Saturday, September 20, 2014

Some Christians show their true colors

Apparently, some Christians really can't stand religious freedom.

It's a beautiful piece by Hrafnkell Haraldsson (sic -- I cut-and-pasted the name from the original.  I gotta wonder how it's pronounced).  Here's my best shot at extracting a pithy quote:
Just the mere fact of somebody else practicing their religious beliefs is hateful to fake Christians to the extent that they insist those practices must be banned. And it isn’t just Satanism. You remember Bryan Fischer’s horrified objection to the Obamas letting actual Hindus into the White House to celebrate the Festival of Lights.
Well worth reading the whole thing.  And actually, the piece linked to in this quote is worth reading too.  It's one thing to know that there are hypocrites out there seeking to establish a Christian theocracy in the U.S. in the name of "religious freedom", quite another to witness it with your own eyes.  It is a horrifying spectacle indeed.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

ISIS is a physics demonstration in guerrilla form

All you need to know about ISIS from Gary Brecher, the war nerd, over on Pando Daily.  I thought this passage was particularly noteworthy:
It’s amazing how well combat selects for talent. Nothing rewards talent less than a peacetime army, and nothing rewards it faster than an army actually in combat. And irregular forces, which usually suffer something like a 10:1 casualty rate against conventional occupiers, go through a nightmare-quick selection process. 
ISIS went through a lot of commanders before one stuck. He was a product of Islamic schools and US prison camps. He called himself Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, which means exactly nothing except that he’s claiming to be from Baghdad. He got out of prison in 2009 and walked into a leadership vacuum created by an airstrike which killed his predecessor—nothing like airstrikes to make room at the top—and oversaw ISIS’s move away from pressure once again, out of the cities toward the deserts of Anbar Province where Sunni sheikhs maintained strong clan networks. It wasn’t much, but it was a safe base, and that’s something any mixed militia/guerrilla force requires. 
ISIS got its second great break when The Syrian Civil War exploded in 2012. They looked west, across the Anbar deserts, and saw a huge organizational opportunity opening up in Syria. Assad’s troops had abandoned most of Eastern Syria to focus on defending the Alawite heartland along the coast. That vacuum created an opportunity for lots of people: The Syrian Kurds, who occupied a tier along the Turkish border in the northeast; dozens of local mafia/resistance groups, who mobilized to profit from the wide-open borders; and the nucleus of ISIS, who saw a chance to set up a little emirate in this new no-man’s-land in the wastelands of eastern Syria, along the borders with Anbar. 
That’s the key here: ISIS is a physics demonstration in guerrilla form. It began as a Jordanian insurgent group. Jordan was too tough to crack, and the group was under deadly strain until Bush and Cheney gave it new life with the 2003 invasion. It moved into Iraq, first to the north, in Kurdistan, and then, as the pressure grew up there, to the south and west, landing in Anbar. And when a new low-pressure system opened up to the west in Syria, ISIS flowed into it like a rain cloud—right along a natural pathway, the Euphrates River, which flows eastward into Anbar from Syria.
Well worth reading the whole thing.

[NOTE: You may have noticed that this post doesn't have a lot of original content (i.e. it's link spam).  This is because this post is one component of an experiment I'm conducting.  I wanted to submit the original post to Hacker News, but HN requires stories to be submitted with their original headlines.  The original headline for this story was, "The War Nerd: Here’s everything you need to know about 'too extreme for Al Qaeda' I.S.I.S." which I predicted would not get a lot of traction on HN, and I wanted to draw particular attention to the idea that what is going on in the Middle East can be understood in terms of relatively simple principles analogous to the basic laws of physics.  So I'm submitting both this post and the original, with full disclosure, to see what happens.]

[UPDATE: It appears that both submissions are going to fall off the bottom of the HN New page without getting a single upvote.   5 AM may not have been the best time to do this experiment.]

Friday, September 12, 2014

Are parallel universes real?

Since I gave my Google Tech Talk on quantum mechanics nearly four years ago I get a steady stream of email from people asking questions about it.  There's one question I keep getting over and over which I thought I'd just try to answer once and for all so I could point people to this answer instead of improvising a new one from scratch every time.

Note that this blog post assumes that you have either watched the video or read the associated paper.  If you haven't, what follows will probably not make a lot of sense.

The question I keep getting is some variation on the following theme: What is the relation of the QIT/zero-worlds interpretation of QM to interpretation X, where X is usually many-worlds, but is sometimes relative state.  Riffing off this I'll get questions about the implications of QIT for time-travel, the relationship of QM to consciousness, and whether or not we might be able to influence the results of quantum measurements with our minds.

The short version of the answer is: QIT/zero-worlds is nothing more than a different way of looking at the math than what is usually presented in the popular press.  It is a way of looking at the math that makes sense to me (and apparently, based on the feedback I get, makes sense to a lot of other people as well).  But that is all it is.  There is no breakthrough here (except, perhaps, a pedagogical one).  It turns out that all this stuff was actually known as early as the 1930s.  Why Feynman was still saying that no one understood quantum mechanics in the 1960s I do not know.  It is certainly not true today.  But the point is that despite the somewhat sensational rhetoric ("You don't really exist; you are living in a simulation running on a quantum computer") nothing really changes as a result of QIT except your perspective.  You are still every bit as real (or not) as you were before.  Time travel, ESP, and telekinesis are still every bit as impossible as they were before.

The other short version of the answer is that many-worlds/relative-state/whatever are all equally valid ways of looking at QM.  The only one that isn't equally valid is Copenhagen.  To be sure, Copenhagen is a reasonable approximation to the truth for many practical purposes, just as Newtonian mechanics is a reasonable approximation to the truth (which is, to the best of our current knowledge, general relativity) for many practical purposes.  But Copenhagen is conceptually wrong, just as Newtonian mechanics is conceptually wrong.  There is no "force of gravity" and the wave function never collapses.  The challenge is to explain why it appears to do so.  That is what QIT does (IMO).

Let's take a moment to review the problem that QIT (and other interpretations of QM) purport to solve: QM is one of the two most successful scientific theories ever (the other being GR).  No experiment has ever disagreed with a prediction made by QM.  However, the mathematics of QM seem to be fundamentally at odds with the apparent nature of reality.  The Shroedinger equation is continuous, deterministic, and time-reversible.  Moreover, it describes a world where objects can exist in superpositions of states, a phenomenon which can be experimentally demonstrated through interference experiments.  By way of contrast, the world appears to consist of material objects which at all times exist in some particular state and never in a superposition.  Moreover, the process of making a measurement appears to be discontinuous, non-reversible, and also involves some fundamental randomness which is nowhere to be found in the Shroedinger equation.  The apparent contradiction between the theory and the manifest nature of reality has historically been called the "measurement problem."

QIT solves the measurement problem by observing that you can describe measurement as a purely quantum process.  When you do this, the following facts emerge (and this is what the Google tech talk and associated paper are about):

1.  Measurement and entanglement are the same physical phenomenon.  Measurement is nothing more than the mutual entanglement of a large collection of particles (or, to be strictly correct, of systems that manifest themselves as particles under certain circumstances).

2.  Once two particles are entangled, it is not possible to "undo" that entanglement except by bringing the two particles physically together.  If there were any other way to "undo" an entanglement, then it would be possible to transmit information faster than light.

3.  The apparent randomness that results from a quantum measurement is just that: apparent.  In actual fact, the entropy of a system that has undergone a quantum measurement does not change.  The reason that there seems to be randomness is that when you draw a line between the particle being measured and the measurement apparatus, you end up with positive entropy (i.e. randomness) in the measurement apparatus and corresponding negative entropy in the particle being measured (which is possible because the state of the particle is a complex number).

4.  The reason that two measurements made on the same physical quantity produce the same result is not that the measurements are a faithful reflection of some underlying physical (or metaphysical) "element of reality" as Einstein put it.  Instead, if you look at the quantum mechanical description of two separate measurements on the same system what you end up with is a mathematical description that looks exactly the same as two classical systems in classical correlation with each other, but that says nothing about the actual state of the system being measured (except that it is now entangled with the measurement apparatus).

