Wednesday, December 28, 2016

tweeblaarkanniedoods in paradise

A week ago, at just before 4 am Mountain time, the sun was directly over the Tropic of Capricorn somewhere offshore of the current Kuiseb River delta. The delta moves around with the shifting sands of the Namib through which it flows, when it is flowing, into the East Atlantic. The Kuiseb river is the usually accepted southern boundary to the range of the Welwitschiaceae; a cryptobotanic family of plants that contains but one species called tweeblaarkanniedood in Afrikaans. They are ugly (came in 4th, with 12% of the votes, in a 2009 Daily Telegraph poll to determine “The World’s Ugliest Plant”) shriveled poorly differentiated plants that some think may include individuals that are more than 2,000 years old.

Being able to sense the directly-over-headedness of the sun requires relatively simple tools. You can use a plumb-bob to make a fairly vertical pit, and then see how far down the circle of light from the sun illuminates the pit before hitting the side. You can use this to tell time, and the more modern sundial is sort of an inverted version of the vertical pit-style sun directly-over-headedness meter.

Using a vertical pole-style (which can also be constructed using a plumb-bob, but not as easily as a pit) and a vertical pit-style sun directly-over-headedness meter a Greek fellow in Egypt determined the diameter of the earth at about the same time some of the oldest tweeblaarkanniedoods were just germinating. The measurement was to about 0.4% over of the currently accepted value, which is mind-blowingly amazing. What is even more amazing is that those newly germinated tweeblaarkanniedoods would be over 1,500 years old before the idea that the Earth was spherical (roughly), and therefore even had a diameter, would really catch on.

The fact that the data that showed that the earth was round, and even showed what size it was, were available to anyone with access to a shovel and a bit of string (a plumb bob is just a piece of string with a weight –like a rock- at one end) did not mean that just anyone could accept the conclusion. There were many competing theories about the size and shape and placement of the earth, and they used the tactics of facilitated cognitive dissonance that work so well with the human brain to out-perform actual reality in the arena of believability.

The triumph of cognitive dissonance over reality has a long and twisted history in human culture. It also rarely turns out well, and, somewhat unfairly, it often turns out very bad for those who cling to reality in the face of very popular or very powerfully supported cognitive dissonance. Index Librorum Prohibitorum listed, until it was formally abolished on the 14th of June 1966, many ideas –like Galileo’s heliocentric solar system- whose authors were censured for believing in the apparently heretical portions of reality. Yes the list changed over the years, and Galileo was not in the last edition, but it was always a list of writings that communicated ideas that were deemed dangerous to the Catholic church for people to know.

The human context in which ideas are avoided is usually one filled to bursting with ideas of questionable worth; at least history would see the ideas put to the question. Few still believe in the veracity of “The Protocols of Zion” or subscribe to the concept of the “blood libel” conspiracy, yet they, and their counterparts, steered the course of history as much as, if not much more than, mundane truths proven by documented observation.

In a few short weeks the USA will inaugurate a new presidency. Donald John Trump ran a campaign that appeared to be more successful because of his support for stupid, verging on crazy, conspiracy theories; chief among them the bizarre “Birther” ideas and vague “Truther” notions. Even people who do not believe the nonsense conspiracies will state that the Donald would “tell it like it was” even though some of his more popular notions of how it was were inconsistent with a reasonable concept of reality based on simple observable information.

There are so many ideas which could run afoul of the rapidly approaching Trump administration. I am not even sure where to start. Stem cell research? Cancer research? Infections disease research or epidemiology? The banner denial issue does, however, appear to be climate change.

I have introduced indicators of climate change many times in this blog. Mostly I talk about sea ice as I think that is a clear and unbiased indicator statistic. It is mostly a lag indicator. It is true that decreasing sea ice in the arctic can increase the amount of heat adsorbed by the earth, and increase the rate of warming. However, the amount of sea ice statistic mostly tells us how warm the planet has become. It takes heat to melt ice so less ice usually means more heat. We do not expect the amount of sea ice to tell us much about how much the temperature of the global climate will rise in the future.

There are lead indicators. Because of the newness of many aspects of climate research it is impossible to pull up some archival data to determine how much the temperature of the earth will increase in response to increases in a particular set of lead indicators. Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide levels, for instance, are expected to cause an increase in global temperatures, so the concentration of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere is a lead indicator of global climate temperature increase; Carbon Dioxide goes up, and then temperatures increase.

Graph from

One potential lead indicator, that has a lot of scientists worrying a lot, is the increase of atmospheric Methane. Rising temperatures have begun to cause the release of what could be immense amounts of methane in the frozen, or more precisely previously frozen, north. In Siberia escaping Methane has blown giant plugs of permafrost out of the ground, and left strange craters that look a lot like what I imagine the result of some huge alien space laser blast to look like. The reason Methane release is such a scary lead indicator has less to do with alien invasion, and a lot to do with the fact that it is many times as effective a greenhouse gas as Carbon Dioxide, and we have no real control over the rate it is being released. Some estimates have the climate impact of the rate of increase of Methane concentration in the atmosphere equaling the impact of the current increase in Carbon Dioxide; if Methane release rates continue to increase it could become the major driver of future temperature increases.

Yamal hole in 30 kilometres from Bovanenkovo

This runaway increase in global climate temperature is what climate scientists call a “positive feedback loop”. It had previously appeared to me that Climate Change Deniers (CCD) were evolving along with the preponderance of the evidence. The primordial CCD simply denied that the climate was changing. Later versions simply refused to entertain the notion that human generated greenhouse gasses could have any effect on the planet. I expected a new species who begrudgingly acknowledged that humans were causing a problem, but insisted that the problem was manageable because there was no such thing as a positive feedback loop.

It appears as if the new administration will (attempt to at least) reset the clock and seed a new crop of primordial class CCD. Will we see brave scientists standing against this wave of cognitive dissonance, or will we see smart scientists, who have understood the uncomfortable positions in history, and just step aside as the new truth is unveiled for all to genuflect at and believe?

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The More Horseman of the Apocalypse

The cabinet of Donald Trump develops, and as it gels we get a glimpse into the shades and tones of a future where reality is politicized. What I had originally thought was a simple war on science has expanded to possibly include intelligence and diplomacy too. Anything that potentially conflicts with PeOTUS Donald trump’s world view or personal ego may be the focus of some kind of attack. However, the confusion and lack of actual information leaves everything in a fog of speculation.

I interact daily with MANY people who voted for Mr Trump. The one thing they have almost all said motivated them to vote for him was that he “told it like it was”. I have joked that his performance in the third presidential debate suggested that “it” must be a confused illogical jumble of sentence fragments, and the cabinet he is creating suggests that my attempt at humor may have been close to the truth of the mater.

"The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive." – 2012 Tweet by Donald Trump

I was, apparently, wrong about Myron Ebell being the presumptive Administrator of the EPA. Trump has nominated Oklahoma Attorney General Edward Scott Pruitt to the position instead. Pruitt is much less anti science than Myron, but, because of the special relationship Myron had with science, this is faint praise for Ed. Ed is actively promoting several lawsuits against the EPA on behalf of the state of Oklahoma. Most of the suits concern the EPA’s efforts at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

"Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.” – “The Climate-Change Gang” Scott Pruitt and Luther Strange, The National Review 7 May 2016

Ed is more likely to get past Senate confirmation than Myron would be, so his nomination may be more a nod to political necessity than a shift from “nutty like squirrel poo” positions to just “squirrel poo”. Ed’s anti-science leanings are not likely to incur correction from Rick Perry who will be sitting at the same table in the seat labeled Secretary of Energy, and looking intelligent in his glasses.

Or maybe Rick Perry will not be sitting at the table as he has famously called for the elimination of the Department of Energy, and so there might not even be a chair labeled "Secretary of Energy"; at one point he was so convinced that the Department of Energy should be no more that he proactively forgot the name of the Department. Perry is famously against the acceptance of many parts of reality (like evolution or climate change or …), but like a good politician he frames his denials as championing of “Choice” and “Freedom”. This rhetoric resonates with that of the anti-science sentiments of Betsy DeVos who will be sitting at the table in the chair marked “Secretary of Education”.

Early speculation had placed shockingly anti-science former neurosurgeon and presidential candidate Ben Carson in the Secretary of Education seat, but apparently he will be sitting in the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development seat. I am not sure why Ben got the HUD chair. I think it has something to do with the fact that he is African-American and once even lived in a city. Though HUD Secretary is probably not a science-intensive position he should be able to contribute his voice to the reality-denying choir when inconvenient aspects of reality are being described.

