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.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Dialtone Soundboard

My phone works again. Minutes ago the bald man with a hipster beard finished re-provisioning my modem, and now all the second-hand phones I have connected to a hidden system of wires in my house have sprung to life; meaning they now produce a hum called a “dial tone” if I lift the handset from the receiver(s) and put it to my ear. I am ready for the huge influx of calls, but the ringers remain silent.

The phone has actually been out for months. I stopped giving out my home phone to people as a way of contacting me before that. The batteries in the cordless handsets that were not on a charger silently lost charge. The remote answering service filled up and then purged its neglected contents as they aged.  I just downloaded this app that tells me the last couple dozen people who tried to call, and it looks like everyone on it was a robo-dialer or the like. I had, apparently, unknowingly transitioned to using the cellphone as my only phone. That replacement is supposed, by some, to be a milestone of modernizing one's communication system.

Sometime around 1950 the “dial tone” was a sign of a modern communication system. The world was transitioning from a system where you picked up the handset of the phone and told a person on the other side who you wanted to talk to. The switchboard operator on the other side would physically connect a wire from your phone line to the phone line of the person you wanted to talk to. When those human operators were replaced with robotic switchboards people needed to use the newfangled rotary dialing mechanisms on their phones to contact anyone, and the dial tone was installed as a way of reminding them that their was nobody on the other side of the line to hear their pleas for connection.

So the dial tone is the sign of a human-less emptiness. Some people consider it somewhat comforting as it used to signify that one's phone was at least connected to the greater void as opposed to the wires simply sparking away as a severed connection buried in an unlit communications closet under a spaghetti tangle of identical black wires. Today my dial tone is actually generated by the modem sitting in my basement, and so it does not even tell me if I an even connected to a greater void. My iPhone apparently has a feature where I can tell it who I want to call and it will act much the same way as the old switchboard operators whose absence was the dial-tone was created to announce.

“The” dial tone in the USA is actually a combination of two tones. One at 350Hz, which is the note F(4), and the other at 440 Hz, which is an A(4). In Europe the dial tone is a single tone at 425 Hz, which is an A(4) flat. Canada uses the same tonal setup as the USA. I know because I listened to one there, but I had nobody to call that I could not reach with my cellphone, so I just put the handset back on the receiver without dialing.

Connection is important. All ideas should have a “sounding board” with which to parse out the best way of developing and expressing them. Communication is not the responsibility of the physical system on which it is conducted, but there are enough parallels between the two that useful metaphors for the human activities in communication can be teased out of the details of communication infrastructure.

“A true thing, poorly expressed, is a lie” – Stephen Fry

With the introduction of such post-modern communications strategies as ghosting and alternative facts communication-infrastructure-derived metaphors could be of great use. Think of what great use the idea of a dial tone could be put to in describing the motivations schwhirling about America's current political climate.

While in Canada I went to two churches. That is twice as many as I have entered in the five years preceding my trip there. While in that second church (The Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal) I learned that the metaphorical communications-infrastructure-derived term “sounding board” predated the dial-tone, and, for that matter, predated the telephone.

In the Basilica there was a wonderfully ornate pulpit off to the left side (looking towards the altar) of the pews. The off-to-the-side pulpit is a feature of pre-Vatican II Catholic houses of worship.  One of the great liberalizing features of the Vatican II announcements was that priests were now allowed to face their congregations, and even address them, form the altar at the front of the church. 

Locating a pulpit at the side of the collection of pews also allowed the sound from the sermon to more easily reach the entire congregation.  A priest speaking from the front of a huge cathedral would need to have his voice carry a long way to reach those seated at the back; locate the pulpit about half way and the sound only needs to travel half the distance to reach them.  Not only would this shortening of the distance the word of god had to travel mean the priest did not have to yell it would also limit confusing acoustical interferences and competing echoes. 

The mid-church pulpit is engineered to provide the most acoustical impact possible for an unpowered public address system.  Most of them that still exist have several common features.  The most obvious of which is that they are raised so as to allow the priest's voice to rain down on the congregation instead of being partially muffled as it skipped out across the pews filled with sound-deadening believers.  They also have a little roof.  The ceiling of the pulpit's little roof is a -usually wooden- feature called a "sounding board".  In some cases the "sounding board" is carefully planed into a parabolic shape to deliver the reflected sermon to the gathered devotees in the most efficient way possible. 

The sounding board in the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal was held aloft by cerebrums and had a few Hebrew characters embossed on a gilded triangle floating on a cloud in the center of it from which gilded rays of wood emanated; I believe they can now rely on modern sound systems to deliver their message instead of the old sounding board. 

At the end of the cavernous Basilica opposite the altar was a balcony that was home to a huge pipe organ.  I did not hear it operating while I visited, but I imagine big air pumps pushing sound out its multitude of pipes.  This sound would smash down on the huddled masses of worshipers, it would bounce and echo around the chamber, and that sheer volume of moving air must create nuances of sound in that complex space that are not possible to produce with the simple vibrating cones of electric speakers.  I have heard pipe organs before, and, even though I am not a huge fan, they are always impressive.  With some one can hear a strange annoying whine as the pumps release air in between the volume demanding earth-shaking notes. I suppose this lets the operator know that his vast machine is connected to the utilities needed to make it produce the desired message; kinda like a dial tone.