5.  The apparent non-reversibility of a measurement is likewise not fundamental, but merely practical.  Reversing a measurement is possible in principle, but to reverse a measurement, you have to reverse all of the entanglements that produced that measurement to begin with.  Reversing even a single entanglement is extremely difficult.  Reversing a macroscopic number of them (and you really do have to get them all, every single last one), while possible in principle, is not possible in practice.

In other words, there is no measurement problem.  All of the apparent contradictions between the mathematics of QM (continuous, deterministic, time-reversible) and measurement (discontinuous, random, non-reversible) can be understood purely in terms of quantum mechanics itself.  Furthermore, all of this (except possibly the bit about negative entropies) was known in the 1930s.  So why has QM been considered so intractably mysterious for so long?  Indeed, why is QM *still* considered by many to be intractably mysterious?

I don't really know, but I suspect it's because people don't want to accept what the math is telling them.  The math says, essentially, that you don't really exist (or, if you prefer, your existence is not unique -- it turns out these are two equivalent ways of saying the same somewhat ineffable thing).  This is not the first time this has happened.  The exact same kind of conceptual stumbling block delayed the discovery of relativity for decades.  The fact that Maxwell's equations predicted the existence of electromagnetic waves moving at a fixed velocity c was known in the mid-1800s.  But no one took this seriously until 1905, because it was just obvious that time and space are absolute and so there just had to be some fixed medium through which electromagnetic waves propagated and relative to which the predicted speed c was to be measured.

The similarly obvious (but nonetheless false) assumption that everyone gets hung up on today is that the universe is, in point of metaphysical fact, what it appears to be: the whole of creation, populated by material objects that exist in particular places at particular times.  The answer to the puzzle: how can such a universe arise from quantum mechanics is, quite simply: it doesn't.  It appears to, but this is an illusion.  To be sure, the illusion is quite compelling, but it is false.  It is every bit as false as the illusion that space and time are two distinct things (which can also, it should be reiterated, be quite compelling).

It is worth pointing out that the fact that the underlying truth is very different from what we naively perceive it to be is evident long before you get to quantum mechanics.  You think that the chair you are sitting on is a solid object, but in fact it is mostly (>>99%) empty space.  The reason is appears to be solid is that the electrons in the outer shells of the atoms that make up the chair repel the electrons in the outer shells of the atoms that make up your body (or your pants).  So even in a pre-Shroedinger world, things are very different than they appear.

OK, so atoms aren't solid, but they are still (in a post-Rutherford but pre-Shroedinger world) classical.  They exist at definite places at definite times.  It makes sense to distinguish this particular hydrogen atom that is part of a water molecule in your little finger from that hydrogen atom which is undergoing nuclear fusion in the core of the sun.  It is obvious that atoms are classical material objects.  We can even take pictures of them and move them around nowadays.  The evidence that atoms are classical is overwhelming.  How could it not be true?

Well, it's not true.  Not only is it commonplace nowadays to take pictures of atoms and move them around, it is also commonplace to do interference experiments with them.  And not just atoms, but enormous molecules have been observed to interfere.  And yet, it is obvious (and at this point that phrase should be ringing alarm bells in your head) that somewhere between a buckeyball and you there must be a line where the world really does become classical because it is obvious that you are classical.

Sorry to be the one to break this to you, but you're not.  The evidence that you are classical is indeed overwhelming, just as the evidence that space and time are absolute is overwhelming.  But in fact neither is true.  The reason you can take a picture of an atom is not that the atom is really there, but because in the process of taking the picture your camera becomes entangled with the atom.  Then, when you look at the picture, you become entangled with the camera.  The reason you think that there's an atom there is because you are a large system of mutually entangled particles, hence quantum mechanics predicts that any particular part of you will behave as if it were a classical system in classical correlation with every other part of you.  The net result is a system where every piece of it agrees that there is (or is not) an atom there.  And asking your fellow humans to corroborate your intuitions doesn't help, because they too are large systems of mutually entangled particles, and as soon as they look at the same picture you have looked at, they too become entangled with it and with you and with the original atom, and so every part of that system (you plus your collaborators) will agree that there was an atom there (or not).

So is the atom "really" there?

The problem with this question is that it seems like the answer should be either "yes" or "no", but this too is false.  The nature of this question is more like this one:

Was Darth Vader (or, if you prefer, Anakin Skywalker) "really" Luke's father?

One the one hand, it seems that the answer should be "yes" because, in the Star Wars universe, Anakin/Vader was Luke's father.  But, of course, the Star Wars universe is fictional, so what does it mean for a fictional character to "really" have any particular attribute?

The answer, IMO, is to simply observe that fictional characters like Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter are in a different "ontological category" from (classically) real things like George Lucas or J.K. Rowling.  Well, the quantum wave function is also in a different ontological category than classical reality.  Fiction "emerges" from (classical) reality in much the same way that classical reality "emerges" from the wave function.  (The reason I hedge with "much the same way" is that there is one important difference: fiction and classical reality can both be described as classical computational processes, i.e. the math involves only real numbers, whereas the quantum wave function can only be described with complex numbers.  So the process by which classical reality emerges from the wave function is mathematically different (but conceptually similar) from the process by which fiction emerges from classical reality.)

So is the atom "really" there?  Well, to you it is.  It is every bit as real as you yourself are, and for the exact same reason: because the atom is part of the system of mutually entangled particles of which you are a part.  (This is sometimes called the "relative state" interpretation of QM.)

But let's take a different example.  Instead of asking whether the atom is really "there" let us ask instead if one of its electrons is "really" spin-up or spin-down (or, equivalently, if some photon it emits is "really" polarized vertically or horizontally).  You measure it, and the result is spin-up.  Your friend measures the same electron and agrees, yep, it's spin-up.  So you and your friend have become mutually entangled with this electron and hence are behaving just like a pair of classically correlated classical systems, just as QM predicts.

But, while QM predicts that you will be classically correlated, it does NOT (and cannot) predict what the outcome of your measurements will actually be.  That can only be done probabilistically, which seems at odds with QM (which is, if you will recall, purely deterministic).  To understand this we have to dig a little deeper into the math.  I've hinted at this before when I said that in order to extract a description of the classical world from the wave function you have to "trace over certain degrees of freedom".  That is just a fancy way of saying, "discard some of the information about the system."  Consider the full QM description of a particle that has been measured.  Part of that description is the state of the particle, and the other part is the description of the measurement apparatus.  To extract the state of the measurement apparatus you "trace over" (i.e. discard) the parts of the description that describe the state of the particle being measured.  What you are left with is not one classical world, but two: one in which the measurement apparatus says spin-up, the other in which it says spin-down.  But (and this is the crucial point) in neither of these descriptions it the spin of the particle actually spin-up or spin-down.  It can't be.  There is no description of the state of the particle being measured, because we had to throw it out in order to extract a description of (something that looks like) a classical universe, and that actually turns out to be a description of two classical universes.  That is where the "multiple worlds" interpretation comes from.

So do these universes "really exist"?  Again, in my opinion that's like asking whether Darth Vader is "really" Luke's father.  Classical universes are what you get when you take the quantum wave function and throw out parts of it.  That is the mathematical fact.  You can interpret this mathematical fact however you choose, with one exception: you cannot reasonably conclude that the classical universe that you live in is "all there is" because a complete description of the (classical) state of the universe is only, and can only ever be, a partial description of the underlying quantum state.