Potentially counterbalancing at least one of the ideologically anti-science folks at the cabinet table is Trump’s pick for Secretary of State: Rex Tillerson. Rex is the sitting CEO of an actual technology corporation: Exxon-Mobil. Unfortunately Exxon-Mobil has maintained that the conclusions of scientific research, especially global climate change research, should be ignored when it is inconvenient. Rex appears to be able to distinguish between good science (that which profits Exxon-Mobil), bad science (that which is awkward to the growth of Exxon-Mobil), and the ugly science (That which might even cost Exxon-Mobil money). The Secretary of State is a highly influential position, but it, like HUD, does not have scientific interests as the centerpiece of its focus.

The Department of Health and Human Services controls not only the administration of healthcare programs like Medicare and Medicaid, but also the FDA, NIH, and the CDC. Congressman Tom Price R-GA has been nominated by Trump to sit in the HHS Secretary chair. Tom, like Ben, is a former MD who has turned into a politician. He is a vocal opponent of “Obamacare”, and his nomination is probably largely tied to a likely push to dismantle the ACA. His potentially more damaging anti-science leanings are inferred from those who support him. The Christian Right think he will resonate with the homophobic leanings of our VPe (Mike Pence) and others (like Ben and Betsy) to make responses to public health issues less blind to any possible association with what they see as immoral activity. Tom is also endorsed by the important-sounding largely anti-science group called the “Association of American Physicians and Surgeons”; they have interesting positions on Ebola, vaccines, and “alternative” medicine.

“Yet the CDC bureaucracy will continue to fund useless, sodomy-enabling local and state programs, unless grown-ups show up for work. Like possibly Tom Price.” – “Will Tom Price Clean Up Feds' HIV/AIDS Program?” Linda Harvey 7 December 2016 in MISSION: America

It is strange, on initial examination, that the name Heidi Heitkamp is being floated as Trump’s possible nominee for Secretary of Agriculture. The USDA is another department that focuses on modern scientific inquiry. Heidi neither looks like the women in Trumps life nor acts like the reflexively anti-science people he has already nominated for his cabinet; she is also a Democrat. There are strong political reasons to nominate Heidi though. Agribusiness donors like her, and pulling her out of the senate would empty a seat in the senate that would likely be filled by a Republican. Could she be a voice of reason in the cabinet? Will she really be nominated? The GOP has a majority and does not desperately need to take her senate seat now.

“Stop denying science and accept the fact that GMO ingredients are just as healthy as any other ingredient.” – Senator Heidi Heitkamp D-ND July 7,2016.

Another moderating voice might be prospective Science advisor Tom Massie. Tom is a really smart tech-savvy engineer turned politician. His views on science are eclectic at times, and he confuses his positions with political doublespeak. He supports labeling of GMO food and calls it making non-GMO seeds available to farmers. Would he be employed to champion science or to provide confusing language that obfuscates the motivations of the anti-science shock troops?

In addition to the metaphorical war on science one can see the drum set of actual war being set up in the cabinet: there is the snare drum of possible support for Russian military action, the bass drum of selective filtering of intelligence information (possibly left over from the famous reports of weapons of mass destruction we invaded Iraq to find), the hanging toms of re-framing Asian arena diplomacy to “make better deals, the floor tom, with its deep commanding tone, is probably reserved to sound out some action against ISIS, or Islamic terrorists, or maybe just some nebulous set of “bad people”, and  maybe "China" should be visualized as the hi-hat. Trump will have at least three rather hawkish former generals to take turns playing Keith Moon on his war set while the rest of the cabinet provides some regressive religiously-motivated melody of breaking culture.

“It will be convenient to have a name for the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability, and it should be a term that emphasizes this predictability. I shall refer to these ideas henceforth as the conventional wisdom.” – JK Galbraith in “The Affluent Society” 1958

With great power comes the potential for great screw ups. The history of the USA is ripe with abuses of presidential power that have negatively impacted the lives of many of its citizens. The cry of “Government Overreach” has heralded the creation of our current crop of demagogues; like our PeOTUS. The vehminence of the complaints might make one think for a moment that they are decrying the way Jackson handled the Native Americans, or Roosevelt handled the Japanese Americans, or the Jim-Crow laws of the 1950s, or slavery, or any one of the horrific somethings that abuse of federal power has burned into the history of the US.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Shackleton and Ebell

Though “official winter” waits on the rapidly approaching winter solstice the cold winds that bite through clothes to deliver the season’s messages insist that winter has arrived on the sagebrush landscape of the Utah high desert. We even got a load of that white stuff that makes it so hard to drive when it is on the roads, and, no, I don’t just mean Utah drivers…. With winter also comes the annual crop of climate change deniers confusing weather and climate so that they can state there is "clear evidence" that the planet is not warming. This year the claims resonate with the voices of potential cabinet post appointments the incoming POTUS is suggesting.

Half of our planet is seasonally warming now. The wobble that slants the sun’s rays in the northern hemisphere, where most of the habitable landmass exists, brings summer to the southern hemisphere. The equinox that brought night to the arctic, and halted the annual melting season for sea ice in the arctic sea, brought daylight to Antarctica, and began the season of melting to the band of water surrounding that continent. Shortly after the long Antarctic dawn a significant anomaly in southern sea ice levels was first observed; the sea ice levels dropped to historic lows, and have continued at record low levels as the Antarctic melting season approaches its halfway point. The anomaly is really striking. Sea ice coverage is now around two million square kilometers less than has been observed at the same point in the melt cycle in recent years. That is a lot of missing ice.

Until last year the recent Antarctic sea ice coverage data has been trending at record high levels. Temperatures were increasing dramatically in Antarctica so, since higher temperatures should melt ice faster, increased sea ice was counter-intuitive. I like anomalies so I wrote a blog post about it in July of 2014. I postulated that the increased sea ice was actually driven by the higher temperatures and increased melting as lower-density meltwater would freeze faster at higher atmospheric temperatures than the bulk higher-salt seawater it floated on. There have now been several papers postulating the same thing. However, I am much cooler for coming up with the idea simply by doing an inventory of my belly-button lint and waving my hands around; I avoided any reliance on authoritative observational data(aka reality) or pesky modeling. Though I should note that the fact that the melt-water enhanced sea ice coverage hypothesis can be easily derived from introspection just shows how it is also an intuitively natural explanation, and that lends it some elegance.

Any discussion of a major data set in climate science runs afoul of poor reporting and deliberate obfuscation. Just last month Tom Edinburgh and Jonathan Day teased Antarctic sea-ice extent data out of the century-old logbooks from the Scott and Shackleton expeditions. Who would not find this information interesting; the scientists who collected this data literally died while in the field collecting it! Most data sets are not so melodramatic; I have rarely encountered an Excell spreadsheet that has brought a flush of pride in being human to my eyes, and so it is exciting to see papers like the Day and Edinburgh “The Cryosphere” paper. Now picture the record high maximum sea ice extent coupled with a human-interest driven estimate of little sea ice difference in 100 years, and, well, you have the fuel climate denial runs on. Day himself wrote clarification articles trying to point out that his presentation of the Scott- Shackleton data did nothing to disprove global climate change, and I wonder if he was surprised that his words of clarification were not important to the denier crowd.

“Previous studies have concluded, the Antactic and Greenland ice sheets are probably thickening rather than melting” -- Myron Ebell

Climate change deniers come in several flavors. The most common these days is the “it is warming but people are not causing it”flavor. The POTUS has put Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute in as transition lead, and therefore most likely post-transition head of, the EPA. Myron is a “little or no warming” denier. Michael Shnayerson called CEI “one of the brightest stars in its constellation of climate skeptics” in a 2007 Vanity Fair article about Myron. It appears as if Trump has enlisted Myron as another general, like Betsy DeVos who I wrote about in an earlier post, in his war on science; Myron will apparently handle the global climate change front.

Temperatures in the arctic can swing in a matter of hours by an order of magnitude more than the values given for warming as a result of global climate change. Bizarre föhn winds can even raise temperatures to well above freezing in the Antarctic winter; on July 14th 2010 one such wind was observed to spike temperatures at a monitoring station from around minus twenty-seven (Fahrenheit) to plus fifty degrees (a total shift of 77oF or almost 43oC) in a few hours. Despite the fact that “the place that’s warmed the most was the Antarctic Peninsula”, (John Turner, a researcher with the British Antarctic Survey) even that large increase (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit, or just about 3 degrees Celsius) is swamped by the Antarctic’s wild short-term weather phenomena.

So how can a source of confusing information as large as the continent of Antarctica provide something useful to talk about? I, like many of you who read this blog, like ambiguity, but hate obfuscation; mysteries are interesting, but murkiness is not. I believe Antarctica presents us with a game of honest mysteries played for truly terrifying stakes. Likely levels of melt of just the West Antarctic ice sheet could raise the level of the sea by 3.2 meters (like 10 feet). Does this melting take a hundred years, or much less? There are other scary contributors to potential sea level rise, like the Greenland ice sheet, but Antarctica is the major player, so it is very worth looking at. The stakes of such a huge rise in sea level include, of course: displacing hundreds of millions of people, destabilizing all of human civilization, diseases and famines, decline of humanity, and yada...yada...yada; you get the picture I’m sure.

