- I used to buy German news magazines fairly regularly when I was studying the language, and that was not cheap).  So if most people end up "silo'ed" with three or four news sites they're willing to pay for plus free news on California's mini-BBC, we'll basically have just gone back to the situation as it was before the internet.  It won't be an unprecedented new constriction of access.

Second, technology is allowing information to spread in ways that entirely bypass the media.  The MSM have far less control over the flow of news than they did ten or twenty years ago. Blogs and discussion forums now reach enough people that information distributed there will eventually seep into the mass public mind, even if it takes longer than something that appears on MSNBC.  I've seen bloggers do original posts on events in their own local area, without reference to MSM sources.  I've known a few bloggers who even traveled to events to report on them in person.  Before the internet, those kinds of reports by an ordinary non-media person might at most have been distributed by mail to a few acquaintances.  Today they're instantly accessible worldwide and can be picked up by other blogs or forums which spread them to bigger audiences.  The fact that such reports may be less accurate than MSM reports doesn't negate the impact.  Then there's cell-phone video.  In recent years, many events have been captured on video by ordinary individuals on the scene who recorded them on their cell phones.  This has included events like riots, police brutality, even meteors.  In the old days, video of such events wouldn't exist, since by the time someone at a news organization heard what was going on and sent a reporter, the event would have been over.  So far from bloggers being dependent on MSM reporting to "jump-start" a story, the MSM and even the police often end up using some ordinary person's cell-phone video to show exactly what really happened.

The main benefit of this is that it makes censoring or spinning the news far more difficult.  But it also adumbrates what may become a new source of news, even if it's too haphazard to replace the MSM.  An ordinary person in Moscow or Hong Kong can film events there, upload the video to YouTube, and potentially reach as big an audience as a CNN report.  It's not the same thing CNN does, but that's not the point.  One way or another, the news is going to be out there, for those who seek it.

08 September 2019

Link round-up for 8 September 2019

Various interesting stuff I ran across on the net over the last week.

o o o o o

This is the future liberals want.

Have some reptile cartoons.

Jabba the Hutt wants to molest your car.

You know what's going to happen here.

Justine's Halloween is already shopping for decorations.

Well, that's an incentive.

Typo of the week.

"All artists are guilty of the horny."

Where'd it go?

This was Carrie Fisher's house.

Somebody is idiotizing five-dollar bills.

"Jesus lives in my heart....."

Here's a remarkably smart and attentive dog.

This is me, but in the mornings.

RO looks at murder mysteries, car thieves, spiders, underwear, Reno, and a bunch of other stuff.

Whoever programmed this system was an idiot -- read the replies too (found via Miss Cellania).

"Be a freak and love yourself for it."

Pence is the quintessential Republican.

Is shopping for women's clothes really this bad?

See the Northern Lights over Iceland.

There's nothing wrong with "sounding gay" (whatever that even means).

Nine lives.....

The Catholic Church obsessively disapproves of one of the most harmless of all human activities.

Debra She Who Seeks has some reminders for Labor Day.  Here's one more.  Padre Steve looks at history.

Summertime brings assholes.

"In place of the nothing there is me / And always was."  Seriously, read this.

The internet still can't replace libraries.

The ICE raids in Mississippi have had some ripple effects.

This is both-siderism in a nutshell.

Facebook makes you sick.  So does pessimism.

Dorian was God punishing the Bahamas.

The corporate types are starting to believe their own bullshit, apparently.

Trump is scamming his marks with sharpie-gate.  And he's inspiring others.

There's a rich history of freedom from religion among black Americans.

Besides Verizon and its stupid rules, Tumblr has a problem with toxic culture (see last parts of post).

According to Mozilla, the current version of Firefox blocks tracking cookies.

Mall-Wart makes things tougher for poorer gun owners.

This particular scam is hard to avoid.

The blogs I Should Be Laughing and Lo Imprescindible express opposing views on naming-and-shaming Trump donors.