So what about all those other universes?  Are they real?  Well, from the perspective of the quantum wave function, yes, they are.  A classical universe is just a "slice" of the wave function (i.e. the whole wave function with parts of it discarded) and the wave function doesn't care which way you slice.  It's rater like if someone wrote an alternate Star Wars universe where Darth Vader was not Luke's father.  The existence of such an alternate Star Wars universe would have no bearing on whether Darth Vader was Luke's father in the original Star Wars universe (the answer there would remain "yes") nor would it have any bearing on whether Darth Vader was Luke's father in the "real" universe in which both Star Wars universes were embedded (as fiction): the answer there would remain that the question is meaningless because mixing ontological categories makes no sense.

David Deutsch, for whom I have the utmost respect (I think he's actually one of the best popularizers of science ever) is a fierce proponent of the proposition that all classical universes are equally real.  I respectfully disagree with him.  It is true that they are all equally real from the perspective of the wave function.  But I don't have the perspective of the wave function, and neither do you.  You and I live in this universe, and so to us, this universe is more real than any of the other myriad universes that emerge from the wave function.  There may be a transporter in the Star Trek universe, but that doesn't help Luke Skywalker escape from Emperor Palpatine because Luke can only take advantage of (and hence only cares about) what exists in his universe.

What about the possibility of communicating between universes?  Wouldn't that be cool?  If those universes are "as real as we are", shouldn't that be possible?  Well, unfortunately, no, it's not.  The way in which classical universes emerge from the wave function makes communication between them impossible.  You can prove this mathematically, just as you can prove that quantum entanglement can't be used to send information faster than light.  This is another reason I believe that parallel universes can safely be regarded as less real than our own universe, at least by us.  But reasonable people can (and do) disagree.

There's a lot more to say about this topic, but this post has already become longer than I intended it to be.  I'll write more if there's interest, but I want to leave you with a parting thought (well, more of an exercise actually): remember that I said that measurements were in principle reversible.  Imagine that we could actually carry out this program of undoing the myriad entanglements that constitute your making a particular observation.  What would be the subjective sensation, i.e. what would it "feel like" if this were done to you?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The many elephants in the room in Ferguson, Missouri

As long as I'm pointing out the obvious, I figure I should point out a few of the proverbial elephants in the living room in Ferguson, Missouri: the town is 70% black, but the government is overwhelmingly white.  There are only two possible reasons for this: either blacks think that having their town run by whites is just hunky dory, or blacks in Fergusson don't vote.  Unsurprisingly, the latter turns out to be the case.
According to a Washington Post analysis, an estimated 6% of blacks and 17% of whites turned out for the 2013 municipal elections in the township
I was shocked by these numbers.  It's not just that blacks don't vote, nobody votes in Ferguson!  Let's do the math: Ferguson has about 21,000 residents.  70% are black, 30% white.  So 21,000 x 0.7 x 0.06 = 880 black people voted, and 21,000 x 0.3 x 0.17 = 1070 white people voted.

As the mechanic who opened the hood of the non-function car only to find that the engine was gone said, "Well, there's yer problem right there."  It would only take an additional 250 black voters showing up to completely reverse the power dynamic in Ferguson.  That (and remember, this post is about pointing out the obvious) is far fewer than the number showing up to protest in the streets.

If there is a silver lining to Michael Brown's tragic death it is that Ferguson's black community might be finally driven out of their complacency.  There are renewed efforts to register black voters there.  And also unsurprisingly (pointing out the obvious again), Republicans are not happy about it:
In an interview with Breitbart News, Missouri RNC executive director Matt Wills expressed outrage about the reports [of efforts to register black voters].
“If that’s not fanning the political flames, I don’t know what is,” Wills said, “I think it’s not only disgusting but completely inappropriate.”
So black people registering to vote is "disgusting and inappropriate" according to the Republicans.  I'll say this for Matt Wills: at least he's willing to stand up for what he believes.  But as long as I'm pointing out the obvious, I will once again celebrate the fact that we live in a great country, where everyone has a right to express their views, no matter how repugnant.

Finally, no discussion of Ferguson and repugnant views would be complete without giving a shout-out to Professor Sunil Dutta, an ex-police officer who opined in the Washington Post that the best strategy for not getting shot dead by a police officer is to unquestioning obsequiousness.  Pointing out the obvious is starting the get a little old, so I'll leave it up to the fine folks at Reason.
If you have the attitude that you are owed deference and instant obedience by the people around you, and that you are justified in using violence against them if they don't comply, we already have a problem. That's especially true if official institutions back you up, which they do. 
If you really think that everybody else should "just do what I tell you," you're wearing the wrong uniform in the wrong country. And if you really can't function with some give and take—a few nasty names, a little argument—of the sort that people in all sorts of jobs put up with every damned day, do us all a favor: quit. 
The law enforcement problem in this country goes well beyond boys with toys. It's much deeper, and needs to be torn out by the roots.

This is what real religious persecution looks like, part 2

Religious persecution does not look like this.  It looks like this:
Saudi Arabia’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice has asked the interior ministry to arrest several people for apostasy and atheism. 
The commission did not divulge the number of people whose arrest it requested, but it said that they insulted God and Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).
 And this:
In 13 countries around the world, all of them Muslim, people who openly espouse atheism or reject the official state religion of Islam face execution under the law, according to a detailed study issued on Tuesday. 
And beyond the Islamic nations, even some of the West's apparently most democratic governments at best discriminate against citizens who have no belief in a god and at worst can jail them for offenses dubbed blasphemy, it said.
And this:
Israeli police on Sunday blocked more than 200 far-right Israeli protesters from rushing guests at a wedding of a Jewish woman and Muslim man as they shouted "death to the Arabs" in a sign of tensions stoked by the Gaza war.
(The persecution in this case, of course, being perpetrated by the mob, not the police.)

There really is very little sport in finding examples of religious persecution around the world, but not in the U.S.  What you will find in the U.S. is a fair number of bigots whining about the decline of bigotry in polite society.  You'll also find people who think the earth is flat.  Some people are impervious to reason.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

What's wrong with this picture?

Here's a hint: Dick Durbin is not a Republican.


This is what real religious persecution looks like

Just in case your persecute-o-meter needs calibration:
National spokesman for Iraqi Christians and Chaldean-American businessman Mark Arabo said the "evil" being carried out by ISIS militants in Iraq now includes shocking beheadings of children...
I try to temper my criticism of religious people with empathy for the reason I believe they adhere to their faiths, but I feel driven to say that in the cold light of true religious persecution, the baseless whining of some American Christians really starts to look pretty reprehensible.

Are Christians persecuted in the United States?

The answer to the titular question is so clearly "no" that I would normally not dignify it with a response.  But commenter Publius, who otherwise seems to be reasonable and rational, presented some data to support the proposition that "finding Christian harassment in the past few years is like fishing with dynamite."  So I decided to take the time to investigate.  After all, it is important to keep an open mind.  You never know when one of your prejudices might turn out to be wrong.

Publius cites five primary examples, six secondary examples, and three examples that he characterizes as "vignettes".  I looked at every one of these and, unsurprisingly, they do not support the conclusion.  Of Publius's fourteen examples, only one is even a legitimate example of harassment of any sort.  That is this one:

Two tennagers assaulted by UCSB professor and suffer grand theft
Remember the University of California, Santa Barbara feminist studies professor who forcibly stole a graphic anti-abortion sign from two abortion protesters, then scratched and appeared to push one of the protesters (a 16-year-old girl), then destroyed the sign? 
She pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of grand theft, vandalism and battery on Thursday.
This is clearly a case of harassment (as even the perpetrator has now tacitly admitted).  But it is not a case of harassment of Christians.  We don't even know for certain that the victims were Christians, at least not from the account that Publius cites.  The word "Christian" does not even appear in that story.  It might be a good bet that they were Christians (because opponents of reproductive freedom often are) but we don't know that,  and it doesn't matter anyway.  Even if they were Christians it is clear that they were attacked not because of their religious beliefs but because of the political views they were espousing (not that this makes the attack any less reprehensible).  As you will see, this will prove to be a common theme.