So what does this interesting potential shift in melting patterns for Antarctica bode for the future of humanity?  I’m not sure of course, but it is probably not good. One of the ways in which the water goes from on the land, where it does not make the seas rise, into the sea, where it does, is by the fracturing of glaciers flowing into the sea. In Antarctica many of those glaciers are held in place by large floating ice shelves. Some of these ice shelves, like Larsen A and B, have been collapsing in recent years, and more are expected to follow. The glaciers the collapsing ice shelves release could rapidly (not weeks, but maybe decades) cause the sea levels to measurably rise.

I –for one- am kinda interested in the rate of progression of phenomena that could cause the collapse of civilization. There are all sorts of great questions. Unfortunately, as part of the war on science, parts of NASA that examine earth-based phenomena, like global climate change, may not be adequately funded by the incoming administration.  This could prevent us from adequately understanding what is going on on our planet. 

I do think I can authoritatively state, at least as far as rising sea levels are concerned, that one can put off stockpiling popcorn and ammunition until it goes on sale over the northern hemisphere summer.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Calvin and DeVos

In a show of uncharacteristic clarity the POTUS-elect posed in public beside Betsy DeVos as he unambiguously presented her as his pick for Education Secretary. Though I applauded the casting off of vague innuendo as the official form of executive communication I am a bit confused as to what DeVos brings to the post of Education Secretary. She will only be able to throw lavish parties in her 22,000 square foot waterfront home in Holland Michigan if the more inebriated guests take Uber home as it purportedly only has three bedrooms. The confusion morphs into concern when I examined where she was coming from as the position most consistent with her views and background is that of a general in a potential war on science.

She certainly carries a carpetbag full of potential conflicts. She is daughter-in-law of the Amway billionaires whose multi-level-marketing empire was built on the backs of a cult-like following. The far-right-wing foundation named after her father and mother “the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation” has donated considerable sums to organizations that teach that homosexuality can be cured. The Family Research Council co-founded by her father Edgar, James Dobson, and George Rekers (among others) actively pushed a rather heinous highly-homophobic social agenda; it is interesting, if tangential, to note that Rekers was removed from the FRC after being spotted on a 10 day vacation with a male prostitute from “”. Betsy’s brother Erik Prince is the creator of the controversy-studded security contractor Blackwater. It appears as if the more one digs the more controversy wells up around Betsy.

You would think that those would be enough encumbering controversies to recuse Becky from federal service even if there was a large campaign contribution obscuring the vetting process. Becky is actively involved in some of these questionable sources of ickyness; she is a guiding control to the foundation named for her parents, and would have been a likely deciding voice when it pumped large sums of money into California’s Prop 8 and Florida's Amendment 2 in 2008 since her father passed away in 1995.

Betsy’s controversial entanglements would make for an interesting blog post in and of themselves, but they might obscure aspects of her relationship to education that could be more informative towards the agenda she may be working in her new job (she does still need Senate confirmation). Several mainstream media outlets have described her as a proponent of school vouchers (she is), or a proponent of charter schools (she is that also). Though I fall on the opposite side of the fence on these two issues I recognize that there is a spectrum of proponents, and that we can learn a bunch about Betsy’s spot on that spectrum by finding out what she might mean by “school” and what those schools might do with vouchers.

"Just imagine if each student in these school systems was given a scholarship for this amount of money – allowing them and their family to choose the public or private school of their choice." --President Elect Donald J. Trump from a speech transcript he had on his website

Betsy herself had a highly religious school experience. Through High School she attended Holland Christian Schools which is a private Pre-K through 12 school system in Michigan. The HCS teaches bible classes and is “united by a common mission to equip minds and nurture hearts to transform the world for Jesus Christ”. The current banner for the HCS website features a line of 8 smiling middle-school-looking kids of whom two are African-American; this is a greater percentage than Michigan’s state-wide 14.2% African-American percentage, but far greater than the 0.7% African-American percentage suggested for HCS middle school by Zillow. The less-posed pictures of the HCS student body suggest that Betsy may have spent all of her pre-college education is an almost exclusively white highly religious setting.
"I would like to see the ideas of intelligent design -- that many scientists are now suggesting is a very viable alternative theory -- that that theory and others that would be considered credible would expose our students to more ideas, not less." -- Dick DeVos (Betsy's Husband) Republican candidate for Michigan governor in 2006

HCS operate under the iron fist of their controlling board. This is similar to many charter schools, and is often given as a reason why charter schools can be better than public schools. In December of 2014, just days after HCS middle school principle Mark Van Dyke’s mother passed away, he and Troy Stahl (High School Principal) were let go for undisclosed reasons. HCS superintendent Dan Meeser said there were no criminal activities and no students were involved so it suggests that the problem may likely have been in the form of words or ideas.

Evolutionism is more than a scientific theory. It is a worldview, an answer to the essential questions of who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. Consequently, evolutionism functions as a quasireligious perspective, a worldview that is in fact anti-Christian. – CRC Synod 1991 Report 28 Committee on Creation and Science p 392

Betsy went on to graduate from Calvin College where words and ideas have a much more transparent impact on the employment of its professors. Tenured professor John Schneider was terminated for suggesting, in a tediously theological scientific paper, that Adam and Eve “may” not have been historical humans. Just before fall term in 2009 the Calvin College Board of trustees sent out a memo to all employees that said that faculty were prohibited from teaching, writing about, or advocating on behalf of homosexuality or homosexual issues such as same-sex marriage; presumably they saw this as a issue in other colleges and wanted to nip that problem in the bud.

The Church confesses that both general and special revelation, each in its own unique way, address us with full divine authority. We affirm, therefore, that the whole of life must be lived in obedience to God and in subjection to his Word, that faith and life must be of one piece. This is true as much of science as it is of personal relationships, business practices, or politics. We reject any view of the Christian faith which limits its scope or any view of science which in principle excludes from its practice the influence of faith and the light of Scripture. On the contrary, we actively encourage the kind of Christian scholarship which challenges the secular assumptions of the academic mainstream by advocating the integration of Christian faith and learning. -- CRC Synod 1991 Report 28 Committee on Creation and Science Declaration A page 409

Calvin College is named after the same 16th-century Protestant Reformer that motivates the Westboro Baptist Church to call themselves “Calvinists”. The Calvinists of Calvin College are the equally backward, but far less flamboyant, Evangelical Christian Reformed Church (CRC). Members of the CRC live in a separate but equal world which they would love to fund with vouchers and unmonitored privatization. It is highly likely that, as Education secretary, Betsy will attempt to funnel tax dollars into centers for religious indoctrination. Education dollars are a huge source of public funds, and funneling them into churches which are also highly motivated to meddle in politics, like the CRC, could facilitate some scary long-lasting changes.

The CRC theological studies have repeatedly declared that true understanding of the world must be in accordance with biblical scripture, and that supporting biblical scripture is a test by which truth is measured. Although Betsy claims membership in a "non-denominational" mega church led by a slightly more mainstream pastor who is the son of the late Moral Majority leader Ed Dobson, her Calvinist roots still hold her to positions she nurtures by tending to them with hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations. Education is just one front in the developing executive branch war on science, but it is an important one, and a war on science is a war on Atheists.

'Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.' -- George Orwell from 1984

'The New Religious Freedom is the freedom to teach that two plus two can make five. If that is granted, all else follows.' -- AOA

I am not sure what my less rabid Trump supporting friends have to say about all this. Is it enough that we will probably not find out if there is a private email server in Trump Tower, or will they just go silent like all those voters who overwhelmingly voted for Bush over John Kerry in 2004?

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Emperor has no clothes and a funny hair pattern on his back

It is truly amazing that Donald J. Trump president-elect of the United States of America won less than 50% of the vote (46.28% with still a few votes to count) in Utah. This means that he beat the Democratic challenger by the slimmest majority (who at 27.72% of the vote only lost by 1.7 to 1) in decades. Trump would have won by a larger majority had not a third candidate -Evan McMullin- taken away 189154 of Trump’s votes to win 20.89% of the vote. However, even if Evan’s votes had gone to Trump the Donald would only have a 2.4 to 1 majority; still the slimmest Utah margin for a republican presidential candidate in decades.

The early results looked like they might be even more shocking as Evan had over 27% of the votes with 87% of the votes counted; a result that a Yahoo search still brings up. Back in late October polls had Evan leading Trump and Hillary. Evan was flying high and then crashed and burned.