Millions of people believe they're surrounded by warring legions of invisible spooks (read the comments too).

What if Hitler had been assassinated in 1930?

Moscow Mitch is a hypocrite.  But you knew that.  And here's why he hates his new moniker.

Even within the US, supporters of the Beijing regime behave like thugs.

Times have changed.

Trumpanzees fall disgracefully silent about Trump's latest attack on military families.

Keeping teens ignorant about sexuality can only do harm.

Private ISPs had their chance -- it's time to nationalize the internet.

"It's not 'future liberals want' it's 'people conservatives want to eradicate'."  Notice the swastika avatar among the "likes" on the original post.

Fox News tells the truth for once; Trump throws a hissy fit.  His aides are more and more worried about his mental stability.

A bad enough diet can have serious consequences.

Here's a report from that "straight pride parade" in Boston.  Charges against arrested counter-protesters are being upheld.

Professor Chaos reports on that Catholic school which banned Harry Potter because they think it's real witchcraft.  Yes, the Catholic Church still has exorcists and the ritual still exists; exorcists have been ranting against Harry Potter for some time, and He Who Zings Rats has agreed.

A flagrantly anti-Semitic judge cannot give a Jewish defendant a fair trial.

Abuse can happen to anyone.

Privileging religious bigotry against gays opens the door for racism too.  The venue's apology is kind of weird -- generations of slave-owners and segregationists had no difficulty finding justification for their views in the Bible.  I think this person just freaked out at the backlash and wanted a pretext to back down.

No, the Amazon is not "the lungs of the planet", and no, it does not produce 20% of the world's oxygenMore here from an atmospheric scientist.  These fires are a real problem, but talking easily-refuted nonsense isn't helping anything.

India's lunar lander appears to have failed, though the orbiter part of the mission carries on.

Suicide is much more common in regions at high elevation.

Offshore wind farms are enhancing biodiversity.

Brain scans are helping us understand how dogs really think.

There's an art to taking naps.

A minor mystery about T-Rex skulls may have been solved.

The BAT can harvest wind energy from high in the sky.

In the UK, the enemies of democracy and independence have stopped a move to hold a new election.  A new election would likely produce an increased Conservative majority and thus ease the path to Brexit -- but the people must not be heard if they'd vote against what the pro-EU elites want.  Still, Johnson has some options.  His decisiveness after three years of fiddle-faddling around has probably improved the party's chances.  And May's Brexit deal may be back on the table.

At a tense political moment in the UK, a defector from the Conservative party proves toxic.

Iceland greets PenceMore here.

Demographic changes are forcing Hezbollah to be more restrained.

In Beirut, stand-up comedy pushes the envelope.

Call this what it is -- Islamic barbarism.

To handle the Middle East, we need to deal with Iran.

The return of theocracy to Afghanistan would be a disaster for women.

Indian authorities harass journalists as part of their media black-out in Kashmir.

China exports dirty coal power technology that exacerbates global warming.

The Indonesian government is blocking the internet as it tries to crush the independence movement in western Papua.

Days of mob violence and looting against foreigners in South Africa have led to reprisals against South Africans in Nigeria and a widening breach in relations between the two countries.

There are more fires raging in Africa right now than in the Amazon.

Joni Ernst doesn't understand democracy.  I wouldn't trust her with Social Security either.

Trump is the party, the party is Trump.

Here's an overview of Senate races where we have a shot.

Republicans are especially afraid of losing state legislatures next year.

O'Rourke and Abrams need to put ego aside and do the right thing.

Don't be misled by crowd sizes.

Marianne Williamson joins the right-wing "pray away hurricanes" crackpottery.  She deleted that tweet, but has also blamed mass shootings on entertainment media and video games.  Why doesn't this nutjob just run as a Republican?

Trump's response to the slowing economy is to bash the media and Democrats, perhaps laying the groundwork for a Dolchstoßlegende in case he loses next year.

