Thursday, May 25, 2017

Burrito Colon

Recent statements by the current Secretary of Housing and Urban Development have hinted again at the theocratic coup waiting for the dumpster fire of the 45th presidency to burn itself out. I’ve rarely been one to suggest that anyone look away from a good train wreck, but these days there are so many wrecks vying for one’s attention, and all I might suggest is that we spend a few minutes looking at some of the other spectacular collisions gearing up to spread their social shrapnel across the future of civilization; the accelerating theocracy will interact synergistically with the train-wreck in chief so spending a couple minutes looking at a facet of it is almost like keeping your eyes glued to the center ring of the train-wreck dumpster-fire circus.

I should really unstack the metaphors in order to uncover the focus of today’s post: Ben Carson. To be more specific I was struck by Carson’s comments yesterday that poverty could be avoided by personal vim and a positive state of mind. These comments are consistent with what Carson has said in the past, and are also consistent with a popular materialistic Christian narcissistic theology that would thrive on control of the means of production in modern society.

"I think poverty to a large extent is also a state of mind," said Carson. "You take somebody who has the right mindset, you can take everything from them and put them on the street and I guarantee you in a little while they'll be right back up there.” – Ben Carso in a 23 May 2017 interview on SiriusXMPolitics

I also want to talk about some frozen burritos I picked up at Costco. I think they will make a good metaphor.

“I serve God, and my purpose is to please Him, and if God be for you, who can be against you?” – Ben Carson

There is something important to be said for the utility of a positive state of mind. Many books have been written on the subject, there are pamphlets and motivational talks enough to bury even the most intrepid climber, and most of this “positive state of mind” material is less than worthless. Carson was not really talking about a “positive state of mind”. He was talking about poverty. He is the sitting Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and so his discussions of poverty have the weight of policy, but how do you identify policy in a homogenized sound goo of feel-good theology mixed with half data on actual issues?

“I made a commitment to Christ. I’m a born-again, evangelical Catholic.” – VP Michael Richard Pence

About those burritos. I bought them to help AYD pack for work as she is spending the home from college summer living with me and a microwavable lunch takes the edge off a long commute. I picked out a number of individually-wrapped food items that had pleasant pictures of highly edible food items on their boxes; I was hoping there would be a reasonable mapping of the contents to the pictures, and for the most part, due largely to my lenient standards for what constitutes food, I was not disappointed. The burritos were an exception.

What does a “positive mindset” view of poverty mean to policy? It suggests that assistance, like the assistance Ben Carson –ironically- received while growing up, is not needed to provide opportunity, and will not help improve the lots of those in poverty. This flavor of blame-casting is very popular in many Abrahamic religions, but it is nowhere more popular than in the redstate heartland of America.

The basic idea is simple: “if people are responsible for their problems and poverty, and quantifiable assistance doesn’t really help, then let’s spend the church’s money on something better than helping people; it is what God would do.” By doubling down on the “positive mindset” aspect it is possible to convincingly insist that proselytization and building megachurches are the best forms of assistance. These realizations, which must save billions of churches’ untaxed dollars, has not resulted in any perceivable decrease in the amount of money the churches ask for.

Carson also talks a lot about “values”, and how these values come from Jesus and deliver people out of poverty. The next logical policy step, if you are charged with spending tax dollars to develop policy to efficiently address poverty, is to spend those tax dollars trying to bring people to Jesus. Ben only offers his own personal experiences, about which he has written several books, and some impassioned hand waving as evidence for his assertion. The simple fact that there are A LOT of poor folks who have believed whole-heatedly in Jesus, and yet remain poor, suggests that Ben’s assertions are not consistent with reality.

Ben is often at odds with more reality-centric ideas. One of my favorites is his often repeated claim that he thinks the Pyramids in Egypt were actually made for the purposes of storing various types of grain. Although his ideas are often interesting simply for their skewed relationship with the universe as we know it this current crop is harvested in the context of policy suggested by a man with the power to create policy.

Rather than just chewing nonstop through some wacky ideas of Ben Carson, let’s talk a little about those burritos. The box showed a burrito cleanly sliced open to reveal its filling which consisted of little bits of brown meat surrounded by some artistically arranged yellow cheeses, and some unidentifiable greenish stuff that I thought represented vegetable matter; these were “steak and cheese burritos" so the picture was consistent with what the contents were supposed to be. The contents did not look like the picture on the box. Microwaving does not work well for many types of foods, and tortillas often do not survive microwaving unscathed. The flour tortillas that wrapped the burritos became white all over; crispy in some places and just a translucent gelatinous film in others. Attempting a clean slice resulted in the knife simply poking a hole in a section of gelatinous film, and then the knife got caught up on a crispy bit and smooshed the whole thing flat; squeezing the filling out onto the plate. The filling was a homogenous brown paste; I suspect they pre-masticated all the wonderful texture displayed in the box’s photo so they could squirt the contents into the tortilla as it sped past on a conveyor belt. The resulting consistency was more like what I imagine a colon section from an alien autopsy would look like rather than food. As a section of an alien colon I might be thrilled that the presence of oozing brown paste might allow mankind to determine what the aliens’ diet was, and if they really ate humans; in the “here is lunch” context the burrito was less exciting.

I am obviously juxtaposing inconsistencies here. Ben Carson’s ideas and reality vs the box picture and the burrito. It is the directionality of these inconsistencies that makes them uncomfortable. If I had purchased a box of burritos with a picture of a section of fecal-filled alien colon with the ends folded shut, only to find the burritos in the box were stuffed with discernable steak and cheese I would have been pleasantly surprised; although I’m not sure what would entice me to buy a box of alien colon bits. If Ben Carson had a data-driven secular strategy to address poverty in the US, and the poverty problems were currently exacerbated by some reality free concepts of hand-waving justified theological blame casting, then I might have more confidence that future policy had the potential of heading in a productive direction. The fact that currently it appears as if US poverty problems are also currently exacerbated by some reality free concepts of hand-waving justified theological blame casting that resonate with Ben’s ideas might be where my juxtaposition fails, but it does not provide any warm fuzzy feelings.

There are two things we know, from many studies, help bring communities out of deep poverty. The first is access to an affordable secular education, and the other is access to effective family planning which includes safe abortions. There are “chicken vs egg” arguments to be made, but a lack of those two things is correlated with higher levels of community religiosity. Rather than spend federal dollars on bringing people to Jesus it might be cost effective to entice people out of churches, give them a good secular education, and subsidize all family planning efforts to include abortion.

Ben’s statements are only part of a right wing conspiracy to make the USA a Christian nation with a Christian agenda. This is not a secret conspiracy either. There are no secret signals embedded in pizza ads or backwards masking of satanic directions on albums. This conspiracy is advertised and promoted.