Just as October was drawing to a close William Daniel Johnson (notable Mormon activist and chairman of the American Freedom Party) paid for a couple hundred thousand robo-calls attacking Evan, and Evan's numbers plummeted. I was told, by some of the same people that had originally suggested to me the possibility of voting for Evan, the specifics of the attack calls, and these specifics were confirmed by newspaper stories. Gone were the glowing descriptions that had begun shortly after he announced his presidential bid on August 8th; details of Evan’s Mormon mission in Brazil, his degree from BYU, and hints at bravery during his still classified work for the CIA. Instead they were talking about how his mother had “ left his father to become a lesbian”, and how Evan was “obviously a homosexual since he had been a bachelor for 40 years”; all of the people who changed their tune (to me) about Evan stated they were planning on voting for Trump. The new anti-Evan spiels had a staleness to them like parroted positions sometimes do.

Trump’s relationship with anti-gay crusaders predated the robo-calls on his behalf by Willie Johnson, or his choosing Michael Pence as his running mate. Roy Cohn was a famous New-York and DC lawyer who fought directly against legislation for gay rights, and, as lead counsel for the McCarthy witch hunts helped craft the “Lavender menace” scare that justified the persecution of gays as the committee scorched the earth eradicating the “red menace” of suspected communists. In a 1952 interview Joe McCarthy boasted about removing 145 sexual deviants (Gays) from government employment because perverts like them were morally unfit security risks. Donald was Roy’s apprentice, and many who knew both suggest that the strength of their bond is displayed as much in the Donald’s aggressively brash style of discourse as in his words of distinct praise for his former mentor. Roy died of AIDS in 1986, and a panel of the AIDS quilt was dedicated to him; it read: “Roy Cohn – Bully, Coward, Victim”. According to Peter Fraser, Roy’s lover at the end of his life, Roy contracted the HIV virus from one or several of his many male lovers. In addition to being a homophobic homosexual it has been suggested that Roy was also an anti-Semitic Jew.


Shocked analysts have been stumbling over themselves since last Tuesday trying to explain why so many Americans could vote against their own self-interest and elect Trump. There is a large minority of LGBT individuals who supported Trump in this election. Despite being a minority of their demographic the Trump-supporting LGBT people are interesting because they voted against a self-interest that may include the fundamental ability to legally exist in the open in addition to a desire to be treated equally once they left the closet. I was treated to all sorts of pretzel logic to justify Trump support by some LGBT people. One of my favorite was that electing Trump would “put Pence into the largely symbolic position of vice president instead of allowing him to wield more dangerous power as a state governor”.

About one in five LGBT people, a notoriously difficult demographic to get mainstream information about, especially from exit polls, may have voted for Trump. This looks to be close to within the margin of error to the number of LGBT people that appear to have voted Republican in the last several elections. There are a few exit polls that suggested that a number of of Trump-supporting LGBT voters changed their mind at the last minute and did not support him with their votes, but whatever the most precise numbers it is clear that an awful lot of LGBT people voted for Trump. 

The stone-cold-crazy voting bloc, as I suggested before, could have both elected Trump in this election and confused the polls. Almost every demographic has people plastering their cars with stickers proclaiming the allegiance to “” or questioning Obama’s birth status. Some even go so far as to write paranoid declarations of impending alien invasion , the cover-up of WTC 7, or chemtrails all over their cars in big white letters; I find the idea of chemtrails particularly amusing. This crazy block is distributed throughout all other demographics in the American electorate, but they do not, as many will want to contend, make up the majority of those that eventually did end up voting for trump in any demographic other than the one they define. What I mean is that in every demographic there were people who thought about what was best for the country and themselves, and came up with the idea that they should vote for Trump.

Trump has picked Steve Bannon as his chief stratagist. This is a powerful position, and it puts into the spotlight both Bannon’s Brietbart News agency and all the poser demagogues who work there. Amongst these is the man that would be the face of LGBT Trump support; an English bleached blond self-titled “Dangerous Faggot” by the name of Milo Yiannopoulos. Milo had the distinction, in July of 2016, of being one of the few non ISIL members permanently banned from Twitter for allegedly making disgusting racist/sexist/possibly homophobic attacks in 140 characters or less. Milo was an early passenger on the Trump train, and his (late 2015 to early 2016)  “Dangerous Faggot” speaking tour would often draw feminist or Black Lives Matter protestors whose protests would be shouted down by chants of “TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP!” by others in the audience. In a perverted way Milo has become an important face for LGBT activism, and if LGBT concerns are given a seat at the table in the Trump administration it should come as no surprise if Milo is sitting in that chair.

Trump said little that was substantial on the campaign trail. He even lapsed into disjoint sentence fragments at times so some of the ephemeral stuff he dished out was incomprehensible as well. This allowed the actively delusional to hear whatever they wanted to hear in what he said.

What can be expected from a Trump presidency? There are real clues in who he has begun staffing his transition team with. These appointments, which are still being revealed, are being carefully, and more responsibly, analyzed by many other analysts. Sam Harris described the transition team as:

A clown car of ideologues and incompetence with a couple of religious maniacs thrown in. – Sam Harris from his 12 November 2016 podcast “Waking Up With Sam Harris #51 - The Most Powerful Clown

Amongst this menagerie are people like Kris Kobach, and the Vice President elect Mike Pence, both of whom support the effectiveness of “gay conversion therapy”. Though there may be a push for re-education of white males with college degrees there has not yet been open discussion of shoving electrical cords in our ears and zapping us whenever we react positively to David Bowie or Tilda Swinton. LGBT Trump supporters may literally have been voting against the open existence of their demographic. Perhaps they were channeling their inner Roy Cohn?

To be perfectly honest I do not personally think that there is a pathway to re-criminalization of homosexuality even if members of rapidly forming Trump administration may want it. However, that desire to eliminate openly gay people from the fabric of American culture is a clue that bad things that can be done might be attempted. With a GOP majority in the House and Senate, and a few Supreme Court justices thrown in, there is a distinct possibility that bad things that are attempted will be successful.

My favorite candidate on the Utah ballot won about as much of the popular vote as Evan. Misty K. Snow contested a seat in the US Senate held by Mike Lee. She had a wonderful platform whose main plank –the fact that she was not Mike Lee- earned her my wholehearted support.


Misty was not the perfect candidate. She had about as much experience in politics as our new president-elect, and significantly less education. I listened to her single debate against Lee and was irritated by her conciliatory and deferential tone. I wanted someone who would go after Lee tooth and nail. It was literally impossible for a Democrat –especially a woman- to defeat Tea-Party darling Mike Lee, but I wished that she could have taken a bigger bite out of him as he used wandering trivial patronizing metaphors as stand ins for opinions or answers in the debate. Instead of ripping out his jugular and leaving him bleeding on the stage she was cordial and polite; I wanted blood.

There are certainly places for being “nice”. One could reasonably argue that it is good to be “nice” almost everywhere, but there have to be “nice” ways of eviscerating people who represent the worst in society. There is way too much “nice” in Utah amongst those caused harm by the culture here and the religion that encourages and protects some of the more hurtful parts of that culture.

Sometime recently passed was apparently the one year anniversary of the LDS church’s decision to make apostates of people who are connected by family ties to people in same-sex marriages. Normally the process of getting your name removed from Mormon church records is involved, and my immediate reaction to the Church manufacturing new groups of apostates is to imagine them mailing “get out of jail free” cards to unsuspecting members.

Instead of shouting “YAY!” many Mormon LGBT wring their hands and suggest the church rethink its position.  I ask you: why don’t people simply point out that LDS magic underwear is decidedly unsexy and everything else in the church is based on wacky stupid ideas? There is no shortage of good reasons to want to become an apostate to the LDS church. If the premises of something are stupid then what does it make you sound like when you testify that they are true? The opinions about LGBT issues by the LDS church should not matter because the LDS church itself should not matter.

There appears to be a barrage of art that is, in part, concerned with reconciling the LDS stance on LGBT people with their “right” to be Mormon. There were endless articles, a bunch of films, a play called “Facing East”, and a documentary film about gay missionaries called “Latter Day Glory” is currently being filmed. It might be interesting to see film footage showing people the gay missionaries converted during their mission telling their former mentors that they were going to suffer some kind of eternal damnation because they were gay. I realize that there is some sort of special “Mormons don’t believe in Hell” slippery pseudo explanation, and that the “Latter Day Glory” film will probably be saccharine with niceties for currently believing LGBT Mormons, but I want the disillusioned masses of fence-sitting Mormons to rise up and shed some metaphorical blood, or at least say something like: “The Emperor has no clothes and a funny hair pattern on his back”.

Monday, November 7, 2016

I think Sally is voting for Trump

The election tomorrow culminates a season of expletives. Prominent amongst them is the, usually exasperated, rhetorical question: “How could you think that?” This suggests more than a simple belief that large sections of the voting public are simply wrong; it suggests that there is a new way of thinking (or not thinking), and that this mystery process is incomprehensible to many who do not practice it.