Texas Republicans worry about their grip on the state.  The issue isn't so much Latinos, it's immigration of more liberal voters from other parts of the US.

Tribal leaders are determined to protect the vote in North Carolina next week.

In a milestone, the Democratic party explicitly embraces non-religious Americans.  I guess there are finally too many of us to ignore.

Here's Republican policy, summed up.

Inslee won't be President, but Warren has adopted his climate plan.

More links here.

05 September 2019

Video of the day -- highways in the sky


There is a great beauty in visions like this.  Think of the skill and precision it takes to keep all this air traffic flowing safely and in proper order, day after day, year after year.  Sometimes human intelligence seems to create art without even intending to.

02 September 2019

Extermination, resumed

When we think of really big land animals, we think of Sub-Saharan Africa.  The elephant, the hippopotamus, the rhinoceros, and countless other huge beasts abound there, so much so that travel to see such creatures in the wild is a major basis of the region's tourist industry.  The native fauna in most of the rest of the world -- the Americas, Australia -- is not nearly as impressive.  The places with native animals comparable to Sub-Saharan Africa's are mostly fairly close by.  India has elephants too.  Lions lived wild in parts of the Middle East until recently.  Elephants survived in northwest Africa in Classical times (Hannibal's march on Rome used northwest African elephants).  Further away, such examples are far thinner on the ground.

Humans evolved in Sub-Saharan Africa, and early hominins such as Homo erectus have been spreading out into the Middle East, North Africa, southern Asia, and southern Europe for about a million years.  Humans did not spread to the rest of the world until far more recently, with the rise of anatomically modern Homo sapiens.  So the places that have most of the giant animals are also the places where proto-humans existed for the longest periods of time.  This isn't a coincidence, and the reason for the connection has some interesting implications.

Australia and the Americas formerly had an abundance of huge animals every bit as impressive as Sub-Saharan Africa's.  Australia had giant marsupials comparable in size to the great African creatures, including a huge carnivorous kangaroo, as well as lizards and snakes weighing over a ton and a 400-pound flightless bird similar to an ostrich.  These giants thrived in Australia for tens of millions of years.  But all of them died out over a relatively short period of time ending at or somewhat before 35,000 years ago -- no trace of them survives from any period later than that.  Some have argued that they were killed off by a sudden change in climate (Australia is notably prone to such changes), but this seems unlikely since they had survived countless such changes before.  But we know that the first humans to reach Australia arrived there roughly 40,000 years ago.  They were anatomically-modern Homo sapiens, the ancestors of the Australian aborigines.  And they were hunter-gatherers.

North America, too, once teemed with elephants, camels, lions, giant sloths, mammoths, and other huge creatures.  After thriving for millions of years, they too suddenly became extinct around 12,000 years ago.  It's been suggested that this had something to do with the end of the last ice age, but these animals had come through many previous ice ages just fine.  12,000 years ago also happens to coincide with the arrival of the first humans in the Americas.  In this case we actually have, for example, mammoth skeletons with spear-points embedded in them, suggesting the real reason for the mass extinction.

Why were these animals so easily killed off by primitive hunters, while their Sub-Saharan African counterparts were not?  The evolution of human intelligence, and thus of highly lethal weapons and strategies for hunting, was a slow process spanning millions of years.  As proto-humans gradually grew smarter and more dangerous, the animals of Sub-Saharan Africa had time to adapt.  To a lesser extent the same was true of animals in southern Asia and the Mediterranean world, who coexisted with proto-humans for up to a million years.

The native animals in Australia and the Americas had never needed to adapt to this danger, which did not exist in their environment.  Then, just 40,000 and 12,000 years ago respectively, they were "suddenly" (relative to evolutionary time-scales) confronted with a fully-developed threat for which evolution had not prepared them.  They probably felt no fear of the puny-looking new creatures.  Long before evolution had time to breed that fear into them, the little newcomers wiped them out.