The only other incident that involves violence is this one:

Hate crime: gay activists brutally beat christians in America
As revealed in the disturbing video, two Christian street preachers stood near a gay pride march, one holding a large sign and the other one clutching a Bible. 
The sign did not make any targeted, inflammatory statements against any particular group.
But several of the marchers did not care.
A heavy-set man and a woman broke off from the march to confront the preachers. The preacher in the “Trust Jesus” t-shirt tried to block the initial shoving with his Bible. 
Both preachers attempted to retreat from conflict.
A short man knocked down the preacher holding the sign, taking it away from him as the heavy-set man sucker punched the preacher in the head. 
The short man showed no mercy as he kicked the now-down preacher in the ribs.
This sounds pretty damning, and the violence is, again, reprehensible.  However, if you watch the video you will see a number of salient points that are not mentioned in the written account:

1.  The incident happened at a gay pride rally.

2.  The preachers were repeatedly warned verbally and in no uncertain terms that their presence was not welcome, and were advised, again in no uncertain terms, that they should leave.

3.  The inciting incident was not an attack on the preachers themselves, but the theft of one of their signs.  You can watch the video and judge for yourself who was attacking who, but the fact is that for most of the fracas, the preacher being "attacked" is on top of the putative "attacker."

So again, even if one grants that the preachers were attacked, they were not attacked because they were Christians, they were attacked because they were behaving like assholes.  Preaching that homosexuality is a sin at a gay pride rally is like walking into a church and preaching against God.  It's just rude.  Of course rudeness does not merit violence, but it does forfeit you the moral high ground.

Two down, twelve to go.  This is going to be a long slog, but I really want to definitively debunk this idea that Christians are the victims.

Brendan Eich resigns as CEO of Mozilla
The resignation of Mozilla's CEO amid outrage that he supported an anti-gay marriage campaign is prompting concerns about how Silicon Valley's strongly liberal culture might quash the very openness that is at the region's foundation. 
Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich stepped down Thursday as CEO, just days after his appointment. He left the nonprofit maker of the Firefox browser after furious attacks, largely on Twitter, over his $1,000 contribution to support of a now-overturned 2008 gay-marriage ban in California.
As with the case of the UCSB professor's victims, we have no evidence that Brendan Eich is a Christian.  Just as it is possible for a non-Christian to oppose abortion rights, it is also possible for a non-Christian to oppose marriage equality.  I myself wrote some harsh criticism of Brendan Eich and I have no idea if he's a Christian or not.  What I do know (because Brendan's actions provide conclusive evidence) is that he is an unrepentant bigot.  Personally, I have no problem with bigots being harassed for their bigotry.  I am not a moral relativist.  Bigotry is evil because it retards the advancement of ideas.  But that is another discussion.

Protests against Catholic and Morman churches for California Prop. 8 support
Protests against Proposition 8 supporters in California took place starting in November 2008. These included prominent protests against the Roman Catholic church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), which collaboratively campaigned in favor of California's Proposition 8 through volunteer and financial support for the measure.[1] The proposition was a voter referendum that amended the state constitution to recognize marriage only as being between one man and one woman, thus banning same-sex marriage, which was legal in the state following a May 2008 California Supreme Court case.
Same story, except that these protests are not harassment of any sort.  They are entirely legitimate political responses to political action.  They are a response to bigots who made themselves fair game by initiating political action to deprive other people of their rights.  That these particular bigots happen to be Mormon has nothing to do with the protests (except insofar as their Mormonism almost certainly motivated their bigotry).

Chick-fil-A faces protests after comments by COO Dan Cathy
American fast-food chain Chick-fil-A was the focus of controversy following a series of public comments made in June 2012 by chief operating officer Dan Cathy opposing same-sex marriage. This followed reports that Chick-fil-A's charitable endeavor, the S. Truett Cathy-family-operated WinShape Foundation, had made millions in donations to political organizations which oppose LGBT rights. LGBT rights activists called for protests and boycotts of the chain, while counter-protestors rallied in support by eating at the restaurants. National political figures both for and against the actions spoke out and some business partners severed ties with the chain. 
Chick-fil-A released a statement in July 2012 stating, "Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena."
Are you beginning to notice a pattern here?  Do I even need to explain this one?  Again, these protests were political, peaceful, and their motives had nothing to do with the subject of their protests being Christian and everything to do with their being politically active bigots.

Military priests face arrest for celebrating mass
According the Archdiocese for Military Services, GS and contract priests (who are paid by the federal government as independent contractors in places where there aren’t enough active-duty priests to meet the needs of Catholics in military service) are being forbidden from celebrating Mass, even on a volunteer basis. 
If they violate this restriction, they face possible arrest. FOR CELEBRATING MASS.
OK, this sounds more promising.  Being arrested for celebrating mass certainly sounds like a flagrant violation of the First Amendment.  But again, there is a salient fact that is not evident from these excerpts: this incident occurred during the government shutdown of October 2013.  In fact, Publius edited the headline to obscure this fact.  The original headline was "MILITARY PRIESTS FACE ARREST FOR CELEBRATING MASS IN DEFIANCE OF SHUTDOWN" (caps in original).  So again, the priests were not facing arrest because they were Christian, they were facing arrest because they were breaking the law.  During the shutdown (which, again, it is worth noting was precipitated by the intransigence of Congressional Republicans), many contractors were furloughed and hence barred from government facilities.  But were Christians specifically singled out?  Publius's next example is closely related:

The Obama administration is continuing to prohibit approximately 50 Catholic priests from saying Mass and administering other sacraments at U.S. military facilities around the world, according to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services. 
Father Ray Leonard, who is one of these priests, and who serves as the Catholic chaplain at Navel Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia, filed suit Monday against the Department of Defense, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the Department of the Navy and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. His suit—joined by Navy veteran Fred Naylor, who is a member of the Catholic congregation at Kings Bay--alleges that the administration is violating his and his congregation’s First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religion, the freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly. 
DOD has been prohibiting Father Leonard and the other Catholic priests from administering the sacraments and providing other services to their congregations even though two weeks ago Congress passed, and President Barack Obama signed, a law that instructed DOD to maintain on the job and keep paying contract employees who were supporting the troops. 
DOD took this action because Hagel determined--after consulting with Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department--that civilian Catholic priests, working under contract as chaplains, did not, among other things, “contribute to the morale” and “well-being” of service personnel. 
"The Department of Defense consulted closely with the Department of Justice, which expressed its view that the law does not permit a blanket recall of all civilians," Hagel said in an Oct. 5 memorandum. "Under our current reading of the law, the standard of 'support to members of the Armed Forces' requires a focus on those employees whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities, and readiness of covered military members during the lapse of appropriations." 
Among the specific examples Hagel provided of civilian contractors whom he believes meet this standard are those working in secular "Family Support Programs and Activities," "Behavorial Health and Suicide Prevention Programs" and "Health Care Activities and Providers"--but not priests.
Wow, that really does sound bad.  But if you actually look at the Oct. 5 memorandum you will find that things are not exactly as they are portrayed in the CNS News account.  For one thing, the words "Catholic", "Christian" and "priest" do not appear in that memo.  What is really going on here, as the memo makes clear, is that Congress shut down the government and left it up to the executive branch in general, and the DoD in particular in this case, to figure out how to handle the resulting mess.  The DoD prioritized what it considered to be essential services (like supply chain management -- i.e. providing soldiers with food) and religious services didn't make the cut.  Even if you allow the English language to be sufficiently mangled as to allow the decision to prioritize food over organized religious services to be characterized as "harassment", this incident is still in no way harassment of Christians.  All religious services were suspended, not just Christian ones.  It's just that the Christians were the only ones who whined about it.

US Army defines Christian ministry as domestic hate group"
Several dozen U.S. Army active duty and reserve troops were told last week that the American Family Association, a well-respected Christian ministry, should be classified as a domestic hate group because the group advocates for traditional family values.
You should be able to guess that this account is stilted merely by the fact that the source is Fox News.  First, it was not "The U.S. Army", it was a single instructor at a single briefing.  And second, it is in fact defensible to call the American Family Association a hate group because they do in fact promulgate hateful ideas about gays.