Understanding how someone could think something is not mind reading. It is instead a form of empathy. It is putting one’s self into another’s metaphorical shoes and “walking a mile in them” or “trying them on for size” to understand how some particular thoughts are possible. This incredibly complex task sounds casually obvious as it is one of the more profound ways the mind works.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) suggested that all development was a process of increasing layers of internalization, and we have discovered a class of neurons (mirror neurons) that facilitate subtle learning by firing during the process of mimicking the activity of another human being. The process of becoming like others in order to understand and learn from them has also been described and mapped.

The specific activity of recognizing another person’s point of view by internalizing it is called “theory of mind” (TOM) or, more pedantically “Theory-theory of mind”. Far from being a pre-loaded activity for the brain TOM develops at a particular developmental stage in a child’s life. Somewhere between the ages of 3 and 4 a child changes their responses to a series of “false belief” tests. The easiest way to correct the false belief test response is to begin viewing the potential answer from another person’s point of view; to develop a recognition that a different person would see things differently from one’s self. Let me describe the two most famous false belief tests to help illuminate what I am trying to say here.

The first test is called the “Sally-Anne” test. There are several variations, but all of them involve a story where one actor “Anne” creates compartmentalized information that is unknown to the other actor “Sally”. It usually goes something like this: Sally and Anne are in a room with two boxes and a toy and Sally puts a toy in box one, then Sally leaves the room and Anne moves the toy to box two. Sally does not see Anne move the toy, but you do. Where does Sally look for the toy when she comes back into the room? Almost all children close to their third birthday will say that Sally thinks the toy is in box two, and will look there first; shortly after their fourth birthday almost all children will say that Sally thinks the toy is in box one, and will look there first.
The original Sally-Anne illustration by Uta Frith
From "Does the autistic child have theory of mind"
Baron-Cohen, Leslie and Frith (1985) Cognition 21;37-46

For the second common test (The “Unexpected contents” test) the child is presented a container with some sort of known visual clue affixed to it. The classic example is a cookie jar of the type the child has experience retrieving cookies from. The child is asked what they think is in the jar, and sometimes asked what some other child thinks is in the jar. The answer is universally: “cookies”. The jar is then opened to reveal that it does not contain cookies; it contains something else the child recognizes, like pencils or crayons. The jar is closed again and the child is asked what they had previously thought was in the jar: “what did you think was in the jar before I opened it?” The answer for three year olds is almost universally “crayons” (or pencils or whatever the child now knows is actually in the jar). When asked what other children might think is in the jar the answer is almost universally “crayons” as well. Sometime after their fourth birthday children will be able to recognize that people can believe stuff that is not true, and the children will answer “cookies”.

This is not simply because children are not exposed to simple false belief situations before their fourth birthday. There are map-able regions of the brain that must develop this TOM functionality in order to internalize the experiential information. The superior temporal gyrus (STS), the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), the precuneus, and the amygdala are all thought to be critical to TOM development. In other words effective TOM relies on a bunch of cognitive stuff (STS, TPJ, MPFC, and the precuneus) and the lizard brain (amygdala).

On first blush those uninitiated into the sacred rites of developmental psychology, like myself, are struck by the irony of so much of TOM development conclusions being based on answers to the question “what is going on in a child’s mind before they develop theory of mind?”. In addition to being delightfully ironic this question critically analyzes such things as what the child actually thinks is being asked in the Sally-Anne test.

TOM is a factor in abnormal brain function as well a critical element of a normal development. Severe alcoholics can, apparently, leverage the neurotoxicity of ethanol to drink themselves out of the capacity to recognize that other people can have a point of view. Many diseases on the autism spectrum reduce or eliminate TOM. Depression and dysphoria can also cause a reduction in TOM.

Depression, dysphoria, and stress cause measurable changes in the amygdala. This current campaign cycle has relied heavily on free-floating anxiety as a critical campaign issue. Certainly those internalizing the liberally slung rhetoric have amydalas that are all out of whack, and this should have an effect on TOM. Because TOM is evolutionarily tied to the ability to create social structure, or culture, or societies, then there must be some sort of synergistic effect on whole groups of people.

I know that when I try and understand what close to half of the voters in the USA are trying to think I come away with strange versions of the Sally-Anne test question.

“If Dick Cheney moves Obama’s birth certificate from an undisclosed black base to Hillary’s email server, while chemtrails are seen over Afghanistan, then what really happened to World Trade Center 7?”

And, unfortunately, the answer many people are coming up with is: “Vote for Trump”.

It may be necessary, for the continuance of our culture, to distribute some sort of psychological brannock device on Wednesday.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Warren Miller's Brand Mangement

Last Friday was “Bald and Free” day, and so I surmise this rainy Monday starts “Stubbley and Itchy” week for some people. Having not shaved any part of my anatomy that might interfere with perching on a bicycle saddle I toy with the idea of heading off to southern Utah and a supported 100 mile ride. That is hours of saddle time, and it should be warm enough, highs in the 80s (almost 30C), that sweat irritating abraded skin might be a real concern for those who aggressively celebrated BandF day.

The rain today brings less liquid precipitation to the high slopes of the mountains hereabouts. Soon the talk of exertion and sweating will turn to winter sports. Gear discussions will devolve to poles and waxes and bindings; topics with a whole different meaning than when discussed in the heat of summer.

On the evening of BandF day I found myself at Abravenel hall in Salt Lake city. The venue’s capacity was strained beyond what the Utah Symphony can usually attract, and the crowd was younger, hipper, and louder than those I have seen at the symphony lately.

They all showed up to watch a film bearing the name of a 92-year-old director (he was only 91 on Friday as his birthday was on Saturday) about bumming about and playing in the snow. Hip young skiers waxed ad nauseam about the hardships Warren Miller endured when, in 1946, he and his buddy Ward Baker lived in a tiny teardrop trailer parked outside a Sun Valley Idaho ski resort for a season, and filmed each other on an 8mm camera in between acting as ski instructors.

A quick internet search of photos shows that Warren Miller is quite bald these days.

“WME owns the exclusive right, in perpetuity, in all media, to the name, the personal endorsement, use of voice and the likeness of Warren Miller, only when used with its existing business, and the fruits of its related efforts,” – From arbitration panel ruling 2010

The film did not discuss the branding case Warren was involved in back in 2010. Warren sold his name off to a group that calls itself “Warren Miller Entertainment group” (WME) and was doing some narration for a ski movie by a different group when WME decided that him just going about and using his name might dilute their brand. The ruling was considered “mixed”. Warren has not actually done any directing or narrating or anything really, with the company that bears his name, since 2004.

“I have not been involved with my old company’s films in any capacity for many years now, and I will not work with WME again.” – Warren Miller 2010

At one point in the evening’s debut showing of “Warren Miller's Here There and Everywhere” a happy sounding DJ who was emceeing the event asked the audience to all stand and sing “Happy Birthday” to Warren while he filmed it on a GoPro. I’m not sure if that was ironic or just insensitive.

Although…. When I think of that night’s movie and the idea of sensitivity to branding it is not images of courtrooms and suit-and-tied lawyers that comes to mind. One of the segments of snowy activity in the film was about the newish sport of FatBike snow riding. Here mountain bikes with huuuge tires are ridden about in the snow. It is slow and looks like a lot of fun, and I plan on engaging in some FatBike riding this winter. The film segment spastically followed a Fatbike competition, and ended with the winner being held down in the snow while his pants were pulled down and a red hot branding iron used to sear a logo onto one of the cheeks of his buttocks. It looked quite painful.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Bee vs. Bee

I have this desire to grow my hair out and wear it in long white braids.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has given endangered status to seven species of bees from the genus Hylaeus (yellow-faced bees) native to the Hawaiian Islands. These species were not the first Species of bee proposed for listing as endangered; the patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) was proposed earlier than the 2009 petition for the Hawaiian Hylaeus species. This first listing of a bee has been widely, but erroneously, linked to the perceived decline of commercial honeybees (Apis melifora) in the US.

The factors putting pressure on honeybees are not the same as those endangering the Hawaiian yellow-faced bee species. In fact, honeybees themselves are considered to be a significant contributing factor in the decline of the native bees. This is in stark contrast to the perceived notion that neonicotinoid pesticides are to blame for most bee problems. I have written earlier about the lack of measurable decline in honeybee populations in the US; bee populations actually have been increasing, and are now the highest (2014 was a 20 year high) they have been in decades.

A major factor in the more rapid listing of the seven Hylaeus species as endangered is the biology linked to two unique aspects of evolution. Foster’s rule (or “Island effect”) where perturbations in competitive pressures leads to unique evolutionary outcomes for isolated species. The other are the unique evolutionary outcomes caused by plant-pollinator mutualism. These mechanisms synergistically resulted in an evolutionary démarche that shaped the newly listed Hylaeus species into unique cogs of a wonderful tropical ecology

Another factor is the well written petition(s) prepared by members (Lisa Schonberg, Sarina Jepsen, and Scott Hoffman Black) of the Hawaiian Xerces society. Lisa plays drums in the “Secret Drum Band” which performs rather spacey music that probably went over very well in Portland where they recently toured.