The team currently in positions to assemble the pieces are, from the outside looking in, a collection of people with disparate theologies. Ben’s singularly Seventh Day Adventist beliefs appear to be inconsistent with the heterodoxy of Pence, the Calvinist beliefs of DeVos, or whatever the heck Trump believes. However, on the idea of creating an isolated religious economy within a Christian nation that only, and just barely, tolerates secularism they are surprisingly resonant with each other. I do not think this conspiracy is highly organized. It appears more like a bunch of folks getting whatever they can get in the hopes they can do something with it all once they get it.

“I’ve got great beliefs, all the best theology, my piety is huuuge. Believe me” -fake quote that sounds like something Trump could say.

This conspiracy will not destroy America. It might screw up a generation or two; especially for those already in poverty, but it doesn’t rapidly charbroil millions of people in the way a nuclear war with North Korea would. I’m not even sure that the trump administration can muster the political will to craft many of these conspiracy puzzle pieces, and those they do manage to create might easily be dismantled by the next administration. However, there is the very real potential for very real damage to occur, and I'm one of those people who, on the morning of 8 November 2016, was prepared to celebrate a Clinton win that evening; you can't trust my minimizing of potentially disastrous outcomes.   

Monday, May 8, 2017

Giro D'Big Mountain

This past Sunday found me all too aware of being at least 10 pounds over the weight I would like to be
so many days after the start the cycling season ever. I was climbing up “Big Mountain” pass after just having shot down the southern/eastern side of “Little Mountain” pass. I was willing myself to relax as I subconsciously tensed up in preparation for yet more uphill road. The gates down at Little Dell reservoir were still closed, and half the cyclists west of the Mississippi were taking advantage of this wonderful day to wheeze up this hill.

The Mormon pioneers had come down this way in the summer of 1847. The official LDS church history website describes big mountain pass (1,279 miles from Nauvoo) as: “really just a hill among the surrounding Wasatch mountain peaks, was nevertheless, at 8,400 feet, the highest elevation of the entire Mormon Trail.” Big Mountain pass would be the highest point of my cycling trip on Sunday as I would turn around at the Morgan county line, and head back down towards the State Capitol and my starting place.

I was still about a mile or so shy of slowing to an unsteady four miles an hour when I heard a spirited conversation coming up behind me. Loud and relaxed enough to hear over my wheezing it sounded as if one of the conversants may have had an English accent. They whipped past me as if I was standing still (I almost was) and disappeared up around a bend in the road.

One of the cyclists was at least the second person I had seen in full Team Sky kit, and like the other was riding a black Pinarello that might have been one of the hugely expensive ($13k) 2017 F10 Dogmas like those that another squad from Team Sky is racing in the 100th edition of the Giro D’Italia right now.

While I was climbing on Sunday, Fernando Gaviria (a Columbian sprinter on the Quick-Step Floors team) would battle severe crosswinds to take the flat coastal stage 3 (and get the pink jersey) that ended in the capitol of Sardinia. Tuesday sees the first big climb of the Giro as the race will finish on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily. There are informed hunches pronouncing that Gerent Thomas of Team Sky may pull on the pink leader's jersey after that stage.

If I was dusted by actual members of Team Sky they were probably the squad getting ready for the Amgen Tour of California that starts in Sacramento on 14 May this year.

 I pulled over to stretch to keep from losing the battle with the tension in my legs, and my riding companion shot past me. I was momentarily distracted by the almost erotic power her spandex coated thighs were delivering to the pedals, and I decided that the rhythmic swaying of her rear on the seat of her carbon fiber bike would pull me up the mountain in her wake. Unfortunately she was just a little too far up ahead after I climbed back on my bike and began to chase. I huddled into my pain cave and never got to within 50 meters of her before we hit the top of the pass.

Big Mountain Pass looking west

On the way down every ounce of excess personal mass turned into speed. I went way too fast, and the bike shuddered from braking as I approached each corner in the road.

"The descent down the big mountain (as it is called) is very steep, a regular jumping off place, worse than Ash Hollow.” -- William Clayton’s Journal description of the Mormon pioneers traveling down from Big Mountain pass in 1847.

A year ago on Saturday I was battling rain-tinged headwinds on a metric century called “The Front-Runner Century”, and complaining to myself that I was a little too heavy for where I wanted to be
so many days after the start of cycling season ever. I also had a very different view of what I wanted my life to be like.

One year, and things are exactly the same only completely different.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Zen and the Art of Chariot Maintenance

Because the radio was long dead I was making do with tinny plinkings from the iPhone’s internal speaker. These sounds were losing a competition with the rush of speed wind through the open window as the dead carcass of the air-conditioner was also over a decade in the rearview mirror. Pandora wanted to help a much younger Brian Ferry tell me how he was a “Slave to Love” and I worried it would lose data signal before the end of the song. My new cellphone carrier worked out this road much farther than my last one, but the invisible communication borderline was right around here someplace. I might resort to listening to an audiobook version of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” I had locally stored on this phone. Listening to something helps to take my mind off the spiral negativity of boredom that can sometimes color a drive that lasts for more than an hour or so; especially if it is a drive I have done a few hundred times.

The trouble with just popping Zen into the player was that I was still fidgeting some realizations that had surfaced the last time I had been listening to it.  I had also read Zen a few times when I was young.  It was so popular, and so many people I knew had read it, that the title had shortened to just "Zen" and most people would know exactly what one was talking about.   I had gotten to a part in this latest listening about remembering the process of forgetting something, but in an exquisite detail made horrific by the application of technology. I wondered why I had forgotten this part from back when I was re-reading it, and "Zen" was becoming "Zen". The whole metaphorically fractal design of knowing the organization and patterning of knowledge was the texture I remembered from the book, but some of the critical elements of the narrative were lost for some reason.

I was especially taken by Pirsig’s recursive application of systems engineering principles to the process of knowing anything of value. The complete title of the book is “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values”, but the “An inquiry into Values” part is usually written in a smaller font on the cover or lost entirely to the tittle page inside. “Values”, when placed on the same page with a word like Zen, sounds like a purely moral construct, but Pirsig manages to dancethrough every possible meaning of the term within a single unified context.

I had not forgotten a casual element of the story. I had forgotten the identity(s) of Phaedrus. As Phaedrus was slowly introduced through the first six chapters I could remember a much younger me discovering the Phaedrus dialogs of Plato that featured descriptions of madness and love and knowledge, and which are perhaps best known for the Chariot Allegory (Phaedrus 246a-249e). The Chariot Allegory is arguably a close second to the Allegory of the Cave in the pantheon of Platonic allegories.

In order to avoid disrupting the flow of this blog post by forcing you to look up the Chariot Allegory I will paraphrase it here; if you still want to look it up you can laugh at how foolishly simple I make it sound here.

The idea of the Chariot Allegory is that understanding can be gleaned from picturing the human mind as a soul (the chariot) pulled by two winged horses. One of the horses is noble and godly, and the other is ignoble and base. The charioteer is reason and the when the animals pull in harmony the chariot can take flight into the immortal godly realms of existence. However, driving the two horses is terribly difficult because of their different natures, and so they often act as if they have no wings at all.