We see the same pattern in northern Eurasia.  The woolly mammoths of Siberia died out around 20,000 years ago, around the same time as humans managed to settle that forbidding environment.  Some big animal species still survive in the Arctic, probably because that region was too barren to support human hunter-gatherer populations large enough to kill them off en masse.  The ancestors of the Maori, the first humans in New Zealand, arrived there only about 1,000 years ago, and the disappearance of animals such as the moa dates to the same period.

There are a couple of significant implications here.

First, mass extermination of whole categories of animal species due to human activity is not just a modern phenomenon.  It's been happening ever since humans began to spread beyond the region where we evolved and colonize the rest of the globe.  Hunter-gatherers armed with spears and intelligent hunting strategies built up over generations may seem primitive by 21st-century standards, but they still utterly outclassed even the biggest and toughest beasts they encountered.

Second, ecosystems seem to be a lot more resilient in the face of such extinctions than we tend to imagine.  Nowadays we constantly hear that the disappearance of this or that apparently-insignificant species will have ripple effects that will dangerously disrupt the whole web of life.  Obviously extinctions do create disruption, and some species are more important than others, but the disappearance of so many major species in Australia and the Americas (which may have taken only a century or two in any given locality, once humans first reached it) doesn't seem to have caused a general collapse of the whole ecosystem.

Modern technology has now put the entire natural world at humanity's mercy.  Which species and how much of nature itself will survive, will depend almost entirely on decisions that humans make.  In developed countries, people feel secure and prosperous enough to prioritize such issues, and governments are strong enough to effectively enforce laws to protect endangered animals and environments.  The tropics, where most of the biodiversity is, are home to generally poorer human societies where development and achieving a higher standard of living are often prioritized over ecological concerns, and in many cases governments are too weak and corrupt to enforce what laws do exist to protect nature.

In the long run, I don't think most of the big, impressive, emotionally-engaging parts of the natural world are going to survive, except perhaps in special preserves here and there.  Look what a struggle it's been to mobilize against global warming, and that's a problem which poses an imminent mortal threat to much of our own species.  Switching our energy generation systems over to solar and wind power, especially on a big enough scale to accommodate the massive surge in demand for electricity over the next twenty years as the Third World catches up economically and technologically, will require a huge investment.

In the end, I think, we'll do what we must to save ourselves -- plant hundreds of billions of trees across the global north to offset the loss of oxygen-generating capacity as tropical rain forests disappear, build geo-engineering projects to cool down the planet, create artificial systems to replace whatever essential benefits we can no longer depend on from the dying natural ecosystems of the Earth.  We'll preserve systems vital to us or, in some cases, aesthetically compelling to us.  But I just can't see humanity making similar investments, on top of all that, to save animals and plants that aren't useful to humans, in a world which increasingly will have no place for them anyway.  We care about those things, yes.  But not the way we care about our own kind.

Extinctions, including mass extinctions, have always been part of evolution.  Of all the species that ever existed on Earth, more than 99% had already died out before the first proto-humans appeared.  There's nothing sacred about the particular aggregation of animals and plants which exists in the world at this moment, any more than about that which prevailed forty thousand years ago, or forty million.

We are reconfiguring this planet from an unguided biosphere operating according to the vagaries of natural selection into a controlled and managed habitat primarily for the benefit of a single species.  That transformation may well reach its culmination within a century.  But it has been under way for tens of thousands of years, and its course was probably fixed, right down to the end, on the day the first hominin fashioned the first spear.

01 September 2019

Link round-up for 1 September 2019

Various interesting stuff I ran across on the net over the last week.

o o o o o

The blogger many of us knew as Harry Hamid has died.  Debra She Who Seeks remembers him.

o o o o o

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

Must, bast, wiz, cow, cust.....

No matter how crazy you are, this person is crazier.

We need Greek gods for modern times.