“On the infrequent occasions when I have been called upon in a formal place to play the bongo drums, the introducer never seems to find it necessary to mention that I also do theoretical physics.” --statement by Richard Feynman after an introduction mentioning that he played bongo drums; Messenger Lectures at Cornell University

The petition(s) drove home the potential impact of extinction of these particular bee species on the overall ecology of a specific area. Extinction of a particular bee species can mean extinction of the plant it is mutualistically tied to. Lose the specialized pollinator and you lose the plant which requires a specialized pollinator in order to reproduce.

Solitary bees need to do all of the tasks required for survival of their nest with limited resources, and so they cannot afford many failures when attempting to perform those tasks. Eusocial bees, like the honeybee, can have a significant failure rate since there are many members of the hive attempting the same task. If a bee goes out in search of nectar or pollen it can search large areas that might not be productive if it is a honeybee, but the solitary bee must confine its search to areas with a higher potential for success; if the solitary bee fails at finding nectar it has spent valuable food resources and this might negatively impact its reproduction success.

Honeybees have the added selective advantage of learning as a hive; the worker that successfully finds nectar or pollen communicates the location of that find to the hive using a dance. So a single honeybee finding a flowering plant might result in hundreds of honeybees draining all the nectar from all the flowers on that plant; while the discovery of a flowering plant by a solitary bee would not bring additional bees to the plant.

Honeybees go after any source of food they can find, and have been observed feeding at plants that are also fed at by the yellow-faced bees. They therefore compete directly with them for sustenance.

“This study reports the results of an experiment run over two years on the impact of commercial honey bees on the fecundity of a solitary native bee, Hylaeus alcyoneus. Registered apiary sites were used as treatment sites (with honey bees) while control sites (without honey bees) were interspersed between. The fecundity of H. alcyoneus was measured using trap nests. We compared the number of nests produced, number of eggs per nest and emerging progeny mass of H. alcyoneus in sites with and without commercial bee hives. The number of nests produced by H. alcyoneus was 23% less (Wilcoxon’s T) at treatment sites than control sites.” -- Paini, Dean R. and Roberts, J. Dale. (2005) Commercial honey bees (Apis mellifera) reduce the fecundity of an Australian native bee (Hylaeus alcyoneus). Biological Conservation Volume 123, Issue 1, May 2005, Pages 103–112

The species of the genus Hylaeus look a lot like wasps, and use a specialized crop for carrying pollen. The seven Hawaiian species of Hylaeus that were listed as endangered also display some of characteristics of mutualism-induced phonotypic specialization. Hylaeus mana, for instance, has evolved into a very tiny bee capable of dropping into the specialized flowers of the parasitic forest sandalwood plant (Santalum freycinetianum).

Hylaeus mana is so small, and the flowers it feeds at so limited, that it was not described until 2002. It had just avoided notice.  Only four specimens have been collected.

The mutualistic evolution of plant-pollinator pairs provides benefits to both. The specialized pollinator –often a solitary bee- almost exclusively feeds at the specialized flower, and it therefore would most likely be carrying pollen from that species of flower to another of the same species. A general pollinator –like the honeybee- would most likely be carrying pollen from whatever was the most abundant flower at the time, and for rare flowers this is most likely not pollen from other flowers of that rare species. The plant in a plant-pollinator pair often evolves the ability to display specific attractants (like the wonderful smells and colors many flowers have) that improve the chances of a specialized pollinator being successful in finding food by finding it.

The specializations and attractants from these mutualistic pairings have created some of the most beautiful things on our planet.

Honeybee competition can result in a vicious feedback loop. They over-graze a specialized plant, and that reduces the reproductive success of the specialized pollinator. This causes a reduction in the specialized pollinator, which reduces the reproductive success of the specialized plant. Less of the specialized food source increases the effect of honeybee competition, and this can cause both the plant and specialized pollinator to spiral into extinction.

The Xerces society petition(s) also describe predation by ants and parasitism by wasps. The prioritization of ecological factors appear heavily weighted towards actions by members of the order Hymenoptera. This may be due in part to the shadow cast by Roy Snelling who died just months before the petition(s) was delivered.

Roy Snelling was a curmudgeonly self-taught entomologist and loud outspoken Atheist who wore his hair in long gray braids and would talk to anyone about the insects that captured his focus for most of the 73 years of his life. He studied all things Hymenoptera, and, though he was employed in Los Angeles at the Natural History Museum there, had a fondness for the bees and ants of the Hawaiian Islands. He described the competition between honeybees and solitary bees. He had also discovered new species of bees and ants. On April 23rd of 2008 he died in his sleep of a heart attack while on safari in Kenya looking for more Hymenoptera.

The problem with this story. This story that is literally about the bees doing the things that make for the better part of the “birds and bees” idiom. This story where long-haired thinkers dance crazily to spacey drum accompaniment through sandalwood scented forests of a tropical paradise. This story where a reasoned petition wins the glacial support of government conservation rules. The problem with this story is that the bees are killing bees; there is no Monsatan or cardboard villain who simplistically decimates the universe in an accelerating bid to increase its evil. We cannot easily partisanize this story in the way an election year requires of everything.

But come November we will again be living in the beautiful complex world of scents and buzzing that makes the study of ecological-evolutionary biology resonate within that thin film that supports life as we know it on this blue sphere of a planet we call Earth. Recognizing how those interactions get out of whack and doing something about the more fragile margins will make future Novembers a little more beautiful.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Conference Avenue

This past weekend was the semi-annual conference for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS or Mormon). This takes place in a large conference center on the North side of Temple square. On the South side of Temple square is the church developed City Creek shopping center. Pedestrian traffic and orange cones slowed traffic on North and South Temple (The roads that border temple square to the North and South) to a crawl. A few blocks north of North temple traffic was halted by a logjam of spastically jerking minivans all seeking free on-street parking.

I was driving East along 2nd avenue, just a little east of Temple square where it changes name from North Temple at the margin of the Salt Lake City neighborhood called the avenues, while the conference was nearing a close this last Sunday. 2nd avenue is a steep one way road from the church office building at the corner of State and North Temple to where it levels out at the intersection with B avenue. I was driving a large pickup truck and turning left onto B avenue when a woman with a cellphone to her ear while driving an older sedan North on B avenue ignored the “WRONG WAY” and “ONE WAY” signs and turned left onto 1st street. I honked to draw her attention to the fact that she was now traveling, in the rather inadequate space left between my truck and the curb, the wrong way on a one way street.

The day was warm, and windows were rolled down. It looked like the interior of the woman’s car was festooned with a couple more child seats than it should really support. I yelled at her to emphasize the message I had hoped my horn had gotten across:

“You are going the WRONG WAY on a ONE WAY STREET.” I yelled.

Without taking the phone from her ear she yelled back even louder:

“I know YOU IDIOT!!

She also said something less audible that could have been:

“I need to park”
“The videos must stop”
Or something about the marital status of my parents at the time of my conception. I did not really catch it. I was a little amused to have just been called an IDIOT –in all caps I assure you- by a woman bouncing her wheels off the curb so she could shoehorn her sputtering short baby bus the wrong way down a one way avenue.

I wonder what kind of moron I would be if she hit a parked car or poked herself in the eye with a stick?

If I had thought about it more at the time I would have focused on the strangely paranoid “The videos must stop” she may have added in at the end. What comes to mind when you picture a complete stranger saying that to you? How about a complete stranger driving frantically the wrong way down a moderately busy street? I wonder what the person talking to her on the cell phone thought.

Strangely enough the video statement would make more sense by the time I really thought about it. Shortly before the creative traffic event an anonymous leaker had released a dozen or so secret videos shot on behalf of the highest council of the Mormon Church. The so-called “Quorum of the Twelve Apostles” rules on all church policy that does not come unencumbered from the Prophet himself (The First President of the First Presidency). At the time of the videos (those I’ve seen) Boyd K. Packer was the president of “The Twelve”. Boyd K. Packer was made famous by his interest in encouraging little boys to stop masturbating.

I’ve watched the video entitled “In Which They Fret About Religious Freedom With Some Classic Bednar in the Last Five Minutes”. In this video a former Governor of Utah (1993-2003. Mike Okerlund Leavitt, who was also Administrator of EPA, 2003-2005, and Secretary of HHS, 2005-2009) spoke in conjunction with Robert Peter George who was founder and Herbert W. Vaughan senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute about religious freedom. By Religious Freedom they apparently meant preventing gay marriage and safe abortions, and by preventing gay marriage and safe abortions they mostly meant preventing gay marriage.