It is easy to misinterpret this as being a version of the dialog some animated characters have when they face a moral dilemma; a conversation with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the opposite shoulder. That is a type of over simplification which misses many of the riper intellectual fruits of this allegory, and is linked to the reflexive desire to label a "value" as some sort of moral construct.

Values can be numerical or the stuff from which adjectives are crafted. Values can be the information our senses choose to use to craft everything we call knowledge of the world. In a parallel way the ignoble base horse is not just morally bad as it also represents appetites for substances like food and water and air which are critical for survival. Let that horse do all the pulling and the chariot gets into a bad place, but let that horse be pulled by the noble godly horse and things get pretty bad too.

I remember the younger me being awed by the simple parallel between the Phaedrus of Plato’s chariot and the Phaedrus of Zen; the parallel being that both a chariot and a motorcycle are vehicles with just two wheels. There is also the self-referential parallel. Pirsig recounts the story as a journey; a journey where the prose itself is pulled in one direction by the mundane requirements of a cross-country road trip, and in a slightly different direction by the philosophical musings of the ghostly memories of Phaedrus. When the two competing elements are driven in harmony the story whizzes across beautiful landscapes.

As Phaedrus was revealed I remembered more of my understanding. I re-discovered the allusions, and they felt new.

For a short time I tried to graft some misinterpretation of the Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazelwood duet called “One Velvet Morning” onto my re-immerging knowing, but the fit was disharmonious; like I was being distracted into a strange unproductive direction.

Some velvet mornin' when I'm straight
I'm gonna open up your gate
And maybe tell you 'bout Phaedra
And how she gave me life
And how she made it end
Some velvet mornin' when I'm straight

Flowers are the things we know, secrets are the things we grow
Learn from us very much, look at us but do not touch
Phaedra is my name

The song I was listening to transitioned into another so I didn’t need to fumble with the phone to load up the audio book. It was the meandering lead-in to the three cord march of Lou reed’s “Sweet Jane”. It would turn out to be only partially buffered though, and it would cut off just as the Lou informed me that the “roses seem to whisper to her”.

The day had warmed to the point where I could open the windows all the way and still not be cool enough. So I opened the windows and sped up till I couldn’t have heard the iPhone even if it was still making noise.

The Dodge always seems to be such a large truck after I’ve spent too long driving the Corolla. The reason it can go fast at all is because of the V8 pulling me along. It is not a big V8, but it is still a big powerful engine as engines go; it puts out 230 horsepower. I was being pulled along by 230 horses.

Two-hundred-and-thirty horses, and I was flying.

Robert Maynard Pirsig - 06 September 1928 - 24 April 2017

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Mercury Retrograde April 9 - May 3

This is yet another essay on Mercury going retrograde today.

I thought of Mercury going retrograde as I drove down a street in the "Avenues" district of Salt Lake City.  The sun was setting a brilliant orange back-lighting the capitol and reflecting across the Great Salt Lake itself.  Behind me a moon rose that was all but (an app on my iPhone would tell me it was 1 day and 3 hours away from) full.

For a the briefest of moments I was more aware than is possible of this careening spinning crazy ride through the gravity wells of curved spacetime that all the inhabitants of earth share in, and it was amazing, and then that moment was followed by another.  I liked that one and followed it with a few more and then I was driving alongside I-80 and the surface of the Great Salt Lake was a mirror reflecting an gigantic ball of nuclear fire a million times larger than the planet I was driving across the surface of (Sun's volume is 1.4X10E18 km^3, and the Earth's volume is 1X10E12 km^3) and I liked it till the sun disappeared behind a range of snow covered mountains and the sky became dark enough to see the stars.  And stars are really cool.

Perhaps it was the great weekend that had left me with the feeling that I was soaring through a universe that wanted to act like I was noticing it in new and thrilling ways? 

Supposedly cell phones are going to glitch (more than normal) and other technology and communications are going to go awry. Some well meaning people recommend just curling up and cocooning as the “crazy” caused by Mercury’s retrograde passes.

I can only imagine that the wonderful full moon contributes to the mystical happenings. 

Gala Darling” describes some of the effects of Mercury going retrograde as “It’s like everyone you know has suddenly gone mad! You might find yourself getting into bizarre arguments about nothing at all, being unable to finish sentences or barely even able to form a coherent thought.” Imagine the effect on people who regularly lack the desire or ability to form coherent thoughts?!?

So, what makes this madness happen?

Mercury orbits the sun every 88 days, and it is common knowledge that the Earth orbits the sun every 365.25 days. This means that every Earth year mercury laps the Earth around the sun slightly more than four times.

Mercury orbits the sun the fastest of all the planets.  As one travels out from the sun the planetary orbits become longer and longer. Venus orbits the sun every 225 days, and so it laps the earth every other year; sometimes twice in a year.

The planets farther from the sun than earth are lapped by the earth. Saturn orbits the earth only once every 29 years so the earth laps it almost every year.

To the casual observer the planets appear like slightly brighter specks of light against a scattering of bright specs of light in the night sky. They do not appear to be billions of times closer. We can deduce that they are closer because the angle we see them at changes as we move around the sun, and we move around the sun at an incredibly high rate of speed (30 km/s) so even though the planets are far away they can appear to be in different places almost every night. Because the orbits are roundish the planets will appear back at almost their starting place after some multiple of the ratio of the two orbit durations. Ancient astronomers used to squint up at the night sky and make surprisingly accurate predictions of the orbit times for all the planets they could see by measuring things like how long it took them to pass back through some particular constellation.

The geometry that defines the retrograde motion is not difficult, but it is cumbersome to the point of being tedious. I will spare you this time. Even more complex is the model Ptolemy used to describe the motions of the planets given a geocentric model of the solar system. The model includes orbits looping about orbits and the complete trace is much like something one could create with a Spirograph set. I always loved Spirograph so it is unfortunate that the model apparently fails after a while. That is one of the problems with overly complex models; they hide failures in late iterations.
By James Ferguson (1710-1776), based on similar diagrams by Giovanni Cassini (1625-1712) and Dr Roger Long (1680-1770); engraved for the Encyclopaedia by Andrew Bell. - Encyclopaedia Britannica (1st Edition, 1771; facsimile reprint 1971), Volume 1, Fig. 2 of Plate XL facing page 449., Public Domain,

I saw at least one YouTube video created with the intensity of a WTC7 conspiracy theorist about how retrograde motion in Mercury proves that the Sun orbits the Earth. I am sure the government is hiding this from us because we re all some sort of “sheeple”, but I did not watch it that long.

Because the planets are all traveling in the same direction about the sun they mostly appear to travel in the same direction across the night sky. Venus and Mercury, being on the sun side of the earth most of the time, do not really travel across the night sky, but the little they can be observed to move they go in one direction mostly. Because all the planets either lap or are lapped by the Earth this apparent motion across the sky also changes direction for short (relative to the orbit of the earth) period of time. That change in direction is called apparent retrograde motion, or in astrology terms “being in retrograde”.