Florida Teacher Suspended for Anti-Gay Marriage Posts on Personal Facebook Page
A former “Teacher of the Year” in Mount Dora, Fla. has been suspended and could lose his job after he voiced his objection to gay marriage on his personal Facebook page. 
Jerry Buell, a veteran American history teacher at Mount Dora High School, was removed from his teaching duties this week as school officials in Lake County investigate allegations that what he posted was biased towards homosexuals.
Yes, I know.  It's starting to get a little painful, isn't it?  Like Brendan Eich, this teacher was not fired for being a Christian, this teacher was fired for being a bigot.

We're nearly done.  Only one more "vignette" to go:

U.S. Airman punished for his faith
The shocking stories of religious hostility in our nation’s military continue, and now, Liberty Institute represents Senior Master Sergeant Phillip Monk, a 19-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force who was relieved of his duties because of his faith and moral convictions. 
Senior Master Sergeant Monk, who served as a First Sergeant at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, recently returned from deployment and found he had a new commander who was an open lesbian. 
“In one of our first meetings, she was talking about her promotion and she mentioned something about a benediction,” Monk told Fox News. “She said she wanted a chaplain but objected to one particular chaplain that she called a ‘bigot’ because he preached that homosexuality is a sin.” 
“She then said, ‘I don’t know what kind of people actually believe that kind of crap,’” Monk continued. “I knew I was going to have a rough time in this unit and I would have to be very careful about what I said.” 
Issues arose when Monk was asked to advise his commander on a disciplinary matter involving an Air Force instructor who was accused of making objectionable comments about gay marriage. After a thorough investigation, Monk determined the instructor meant no harm by his comments, and suggested that his commander could use the incident as a way to teach about tolerance and diversity. 
Monk, a devout evangelical Christian, says he was told that he wasn’t on the same page as the commander, and that if he didn’t get on the same page, they would find another place for him to work. 
Later, the commander ordered Monk to answer the question of whether people who object to gay marriage are discriminating. Monk responded that he could not answer the way his commander wanted and feared an honest response would put him in legal trouble. 
At that point, Monk was relieved of his duties.
It's hard to sort out exactly what happened in this case, but whatever it was it had nothing to do with Christianity and everything to do with homophobia.  This is not to say that Monk's dismissal was appropriate.  People have a Constitutional right to be hold bigoted views, and a case might be made that homophobic bigots are being subject to unfair harassment.  But the evidence for harassment targeted at Christians is zero.  Zip.  Nada.

To see what systematic discrimination against a worldview looks like you have to look at atheism, because atheists are subject to systematic discrimination (which occasionally rises to the level of harassment) in the U.S.  For example, "Humanist" was not recognized as a religious affiliation by the military before April of this year.  As recently as June of last year, a proposal to fund Humanist chaplains in the military failed to pass.  Can you imagine the uproar if Catholics were specifically excluded from the chaplaincy?  And yet that is exactly the situation that non-theists in the military face.  Atheists are the last minority towards which systematic societal discrimination is still considered acceptable.
Discrimination against atheists in the United States occurs in legal, personal, social, and professional contexts. Some American atheists compare their situation to the discrimination faced by ethnic minorities, LGBT communities, and women.[42][43][44][45] "Americans still feel it's acceptable to discriminate against atheists in ways considered beyond the pale for other groups," asserted Fred Edwords of the American Humanist Association.[46] However, other atheists reject these comparisons, arguing that while atheists may face disapproval they have not faced significant oppression or discrimination.[47][48] 
In the United States, seven state constitutions include religious tests that would effectively prevent atheists from holding public office, and in some cases being a juror/witness... 
Respondents to a survey were less likely to support a kidney transplant for hypothetical atheists and agnostics needing it, than for Christian patients with similar medical needs.[59] 
Few politicians have been willing to identify as non-theists, since such revelations have been considered "political suicide".[64][65] In a landmark move, California Representative Pete Stark came out in 2007 as the first openly nontheistic member of Congress.[46] In 2009, City Councilman Cecil Bothwell of Asheville, North Carolina was called "unworthy of his seat" because of his open atheism.[66] Several polls have shown that about 50 percent of Americans would not vote for a qualified atheist for president.[67][68] A 2006 study found that 40% of respondents characterized atheists as a group that did "not at all agree with my vision of American society", and that 48% would not want their child to marry an atheist. In both studies, percentages of disapproval of atheists were above those for Muslims, African-Americans and homosexuals.[69] Many of the respondents associated atheism with immorality, including criminal behaviour, extreme materialism, and elitism.[70] Atheists and atheist organizations have alleged discrimination against atheists in the military,[71][72][73][74][75][76] and recently, with the development of the Army's Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, atheists have alleged institutionalized discrimination.[77][78] In several child custody court rulings, atheist parents have been discriminated against, either directly or indirectly. As child custody laws in the United States are often based on the "best interests of the child" principle, they leave family court judges ample room to consider a parent’s ideology when settling a custody case. Atheism, lack of religious observation and regular church attendance, and the inability to prove one's willingness and capacity to attend to religion with his children, have been used to deny custody to non-religious parents.[79][80]
The constitutions of ... seven US states ban atheists from holding public office.
And here we come to the real nub of the matter.  Not only is it false that Christians are systematically discriminated against, in fact the exact opposite is true.  Christians are not the discriminatees, they are the discriminators.  They have in fact become so accustomed to their position of power and hegemony in American society that they perceive that power and hegemony as a basic right, as the natural order of things.

Well, it isn't.  Notwithstanding that the vast majority of Americans self-identify as Christians,  the United States is not a Christian nation.  It never was, and God willing it never will be.  It is a secular nation, areligious (but obviously not irreligious).  It welcomes Christians and non-Christians of all stripes.  It welcomes Catholics and Krishnas, Baptists and Buddhists, Methodists and Muslims, believers and non-believers.

What it does not welcome so much is intolerance.  If you believe that God wants you to impose (your view of) His will on others, then you do indeed have a problem, because the price of being free to worship as you see fit is to leave others free to do the same (or not) as they see fit.  So if you really feel persecuted here because you can't stand letting other people enjoy the same freedoms you possess, you might want to consider moving to, say, Cameroon.  We won't stop you.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

How to get my business

[Warning: emotional ranting ahead.  Proceed with caution.]

Apparently I was not the only who was annoyed to have received one of Restoration Hardware’s ridiculously over-the-top catalog collections.  This monstrosity weighed in at about three hundred and fifty thousand pounds, and it was all I could do in my advancing years to hoist it in to our recycling bin.  Which is where it went directly from our now sadly sagging mailbox.  It did not pass Go.  It did not collect $200.  In fact, in the wake of this display of hideously bad judgement I have vowed never to set foot in a Restoration Hardware store again.

Not that I ever set foot in a Restoration Hardware store before.

And this is the one encouraging thing about this incident: despite all the on-line tracking and sharing of personal information that goes on behind the scenes in modern commerce, the fact that Restoration Hardware could get it so horribly, horribly wrong with respect to me indicates that there is some hope of maintaining some privacy even in today's world.

Still, having to throw out seventeen tons of unwanted catalogs every year seems like a high price to pay, so I have a modest proposal for marketers on how to find out what I want: ask me.  I'd be happy to tell you.  In fact, Google and Amazon have already figured this out, which is why they are kicking everyone else's butt.  I (obviously) never get a catalog from either Amazon or Google, and yet I always go to one or the other when I want to buy anything nowadays besides groceries.  Why?  Precisely because they don't send me catalogs.  They are like old-school domestic servants, never speaking unless spoken too.  But when I want something they are always immediately available to give me exactly what I want, even in those cases where I don't know exactly what it is.