Mike presented a power point presentation on the plan to prevent religious freedoms by being eroded by “rights” and other anti-freedom evils. There was to be a grass roots organization of listening posts strategically placed around the US, and lawyers and lobbyists would swoop in whenever problems arose. He is a bit vague on problems. But a big one was allowing people to gay marry or not having religious exemptions written into all sorts of laws. The video was filmed in May of 2012; about two weeks after North Carolina voters passed their “Amendment 1” to their state constitution. President Obama famously came out and supported same sex unions the day after North Carolina passed their “Amendment 1”.

“Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.” From “Amendment 1” aka ARTICLE XIV, Section 6 of the Constitution of North Carolina

“[North Carolina passed] a constitutional amendment in a very positive and affirmative way protecting marriage” – Mike Leavitt from the Religious freedom video (May 22? 2012)

Bob George was representing the AFPC of the EPPC and also NOM, but I’m sure he had a bunch of other acronyms to throw around to make his point clear. Bob wanted to tell the Twelve that they were nice people even if they were Mormon, and that that religious liberties were under attack by people that thought it was ok to gay marry.

“I want to pay tribute especially to the church for its heroic leadership in Prop 8” – Robert P. George from the Religious freedom video (May 22? 2012)

“[Without the LDS Church] we would be in no position to win it on either front; whether on the marriage front or the religious liberty front.” – Robert P. George from the Religious freedom video (May 22? 2012)

Bob and Mike found a receptive audience for their tender message of hate. Boyd was raised from whatever he was doing to grumble in support of Mike and Bob’s message; saying that:

"If they think we will move on these issues, they do not know us," – Boyd K. Packer from the Religious freedom video (May 22? 2012)

I am sure there are tons of illuminating statements by crusty old paranoid hate mongers in all the other videos.

The Deseret News (Both Bob and Mike are members of the Deseret News Editorial Board) said that the release of the videos was a good thing. The DezNews headlined their editorial page with a piece titled: “In our opinion: LDS Church leaks reveal an engaged and informed leadership”. The editorial goes after fellow blogger Hermant Mehta’s (The Friendly Atheist) post revealing the leaks; it does not identify the apparent conflict of interest suggested by the fact that several members of the same editorial board who wrote the piece were featured speakers in the videos.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Equinox 2016

The autumnal equinox in Utah will occur this year at 8:21 on the morning of September 22nd. Many consider this the official end of summer. The sunlit portions of the days are shortening by about two minutes and forty seconds each day. They have been shortening since the summer solstice (20 June 2016), but the pace has been increasing. About a month ago they were only shortening by two and a half minutes a day, and at the beginning of August we were only losing about two minutes and two seconds of daylight each day.

The amount of sunlight we lose each day will begin to decrease after the equinox. By the end of October we will only be losing about two minutes and twenty-three seconds of daylight each day. By the winter solstice (21 December 2016; 3:44 am) we will begin gaining daylight, slowly at first, but then increasing in rate till the vernal equinox in March (20 March 2017; 4:29 am).

Darkness falls on the North Pole, and it will stay dark till March. For many weeks the horizon will be back lit by the sun teasing at the curvature of the earth, but it will not rise above the horizon. The extent of sea ice in the arctic reaches its minimum as the lack of sunlight brings colder temperatures. This year’s minimum tied (2007) with the second lowest minimum observed since satellites first began making measurements 37 years ago.

Screen capture from the North Pole Webcam 16 September 2015.  2015 webcams were deployed by researchers from the University of Washington and images were made available by PMEL NOAA.  No webcams were deployed in 2016 due to funding constraints, but webcam deployment is scheduled for the 2017 season.

The undulations of night and day are the cosmic patterns that weave the seasons through the history of the planet. Though they have changed in frequency and amplitude they have not done so very much during the history of humankind, and have not done so at all in my lifetime. They are a constant wave and the events of my life are only fluttering and temporary harmonics of that wave. Even the rise and fall of empires and entire religions happens with the beating of light and dark and seasons as a metronome keeping time in the background.

By the time the days start getting longer again here in the US we will have had weeks to rue our choice of a new president. The equinox brings with it a trending of new polls that slowly diminish Clinton’s lead over trump to a tiny fragment of the margin of error in those polls; in a few more weeks he will be winning at this rate.

Summer loves become the companions of fall. Colors change and kisses become warm and protracted. Orion is early in the sky, and were it not for the winter’s inversions trapping winter’s car exhaust the moon would shine through the dry air with a noticeable clarity. At higher elevations along the Wasatch this coming weekend we should see snow; the moon reflecting off fresh snow can look just like love.

Thirty-two years ago I was covered in self-pity and snot. Today I talk with my hands as if conducting the spheres of the solar system into their respective orbits. Waving tiny wands at a cosmic inevitable creates the illusion of magic, and the real magic of understanding. Time and season drag the future to us; terrible, and wonderful, and with a cacophony of hope.

We can shape this future: on the individual scale by finding love and cultivating it, on the national scale by getting out and voting, and on the scale of the universe by conducting that magical action at a distance that allows us -as only humans can- to look out into the universe and wonder.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

HTH doping

There are many things antithetical to reason. Some, like love, are revelled in as a wonderful part of the human experience. Some, like theistic thought and mental illness, are pernicious inhibitors to many of the best parts of the individual human condition; including rational thought. The DSM 5 lists many maladies that count irrational thought among their symptoms. Among these the conditions that can be lumped together as “addiction” are interesting because the most popular method of treating these maladies that count irrational thought among their symptoms is by applying more irrational thought.

Sometime around 1938 several alcoholics, notable amongst them Bill Wilson, developed 12 steps for recovery from alcoholism. These were adapted from more religious organizations, and retained a significant “spirituality” with a decidedly Christian flavor. The alcoholic seeking recovery is instructed to pray to a higher power called god, and this magically removes the desire to drink alcohol.

It is important to note that a significant portion of the development of the 12 steps was secularizing the message of the oxford groups that came before. The steps allow for a higher power –or god- “of your understanding”, and this leaves, by design, a lot of room for interpretation.
“I should acknowledge our great debt to the Oxford Group people. It was fortunate that they laid particular emphasis on spiritual principles that we needed. But in fairness it should also be said that many of their attitudes and practices did not work well at all for us alcoholics. These were rejected one by one and they caused our later withdrawal from this society to a fellowship of our own - today's Alcoholics Anonymous.
Perhaps I should specifically outline why we felt it necessary to part company with them. To begin with, the climate of their undertaking was not well suited to us alcoholics. They were aggressively evangelical.” – Bill Wilson “Lets Ask Bill W. Question & Answer #7” (Chicago, Ill., February 1951)

The 12 steps of AA have been adapted for the treatment of a myriad of obsessive or addictive conditions. The list is truly impressive. The 12 steps of AA should be viewed as a successful program simply, and even if for no other reason, because of the way it has saturated the field of recovery.

Many of the offshoot organizations have secularized the 12-step program even further. Narcotics Anonymous added the catch phrase “Spiritual not religious” to the way 12 step programs are understood. There is a religious option in many online dating apps called “spiritual not religious” that is used to indicate some secular state of recovery in a 12 step group.

Not all of the adaptations of the 12-step program have been to secularize the message. Sometime around 2008 several members of the Latter Day Saints (LDS or Mormon) faith received permission to adapt the 12 steps, and they created an LDS-centered recovery group called “Heart T’ Heart” (HTH). HTH also took the 12 traditions that AA had created to protect the autonomy of members and groups within the loose AA organization. However, it inevitably ran into problems leaving some sort of opening for the influence of church authority over all things because the traditions of AA purposefully avoid assigning authority and responsibility to the greater organization.

Original AA traditions
HTH Traditions
Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A. A. unity.
In Heart t’ Heart individual recovery depends on the loving, supportive fellowship of the group. Without acceptance and unity there can be no fellowship and thus no recovery.
For our group purpose, there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
In Heart t’ Heart there is only one ultimate authority–a loving God who manifests His will for each group in our prayerful group conscience. Our Heart t’ Heart leaders are but trusted servants, they do not govern.
The only requirement for A. A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.
The only requirement for Heart t’ Heart membership is a desire to stop participating in compulsive/addictive behaviors.
Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A. A. as a whole.
Each Heart t’ Heart group is autonomous within the guidelines of the steps and the traditions, encouraged only to practice these principles in all its decisions.
Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
Each Heart t’ Heart group has but one primary purpose–to carry its message of recovery from compulsive/addictive behavior to those who still suffer.
An A. A. group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the A. A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
A Heart t’ Heart group ought never endorse, finance or lend the Heart t’ Heart name to any outside publications or enterprise, lest problems of copyrights, money, property or prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
Every Heart t’ Heart group ought to be fully self-supporting through voluntary donations from members only.
Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
Heart t’ Heart should remain forever non-professional, but our General service center may employ special workers.
A. A., as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
Heart t’ Heart, as such, ought never be organized. We may, however create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence, the A. A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
Heart t’ Heart has no official opinion on any outside issue. Neither is its intent to promote any doctrine or policy contrary to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Hence, the Heart t’ Heart name ought never be drawn into any controversy, the opinions expressed being simply those of the individuals who share them.
Our public relations policy is based on attraction, rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and film.
Our public relations policy is based on attraction, rather than promotion. We need always maintain the spiritual foundation of personal anonymity, acknowledging that all recovery comes through dedication to the principles of the program.
Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.
Personal anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions–ever reminding us that this program is focused on principles and not personalities.