If only he had something to block the glare.

Beware the evil carpet.

You can frame a dog.

Golf in Florida is.....different.

Have some internet-era humor.

They're messing with the wrong cat.

What the heck is the point of this?  Maybe someone from Texas can explain.

Randy Rainbow sings the praises of Cheeto-Christ Stupid-Czar.

Lady M is already shopping for Halloween decorations.  It will be hard to top this dragon skull.

See a three-year-old anticipating her first train ride.

Different Presidents, different claims.

It's risky to advertise to a culture you don't understand.

Don't wallow in negativity.

Meeting the right man can awaken a woman's romantic side.

These are weapons as art -- and I suspect the same person made this.

"Can you imagine being so far up your own ass with conspiracy theories that you forget about circles....."

Enough already with summer -- we want autumn!

Bill Maher tries to reason with Trump, sort of.  Good luck with that.

Don't believe everything you read.

Representation in mass culture can help cure prejudice.

A tired old right-wing dinosaur tries to fend off extinction with a feeble insult.

Be careful in this garden.

Don't mock children's fascinations.

Trump hopes corn farmers will be impressed with his "giant package".

What would people in 1960 think of today's liberals?

People keep screwing around with the wreckage of the Titanic.

Apparently the US now has more witches than Presbyterians.

"So much adult media likes to pretend hopelessness and pessimism and cynicism are something profound instead of the same depressing nonsense that you can find self-righteous assholes spouting on any given corner of the internet."

Cell-phone video and modern standards take all the fun out of police violence.

Richard Dawkins has a new book coming out.

American companies know that being identified with conservatism is bad for business.

It's the Age of Trump!  But he's the wrong guy to be "King of the Jews".

For sex work, anything short of full decriminalization isn't good enough.

Twitter suspended Ron Perlman over that tweet about the Koch brothers.

The main reason people are leaving religion in droves is that there's no reason to believe in it, though I've also seen evidence that Evangelical support for Trump is repulsing younger church members.  Evangelical churches today embrace atrocities they would once have associated with Satan.

Don't buy stuff from Apple, they treat their customers like this.  And there's more and more.

Never assume phone calls are private.

If you think minimum wage is bad, try making it as a tipped worker.

The obesity epidemic has a lot to do with what kind of food is available where.

Trump is now blaming American business for the economic effects of his own blundering.

Makers of self-driving cars want to be allowed to build them with no manual controls for a human to take over in an emergency (found via Joe.My.God).

Woodstock was a cesspit of filth which exploited local people and left their land covered with garbage.

Richard Phillips, imprisoned for 45 years for a murder he didn't commit, became a painter.

If you vote for monsters, their victims and other decent people won't want anything to do with you.

Martin Luther King understood capitalism.

Trump has the mentality of a tyrant -- luckily US democratic institutions are resilient.

How to respond to alt-rightists looking for a fight?

"I hereby order....."

The US military probably isn't as powerful as we think.

No, religion did not help the progress of science.  Very much the opposite.

Moline Skeptics looks at some global-warming-denialist claims.

Here's an easy introduction to the facts about vaccines.

While domesticating animals, we've also domesticated ourselves.

The monarch butterfly population is recovering strongly.

Technology can defeat global warming.  This article doesn't address the issue of skyrocketing demand for electricity as the Third World catches up with the West, but the same solutions would presumably work.

Trump doesn't understand the interdependence of economies in the modern world.

Militant right-wing movements around the world are built on toxic masculinity.

Canada's oldest rape crisis center has been targeted with graffiti, death threats, and a dead rat nailed to the door, and has had its government funding cut off.  You can donate here.

Copenhagen aims to be carbon-neutral by 2025.

Trumplings think climate change is a "niche issue".

Israel bars candidates from running for office because of their anti-Arab racism.

A statue of Trump has appeared in Melania's homeland.

Zina Portnova became a heroine of the anti-Nazi resistance at 17.