Wikepedia has a great picture that shows the apparent retrograde motion to an observer on earth of an outer planet.
By Rursus - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I tried to do something similar for Mercury, but, the changes in angle are so big it is hard to contain them in a graphic. Here is one picture I made which has the Earth going about a quarter of the way around the sun and Mercury going all the way around the sun. I’ve numbered where the parallax puts the apparent location of Mercury against the backdrop of apparently unmoving stars.

If you look you can see how the order of the numbered observations changes between observations 2 and 3, then goes in back in the same direction for the sequence of observations 3,4, and 5. The retrograde motion would occur between observations 2 and 3. One of the other things this picture make kind of obvious is that most of the observations occur during daytime on Earth when Mercury is not visible to the naked eye.

In this picture I’ve tried to capture observations occurring at a great enough angle as to have Mercury at least visible in the late evening or just around dawn. Unfortunately when I do this the graphic does not capture any retrograde motion. The point being that it is really hard to notice retrograde motion in mercury, even though it happens at a greater frequency than it does for any of the other planets.  In fact this problem with Mercury being obscured by daylight is one of the reasons why it is suggested that the great astronomer Kepler did not ever observe Mercury during his life; let alone observe its retrograde motion.

So those that put stock in the magical meaning of Mercury being “in retrograde” are almost forced to use the calculations and data derived by processes all to rational and specific to make room for the ephemeral magic mumbo jumbo they use them to define.

Mercury will also be retrograde August 13th through September 5th so it will be retrograde during the solar eclipse; I wonder what kind of special magic that will cause?

Monday, March 20, 2017

Brezhnev and Trump's Medals

The other day AYD and I were discussing which former Soviet despot the current president of the US is most like. I thought he might be most like Uncle Joe Stalin because of his anti-science, anti-art and degenerative moral edicts. In fact I was sure, for a short span of minutes, that the Uncle Joe comparison was a slam dunk for best; then AYD outlined her case for Leonid Brezhnev.

Western media at the time of Brezhnev’s reign (1964-1982), and then history, found him to be extremely boring, but the Soviet media hung on his every word and action. Leonid also published numerous books –several autobiographical- that outlined his grand communist ideals, and even told stories of incredible bravery in battle. These were effectively locked behind a wall for me; a wall built partially of a language barrier (I’ve never learned Russian) and partially because I considered Leonid too boring to spend much attention on. Time has made Brezhnev's time in office more interesting; in part because of the reasons he was so easy to dismiss closer to his life. Brezhnev still was boring.

“Our press has so much praise for my latest book, I am becoming curious. I think maybe one day I’ll read some of it myself” - Purported comment by Brezhnev to an aide.

The most exciting things about Brezhnev was his hair and his chest heavy with medals. Trump has interesting hair as evidenced by the amount of time people spend talking about it.  Brezhnev's exciting hair was displayed as a bushy pair of eyebrows that at times would grow into a mega-monobrow. The collection of military medals he wore to public gatherings was so huge as to even inspire at least one rock and roll band to name itself “Brezhnev’s Medals”.

It was the medals that clinched the comparison to Donald Trump. As one of the most powerful humans in the universe Brezhnev could give anyone a medal for whatever he wanted, and he wanted to give himself medals for all sorts of things. He would give himself medals just for having a birthday. It is easy to imagine Donald Trump giving himself a medal for the biggest inauguration crowd ever. By the way, my readers should note that Donald’s birthday is coming up on June 14th, which will just sneak up on you if you don’t watch out.

“Q: What is the difference between the Constitutions of the USA and USSR? Both of them guarantee freedom of speech.
A: Yes, but the Constitution of the USA also guarantees freedom after the speech.” -- Soviet “Armenian Radio” joke

Brezhnev rolled back the cultural reforms that the fiery Khrushchev had tried to put into place. These proposed reforms are widely believed to be the reason Khrushchev was unceremoniously removed from office in 1964. Khrushchev attempted to light the fuse of repressed revolutionary sentiment, and the shadow of that spark is most certainly his secret 1956 speech “О культе личности и его последствиях “ ("On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences" ). Shortly after the speech some notable dissidents, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, were released from years of harsh imprisonment and exonerated.

"Lenin proved that even female cooks could manage a country.
Stalin proved that just one person could manage a country.
Khrushchev proved that a fool could manage a country.
Brezhnev proved that a country doesn’t need to be managed at all."
-- Soviet era joke

It is rather ironic that Khrushchev would be replaced by a narcissist due, in part, because of the blowback from a speech about the dangers of personality cults. 

"Lubyanka (KGB headquarters) is tallest building in the Moscow. You can see Siberia from it's basement." – Soviet joke circa 1970

Brezhnev did not so much dispose of the reforms as simply allow operatives in his government to dismantle them and hide the parts. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was not re-imprisoned, but he couldn’t publish in the Soviet Union, and he was not allowed to attend the 1970 Nobel Prize ceremonies to pick up his literature medal; they sought to ignore stuff and have it wither away in the blinding lack of attention.

Reporter: "Comrade Brezhnev, is it true that you collect political jokes?"
Brezhnev: "Yes"
Reporter: "And how many have you collected so far?"
Brezhnev: "Three and a half labor camps."
– Soviet Joke circa 1970

Brezhnev’s reign as Soviet Supreme Leader saw incredible deprivations and a weed-like growth of corrupt bureaucracy. To a westerner it appeared as if they were always at war or parading earth-busting missiles through red square to celebrate the coming end of the world.

"He was sentenced to three years, served five, and then he got lucky and was released ahead of time." – Soviet Gulag joke

Great works were attempted. Shortly after Brezhnev entered office (October 1965) they began developing the Soviet manned moonshot program (N1-L3). This program was fast-tracked, and a great deal of effort was spent trying to best the American Apollo (Saturn V) program. Sergei Korolev was the genius behind the N1superlifter design that would become the basis for the N1-L3 moonshot rocket. Like many Stalin-era intellectuals he was imprisoned for years, released and exonerated during Khrushchev, and then suffered during Brezhnev; in the case of Korolev the Brezhnev-era suffering took the form of gulag-induced kidney disease that caused the heart attack that took his life on 14 January 1966. The rockets were eventually built, and on four occasions (21 February 1969, 3 July 1969, 26 June 1971, and 23 November 1972) tested. All the tests were unqualified failures. The second attempt, which occurred a little over two weeks before the Americans would land a man on the moon (20 July 1969), was the most spectacular failure in human space travel; the explosion at Baikonur Cosmodrome would release four Tera joules of energy (1 kiloton), and be one of the largest non-nuclear accidental explosions ever experienced by humans. The Brezhnev media machine would simply deny that the N1-L3 program was ever a reality, and information that described it would not be released until 7 years after Brezhnev’s death.