The HTH traditions and steps arose from a collaborative negotiation with AA. Almost any group which preserves the intent of the 12-step program(s) –captured in the 12 steps and 12 traditions- can develop their own interpretation and call it an "AA-like 12 step program"; the negotiations often only ensure that the interpretation does not stray so far from the original intent that it dilutes the core principals of the program. The 12 traditions are there to help keep the program in the anonymous grass-roots mold that is a core concept for all (most?) 12-step groups.

The “great apostasy” is the name the LDS church gave to the recent loss of members. The magnitude of the efflux is shrouded by shifty bookkeeping where a member simply leaving the church is not recognized, but there has been much overt speculation on causes and cures. For the true believer it is easy to become convinced that something is wrong with people who leave the church; something pathological.

Addiction is an easily identifiable pathology to blame apostasy on. I have seen the activity of many ex-Mormons, and it is not uncommon for them to experience a period of severe disorientation shortly after leaving the church. Moderation is not a concept that naturally arises when one removes an artificial abstinence, and many (please don’t interpret this “many” as anything but a subjective collection of anecdote) will obsessively indulge in behaviors in ways that either lead to or mimic addictions.

It was natural, therefore, that the LDS church should develop a way of harvesting these members back into the fold. The 12-steps of AA appeared as if they could be useful; the 12 step programs, and AA in particular, have often been viewed as a good way of retaining or recovering members of any religion, so this utilitarian view of the 12 steps by the LDS church was not new.
“In summary we can say that Alcoholics Anonymous have found a way to bring the gospel of Christ to a particular group in a successful way; and that examination of this way serves to reemphasize the validity of the central teaching of the Church.” -- ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS SPEAKS TO THE CHURCH. Robert K. Nace. JOURNAL CLINICAL AND PASTORAL WORK. Vol. 22: 124-132, 1949
“In recent years our Church members have been afflicted more and more with habits and behaviors that keep them from enjoying the full blessings available to them as members of the Church.” – from the pamphlet “Speaking Heart T’ Heart to our priesthood leaders” ©2013, 2003 General Service Board of Heart t’ Heart Inc Item #0510

HTH describes itself as not being a LDS Church organization. It could not both be that and a true 12-step group as rigid autonomy is codified in the 12 traditions. However, it is not necessary to be a 12-step organization to interpret and use the 12 steps of AA. In 1995 the LDS church began using their own 12-step guide for their official “A pilot program @ phase” of the LDS Family Services Addiction Recovery Program (ARP).

The 12 step study guide titled “He Did Deliver Me from Bondage” was written by Colleen C. Harrison, and self-published. Colleen was a leader of the handful of LDS addicts who formed HTH; she had an eating disorder she had diagnosed as an addiction. “He Did Deliver Me from Bondage” was an interpretive workbook based on her observations in her personal recovery that aligned her concept of LDS scripture with the 12 steps of AA. It was originally distributed as a bunch of pages in three ring binders. It would become the core literature of the tiny HTH organization. The tiny publishing house of Windhaven (the name would later be changed to Hearthaven) would later be formed to publish the book.
“The Twelve Step model is nothing more than a detailed description of how to come unto Christ and allow Him to lift our burdens. We come unto Him one step at a time!” – Description of the 12 steps from front page of Hearthaven Publishing website (September 11, 2016)

One of the things Colleen’s book did was apparently extract quotes from Mormon scripture that sounded like the 12 steps. I thought this was especially clever as it would establish prior art for the 12 steps. Mormons might even be able to argue that they could place the date of the first versions of the 12 steps at some time in the early part of the first century, and predate the formation of AA by almost two thousand years.

I decided to look up one of the quotes to marvel in the parallels. I chose one of the most religious of the steps, step 3: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”. If any of the steps should find almost exact parallels in scripture it should be this one.

The HTH step 3 was followed by the Mormon scriptural quote: “Made the decision to reconcile ourselves to the will of God, offer our whole souls as an offering unto Him, and trust Him in all things forever.”, and this was followed by four scriptural references [2 Nephi 10:24, Omni 1:26, Mosiah 3:19, 2 Nephi 4:34] where presumably versions of the quote could be found. I looked up the four references, and this is what I found:
2 Nephi 10:24; Wherefore, my beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh; and remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved.
Omni 1:26; And now, my beloved brethren, I would that ye should come unto Christ, who is the Holy One of Israel, and partake of his salvation, and the power of his redemption. Yea, come unto him, and offer your whole souls as an offering unto him, and continue in fasting and praying, and endure to the end; and as the Lord liveth ye will be saved.

Mosiah 3:19; For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.
2 Nephi 4:34; O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever. I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh. Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh flesh his arm.

What I found was four quotes from which one might be able to construct the given passage through a process of selective disassembly and re-arrangement; this for an undeniably religious step that would be expected to have almost exact parallels in the scripture of most Abrahamic religions. This came across as a little obsessive, and not very well grounded.

It is a wonder that Colleen had the time to obsessively reconstruct scripture from selected fragments. She was a very busy woman. She converted to Mormonism at the ripe old age of 14 while her mother was busy with her own addictive behaviors. By 17 she married, and for the next 23 years she popped out a child on the average of every two years. By the time her “active LDS household” was “destroyed by addiction” in 1991 she had 12 children. In 1991 she introduced the workbook that would become “He Did Deliver Me from Bondage”, and formed HTH.

In 1995 LDS family services adopted Colleen’s book as the literature for the official LDS addiction recovery organization. The LDS church is very concerned with what they call “pornography addiction”. Recently they have pressured the Utah state legislature into calling “pornography addiction” a public health crisis. Many people have suggested that the legislature define more pressing concerns as public health crises; things which produce quantifiable, or measurable, or even just demonstrable damage to public health. It has been speculated that calling for action on a questionable public health crisis, that the LDS church is uniquely positioned to respond to because it invented it, could be a good way of funneling public dollars into church proselytization efforts.

In the spring of 1998 Colleen met Phil Harrison (a self-described pornography addict) with whom she would eventually write “Clean Hands, Pure Heart: Overcoming Addiction to Pornography Through the Redeeming Power of Jesus Christ”. By that summer Phil’s wife Kathy would die, a couple dys later Colleen and Phil would be engaged, and in January of 1999 Colleen would marry Phil in the LDS temple and become stepmother to his five children.

In 2005 LDS Family Services would retire “He Did Deliver Me from Bondage” and begin publishing their own literature. With it came a new set of decidedly more theistic steps, and a noticeable lack of a form of the 12 traditions. The steps are similar to the AA steps, and one can see a process of de-secularizing of the 12 steps, with the HTH 12 steps as an intermediate link.

Original AA "Steps"
Heart T Heart "Steps"
ARP “Key Principal”
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
We admitted we were powerless over compulsive/addictive behaviors*—that our lives had become unmanageable.
Admit that you, of yourself, are powerless to overcome your addictions and that your life has become unmanageable.
Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Come to believe that the power of God can restore you to complete spiritual health.
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
Decide to turn your will and your life over to the care of God the Eternal Father and His Son, Jesus Christ.
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Make a searching and fearless written moral inventory of yourself.
Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Admit to yourself, to your Heavenly Father in the name of Jesus Christ, to proper priesthood authority, and to another person the exact nature of your wrongs.
Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Become entirely ready to have God remove all your character weaknesses.
Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
Humbly ask Heavenly Father to remove your shortcomings.
Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Make a written list of all persons you have harmed and become willing to make restitution to them.
Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Wherever possible, make direct restitution to all persons you have harmed.
Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
Continue to take personal inventory, and when you are wrong promptly admit it.
Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
Seek through prayer and meditation to know the Lord’s will and to have the power to carry it out.
Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others still suffering from the effects of compulsive behaviors and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, share this message with others and practice these principles in all you do.

There are a myriad of ways in which the formation of a 12 step program with obvious similarities to AA could be used to leverage public interest in addiction recovery for the purposes of accumulating money, power, and prestige. It is also a powerful proselytization tool as it is not uncommon for judges to link the severity of a sentence to attendance of a 12 step recovery group; people might reasonably believe they were being given the choice of going to the LDS church or going to jail.