The anti-fascist protest movement in Russia is spreading beyond Moscow.

A discovery in Peru sheds light on pre-Columbian native religion.

The distribution of fires in the Amazon raises questions.  Farmers in the region take a defiant stance.

An American in Taiwan experiences the horrors of socialized medicine.

If the Beijing regime attacks Hong Kong, there will be a hell of a fight.  It would be smarter to engage politically.

A Christian missionary with no medical qualifications opened a "clinic" in Uganda.  At least 105 children died.

Biden has a good general-election strategy, but it could cost him the nomination.

Joe Walsh is the right guy to have a shit-flinging fight with Trump.

Gillibrand's withdrawal is observed by Crazy Eddie, Vixen Strangely, Lawyers Guns and Money, and Daily KosFollow-up here.

The next Democratic President must be as ruthless as Trump.

America's most unpopular Governor packs in the crowds.

Republicans are determined to cling to their Senate majority so they can continue to obstruct everything.  We must deny them that.

A lot of Trumpanzees aren't so working-class.

Tariff-tormented farmers are getting frustrated with Trump.  It's vital that Democrats avoid positioning themselves as the obstacle to helping them.

Even the reddest states have islands of sanity.

Stay focused.  We have to win next year.

More links here.

[955 days down, 507 to go until the inauguration of a real President.]

29 August 2019

Preparing for an election like no other

Next year's election is looking better and better.  It seems increasingly likely that Trump and the Republicans will face the kind of blowout defeat that the worst President in history, and the party that has cravenly enabled him, so richly deserve.  But that doesn't mean we can relax.  And we need to be thinking about what could happen after the election.

Polling continues to bring encouraging news.  The most recent survey shows our top five candidates beating Trump by margins ranging from 9 to 16 points:

Biden +16 (54%-38%)
Sanders +14 (53%-39%)
Warren +12 (52%-40%)
Harris +11 (51%-40%)
Buttigieg +9 (49%-40%)

A number of Republican House seats are looking vulnerable, especially with retirements.  In the Senate, to get to 50-50 (which means Democratic control if the Vice President is a Democrat), we need to take three seats, or four if Doug Jones loses in Alabama.  We have good opportunities in Colorado, Maine, Arizona, and possibly Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Montana, Iowa, and even Kansas and Texas (if O'Rourke or Castro gets in).  In a blue-wave year, retaking the Senate is a real possibility.

But -- the historical pattern is that large leads in Presidential races tend to tighten as the election approaches.  Vote-suppression laws, Russian meddling, and the Electoral College will all be factors next year, just as they were in 2016.  If the polling continues to look like this next year, some people will think victory is in the bag and it's safe to waste their vote on a third candidate (there should be fewer such cases than in 2016, but there will be some).  The hotheads may yet stampede Congress into an impeachment that would improve Trump's re-election chances and endanger a lot of House seats in purple districts.  We need a big enough turnout to offset all those possible negatives -- and still deliver a landslide.

Because we'll need a landslide.  A mere blue ripple won't be enough to win Senate races in places like Georgia and Kentucky -- and we'll need a margin of error in the Senate, because some of the necessary steps toward restoring full democracy, such as abolishing the filibuster and enlarging the Supreme Court to re-establish its integrity, will be perceived as "radical" and one or two of the more conservative Democrats may vote against them.

But the biggest reason we need a landslide concerns the aftermath.  If Trump is defeated, how do you think the Trumpanzees and the broader wingnutosphere are going to react?

Remember, they live in an alternate-reality bubble steeped in nonsense ranging from Trump's Twitter delusions to Pizzagate and QAnon.  They believe they're the majority, or at least the majority of "real Americans" -- that is, Americans excluding minorities, atheists, and the millions of imaginary non-citizen voters and dead voters who they still think made up Hillary's popular-vote margin.  I remember Trumpanzees in 2016 telling liberals things like "Trump isn't our last chance, he's your last chance" -- meaning he was their last effort to regain dominance by legal means, and if it didn't work (that is, if Trump didn't win), they would resort to violence.  Since then, the fever swamp has, if anything, gotten crazier.