"With Lenin, it was like being in a tunnel: You‘re surrounded by darkness, but there’s light ahead.
With Stalin, it was like being on a bus: One person is driving, half the people on the bus are sitting and the other half are quaking with fear.
With Khrushchev, it was like at a circus: One person is talking, and everyone else is laughing.
With Brezhnev, it was like at the movies: Everyone’s just waiting for the film to end."
-- Soviet era joke

Brezhnev was not nearly as harsh as Stalin. Trump’s insistence that the inauguration crowds were the biggest ever sounds like it could have been either Brezhnev or Stalin, but in order to be the complete Stalin he would have had to bus in people from labor camps to pose in photographic proof that they were the largest crowds ever. Trump's insistence that millions of people voted illegally could be either Stalin or Brezhnev, but in order to be the complete Stalin he would have to nullify the results and publish corrected figures. Trump’s insistence that the hotel he stays at was wiretapped could be either Stalin or Brezhnev, but if it was Stalin there would be forced confessions of the people actually installing the wiretaps, and anyone who might suggest there was no wiretapping program might disappear.

Q: What has four legs and forty teeth?
A: An alligator.
Q: And forty legs and four teeth?
A: Brezhnev's Politburo.
-- Soviet era joke

The US has had Presidents that appear, at least in light of history, to be unsuited to the job. Reagan was accused of “sleepwalking through history” while he was in office, and would be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease before he died. George “W” Bush was widely described as a pawn of Dick “Doctor Evil” Cheney. However, neither of these POTUS suffered from Trump’s brand of pathological Tweet-splattered Narcissism. George W Bush’s twitter feed is “protected”, and Twitter was started (21 March 2006) after Reagan had died (5 June 2004). Meanwhile the current POTUS tweets every day, and each new tweet is just as likely to be an insult aimed at HRC or Obama, or some kind of crazy alt-right emboldened conspiracy theory.

The common western view of Brezhnev’s effect on the Soviet Union is somewhat positive: “Things got so bad that the USSR collapsed”. While this sentiment may contain a grain or two of divine objective truth it ignores the plight of those people in the USSR for whom things “got so bad”. I have begun hearing that trump’s plans will eventually lead though severe dysfunction to a better America. Do we really need to allow tens of thousands of uninsured people to die prematurely in order to create universal healthcare in the US? Do we really need to devalue our currency through rampant inflation in order to reign in the national debt? If modern history has taught any lessons the fact that things can get very bad if you let them is one of the most important.

The comparison with Brezhnev would be severely compromised if Trump declares war or engages in some massive first strike activity. Unless, that is, he gives himself a whole slew of medals just for starting the war while being President Donald Trump.

And remember that Donald’s birthday is on the 14th of June.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Happy Bede-day

The year was 703, and Saint Bede the Venerable had just published his tome on time (“De temporum ratione” or “The Reckoning of Time”). The main purpose of the book was determining a way of calculating when Easter would be, but Bede slipped in a very exact date (18 March 3952 BC) for the incarnation (The day the earth was created on).

Bede became the butt of several raucous drinking songs; a fact that made him rather anxious. He, in one of the two surviving letters he wrote (Epiflola Apologetica ad Plegavinan Monachum), would accuse Bishop Wilfrid of accusing him of heresy by allowing one of these songs to be sung at his table.

“Haec tristi mox admistione confudit addendo videlicet quod me audires a lascivientibus rusticis inter hsereticos per pocula decantari” -- Epiflola Apologetica ad Plegavinan Monachum

This accusation of heresy is widely reported as being because everyone who was anyone knew that the incarnation occurred in the year 5500 or thereabouts. The Byzantine calendar dated the incarnation to be 1 September 5509.

This puts the creation of the everything about 168 years after Mount Mazama exploded with a force 42 times that of the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens. That eruption created Crater Lake.

Today many people would make fun of people who insisted that their exact and unverifiable date for the creation of the universe should be taken seriously. I am unaware of any celebrations of the creation of the world on either September 1st or the 18th of March. Part of that is due to the fact that the Bishop Ussher would swoop in and claim that the world was created on 23 October 4004 BC, but we don’t celebrate creation day in October either. Part of that could be due to the change in calendars that occurred shortly after Ussher’s setting the incarnation date; that would have pushed the date to November 6th, but we don’t celebrate on that day either.
Byzantine mosaic of the Creation of Adam on 1 September 5509 from
Byzantine mosaic in Monreale Cathedral, Sicily, by way of Wikipedia

My theory is that we don’t celebrate on any of these days because everyone who might throw an interesting party does not believe this crap. I have a feeling that Bede was not invited to many good parties, and probably did not throw very good ones. That in turn might have better explained the drinking songs that made fun of him.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

America First Budget

Donald trump presented his first budget proposal to the world today, he even gave it a name: the “America First Budget”. Since two thirds of what a government does is tax and spend this is a third of everything we can expect on the Trump administration's want list. We say things when talking about a society like “fought a war”, or “built this thing”, but we really mean we paid people who did this, and so what we are going to pay people to do is a really big deal; especially if the numbers are really big. Looking at the America First Budget it appears as if we will be saying a lot more “fought a war” than “built this thing” in our future history books.

The big number is the 10% increase to the Department of Defense. This is a 54 billion dollar increase. That is a lot of bang for a country that is not (only in advisory roles) currently at war. By comparison the French military budget for 2012 was only 62.6 billion in total. Russia only spent 90.6 billion dollars on their military in 2012; up from 78.3 billion in 2011.

Because of cuts to the arts and a desire to only focus on approved scientific topics it will be possible to draw parallels between the Cultural Revolution in China and the budget choices as they get implemented. I hope the lack of imprisonment and torture will render all those comparisons hyperbolic, but there is a lot of work to do to get this America First Budget implemented.

I should point out that reading through this budget has created a condition of shock and sarcasm that might leak into my prose. I have never seen a budget that includes statements like “the President means business”, and uses adjectives like “bold” for the President’s agenda, and I think that counts as leaky prose as well. I would rather leak sarcasm onto an often snarky blog than leak narcissism onto a Presidential Budget proposal.

The point man for the budget is Office of Management and Budget Director John Michael "Mick" Mulvaney. He has already been given what could be interesting new powers in a couple January executive actions that Trump signed. He was taking a tour of news shows today. He was being unnervingly excited by this budget proposal.

Instead of just jawing about the America First Budget let me give you some numbers and quotes extricated from it.

Donald introduces his budget by using a bunch of complete sentences. This is a nice departure from his speeches. He makes at least one point that is intriguing and a little vague. He is going to get the rest of the world to pay "its fair share", but I am not sure if that means a fair share of this America First Budget, or if there is another shadow budget.

“ask the rest of the world to step up and pay its fair share.” – Donald Trump in the forward to the America First Budget

Another shadowy part of the budget is the “21st Century CURES Act”. Discussion of the funding for one of the last bills Obama signed into law looks like it is tacked onto the rest of the budget. It gives 6.3 billion dollars towards a hodgepodge of things, and has been called a “moonshot for cancer cures”. This act appears to be fully funded, but most of that funding appears to be offset by a decrease in the funding for the National Institutes of Health. Most everything else lurking in the shadows of this budget is scary.