So listen up, marketers everywhere.  Here's how to get my business:

1.  First and foremost, leave me the fuck alone unless I solicit you!  Do not fill my mailbox -- either physical or email -- with catalogs or flyers, and especially do not try cheap (or, as the case may be, not so cheap) tricks like sending out monstrously huge catalogs or putting your ads inside envelopes that kinda sorta look like they were sent by overnight mail but obviously weren't.  The more you try to get my attention, the more I will resist you.

2.  When I do come to you (and I will) make it easy for me to find shit.  Yes, I get that this is a tall order.  There's a particular style of headboard that I've been looking for for years.  I know it exists because I saw one once, but I have never been able to find one since.  If you are a purveyor of headboards, all that stands between you and having me as a customer is figuring out how I can communicate to you what I want and then having you find it for me.  Yes, I get that this is not easy.  There are a zillion styles of headboards out there.  If it were easy, everybody would be doing it already.  But here's a suggestion: I have a photo of this headboard that I'm looking for.  I could send it to you, and you could unleash an army of mechanical turks to browse your inventory and find a match.  AFAIK no one does this.  But this is just to illustrate the aphorism that there are no problems, only business opportunities.

But even in the face of such challenges there is still a ton of low-lying fruit that isn't being picked.  For example, every now and then I buy a new digital camera.  Figuring what the current state of the art is in terms of features and price-performance is a nightmare.  It should be technically straightforward to build a site where I could enter what I'm looking for in a camera (good image quality and as much optical zoom as I can get in as small a form factor as possible) and have it figure out which models I should be looking at.  Same goes for cars.

Every single camera and car site I've ever seen gets this wrong.  The first question a car site asks me is invariably "What make of car are you interested in?"  I don't know, God dammit!  If I knew that, I'd be going straight to that manufacturer's site.  I'm a childless-by-choice male on the perpetual brink of a midlife crisis, so I want a small, sporty car with two doors, four seats, and a nice balance of performance and economy: not too pokey, but I don't need to break the world record for going zero to sixty either.  Oh, and I want it to be blue.  Or maybe red.  Yellow is nice too.

(Right now I drive a Hyundai Genesis Coupe, which is the perfect car for me except that the transmission is pretty awful. )

All this really boils down to one rule: I want to do business with vendors who treat me with respect instead of like a mark.  It really is that simple.

Here endeth the rant.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

We have a poltergeist named Oliver

It is not often that things happen that lead me to seriously question my world view.  The last time was about eleven years ago when a mysterious message appeared on our answering machine, but that only lasted about 30 minutes before we were able to solve the mystery.  The current situation I think is going to prove much less tractable.  Here's what happened.

We have a Netflix subscription of the sort that lets us have two discs at any one time.  We always keep those discs in the same place next to our television set.  I will call the two discs we had on hand the other day Movie A and Movie B.

Last Thursday we had cleaners in to tidy up the place.  We hire them from an agency and they come regularly, every three weeks or so.  We've been doing this for several years.  After they left we noticed that one of the two discs was missing, along with the red envelope that is used to return the disc to Netflix when we're done watching it.  Nancy and both did a very thorough search looking for the missing disc but it was nowhere to be found.  We both checked the place where we normally keep the discs (it's right on top of a credenza in full view) multiple times.  I even went so far as to search the trash to make sure it had not inadvertently gotten thrown out.  We were both 100% convinced: only Movie A was there.  Movie B was gone.

We contacted the cleaning agency to see if maybe the cleaners had put the disc somewhere but they said they hadn't touched it.  And we believed them.  Why on earth would anyone want to steal a Netflix DVD?  I even started to look into how much it would cost us when we eventually fessed up to Netflix that we had lost their disc, but I decided to wait a few more days before actually reporting it missing.

So tonight we decided to watch the remaining movie, which is to say, Movie A.  I took the disc out of its sleeve and loaded it in the DVD player, and we were both surprised to see that it was not Movie A, it was Movie B.  Wait, what??? Movie B was the one that had been missing for six days!  I went to the credenza to investigate, and there, right where they were supposed to be, were two red return envelopes, and the second disc, the one that had not gone missing.  But it was underneath Movie B.

We both sat there with our jaws on the floor for about ten minutes, completely at a loss.

We have actually one previous instance of a mysterious disappearance and subsequent reappearance, but this is the first one where both of us thoroughly witnessed both events.  The first time was a credit card receipt that vanished off Nancy's desk, so I was naturally a little skeptical of her account, but I'm a little less skeptical now.

I can certainly understand, dear reader, if you don't believe me.  I certainly wouldn't believe me.  I barely believe it now, and I actually experienced it.  It's easily the weirdest thing that has ever happened to me.

I can think of three possible explanations:

1.  Nancy is pulling one over on me.  This would be completely out of character for her.  In the twenty-plus years I have known her she has never played a practical joke on anyone.

2.  We were both suffering from some sort of shared delusion for six days.

3.  We have a poltergeist.

Theory 3 seems at least as plausible as the other two.  In fact, we even have a pretty good lead as to our poltergeist's identity.  When we cleared the brush from the hillside behind our house a few years ago we discovered a grave marker for a dog named Oliver P. Scaliwags, who had belonged to a previous owner of our property.  According to neighborhood lore, Ollie was quite the little prankster. Maybe he still is.

When our cat Purrcy died recently we bought a Thai spirit house to put in the back yard thinking that Purrcy and Oliver might both like to live in it and that would keep them out of our house.  Apparently, it's not working.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Are corporations people?

My earlier post on the Hobby Lobby decision sparked a lively discussion, so I went back and actually read the Court's opinion.  Not much there that I didn't already know, with one notable exception: I had believed that the Court invented the idea that corporations are people out of whole cloth, and that turns out not to be true.  It turns out that there is a law called the Dictionary Act,  enacted in 1871, which says:
the words “person” and “whoever” include corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals;
That would seem to make it pretty open-and-shut: according to the law, corporations are persons.  Right?

No.

In 1897, the Indiana legislature almost passed a bill that would have defined the mathematical constant pi to be 3.  (The popular story that some state actually did pass such a law turns out to be a myth.)  But if the law had passed that would not in fact have changed the value of pi.  It would still be 3.14159265... notwithstanding what the law said.  And the fact of the matter, law or no law, is that corporations cannot hold religious beliefs because corporations are not conscious entities.

But even as a matter of law, relying on the Dictionary Act is questionable because the Act opens by saying, "In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, unless the context indicates otherwise—" [emphasis added].  And in this case, the context clearly indicates otherwise, as Justice Ginsberg makes clear in her dissent:
This reference, the Court submits, incorporates the definition of “person” found in the Dictionary Act, 1 U. S. C. §1, which extends to “corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals.” See ante, at 19–20. The Dictionary Act’s definition, however, controls only where “context” does not “indicat[e] otherwise.” §1. Here, context does so indicate. RFRA speaks of “a person’s exercise of religion.” 42 U. S. C. §2000bb–1(a) (emphasis added). See also §§2000bb–2(4), 2000cc–5(7)(a).12 Whether a corporation qualifies as a “person” capable of exercising religion is an inquiry one cannot answer without reference to the “full body” of pre-Smith “free-exercise caselaw.” Gilardi, 733 F. 3d, at 1212. There is in that case law no support for the notion that free exercise rights pertain to for-profit corporations. [Emphasis added.]