If Trump loses, I do expect scattered violence here and there from enraged, heavily-armed wingnuts.  I also expect increased talk of secession, efforts to meddle with the Electoral College, and every other crackpot reaction you can think of (and some more you can't think of).  The only way to minimize this is for the margin of victory -- popular vote as well as Electoral -- to be as large as possible, to minimize the credibility of such fantasies.  The only way back to reality for the Trumpanzees is to grasp that they aren't a majority, but just one element in a pluralistic society.  The harder their noses get rubbed in that fact next November, the more of them will start to achieve that realization, and the less damage they'll do.

So yes, your vote matters, even if you live in a state like California or Alabama whose alignment in the Electoral College is not in doubt.  The popular-vote margin must be large enough to place our candidate's win beyond reasonable question.  This will reduce the amount of trouble, and possibly violent deaths, the Trumpanzees will inflict.

Finally:

Progressives need to reconcile themselves, as far in advance as possible, to the fact that the nominee will probably be Biden (or another moderate, if he falters).  After months, he still has a massive lead in the polling, which is the only hard data we have on the state of the race.  And no, it isn't just name recognition -- it's his association with Obama and the fact that he focuses his rhetorical fire on Trump rather than on other Democrats -- and he has about as many enthusiastic supporters as the other top candidates do.  Remember, there are more moderates than progressives in the party (blacks and older voters tend to be moderates), even if they aren't as heavily represented in the blogosphere and social media.  Claims that a moderate would be doomed to lose against Trump are absurd in the face of months of polls that show Biden beating Trump by a bigger margin than any other Democrat.  Progressives need to be prepared to work for, and vote for, Biden or someone like him -- because the alternative will be Trump.

Moderates need to be recognize that Biden, or another moderate nominee, is not inevitable.  It's still 14 months to the election and a lot can happen in that time.  Biden's gaffes and other signs of age are becoming an increasing concern.  Warren and Sanders are both personally very popular; if one were to leave the race and progressives consolidated behind the other, that surviving candidate would have a serious shot at the nomination.  Some moderates think a progressive nominee would be too radical to win and would be denounced as a "socialist" by Republicans -- but the data we have show Sanders or Warren beating Trump by double-digit margins, and the Republicans will yell "socialist" and all kinds of other wild nonsense no matter who our candidate is.  Moderates need to be prepared to work for, and vote for, Warren or Sanders or someone like them -- because the alternative will be Trump.

We can't risk that.  Trump is now threatening to cut Social Security and Medicare to reduce the deficit explosion caused by his tax cut for billionaires.  Four more years of Trump means four more years of environmental destruction, wingnut judicial appointments, mutually destructive trade wars, horrific abuses in the border migrant camps, discouragement of science, fomenting of bigotry, a cruel and impulsive ignoramus in control of 7,000 nuclear weapons, the world's largest economy AWOL from the global-warming fight, estrangement from fellow democracies and cozying up to gangster regimes, sabotage of democratic institutions in our own country, and all kinds of other terrifying crackpottery we can't even think of yet.  The worst Democrat, whichever one you think that is, would be a hundred times better than Trump.

If Biden is the nominee, I’ll vote for Biden.
If Sanders is the nominee, I’ll vote for Sanders.
If Warren is the nominee, I’ll vote for Warren.
If Harris is the nominee, I’ll vote for Harris.
If Buttigieg is the nominee, I’ll vote for Buttigieg.

And so on.  Delaney or Williamson would take some real nose-holding, but I’d still do it.  And the same should go for all our Senate and House candidates.  The Republican party as it is today is the biggest threat to the country since the Civil War.  Nothing short of overwhelming victory over it will be good enough.