The summary itself boasts of the agencies that are eliminated in the budget. The list is long, but they got it into one sentence with a liberal use of semi-colons.

“The Budget also proposes to eliminate funding for other independent agencies, including:
the African Development Foundation;
the Appalachian Regional Commission;
the Chemical Safety Board;
the Corporation for National and Community Service;
the Corporation for Public Broadcasting;
the Delta Regional Authority;
the Denali Commission;
the Institute of Museum and Library Services;
the Inter-American Foundation;
the U.S. Trade and Development Agency;
the Legal Services Corporation;
the National Endowment for the Arts;
the National Endowment for the Humanities;
the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation;
the Northern Border Regional Commission;
the Overseas Private Investment Corporation;
the United States Institute of Peace;
the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness;
and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.” – from the America First Budget (line breaks added for clarity)

Many individual department budgets are decreased by double digit percentages. There are cuts are directly targeted at climate change science in several obscure places.

Department of Agriculture 21% decrease (down 4.7 billion)
Department of Commerce 16% decrease (down 1.5 billion)

“Zeroes out over $250 million in targeted National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grants and programs supporting coastal and marine management, research, and education including Sea Grant” – from the America First Budget

Department of Defense 10% increase (up 54 billion)
Department of Education 13% decrease (down 9 billion)

The Department of Education budget actually appears cut by more since they shuffle a bit inside of the department to begin funding “school choice” programs.

“The 2018 Budget places power in the hands of parents and families to choose schools that are best for their children by investing an additional $1.4 billion in school choice programs.” – from the America First Budget

Department of Energy 5.6% decrease (down 1.7 billion)

The Department of Energy handles the US nuclear stockpile, and “owns” the nuclear reactors on our nuclear-powered naval vessels. The budget also appears cut by more that the gross percentage as money is shuffled from activities inside of the department that might be associated with responding to the threat of climate change to increase spending on the defense activities inside the department.

“Provides $120 million to restart licensing activities for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository and initiate a robust interim storage program.” – from the America First Budget

Eliminated Department of Energy activities:
   Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy
   Title 17 Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program
   Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Program
   Weatherization Assistance Program
   State Energy Program
   Energy Star

I really liked the Energy Star program.

Department of Health and Human Services 17.0% decrease (down 15.1 billion)

A big portion of the cut in the Department of Health and Human Services budget, and almost enough to offset the “21st Century CURES Act” cost, comes just from the NIH budget.

“Reduces the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) spending relative to the 2017 annualized CR level by $5.8 billion to $25.9 billion.” – from the America First Budget

Department of Homeland Security 6.8% increase (2.8 billion)

The wall is housed in this department’s budget. More will be spent on homeland security efforts like the wall as there is some shuffling of priorities within this department too. Some FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) projects are cut significantly.

“The Budget would aggressively implement the President’s commitment to construct a physical wall along the southern border as directed by his January 25, 2017 Executive Order” – from the America First Budget

Department of Housing and Urban Development 13.2% decrease (down 6.2 billion)
Department of the Interior 12% decrease (down 1.5 billion)

In this department the shuffling takes money from conservation efforts and helps to subsidize mining and drilling for oil.

“Strengthens the Nation’s energy security by increasing funding for DOI (Department of the Interior) programs that support environmentally responsible development of energy on public lands and offshore waters.” – from the America First Budget

Department of Justice 3.8% decrease (down 1.1 billion)
Department of Labor 21% decrease (down 2.5 billion)
Department of State 28% decrease (down 10.1 billion)

The lion’s share of State Department budget cuts come from foreign aid, but turning away from examining climate change is a very significant portion of the State Department’s budgetary cut. The State Department’s Global Climate Change Initiative alone was $1.3 billion in this year’s budget.

“A lot of the money for climate research, climate change work, is in the state department budget, so that’s one of the reasons you see such a large reduction there.” - Office of Management and Budget Director John Michael "Mick" Mulvaney in a 16 March 2017 interview

Department of Transportation 13% decrease (down 2.4 billion)
Department of the Treasury 4.1% decrease (down 0.52 billion)
Department of Veterans Affairs 6% increase (up 4.4 billion)
Environmental Protection Agency 31% decrease (down 2.6 billion)

The EPA is cut to shreds. Lots of things cut that could be very important soon. However, climate change science contributed significantly to the slashing of the EPA budget.

“Discontinues funding for the Clean Power Plan, international climate change programs, climate change research and partnership programs, and related efforts” – from the America First Budget

National Aeronautics and Space Administration 0.8% decrease (down 1.7 billion)
Small Business Administration 5% decrease (down 0.043 billion)

We have been told to expect a new tax plan soon. That should also be interesting, but in a more subtle way. Deciding who pays the bills is more of a tweaking of our social structure, and I have a feeling that there are some really aggressive tweakers in the White house these days.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A bunch of Pi for Pi day


Monday, March 13, 2017

Congolese Equinox

On March 20th, at 4:29 am (Mountain Time), given an absence of cloud cover, some people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) will, for a fleeting moment, be able to look up and see the sun directly overhead. Everywhere else on the globe we will need to perform some fancy trigonometry to observationally determine that the vernal equinox has occurred.

There is a Solar Eclipse in the US this year.  It will be visible in Salt Lake City on August 21st starting around 9:46am, and ending around 3:04pm (Mountain Time).  The maximum will be at 12:21.

The DRC was, between 1971 and 1997, known as Zaire. Before that it was a “free zone” loosely sandwiched between French, British, and German colonies; French would become the country’s official language. On 17 May 1997 Laurent-Désiré Kabila overthrew the ailing Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga to create his own despotic African monarchy, and renamed the country. Laurent had to act fast as the cancer that was ravaging Mobutu’s body threatened to create a power vacuum in the country’s top spot.

The presidency of Zaire was a lucrative position. Mobutu Sese Seko siphoned billions off Zaire’s paltry wealth. When Laurent took over the country his army, bolstered by Ugandan, Angolan, Rwandan, and Burundi forces, was slowed more by the lack of effective infrastructure than any opposition by forces loyal to Sese Seko. On 7 September 1997, just a few months after he was officially overthrown, Sese Seko succumbed to the prostate cancer that had enfeebled him.

The overthrow of Sese Seko came while the world still shuddered at the detains leaking out of the Rwandan genocide that had occurred between April and July 1994. During that genocide as many as 800,000 ethnic Tutsi Rwandans were slaughtered by their Hutu neighbors. It was not until 2004 that a slew of movies (and stories in other media) really informed people of the 1994 Rwandan massacre.   In 1996 Sese Seko issued an anti-Tutsi proclamation that echoed the racism that fueled the Rwandan genocide. The Rassemblement Démocratique pour le Rwanda Hutu militias had been raiding Rwanda from Zaire since the Rwandan genocide, and were poised to invade. Fearing another genocide several African nations (especially Rwanda) lent forces to Laurent (a Tutsi) for Sese Seko’s overthrow.