Until this litigation, no decision of this Court recognized a for-profit corporation’s qualification for a religious ex- emption from a generally applicable law, whether under the Free Exercise Clause or RFRA.13 The absence of such precedent is just what one would expect, for the exercise of religion is characteristic of natural persons, not artificial legal entities. As Chief Justice Marshall observed nearly two centuries ago, a corporation is “an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law.” Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 4 Wheat. 518, 636 (1819). Corporations, Justice Stevens more recently reminded, “have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires.” Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n, 558 U. S. 310, 466 (2010) (opin- ion concurring in part and dissenting in part).
 But what about churches?  Read on:
The First Amendment’s free exercise protections, the Court has indeed recognized, shelter churches and other nonprofit religion-based organizations.14 “For many individuals, religious activity derives meaning in large meas- ure from participation in a larger religious community,” and “furtherance of the autonomy of religious organizations often furthers individual religious freedom as well.” Corporation of Presiding Bishop of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. Amos, 483 U. S. 327, 342 (1987) (Brennan, J., concurring in judgment). The Court’s “spe- cial solicitude to the rights of religious organizations,” Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U. S. ___, ___ (2012) (slip op., at 14), how- ever, is just that. No such solicitude is traditional for commercial organizations.15 Indeed, until today, religiousexemptions had never been extended to any entity operating in “the commercial, profit-making world.” Amos, 483 U. S., at 337.16

The reason why is hardly obscure. Religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith. Not so of for-profit corporations. Workers who sustain the operations of those corporations commonly are not drawn from one religious community. Indeed, by law, no religion-based criterion can restrict the work force of for-profit corporations. See 42 U. S. C. §§2000e(b), 2000e–1(a), 2000e–2(a); cf. Trans World Air­ lines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U. S. 63, 80–81 (1977) (Title VII requires reasonable accommodation of an employee’s religious exercise, but such accommodation must not come “at the expense of other[ employees]”). The distinction between a community made up of believers in the same religion and one embracing persons of diverse beliefs, clear as it is, constantly escapes the Court’s attention.17 One can only wonder why the Court shuts this key difference from sight.
Commenter Publius asked:
What is the essence of business organization that eliminates religious rights?
The answer is right there in the question: it's a business organization, not a religious organization.   If a group of people get together for the express purpose of exercising a religious faith (as in a church) that reduces the possibility of religious conflict (thought it does not eliminate it entirely).  If a group of people get together to engage in commerce then it is all but inevitable that, if those people do not check their religion at the door then there will be conflict.  It is specifically illegal to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religious beliefs, and the chances that you will end up by chance with a group of employees whose religious beliefs align with those of the company's owners is indistinguishable from zero.  There are only two possible ways to resolve this inevitable conflict: 1) resolve it arbitrarily in favor of one group or another.  This is what the Supreme Court as done.  It has resolved the conflict arbitrarily in favor of owners at the expense of employees.  Or 2) do what the country has done successfully for over 200 years and keep commercial companies secular.

I vote for option 2.

With regards to my charge of hypocrisy because Hobby Lobby's 401k plan invests in companies that make contraceptives to which its owners claim to be morally opposed, Publius writes:
Claim 1: Hobby Lobby is an investor in drug makers that make the drugs they object to
Truth 1: The HL employee 401(k) plan is a separate trust, and is neither owned or controlled by Hobby Lobby.
Claim 2: Hobbly Lobby pays an insurance premium, which only indirectly enables others to make moral choices.
Truth 2: HL is self-insured, so it does not pay insurance premiums. It pays an insurance company a fee to administer the health plan, but all costs are paid by HL. There is not risk pooling, or comingling of funds - the cost of employee medical care comes directly from HL's income.
I must confess that I am not well versed in the subtleties of 401k law.  But this site says:
According to federal law, employers (known as "plan sponsors") are responsible for picking the 401k plan funds.
So HL, if they chose to, could offer only funds that do not invest in birth control companies (surely such funds exist).  That leaves open the possibility that (Publius again):
Hobby Lobby does not seek to control the moral choices of others.
That is not consistent with being Christian.  Seeking to control (at least indirectly) the moral choices of others is part and parcel of Christian doctrine, as Publius himself points out:
Some religions require participation in public life - say, Christianity, which has the Great Commission to go forth and spread the Good News to all nations.
Nonetheless, now that I've looked into it a little further it does seem that the preponderance of the evidence is that the Hobby Lobby folks actually are not trying to foist their beliefs on others.  So I withdraw and apologize for my earlier speculation that they are motivated by money and patriarchy.

I don't withdraw the charge of hypocrisy because, as I said, AFAICT Hobby Lobby could, if it chose to, constrain its 401k to not invest in birth control, but it doesn't.  They could also choose to not self-insure, which would put additional distance between themselves and the sinful behavior of their employees.  Whether or not this would be enough to satisfy them or their god I cannot know, which is exactly the problem.  No one can know that except the owners of Hobby Lobby.  Which is exactly why the best way to insure everyone's religious freedom is to keep it in the church, the home, and perhaps in the town square.  But not in the office.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Wow, LinkedIn as gone seriously evil

I don't know how long LinkedIn has been doing this because I hardly ever use my account, but today I accepted an invitation from someone and was taken to this screen:

It took me a moment to realize that LinkedIn was actually asking me, not for my LinkedIn password, but for my email password.  At the risk of stating what should be obvious, you should NEVER EVER give your email password to ANYONE.  Anyone who has your email password owns you.  They can, if they choose to, reset the password on any other account you have, including your on-line baking and brokerage accounts.

But, you may object, LinkedIn is a reputable company.  They would never do that.  Trying to break in to their customers' bank accounts would be incredibly stupid.  They'd be caught, and that would put them out of business.  And this is true.  But breaking in to your bank accounts is far from the only thing that someone with your email password can do.  They can also (again at the risk of stating the obvious) read your email.  And LinkedIn absolutely will do that.  How do I know?  By looking at the fine print of what they promise not to do: "We will not store your password or email anyone without your permission."  Even if we take them entirely at their word, they have just tacitly admitted that they are going to download everything in your inbox and store that.  In fact, the whole point of getting your email address is so they can download your contacts list, and the most effective way of getting that is to download all your email and see who you've already corresponded with.  And if they should happen to collect some additional data on you along the way that they might be able to sell to some marketing company, well, where's the harm, right?  I mean, those fine folks at LinkedIn need to make a living too, no?

What bothers me about this no so much that they are doing it, but the surreptitious way they are going about it.  If they were up-front about it, "Please give us your email password so we can log in to your account and collect your contacts list" (or, even better, "Please give us your password so we can break in to your account and rummage around in whatever we might happen to find there") that would be fine.  But LinkedIn obviously knows that no one would give them permission to do this if they knew what LinkedIn's real intentions were, so they have to be sneaky.

I'm starting to think that LinkedIn is an intelligence test: anyone who actually uses it has failed.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

The Divine Right of Business Owners

The fundamental problem with religion is that it is by definition impervious to reason, and hence there can be no hope of reasonable reconciliation of religious disputes.  The best we can accomplish is for people to agree to disagree.  The best way of achieving that is the First Law of Social Harmony: no one should attempt to impose their religious views on others without their consent.  A corollary to the First Law is that government, which is empowered to to use violence to enforce the law, should not attempt to impose any religious views on anyone.  This is the essence of the First Amendment, which until this week made the United States a vibrant, diverse, and religiously peaceful nation.  A violent sectarian struggle of the sort that happens regularly, maybe continuously, in the Middle East would have been unthinkable here.

The other problem with religion is that it is, again by definition, wholly unconstrained by reality.  Want to believe that Mohammed was carried up to heaven by a winged horse?  Or that humans speak different languages because God was afraid that we would build a tower tall enough to reach heaven?  No problem.  No problem, that is, until you decide to no longer adhere to the First Law.  Then it becomes a problem, to wit, that most religious views are, in point of material fact, false.  Sometimes this doesn't matter.  If you want to believe that there's an invisible pink unicorn watching over you that is probably not going to pose an existential threat to civilization.  But believing that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, with all that implies, might.

The Supreme Court has been gutting the First Law of Social Harmony for a while now.  They began when they decided to impose a religious view (or at least a false one) on the people of the United States without their consent, namely, that corporations are people.  Corporations are plainly not people, they are groups of people.  Moreover, they are groups of people organized in a particular way for a particular purpose, namely, in a hierarchical, occasionally feudal, but almost always non-democratic way for the purpose of engaging in commerce.  Corporations are a human invention, a technology, that we built for the purpose of organizing our activities to achieve a purpose.  They are not a part of the natural order of things, and they are plainly not persons.