Laurent Kabila continued Sese Seko’s inattention to the wellbeing of the country he renamed to be the DRC. On Bastille day 1998 Kabila began a series of steps to purge the formerly allied Rwandans from his government, The Rwandan government replied by insisting that a bunch of the DRC was “historically Rwandan” and accused Kabila of organizing a genocide against the Banyamulenge Tutsis (because Kabila apparently did not think they were the right kind of Tutsis). Eventually this escalated into the second Congolese war that would officially last until July 2003; although fighting between the dozens of splintered groups would sputter on for years.

The synergistic interaction of neglected infrastructure with constant warfare resulted in the deaths of over 5.4 million people. The remnants of human culture in this most populated of francophone countries is also sometimes counted amongst the casualties. Horrific war crimes were committed by several sides to put psychological pressure on their opponents. In one operation a militia had T-shirts printed up that advertised the name of the operation ("Effacer le Tableau") which they proudly wore while brutalizing the villages that had become the focus of their wrath. In the almost 20 years of conflict mass rapes have created a new generation that continues the tradition of hostility from and into which they were born.

Cannibalism has got to be one of the most sensational of all war crimes. Tales of widespread cannibalism pepper the entire history of the Congolese conflict. As recently as November 2014 a mob allegedly stoned a person to death that they thought was a member of ADF-NAUL because machetes were found on the bus he was riding on; they then allegedly filmed themselves burning and eating his corpse.

5.4 million people is a blot on the history of the human species of the same magnitude as the Holocaust of the Jews in Nazi Germany, but this did not happen back in a grainy black and white newsreel past.  The holocaust has its handful of deniers who refuse to know that it occurred, but this African nightmare has legions of people who do not know that it occurred because of ignorance. This mass extermination hides behind the same flavors of confusion and neglect that made it possible.  In a perversion of the worn statement about the relationship of knowing history and repeating the mistakes of history our society appears to be "ignorant of this portion of history because we are repeating it".  It should be terrifying that so many members of our species could be killed in such a short period of time in a series of events that never rose to the forefront of the collective outrage of the civilization we have built.  This can happen in our world, and we know this only because it did.  What else is possible?

Knowing the moment of the equinox was one of the great accomplishments of human science. We could, to a small extent, place our position within the confusion of swirling planets and stars. Timing agriculture and ritual to the equinox made our existence a little more robust. Around the globe some of the most amazing of ancient structures are used to determine when the equinox is.These, often megalithic, structures are monuments to humanity looking out into the universe, and seeing where we are. 

The hippie in me would love a few billion people to spend a few seconds realizing the equinox has come, and realize the importance of that fleeting moment on the holistic future of the society our species has created. If everyone then created a piece of art, or sang a few bars of a song about love, or refused to do violence even if justified, then we would be able to really create something with which to celebrate the movement of our planet through space.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

International Women's Day 2017

Today is International Women’s Day. It is actually the 100th anniversary of the celebration. There was a celebration at the end of February (the 28th) 1909 put on by the Socialist Party of America called “Women’s Day”, but it was really the 8 March 1917 “Women’s Day” textile worker demonstration in Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg) that got the celebration cooking along. The textile workers’ demonstration also got the Russian February Bourgeois Democratic Revolution cooking along.

The February Bourgeois Democratic Revolution was called a “February” revolution because when it started the Russians were using the old-style Julian calendar. The Soviets would skip over the 1st through the 13th of February 1918, and declare the Gregorian calendar (the one we use today) as the official calendar for the Soviet Union. Then they would mess around with different length weeks and other stuff until they decided it would be best if they had the same calendar as the rest of the world. Women’s day was put on as a celebration to honor the revolution-inciting demonstration, and moved to the new date of March 8th as the Soviet calendar solidified.

Of all the celebrations of International Women’s Day my favorite occurred in 1973. The Lunokhod (“Луноход”) 2 rover had been driving about Le Monnier crater on the moon since the Soviet Lunik 21 lander had dropped it off on the 16th of January. The rover was slow, and the control even slower; at night it would hibernate to conserve the solar energy its old-style solar collectors could barely supply. In the 4 months it operated before it died it only traveled 37 kilometers; that’s a little over 300 meters a day. On the 8th of March the signal was sent for the rover to perform two circular movements that most American teenagers would immediately recognize as “doughnuts”. Last year I told a group of former American teenagers that the Soviets had left a temporary monument to International Women’s Day on the moon, and then I showed them a picture of the tracks. One of the male American former teenagers commented that it was cool that the Soviets drew boobs on the moon to celebrate International Women’s Day, and that men in the USA could never get away with something like that. I pointed out that it was an “8” for 8 March, and that the UN did not officially recognize International Women’s day till two years (1975) after the Soviets had done doughnuts on the moon to impress women everywhere.

The February Bourgeois Democratic Revolution really did get the Russian Revolution started. Czar Nicholas II of Russia would abdicate on the 2nd of March (Julian, which would become the 15th of March Gregorian). A provisional government would, almost immediately, give women the right to vote. A little over a year later, at 2 am on 17 July 1918, Nicholas II, and all the other Romanovs the Bolsheviks had on hand, were shot by a squad of Cheka (Bolshevik secret police) led by Yakov Yurovsky. Yakov personally shot Nicholas several times in the chest. He then had the bodies dumped in an abandoned mine, and then had the bodies retrieved from the mine, and was moving them to another site when the cart carrying them broke down on Koptyaki road, and he just had a pit dug right there; the bodies were discovered and identified in 1991. Autopsies confirmed descriptions of the execution, including the difficulty the huge quantities of precious gems the Romanov women had sewn into their clothing had caused the executioners; unable to kill them with a few rounds to the chest they had repeatedly bayoneted them, and then shot them in the head.

Decades after the execution of the Russian royal family (and a handful of servants) it was believed that one woman (Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna ) had survived. The hasty pit of royal remains that was discovered in 1991 did not contain Anastasia’s body, and this fueled magical theories surrounding Rasputin (a magical snake-oil salesman in Czar Nicholas II’s employ) and the escape of Anastasia. Several people claimed to be Anastasia, one imposter (Franziska Schanzkowska) argued for over 50 years that she was Anastasia (She died “Anna Anderson” on 12 February 1984 after immigrating to Charlottesville Virginia and marrying a history professor by the name of John Eacott "Jack" Manahan). There was talk of the return to power of some hidden Romanov descendant of Anastasia when the destruction of the Berlin wall was completed in 1992. Disney even made an animated movie in 1997 about Anastasia’s escape, and that movie spawned merchandise, books, toys, and at least one computer game. In 2007 the mutilated and burned 90-years-dead remains of Anastasia and her brother were discovered and confirmed with DNA testing

Today “A day Without Women” protests and marches have been organized all over the place. These are an obvious product of the same dissatisfaction with the policies and promises of the 45th POTUS that led to the huge (much larger crowds than the inauguration I am told) women’s march(es) that occurred all over the place on January 21st. Some places the protests have caught on, but here in rural Utah most women I have talked to don’t know or care about the protests. There is this weird free-floating feeling here in Utah that there is just one woman who counts, and that is Hillary Clinton, and that she lost, so protestors should just “get over it”. The fact that the president keeps mentioning her in his press conferences and speeches helps to reinforce this idea that Clinton’s electoral loss is the main point of all the protests that question anything the current president is promising or doing.