The Court elaborated on this fiction this week when it decided that corporate non-persons can have religious beliefs which are protected by the First Amendment.  But, of course, in point of fact a corporation cannot have a religious belief because a corporation is not a person.  No corporation ever attended a church.  No corporation has ever been baptized.  No corporation has ever received God's grace.  Corporations do not go to the rainbow bridge when they go out of business.

The Court's hypocrisy is plainly laid out in its own rhetoric: corporate personhood for the purposes of religious protection extends only to closely held corporations.  In this constraint the Court tacitly acknowledges the manifest absurdity of corporations having religious views.  If the group of actual human persons running the corporation is small enough to have identifiable religious views, then that group of people may, under cover of the fiction of corporate personhood, impose their religious beliefs on their employees.  But, of course, that train only runs one way.

As is so often the case, it is hard to tell which is more disturbing: that certain wealthy individuals are being granted the power to impose their beliefs on others, or that this is being done in the name of religious freedom.

Postscript:

There is no sport in finding logical contradictions in religious views, but it really bothers me when religious leaders can't even get their own theology right.  I stumbled across this article written by Rabbi Daniel Brenner, arguing against the Hobby Lobby decision.  But the reasoning is such a mess:
Jewish ethics on contraceptive use are rooted in our earliest religious texts. If you can think back to your earliest childhood encounters with the Book of Genesis, you might recall the first divine command -- Genesis 9:1 -- "be fruitful and multiply!" The rabbinic sages of the fifth and sixth century looked closely at that passage and raised a compelling question, "Was the Holy One speaking only with the 'sons of Noah' or with women and men?" The conclusion of the great rabbis? Only men are commanded to be fruitful and multiply. Later rabbis clarified that being "fruitful" meant that men are obligated to have a male and a female child. The command to have a son and a daughter is a moment of indirect gender equity in a narrative that is often focused on gender difference and strict gender codes based on dress, religious duties, legal witnessing, and a host of other categories. 
The rabbis of the Talmud concluded that men were commanded to have children, so any man who engages in a sexual act with a woman and uses a type of birth control that prevents him from fulfilling this command is, according to the ancient rabbis, going against divine law. (Some contemporary rabbis have allowed and encouraged condom use to prevent disease -- but this is a relatively modern position.) The classic example from the Torah is the story of Onan -- who spills his seed on the floor rather than impregnate his wife. Medieval rabbis explained that his act was an act of vanity -- he was obsessed with his wife's thin body and thought that pregnancy would ruin her. Their comments prove that even 1,500 years ago rabbis were worried about the objectification of women by men. 
Since women are not, according to the rabbis, commanded to have children, then birth control, in some cases, is permitted by divine law.
Here's what the Bible has to say about it:
Ge1:27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. 
Ge1:28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
I don't see anything in there about the commandment to "be fruitful and multiply" being directed specifically at men.  And here's what the Bible says about Onan:
Ge38:7 And Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD slew him.
Ge38:8 And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother's wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother. 
Ge38:9 And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. 
Ge38:10 And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also.
Again, not a word about "his wife's thin body."  To the contrary, the reason Onan doesn't want to impregnate his wife is because she is not his wife, she is his brother's wife!  The reason Onan needs to impregnate her is because his brother, Er, was killed by God and it is now his duty to impregnate her.

Again, none of this is problematic if it stays between a man and his god.  But when you give business owners the power to impose this kind of insanity on everyone it's a big, big problem.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Can I call 'em or what?

Three years ago I speculated that the true goal of the Republican party was to "pander to those who want to -- why mince words? -- get that f****** n***** out of the White House." I thought I was being at least a little hyperbolic (which is why I used asterisks) and that no one was actually depraved enough to say those words in public without irony.

I was wrong:
[Wolfeboro, New Hampshire police commissioner Robert] Copeland complained loudly in a local restaurant that he’s sick of television, because every time he watches he sees “that fucking n***r,” better known as the president of the United States. When a patron wrote a letter of complaint to the town manager and to all three members of Wolfeboro’s police commission, including Copeland, she got a letter back from Copeland himself: 
“While I believe the problems associated with minorities in this country are momentous, I am not phobic. My use of derogatory slang in reference to those among them undeserving of respect is no secret. It is the exercise of my 1st Amendment rights,” Copeland wrote. “I believe I did use the ‘N’ word in reference to the current occupant of the Whitehouse [sic]. For this I do not apologize – he meets and exceeds my criteria for such.”
I am not rendered speechless very easily, but that did it.

Friday, May 09, 2014

The FCC is (inadvertently) censoring my film

Between 2006 and 2010 I made a feature-length documentary about homeless people in Santa Monica, California.  It was entirely self-funded, and like many independent films, it never made any money.  It is, for the moment, available on iTunes, but it probably won't be for long.  It turns out that the FCC requires that any film ever shown on TV be closed captioned wherever it is shown, even when it is streamed over the internet.

Now, my little film has never been shown on TV, and most likely never will be.  But iTunes doesn't care.  It's too much bureaucratic and legal overhead to parse out which films have and have not been shown on TV, so some time in the very near future any movie that doesn't have closed captions will be pulled from iTunes.  And my film, along with thousands of other obscure titles whose production budgets have long since been exhausted, will be the collateral damage.

It's sad that a regulation meant to help those with disabilities will end up having the effect of censoring thousands of titles, but it's not surprising.  Closed-captioning is not a burden to large corporations with deep pockets, only to small independent filmmakers with tiny (by comparison) production budgets like me.  I have long mourned the slide of the United States into corporatism, but this is the first time I've been so directly affected by it.

It sucks.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Everything that is wrong with American capitalism, in one headline

Here it is, in the LA Times:

"Comcast, Charter reach $20-billion deal, would swap customers in L.A."

Cable companies Comcast Corp. and Charter Communications have agreed to a $20-billion deal that would exchange subscribers in numerous markets, including Los Angeles, should Comcast prevail in its bid to acquire Time Warner Cable.
Nearly 280,000 homes in Los Angeles that currently receive their cable service from Charter would be affected by provisions of the deal unveiled Monday. 
Those Charter subscribers, in such cities as Long Beach, Malibu, Burbank, Glendale and Alhambra, would eventually become Comcast customers -- perhaps as early as next year.
I'm not sure which is the more shocking, the headline (and the associated story) or the completely blasé and matter-of-fact way in which it is being reported.   This is not the way a free market is supposed to work.  At the risk of stating what should be obvious but apparently isn't, in a free market, the customer is supposed to select the supplier, not the other way around.  Suppliers are not supposed to be able to trade customers as if they were a commodity.  And yet, this is the situation we are in.

Not only is this the situation we are in, but we have somehow gotten here with only the feeblest of protests.  This should be an outrageous situation, but there is no outrage.  There is barely any indication that anyone thinks this situation is even remarkable or noteworthy, let alone outrageous.  And that is truly outrageous.

[UPDATE] A number of commenters have made the point that it's not capitalism that's the problem but politics.  I basically agree with this, and perhaps I should have chosen a different headline.  But the point I was trying to make is not so much about the exact nature of the problem but rather that the Charter/Comcast deal -- and, more to the point, people's (lack of) reaction to it -- is illustrative of the problem.

[UPDATE2] Lively discussion on Hacker News

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Evidence that religion is a drug

Five years ago I advanced the hypothesis that religion is essentially a drug that works through the placebo effect.  Today I happened to stumble across a data point to support the theory:

I've been feeling down enough that I considered suicide. But today the reverend said something that got to me "Easter takes you away from despair because you yourself are also resurrected with Jesus". That made me think that if I can now spiritually resurrect myself then I'd much rather do that than take my life, I'm feeling great right now.
Of course, the religion-as-a-drug theory predicts that this feeling of euphoria will wear off and he'll need another hit soon, but I can't think of a way to test that without being cruel.

Happy Easter, everyone.