When I hear the news of “A day without women” I think of a singular woman this day is without. The woman isn’t HRC. I do nurture a little shock that HRC is not the POTUS. I think she was the best candidate for the job, and a majority of Americans agreed with me. She lost the election fair and square (I reserve judgment on the impact of Russian meddling though). The fact that the president is doing things in his job that annoy many of the same people who did not want him to be POTUS does not mean that their opinions about how well he is doing his job should be dismissed out of hand. I have a feeling that Trump will continue for some time to treat his term in office as a victory lap for the election instead of as an actual job.

The idea of women protestors flies in the face of Christian scripture. It is no surprise that the right-wing Christian conservatives that populate The White House are unable to respond to the voices of these gatherings of females; even on this International Women’s Day that was born from an event where the collected voices of some women toppled a government, and ultimately condemned their country’s leader, and his entire family, to death.

“But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” 1 Timothy 2:12 (KJV)

The woman I miss this International Women’s Day is a great old friend from high school days. Her husband of about 30 years (I attended their wedding) found her cold and unresponsive on the morning of March 6th; she had died, hopefully without pain and peacefully, in her sleep the night before. In high school she was my friend and one of the several unfortunately unrequited foci of some of my overflowing romantic teenage attention. Each picture that her many friends on social media post (she herself had dropped off most social media sites quite a while ago; she complained of the constant irritation the posts brought her) remind me of how beautiful and goofy-looking she was. We had conversations about Rasputin, and the aspects of magic that one could just know were everywhere. She was a breast cancer survivor, and a mother whose love for her children seeped out of her pores whenever she mentioned a child’s name (her daughter is around the same age as AYD), and she had struggled for decades with heroin addiction. Living with her must have been at times crazy, and complex, and weird, and wonderful, and at other times all four at once. When I was struggling with the decay of my marriage she took me in for a couple days, and talked to me in a way that gave me the type of awkward confused hope every tomorrow should have. That hope lives on despite the fact that there is, today, a hole in the fabric of tomorrow.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

So, God Made you A Dick?

While the country waits for oral arguments (March 28th?)in the case of Gavin Grimm v Gloucester County School Board a host of opinionated groups are pressing their briefs on SCOTUS. The crux of the case is the question of whether title IX requires that states allow youngsters like the transgender Gavin to use the public bathroom conforming to their gender identity in order to receive federal education dollars. There is a lot of press surrounding this case, and much of it has addressed the question of bathroom safety, but the briefs I have read do not concern themselves with public safety.

The two major Amicus Briefs that seek to deny Gavin his rights each take different approaches. Several states –Utah included- have filed a “Brief of Amici Curiae” that reads like a prescription sleep aid in print. It argues that the implementation of the interpretation of title IX by the 4th circuit court was federal overreach as the feds should not be allowed to deny the states funding for the reasons the 4th circuit court gave. No mention of the rights of Gavin. I suspect SCOTUS will rule against Gavin on the basis of the dry inhuman arguments made in this brief, but my crystal ball is notoriously faulty.

Amici are the States of West Virginia, Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin and the Governors of Kentucky and Maine.”

The second approach was cobbled together by a set of religious groups.

Amici are the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America; National Association of Evangelicals; the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod; and Christian Legal Society.”

They insist that they can deny that transgender people even exist as an exercise of their religious liberty.

“Interpreting ‘sex’ to mean gender identity would generate conflicts with religious persons and institutions across a range of fronts. Major religious traditions— including those represented by amici—share the belief that a person’s identity as male or female is created by God and immutable.”

They insist that their voices be heard above others as they are “Major Religions”, and actually agree.This portion of the argument might have been better serviced if they mentioned some of the past instances of religious violence that occurred as a result of them not agreeing; that would make the fact that they agree sound more special. 

“But one thing is perfectly clear: sacred writings and official statements from several major religions—including those of amici—demonstrate remarkable unanimity on the origin and purpose of gender as immutable and divinely ordained.”

The religious brief is crafted to sound like it is arguing that the 4th circuit court title IX decision is a step in the destruction of religious liberty. Allowing Gavin to identify as a person with a different gender than that with which he was born is the problem, which bathroom he pees in is a simple manifestation of that. The problem is not uniquely with title IX, or government overreach.

Like many religious arguments the authors cannot stop at simply stating their case. They go on to suggest that letting Gavin pee in the wrong room would undermine their religious right to engage in all sorts of gender discrimination. This is, apparently, a gender equality issue as well as a gender identity issue.There is a religious need to treat females and males differently, and allowing someone to be transgender messes that up.

“We and other major religions agree that human beings are the creation of God; that He created them male and female; that to be male or female is an immutable characteristic; and that this characteristic carries certain attributes and responsibilities.”

“Gender identity “in large measure defines who we [LDS] are, why we are here upon the earth, and what we are to do and become.””

I think it is cute that the evangelicals go so far as to state that they will ignore the law. Doesn’t this mean that listening to what their opinion on what the law should be is rather unnecessary?

“No civil law can move the evangelical conviction that biology as male or female is a God-given aspect of human nature that should not be changed.”

In several places the religious amici interjects other aspects of their “Religious Liberty” crusade. They are clear that this is part of a concerted effort to marginalize anyone who shelters under the LGBTQ umbrella.

“All six contributors—religious and secular, left, center, and right—agree that same-sex marriage is a threat to religious liberty.” – Laycock (editor) 2008. Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty: Emerging Conflicts. As quoted in the religious brief.

If the 4th circuit court decision is overturned –even on the technicality proposed by the states' brief- it may allow states to legally stop recognizing transgender people in many aspects of society. Some of the more embolden states may stop recognizing certain marriages. We could see a policing of outdated policies on housing and employment. We could even see a re-affirmation of proper gender roles in employment and education.

The Religious Liberty crusaders have found their way into the federal government, and in an ironic desire to push the outer limits of government overreach will likely be implementing many socially destructive programs designed to reach into the most private aspects of a citizen's life. The vice president has suggested that sexual orientation can be cured, and conservative action groups -like the One Million Moms group- believe transgendered individuals should be medically cured. I wonder if congress will be able to find money to pay for providing these quack medical options to people that will lose their healthcare after the repeal of the ACA? They have reframed these discredited medical procedures as some sort of humanitarian aid: "helping confused individuals accept their wonderfully crafted and God-given biology".(One Million Moms 3/1/2017)"

I am actually at a loss to understand what the churches get out of filing their brief. Unless this is an important show of power that will trickle down onto more substantive issues it should be of no consequence where transgender kids pee. If it is a show of religious political power then winning will be much more important than what they are winning.  This issue has little to do with bathrooms.

It is rather impressive how many ways this could go wrong, and not just for young Gavin.